Relationship anarchy and consent.

The term Relationship Anarchy (RA) was coined by Andie Nordgren, and is pretty well documented in Andie’s “The short instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy”. Even though the concept is gaining steam, misunderstandings about relationship anarchy seem to be getting people, well, steamed.

The instructional manifesto defines RA along multiple dimension: labeling, entitlement, autonomy, social norms, commitment, communication, and trust. Entitlement and autonomy provide a core from which the other facets can be derived, and they are inversions of the same idea. That is, entitlement attempts to remove another person’s autonomy, and asserting autonomy invalidates someone else’s entitlement.

Neither of these terms are particularly comfortable for describing relationships, though. We often can’t see ourselves as entitled, even when we are. And “autonomy” is kind of the opposite of “together”, which is a much more romantic view of our relationships. But there’s a more loving term we can use to sum up both of these ideas: consent.

Consent, I believe, is the core principle of Relationship Anarchy. From consent, I think you can come up with the rest of the ideas typically associated with RA. In fact, we can use consent to explore and understand how most relationship patterns work.

Consent

To see how consent and RA are connected, let’s look at the application of consent in different scenarios.

Natural consent is autonomy. Your body is your own. How you use it, where you use it, and with whom you use it is completely up to you. We might call this consent “natural” because our autonomy in inalienable. We are not given autonomy; we develop it ourselves as we grow into adult human beings.

Explicit consent is a clear and timely offer to share ourselves with someone else. Explicit consent is bounded: an offer to share civil conversation does not extend to argument, an offer to share touch does not extend to sex. This is why we seek “enthusiastic consent” especially in new sexual relationships. It is explicit and clear and timely.

Implicit consent is how we give other people ongoing permission to relate with us in a given way. We might extend permission to a friend to walk into our home without knocking. If we like to be touched, we might give a partner standing permission to touch us. We might offer a frequent lover permission to wake us with sexual intimacy. Implicit consent is how we define our relationships with other people, and agree to have certain expectations placed upon us. However, implicit consent is always revocable — the power to grant and withdraw consent lies with us, not with the person to whom we are granting ongoing permission.

Delegated consent is when we allow another’s expectations to replace our explicit or implicit consent. If we allow labels like “boyfriend” or “wife” or “lover” to define what is and is not permissible in our relationships, we are delegating our natural consent to other people. An extreme example is “wifely duty”, suggesting that a woman who has chosen to marry has delegated sexual consent to her husband.

Appropriated consent is a consent violation, insisting that we are in a position to decide whether or not we are entitled to consent regardless of whether it is given. Entitlement is appropriated consent. Appropriated consent may be claimed based on labels and societal norms, or consent given and later revoked. A person who believes societal norms dictate delegated consent may try to appropriate it from someone who disagrees about what a label means, or whether a label should mean anything in terms of consent.

Consent can be appropriated in other ways, too. Alcohol, drugs, withholding information, and lying all incapacitate another person’s ability to give consent. Consent taken while another is incapacitated is appropriated consent, even if explicit consent is given.

These very different aspects of granting and taking consent are a useful lens for looking at relationships. Here are some examples of delegated and appropriated from my experience.

  • A woman I like wanted to be intimate with me, and explicitly asked my partner for permission. The three of us discussed this and found that the woman, a polyamorist, assumed I had delegated consent to my partner, that I had given her the ability to grant consent, or override consent, to share my company intimately.
  • A partner to whom I had, in the past, granted explicit and implicit consent to engage with me in emotionally charged ways (like fighting, even to the point of emotional abuse), refused to honor my revocation of that consent. Ultimately I explicitly revoked consent for all interaction beyond casual and friendly text messages, and emergency phone calls, then made clear that I was open to other interactions only with explicit consent. Yet we still have emotionally charged interactions where she insists that I cannot refuse to participate, in spite of numerous messages saying that I am not consenting to the conversation.

One might argue that natural consent, if it’s truly inalienable, can’t be delegated or appropriated. As such, what I define as delegated consent and appropriated consent is simply implicit consent that never needed to be explicitly granted. This might be true in a perfectly egalitarian society but in our world, power and privilege are disproportionally distributed. Autonomy is frustrated by hierarchy, and natural consent depends on empowerment.

Consent in relationship anarchy

Relationship Anarchists tend to believe in natural consent and seek explicit consent in most aspects of a new relationship. When building a relationship with another person, relationship anarchists rely heavily on implicit consent, understanding that consent is revocable, and checking in with their partner frequently.

Relationship anarchists may rely on labels like “girlfriend” or “lover”, but do not use them to delegate consent based on social norms — i.e. other people’s understanding of what these terms mean. Consent is either explicit or implicit, and implicit ongoing consent is based on explicit discussion. Relationship anarchists often define relationships, even labeled relationships, using consent.

Relationship anarchists are just as capable of committing to a relationship as other people are, but where many relationships may use labels as shortcuts to define their commitments (like “dating”, “exclusive”, “committed”, and “married”), relationship anarchists are often still explicit as to what their commitment means. They also recognize that receiving a commitment does not mean that another person has delegated natural consent, and that commitments, like consent, are revocable.

Explicit consent, and ongoing implicit consent, requires clear communication. Communication is absolutely necessary in RA. It’s difficult to imagine how one can recognize natural consent without honest communication.

Relationship anarchy as consent-based relationships

Consent is a useful lens for understanding different relationship models.

Hetero- and socionormative relationships are often based on delegated and appropriated consent. In many cases, they rely on denying natural consent, claiming that certain classes of people are naturally (or supernaturally) empowered to grant and claim control over other people’s relationships and bodies.

Polyamorous relationships rally against the norm, and I’ve heard many polyamorists fight against appropriated consent. But many polyamorous relationships are based on rules and agreements in primary relationships that are effectively delegated consent. Veto power in primary relationships take away a partners ability to grant consent.

Relationship anarchy attempts to both recognize and claim natural consent, allowing for fully consent-based relationships between two or more people in a context that is familiar to a society that expects binary, monogamous, gendered relationships. Certainly it’s not the only way to relate consensually, or necessarily the best, but it does seem to promote natural consent and autonomy over the alternatives commonly seen and discussed.

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