A few weeks ago, unquietpirate and I published our essay, “You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense.” In it, we propose a simple idea: “consenting” is an (internal) experience a person has—a personal self-assessment, something one feels (i.e., it is a “felt sense”)—not an agreement a person makes with another person. The essay explains how current discourses about “consent” treat consent as synonymous with “permission,” why that’s bad, and outlines some fundamental implications of this paradigm shift (such as the inadequacy of the legal system in addressing conflicts that arise from consent violations).

What the essay doesn’t explicitly spell out is the even more fundamental ethical principles on which such a model is based. Perhaps naïvely, my co-author and I simply assumed that people willing and able to engage with the idea we presented already understand and agree with the driving ethical motivations people like us deconstructing rape culture have.

Apparently, we were wrong.

Many people, even self-described “feminists who do consent work,” simply fault people for having their consent violated (like blaming victims of rape for getting raped) rather than acknowledging that people have the power to define their experiences as consensual or not, their abuser’s (or rapist’s) interpretation be damned. More depressingly, even “feminists who do consent work” victim-blame in this way. Arguably worst of all, “feminists who do consent work” and who blame victims this way often adamantly deny this is what they are doing.

Importantly, note that these two statements—“fault victims of rape for having their consent violated” and “acknowledging that victims of rape have the power to define their experiences of sex as consensual (or not)”—is literally the same statement with the reaction reversed. The logic is the same, the facts are the same, but the reaction is different. What gives?

This series of posts highlights considerations many people do not know that they do not know. That is, it clarifies the foundational ethical principles that are still (apparently!) illegible to many people, including anti-rape activists. As these posts deal with an issue of a particular ethic’s illegibility (rather than invisibility), the series is also unavoidably verbose, because “the way to make something more legible is [to] talk about it in great detail a lot[, w]hich is different from the way you make invisible things visible: By talking about them loudly.”

Let’s start with the following assumption: “it is not ethical to rape people.” Moreover, if you believe that rape is a form of coercion, specifically sexual coercion (and you should), then we can rephrase this statement as, “it is not ethical to coerce people.” This holds true because if the statement “it is not ethical to coerce people” is true, then this also implies that the statement “it is not ethical to rape people” is true, since rape is a kind of coercion.

The above principle is a simple articulation of what can be called an Ethic of Consent, and this is not a new idea.

Let’s add to this understanding the following assumption: “ethical people only want to behave in ways that are ethical.” In other words, if you believe the statement “it is not ethical to coerce people” is true, and you also believe you are an ethical person, then you would not want to coerce people. Conversely, you would only want other people to be “consenting to” experiences in which they interact with you.

Here’s the rub: as long as we understand “consent” as synonymous with “permission,” then the “consensualness” of any given interaction is defined as a quality of that interaction. That is, you’re determining the “consensuality” of the acts that occurred, or “the sex that was had,” as though “the sex” is something floating in space between two humans who have an interaction meeting some specific and ultimately arbitrary conditions “of what consensual sex is.”

What is “consent”? What constitutes a “consensual” interaction? How we answer these questions is important because those answers are at the root from which all discourses of consent branch. My co-author explains “non-consensual sex” versus “sex I did not consent to” like this:

A consent-as-permission model is using “consent” as criterion to assess sex. In a consent-as-permission model, sex is defined as “consensual” if all the people involved agreed that X would not happen and then X did not happened. It is “non-consensual” if people agreed that X would not happen, and then X happened. The focus is on whether or not the sex itself met the conditions of the contract.

The key point here is that this “contractual consent” paradigm is an attempt at attaching the quality of “consensualness” to the acts that occurred. But the deeply entrenched obsession with determining objectively whether or not a given act was consensual is an artifact of oppression culture. Instead, we want to base such an assessment on the lived experiences of the people having those experiences.

She uses the following analogy to help clarify the distinction:

Sometimes, people engage in an activity together and we ask if they “had a good time.” When I ask Bob and Andy, “Did y’all have a good time?” I’m not asking if the time they had was objectively good. I’m asking about how they each (and collectively) experienced their time together. If Bob had a good time, and Andy had a good time, then chances are they might say, “Yeah! We had a great time together!”

But maybe Bob had a great time and Andy had a terrible time. Maybe Andy had a bad time because of Bob, or maybe Bob knew Andy was having a bad time and didn’t care, or even wanted Andy to have a bad time. Or maybe Bob thought Andy was having a good time, maybe he even asked and Andy said he was having a good time, but he wasn’t. Maybe even Andy thought he was having a good time, at the time, and then later he looked back and thought, “Whoa, that actually wasn’t fun at all.” Or maybe Andy feels kinda mixed about the situation and isn’t really sure whether he enjoyed himself or not.

In all of these situations, what remains the same is that Bob’s (or anyone else’s) second-hand assessment of whether Andy had a good time doesn’t change whether Andy actually had a good time. So, it’s ridiculous for people who are not Andy to get into an argument about whether or not Andy had a good time. And it’s even more ridiculous to argue about whether “the time Bob and Andy had together was good” based on whether Bob’s or Andy’s experience of that time is more valid.

Likewise, when we talk about consent, asking “Did Bob and Andy have consensual sex?” is akin to asking “Did Bob and Andy have a good time?” What matters is not the objective goodness or badness, the consensual or non-consensual quality, of the “time” itself. What matters is what Bob and Andy each experienced with regard to their time together.

Another way to think about this is that when I say, “the time we had was consensual,” I am assuming that I have an ability (and the right) to define your experience of the interaction we had as “consensual”; this is coercive and, therefore, not ethical to do.

“Consensual” is not a quality that can be attached to some interaction itself, but rather to an individual’s experience of said interaction. “Consensual” can describe your experience of “our time together,” or “consensual” can describe my experience of “our time together,” but it cannot meaningfully describe our time. To see why this is so important, replace “sex” instead of “time” again: “Consensual” can describe your experience of our sex together, or “consensual” can describe my experience of our sex together, but it cannot describe our sex.

Even if two people make the same statement, such as “Andy and Bob said they had awesome consensual sex in the park,” what’s happening is that Andy is describing Andy’s experience and Bob is describing Bob’s experience. The fact that they may have touched each other while having their own experiences does not mean that the individual consenting experiences they each had are somehow transformed into a single conjoined twin that now exists somewhere in between the two of them. It would be more precise to say, “Andy and Bob each had consensual sex together.”

Under the currently prevalent paradigm of consent-as-permission, the only thing that has the possibility of being “consensual” is the interaction between us (“our time” or “our sex”) because consent is conceived of as an agreement between two people (what we term a “consent contract”), not as an inherent quality of the two distinct experiences we each had. In reality, regardless of any agreement you might make with another person, you still have your own experience of enacting or not enacting that which you agreed to or did not agree to. So do they.

Moreover, they can not know your experience without being you, and you cannot know their experience without being them. (Getting descriptions of one another’s experiences to better understand the other person’s experiences is called “communication.”) In other words, the only person who can actually know whether their consent was violated is the person whose consent was violated. For instance, if Andy and Bob had sex in the park but Andy defines his experience as nonconsensual or coerced (i.e., “rape”), his act of defining the experience of sex he had as rape cannot sensibly be argued against by anyone who is not in a position to know Andy’s experience, which is only Andy, which means Andy’s definition is indisputable. (Some people call this “believing the victim.”)

What this all means is that consent-as-permission is coercive by definition since, once “granted,” its epistemological structure ultimately defines consent as wholly external to one’s self in even its most progressive (“ongoing and enthusiastic”) variations. In contrast, consent-as-felt-sense defines consent as wholly internal to one’s self, period.

You can see the incoherence produced by thinking of consent as a permission-acquisition scheme in this post by Ms. Crosswords, a “feminist who did consent work,” when she says:

I think you’ve outlined a lot of good reasons why consent as a felt sense is a good idea. [However,] I think consent violation must be defined as a thing people do to each other. Perhaps there is a way to address this discrepancy in a way that isn’t legalistic, and doesn’t frame consent in a state of permission. I’m very interested in pressing that further.

Look, it’s not that complicated. Consent is violated when something happens to a person that they experience as nonconsensual. Ms. Crosswords’ insistence that “consent violation must be defined as a thing people do to each other” makes consent violation (and thus consent itself) an activity (“a thing people do to each other”), but she does not define the activities (“the things people do to each other”) for the simple reason that she cannot ethically define those activities. When you define a consent violation as an activity, you can not avoid defining activities that are implicitly not consent violations. And now you are back at legalistic consent: tell us, oh wise feminist who did consent work, what activities should “count” as a consent violation? What things that people do to each other are consent violations? What other things that people do to each other are not consent violations?

In the next post, I’ll break down why “feminists who do consent work” like Ms. Crosswords are so self-delusionally adamant about their need to define consent violations as “things people do to each other.” Hint: it’s about how they violate consent yet reserve labels like “abusers” for others.

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