Consent stops how we hook up with other people from being creepy, weird, damaging and abusive.
We consent to stuff all the time, look:
Terry: “Hey Malcolm, can I have your number?”
Malcolm: “Sure Terry, here it is…”
That number wasn’t just consent for Terry to have Malcolm’s number, but also, subtly for Terry to ring Malcolm or text him. It’s not stated there, but it’s probably consent to do this 3 or 4 times without hearing a reply back. We know this, because it’s socially acceptable to ring or text people whose numbers we have and we can make an assumption based on what we know about the majority of people we come across, that 3 or 4 times wouldn’t be creepy or weird and is very very unlikely to wander into damaging or abusive. In fact, I imagine each of us will have our own idea of when calls or texts become ‘too much’ and we may withdraw our consent if we no longer want to receive them. We could do this subtly; “Hi Terry, Malcolm here, I’m just not feeling it right now, it’s not you, it’s me” yalda yada… Or we can do it more directly “Terry, please stop texting me, I’m not interested” or even perhaps rudely “Fuck off and leave me alone Terry”. The nicest one is the first, but the second is probably more easily understood as a removal of consent for further interaction (or at least further interaction on the same scale).
At the start of relationships and inside them, we all deal with consent in different ways, from the subtle, to the frank, to the rude, with many of us probably sticking to a mixture of the first two.
We saw an example of subtle consent and then subtle removal of consent in the phone number thing I did above. Subtle consent can be risky in any type of relationship, but does seem to be the favoured in many initial encounters, in my experience. That is to say, “Do you want to come back to mine?” plus lots of flirting and kissing quite often is meant to mean “I’d like us to have sex”. The dangerous thing here of course is that when this is understood as ‘means’ rather than ‘often means’ then misunderstandings can turn to harm, abuse and rape. Of course all those things don’t mean ‘Let’s fuck’, but they are often used as a subtle way to mean this. Within my very own last relationship (which contained no kink or other alternative sex), which I was in for 5 years, we would often subtly consent to things, with flirting, kissing, taking off our or the other persons clothes and responding positively to this. We didn’t need to constantly ask, “Are we ok to have sex now?” Although that’s not to say we didn’t involve direct and even sometimes rude voicing of our consent or lack thereof for physical interaction. In many nightclubs, most noticeably student union nights, it’s made me cringe (rather than get particularly angry, normally) when I’ve seen, mostly men, think an appropriate way to attract the attention of a female is to dance ever closer to her, ending up with him almost grinding against her. On one hand, how dare he presume she’s ok with this? On the other hand, have we gotten so polite that our subtle rebukes are not indeed rebukes at all? In her not turning round and stating firmly, or even rudely that his advances aren’t welcome, is this subtle form of consent actually all that useful, as far as communicating goes?
I think one thing that separates vanilla (used to mean ‘standard sex and relationships’) interactions from non-vanilla (used to mean ‘alternative sex and relationships’, eg BDSM, poly, swinging, etc) ones is that consent is rarely subtle in non-vanilla situations. Consent is talked about nearly as much as technique or practical issues. In fact, consent is often considered a technique or practical issue in itself. I’m not (really) poly or a swinger, so my experiences come from my experiences in the world of BDSM. It’s interesting to me that there are so many things we take for granted that protect the importance of consent in what ‘we’ do. For example, common acronyms that are so important to so many on the BDSM scene all include the word consent; SSC (safe, sane, consensual), RACK (risk aware consensual kink), PRICK (personal responsibility in consensual kink), CNC (consensual nonconsent)… I’d say on the whole, we reject ‘subtle’ and try to stick to ‘direct’. When subtle consent is present in BDSM, it’s usually by people who we know well and/or are already in agreed relationships of some kind. For many people, even this subtle consent needs a firmer ‘direct’ safety net, if you like, of a safe word, which is like the directest of direct consent withdrawals in BDSM. Clubs have one too, which is useful (for many) and stops the rest of us wondering if we should cringe, feel angry or even step in and do something, unlike in those vanilla clubs I mentioned above.
Where some of the ‘sexiness’ or ‘mystery’ could be lost in this more direct approach to consent, as opposed to the flirty, subtle ‘I’d rather not have to spell it out for you’ consent, I think the BDSM scene has made real attempts to stop this from happening. Like porn, and even mainstream film and TV managed to make the condom a sexy and integral part to some of its sex scenes, BDSM also makes attempt at direct consent and consent removal as being not only practical, but sexy too. ‘Red’ or ‘mercy’ as stop/safe words aren’t the word ‘banana’ or ‘bus stop’ and wouldn’t spoil the atmosphere of a club or the generally positive feeling of a sm scene that may have just got too much for the bottom (person receiving the sm or bondage), but they still directly tell anyone within earshot that understands their connotations that consent has been removed. Getting bottoms to beg for something is a particularly cruel/sexy way of obtaining consent. I read about a very hot sm scene once where a bottom was being ‘tortured’ to reveal the answer to a very simple question, but where the question was the safe word. Clever. Sexy. When we do consent well, we do it very well.
Now our legal consent and our moral consent are different things in the UK, with regards to BDSM. Although I could consent to play rugby or boxing and suffer any number of injuries, I cant legally consent to getting those injuries through spending time with a particularly creative sadist. That is to say, I can’t legally consent to BDSM where I receive anything that might leave a lasting (days, weeks, months) mark. Therefore, I have to use my morals, rather than law, to guide me in what’s right and wrong. This is one thing we as kinksters struggle with more. We all have our own lines in the sand as to what we could and should consent to ourselves. We then tend to have another line somewhere else for what we think others could and should. I don’t think many of us have no lines whatsoever. I don’t think there will be many people who would think that it would be ok to consent to have your arm chopped off and then someone go ahead and do it. There are bound to be some people who think it’s ok, but there aren’t loads, I’m sure of it. There are way more of us who think it’s ok to consent to be spanked with a bare hand and for that to go ahead. Our lines are probably somewhere between those two. It mostly works out, too, because the number of people who like spanking, vs the number of people who are into limb removal is probably fairly similar to the number of people in BDSM who think you can give informed consent for these activities. So if I take face punching, which can be risky and has met opposition from BDSM people before, I need to think about my morals. How comfortable am I in consenting to this? Am I aware that some people will be against this? Why do they think this? Do I need their approval? Never mind all the physical and practical risks of the activity, but can I and should I give informed consent for this activity? My line in the sand says yes. For me, it doesn’t take a great deal of soul searching, but for some it would, and that’s fine. I need to check I’m doing this from me and not being coerced. I need to know this will be to my ultimate benefit and pleasure. If this sits with my line in the sand, if it sits with my morals, ignoring all the practicalities (or at least considering them after I know if I can consent to it or not) then I will know if I can give my informed consent for it to happen. There may be many things in all sorts of sexual interactions that make us ick, make us worried for someone else, make us weary or make us cross, but if those involved are using their own lines in the sand, that they’ve considered, that they’ve weighed up and that they’ve consented for, and they have the full capacity to give informed consent, then really, so what?
Something else I wanted to bring up was about how to handle the ‘no’. I think this is something else we need to get better at. If we can be direct enough to handle stop/safe words once a scene has started or stopping texting once we’ve been told they’re not interested anymore, can’t we be as mature if it comes before anything has started, too? If we ask for someone’s consent for something, aren’t we telling them we respect their opinion and autonomy to make decisions? So why then pout, be aggressive, talk behind their backs, etc, when they refuse? Is it that you didn’t care or respect them in the first place? Was your request for consent purely a social norm, like blessing someone who’s sneezed? If it wasn’t, and you really do care about them, despite any disappointment from your request denial, try to be positive about it. Try to at least be adult about it. The one I get most is from people who request to hug me. Firstly, got to give you consent points for asking, not everyone does, but then I have to snatch them back from you when I say ‘No’ and you say ‘Awww, but I wanna hug you’. Well cool, of course you do, that’s why you asked, but I don’t want you to, so either deal with it, or don’t ask next time and just go right ahead and violate my consent. This has happened to me with sex and BDSM play too. On one hand I get that a certain level of disappointment for something you’d wanted is to be expected, but if you’re going to try and guilt trip someone for a decision you’ve invited from them, were you really so noble and harmless as you first thought?