On the Consent Debate

18 Sep

So, consent culture has been a nearly constant topic on my Facebook news feed for months now. People have been posting articles, talking about specific instances of non-consent culture, discussing official policies, and preaching. Especially in the dance scene, enthusiastic consent has become a rallying cry for a number of people, myself included, who want to see the blues and fusion scenes become safe places for anyone and everyone. I figured it was time for me to weigh in 🙂

I don’t really want to give the same recap as everyone else about where our society stands on consent. If you want more about the current state of the argument, search the internet. There are a myriad of great articles and blog talking about it from lots of different perspectives. The short version is: current societal views make it very easy for people to pressure other people into sexual activity. The people who pressure often get defended, the people who are pressured get blamed. More commonly, men pressure women into sexual activity, but there are lots of dynamics that can lead to problems. This is the narrative that is being talked about. If you’re not familiar with it, go read this article. Even if you are familiar with them, go read that article, it’s a really great, if somewhat bleakly practical view of the current situation. Most importantly that article frames the consent issue in terms of power disparities between two partners.

For those of you who choose not to read the article, it goes something like this. In every relationship, there are inherent power differentials. It may be that the differentials always favor one partner, or that they favor different partners in different contexts. Some examples of power differentials are: employer/employee, high class/low class, white/minority, native/immigrant, older younger, male/female. These power differences create a situation in which one partner has the power to enact negative consequences upon the other. Specifically if the less powerful partner has the audacity to say no.

See, we can talk about consent by saying things like, “No means no” with the implied converse “Yes means yes”. But this assumes a world in which we are all free to say yes or no as we please. In reality, this is rarely the case. Anytime there is a power differential in a relationship, there is the potential for the answerer to receive negative consequences for not acquiescing to the askers request. So it happens many times that yes means “yes because I know there are consequences if I say no”. In my mind, this is not actually consent. But in the case that the asker is not intentionally or consciously pressuring the answerer (assuming people who don’t want to be rapists here), it can be hard to tell that this is not actually consent.

I had a lover once tell me that I could ask him for anything, as long as “No” was an okay answer. When he told me that, it was in the context of broader relationship negotiations. But it has struck me recently that this idea, being able to hear a “No” is very appropriate to consent discussion. It means that your well-being happiness (happiness associated with serotonin) remains unaffected, regardless of your partner’s response. Your excitement happiness (dopamine related) may go up or down depending on their answer, but the kind of happiness that affects your peace with the world and your connection to your partner remains unaffected. Being okay with a “No” means you are not enacting any negative consequences on your partner, even subconsciously because you do not begrudge them their answer in any way. It is an ideal way to dissipate any power disparity that may exist so your partner has the ability to give a free and clear no.

However, the pressure that one feels to engage in sexual activity does not always come from your partner. Often people feel pressured by social groups, family, and society at large to engage in sexual activity they don’t otherwise want to engage in. This is something I struggle with often. Despite the fact that I have amazing people in my life who actively ask for my consent, I often feel pressures like “Well I’ve gone this far, I should just let this continue” or “Well he’s bought me dinner, I guess I owe him a kiss”. The negative consequence that eats at me the most is that of being labeled a tease. The idea of being publicly shamed because I enjoy being flirty with everyone, not just people I actually want to be involved with, has definitely led me to go past my own interest with a number of people. Society isn’t doing a great job of being happy, regardless of the answer I give.

This is why I continue to talk about consent. This is why I often include consent exercises in my dance classes. I make people practice asking for consent, saying no, and hearing no. Because these are vital skills if we ever want to get to a world where everyone can give free and clear consent based on what they actually want, not based the negative repercussions they might receive. There are people who say “Well I’ve never had problems with my partner, so why should we keep talking about it”. There are people who say, “Talking about it is alienating people who I know are good people.” The problem is, you can be a good person and still be pressuring someone you care about if you don’t recognize the power differential, or know how to diffuse it. If you don’t know how to truly accept a “No”. And beyond that, even if every person you know is a perfect consent practitioner, the world isn’t yet. Our society isn’t yet. So we have to keep talking until all those societal pressures go away and everyone can stop saying “Yes because something somewhere is pressuring me to say yes” and we can all just say “Yes”.


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One response to “On the Consent Debate

  1. GypsyJack

    26 September 2013 at 9:44pm, 21:44

    I find it interesting that there is even a “debate” about consent. I *do* understand that there are power differentials, and I do my meager best to alleviate them when I recognize they are in play, but, as you note, I am a creature of my culture and it is hard. Lately I’ve come to realize that even in long term, well running relationships, such as my 30 plus year marriage, that it’s *still* a good idea to “check in” to see if consent is still granted, and not just for sexual intimacy, but for, “who’s turn is it for laundry, etc…” all those little things that make up a relationship and all to often become “the usual”..


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