On Enthusiastic Consent

Sometime back my brother went for holiday in Phuket (not so extraordinary, I’m afraid, since Thailand’s right next door to Malaysia), and he told me he was hoping to put the moves on a woman he found attractive.

“You got condoms?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“Don’t forget to get consent.”

“Of course!” said he, indignant that I could think otherwise.

“Enthusiastic consent.”

“Oh yes yes yes,” he replied eagerly.

“Actually, one-up that: enthusiastic participation.”

“Hmmmm…” he turned thoughtful, as if it was a whole new level. Which it is, and a step further from what I want to talk about today.

(I got the concept of enthusiastic participation from Hugo Schwyzer a few years back.) The concept of enthusiastic consent has also been expounded at length in the wonderful anthology Yes Means Yes!, conversations from which are continued at the Yes Means Yes! Blog.

In light of the latest Stupid Shit From Rape Culture, in which a jury ruled that a Jane Doe could not sue GGW for making profit off a video of her in which her breasts were exposed without permission, I would like to talk about consent.

I’m not here to talk about legalities. Anybody involved with social justice knows, the court system serves the law, not necessarily justice, not marginalized people. And the law serves those that shape it, who are often not the marginalized that require protection. No, let’s talk about consent, and why is it so damn hard for us to accept the idea that before we do anything that involves the personal space and body of another human being, we should ask permission?

I’m not talking about smushing in crowded buses and subway trains, where strangers uncomfortably get crushed to each other due to lack of space and everyone just wants to go home. I’m talking about purposefully touching part of another human’s body, more specifically in a sexual sense, but most of this post can also apply to more general touches.

It seems to plenty of people, a lot of situations imply consent: being in a dance club, for example. Wearing a skirt and tank top. Flirting. Having fun. Drinking alcohol. Being on a dinner date. Any and all of these, plus more I’m sure you can think of, are excuses for a man to rape a woman (or another man, or for a woman to rape a man or another woman, or other forms of non-gender-conforming rape cases; caveat here because some folks cannot handle a generalization based on the “90+% of rapes a perpetuated by men” statistics).

At the Steampunk World’s Fair, I attended a workshop called “The Art and History Of Kissing”. It really should have been called “The Art of Being Intimate”, because that’s what it was all about, but kissing is a sign of intimacy, and besides, it’s a catchier title. (I went for the history bit. There wasn’t a whole lot of it.)

The workshop mistress, whose name escapes me now, did a simple exercise with one of us: she asked a question, and the participant was to say no. No matter how she rephrased, or tried to persuade, or rationalize what a good idea it would be to say yes, the participant was to say “no”. The workship mistress turned to the rest of us and said, “See? I just got rejected. This is the easiest part about asking. Now go do this to other folks and get rejected, and you’ll find how easy it is!” And so we spent about the next ten minutes finding people to ask inane requests of so they could tell us “no.”

Nobody likes being rejected. (I certainly don’t, which is why I’ve not sent out as many query letters as I should have by now.) Rejection invalidates our sense of worth, that we’re just not hot shit that we’d like to be. But pushing ourselves and intentions onto others is a poor response to rejection. Especially onto strangers and people we just don’t know that well. Don’t present people with the Schrodinger’s Rapist dilemma, please. Not cool, especially when there will be people who will welcome your presence (and if you can’t find anyway, well… attitude check needed, then). No talking past another person, applying different standards

And it continues to fill the world with suckiness, when we do stuff to other people that they don’t like for our own personal gratification, when we support other people’s entitlement to do stuff to others that isn’t welcome, when we blame the victim for doing anything other than not exist. We need to change this mindset of “better to ask forgiveness than permission”, because way too many times, this mindset has caused hurt and pain that has no justification. We need to let go the assumption that we can ever tell what another person “really” wants (if their mouth says “no” but their eyes say “yes”, you should wait until both are saying the same thing, or better yet, get your head checked because that’s pure nonsense).

Enthusiastic consent. That’s where it’s at. Especially for physically intimate encounters. The kink community knows this; participants negotiate consent and boundaries ALL the time. It heightens the experience because of the trust level that knowledge of one’s partner elicits. Asking isn’t just a request, it’s also an invitation.

There is a reason for the “enthuasistic” part of the phrase. Consent without enthusiasm is rather lukewarm. “OK FINE go ahead.” “I don’t care.” “I have no opinion.” “Whatever, if it gets you to get off my back.” Consent that is in place because it’s easier than saying “no” isn’t much different from rejection. It is given because the giver feels there is no other choice (besides the potential for abuse, violence, and other bad things).

We need to stop assuming that we can communicate desires through some convoluted dance of subtle cues and half-no’s. Consent should be uncomplicated: only “Yes!” and other such affirmative variants can mean “yes”. This cuts out “misunderstandings” (the common excuse for acquaintance rape), victim-blaming (by placing responsibility on the initiator), and manipulative games (“playing hard to get” has no place in affirmative consent lexicon except in kinky play, and removes yet another excuse for rape).

Enthusiastic consent is about welcoming. “Yes, I would like you to.” “I would love it if you did.” “Your presence here is not an invasion, nor just benign, but a welcome addition to my life.” It says something to welcome another person’s touch, verbally, openly. It’s an affirmation of affection. Openly expressing consent clears the air of mistrust and anxiety on whether we are doing something wrong, paving the way for further intimacy and trust. And to get enthusiastic consent, one has no choice but to ask.

At the same time we discourage violence against each other, we can also encourage affection towards each other. Enthusiastic consent is part of that encouragement. It’s not, obviously, the be-all and end-all, but for all the “no means no” we expound on, we need to further the idea that “yes means yes”. The more positivity we present to the world, the easier it is to identify negativity.

Plus, next to “yes” in a lineup of affirmative expressions is “yay”. And “yay” is a very useful expression indeed! But that is another post for another day.

Comments

  1. E. M. Edwards says

    Bonobos say yes, much more frequently and with a definite emphasis on the enthusiastic. They have less war, less murder, less violence – and a whole lot more cooperative sex.

    We’re not bonobos though. Sadly, we’re much closer to chimps. Who have more war, more murder, more violence – and yes, more rape.

    A shame. And not an excuse, but as much as clarity is both welcome and important in sexual relations, the fact remains that there will almost always be predatory, rogue members of our species where consent, either implied, enthusiastic, or not present at all, simply is not a deciding factor.

    This is not solely the result of a cultural understanding either; or at the very least, represents a more complex mix of behavior and biology than just “a culture of rape.” What does this mean? A lot of things, among them that solving the problem of rape/consent is a lot more complicated than just making sure people are saying yes with gusto. But you knew that, I’m sure, already.

    We are mindful apes. Part of stopping sexual violence likely involves spreading the net and recognizing wider factors – such as what triggers the different responses that we see in both ourselves and our near relatives. Let’s hope that we can use our large brains and learn to nudge ourselves towards not so much the better angels of our nature, but towards our inner bonobos to whom we are connected through the tangled skien of our biology.

    It would be better for all of us, and it certainly sounds like more fun.

  2. Dorothy says

    Can we get American women to display enthusiastic consent? We are trained from birth that women who do that in any context are self-indulgent bundles of uncontrolled impulses or just simple-minded (think Ado Annie). Whether it’s reaching out to men in friendship or advancing our interests in the workplace, we are expected to get ahead by inspiring intrigue or “accidentally” revealing our gifts in the right place at the right time.

    I see this in the musical world: while members of the largely male wind sections of my orchestra start warming up as soon as they sit down before a rehearsal, the members of the mostly female violin sections sit in demure silence or chat with other women in their intimate social circles. When I (a violinist) start practicing, they make it clear they see it as showing off. I really wish we had a conductor who had the guts to say, “Quit being ladylike and do something with your fiddles! Do we have to spend the first half hour of rehearsal getting you ready to play?” Of course, under all that demure silence is a lot of seething rage that manifests itself as back-stabbing sooner or later.

    Our society needs to stop giving women mixed messages, scolding us for not being assertive and expressing horror when we are. And we need to stop patting ourselves on the back for having achieved equality of the sexes. But of course women as well as men need to work toward reversing this trend.

  3. says

    EM Edwards: I mistrust any analogy with lower-level animals. Too often, it’s used as some evo-psych hokey to justify any bad behaviour. Who cares whether we’re more like chimps or bonobos? We’re human; we have the capability to change.

    Enthusiastic consent is just a small part of the social change that needs to happen. It doesn’t get talked about enough, though. There’s a lot of advice on how not to be assholes; this post is about how to be awesome.

    Dorothy: Many U.S. American and Canadian women already display enthusiastic consent. They’re called sluts and shamed for it. That’s why the concept is so important to spread: I’ve grown up listening to men mansplain to me and other women that the reason why we don’t get Nice Things is because we’re not assertive enough, only to be given the cold shoulder when we are.

    Enthusiastic consent places a responsibility to accept the assertiveness of the invitee on the initiator. That way, if he’s asking, and he wants to hear a yes, he’s got to accept that he’ll get a yes, and not press when he gets a no (or even, get turned off when he gets a yes; some guys do that D: ), because otherwise he’s playing some manipulative game of patriarchal assholism that has no place in building intimacy. “He” here used, of course, because often it’s guys who complain about lack of consent and “how will I know if she’s REALLY interested??”

    It’s all over. Music, tech, academia… Equality of the sexes really is superficial on so many levels, everywhere.

  4. E. M. Edwards says

    @Jha

    I mistrust anyone who uses the term “lower level animals” especially when describing our fellow primates. They’re not lower in this case, just on an evolutionary siding we didn’t follow. Who cares if we’re homo sapiens, we’re still just a hominid species with millions of years of behavior wired into our genes. You can think around that all you want, but ignoring your “lower” instincts only blinds you, and ties both hands behind your back.

    Being aware of what makes us human (and by extension, what makes us primates and so closely related to both chimps and bonobos with whom we share not only the majority of our DNA but much of our social behavior) is an important starting point. Skip this step and you’re almost certain to fail.

    Change never comes out of ignorance. Unless it’s change for the worse.

    E.

  5. says

    EM Edwards: Here’s where I mistrust the line of reasoning: what defines human instinct, and what doesn’t, especially for something as complex as intimacy and social interaction? All beings have instinct for survival, but beyond that, how to tell the difference between instinct and socialized reactions?

    The overwhelming tendency to accept rape as a part of our lives is not part of “millions of years of behaviour”. The tendency to say “no” when most women want to say “yes” is not part of “millions of years of behaviour”; it is socialized. Same goes for most other things.

    I can still acknowledge a link between primates and human beings, while still firmly believing that nothing in us, save for instincts of survival, without buying into the idea that each of us is born with some genetic memory of how to behave socially.

  6. E. M. Edwards says

    @Jha

    What defines human instinct are all the traits and tendencies we display through our social and sexual interaction with the rest of our species. What doesn’t, isn’t a part of our biology or society and can be discarded from the discussion – for the most part. Our evolutionary underpinnings affect more than just an instinct for survival, i.e. survival of the fittest – a common misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Sexual selection, parallel development, genetic drift, epigenetics, even the horizontal passing of genes from completely different species, are all part of a very complex process whose full range of mechanisms are not yet known.

    What we do know, is that these biological bases for our behavior are both powerful and enduring – manifested across individuals and societies alike. Our genes affect our societies, and our societies in turn affect our genes. This doesn’t mean that we are at the mercy of our biology – far from it. But if we ignore the influences of our evolutionary past and present, we really are crippling ourselves when it comes to making conscious change. Its powerful affects can not be ignored, but they can be compensated and corrected for, if we accept that they are there and are an important part of the behavior in the first place.

    I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you’re incorrect about rape not being part of our evolutionary inheritance. There is no question about this, among serious scientists. It is an act that is not only time honoured, but practiced outside of our species. The debate on whether it is an actual adaptive strategy (see the controversial work by Palmer and Thornhill) or if it is by-product of the evolved differences between the sexes (see Evolution, Gender, and Rape; ed. Cheryl Brown Travis) in our own (or something entirely different) – is both active and acrimonious. I personally lean towards the latter camp, as I have a distrust of current evolutionary psychology but neither side is debating that our biology has a formative hand in creating and thus preventing, rape.

    This doesn’t make it any more desirable a behavior, no more than our penchants for war and murder; but to see this and “most other things” as some sort of societal creation of the present (I think at the very least we must include the past 10,000 years) – is wrong. All society is created by biological organisms, whose behavior is a complex intertwining of genetic and environmental factors. The sum of our learned behavior is learned from other members of our society, who like us, are the product of this interaction.

    We ignore its true complexity at our peril. There is good evidence that our brains are relatively malleable – we don’t have stone-age modules which control our behavior – even our genes have changed quite a bit over the past 10,000 years. Behavioral ecology is at the moment, the best system I think we have for explaining things: we are affected by our evolutionary past but we are also affected by our immediate environment when it comes to expressing behavior that is biologically and sociologically adaptive.

    I don’t doubt you have some clear ideas about this question – and obviously, you care about it. I’d suggest however, you might want to do some reading up on the science behind the debate, before continuing any further argument over whether biology has a role in rape. It is unquestionably a complex, still evolving field with a lot of emotion being vented on both sides of the debate.

    Best wishes,

    E.

  7. says

    I love this, I love the concept, I love the idealogy, I love the sensibility of it.

    I’ve always been less than comfortable with ‘No means no” – it always seemed to imply that then if she didn’t say ‘No’ she must mean ‘Yes’

    How about she means yes, if she says YES! If she enthusiastically says “YES!” and enthusiastically participates? I like that much better. ‘If in doubt, leave it out’.

  8. says

    Unless all my old anthropology classes were all messed up in some way, every class I’ve ever taken taught that humans are more closely related to bonobos than to common chimps. (Both are chimps, by the way.)

    Also, to the person asking “if we can get” American women to demonstrate enthusiastic consent- stop right there. If you are worried about “getting” someone to consent to something sexual you’re already way ahead of yourself. If someone won’t show enthusiastic consent, STOP. If you don’t it’s rape. There is no entitlement to sexual intimacy with another person, and if EVERYONE you wish to act sexually with does not consent and you end up sleeping with no one- THERE IS STILL NO ENTITLEMENT. For pity, for whatever. NO ENTITLEMENT.

  9. Darryl says

    Elaina,

    She was not asking how to get women to consent to certain acts; she was asking how to get women to adopt the stance of enthusiastic consent.

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