I’m quite comfortable sitting here. Don’t get me wrong, my heart’s beating so loud I’m surprised you can’t hear it. There’s a lightness in my head, and my hand is a little sweaty.
Luckily, I’m not only familiar with these sensations — I enjoy them.
Over my career as an aerialist, I’ve learned to listen to those signs from my body, whose most important job is to keep me alive.
This visceral sensation of fear can be part of the fun. Why do you think we go on roller coasters, watch horror movies or in my case, fly through the air? But it will only be fun if we have choice in those moments.
Those who enjoy horror movies do so when they know they can look away. When I swing through the air to take the hands of a partner high up in a circus tent, ultimately, I have a choice of releasing if I trust that person to catch me.
Listening to these signs is an incredibly important life skill, and not just for adrenaline junkies like me. If we don’t know how to listen and respond to our warning signs of fear, we risk being overwhelmed by a fight, flight or freeze stress response.
When teaching circus, I see my students feel these sensations every day, and when they do, there’s a unique opportunity to talk about them, to acknowledge and trust those feelings, including how to say no when something doesn’t feel right.
This is a great foundation for communication about our bodies elsewhere that isn’t scary or awkward. It’s normal and expected. Because the truth is I’m not just teaching circus skills; I’m teaching consent.
Alongside teaching circus, I have the privilege of working with hundreds of young people each year in my role as a sexual harm prevention educator. I hear their stories firsthand, and know from statistics and experience that the majority of survivors know their abuser and teenagers experience high rates of intimate partner violence, that is, from someone they’re dating.
Young people want to know how to talk to each other about intimacy. The more I help teenagers understand sexual consent, the more I realize learning aerial can help us navigate life on the ground. So let me explain what I mean by teaching consent through circus.
Let’s imagine it’s your first time on a trapeze. Usual instruction might go something like, “OK, you’re going to hook your legs over the bar, climb your hands up the ropes, pull yourself to sit and don’t let go.”
This approach is driving something forward without fully checking in with the person and is focused on what I want from them. I’m telling them how to move their body and when regardless of their comfort or fear.
This often results in terrified beginners who never come back. Meanwhile, the way I now talk to my students gives a lot more care to the person, ensuring they’re fully informed, ready and part of the conversation.
Adie Delaney: How do you feel about it?
Student: Really good.
AD: I feel like you could probably do it. Want to have a go?
AD: That’s it, yes.
AD: Yes, but the inside of your foot. That’s it, yes.
Nice. How does that feel?
AD: Perfect, good. That’s it, I’m going to put my hand on your back — There you go. I’m going to hold onto your leg, then I’m going to put my hand here.
Do you feel safe to put your hand on the bar? I got you. How’s that for you, OK?
AD: Look, I can stop you going forwards and backwards, see?
Woo, I got you! (Voice-over)
AD: This type of language, like “How are you feeling? Are you OK with my hand here?” helps circus performers succeed.
I believe it also reduces the risk of accidents, as a result of my students trusting and being able to act on what they’re feeling at any given moment. This specificity is required later in life if and when someone wants sexual intimacy, but because it’s not a normal part of our interactions, it can feel so awkward, and people might think it’s easier to say less.
But saying less can lead to ambiguity, problems and potentially, abuse. There is of course no specific script for the language of consent. The tone and words will be unique to you. It’s just a slight reframing of our lexicon to inject choice any time we’re interacting with others’ bodies intimately or otherwise.
For example, using “I” when I’m talking about what I’m feeling, and questions more than statements when it involves the other person. When discussing intimacy, check-ins like “Does that feel good? Do you like that?” in addition to letting your partner know what you need, want and like, helps us have experiences we remember fondly and have no regrets about.
We need to broaden our understanding of consent and start thinking of it as a verb, not a noun. To consent is an active, ongoing agreement, not a checkbox to be ticked. When talking to young people, we have an opportunity to show them what it’s like to communicate with care for another person, checking in and respecting them as the authority on what they’re feeling.
If we normalize consent everywhere, by the time someone is ready for a sexual experience, they will know that they’re allowed to ask questions, stop at any time, and most importantly, to enjoy themselves.
Children are our future, and they will learn to give care in the ways we give care. Sexual consent doesn’t have to be a mood killer or “the talk” either. Like circus, it can be joyful, fun and exciting.
Our intimate experiences should not only be safe, but as thrilling as flying through the air.