Withdrawing consent: sexual consent + consent to be governed

[CN: discussion of sexual assault/rape]

In the second sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the United States, it says this:

I’m deeply critical of any and everything emerging from the European enlightenment, an era where the same people espousing liberal values of equality and egalitarianism were simultaneously justifying European colonialism (a “civilizing project”) using the same logics. It’s key to understand the criticality of the social contract in modern governance, though. The [slave-owning settler colonizer] Founding Fathers rejected the monarchal political authority derived from God (i.e. “divine right), and rather envisaged representative leadership emerging from popular consent to be governed. In understanding that power does not freely gift freedom, they waged a war against the British monarch and abolished the previously existing contract and created a new political system, the independent American project (replete with its own deep problems and violations).

I find it interesting that the bedrock of American democracy— the effective dismantling and reimagining of an oppressive state — is constantly framed and dismissed as a radical leftist idea. But even in so many of our collective iterations of structural-political transformations do we take the preservation of the American state project as a given: we seek to radically change it so that we may finally actualize the egalitarian state that was envisioned. But what of when state formation itself, rather than simply its leadership, is the problem?

Consent, in all forms, necessarily consists of two parts: one’s ability to agree to a particular thing can only be valid if their ability to stop agreeing to a thing is duly observed. We’ve a deeply un-nuanced understanding of sexual consent. Our misogynistic understanding of consent — derived from racial capitalism’s prescribed function of bodies and heteropatriarchal dominion over particular ones — often comes not through an articulated “yes” or “no,” but is also often implied from one’s behavior. Our constrained understanding of consent is also rolling: once you give consent, it cannot be withdrawn. That’s often why in scenarios where people have withdrawn consent after previously giving it, many people have a difficulty referring to it as “rape” (i.e. “You can’t just change your mind part way through”).

Because we’ve consented to being governed, i.e. we have consented to abiding by a particular rule of law by living inside of and participating in a particular socio-economic political system (e.g. voting), we are also consenting to all of the kyriarchal politics characteristic of the state. Because it is often difficult for us to understand consent as being retractable, any change to the system must occur within existing structures because to work outside of it (i.e. to work towards a disruptive upheaval rather than a rights-based piecemeal change) is somehow “un-democratic.” But funnily enough, in addition to having a damaging understanding of consent, we also don’t have an deeply sanitized understanding how American democracy came about: we understand the colonies’ maxim of “no taxation without representation” and we recognize the political necessity of the Boston Tea Party’s destruction of property, and yet completely fail to understand the basis of the new state and fail to draw contemporary parallels.

The recent (meaning galvanized and re-energized by relatively recent events) black uprisings represent a disenfranchised population within the state using both intra- and extra-state means (i.e. property damage in addition to elections and lobbying efforts and rights-based gains) to bring about systemic changes. These property damages are derided as nonsensical though there are innumerable reasons as to why black dissent and anger is both legitimate and necessary. But why do we have such a difficult time recognizing the spectrum of consent in sexual settings: that all kinds of consent, ranging from enthusiastic to less than, are legitimate and that withdrawal of consent at anytime is completely valid? Why do we carry this double standard where we recognize the legitimacy of violent American “Revolution” and praise the men who fought for American independence but refuse to affirm forceful efforts of black and brown people globally and racialized communities within our borders still fighting for full citizenship after being excluded from the social construct of the original American state?

In “Nuestra America: Reinventing a Subaltern Paradigm of Recognition and Redistribution,” Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes incisively about a fascism that complements a liberal democracy’s social contract

I cannot imagine an authoritarian leader-in-waiting who’s inherited a “democratic systems” has any respect for either the people and their needs or even the Constitution: President Trump has demonstrated this disregard in the almost week he has been in office. Our failure to recognize the vast spectrum of legitimate expressions of consent is rooted in attempt to squarely undermine women’s sexual agency. The derision of less than non-violent political expression is often centered squarely on black folks and other marginalized identities (most notably, sex workers). And this politicized renegotiation of sexual consent is prescient in that our current president is a documented rapist and sexual offender, and the final straw for many was the threat he ultimately posed to white women’s virtuosity vis-à-vis his “grab them by the p*ssy” (and all the commentaries around “freeing Melania”) comment despite his long long track record of gross (and fundamentally American) bigotry.

Non-recognition of agency speaks to the fact that particular identities are subhuman, sub-standard, and thus do not have the ability to be agentic and so their choices and narratives and expression aren’t valid or worthy of recognition: there’s a consistency in racial capitalist non-observance of victim-survivors understandings of their sexual assaults and abuse, many sex workers’ rejections of sex positivity (and often labor context-erasing emphasis on enthusiastic consent as the solely valid consent), the impositions of reproductive injustice legislation, and a government’s coercive demands for and forceful enforcement of an obedient citizenry. Understanding both state violation and individual consent, i.e. understanding corporal agency, transcends womanhood and especially a white able-bodied cisnormative middle class essentialism as womanhood. We must be forced to understand our commodification as both humans and citizens, the unique commodifications of our identities by the state, and the historical paths individuals and communities have taken to liberate themselves from encroachments on their lives and freedoms and agencies.