In which consent is clarified

I mentioned earlier when I covered social attitudes to rape that meaningful consent has to be “explicit and free”. Many a man interested in exploring the murky deeps of gender politics from a male perspective dives into the issue of consent in straight sex, which I find almost painfully simple, and comes out with some sort of slippery slope argument attempting to deconstruct the basis of consent because they don’t really want to understand it, because that would mean serious evaluation of the concept from a female perspective, which like, defeats the whole point of my college newspaper article, man.

What makes consent explicit? Well, essentially it’s saying that she has to be clear in her desire to go ahead. There should be no doubt. If she says “mmmm, okay” and doesn’t start jumping on you, then she hasn’t given explicit consent. She’s probably just engrossed in Scientific American Mind, that glossy magazine she’s reading, and hasn’t heard you. If she says nothing and sits still, not engaging at all in whatever you’re trying to do to initiate sex, then she’s not consented. If she says “no” clearly, but continues to do something that really gets you going, she’s still not consented, and under certain circumstances you may be authorised to complain about teasing. If she does some stupid hollywood stunt where she says “no…” softly and then starts with the passionate kissing, she’s probably a fan of chick flicks and/or romance novels. If that scares you, I recommend you get to know a nice girl-racer instead.

What makes consent free? Just to be clear, I don’t mean free as in “free beer”3 here. It’s probably possible for her to charge you for it in some way or another and yet still have meaningfully consented. No, I’m talking about “free speech”- she has the same right to freedom from the influence of others in her consent as she does in the expression of her political views.

That has some pretty powerful consequences, however. It means that unless you’re confident drunkenness hasn’t impaired her judgement, a woman who is totally wasted cannot confidently give you consent. If you’re a gentlemen, you’ll kiss her and put her to sleep in a convenient bed and hope you catch her later without her being frustrated that you didn’t do what she went out to get drunk to get you to do. Of those sorts of mind games are born complaints about manipulative bitches, and as the stereotypes assure me, Mr. Average Dude, you do not want to get involved with those, so let’s move on.

It also means that relationships with huge power imbalances do not clearly have consent for sex. It’s possible that this informs our reactions to paedophilia, incest, relationships with large age gaps, highly controlling relationships, emotionally abusive relationships, and even relationships where one person controls the couple’s money.2. This is because the threat of abusing that power can have a very large influence on your partner’s ability to say no without major consequences- a non-sexual relationship like parenthood, siblinghood, or an older mentor can be withdrawn as emotional blackmail, a controlling partner can withdraw other freedoms or economic support, or an emotionally abusive partner can decimate individuality or self-confidence to make a contrary decision.1

I feel it’s also this principle of power imbalance that informs our disgust with violent rape. Death or injury as a consequence to refusing submission doesn’t turn it into sex. Someone looking at you threateningly with a weapon near their hand takes away responsibility for your actions from you to a certain degree. Unless of course you like to roleplay that kind of thing, in which case you ought to take some basic precautions that anyone who’s actually into that scene can elucidate you on rather quickly.

The difficulty in recognising consent is not because the idea is tricky or legalistic. It’s because it involves realising that everyone deserves control over their own body and their own actions, and that consent is much more about the people with physical or emotional power passing that threshhold of maturity about their own responsibility to acknowledge that fact fully than about complex analysis of someone else’s motives.

1These possibilities should be kept in mind when someone refers to the idea of rape within marriage. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they can’t mistreat you in a way that takes away your ability or desire to say yes to their advances. If marriage were a “get sex free” card rather than just another flavour of (sexual) relationship, divorce and annulment would possibly be a lot less common.
2Whether your feelings are positive or negative on each of those matters, keep in mind that opinions that come from gut reactions are very hard to fairly evaluate and we need to be very careful of rationalisations after the fact. I’m looking specifically at anyone reading this who has ever justified anything by saying “(s)he was asking for it.” Clearly that was not literally true, or you wouldn’t have bothered to use the clichΓ©d phrase. πŸ˜‰
3You may now know I am a fan of open-source software if you’re familiar with the ways they clarify the three or four meanings of the word “free”. So go download firefox, which meets more than one of those meanings. πŸ™‚ Either that, or I really jerked you around by mentioning free beer in my post. Muahaha. πŸ˜‰

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4 Responses

  1. I’m bemused that you still don’t think that the possibility of men not consenting to sex is worth talking about – is that perhaps because as a queer man you don’t like having to think about it? Or are you taking the rape crisis approach that the only thing men have to do with respect to rape is stop committing it?

    I’m totally over the idea that men brought up in a culture that says they must always want sex, with anyone, any time any where will not have issues with consent. And I’m sick of people like you propagating the idea that men shouldn’t think about whether they want sex but only about whether their partner does.

  2. Actually I largely didn’t talk about male consent for completely different reasons. Firstly, myths and (gross) misconceptions about consent are far more common concerning female consent. (there are some notable myths about male consent too, however) Secondly, because men are viewed as having sexual agency by almost all of society, and are usually in the position of power themselves, consent is not as problematic for us, although as you point out, still an issue. Thirdly, because this is a personal issue for me and thus it’s difficult to write about, I had really wanted a lot more time before I considered it.

    The first thing men need to do with respect to rape is to stop thinking it’s okay- which is a bit broader than just “stop doing it”, and it also includes adjusting our thinking on rape of men. Male victims are a bit more complicated, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I’m actually working up to more intricate topics, so that people who are following my writing get gradually introduced before I launch straight into talking about niche cases that rest on complex terminology and a basis in feminist theory.

    Lastly- I haven’t mentioned it yet because I don’t really want to make this blog about me or my personal experiences, but seeing it might be useful to correct your assumption… I’m bisexual. I hope that answers your uh, issue.

  3. Actually, I assumed you were bisexual (I do that).

    Do you really think that the men who read your blog think rape is ok? I was thinking about this on my way into town this morning and can’t really see anyone who thinks that lasting more than a couple of posts in your blog. Even leaving aside the kiwiblog types, I’m left think you’re talking to the random passers-by rather than anyone who reads your posts regularly.

    But as a more personal exploration of themes, it does make more sense. Go for it, I say. Maybe look at some of the stuff Asher has written over on Anarchia (if you haven’t already).

  4. Moz, in my experience, people read things they fervently disagree with as often as things they like. And frankly, yes, I do think men will read this who in small ways do not realise they are placing responsiblity for rape onto victims, or sanctioning it… because men are greatly culturally biased into thinking in that pattern even when they respect and value women and female independence, and I had to re-evaluate thoughts along those lines when I first became interested in feminism.

    And yes- I’m essentially writing for “passers by” rather than some core feminist/gender politics audience. There are plenty of blogs chock full of feminist terminology and culture- and they do it oh so much better than I do. πŸ™‚ (not that I’ll avoid either… this just isn’t a feminist space in the traditional sense) My focus in writing has always been in explaining terminology and easing people into topics gently- and I think that’s doubly appropriate in that one of my aims is to potentially give men online another chance to meaningfully engage with the idea of feminism in a space that’s not dominantly female.

    I’m blocked on gender essentialism right now, so maybe I’ll explore consent in a much more complex framework for a break, to see how that goes. There’s definitely a lot to say, but I wonder if I need to have a whole post dedicated to the concept of sexual agency first.

    I’ll definitely swing by Anarchia- I don’t have extensive links into web feminism yet, so I have a handful of totally cool megasites right now, and some of the local New Zealand stuff. πŸ™‚

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