Let’s Make it a ‘Hell Yes!’: Figuring Out Consent, Pt. 1

by Anna Bent

Author’s note: just to be clear, this discussion of consent is about cultural, relational and community standards, not legal ones. Solutions regarding the morass that is the justice system’s (in)ability to deal with sexual assault is WAY above my paygrade. Anyway, I’m more interested in figuring out ways of relating that might help to prevent rape in the first place 🙂

via Free Range Feminist

Lately I’ve been pretty excited about all the hub-bub around the anti-rape- culture demonstration SlutWalk. It’s, of course, really important as  a culture and a society to make sure that rape is always treated as the crime that it is. But I’d rather think about the positive and active side of sex – consent!In college I got really interested in feminism and joined the Women’s Action Coalition, as well as some college groups.
How many kinds of consent can there be?
One of the main ideas tossed around back then was ‘explicit consent’ – that is each partner is responsible for verbally checking in with the other before they start each new level of sexual activity. If they don’t, they run the risk of being rapists.  I won’t give details, but let’s just say that I was a very good little feminist and there was some pretty talky sex.Actually, this may not be the worst idea for people just starting out in their sexual lives, but after a while it gets pretty wooden. Another bigger problem with ‘explicit consent’ is that it misses the point of sex — fun! It boils consent down to a verbal ‘yes,’ taking the empathy, relating and awareness out of the equation. It also leaves a lot of room for emotional coercion and manipulation.
In response to these and other criticisms, sex educators developed the concept of ‘enthusiastic consent.’  Enthusiastic consent is more about an ethic of wanting you and your partner to have a good time and looking for signs of desire and enthusiasm. When these signs aren’t there, then ethical people either stop what they’re doing or check in verbally. Great!  What frustrates me about these concepts of consent, along with some of the others out there is the threat behind them: if you don’t have sex like this, then you’re a rapist, you horrible evil person you!And that might be true; you might be a horrible evil rapist.But you’re probably not. Most people are not. Still, most adults who have been in a long-term relationship of any complexity could recall an encounter or two that would make an enthusiastic consent zealot call them a rapist.That’s why I really like Hugo Schwyzer’s blog post in which he describes a spectrum of consent:

Imagine that the left end point of the scale is marked “Absolute Enthusiastic Consent” or, better yet, “Hell, Yes!” The right end point of the spectrum is marked “Neither Consented to Nor Desired” or “Hell, No!” or “Everyone in Their Right Mind Would Agree that This is Rape!” It’s pretty clear that a lot of what happens sexually in our lives or in the lives of the people we love happens somewhere in between these two poles. Listening to the stories of how real people live — and in many cases, reflecting on our own pasts — most of us realize fast that it’s a false dichotomy to insist that every act of sex is “either rape, or it isn’t.” There’s a lot of space in between our two poles.

This approach leaves room for sex where consent is ‘problematic’  (someone is nagged into sex, or when there’s a significant power differential involved) without delving into language that invokes crime and punishment. It also creates space for speaking up about acts of ‘not-rape’ – which are often very traumatizing and damage relationships and communities. Thinking about consent in terms of a spectrum is about community standards, listening respectfully, communicating violation and hurt, and making amends. All too often communities think about consent only in terms of ‘should they go to jail or not?’ But this kind of one-dimensional thinking keeps individuals and communities from dealing productively with hurtful and disrespectful sex.
*** What do you think about the value or danger of a rape/consent spectrum? Is there a clear line between consent and non-consent? How do you and your partner(s) and/or your community talk about consent?