The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Consent, and Shades of Gray

A really interesting post from rtmiss on issues of consent, centred on the social background we both share.

No means no is a concept that should be very simple. Except that it isn’t. Human beings make an awful lot of decisions based on individual perceptions, and we all perceive other people’s reactions differently.

Note that this is a very personal post based on lived experience, and please treat it accordingly.

I’m a big proponent of enthusiastic consent, but also I’m very aware that we simply don’t live in that world yet, where everything is black and white, and lack of a ‘yes’ always actually means no. People simply do use non-verbal signals to indicate consent all the time, and I think – no, I’m sure – that a person can consent enthusiastically to something without using any words. It’s fraught, yes, and open to misinterpretation, but it happens.

People also actually say ‘yes’, and indeed ‘no’, when that’s not really what they want.

Being increasingly open about my sub-ness means that I’ve had some… interesting discussions about consent. I’ve been told that women (subs always being female and all BDSM-identified females being subs) cannot consent to things I’ve actively asked for. The follow-up “oh, but not you” doesn’t actually make that view any less demeaning. And within BDSM, ideally everything that happens would be pre-negotiated and agreed, but that doesn’t always happen either. For me, a lot of the communication that goes on is post facto. (That sounds a bit wanky. I’m just trying to avoid using the term “debriefing”, because it makes me giggle. I’m twelve, we’ve established this.)

What particularly concerns me, I guess, are the stereotypes and social assumptions we have that get in the way of us reading each other properly. I think the worst is “men always want sex, women never do.” If you believe all men are Animalistic Penis Brains, how would you be able to read a man involved in a sexual situation he wasn’t all that keen on but, as rtmiss says, reluctant to be ‘rude’ and make a big deal out of refusing? Or that a woman is genuinely uncomfortable and not just playing “hard to get”

It’s also a pretty sexist stereotype that says that women don’t really want particular kinds of sexual interaction (let’s be honest, kink), so any woman involved in that kind of thing is being emotionally or intellectually coerced. And another that can’t recognise a woman being overly sexually-aggressive.

And then there are all the times that this discussion becomes solely “men as instigators, women as consentors”. As if, again, women are the ones who make the decisions, but their role is to allow things or not allow them, rather than instigate or pursue them.

There are a whole bunch of tiny gradated lines between “you can’t touch me”, and “I will have sex with you in this particular fashion in these exact circumstances”. If I’ll snog a bunch of people at a party, that doesn’t make me a slut who’s up for anything.

There are no real conclusions here, of course, just an acknowledgement that in the real world, consent can be really complicated.

11 responses to “Consent, and Shades of Gray

  1. Deborah March 1, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Another wrinkle, around enthusiastic consent. I wonder whether there’s space in “enthusiastic” to include “I’m happy to do this, even though I’m not bounding with enthusiasm to do it.”. It possibly depends a bit on your own understanding of “enthusiastic”. The concept I’m looking for might be something closer to “active consent”, I suppose. OTOH, talking about “active consent” might go too close to any one sign of consent, however minimal, being taken as full blow consent, even if there are lots of signals to the contrary.

    No real conclusions from me either…. Just, it’s complicated.

    • Emma March 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      I have issues with “active” consent, conversely, because it seems to exclude sexualities that are more passive. Can a person ‘actively’ consent to something that involves not being able to move or speak?

      But… to be honest, I also have issues when discussions become all about the exact correct terminology to use, and the actual issue disappears. F’r’instance, at base the word “consent” isn’t actually probably what we mean, because it puts all the action in one place/person and all the reaction in the other(s).

      • Deborah March 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm

        It’s tricky, because part of what I want to capture in notions of consent is that idea that it is perfectly possible to consent to doing something without actually being enthusiastic about it. I toyed around with “willing consent” for a moment, before realising that it’s too tautological. Same thing with “positive” consent.

        I think there’s value to be had in discussions about exact terminology, because even though it might end in realising that there is no exactly perfect, or even good enough word or phrase, the various words offered help to round out the idea or the concept.

        • tallulahspankhead March 2, 2012 at 9:42 am

          I wonder if it would help if we changed the framing of consent itself. So that it’s not something you give, but something you seek. Then maybe it wouldn’t matter how “enthusiatically” it is given, just that it emphatically is.

  2. Moz March 1, 2012 at 11:53 am

    The good news is that its getting better 🙂 I’ve found less resistance over time to the idea that women need to get consent from men too. I think there might be bleed over from the increased acceptance of sexual diversity, as well as the importance of consent finally starting to sink in.

    Since I’m in a long term relationship, the bit that interests me is the question of what counts as consent in a context of mutual regard for each others needs and desires, and the bargaining that happens around things we’d each like to do and avoid. The dichotomous theory of consent fails badly in that situation. It’s rarely a simple trade of sex for ironing, but the subtle (or passive-aggressive if you prefer) “more willing to do X after sex”. Or “more willing to do sex after X”, depending on which side of the transaction you’re on 🙂

    • Emma March 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      I think, if you’re in a balanced healthy relationship, then you want to do things to make the other person happy. Doing that makes you happy. And it’d actually be kind of weird to divide those things into discrete groups of ‘sexual things’ and ‘non-sexual things’.

      • Moz March 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm

        Some people like to make that division, and specifically say that the sort of bargaining, negotiation and trading that’s acceptable (or even required) around non-sexual things is wrong when it’s done around sex. Or that’s it’s impossible to consent to, or that only certain people can do it, or any number of permutations. Which makes discussing everyday life with them every difficult.

        One thing that amuses me a lot is that it’s often considered perfectly fine to require a man to shave before performing cunnilingus, but objectionable to require the woman to shave. The requiring being done by the other partner, in this case.

        • Isabel March 2, 2012 at 9:13 am

          I wouldn’t ask a man who customarily wore a beard (or wished to grow one) to shave for me but would have few qualms about asking one who shaved regularly to adjust his schedule for my comfort. Likewise I don’t think it’s ok to require a woman to shave an area she wouldn’t normally choose to.

  3. Hugh March 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    @Deborah: I’ve seen a lot written about this particular problem with ‘enthusiastic consent’, and yes, it is problematic. If nothing else it means it’s impossible for asexual people not to be raped, because while they may be willing to have sex they are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the sex itself.

  4. Moz March 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Femdom counters a whole heap of the myths about sex, consent and desire in one convenient person. Although certain people will argue that women professing femdom are suffer from false consciousness (Melinda Tankard Reist being one such).

    Actually, this Eva Cox piece is worth reading for the quote “It is not feminist to infantilise women by removing our right to make the wrong choices.” It doesn’t matter whether feminists want the wrong things, what matters is that they have the right to argue for what they want.

  5. Isabel March 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    There’s a rule in negotiation that says that you shouldn’t accept a “no” from someone who isn’t authorised to give you a “yes” which I think is also relevant to issues of sexual consent.

    As a young’un I didn’t always feel empowered to say an enthusiastic “yes” to the things I wanted. Sometimes my “no” meant “I don’t think nice girls are meant to want this”, and sometimes it meant “I want you to ask nicely” and sometimes it meant “I think I’m going to want this soon but can we please slow down right now”. Basically I bought into the cultural narrative that says that men pursue and women relent and saying “yes” right off the bat, no matter how much I may have wished to, undermined that. I’m really lucky that when my ” noes” were misread it was almost always in the direction of assuming I didn’t want sex I actually did (and the few times it went the other way it was quickly cleared up) but I think a culture which devalues “no” by making “yes” impossible to say is very dangerous.

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