One of my best friends (activist, poet, essayist, musician, diversity scholar, and in general a lovely human being) wrote an EXCELLENT post about consent. I got permission to repost it here because it is well worth the read:
Consent Culture is Hard, Yo.
One of the core tenants of feminism, the insidious pervasiveness of rape culture, is countered by the almost utopian ideal of consent culture.
To counter the sense of entitlement toward womens’ bodies embodied with rape culture, the idea is to promote an environment where explicit consent for every interaction is the NORM, and even a “minor” (by our current estimation) violation of a person’s space is anathema. To hug me without explicit consent would be a violation of every social more.
We’re there a little bit. If we have a situation where you come to hug me, and I say “no” or “please stop” while you’re hugging me, generally the direction is immediately followed with an apology. However, that’s not explicit consent. That is explicit NON-consent. Or, as I prefer to call it, explicit dissent.
The ideal is for you to ask, “Hey, can I hug you?” with or without a reason, and then to respect my answer or my request for more information. Not to push, but to supply information.
And you know what? That is really, really difficult.
No really, I get it. I’m a hands-on person. I communicate through touch quite a bit, I take it for granted as something allowable in many situations. Sometimes I’ll hug friends and loved ones without asking, I’ll surprise people with a good sneak-hug, I’ll put a hand on someone’s hand or knee to express empathy.
I will totally break the boundaries of explicit consent and invade their space.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that’s the real sticking point, here. Do I break peoples’ boundaries with malicious intent? No. Do the people I do this with complain or feel violated? Well, not verbally.
But what if they did feel violated? Due to rape culture… well, they’d believe it was all their fault, that I wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t done 100 times before, so why should they complain? And they didn’t say no, so really, they have no right after the fact to confront me on why it was not ok; everyone would dismiss them as being touchy and maybe even a b**** if they did. They’d think that in the end it was their choice.
That they don’t have a right to autonomy over their own body.
And isn’t that horrifying? I certainly think so.
We live, however, in a world of rape culture, where there’s implicit consent until explicit dissent. Or, to shorten this phenomenon to an easy two words, “dissent culture.” Now, while I am generally not a fan of binaries and like to think of myself as the “Binary Buster!!1!one@!#!!@Eleven!” (y’know, for superhero alter-ego purposes) I see the usefulness here of focusing on the extremes, at least to start the conversation. I recognize that these are not the only end results, but I DO think of them as the most opposed to each other. That is a bias I bring to this conversation, and I fully admit that.
When we make new leaps of intimacy with a new partner (or even a new friend) there is typically a shyness with that motion. A hesitancy to hold their hand, that moment where time stops and your mind runs circles around itself as your lips, infinitely centimeters from their’s, seem frozen in time about to touch in just the barest brush of a first kiss that’ll ultimately be innocent in comparison to future passion. We don’t ask “Can I kiss you” and if we do we’re derided by our peers for not taking the proper initiative.
We feel out our permissions and wait for a negative reaction, for a no from our partner. We are shamed when we revere their boundaries and ask them for a yes. We are shamed for communicating boundaries before involvement and lauded for being able to do the guesswork in feeling them out instead.
And I understand the attractiveness in that paradigm. When a man goes to kiss me, I don’t want him asking me for that. When he goes to take my hand, the spontaneity and acceptance is what causes that flutter in my chest. That he’s willing to brave the social anxieties and possibility of rejection to show me affection gives that affection an extra spice that just makes it feel lovely.
If he looked passionately into my eyes, smiled that same quirky smile and sighed as he gathered the courage to kiss me before stopping that momentum to ask “may I kiss you?” I don’t honestly know if the moment would have the same sparkle and poetry it would with that almost-dangerous edge to it.
But let’s dissect that. Almost-dangerous. Dangerous. Danger for whom?
The easy answer is: for him. He’s the one who is facing rejection, whose very masculinity may be at stake with it.
But for many people (especially for women)? The answer is… for me. What if I choose to reject him and he doesn’t respect that? What if this leads somewhere that I’m not ok with, even if I was ok with a kiss? What if, what if, what if?
It may seem like a flimsy argument, but think about it. Put yourselves in those shoes and dissect it. Have you ever been in a situation where you had to worry that your autonomy may be overridden, that you may be forced to do something against your will? That despite your best efforts you may, in fact, still be physically overpowered and unable to stop someone if you tired?
I’m not saying that every person goes through this, or even suggesting that MOST women/people go through this. However, who would honestly have to go through this process in the second scenario, where he asked “may I kiss you,” in a society where he’s not waiting for a no, but a yes?
And that’s the point. The benefits of a consent culture outweigh the negatives of a dissent culture. I get that. I feel it. That’s why I’m behind consent culture entirely. I want to see it as a reality some day, though I recognize the unlikelihood of that. I’ll probably be dead and buried by the time it’s a reality.
Still, I can’t get over the fact that, quite often, explicit consent is simply not as hot as dissent culture. I struggle with how to make it just as sexy and enticing, to make it second nature, as well. While I don’t have answers for those first steps of a relationship (beyond that I’ve managed to rework my own conception of actions to find a man’s devotion to feminism and consent culture hot in itself), after a relationship has reached a certain point I have an answer:
Explicit Implicit Consent.
Try saying that ten times fast, dear reader, and while you’re untangling your tongue I’ll try to explain. Maybe it’s just that I tend to be attracted to intelligence and those who communicate more clearly, but there tends to be a point in my relationships where my partner and I know that sexual contact is a foregone conclusion; whether that point is before or after our first sexual contact is different based on the relationships in question, but it becomes perfect to negotiate the situations where there is implicit consent between us, and for what activity.
This gives the ability to be spontaneous and magical, with the added application of Consent Culture. At no point does that agreed upon consent take precedence over any dissent, but it is a dynamic that is explicitly agreed upon by the parties involved.
I know that there are other ways, too, to implement a culture of explicit consent in our every day lives, and especially before we get to such a point of familiarity. I know it because I’ve seen it, because I’ve lived it before. My problem is that I do not always remember what they are.
And, really, if you think about how it all works, this is a transformative change from within to effect a change from without. The most important people to sell on Consent Culture are those who do not identify as feminists, those who participate in Rape Culture not out of choice (aka rapists) but because they are are socialized and taught to do so. Get rid of Rape Culture as a social standard, and suddenly you’ll see that the only people participating in it are the rapists.
DON’T RAPE. And do not countenance rape, either. Begin doing both, by moderating your search for consent. It’s gradual. You’ll probably find that you don’t often search for consent at all in your life. That’s normal. The objective is to move toward 100% explicit consent through whatever path is necessary for you.