Did you ever consent to something, but still came away feeling violated? Ever said “yes” to someone and then wished you could take it back? Well, you can.
Here’s the thing: it is possible to consent to having some experience and then, sometime in the future, not consent to having had that experience.
Put another way, you have “the right to retroactively withdraw consent” from any encounters you had, at any point in the past, that no longer feel good or safe to you.
Currently, the way we talk about consent leaves no space for people to re-evaluate their own experiences. Nevertheless, people frequently do re-evaluate their experiences—including and perhaps even especially their sexual experiences—based on a variety of factors. Newly learned information, changing circumstances, or the way they themselves have changed are all things that can and do alter people’s feelings about the past. Discourses about consent that don’t make space for such after-the-fact evaluations are flawed.
There’s a better way to think and talk about consent, one that honors peoples’ entire experience of a situation—past, present, and future—not just the tiny time-slices of that experience during which they were asked, “Is this cool with you?” Instead of understanding consent as “giving someone permission to do a thing,” we can and should talk about it as “being okay with a thing happening.”
In this essay, we begin an exploration into how current mainstream and even progressive feminist discourses about (specifically) sexual consent fail to address the lived experience of navigating consent within rape culture. We point out that a legalistic framing of consent as expressed rather than experienced ultimately centers the needs of would-be rapists over the needs of rape survivors. We also consider how our relationship to consent changes when we acknowledge that whether a person actually feels violated is more important than whether they expected to feel violated.
How does our relationship to consent change if we think of “consent” as a real experience people have of feeling that what happened to them was okay, and “violation” as more nuanced than simply committing an un-permitted action?
If our concern is with not violating a person, rather than not violating a rule, then “a violation” is defined by what happens when a person processes and continually re-processes their feelings about an experience.
Consent does not equal permission; it is a felt sense.
Typically, we define “consent” as the act of communicating to someone that it is okay for them to interact with us in a particular way. In other words, people generally believe consent is synonymous with permission.
The problem with this model is that it is fundamentally legalistic. It’s all about whether or not permission to perform an act was obtained; it asks nothing about peoples’ experiences after they say “yes.”
This framing of consent (and violation) is wrong. It is tragically wrong.
Moreover, the current Consent-as-Permission model doesn’t even work….
Treating consent as a felt sense respects the agency of the person consenting; it enables them to consent to anything, and only things, that they feel okay about. This includes, ironically, situations that they feel okay not feeling okay about, yet without absolving non-consensual situations of their violative aspect.
This ability for layering, or meta-consent, means that it is possible to agentically consent to having your consent violated.
Read More: You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense by unquietpirate and maymay.
I feel like this is a rather dangerous idea. I mean, it’s okay to change your mind and regret things (one night stands, bad sex, unintentional injuries), but if you’re looking to accuse someone of rape or sexual assault when you freely gave them permission at the time the act occurred, that’s ludicrous. How were they supposed to know?
Well, now all we need to do is put this to the tune of a Robin Thicke song and we’re set.
Consent is defined in legalistic terms because rape is a crime. For rape as a crime to be able to be investigated, and its perpetrators prosecuted, there must be a legal basis for determining what consent is, how it is legally granted, and how consent may be violated. We do not, and cannot, investigate and prosecute crimes on the basis of feelings, since they cannot be proven or substantiated in a court of law existing solely in each person’s mind, only harm in fact as demonstrable by evidence.
Consent is an oral contract between parties to engage in sexual activity. It is when this contract is breached, or sexual activity engaged without establishing this contract, does it become a crime. Want further support for this? well, let’s consider the extenuating circumstances and exceptions that nullify contracts under the law:
- Exercising the right of rescission doesn’t really apply here, since sex acts tend to be performed immediately upon consent, and consent is understood as given on an ad hoc basis. Likewise, parties can withdraw from promised sex acts in the future as-is without recrimination.
- Legal minors cannot legally consent to sex, as they cannot enter contracts. This is already construed as statutory rape.
- Duress, incapacitation and fraud are already (rightfully) construed as rape as they are void contracts, as is violation of the terms of consent (that is to say, someone performs an activity beyond reasonable expectation of a sexual encounter to which you have not consented).
Contracts cannot be based upon intangibles. Nor can a completed contract be retroactively nullified (sparing circumstances that would render it null or constitute a breach of terms, which we’ve already discussed). That’s the way it is, especially if you like rape being considered a crime to be investigated and prosecuted.
Then you run into the implications of such a theory. Can a person retroactively consent to their own de jure rape? Does that legally and socially vindicate the rapist? What about men, whose primary method of victimization (being forced to penetrate another) isn’t even legally defined as rape — can they accuse women with whom they’ve had regretful sexual encounters of rape? What about that?
Because frankly, all this sounds like to me is a load of radfem claptrap justifying their ability to call any man a rapist at any time.
Okay, I’m angry about something totally unrelated to this tonight, but I’m hoping that shooting fish in a barrel will make me feel better. So, Pikachu, I choose you.
Congratulations. You’re an idiot.
Obviously, we are not suggesting that consent-as-felt should replace permission as the standard of evidence for proving rape within the legal system. We are suggesting that the legal system itself should be replaced with something that is better suited to addressing the problem of rape.
Do I know yet what that better system is? No. Are we ever going to figure it out if, instead, we waste time sitting around defending, trying to patch up, and half-assedly imitating the obviously dysfunctional system we currently have? Of course not, and also fuck you.
Here are some reasons why addressing rape first and foremost by treating it as a crime is an idiot idea:
1. The legal system almost universally fails to provide support to survivors of sexual violence — and on the rare occasion that it does, it’s provided at great cost to the survivor. I shouldn’t even need to put links here because it is so well understood that if you are raped, the cops will not help you. But I will, because apparently you* live under a rock.
2. Even when rape laws are enforced, those laws do not exist to protect rape victims or even to prevent rape. Laws against rape don’t stop rape from happening. What they do is provide the state with the power to punish people who are convicted of rape. This is convenient when someone can be accused of rape who the state has an interest in imprisoning. The needs of rape survivors, and of potential victims of rape, are more-or-less entirely left out of this picture.
3. “One in 20 prisoners reports being raped or sexually abused behind bars.” And that’s just the ones who report. Even for those who are not raped, obviously putting someone in prison is a life-altering violation of their consent. When you suggest that the appropriate response to rape is to call the police on rapists, you’re saying that the most effective way to deal with someone violating consent is to violate their consent back! That’s…so broken, I don’t even. A rape for a rape leaves the whole world a traumatized quivering wreck that can’t get up.
4. Finally, the punitive “justice” system itself is a massive institutionalized consent violation. The thing about rape culture is that it’s not limited to sexual violence; it’s an aspect of a greater overall culture of coercive violence and institutionalized abuse. Anyone who claims not to be complicit in rape culture is selling something, because if you live in a developed nation and pay taxes, you are funding the military, the police, the prison system, and compulsory education. ALL of those institutions rely on constantly and egregiously violating consent in order to even exist. And yet your first response to, “How do we respond to consent violations in our communities” is to keep feeding that monster — the source of the whole problem we’re trying to address in the first place. What?
In conclusion, I’m not saying simply that it’s inappropriate to tell survivors of sexual violence that they should only seek help from the legal authorities (and that they should cling to a definition of consent that allows them to do so efficiently.) I’m saying that if you are not currently working toward the wholesale destruction of the prison system, and you have any excuse for not doing so beyond simply acknowledging it as a personal failing, then you, sir, are *ding ding ding!* a rape apologist.
Have a nice day.
* Jesus, even Focus on the Family has a better grasp on how to address rape than this guy.
Reblogging for the fucking excellent critique of “sex-positive” and “kink-positive” blogger errantgeek’s complete and utter self-satisfied shittiness. :D
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Over the past week, I wrote a series of posts starting with “Dominants are rapists" that really struck a nerve with a lot of people. Some people just dug their heels in the ground, stuck their fingers in their ears, their head in the sand, and started shouting ridiculous insults at me for writing it. Other people genuinely seemed interested in trying to understand, so I took the time to break it all down, step by excruciating step.
And still others had questions to which I only had politically analytical answers, rather than compassionate emotional responses. If you’re familiar with my personal history, the fact that I lack emotional eloquence responding to other people’s concerns shouldn’t come as a surprise to you; after all, I was in large part raised as a social being by the abusive BDSM Scene. That people entrenched in that subculture now openly hate me for being a “traitor to the lifestyle” or whatever is a point of pride for me—fuck those shitwads, and I hope they kill themselves.
But, thankfully, unquietpirate has compassion for things I do not have, and she has it in spades. If my “Dominants are rapists” series made you anxious or uncomfortable or even just self-conscious in ways you’ve yet to fully understand, consider reading the following pair of posts she wrote. Excerpts from each are below.
If BDSM is the fetishization of oppression culture, and Dominance is the fetishization of being an oppressor, then submission is the fetishization of internalized oppression.
So, when we ask what healthy submission looks like, what we’re asking is what it means to cope with internalized oppression in a healthy way. There’s no easy answer for this. Classic tactics include working to understand your own internalized oppression, prioritizing self-care, building community and solidarity with other oppressed people like yourself, reframing your identity as a source of pride rather than shame, taking action against injustice, opting out of relationships with oppressive people and institutions, resisting oppression whenever you can and, perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself when you can’t.
I have some ideas about how these tactics might look within the context of play. For example, understanding your own internalized oppression involves a very similar process to the one I encourage Dominants to undertake of investigating both the roots of your kinks, both their individual psychological sources AND how those kinks fit into a larger social and historical picture. Prioritizing self-care might look like putting your own needs and desires first to what feels like an extreme degree when setting limits with a Dominant partner. You could reframe some of your erotic experiences not in terms of being forced to do things by a Dominant but, rather, as a Dominant helping you get something you want. You might develop solidarity with other Submissives by building cooperative relationships between multiple Submissives into your scenes. And separatism could look like choosing not to play with people who identify as Dominant, or even choosing to play only with other people who identify as Submissive. There’s more I could say about this that I’ll save for a later post, but I’m interested in your ideas, too. How could you map your everyday skills for coping with living in oppression culture onto your erotic experiences playing dress-up as Oppressed and Oppressor?
I imagine most people are on board with wanting to have authentically consenting erotic interactions. So, why is there so much resistance to the idea that Dominants might want to spend some time meditating on what their desire to play dress-up as rapists has to do with rape culture? And why is there so much resistance among Submissives to the idea that this might be a valuable practice for their Dominant partners to get into?
One possible answer: Fear of loss. What the questioner above seems to be asking is, “What if my partner and I do the work to better understand our kinks, including taking an honest look at the parts we’re not very proud of, and we wind up not being into each other anymore?”
It’s not so much a fear of being told not to have a certain kind of sex; it turns out nobody else gets to decide what kind of sex you have, not even people who are really opinionated about it. It’s the fear of a future in which you no longer WANT to have certain kinds of sex, or sex with certain kinds of people, that you find super hot right now.
That’s a legitimate fear. There’s always the possibility that if you look at yourself too closely, you’ll discover you want to change. You might investigate your kinks and discover that some of them are based in personal trauma or in a political belief that doesn’t gel with your sense of ethics. If you do, you might choose to work on healing some trauma, and potentially lose that erotic trigger in the process. Or you might decide you want to bring your sex and your ethics into alignment, which could result in choosing different partners or kinds of play than you currently do.
From the beginning, our bottom line has been pretty anti-climactic:
All I’m saying is: what BDSM’ers call “D/s dynamics” is just one manifestation of how people relate to each other.
BDSM is “just” a sandbox in which we can play with oppression. If that’s not what you’re doing, you’re just giving “BDSM” to people who want to use it—and are using it—as a way to justify rape.
And people who are okay doing that will rot in hell.
Apparently, my last post, “Dominants are rapists,” struck a nerve with a lot of people. I’m seeing every reaction under the sun: abject rejection, terrified self-loathing, utter confusion, etc. And I think the post struck a nerve because everyone is terrified they are a rapist (especially Dominants).
And look, here’s the thing: you should be terrified. Because you probably are. It is important and necessary for each of us to confront our shadow selves, the darkest parts of who we are.
But even if we look at the most evil parts of ourselves and discover that every horrific and vile thing we feared about who we are is, in fact, completely and undeniably true, that does not make us unworthy of love.
The magical power sadomasochistic relationships can offer us is the ability to confront the reality that we are complicit in perpetuating unforgivable, unforgettable traumas on most people in our lives without becoming incapable of working to end that complicity. The BDSM Scene could be a place where its members participate in such self-training. But it’s not.
In BDSM culture, Dominants are taught to make submissives dependent on their dominance, rather than facilitating experiences their submissive partners want to have. This parallels the overculture, where therapists are taught that their job is to help people better integrate themselves in an abusive society by sublimating their own will rather than supporting their clients to do whatever the fuck they need to do to reject participation in said abusive society.
If you have a position of power over someone, such as a teacher, a parent, or a Dominant, the only ethical thing to do is to facilitate others’s growth so as to make yourself obsolete.
When I write “dominants should be extinct,” I also write, “teachers should be extinct,” “parents should be extinct,” and “employers should be extinct” not because we shouldn’t have places where people learn things (“schools”), or people who protect younger people during their period of growth (“parents”), or ways for people to provide for their own sustenance in harmony with the Earth (“jobs”), but because each of these things has been corrupted to maintain itself to the detriment of its charge.
Teachers in schools are youth jailers, parents in mainstream culture are taskmasters, and employers in capitalism are wage slavers.
In this way, Dominants in BDSM are rapists. They don’t have to be. But until they are willing and able to confront their shadow selves—the possibility that, in fact, they are rapists—they will never have the ability to be anything else.
So, here’s the thing. There is a difference between wanting to play with someone sexually in a way that facilitates their submission and wanting to “dominate” someone.
If you enjoy playing with submissive people because you think submission is sexy, and you’re thrilled by the idea that someone might want to be submissive in a sexy way with you, and you want to do stuff that will make that easier and safer and more fun for them, that’s one thing. What that looks like is helping your submissive partner have experiences that they want to have — and because human psychology is fascinating, sometimes you do that by creating experiences that, on some level, they don’t want to have.
That’s different from the desire to do things to people whether they want you to or not. That is, definitionally, the desire to coerce — or, when you add sex to the mix, the desire to rape. Such desires are not inherently illegitimate, because no desire is inherently illegitimate. What is illegitimate is acting on those desires by preying on people with whom it will be easiest to get away with it.
Submissives make the perfect partners for Dominants, because our often complex relationship to consent and desire makes us easy targets for Dominants to take advantage of. If what turns you on is disregarding other peoples’ humanity, it’s so much easier (psychoemotionally, logistically, and legally) to do that with someone who gave you permission than with someone who didn’t. But Dominants make bad partners for Submissives for the very same reasons.
It’s one thing to fetishistically desire to harm vulnerable people. It’s another thing to manifest that desire by actually pursuing erotic intimacy with vulnerable people who you can harm. And it is, in fact, even worse — not better — to achieve that intimacy by convincing said vulnerable people that they started it, that they invited you to hurt them, that they wanted it, that they said it was okay.
There are lots of people who enjoy sex that involves the sharing and exchange of submissive desire. Mainstream narratives about romantic lovemaking are packed with it. But the subset of submission-lovers who describe themselves as “Dominants” don’t seem interested in playing with someone because they’re excited about that individual’s personal expression of submission. Rather, they’re turned on by the idea of a “consenting” submissive partner, because that is the situation in which they are most likely to be able to get away with doing whatever they want.
See also: Dominants are Rapists
And since I know this is going to get the inevitable “STAHP KINK-SHAMING!!!!11” responses from people who don’t bother to check their sources, I just want to add that a source for a lot of this, notably the “dominants are rapists” post, is me.
And, um, I’m pretty fucking kinky. Sooo…yeah.
KinkInExile has a short and to the point post up replying to a post by Ferns that bemoans what she sees as changing attitudes towards dominance and submission among younger BDSM practitioners. Ferns wrote:
[M]ostly, what young people are doing is Really Good Stuff. They are, for the most part, smart and thoughtful and considerate and concerned and all of that: They are super aware of consent, worried about abuse, all about negotiation and understanding the boundaries, all of that. And that’s wonderful.
But what I often read in that goes towards the level of “Well, if the submissive doesn’t want to do it, then a good dominant will understand and not make them.”
And what I have seen is that the ‘it’ in that statement extends to *everything*.
If the submissive doesn’t feel like going to that party, doesn’t feel like doing that chore, doesn’t feel like playing that way, doesn’t feel like getting up off the couch, doesn’t feel like doing what they’re told… well then, that’s perfectly fine.
I feel a bit like some old dinosaur going “That’s great kids, but *how is that submission?!*“.
This attitude (“submission is doing what you don’t want to do”) is at the core of why the BDSM culture is a rape school that teaches people to gaslight themselves when it comes to what consent feels like. BDSM’ers talk a lot about consent but they have no fucking idea what it is. What Ferns betrays in her post here is how much lip service—and only lip service—she pays to consent.
KinkInExile’s response fumbled around a little trying to get to the root of this issue:
Logically, I could reason my way into “sure, yes, they want to submit, maybe they should do things you ask for even when they don’t want to.” Hell, I have to assume that sometimes, when a boy who is comfortably sleeping wakes up to my bouncing and makes me coffee, or when my now ex partner waited some 50 odd days for an orgasm in part due to my insistence, at some points that is what someone acting against their wishes looks like.
My gut response though, is a resounding WTF? You are playing with an adult presumably in a country with laws similar to our 13th Amendment. Your play happens in the real world. Anything short of respecting your partner’s boundaries is coercion at best. If you have an issue around trust that’s resulting from your partner breaking commitments, you have an issue around trust. That’s totally valid, I’ve had that issue, it sucks. But it’s not a BDSM issue.
Her point is spot-fucking-on, if a bit obscured by the verbosity of diplomatic politeness in her post. In the comments, Tomio Hall-Black (a brainwashed BDSM’er male submissive) needed to “logically, reason [his] way” into arguing against the very simple idea that you don’t pull the “but I’m the Mistress card” when you’re not playing. And that’s when I figured I’d offer the same point KinkInExile made without the politeness, so I commented:
[T]he fact that people like Ferns, Tomio, et. al. don’t seem to grok or actualize [that anything short of respecting your partner’s boundaries is coercion at best] is what makes them, at their core, no different than rapists.
Just because they wrap their coercion up in a pretty rhetorical framework doesn’t make it magically different.
In the rest of the world, people who don’t agree with what KinkInExile is saying are called rapists. If you call yourself a dominant and you disagree with what KinkInExile is saying, what you are is a rapist who calls yourself a dominant. This doesn’t change depending on how many times you stopped when someone safeworded.
The short exchange between Tomio “I’m-All-About-Consent” Hall-Black and I is illustrative to say the least. Tomio replied:
You cheapen the word rape by comparing it to ANY consensual activity, even a consensual activity that I might not enjoy as much as my partner.
You once got pissy with me because I said we were friendly, claiming I didn’t know you well enough to say that. Well, it’s time to wear the shoe you are putting on everyone else’s foot. You don’t know me well enough to say things like this.
I don’t “grok” anything because that’s an entirely made up word without any real meaning. I UNDERSTAND what rape is, and what it isn’t. Rape is NOT doing something for which someone has already obtained consent for.
I challenge you to find one single instance where I said it is okay to continue after someone used a safeword. The examples I used are “car maintenance” and “washing dishes” and “doing laundry.”
If you can’t find me claiming that safewords should be ignored; then I would imagine that an adult would apologize for making such a horrendous and offensive accusation. I hold little hope of that from you.
No, Tomio. You cheapen the word rape by treating consent like a contract. Everything you wrote in your comments makes this blatantly clear. Great example: “already obtained consent for.” You don’t understand rape because you obviously don’t understand consent.
I wrote “this doesn’t change depending on how many times you stopped when someone safeworded.” I didn’t write what you seem to be replying to, which is “this doesn’t change even if you only didn’t stop once.” Are you just angry at me or is your reading comprehension really that piss-poor?
You, and the people like you who believe the way you do, are fundamentally treating consent like contracts people enter into instead of core aspects of how to engage with autonomous human beings, and my point is that this is the same fundamental way rapists behave. Truth hurts, my “friend.”
If that strikes a nerve with you, which it seems to have done, maybe that’s because I’m on to something you’re unwilling to admit. And, by the way, this is one reason we are not friends.
Get it through your fucking skull. ‘Til then, don’t dare assume friendship with me. You are a mental cancer to submissives everywhere.
And, as is usually the case when people are confronted with the hard radical conclusion to a very simple point, their true colors emerge. Tomio’s colors look like this.
There’s a way of talking about consent that’s currently dominating the conversation about rape culture and I think it’s…flawed, to say the least. Let’s call it the “consent-as-permission” model.
The consent-as-permission model defines “consent” as the act of communicating to someone that it is okay for them to interact with you in a particular way. I “consented” to sex if you asked me, “Do you want to have sex?” and I said “yes.” (Or, under the Enthusiastic Consent variant, if I said, “YES!”) It’s essentially a legalistic model that asks questions like, “What counts as a ‘yes’?” “Under what circumstances is a ‘yes’ inadmissible?” “In the case of a dispute, what kinds of documentation are required to prove the presence or absence of a ‘yes’?” The consent-as-permission model makes consent very much about what we say or don’t say to each other. It treats rape primarily as the violation of a contract. It has very little to say about how our erotic experiences feel.
But think about this: I’ve had my boundaries violated in the past. You probably have, too. If that experience was traumatic, where did the trauma come from? Did it come from the fact that someone broke a rule? (Maybe. A trust violation can be traumatizing even if no other harm occurred.) Or did it come from the fact that someone interacted with me in a way that made me feel unsafe, hurt, and violated? Have you ever said, “Yes” and still come away feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated? I have.
In BDSM culture, you are not allowed to say “yes,” have everything go according to plan, and still come away feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated. That’s verboten ostensibly because BDSM is de-facto consensual (i.e., it cannot be abuse, because in their world, if it is abuse, it is not BDSM, which is obviously bullshit in exactly the same way that some BDSM’ers themselves critique the second-wave feminist notion that rape cannot be sex). So when something like this happens (and it does happen), the experience of violation is minimized if it’s even acknowledged at all.
For submissive people like me, this is often extremely confusing because everything around us tells us it wasn’t really a violation, it was just a miscommunication, or some such gaslighting.
When Ferns asks “how is that submission?” what she is actually asking is “why aren’t submissives okay with having their consent violated anymore?” And when Tomio insists that “rape is NOT doing something for which someone has already obtained consent for,” what he is doing is covering for dominants who believe permission is synonymous with consent (it’s not), and gaslighting fellow submissives to make sure they never talk about their experiences of violations in ways that could damage a dominant’s reputation. That’s called rape culture, and that’s how the BDSM Scene rape school teaches dominants and submissives to support it.
So what I think I’m trying to say is that, like old dinosaurs, dominants should be extinct.
See also: Wait! Don’t rape me! I’m a DOM!