On Enthusiastic Consent
This was originally written for Jeff Vandermeer's Ecstatic Days. I can't remember what the impetus was, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with Feministe. It's been linked all over - Jim Hines linked to it too! Original post here.
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.
“Don’t forget to get consent.”
“Of course!” said he, indignant that I could think otherwise.
“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.