The Biggest Thing Missing From Discussions of Consent
While chilling at the lovely kinky cafe Wicked Grounds with a person I’m sure is going to be one of my best friends, I overheard a rather heated discussion about consent.
It’s the kind of thing that brought tears to my eyes. Consent culture coming to life before my very eyes.
My history studying all things Brain and Mind (a now defunct degree program that was equal parts philosophy and neuroscience, sociology and biology, psychiatry and psychology; basically, literally every single program and class having anything remotely to do with how, why, and what brains think) came to the fore and I delighted in running through the logical fallacies, paradoxes, and semantics of the discussion.
But even as that track raced, one of the other tracks in my mind was running my error detection function. Something was missing. I listened for a bit more and then turned back to my friend, who had returned from the restroom.
All night, the program ran in the back of my mind, working itself out amid images of tigers, Tarot, ropes, vagina photography, chainmail, and the ever-present cuilverse.
It wasn’t until I spoke about it with my partner the next day that it clicked.
- What’s missing?
There’s this theory in philosophy that you can never prove a thing like consciousness. At least, no one’s been able to yet. Least of all the complications inherent to the issue is the fact that no one can exactly agree on what consciousness actually is.
All that aside, regardless of whether we can actually prove that any interaction is 100% consensual to begin with, is that what we should be focusing on?
Consent is supposed to be a huge thing in feminist, kinky, and poly circles. But just like consciousness, there’s not really any consensus (see what I did there?) on what consent truly entails.
There are some guidelines, which are rather similar to the ones we also use to decide that it’s safe to assume that others are conscious.
Consent usually includes some agreement on an action, behavior, or plan. It’s usually better if it also includes relevant information. Many agree that making consent as obvious and enthusiastic as possible is also a good way to avoid destroying boundaries.
But as a recent article pointed out, even consensual sex can suck ass-and not in the good way.
So let’s start over.
- What is Consent Culture?
The goal of being unchained, the point of living freely, the reason to advocate for arbitrary limits to be lessened is to create a culture of consent. Not just consent but the Mark Manson sort of “Fuck, yeah” where appropriate.
But what are the features of an actual culture of consent? What’s necessary to bring it into reality? And is there any room for anything between grudging acceptance and nearly exploding with anticipation?
Like all things, I like to pick the answer that says: All of the above.
What that means to me is that a consent culture is built on information, integrity, and autonomy.
- On Information
Information includes relevant details. For things like sex or relationships that might include STI testing status and relationship status.
But it goes further than that.
It might also include being sufficiently educated on what STIs are and what they do. It’s the understanding that there is no such thing as safe sex, only safer sex.
It’s knowing your anatomy (how many of you understand that the G-spot is actually the underside of the enormous structure that is the clitoris?).
It’s caring about the history of humanity-the underlying power dynamics that underlie your interactions with people of different sexes, genders, abilities, and races.
It’s taking account of all the invisible ways that everything in the universe is tied together, understanding how events led you to meet such and such a person, and being entirely open and honest about where you stand instead of settling for male-female bullshit.
- On Integrity
Speaking of bullshit, this is where integrity comes in. Part of the relevant information people need to know is if someone has a tendency for boundary-crossing, lying, and/or abuse.
And while I think people are starting to pay more attention (especially in the kink community) to red-flagging problematic people, the flip side is often ignored.
Being able to recognize red flags, being willing to put the truth before infatuation and intoxication, being able to give an enthusiastic or whole-hearted yes requires personal integrity.
In that article mentioned above where the woman complained of shitty sex, there’s one person who could absolutely have put a stop to it. Yes, people tend to feel pressured by society, culture, family, religion, etc to conform or go through with things.
But that’s not consent!
I’m going to say that again, more clearly:
Obedience is not consent!
Our culture, and many worldwide, are cultures of coercion, of marginalization, of conformity. The trade-off for the so-called social safety, stability, and acceptance is that our ability to consent becomes secondary.
We are strongly encouraged to do things we don’t want to do because we are indoctrinated with ideas about how necessary it is.
How many of you put up with jobs you hate because you need the money?
How many people get married because that’s the only option they think is available?
How many people try to attend college because they tell us it’s the best way to get a good job (that we hate)?
It’s no different for the relationships we are taught to build. A large part of the amatanormative model is based on manipulation, compromise, and sacrifice.
Notice consent is nowhere to be seen.
And we wonder why it’s difficult for people to understand consent.
In a society that promotes ideals opposite those of transparency, openness, and honesty we give rise to an implicit culture of support for deceivers, abusers, and liars.
- On Autonomy
And on that note, let’s talk about the role autonomy plays in consent culture.
The reason that con artists and other such people can perpetuate such widespread violence and divisiveness is because autonomy is usually only a buzzword. The hardest part of many romantic people’s relationships is granting their partners full autonomy.
This is what we call amatonormativity.
Think about it. All of the jealousy vs compersion talk, whether or not to have hierarchies or rules, and an emphasis on particular types of love don’t arise from polyamory itself. These are issues of sexual and emotional autonomy, or lack thereof.
What normally happens is that the newly poly limit themselves or others so that they can “adjust”. They’re not adjusting to the polyamory. They’re adjusting to their partners’ new autonomy.
Because if their partners are free, what’s to stop them leaving?
Because if their partners are free, what does commitment look like?
Because most people think if you aren’t exerting at least some force and control in a relationship that there’s no reason anyone would want to stay.
Because the idea of longevity means more than each person’s actual desires, needs, and autonomy.
- So, what now?
A culture, relationship, or person that doesn’t take any of the above things into account is bound to operate on a less-than-fully-consensual level.
Democracy is supposed to be big in the U.S. but relationships tend towards being dictatorships or oligarchies at times, and this is hugely problematic for those that claim to be ethical.
All of the underlying systems, our own knowledge, and our sense of growth and development come into play. Consent, like consciousness, is so much more than a switch that you can turn on or off.
There are variations and degrees. Some people are always enthusiastic. Some are serious. Some people are finicky.
Consent will look different on the surface for each and every person and every relationship. It requires knowing ourselves, recognizing others, being fully open and honest, and being as clear as we can.
There is no simple and easy way to determine whether consent was given. Just as there is no easy way to prove consciousness (it’s called the Hard Problem in Philosophy for a reason).
But…we can damn sure make certain that we push all of those chances upwards. Let’s improve how consent is handled, given, and taught.
You shouldn’t take your consciousness for granted. Why should consent be any different?