Consent: Kink, porn and #metoo
There are two established rule sets in BDSM and kink: Safe, sane and consensual (SSC) kink and risk-aware consensual kink (RACK). The more recent RACK approach drops the idea of a sane decision for actions because, well, how do you determine what is sane? And replaces the unspecific idea of safe kink with risk-aware kink, suggesting that many kinky practices include risks as an element of play (e.g. breath play), and a good set of guidelines acknowledges these risks. Both rulesets agree on “consensual”. While consensus is the rage, even more so considering the #metoo movement, it has also become clear that not everybody agrees on what that means.
Defining consent: illuminating the grey areas
When looking at sex education sites explaining consent, the concept seems simple: Consent means treating the other person as a person and respecting if they do not want something. Consent means to care how the other person feels about what you do. In this, the active person primarily seems responsible for consent. The absence of consent is when the active person continues something the other person does not want. Movements for more consensual (sex) lives have evolved from a “no means no” approach to proposing “enthusiastic consent”, meaning the other person should want you to do whatever you’re doing instead of an approach where everything is fine as long as the other person does not disagree.
Disrespecting another person’s boundaries by doing something to them they do not want can be described as a form of violence. While most people seem to be ready to subscribe to this idea, there are cases where consent is tricky to determine, and those are where is becomes murky, frustrating, and the debate turns angry, partly because most people do not deliberately violate other people’s boundaries and it can be very irritating to learn that well-meant behaviors are sometimes interpreted as violent. This article aims at structuring some of that murkiness.
1. There may be consensual violence
The whole point of risk-awareness is to understand that there are consensual practices resolving around pain, degradation and humiliation. From a therapeutic perspective, integrating these parts of our personalities is healthier than idealizing our relationships as non-violent, which means to suppress our violent parts, making them uncontrollable. That said, we advocate to embrace the messiness of relationships and further them into sexual desire, and compassion, the basis for “consensual violence”. Of course, consensual violence is not violence by every definition of the term but rather includes acts that can be all of the described while they are pre-negotiated and agreed to by consenting partners.
2. Unclear boundaries of the passive part undermine consent
If we say, people can agree to stuff others would never consent to, what happens, if we change our minds about experiences? It is entirely possible that a person consents and even encourages actions which they experience as harmful later in life, or a moment later. This is a grey area. Sex, upon closer inspection, is pretty weird, and what may be cool and arousing for some might seem abusive and gross for others (or the same people at a different point in life). Only through experimentation and trial and error do we figure out what we like and don’t like and where our boundaries are, and so inexperienced people may not know their boundaries yet and go by what they heard of or what the other person proposes. With little experience we may also not be self-confident enough to defend our boundaries, even more so in the hot mess of confusing early sexual encounters. So even if we feel like we don’t like something we may “suck it up” trying not to ruin the moment and for lack of better options. It’s a lot to ask of someone making their first sexual experiences to go: “I don’t like that, or that. What do I like? No idea, really.”
But also experienced people may repeatedly experience acts as unpleasant without signaling this to their partner. This phenomenon can be described as self-abuse or self-inflicted violence. Since people tend to repeat their relationship patterns until they take responsibility for them, this can be an important framing from a therapeutic perspective. Therapy is about understanding who we are in the here and now and how to move forward from there. It is a lot about owning our experiences and moving away from blaming others for where we are today. At first glance there seems to be a narrow line between victim-blaming and understanding the dynamics of self-inflicted violence. On a case-to-case basis though, especially in therapy, a person will often be clear about if they encouraged or discouraged the other person and if the other person knew they were overstepping a boundary. Questions may be: Were they willfully overstepping a boundary, for example as a way to exercise power? Were they accepting to overstep the boundary as collateral? Or were they interested in your well-being and trying to accept your boundaries but really didn’t know they were (re)traumatizing you? Often, the answer is somewhere in between. Often, we are sending mixed signals, our boundaries are unclear, and the other person may or may not understand possible discomfort the situation could be causing.
How do we deal with this challenge?
- The active person should always care about the others’ well-being, and constantly remind themselves they are dealing with a person.
- From that attitude, it is okay to take small risks of rejection and play, if you are open to a “no”, it is ok to try something only to find out it’s not for you or your partner.
- The passive person should try to be aware of their boundaries, and if they allow someone to overstep them, make a conscious decision for it. That way, it is easier to deal with the situation in hindsight.
- The passive person can communicate if they do not know about their boundaries and ask the active part for extra care or to try at a different time.
- If one person does not feel safe in communicating their boundaries in the relationship, it may make sense to hold off and negotiate more before trying things. It is important that everybody is aware of some deal breaking boundaries and confident that they can express these before you start trying.
- In retrospect, be aware that the other person may change their mind about what happened and accept that this is their right and beyond your control. It’s ok!
3. The active part’s insecurity may undermine consent
This last section focused on the passive part (often, initially, a female) of consensual grey areas. But the active part may also struggle to see boundaries. The recent debate fostered insecurity between the genders, shown most glaringly in studies on men avoiding women in the workplace. Out of insecurity and fear of false accusations, they do not work closely with women and are less likely to hire especially ‘attractive’ women. Insecurity also plays an important role in early and immature sexual encounters, when people may avoid asking for consent out of fear to be rejected. In all cases, insecure people in power are potentially harmful to those entrusted with them. While insecurity is a natural side effect of cultural change and no reason to give up on the development, movement leaders have a responsibility to answer questions along the lines of: “What can we say or do?” Well, here’s what: Make sure they are into it! Here are some possible ways to go about that:
- It’s okay to be unsure about what you can say or do with each person, because you literally do not know before asking them. Admit to yourself, when you are insecure.
- If you are unsure how to act, you may not have the energy to look out for the other person all the time. In that case, be frank and ask the other person for support, for example: “I’m super excited and I’ve never done this before. Please stop me if I’m rushing it”
- If you are unsure if the other person knows what they want, it is okay to stop: “I am not sure you are into this, I don’t want to do something we both regret, let’s stop for now”
- Expect people to not want you to do stuff that seems perfectly normal to you. That means to respect that people have individual and unpredictable boundaries and different ways to express them. Question your assumptions on what’s normal.
- Accept that every relationship is a new start. Person B likes different things then A did. Whenever you come closer to someone, see each step as an experiment where the other person may draw a line. There is nothing wrong with tentatively trying stuff while you’re open to respect a no.
- If this sounds like a lot of work, let me remind you that it’s nicest to do stuff everybody enjoys (where everybody is on “team fun”).
For both sides, only maturing, self-awareness and self-reflection will allow for the openness and clarity where you can be confident not to reflect needs onto someone while ignoring their signals (“She wanted it”). Be aware that this needs time and give yourself and others the space to get there.
4. Structural violence overburdens relationships
Beyond the confusing enough inter-individual dynamics, consent and sexual violence have a structural, cultural component where what we perceive as normal strongly influences boundaries. While individuals may shift in their feeling toward these structural components, they are mostly stable with an[RU1] overwhelming percentage of women opting for submissive roles in sexual relationships, a demand met by an overwhelming number of men opting for dominant roles and/or pressuring themselves to do so. These facts very likely have a structural, cultural, societal component that needs to be addressed and discussed. But how do we deal with that in our own sex life?
I believe that sexual preferences are such an integral part of our identities and so stable over a lifetime that it overburdens an individual relationship to implement a political agenda in the bedroom. The discourse is relevant, the statistics must be seen, but the individual cannot be expected to let go of their preferences. If we assume our preferences partly result from structural inequalities this may cause an identity conflict, but the preference will most likely win the fight. My idea would be that we best fight the political fight in the political domain and privately enjoy the imperfect mess of whatever societal dynamics are inscribed in us.
Consent as an attitude
Whether we engage in kinky sex or we’re just getting to know each other, whether we’re unsecure about our own boundaries or those of another person or questioning our own desire in face of social critique, in the end consent really is an attitude, an approach more than a rule, and the approach means to do our best to stand up for our own boundaries and accept the other person’s boundaries. It happens in the here and now, embracing passion and desire as are their own shape-shifting animals.