In â€œRadical Ethicism 101, Part 1: What is consensuality?â€, I described an â€œEthic of Consent,â€ the simple and hopefully uncontroversial idea that â€œit is not ethical to coerce people.â€ I then contrasted how â€œconsensualityâ€ is defined according to the prevalent (but broken) model of legalistic â€œcontractual consent,â€ compared with consent-as-felt-sense, as described in the essay I co-wrote, â€œYou Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense.â€ Finally, I explained why defining consent violations as â€œa thing people do to each other,â€ the assertion of even self-described â€œfeminist(s) who do consent workâ€ who agree that consent legalism is flawed, is itself unavoidably legalistic.
This post examines why even pro-consent die-hards who recognize legalistic consent as problematic are nonetheless (and cowardly) unwilling to take the implications of consent-as-felt to their inevitable, radical conclusions.
Will the real rapists please stand up?
Consent-as-felt rests on the undeniable reality that one person, say â€œBob,â€ cannot have an experience for another person, say â€œAndy.â€ Bob can have a second-hand experience of Andyâ€™s experience, at most. This means that Bob can have a felt-sense about his own consent, but Bob cannot have a felt-sense about Andyâ€™s consent. Only Andy can have that. In the jargon of Pop Social Justice consent activists, this is called â€œacknowledging othersâ€™ lived experiences.â€
Placing the power to define whether or not an experience was consensual with survivors is ostensibly what everyone claiming to support an anti-rape ethic says that they want. But those same people (*ahem*Ms Crosswords*Kitty Stryker*Cliff Pervocracy*), are spinning that power when taken by survivors as a bad thing, even while talking about how the consent-as-felt-sense model has an impact they say is exactly what they want. Holy cognitive dissonance, Batman!
In this response to our original â€œConsent as a Felt Senseâ€ essay by beyondthevalleyofthefemdoms, who also uses the name â€œMs. Crosswords,â€ you can clearly see that happening:
I think youâ€™ve outlined a lot of good reasons why consent as a felt sense is a good idea. However, I think that particular model has one major problem: If consent is a felt sense, then the onus of consent falls on the person whose consent has been violated. If someone feels that their consent has been violated, and consent is a felt sense, then it removes the fact that the person who violated consent purposefully did something wrong. In a sense, rapists are no longer responsible for rape in this model. People who feel raped are responsible for rape.
Another way to express the (pearl-clutching) conclusion that Ms. Crosswords just came to is, â€œIf this â€˜consentâ€™ thing is a felt sense, then the sole person with the power to define the consensualness of a single interaction that two individuals have when interacting with one another is the person whose consent has been violated.â€ Yet another way to say it is, â€œThe person unilaterally able to answer the hypothetical question, â€˜Was sex between Andy and Bob consensual?â€™ is the person whose consent was violated.â€
Whatâ€™s so galling about you and your contemporaries, Ms. Crosswords, is that you said this as though itâ€™s a problem. Like this puts victims of sexual violence in more danger (â€œnow the onus of consent is on themâ€), rather than giving them more power (â€œnow the power to define the situation is theirsâ€).
When Ms. Crosswordsâ€™ frames the situation outlined above as unacceptable, and one Andy should reject because it is harmful to Andy, what sheâ€™s missing (or purposefully omitting) is that the threat Andy faces in this situation is being victim-blamed. Of all the people for whom what Iâ€™m about to say should be so obvious it doesnâ€™t even need saying, itâ€™s people like Ms. Crosswords, a â€œfeminist who did consent work,â€ but apparently it needs saying again: the threat of being victim-blamed comes from a culture of blaming victims. It doesnâ€™t come from any given model of consent.
People who respond to what consent-as-felt implies with fear about how â€œeasy this would make it for rapists to get away with rapeâ€ showcase how deeply invested they are in making sure â€œrespecting consentâ€ means â€œadhering to rules other people agree with me about,â€ instead of not violating consent. They can be uncharitably but accurately described as â€œpeople who think fighting rape culture is about jailing (the set of people who they determine to be) â€˜rapistsâ€™ instead of preventing consent violations.â€
Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re incompetent in their workâ€”and complicit in the abuses they claim to resist.
If Bob holds to an ethical system remotely similar to the one people like Ms. Crosswords claim to hold (but do not actually enact), then Bob would feel very bad upon learning that Andy experienced the sex they had as nonconsensual because his driving ethical motivation is treating Andy non-coercively. What often happens instead, however, is that Bob cites something Andy did, as opposed to acknowledging how Andy feels (his felt-sense), in order to justify his own behavior and clear himself and his conscience of having caused Andy harm. In other words: Bob blames Andy for feeling wronged. In pop social justice jargon, thatâ€™s called â€œblaming the victim,â€ and itâ€™s exactly what Ms. Crosswords did when she bemoaned Andyâ€™s unilateral control over determining the consensualness of his own experience when interacting with Bob.
This inability to participate in determining the consensualness of another personâ€™s experience clearly troubles anyone who believes â€œconsent violation must be defined as a thing people do to each other,â€ such as Ms. Crosswords insists. What she and others correctly deduce, yet seem terrified of accepting, is that it means only Andy, not Bob, can determine whether Andy was raped by Bob.
Rephrased to emphasize the â€œterrifyingâ€ concept: If Andy is the only person Bob ever had sex with, then the only person who conclusively knows whether Bob â€œis a rapistâ€ is Andy. Similarly, if Bob has sex with both (and only) Andy and Charlie in his lifetime, then Bob can only consider himself â€œnot a rapistâ€ holding to his personal ethic with integrity if both Andy and Charlie each had experiences with Bob that they consented to.
Bob should care about Andy having a consensual experience, especially if heâ€™s staking his own identity as â€œnot a rapistâ€ on Andy having that consensual experience. If in fact he does care, then Bob must develop some processes for both emotionally and pragmatically navigating the fact that there is no objective way to conclusively determine Andyâ€™s consentingness without being Andy. On the other hand, if Bob doesnâ€™t care, or if Bob cares about something else more than he cares about not violating consent, then he can develop numerous psycho-emotional processes to deflect or deny his self-conception as a person who has raped Andy. For instance, he might point at a thing Andy did, instead of how Andy feels to justify his own behavior or absolve himself in his own mind of wrongdoing. And in fact, thatâ€™s exactly what most peopleâ€”especially people who define â€œconsent violationsâ€ as â€œa thing people do to each otherâ€â€”do and want to keep doing.
Therein lies the emotional difficulty (and, often, terror) in accepting one of the hard radical conclusions consent as a felt sense imply: people are no longer able to ethically define themselves as â€œnot rapists.â€ That is, you must acknowledge that the only people who are able to define whether you are a rapist are people other than you.
Even if Bobâ€™s intent was benign or benevolent rather than malicious (i.e., â€œBob didnâ€™t mean to rape Andyâ€), and even if, on top of that, Bob technically did not do anything that he did not have permission from his partner to do (e.g., â€œBob stopped when Andy safewordedâ€), Andy might come away feeling like his experience with Bob was nonconsensual. Bobâ€™s benevolent intent isnâ€™t magic; under consent-as-felt-sense, if Andy determines that he was raped, then he was raped. That fact doesnâ€™t mean Bob intended to rape him. But just because Bob â€œaccidentallyâ€ committed rape does not absolve Bob of the fact that he committed rape. This works exactly the same way as if Bob had stepped on Andyâ€™s toe, it doesnâ€™t mean Andy isnâ€™t in pain just because Bob didnâ€™t mean to hurt him. (Duh.)
Another reason so many people flip their shit when considering consent as a felt sense is because it inherently implies that the experience of consenting, like all other experiences involving your human senses, is gradated. In the same way as you can have â€œa lot of funâ€ or â€œa little bit of fun,â€ you can have experiences that are â€œvery consentingâ€ or â€œonly a little bit consenting.â€ This also means the inverse is true, too: you can have experiences that â€œare very non-consensual/coerciveâ€ as well as experiences that are â€œonly a little non-consensual/coercive.â€ The binary modality with which most people are familiar wherein â€œconsentingâ€ equals â€œtotally fineâ€ and â€œnon-consentingâ€ equals â€œend of the worldâ€ (what some pop social justice activists have taken to branding â€œConsent Cultureâ„¢â€) is literally insane, by which I mean it is a state of mind that actively prevents healthy interaction on intra-personal, inter-personal, and societal levels.
Sadly, unless Bob cares more about not violating consent than about not thinking of himself as a rapist, itâ€™s likely Bob wonâ€™t consider himself a rapist under any circumstances because doing so would challenge his self-image, which is what he actually prioritizes. Bob is still not going to consider himself a rapist under consent-as-permission, even if he goes to jail for it. (â€œThat bitch is crazy. She falsely accused me. Sheâ€™s just trying to get revenge. She changed her mind.â€) Just because some people wonâ€™t consider themselves rapists under consent-as-felt isnâ€™t a loss or problem with consent-as-felt as a model; those people donâ€™t consider themselves rapists under consent-as-permission, either.
What consent-as-felt does do is allow more peopleâ€”including victims and community membersâ€”to think of those people as rapists or abusers without having to “prove it” to the person who continues to delusionally insist they “never raped or abused anybody.”
Importance of applying the Ethic of Consent beyond sex
Consent should not be relegated to the isolation of the bedroom. Construing consent solely as the demarcation line past which rape happens nullifies the value of consent in the first place. If consent matters at all, it matters just as much in “trivial” circumstances as it does in “serious” ones.
Put another way, if you believe that â€œit is not ethical to coerce people,â€ then not only is the statement â€œit is not ethical to rape peopleâ€ a true statement, but statements such as â€œit is not ethical to jail people,â€ â€œit is not ethical to force children to go to school,â€ â€œit is not ethical to make your employees work on what you want,â€ and so on, are also all true. In other words, if you believe that â€œbeing a rapistâ€ makes you â€œnot an ethical person,â€ then you must also believe â€œbeing a jailer,â€ or â€œbeing a parent who makes their children go to school,â€ or â€œbeing a bossâ€ are equally unethical (and oppressive) identities to claim.
Consent should be understood as the inverse of coercion, generally. Consent is not a part of â€œsex that people haveâ€ but a continual self-assessment about an experience theyâ€™re having (or have had). When involved in some given situation, people are likely to say that you â€œcan be coerced,â€ or that you â€œcan consent.â€ Coercion in the realm of sex is called rape. Non-sexual coercion is not rape, but is still a consent violation. This is analogous to “a rectangle is not a square but a square is a rectangle.” (Side note: it’s depressing how often you “Feminists Who Do Consent Work” need kindergarten-level analogies to get this through your skulls.)
What my co-author and I are trying to make clear is not that being raped is just as â€œtrivialâ€ as being forced to go to school or getting put in jail. Rather, itâ€™s that according to any ethic under which coercion is deemed unethical, getting put in jail or being forced to go to school must be considered consent violations in the same fundamental way as rape.
And if that doesnâ€™t make you reconsider your ethical standing, you are the problem. Whatâ€™s wrong with you?
This is another hard radical conclusion of understanding consent as a felt sense: when not arbitrarily limited to the confines of sexual interaction, consent-as-felt-sense radically undermines the ethical legitimacy of our societyâ€™s core social institutions, because those institutions sustain themselves by knowingly coercing their participants (us), forcing us to do many life-altering things that we rarely consent to.
Denialism is willful ignorance, which is complicity in oppression culture
Why are people, including people like Ms. Crosswords or Cliff Pervocracy who base a huge part of their identity on understanding consent in extreme detail, reacting with such irrational and self-contradictory rejection of the conclusions in our â€œConsent as a Felt Senseâ€ essay?
We donâ€™t have to wonder. Ms. Crosswords told us why she canâ€™t accept it in her response:
Another problem [with consent-as-felt-sense] is the assertion that anybody is likely to violate someone elseâ€™s consent at some point. I think this is a lie of BDSM culture and of rape culture. As doms, weâ€™re told that violating the consent of partners who bottom/sub is normal and inevitable. This is an arm of rape culture. It allows us to minimize and shirk responsibility for the damage we do. When we say, â€œoh, this is just something that happens to everyone,â€ it minimizes the awfulness of what occurs. Thereâ€™s quite a bit of writing and research on how the idea that anyone could potentially be a rapist enables rapists to rape people. I know youâ€™ve read about predator theory, since I know youâ€™ve read Lisak. I think BDSM attracts an unusually high concentration of predators because of the way it is structured, but I still donâ€™t think just anybody has the capacity to rape another person.
Construing â€œconsentâ€ (and, by extension, â€œcoercionâ€) as narrowly as Ms. Crosswords does is not only obscenely dangerous, itâ€™s also an intentionally crafted and effective shield against a self-image of herself as â€œa person who commits unethical coercion.â€ Itâ€™s this egotistical self-defense at the root of the cognitive dissonance people like Ms. Crosswordsâ€™ display.
Do you drive, or ever ride in a car? How many people are you responsible for murdering as a result of your use of the gas that provided energy to move you from place to place?
Do you pay taxes? How many people are you responsible for incarcerating unjustly through your tacit support of the prison-industrial complex in the country in which you live?
Are you raising a child? Do you send them to school even when they donâ€™t want to go? Do you enforce a dress code? Have you ever grounded them?
Are you someoneâ€™s superior at work? Does that give you permission to control what actions they take at work? Have you ever wondered if youâ€™d lose your job if you got a tattoo or a piercing?
Shall I go on?
Narrow conceptions of what a â€œconsent violationâ€ can entail is a major contributing factor both to ignorance on the topic and an inability to recognize myriad abuses committed on a daily basis. This tunnel vision about consent coupled with the hyper-sexualization and hyper-objectification of bodies is the root of rape culture. And this fact is also addressed in our original â€œConsent as a Felt Senseâ€ essay, which Ms. Crosswords says she read, but obviously not very thoughtfully or sheâ€™d have noticed an entire paragraph about the school system being a massive institutionalized consent violation.
The fact that abuses are common does not make them not-abuse. The fact that many other people are committing acts of coercion on a daily basis does not make those acts not-coercive. The fact that people you admire are heavily invested in adamantly denying their own complicity in such abusive systems does not absolve you (or them) of said complicity.
Ms. Crosswords isnâ€™t even subtle about her assertions that only certain kinds of people are capable of committing consent violations, while other kinds of people are simply not capable of such a thing. She comes right out and says it: â€œI still donâ€™t think just anybody has the capacity to rape another person.â€ In other words, â€œsome people are not that kind of person.â€ This is textbook denialism, a clear and present example of a choice to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth.
The idea that only this set of people, and therefore not that other set of people, are capable of committing a consent violation (be it rape or any other form of coercion) also implies its inverse; that only this set of people, and therefore not that other set of people, are the ones experiencing consent violations (be it rape or any other form of coercion). Importantly, the denialism Ms. Crosswords laid bare is commonplace. And it tends to be a pattern; this isnâ€™t the first time Ms. Crosswords, specifically and very personally, shows no qualms about presuming she has the ability (and the right) to unilaterally define other peopleâ€™s experiences for them, as this old FetLife thread shows:
Maymay’s personal life, in this case, is very relevant. Because he actively attacks the consent work of other activists, like Kitty Stryker or Cliff Pervocracy. Because he has designated himself THE voice for survivors when he isn’t one himself. That shit matters. I am tired of white dude activists hijacking rights movements.
Remember, Cliff Pervocracy also doubled down on the same textbook denialism Ms. Crosswords clings to when Cliff declared they â€œhave never commitedâ€¦any kind of abuse.â€ (Clearly, Cliff believes they are â€œnot that kind of person.â€ Newsflash, Cliff: thatâ€™s what makes you â€œthat kind of person.â€)
In the FetLife thread, this response of someone going by the handle â€œDramaFreeDomlyDâ€ is particularly relevant:
@Crosswords said: “[Maymay] has designated himself THE voice for survivors when he isn’t one himself.”
WHOA. It’s my understanding that Maymay bottomed for years in the public scene, as a submissive young person, back when abuse and consent violations were rampant and very few people were talking about it. I think you, 23 [year old genderqueer] Dom, need to check the FUCK out of your privilege and educate yourself about the experiences of submissives in the BDSM scene (http://www.thefetishistas.com/index.php?menu=7&sub=47&display=662) before you go making sweeping assumptions about whether or not someone is a survivor.
Sorry for the off-topic comment, @MLunas. I don’t mean to derail your thread. I just couldn’t let that slide. It’s not cool to make the experiences of survivors invisible just because they’re politically inconvenient.
If Ms. Crosswords, like her role model Cliff Pervocracy, believes that she is not just totally inculpable for but not even capable of committing an act of abuse (such as rape) then that fact should be a flashing fucking warning light to everyone who sheâ€™s ever interacted with, to everyone who would ever consider interacting with her, and to everyone who she knows, that she is a fundamentally dangerous person to interact with.
The belief she holds that only some people are capable of violating consent while others are not is exactly what perpetuates the myth of stranger rape. Itâ€™s that belief, right there, at the core of â€œnot my Nigel.â€ Itâ€™s that very belief that people use to justify interrogating those whose consent has been violated about their blood alcohol level or the length of their hemlines. Itâ€™s that belief, the very ideas Ms. Feminist Who Does Consent Work Crosswords is espousing, that the serial predators in Lisak and Millerâ€™s predator theory study she reference rely on other people believing in order to continue abusive behavior.
People who believe what Ms. Crosswords says she believes are, by definition, extremely likely to blame you for feeling wronged by them if you should feel that way and then make those feelings known to them. They even tell you why: in their world, they are not capable of harmfully coercing you, so any coercion you experience (whether or not it was intentionally committed) is your doing, not theirs. In Ms. Crosswordsâ€™ own language, the â€œonusâ€ is on you, not on her.
What people like Ms. Crosswords continually focus on is how to punish Bob in the relatively rare case in which Bob knows Andy doesnâ€™t feel consenting, and chooses to continue anyway because he doesnâ€™t give a shit about Andyâ€™s consent at all. Yes, those Bobs exist, but it is legalistic consent (and the accompanying culture of victim blaming that people like Ms. Crosswords perpetuate), not consent as a felt sense, which shelters and enables them. But far more importantly, why is almost nobodyâ€”including almost no â€œfeminists who do consent workâ€â€”talking about what can be done right now to support the Andys?
Actually, I already know why. Itâ€™s because the people trying to set themselves up as the arbiters of moral authority about consent, people like Ms. Crosswords and Cliff Pervocracy, are more invested in maintaining a self-image of themselves as â€œnot-abusersâ€ than they are in not violating consent. Yâ€™know what? Their reputation-posturing is unethical, and itâ€™s harmful, and Iâ€™m over it. And you should be, too.