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The basic concept is simple, but has complex ramifications: consent means that both parties want something to happen.
It is THE basic ethical rule for sex. For sex? Really? Actually, this is the basic ethical rule for EVERYTHING! If I want your jacket, and you don’t want to give it to me, taking it is theft. Consent is the basic rule for living together! It is a basic rule of respect for each other.
Coercion in sex has a different impact as from coercion in other matters, though – such as, washing dishes or writing an article or spending time with your in-laws. Because sex is both physical and the doorway to intimacy. So an unwanted intrusion in one's sexuality affects your most intimate being. You probably have been coerced into doing something you did not want, it has not resulted in such vivid trauma as rape victims experience. Plus, sex organs are very sensitive. A brutal intrusion into a vagina will feel like rubbing a penis with a scraping sponge!
In sex, coercion or breach of consent will result in extreme trauma.
In sex, as in most interactions (but even more so), “true consent” should be:
- Informed (you know what you consent to beforehand: there is no lie or misunderstanding),
- Unbound (no-one is forcing you one way or another, neither duress nor obligation: you have full choice)
- Enthusiastic (you really want it)
- Ongoing and Reversible (if you don’t like it anymore, you may stop, if you want adjustments, you may ask).
Of course, “informed” means consent is prior, explicit enough, and specific enough for a genuine answer. If I already did something and ask later, it is too late.
Also, in most cases, the agreement has to be ongoing. I may be OK to go on a hike with you, but when I see how high the trail is, or how fast you walk, or if I get injured, it may no longer be good for me, even if I was enthusiastic to begin with. Or if I agree to eat with you, I may not eat every dish you propose, nor as much as you expected. Seems obvious, right?
Especially, "having sex" can mean many things, and feel very different according to the way one is performing each action. Just varying the speed or force of any kind of touch may mean the difference between pleasure and pain! (It is already the case for a hand on a face, much more with your soft tissues). So, yes, prior consent needs to be followed by a constant feedback loop – and respect. Of course, it is better if we talk in advance about our preferences, the things we want to do – but it is impossible for me to describe exactly what will happen and how; so consent will have to be ongoing.
In sex-positive circles, the rule is that consent has to be explicit and verbal all along the way. Which means, as long as the other person has not given a clearly unambiguous sign that they want something, you are not allowed to do it. This is necessary because different people have different habits, and some things that “go without saying” in my relationships may be unacceptable in yours.
The best consent is when you wait for the other person to ask for what they would like – and even, ask them “is this what YOU would like?” You can test this as a "rule" for a few hours, in your personal interactions (not only sexual). Often times we do things because we think it will please the other person, and sometimes, we may be wrong. Testing this may be one of the “soft” ways to realize the actual desires of your partner. It may also be an excellent way to try new things, add new colours to your palette.
I personally would add another rule / indicator to consent: pleasure. If what we are doing is not pleasant for you, if you are not enjoying it, it usually means there is a flaw in your consent, and at any rate there is a flaw in what we are doing. Some people cringe at the word "consent" altogether, because in its original meanings it is "passive" (which is problematic in sex), and it does not intrinsically imply enthusiasm, which would be better covered by the word "desire". However, it is the commonly accepted word, so here we go.
The baseline is: my frustration is preferable to your trauma.
The basic gauge of sexual consent:
- If everyone is really enjoying what they are doing, everything is OK. It should be the case most times, at least if your relationship is healthy... (and of course, you can enhance that enjoyment by improving your skills, which is why you are here)
- If one of the people involved is coerced (is doing something they don’t want), it is rape, which is obviously not OK.
- If one or more person feels that they “have to” do something that they don’t really want to do, it is “obligation”; it is not OK. It is often a form of indirect violence (e.g. blackmail, power dynamics); but obligation may come from social conditioning, or internalized fears (if I do not behave in such and such ways, they will judge me, and I will lose their love)
- If one person is not enjoying it (even though they do not seem to be coerced), there is usually some sort of problem – either a form of concealed coercion or obligation (see above), or disconnection. Disconnection may come from an unseen problem of consent, or just different tastes and likings between the people involved, or an internal problem (a momentary difficulty to enjoy the moment; or a deeper trauma arising). At any rate, I would advise stopping everything, addressing the issue, and finding a way to return to a mutually pleasant interaction.
As you can see, there are cases of “need investigation” – because even though the rule is simple, some situations are not that obvious.
And it bears noting that not saying “no” does not mean “consenting”, or even accepting. If one feels in danger, one may not even feel able to do anything (freezing), or they may try to appease their counterpart in the hope that it will not hurt as much (fawning)...
Which is why the best rule of consent is “enthusiastic”. If they express enthusiasm and pleasure, it is a good sign.
When is there a breach of consent... or a risk?
There are degrees in a problem of consent. Some situations are clear-cut “breach of consent” and, in the case of sex, are obvious rape:
- Direct violence (I am overpowering you, or I am threatening you, or you said no, I did it anyway...)
- Blackmail (if you don’t do this, I will do something that you do not want, such as killing your puppy, or ending your job, or revealing sensitive information...)
- Threats from another individual (if you don’t do this with my friend, I will hurt you... same as blackmail, but the one who "benefits" may or may not know you are coerced)
- Surprise (you did not know what I was going to do; or I did it very differently from what you had anticipated... which in sex can be a huge problem)
Some situations may not seem as clear-cut, but pose big ethical issues. Those include obligation and defects in consent:
- Emotional blackmail (if you don’t do this, I will not love you as much...)
- Direct power (I am your boss, or I control your access to something you need – money, a career, papers, a ride home...)
- Clouded judgement (you are too drunk to make an informed decision...)
And there are cases which are not necessarily intrinsically problematic but very risky:
- Indirect power asymmetries – difference in ages, in wealth, in social status... (Examples: adult with teenager, millionaire with middle-class, teacher with student, rock star with an admirer, policeman with citizen, politician with a middle-class citizen...)
- There is also the matter of misunderstandings (we had agreed to do something, I thought it meant this, you thought it meant that...)
In some cases of power asymmetries, everyone will indeed be enjoying themselves. For instance, many people would love to spend a night with a rock star they admire... However, even if everyone is happy in the beginning, one has to be very aware of the situation – because the power dynamic induces three risks.
- The risk of non sincerity: my admiration (or my will to impress, or my feeling of self-doubt) may lead me to accept things that are not comfortable to me, or conceal my misgivings.
- Risk of abuse: more often than not, a power asymmetry will lead to situations akin to blackmail: the person with more power may use their influence to force the other, be it explicit or implied, and both know they can get away with most forms of abuse once initial consent was given.
- In any case, power asymmetries are prone to lead to misunderstandings. It is no wonder that most powerful people marry inside their social circle: it ascertains the sincerity of their partner’s feelings.
Therefore, in any of those “asymmetrical areas”, it is very important for both to be aware of the power dynamic, and ascertain that both are actually enjoying themselves all along, and keeping their free will. If there is any sort of doubt, there is a problem. And that problem may very well be a case of rape (called “status rape”).
In the case of prostitution (and porn) the employer employee (or client/provider) relationship is de facto
a direct power relationship. Even if you don’t take into account the possibility that the “employee” is being coerced (in which case the client is de facto involved in rape, case 3), the power asymmetry and state of “obligation” is overwhelming. Not to mention that, if I have to pay, it means they wouldn’t do it otherwise - so it is not enthusiastic. The whole thing seems to me intrinsically incompatible with genuine consent.
Let's be selfish for a minute: does this rule of consent benefit you and me?
My experience has shown that reciprocity is key to deeper pleasure – which means enthusiastic, unbound, and free desire from both. See also this article about pleasure and responsibility.
Plus, the more your partner enjoys what they do with you, the more they will be willing to do it again. Esther Perel states that "women do not get bored of sex, they get bored of boring sex" - and there is nothing more boring than what you do when you do not want to.
On another note, non reciprocal sex can lead the "benefiting party" to feeling very frustrated, and eventually feel like an addiction: the more we do it, the less we feel satisfaction... I have spent some time trying to understand the dynamic behind our desires and how enacting them can feel nourishing or not: it is the object of this article on frustration, desire, addiction and the satisfaction of our deeper needs.
On another note, sex is an intimate connexion with a partner... and with oneself! I have too much respect for my penis to entrust it to someone who does not care about it!
So, yes, respect for consent is paramount to a satisfying sex life.
Consent outside of sex.
Consent is everywhere.
Even outside of sex, I would advise making sure everyone is comfortable with the interactions you have with them. Especially with children. Sometimes, I may have a playful game with someone, but, without my noticing, something is not comfortable for them. Checking from time to time, and allowing them to reframe the interaction, is paramount to a quality of relation. This is particularly true in the matter of body space - feeling invaded or feeling allowed to take the space one needs may radically impact the feeling of trust, and we all have different boundaries.
Consent is the basic rule of morality and life in society.... However, “in real life”, there are many “grey areas”, social conventions, unspoken things that seem to “go without saying”. Social conventions are just that: shortcuts. You cannot go all day long asking for consent from everyone about everything. It would take too much time, make things too complicated. You cannot ask everyone, every time, before you do anything! Or... can you? It can be an interesting exercise to try this once in a while, for a few dozen minutes.
In fact, some social conventions may make some people uncomfortable all along their daily life, just because some actions and gestures are supposed to be “normal” and expected... and as a matter of fact, it is one of the major cornerstones of social progress: things we do because they have always been done, and actually hurt people without us noticing (by us, I mean those who do not have to endure them). Most social progresses are just that, stopping doing things because they hurt someone else – e.g. racist jokes, street harassment, domestic violence, derogatory speech... Or even (in a distant past), resorting to a codified system of laws instead of the tyranny of the strongest brute over the rest of the tribe!
Have you seen how people who have worked in a specific field, such as retail, catering, etc. behave differently towards that field afterwards? This is the power of empathy - and this is very close to consent.
At any rate, in your daily life, trying to put more awareness in consent (unbound and enthusiastic), in respecting the other person’s wishes, or their comfort, may be a big step in building better relationships – and a deeper sense of inner worth. Looking for clues in their eyes, in their body language, checking, and if you are unsure, asking. Actually, even if you are sure, asking can really surprise you. Sometimes, we accept things because we assume we are supposed to accept them, and we may begrudgingly comply to a request that does not really matter to the other person. Even worse, sometimes we make efforts to propose something, and the other person forces themselves to accept it (example: I shave and wash and groom before meeting a woman, which is an effort I make for her – but I may discover that one of my dates may like my natural odour, and/or find my stub sexy).
I noticed that since I have been building awareness for consent in sexuality, I am less and less taking things for granted; and that has made me a better person in the rest of my life. In turn, you may notice that building your awareness of the others' consent - and respecting it - will enhance your charisma, and therefore, your social life.