The other day, the essay I co-wrote with unquietpirate, “You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense,” was linked on MetaFilter. In our essay, we argue that understanding consent as a form of “agreement” or contract is at the root of many patterns of violence, including but not limited to rape culture and the overwhelming, global epidemic of sexual assault. That is to say, rape is widespread and normalized because a fundamental component of the experience of rape, namely consent-violating behavior, is also widespread and normalized. Finally, we propose that understanding consent as “being okay with an experience one is having or has had” rather than legalistically as “permission to do a thing” might go a long way toward mitigating and ultimately healing from this widespread violence.
This should hardly be a controversial assertion. Who can claim to have never experienced unwanted coercive influence on our decision making process? Who can claim to have never said “yes” to anything under threat of violence? Only a fool or a deity could possibly claim such a thing, and even then the fool’s ignorance of his or her or their position on the business end of the guns does not change the fact of the gun’s presence.
Yet our essay is reliably controversial and reliably inspires the most vicious sentiments. This blog got a surge of threatening comments after MetaFilter linked to it, and the thread on MetaFilter itself quickly ballooned to nearly 100 comments, largely filled with hate-spew but also some remarkable gems of critical thought.
There is a pattern to the hate-spew. Aside from the ad-hominems (“maymay is a horrible person,” which may be true but doesn’t change the merits of the argument), the hate-spew follows three basic lines of thought.
Argument 1: Consent-as-Felt is not legally enforceable
The most common rebuttal to our essay is that, to paraphrase some of the more hateful comments politely, “Consent-as-Felt is a model of consent incompatible with the legal system.” I have no disagreements with this. Over on Facebook, Niphada Frost summed up the disconnect more succinctly than I ever have:
“Consent as a felt sense” is about accepting multiple and potentially infinite numbers of subjective experiences with respect to consent violations. But the legalists believe in one “objective” view that can be enforced by a higher power, and (purposefully?) misconstrue “consent as a felt sense” as yet another enforced objective POV, just one they don’t like. Obviously, people will take “consent as a felt sense” rhetoric and use it to hurt people. But the *idea* that the phrase is trying to point to is really important.
Over on MetaFilter itself, a commenter named kochbeck also summed it up very well:
I notice there were more than a couple comments where the reaction was, “That’s nice, but enforceability!” I can’t help but ask, enforceability where? Find me a legal jurisdiction where it’s happening anywhere in any way that provides peace of mind for its citizens and justice for the alleged perpetrators, and I’ll reconsider legalism as a good starting point. But till then, perhaps open-mindedness to a broader exploration ought not be out of the question.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t enforce (obviously, I’m incensed that we don’t). I’m saying that shutting down paths of exploration of the topic that don’t take enforceability into account pretty much guarantees that nothing is going to change. It doesn’t de-significate anyone’s trauma or experience or reduce the special position we’ve given to words like “rape” when, in frank discussion, someone suggests we consider exploring the side of the mountain we haven’t been climbing, if only in theory. If anything, it suggests that this person is interested in finding a solution that works.
The fact that consent as a felt sense is incompatible with our legal system is not being debated. It’s a premise of the essay. It’s something my co-author and I repeat numerous times in numerous ways throughout the original piece and again in numerous followup pieces. I do not know how we could have been more clear about this than we were.
The difference between what Niphada Frost, kochbeck, unquietpirate, myself, and others are saying in and about consent as a felt sense versus what the critics flailing “but enforceability!!!11!” are saying is not content, but intent. Construing consent primarily as a concern over jurisdiction and thus enforceability by some governing authority guarantees that nothing is going to change, which is exactly what rapists want.
Argument 2: “Personal responsibility,” “regret,” and Consent-as-Felt
Another common rebuttal to our essay is that consent as a felt sense is an “attack on personal responsibility” (in MRA jargon) or, its mirror image, a “removal of agency” (in feminist jargon). To wit, Jack says:
What a crock of BS. When are people going to start taking responsibility for themselves? This world has turned into nothing but a bunch of sniveling cowards. Grow up and start running your own life. To the author, get a job.
This person is probably just jealous because I don’t have a job. ;)
But he is also reciting the classic MRA line that it is the responsibility of anyone who is in danger of being raped to protect themselves from potential rapists. It’s a verbose version of callous remarks like ”don’t get raped.” By his logic, any person who failed to protect themselves from a rapist was “choosing to have sex” with that person and ought to “take responsibility” for their choice instead of “complaining about regretting it.”
Put simply, even if we were to cede the ridiculous point that rape survivors “should take personal responsibility and not put themselves in a situation to get raped,” this still means the people who raped them are rapists. A discussion of the survivor’s “personal responsibility” is a red herring in this situation and serves to distract from the real issue: the personal responsibility of the rapist.
And then there is Rico, who writes:
Tell you what. Keep fucking with the definition of consent and acting like rape is something you can accuse someone of just because you feel bad about being a slut later on down the line, and we’ll just stop asking for consent entirely.
If you keep changing the rules, we’ll stop playing by them.
This is an explicit rape threat. “If you keep refining the definition of consent such that it makes rape increasingly harder to get away with, we’ll retaliate by raping you.” So, Rico, what you’re saying is the reason you “don’t rape” is because there are rules against it that you can follow. If there weren’t rules against that, you’d be happy to rape someone. Noted.
These comments are just the more blatant examples of the sentiment behind rebuttals to Consent-as-Felt that use “regret” as a catch-all stand-in for the innumerable and unique personal circumstances that people are often in when interacting in intimate ways. Again, Niphada Frost summed it up well on Facebook:
The generic “I’ve had sex that I regretted but don’t consider it rape so this idea is devaluing my agency” commenter (links are pointless; there’s too many of them on Metafilter and Reddit and MaybeMaimed already) is missing the point entirely. Yes, YOU decided for yourself how to feel about your experiences. It’s not that you have the “right” to change your mind – all “rights” are *made up* and require force to back them. It’s that people *can* and *will* change their minds. Wasting time saying they *shouldn’t* hurts both rape victims and the falsely accused. And that’s exactly what “consent as a felt sense” is trying to articulate.
Here, too, the disconnect is the intent, not the content. What wanna-be rapists like Rico are saying is that any and all sex they’re a part of must be spoken of now and forever into the future as hot, sexy, sex. In other words, your regret is a false accusation.
Argument 3: Consent-as-Felt “trivializes” rape
It is certainly not “trivializing” rape to say that rapists are rapists any more than it trivializes photography to say that photographers are photographers. Nor does defining consent as “being okay with an experience one is having or has had” make the definition of consent meaningless any more than defining pictures as “visual representations of content” make the definition of pictures meaningless. What both these things do accomplish is radically widen the scope of what can be perceived. Endlessly debating the semantics of situations like these is pedantic at best, and cruel at worst.
Consent as a Felt Sense provides a framework in which survivors of any kind of violence—both sexual violence (rape) and other violence—can legitimize their experiences to themselves and their communities without regard to the demands of The Powers That Be. This is what feminists say we have been fighting for generations to attain. Why should we now balk at an articulation of that which was fought for because it is too much the thing we want? It’s like telling your gay classmate or colleague that they’re “acting too gay” and could they please tone it down or the straight folks will never let us get married.
I am most galled when this argument is made by self-described “feminists who do consent work.” For one thing, as has been pointed out before, the auditing and ranking of rape survivors—this person’s experience of the sex they had “counts” as rape because insert-external-third-party-arbiter’s-reasoning-here, whereas that person’s experience of the sex they had doesn’t count as rape—is what feminists themselves describe as “victim-blaming” when people who are not self-described feminists do it.
But for another thing, even if we were to draw a line in the rape-measuring-sands at some arbitrary point, the point at which these pearl-clutching feminists draw it is obsequiously unambitious. This comment by a man named (on Facebook) Wilbur Nooseworthy who chose to call himself “Jo” in his comment on my blog is a fine case-in-point:
By all means encourage [sadomasochistic] doms to do more than the minimum by being mindful during the act and providing aftercare. Point out that while meeting only the legal minimum isn’t a crime, it’s still being a dick. But taking this ideal and calling it ‘consent’ is a *disaster*. It mixes a zillion instances of dickishness into the rape bucket, diluting the meaning of rape.
There is already a process of education to broaden people’s definition of rape from the popular conception of violent attacks by strangers to the absence of consent. This process is still under way, and your redefinition takes a strawman used by opponents of this process and makes it real.
You gotta call it something else.
This is oily rhetoric, so let me rephrase less diplomatically: “Are you sure you were raped? Really raped? Like, raped raped? Rape is a strong word, you know. I don’t think you should say you were raped unless you were, y’know, RAPED. You gotta call it something else.”
Certainly it is a step in the right direction to see the President of the United States paying lip service to the idea that we should call rape what it is and that it is abhorrent and that this is a message worth bringing to the very same institutions that are so notorious for their institutional protection of rapists. But are pro-consent feminists really so starved for a piece of this shitty lemon that they would throw whole populations of survivors under the bus? Maybe they are, and they would not be the first group to slaughter others at the sacrificial altar for a chance to don a privilege once denied them, but I would hope they could at least acknowledge that this is historically a failing strategy for all but the most assimilationist goals.
As for the frequent, pointed accusation that we would take a mile when granted an inch, well, yes, duh. That is exactly what I would like to see more activists actually doing.
The who’s who of rape apologia
I observe that the first two rebuttals doubling down on legal enforceability and shifting the onus of responsibility for rape away from rapists and onto rape survivors are most often but not always made by men, especially men describing themselves as anti-feminist. The third argument decrying the “trivialization” of calling all rapists rapists is most often but not always made by people who describe themselves as feminist. This is of course not absolute. Many self-described feminists have made the first two arguments and MRAs of course also make the third.
To any invested reader, it should be curious that these two mutually antagonistic groups continue to loudly reject Consent as a Felt Sense on the grounds that it gives the other group too much power over them. I’ve already discussed what this fact likely means: neither group actually understands our essay at all. Or, if they do understand it, they are in abject denial about its implications: the legal system reliably makes a farce of justice, powerful and generally well-respected institutions are inherently abusive, and many more people they know personally—almost certainly including themselves—have at one point or another committed an act of coercion and, when those acts were sexual acts, committed rape.
Granted, most MRAs may not even be able to understand our essay, having had little to no meaningful education on consent in the first place (the poor “oppressed” darlings). On the other hand, most feminist critics are too invested in their Activist Careers to seek actually achieving their goals (thereby putting themselves out of a job).
This is of course unsurprising. In a society where we are all taught from the moment we are born that our bodies and our minds are indebted to others, most people still think that, on some level, rape is okay. What the reaction to Consent as a Felt Sense shows most of all is that folks from “both sides” of the issue want discussion about consent to stay firmly rooted in debating which rapes are “rape” and which are not. Very few are willing to imagine what the necessary work of cutting off the engine of rape culture from its fuel (coercion) would mean.
All three of these arguments anti- and pro-feminists are making against Consent as a Felt Sense assist in the perpetuation of an environment so universally coercive that the rapes we can recognize as such are but a mere fraction of the trauma experienced. Obviously, we should bring more societal resources to bear against the continued infliction of these traumas on our fellow beings, and I’m incensed that we aren’t. But it certainly doesn’t trivialize the situation to point out how much trauma, how many rapes, how many atrocities, how much coercion, is happening right now, today, that we are not even willing to name. Quite. The. Contrary.