So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

23 December, 2007

Constructing Consent

Background: a call for submissions for a book proposal apparently about date/acquaintance rape (hard to tell because of the poor writing of the proposal) went out, and has sparked controversy. This is not about the controversy; for people who want context on that, a few people have written critiques of the proposal and its issues for discussion; perusing them and their links and so on will likely be informative. (I haven't kept track of all the links I've read on it; I think most of them can be found through there.) The gist of the anthology as I currently understand it is that it wants to envision a world in which enthusiasm and enjoyment is the standard for consensual sexual activity.

The thing I want to poke at, though, is the construction of consent.

Okay, yes, a world in which my first boyfriend was waiting for "Oh please do this to me" would probably be one where I didn't have flashbacks and dissociation issues around sex. Granted.

The root of the assault, or part of it, goes back before that. Back before "yes means yes" or even "no means no" -- there were failures there, but those weren't the points of first failure.

The first failure was a point of "How do I know whether I want to say 'yes' or 'no'?" The lack of clearly articulate consent or nonconsent was in significant part because I had no idea how to construct the concept. I wrote some about this for Blogging For Sex Education Day here and here.

And the irony is, I started wrestling with those questions, realised I needed to do the work to construct an understanding of consent, because of the assault. Because I was woefully unprepared, don't think well under pressure, uneducated, unprotected, and unwilling to be that vulnerable again.

Building consent was hard, in the culture I was surrounded with at the time, the Just Say No culture -- always refuse, refuse, even if you want to, even if you desperately want to, or are just curious, or think it might be nice: no is the answer. Especially if you're female; here are the consequences that you're risking: pregnancy, disease, death. Say no! You are the gatekeeper, the preserver of virtue, young woman: say no, and keep the world true on its course.

And the negation of consent was also present on the male side: men were presented as indiscriminate, hypersexual, defective if they turned down an opportunity to fuck. Their consent was invisible because it was assumed that they would be interested in sex now, with this person, at this time, under these conditions, no matter what; the concept of male consent was flatly laughable.

(For things I now know that I was utterly unaware of when younger: women of color are frequently framed in terms typically associated with (white?) men in these matters of consent construction: consent is irrelevant, due to insatiability.)

None of this is a context in which people are likely to easily be able to be secure in what their own boundaries are; the enorced nroms and expectations are a riptide of social expectation. In my teen years, sexual activity may have been status in some ways, an initiatory experience into the mysteries of adulthood, but that status was dangerous, a whispered one. Slut-shaming was a real factor, and the rumoured-promiscuous boys were read as much as potential predators as successful at the rites of manhood.

I had a friend have a hysterical fit at me, a complete meltdown, conviction that I was going to get myself killed or ruin my life, when she learned that I was sexually active (with the fellow I wound up marrying, I would note). Slut-shaming has some perverse manifestations.

The story of the guy I know who was raped is one full of myths: he's male, so of course he wants it, and besides, he's a nerd who wouldn't get laid otherwise, so I'm doing him a favor. The construction of his consent never seemed to come up in his rapist's mind.

But that comes after the problem of consent.

"What do I want?" is a critical question for consent: without answering it, neither 'yes' nor 'no' comes out with conviction. The steps to assault for me started with wanting love and attention, wanting to explore and understand my own sexuality; perfectly damned rational things for someone in mid-adolescence to be wrestling with.

The next step was getting on a slope too steep for my skill level. I was still in the bunny-slopes part of sex, trying to figure out how to turn without tumbling into a snowbank and how not to crash into trees, and wound up with the only available potential source of love-and-attention being seventeen, presumably well past the shallow hills and looking for someone to hit the black diamond with. So I got run down the bunny slope, didn't crash into anything, and that was taken as good enough reason to swing me around to the next grade. And the next, and the next, with no breathing space.

And most of the time I do believe that the guy was of good will, not trying to coerce, was genuinely horrified when he realised he had nearly raped me the bright afternoon he gave me the little tape loop of terror. Most of the time; I don't believe he was completely unconcerned with consent, entirely focused on getting what he wanted, just ... a dumb kid doing dumb kid things to a kid with even less experience and understanding and ability to articulate. Most of the time, I do believe this.

But I never got to really master the green circle slopes, whether he was a dumb kid or a predator with just enough human respect for his prey to not blatantly continue in the face of obvious nonconsent. I had no opportunity to explore, to get the feel of things, to learn what I liked about the terrain, to get the joy of the basics.

And the bunny slopes are part of healthily developing consent -- the exploration, the comparatively low-stress figuring things out, the, yes, occasionally tipping into a drift or hitting a rock or losing a ski halfway up the hill. Learning boundaries requires testing the boundaries, exploring within them and trying a little bit outside them every so often. Firming up the edges, or expanding the possible.

And going outside the boundaries is impossible to do with perfect consent. The problem with initiations -- and sex is one of them -- is that the result on the other side may not be knowable, which means it's hard to face up to the consequences and accept them in advance. But a good grounding in the possibilities, an intellectual understanding of what may happen, and all of those, those are part of making up consent. Going through the bunny slopes, learning the way it all goes together, makes it most possible to go through those transitions with the least likelihood of long-term harm. One can learn about the whole process, one's own reactions, without having to deal with the tricky hills right at the outset. Take a fall on a gentle hill a few times, so as to be able to survive one on a steep slope. That sort of thing.

Focusing on pleasure won't fix constructing consent. I got dragged down a lot of slopes without my consent, and a lot of them were pleasurable. (Others were kind of baffling.) In some ways, pleasure betrayed me, passing for consent, passing for acceptance, confusing me about whether or not I wanted a yes there, or a more, or anything else -- because it felt good, and how did that weigh against the sick twisting feeling of the growing dissociation, anyway? I didn't know how to find answers to these questions at the time.

I started to learn how to think about it when in traction from the consequences of being a green circle sexuality on a black diamond slope.

There are better ways to learn how to give consent.


Eileen said...

Yes! Yes, so well said, yes.

I kind of want to say something intelligent about this post, but words are failing me. This is spot on.

Especially the "Just Say No" culture, a background that is pervasive and frighteningly invisible at times.

I wrote a while back that the BDSM community could learn a lot from sex education, and that sex education could benefit from exposure to BDSM principles, especially those surrounding consent. The question is how to actually get these things articulated in a culture obsessed with shutting sex up.

Awesome post.

S.L. Bond said...

Oh, really awesome post. Thank you for saying this.

I remember really reeling from each of my first sexual encounters, being traumatized, even though they were consensual -- even enthusiastic -- because even though I was consenting (and in fact initiating, much of the time), I had no idea what I was consenting to. Part of that is that sex is somewhat unknowable beforehand as you say, and part of it is a failure of the adults in my life to talk to me about sex beyond the mechanics of it. To talk to me about why people have sex, what good reasons to have sex are. The reasons in my head were, "Here we are alone in a dark room." I had no concept of things like "I want to experience your body" or even "I want to touch/be touched." It was just that sex was what was supposed to be happening, which is sort of funny, I guess, given that a large portion of it was sex that isn't "supposed" to happen culturally (i.e lesbian).

So I do see one important merit of re-centering sex on female pleasure, which is the side-effect of centering it on pleasure, instead of the cultural centering on an abstraction of love-hate-power-taboo.

I really didn't understand until I'd been having regular sex for a good while that, oh, of course, we do this because it feels good -- feeling good is the point.

Trinity said...

Well, you've seen that I'm the minority here about this, but I think that

a) you're right on


b) this is EXACTLY the sort of thing that should go in this antho, because what they're asking for is "what does yes mean?"

What you're critiquing, the focus on Just Say No culture (of various forms) seems to me to be exactly what the CFP is aimed at critiquing: we did NO MEANS NO, ad: hey look, it didn't work.

Well, it kindasorta did in a couple of ways. But not really.

That's what they want people writing about, and that'a what you write about here. i'd pretty it up a bit and submit it, honestly.

Anonymous said...

Oh wow, I had no idea this anthology had stirred up so much controversy already...this was actually my first thought when I got the proposal forwarded to me -- this topic as a submission for the anthology. I think it's something that will probably be overlooked, but it's such a crucial point.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

You know, Trin, I may chew on doing something like that. When I'm home and maybe better-rested.