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You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense « Maybe Maimed but Never Harmed

“We also consider how our relationship to consent changes when we acknowledge that whether a person actually feels violated is more important than whether they expected to feel violated.”

So relate to this.

It’s really rewarding to see references to Consent as a Felt Sense pop up all over the place at an increasing rate with supporting, empathetic comments like this one. :) That’s really wonderful and, again, I’m so glad to see the results of work unquietpirate​ & I did to heal from personal traumas become a focal point in discussions for others’ healing, too. That’s just…well, it’s fucking wonderful!

Of course, the fact that our work spread beyond the relatively small spaces of our personal influences also means that people who once loudly described themselves as against these very same ideas, who described my co-author and I and even these very same works as having “gone off the deep end,” suddenly decide it’s time to talk about what they think are the good things in our work, too. How generous of them.

This same spreading of our work also means my proverbial Internet radar lit up with a flurry I can barely keep track of. Sadly, Sturgeon’s law applies here: ninety percent of everything is crap. I’ve seen links from MRA forums (did you notice that the Red Pill weighed in?), feminist “social justice” advocates, and just about everyone else. Ninety percent of all responses, both the MRA and the feminist ones, are crap.

I addressed a lot of the repetitive crap in my essay, “3 Reasons Why Rape Fans on Both Sides of the Fence Hate ‘Consent as a Felt Sense’,” and I’d encourage you to have (another) read through it if you’re tempted to fly to the comments section to tell me how wrong I am. But one of the newer patterns many crap responses to Consent as a Felt Sense are taking, especially from people also threatened by our evolving work breaking the abusive/consensual and Dominant/submissive binaries in conversations among the emerging rolequeer community, seems worth addressing now, too.

That argument, rephrased diplomatically goes like this: “Consent as a Felt Sense normalizes the idea that everyone is a rapist and thus further convinces rapists that ‘everyone’s doing it.'” Conveniently for us, this line of thought almost always comes with “proof” in the form of a direct quote from our essay itself:

Realistically, anybody who is having any kind of sex in the context of rape culture is likely to violate someone’s consent at some point. The most ethical response to this fact, obviously, is to not have sex—and, in fact, if enough people decided to opt out of rape culture by opting completely out of erotic intimacy, that would ultimately bring rape culture crashing down. But a “sexual hunger strike to bring about the end of rape culture” is an unrealistically high ethical bar to set for most real people who are trying to survive in a world where intimacy is a human necessity.

Instead, we need to take it as a given that if you choose to have sex in the context of rape culture, especially if you choose to have sex with people who have less power than you, and especially if you choose to have kinds of sex that explicitly play with that power differential, at some point you are probably going to violate someone’s consent—if you haven’t already. We need a process for dealing with that other than abject denial. We need to develop ways of regularly acknowledging, taking accountability for, and participating in healing work around the damage our coercive behavior causes.

When this quote is responded to at all, it almost always takes the form of “but it’s not hard for ME to tell when someone’s not consenting!” or “but most people aren’t rapists and don’t want to be rapists and even when they do rape someone it’s just that one time!” or the most ignorant and maybe deliberate reinterpretations of all, “maymay and unquietpirate are seriously suggesting that rape is normal and that this is totally okay and that makes Consent as a Felt Sense useful for rapists and dangerous for everyone else.”

There are a number of things wrong with these interpretations, not least of which is that they once again re-center the conversation on rapists and relegates survivors to the metaphorical back burners of our concern. That’s the opposite of shifting discourses on consent away from legalism. But there’s a simpler problem: they’re just wrong.

They’re wrong in the same way repeating the oft-cited “fact” that “Andrea Dworkin thinks all penetrative sex is rape” is wrong. It’s wrong first and foremost because that’s not actually what Dworkin said, just as we never argued “rape is normal and totally okay” or any derivative of it. That misunderstanding of Dworkin’s quote is also wrong because it’s not actually addressing the context in which her quote was made, just as responding to this part of our essay by once again refocusing on rape perpetrators instead of rape survivors is not addressing the context of ours.

In case the Dworkin misunderstanding is news to you, consider Dworkin in her own words:

My point was that as long as the law allows statutory exemption for a husband from rape charges, no married woman has legal protection from rape. I also argued, based on a reading of our laws, that marriage mandated intercourse — it was compulsory, part of the marriage contract. Under the circumstances, I said, it was impossible to view sexual intercourse in marriage as the free act of a free woman.

So, to paraphrase, Dworkin says “in a relationship where having sexual intercourse is required for that relationship to be recognized as legal and also does not provide legal protection from rape, that sex act can not be legally distinguished from rape,” and somehow this turns into “all sex is rape.” Who would play such a nasty game of telephone with Dworkin’s meaning? Oh, I’m sure you can come up with a few likely suspects.

In our own works, “breaking the abusive/consensual binary” is shorthand for “recognizing that the reality (of rape culture, heterosexism, capitalism, and more such contexts) means that there are numerous overlapping and interlocking pressures of different kinds which place both direct and indirect coercive force on people who are likely to do things including have sex.” In such a reality—which only the truly deluded are denying exists—it is risky at best and predatory at worst to un-self-critically engage in what you know is both highly personal and often fraught activities. Nowhere do unquietpirate & I challenge the idea that most rapes are perpetrated by people who do not care that they are raping someone, the idea colloquially known as “Predator Theory.” In fact, if you have even a shred of perspective on our work, you will recognize what is arguably our most famous collaborative project as having been based on that exact theory: Predator Alert Tool. We even reference the academic studies explicitly. Hell, the tool is named after it.

Somehow, our statements went from “we need to take it as a given that if you choose to have sex in the context of rape culture, especially if you choose to have sex with people who have less power than you, and especially if you choose to have kinds of sex that explicitly play with that power differential, at some point you are probably going to violate someone’s consent—if you haven’t already,” to “they’re saying rape is normal and it’s totally okay.” Who would play such a misleading game of telephone with our essay? I’ll give you a hint: the answer is in the paragraph right before and the paragraph right after the ones being excerpted. They read as follows:

Both mainstream and numerous feminist discourses tend to treat violation through sexual violence as something committed by “abusers” (i.e., “them,” not “us”). Most often, people treat having raped or having been raped as a defining facet of who someone is, as a person; they don’t treat rape like something people do, they treat rape like it’s something people are. We don’t think that’s helpful.

[…the oft-re-interpreted excerpted portion here…]

When rape is framed as a piece of one’s identity rather than as an act one committed, the possibility that one could “be a rapist” is simply unconscionable for most people to stomach. Their terror at this prospect spurs them to justify or excuse their behavior. We’re going to have to come to grips with what it means to violate others in a way our justifiable fear of “being rapists” has so far prevented us from doing.

And thus, the rub: if you’re serious about engaging in sex (and most people are) but unwilling to ponder the possibility that you could maybe, just maybe, have a sexual experience that might leave someone feeling violated, then you’re not really serious about doing that thing ethically. This doesn’t mean “everyone is a rapist” and it certainly doesn’t imply “rape is no biggie.” It does mean that if you’re unwilling to consider that you might rape or have raped someone at some past or future point, and you’re still going to have sex, you’re probably not going about having sexual experiences in the most compassionate, conscientious, or even consensual way. If that mere possibility isn’t one you’re willing to entertain, then given the overlapping, interlocking, and undeniable influences of heterosexism, capitalism, rape culture, and so on, you’re more likely, not less, to violate someone’s consent in a sexual way.

That’s on you.

Once again, in case this still needs clarifying: genuinely questioning yourself about whether you are raping someone is a required component of not being a rapist. But being a rapist is something you can be, and I argue it is something you are more likely to be, if this question just doesn’t come up, regardless of why. To borrow a Jeff Foxworthy meme: In the context of rape culture, you might be a rapist if it never occurs to you that rape is something you’re capable of.

This logic isn’t even controversial, much less all that complicated. In other arenas, it sounds like: “You might be a hypocrite if you say you support worker’s rights but never question whether you should really get that iPhone made by Chinese workers whose conditions are so terrible they literally commit suicide.” Put yet another way: if you truly believe that there is such a thing as uncomplicated and wholly ethical consumption under late capitalism, I think you should consider questioning your ethical model.

Now, whether or not you are a hypocrite isn’t something I’m terribly interested in right now. I’m not interested in it in much the same way that I’m not currently that concerned with whether you do or do not consider yourself a rapist. For the foreseeable future—a period lengthened by each addition to the 90% of crap responses, I’ll remind you—I’m far more concerned about asking the more important corollary: what does a given rape survivor need to heal?

The answer to that question may vary greatly depending on the individual and the circumstance, but I’m confident there are some things we don’t need. We don’t need continual audits and pedantic debates over what is or is not (“real”) rape. We don’t need new categorizing schemes redefining (“legitimate”) rape distinct from other forms of non-consensual sexual acts. We don’t need oversimplified stories about ourselves as heroes incapable of violating consent. And we certainly don’t need self-proclaimed “feminists who do consent work” or their ilk doing any of those things, thank you very fucking much.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what 90% of the responses to Consent as a Felt Sense are, especially from feminist circles. These tired and stupid refrains of “we should have a category for ‘sex experienced as a violation’ that’s separate from rape,” repeated ad nauseum that always conspicuously omit suggestions for what those distinctions might be don’t sound like genuine attempts at survivor advocacy to me. What they sound like is political melodrama, fanciful stories casting heroes as heroes and villains as villains, adorned in colors that won’t blend, music you can’t mistake, placed on separate pedestals across a chasm so wide you always know who’s the Good Guy and who’s the Bad Guy.

In other words, they sound exactly like the kind of story people who claim they could not possibly be rapists—not ever, not them—really, really want you to believe.

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