Blogging “Yes” Day 14: Envisioning a World of Enthusiastic Consent

19 04 2010

This is day fourteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and today I decided to read two essays back-to-back because they have a common theme.  One was “Reclaiming Touch: Rape Culture, Explicit Verbal Consent, and Body Sovereignty,” by trans feminist activist Hazel/Cedar Troost.  The other was “An Immodest Proposal” by Heather Corinna, the founder of Scarleteen.com.  I picked these two essays to blog together because they both carry the idea of enthusiastic consent out to a not-yet-commonly-realized conclusion and consider what a world with normalized enthusiastic consent might look like.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 3: Why Checklists Are Sexy

7 04 2010

For the third day of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Beyond Yes or No: Consent As Sexual Process.”  I can’t agree more with the main idea of this essay: that consent shouldn’t just be the absence of “no,” or even a simple “yes,” but a conversation between sexual partners about desires, fear, likes, dislikes, and all the rest.  However, I did have some discomfort in parts of the essay as someone who doesn’t find it easy to ask for what she wants.

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Thoughts on communicative sexuality

15 07 2009

Note:  the below is crossposted from my book journal.  No Tati Tuesdays this week b/c I didn’t actually have much to report, though I do recommend Jon Stewart’s interview with Barney Frank on Monday.

I’m reading an anthology on date rape, edited by Leslie Francis, and I was particularly struck by the first two articles.  The first, by Lois Pineau, proposes a new communicative model of sexuality to replace the contract model frequently used in understanding sexual relations in rape cases.  According to the contract model, the idea is that if the victim consented, then a contract was established and the perpetrator did nothing wrong.  Pineau argues that this allows perpetrators (males) to get away with a lot because the evidentiary standard for showing consent is relatively low.  The alternative she suggests is a communicative model, where sexuality is thought of not as a contractual relationship but as something akin to friendship or conversation.  Under this model, the presumption would be nonconsent in the case of any noncommunicative, aggressive sexual interaction.  The defendant would then have to offer a reasonable explanation for his belief that the victim was consenting, despite the lack of communication between the two.  I like this idea, because it encourages communication and makes it more difficult to argue “I thought she was consenting.”  I also think, based on some psychological pieces I’ve read, that many men would be less likely to rape if the situation was not “blurry,” as I’ve read quite a few accounts of men who seem to honestly believe that their behavior was okay, based on certain actions or words of the victim.  In an open, honest, complete dialogue, they would have more trouble convincing themselves that it was okay to force sexual contact on the victim.

The second piece in the anthology, then, is David M. Adams’ critique of Pineau’s piece.  He has two main objections.  One is that verbal communication is not always necessary – that men might reasonably rely on other indicators such as body language and that given the difference in how the genders communicate we should not dismiss these indicia – and the other is that verbal communication is not always sufficient – in other words, a woman might say one thing and truly feel another.  I think that both these two objections could be met by a look at BDSM sexuality.

In arguing that verbal communication is not always necessarily, Adams points out that erotic communication is often complex and that a “checklist” would take away from the sexiness of it; that the most unambiguous form of expressing desires, literally writing them down and checking them off, takes all the romance out of the equation.  In fact, this isn’t true at all.  Many BDSM couples in fact use a checklist – before the fact.  This establishes some reasonable assumptions, because partners are aware of likes and dislikes in advance.  Further, the partners are not bound by these preferences – they are free to use a clear verbal communication, in the form of a safeword, to say no.  This kind of verbal system makes it very clear when non-consent is established.  The “she said no but I thought she meant yes” strategy doesn’t fly, because there is one word that means “I no longer consent, and this is not up for debate.”  Though it’s unlikely that all couples would establish a safeword, I do think a similar model of communication both before and during erotic encounters can make the experience both sexy and mutual.  I’m also bothered by Adams example of a man establishing consent based on a look in the woman’s eye versus the example of a woman deciding not to physically resist based on a look in a man’s eye that provokes fear.  He uses this example to argue that feminists can’t have it both ways – if option B is allowed, then so too option A.  I think this is absolutely ridiculous.  There’s a big difference between establishing consent based on a look in someone’s eye, and making the decision not to affirmatively ask, and feeling instinctive, gut, fear based on a look.  Any look at the way women are raised in this society, and the fears men instil in us from a young age, would prove this point.

Finally, I also think the BDSM model is instructive on Adams’ other argument, that someone can say one thing and mean another.  In any communicative system of sexuality, part of the deal is an implicit agreement to be open and honest in communication.  This may mean that things move slower, and one or both parties may have some issues to get past in developing trust and an ability to be open.  But I think such a model entails responsibilities for both partners – first, to ask questions and affirmatively establish the partner’s desire, which includes paying attention to any red flags that come up, such as discomfort in the conversation itself; second, to be open and honest about one’s own desires, and to refuse to go forward with a sexual encounter if one is unable to do so.  Of course, without such a system, the fact is that there will be cases where a person says “yes” in an affirmative, enthusiastic way, not really wanting a sexual encounter.  In such a case, it’s hard to blame the other party – and I think the communicative model accounts for this, in that when genuine communication and affirmative assent is established, there is no rape.  But I think what it means for the big picture is that as sexual partners we need to pay close attention to how our partners communicate consent, and be on the lookout for signs that it is not enthusiastic.  At the same time, as a culture, we need to work on making it easier for women, especially, to say “no,” and not make genuine feelings about sex something that women need to be embarrassed about or feel a need to keep secret.





When consent fails

20 07 2008

As you know if you read this blog, I’ve been doing research on sadomasochism and consent, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the law is bordering on pathology in its obsession with protecting masculine subjectivity, while using the other hand to perpetuate feminine objectivity just as much as it damned well pleases.  

Case in point: I read a law review article arguing that Laskey, the European Court of Human Rights case where prosecution of several homosexual men who were practising consensual sadomasochistic sex was upheld on the basis of public morality, was all about protecting the masculinity of the male “victim” by not even allowing him to consent.  This makes a lot of sense to me.  Ideally, what we want is a system of informed consent, where yes means yes and no means no.  What we get is, on the one hand, the legal system refusing to let men say yes to erotic pain in order to “protect” them, and on the flip side, refusing to acknowledge women who say no to date rape because they “accepted a risk” – ignoring the fact that true informed consent means they accepted the risk of what actually happened, not just the risk that consensual sex might occur.  Consent, essentially, doesn’t mean anything in the legal system – it’s just another tool of sexism.  Grand.