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October 29th, 2014

Some thoughts on consent

With the state of California passing a new law defining an Affirmative Consent standard for public colleges and universities (and the wonderful commentary about it on the Yes Means Yes blog), the recent firing of radio personality Jian Ghomeshi over his sex life (which he claims is targeting him for participation in BDSM, though several women are alleging that he abused them non-consensually under the guise of BDSM), everyone all over the Internet is talking about consent these days.

And as seems to happen when everyone all over the Internet talks about something, a lot of folks are getting it wrong.

I'd like to think consent is something we all understand. And, in most situations, we do. A lot of folks are flapping their mouth-parts about how we can never really truly get consent for sexual activities because men and women are just so different and don't understand each other, but seriously, that's a load of bullshit. Bullshit with extra spicy smell-o-riffic chunks.

If you take sex out of the equation, we all understand consent pretty well. If you invite someone out to dinner and he says "well, you know, I'd love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day," we know he's said "no," even though he hasn't used the word "no." If we ask someone whether we can use her bike or not and she says "listen, I really don't know that I feel comfortable with that arrangement," we know she hasn't consented. And if she says "The combination on the bike lock is 5678, I need it back before class on Tuesday," we know that she has, even though she didn't say the word "yes."

We get this. It's part of the most basic, rudimentary socialization.

But for some reason, when it comes to sex, otherwise grown, mature adults start thrashing around, as if they lack the social graces of a reasonably well-socialized 6-year-old.

Some of this might be down to living in a culture that just plain doesn't teach us about what consent is. I wish I would have understood this stuff better myself, back when I was still sorting out all this interpersonal-relationship stuff.

But a big part of the reason, I suspect, lies in the way we think about sexual consent. We get what consent is outside the world of sex, but when it comes to sex, we act like the purpose of consent is to follow a checklist of procedures designed to let us do what we want without getting in trouble. Otherwise intelligent, reasonable adults, for example, have asked if California's new law means students on California campuses will need to get written permission to shag. (The short answer is 'no,' but folks who so profoundly don't understand what consent is that the question seems reasonable to them, might want to think about doing just that.) Someone on my Twitter timeline asked 'what if two people have sex but neither one of them gave affirmative consent--who's at fault there?' (The answer is if neither of them gave affirmative consent, then no sex act took place. For a sex act to take place, someone had to initiate the contact of the slippery bits, and that initiation is an act of consent.1) People--again, otherwise intelligent people who appear at least savvy enough to work a computer--have said things like 'if nobody said no, that's consent, right?' (No. We're conditioned strongly not to say 'no,' as in the "well, you know, I'd love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day" example above.)

Consent is not a checklist you go through in order to be cleared to do what you want, the way a fighter pilot goes through his checklist before being catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier ("Afterburners, check! Flaps, check! Condom, check! Let's fuck!"). The purpose of consent isn't to tell you what you can get away with; the purpose of consent is to make sure you and your partners are both on the same page and both enjoying what's going on.

Consent isn't something you get once, at the start of the proceedings. It's ongoing. This is important, because it means the idea of getting written consent up-front to hanky-panky is entirely missing the point. Consent exists in the moment, and it can always be revoked as soon as someone no longer likes what's happening. Even if I sign a form in triplicate, duly notarized, saying I want to shag you, if we get down to business and I change my mind, I have the right to say 'stop.'

It's not hard to get consent, really it isn't. It simply means paying attention to your partner, checking in. It doesn't have to 'spoil the mood' or 'interrupt the flow' or any of those other things the masses of people who don't understand consent are apt to complain about. Consent doesn't even have to be verbal. If you go in to kiss someone and she leans back, that's not consent. If she meets you halfway, it is. We know this. Most of us are really good, in non-sexual contexts, of figuring out the difference between a 'yes' and a 'no' even without hearing those specific words. We just forget, when it comes to sex.

Seriously, this shouldn't be that hard. The key elements of consent are:


  • Is the other person into what you want to do? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don't know, ask. Don't focus on what you want the answer to be; focus on what the answer is.

  • Is the other person still into it while you're doing it? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don't know, ask.

  • Is the other person having fun? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don't know, ask.


There's a point in here: consent isn't something you get so you can have fun, consent is about making sure everyone is having fun. If you don't care whether your partner is having fun, well, then, perhaps one explanation is you're a terrible person and you oughtn't be interacting with anyone in any capacity until you learn that other people are actually real. Oh, and by the way, consent is valid only if it's informed; if you're withholding information, lying, misleading, or manipulating other folks to get check marks in those ticky-boxes, you're not really getting consent at all. I shouldn't have to say this. It pains me that I feel I do.

Now, bad sex happens. It's a fact of life. Bad sex doesn't (necessarily) mean consent was violated.2

But it pays--it really, really does--to remember that consent is ongoing. If the person you're with suddenly goes all withdrawn and unresponsive, and that's not part of the particular fetish you're exploring, perhaps it's a good idea to check in, you know?

There's a depressing part of all these discussions about consent, and that is the widespread cultural narrative that allegations of coercion, assault, or abuse are likely to be vindictive women making up stories to entrap and punish blameless men.3 It's so entrenched that it's hard to see any woman reporting sexual abuse who's not immediately attacked all over the Internetverse for it...which would seem to fly in the face of all logic and reason. (Because any woman who talks openly about sexual assault is likely to be attacked vigorously and aggressively, it's difficult to imagine the motivation of someone to invent such a tale. What's her goal...to see how many people will call her a liar on YouTube?) And while we're on the subject, "innocent until proven guilty" doesn't mean "everyone who reports being sexually assaulted is a liar until proven otherwise." This shouldn't need to be said, but there it is. (And just for the record: If you're one of those folks whose first reaction to learning about allegations of sexual abuse is "she's making it up," shame on you.)

This seamy dark side to the consent conversation comes, I think, from the notion of consent as a list of ticky-boxes you check off before you get down 'n' dirty. If you went through the pre-flight checklist and ticked off all the things on the list, you should be golden, right? So what's she doing making all this fuss afterward? She consented, right?

This is also something we get when it comes to issues of consent outside the bedroom. If a roommate offers to let us borrow the bike all week, then on Wednesday says "sorry, mate, but my car's in the shop, I need the bike after all," we know that she has the right to do this. I can't help but think if we were to apply exactly the same standards to sexual consent that we apply to consent to borrow a roommate's bicycle, a whole lot of people would be a whole lot happier. Yes, your roommate might fabricate a story about how you stole her bike...but really, what are the odds? I mean, seriously? And someone reporting bike theft isn't even subject to the same explosive blowback as someone reporting sexual assault!

Now, I will admit I've made some assumptions in all this. I'm assuming that you're genuinely good-intentioned and you value the idea of consent. There is a group who benefits from making consent seem muddier and more difficult than it is; the same group also benefits from reflexive thoughts of "She's making it up!" whenever a report of abuse surfaces. I'll give you three guesses who's in that group.4

It's possible to participate in all kinds of sexual activities with all sorts of partners under a wide range of different circumstances and not ever end up being accused of assault. It's not even that difficult, really. All it takes, at the end of the day, is remembering that there's more than one person involved, and checking in with the other folks to see how they're doing. You don't need to get it in writing. You don't need to involve lawyers and witnesses. You just need to pay attention. If you're shagging someone you've never shagged before and you aren't sure how to read their signals and body language, use your words! I promise it's not hard.5

Far from spoiling the mood, it can even be hot. "You like that, hmm? You like when I touch you there? You want more? Tell me you like it."

Seriously. Give it a try some time. Keep in mind, it's not about getting someone else to let you do what you want. It's about two (or more!) of you doing things you all like to do.

Oh, and if someone comes to you with a story about being sexually assaulted? Here's a strategy: In absence of clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, believe them.




1 Absent some other form of coercion, anyway. It isn't consent if someone gives you head to get you to stop beating her. Lookin' at you here, Mr. Ghomeshi.

2 Though one of the things that separates people who are good at sex from people who are bad at sex, I think, is the former sorts of people pay attention to their partners as a matter of course.

3 It's a narrative that hurts men too, by the way. Imagine the blowback if you're a guy who's reporting being sexually assaulted...and yes, it does happen.

4 And if you need all three, you might be a terrible person.

5 If you can't use your words about sex, maybe you might benefit from addressing that problem before the next time you have sex, 'kay?