November 9, 2005
Consent is an extremely basic and crucial concept. Elsewhere I've written that "anything negotiated consensually is ethical". Possibly an overstatement -- but if so, not by much. As I understand it, consent is the very foundation for ethics.
My sense is that most philosophical discussion about consent has revolved around sex. I was first introduced to the concept of consent by Paul Edison and Moira Bowman (or was it Jeannie LaFrance?), who were at the time associated with the Portland Women's Crisis Line (and/or Bradley-Angle House). I explored the concept further while working with the Reed College Rape Awareness Project. Later I discovered other models of consent being created by the BDSM community.
In this particular essay, I'm most interested in exploring the concept of consent as it may be used by Youth Liberation. I am not interested in exploring issues of sexual consent for youth at this time. I am mainly concerned with non-sexual scenarios: e.g. when a parent wants their son/daughter to do or not do something, but their will is in conflict with that of the youth. While my starting point for discussion will be sexual models of consent, I intend to abstract general principles.
MODELS OF CONSENT:
A) "An enthusiastic 'yes' without fear or confusion."
The first definition of consent that I learned was this: Consent is an enthusiastic "yes", without fear or confusion.
It's useful to think of consensuality as being a continuum. On one end of the continuum you have perfectly consensual interaction, on the other end you have force (rape in this context). The definition of consent presented above is an ideal. "Yes" is seldom going to be overtly "enthusiastic", and there's usually going to be a little bit of ambiguity because people haven't talked through every detail -- but still, there's an intuitive sense of which direction an interaction is leaning in. The ideal is worth articulating, in part, because it represents something to aspire toward.
B) The Antioch policy
During the early nineties, students at Antioch college -- grappling with the issue of date rape on campus -- created a written policy regarding consent. In essence, they said that it was a man's responsibility to explicitly ask for permission at each step along the way toward having sex.
A strength of this model is that it deals with the fact that date rape often isn't a matter of sudden, surprise assault -- there's a point at which the woman doesn't want to go farther, but the man presses in. Consider this data collected by Karen Rapaport & Barry Burkhart (quoted by Robin Warshaw in her 1988 book "I Never Called It Rape", pp. 96-97):
ACTION COMMITTED AGAINST WOMAN'S WISHES
AND PERCENTAGE OF MEN WHO HAD DONE IT
Kissed her: 53
Placed hand on her knee: 61
Placed hand on her breast: 60
Placed hand on her thigh or crotch: 58
Removed or disarranged her outer clothing: 42
Removed or disarranged her underwear: 32
Touched her genitals: 37
Had intercourse: 15
The data, of course, is out of date -- what I want to focus on here is the structure of the information. Personally, I think it's rather ingenious, walking through a serious of steps toward a point that can be identified as rape. I include this table to help illustrate that coercion tends to not be a simple matter of disregarding one "no" -- but rather of pressing past multiple boundaries.
The Antioch policy has been much criticized, on several accounts. (1) It puts the entire burden for communication upon the man; what responsibility does the woman have for speaking up? (2) It is potentially awkward to have to explicitly, verbally negotiate each "next step" in a sexual encounter; isn't there room for non-verbal cues? (3) The model doesn't acknowledge even the possibility that a woman may be a sexual initiator, potentially violating a man's boundaries. (4) The model fails to acknowledge sexual encounters between people of the same sex.
Despite these problems, I think that the Antioch model is valuable, in that it presents an additional model of consent, and furthers discussion.
C) Creating safety for a partner to say "no"
Saying "no" can be hard. When things are beginning to not feel alright, it can be difficult to speak up and break the flow of what's happening. As the person being hurt, you may be sensing that things are starting to go wrong -- but you're hoping that you're imagining things, hoping that the situation will right itself without having to say anything. Speaking up may lead to the other person getting defensive, it may lead to an argument. And then what may have been a generally OK time, is entirely spoiled. So you wait -- and as the situation gets progressively worse, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak up: you'll have to explain why you waited so long, both to the other person and to yourself.
Saying "no" gets easier when you do it more frequently. When "no" isn't so uncommon, it doesn't seem like such a big deal -- either to the person saying it, or the person hearing it. Saying "no" also gets easier when the person hearing it encourages you to say it, and has demonstrated that they won't react defensively or angrily.
Toward the goal of making it feel safer to say "no" for my partners, I've developed a set of personal principles about how I want to be receptive. These are five ideas that I make a point of communicating:
- You can say no at any time, and I must stop immediately.
- You can say no even if we're in the middle of doing something.
- You can say no even if we've done this same thing fifty times before.
- You can say no without being nice about it, shouting if necessary.
- You don't have to explain why you're saying no.
Generally, I feel good about the atmosphere of respect that these principles create. However, I recognize that in practice an ideal consent remains problematic. For instance: if a partner is about to orgasm, it almost seems mean to stop things just at that point -- there's a sense of guilt and/or generosity that can goad one into just waiting through something uncomfortable. Similarly, when you've been together for years, consent can in some ways become more difficult, rather than easier... Rather than being on your best behavior, as on a first date, routine and sloppiness may creep in so that you're not as attentive or communicative as you once were.
So far, it's been assumed that one should be aspiring to an ideal consent: "an enthusiastic 'yes' without fear or confusion". In terms of one's personal relationship to sex, there is an implied principle: "I should only be sexual if I am truly feeling sexual." This can be more difficult that it seems at first. When you stop and really check your emotions, you may find that there is complexity: part of you is interested in sex, but part is feeling depressed, part is just tired, part is thinking about other things. Should you really only have sex if you're 100% enthusiastic?
In the context of women healing from sexual abuse, authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis offer up an alternative model in their book "The Courage To Heal" (p. 254):
One of the most pervasive myths about sexuality is that you have to feel desire or excitement to enjoy making love. Loulan exploded this myth in her revised version of the female sexual response cycle. Previous models of women's sexual response cycle (Master and Johnson, Helen Singer Kaplan) cite either desire or excitement as the necessary starting point for sex.
In Loulan's model, the sexual response cycle begins with neither of these. It begins with the willingness to have sex. Willingness simply means that you are willing to enter into the sexual realm with yourself or another person and to be open to what you might find there. Willingness is an attitude. It doesn't commit you to anything more than beginning.
The concept of willingness as a legitimate entry point for sexual activity makes sex much more accessible to women who don't experience desire. It means you can have sex even if you're not feeling physical longing, emotional excitement, or desire of any kind. This is a radical and liberating approach to female sexuality.
The reasons you are willing may vary. You might be willing because you want the pleasure sex brings, because you know you will enjoy it once you get started, because you want to work on sexual issues with your lover, or because you want to practice making love to yourself.
For many women, the idea of willingness is a tremendous relief. Instead of asking yourself "Do I want sex?" or "What's wrong with me that I don't feel desire?" you can ask instead "Am I willing to begin?" The concept of willingness gives you the permission to explore sexually from exactly where you are. Instead of trying to generate desire out of nowhere, you can simply say, "Yes, I'm willing to try."
"Willingness", in my opinion, is a good addition to our thinking about consent. It gives us a more sophisticated and accurate picture of how decisions are actually made. My one concern about this model is that over time, when you're with a partner, and if you're not actively pursuing some sort of healing work, it can begin to squeeze out checking in with your emotions. "Willingness", in my opinion, is best decided on a case-by-case basis -- rather than as a matter of policy, which emotionally prevents saying "no" in the future.
E) Under what circumstances does a person say "yes"?
A great deal of the discussion about consent revolves around saying the word "no". Slogans decry "No means no!" and "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"
But "no" is only half of the puzzle. It also helps to know what a person really means when they say "yes". How does the individual you're interacting with decide "yes"? Does YES mean "I enthusiastically agree"? Or "well, you have the stronger opinion, so I'll follow your lead"? Or "I can't explain why I feel like I do, so I'll just do what you suggest"? Or "I feel defeated because you won't stop arguing, so I surrender"?
No means no -- but if a person isn't very good at asserting themselves, and is likely to cave in to whoever has the strongest will -- perhaps "yes" should not be accepted at face value. "How do you decide 'yes'?" can be a very enlightening discussion.
F) Safe words
The community of people who play with Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism (BDSM) has survived serious political attacks from feminist activists, and legal attacks from the mainstream culture... In large part because of these attacks, BDSM activists have developed a lively discussion about consent that rivals that of anti-rape activists and sexual abuse survivors. As a popular slogan goes, BDSM play should be "safe, sane, and consensual".
The BDSM consent model works like this: two (or more) people negotiate about what activities they want to engage in and what their boundaries are, in a non-sexual setting; when the "scene" begins, no further negotiation need occur; however, there are "safe words" with which a person can stop or slow down the scene if it's getting out of hand.
Advantages of this arrangement: It allows the people involved to avoid formality while they are playing, and go more with their feelings and intuition. In many feminist dialogues, there has been a sense about sex that it should be very gentle; this model embraces the notion that sexual rough-housing and wrestling can be very satisfying for both parties -- if it's what they're looking for. It allows for role-playing where one party gets to be playfully saying "no" without stopping the action -- until they say the predetermined safe word. The safe word model seems to promise that you can do anything you want sexually -- so long as you can negotiate for it beforehand.
Of course, there are also difficulties with this model -- which have been commented on even from within the BDSM community. (1) It can be difficult keep D/S dynamics out of the negotiation period -- particularly if one or both of the parties involved are hungry for play. (2) When one is doing pain play and is flooded with endorphins, the mind can go away, and it can become very difficult to collect oneself enough to say a safe word. (3) Doing D/S play for prolonged periods, such as weeks at a time ("24-7"), can wear down a submissive's sense of self so that it's very difficult for them to get back to a place where they can truly negotiate with their play partner in an egalitarian fashion. (4) When the person doing the dominating stays in their role for a long time, they can become sloppy about paying attention to the person they are playing with, risking doing real harm.
These are significant issues. In addition to physical risks, there are psychological risks involved with BDSM that aren't seen as much in "vanilla" sex. One needs to take a great deal of responsibility for oneself entering into "contracts". BDSM has been likened to an extreme sport, such as football, skydiving, or bungee jumping: there are risks, but a person who is conscientious about safety can also have a lot of fun.
G) "Power play" and "equality play"
[Here I may be digressing from the topic of "consent". Consent, in essence, is about the moment in a decision-making process where a person says "yes" or "no". Here I'm making a move to talking about the larger process of decision-making. For a decision to be made, someone has to make a proposal -- someone has to initiate. We tend to recognize consent when an explicit question is raised: do you want to do this or not? But for the vast majority of the time, things are in motion already -- someone has initiated a script or agenda of some sort that is playing out. How do we understand the role of the person who is "steering" a situation?]
The BDSM model of consent is interesting here because it offers us another option to consider. Most people won't be interested in trying the activities that it was developed to deal with. However, I think that there is a reason why people who are interested in egalitarianism should not simply dismiss this area of thought...
People involved in Domination and Submission talk about "power play". For "doms" there is a pleasure in getting to say how things are going to be, getting to be in control and have your way. For "subs" there's a pleasure in being taken care of, not having to make decisions, getting to relax and simply experience what another person provides for you. Doms and subs are well served by "switching", exchanging roles and getting to see what the other person experiences.
...Note that D/S need not be sexual, nor involve any sort of pain play. It can be as banal as picking someone in a large group to be the "designated control freak" who will figure out what restaurant everyone will go to for dinner, who'll see to it that the necessary steps happen to make the plan work. It can be likened to dancing: who's going to lead, and who will follow?
"Vanilla" folks often look at "power play" askew -- why would anyone want to engage in dominance and submission? However, from the D/S perspective, normal social interactions are drenched in power dynamics -- most people who claim to be egalitarian simply don't acknowledge them -- and probably can't even see them. Engaging in "power play" helps teach one to see the often subtle power dynamics in daily life. "Power play", then, is nothing so special -- it's merely doing what happens in daily life, but conscientiously.
Given how ubiquitous D/S dynamics are, it might be more accurate to think about egalitarianism as "equality play". We'd like it to be the norm, but in reality it takes some conscientiousness to make sure that all parties involved are equally determining events. I offer up D/S play, and "switching" in particular, as a way to help train egalitarian-minded people to see the power dynamics at work around them.
Consent is well-imagined as a continuum, with an ideal consent on one pole, and coercion on the other. An ideal consent might be expressed as "an enthusiastic 'yes' without fear or confusion".
In the context of sex, there are a great many points where consensuality can be checked on the way to intercourse. It's useful to begin seeing many small boundaries: touching a knee, touching a breast, removing a piece of clothing, etc. Each of these boundaries is an opportunity to check how one's partner is feeling.
It can be challenging to break a silence and say that something's not right. Much can be done to create a safer environment, where a sexual partner will feel comfortable speaking up.
It should be recognized that people generally, at any particular moment, have a number of thoughts and feelings going through their minds. So long as these are noticed and considered, a "willing" rather than "enthusiastic" yes is perfectly adequate.
It's good to know what a partner's criteria for saying "yes" are. To what extent are they motivated to advocate for their own desires, versus prone to passively following another person's will?
With advance negotiation, almost any activity can potentially be engaged in, in a consensual fashion. Safe words are a useful tool in this "advanced" sort of play -- however, they are liable to break down if the pain or time spend "in scene" are too extreme.
So long as events are in motion, there is a decision-making process. Who is the main person initiating and guiding the situation at hand? Intentionally playing with the roles of "lead" and "follower" can help train one to see these power dynamics.
Consent only tends to be noticed as an issue when a question is articulated, or when a problem arises. All of these ideas are geared to helping make one more aware of when to check-in with a partner about consent. Consent tends to be assumed -- but a safer path is to intentionally discuss it.
[Note to self: Loose threads... I could have dealt more with the topic of "non-accommodation". I could have said more clearly that "power is about decision-making". I probably should have said more about threatening contexts, e.g. a boyfriend who hits the wall or kicks cats. I'm tempted to say something about how I think that while masculinity plays a role in rape and battery, the better part of the phenomena can be attributed to boundary, consent, and entitlement issues.]