Thursday, August 24, 2017

Agency, Consent, and Integrity

It seems that over the last year or two, we can’t make it through an event weekend without a big to-do over consent. These complaints have ranged from typical “creeper” groping to such extremes as nonconsenual biting or willful breaches of consent (both of which truly are inexcusable). I bite my tongue every time someone complains about a rando groping as though it’s a colossal failure of the community, and I finally wanted to spell some things out after someone (wrongly) told me I literally cannot elect to waive my right to revoke consent within the context of a negotiated scene. Any idiot can understand the basic concept of asking for consent, but unfortunately most individuals do not function in that capacity and sexual-social community dynamics are substantially more complicated, involving far more than immediate verbal consent. People seem to stop at “any idiot can understand,” and then demand all consent be based purely on immediacy and vocalization which is a grotesque oversimplification of what consent really is and how it functions.

One of the biggest things that is overlooked when people talk about this model of consent is that agency is necessary to give consent. If you’re not familiar with what agency is, it’s the ability to independently make your own decisions and it can be limited by anything from inebriation to complex social systems. For instance, someone only engaging in an activity due to pressure from an authority figure does not have full control of their agency, nor does a person who is completely inebriated in that they cannot fully be conscious of their decisions. The same can be said of someone suffering from addiction, someone in a deep headspace, or even someone who’s just so horny they aren’t thinking straight: when something prevents us from being fully present, whole, and aware true consent is not possible.

When people talk about breaches of consent, they tend to only look at situations in which a person does not want something in the moment and is forced to endure it - molestation or rape, for instance. The model of consent that is presently being pushed heavily (immediate and verbal being the only acceptable measure of consent) is largely built in response to this thought process, and it neglects that one of the primary functions of many power exchange dynamics is to diminish control over one’s agency. This can of course have varying degrees of severity but just as someone may engage in behavior they normally wouldn’t due to pressure from an official authority figure, a Dom’s presence can shape a sub’s decision-making process. Because of the way this informs these decisions, in some instances a sub cannot truly consent, much in the same way a drunk person cannot.

Looking at consent only through the lens of immediacy is easy, but it does not consider the potential for someone operating at a diminished capacity. A prime example of how this can fall apart is looking at something like barrier protection or participation in safer sex. While this specific example is becoming less relevant due to PrEP allowing for better risk management, it’s still something that happens frequently. Let’s say a sub negotiates a scene with a requirement that anal sex may only occur with condoms. After a good bit of edging, he’s feeling rather driven to get fucked to the point he wants to beg for it and all he can think about is his Sir’s dick claiming his hole. Of his own volition (maybe there was no condom around, maybe he wanted to feel skin or a load - the ‘why’ is immaterial) he begs the Dom to fuck him without protection. The over-emphasis that immediate consent is all that matters could easily lead to someone honestly believing this to be consent, and encouraging that thought process is dangerous.

Let’s look at another situation, one that is a common sub experience I’ve been through myself a number of times. For a lot of subs, headspace can run incredibly deep; it can do things like make you instinctively reluctant to speak, cause you to become very emotionally invested in service, and significantly alter other behavior to the point where your normal self might be barely recognizable. In these instances questions might be answered with a quick nod or shake of the head or possibly even a lack of response connoting disagreement, and control is a constant pressure the sub feels exerted upon them: it informs every action they take. For subs who lean towards this sort of headspace, the intense aversion to vocalizing means a lot of what they are feeling is heavily internalized and they are left with a very strong desire to please. One of the things that can get internalized in this context is disappointment in oneself or the fear of disappointing the Dom; feeling failure to instantly grow and be a better sub, not being able to please someone enough or in the right way, thinking that disagreement will undermine submission, etc. When this is internalized too strongly, a sub in headspace may end up expressly consenting to activities they do not want to engage in as a means of abating this perceived potential for disappointment. In a way, this example can be even more dangerous because of its greater potential to be used as a means of manipulation and, again, an over-emphasis on the immediacy-based consent model can blind someone to this potential.

One of the other failings of this model is that it quite literally creates something akin to a caste system in which allowing exceptions to the rules is based on attractiveness. I have watched as some of the most vocal proponents of immediacy-based consent respond differently to people touching them without consent depending on how attracted to the individual they are, and I personally feel that makes their motives clear. When you don’t have the integrity to turn someone desirable down for violating a principle you purport to value, your goal is not to nobly protect others from assailants by asserting a standard but rather to legitimize your aversion to undesirables touching you. It’s dishonest, it’s selfish, and it actually hurts people whether by directly damaging their confidence or through one of the many side-effects of this double-standard.

What we should be doing instead is respecting that consent is not simple or purely rooted in immediacy and that insisting it is undermines that having control of one’s agency is necessary to grant consent. We should respect that there is a staunch difference between sex-prohibitive and sex-positive culture, and no matter what we do some new people will always misunderstand things until they are taught. We should respect that the people making these mistakes are often times not at fault and their actions stem from being educated by a culture that deliberately and systematically misinformed them about how sex works. We should respect that malice and ignorance are not equivocal, and that we should see teaching opportunities instead of pariahs in the case of the latter. We should respect that there are some in our own community who would elevate their own minor inconvenience over the growth and development of others and that that sort of thinking is far more damaging than a wayward grope.

I don’t mean to call into question anyone’s right to bodily autonomy, I simply believe that there are far too many people whose aim is to reinforce a double-standard which allows them to have their cake and eat it too. You don’t get to claim there is a strong moral argument for something while quietly allowing exceptions that suit your whims, and I think it’s time people stop enabling this kind of rabble-rousing. If your solution is to draw a line that denies not only the complicated transition from normal culture to kink culture but also perpetuates a narrative that undermines the importance of agency in how we grant consent, I’m not going to praise you and give you a pedestal. It’s not that simple and it never will be, so all we can do is try and help steer individuals towards better behavior instead of creating standards; claiming there’s a nefarious underlying issue in kink is chasing a remedy to something that can’t yet be fixed, and I’d rather use my energy on potentially productive conversations.

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