In my last post, I promised a discussion of enthusiasm and consent – with special reference to sexuality and asexuality.
My launching point is that the phrase “enthusiastic consent” can be taken two ways. Either, “I’m enthusiastic for sex, so I say yes”, or, “I’m enthusiastic about saying yes, so we have sex.” I always understood the phrase to refer to the second one, but a lot of people seem to read the first meaning.
I want to talk about “enthusiastically saying yes”. Particularly, is it possible to be enthusiastic about saying yes, when what you say yes to is something you are not enthusiastic about, or perhaps, is something that you dislike or are reluctant about? I believe that, not only is it possible, that it is an essential part of a functioning society that people do it.
What does an enthusiastic “yes” look like, first of all? The following gives some of the main characteristics, from which you can get a general idea of what we’re talking about:
- It is not threatened or coerced
- It is not bargained or bartered on an (implied) “quid pro quo” basis**
- It is not experienced as “obligation”, “requirement” or other emotional leverage (such as guilt, shame, etc)
[** sex work – by which I do not mean trafficked, coerced or dependent women being raped, I mean women who made their own choice to provide sexual services as a business – is a special case in that there is first of all a “yes, I will negotiate a price with you” (or, “no, I do not wish to do business with you” – in which case there is no sex going to happen, just as a pub owner is entitled to refuse to serve a customer e.g. by barring them from hir bar) and THEN there is a clear negotiation without the implied quid pro quo that is sometimes used in romantic-sexual relationships. So I believe that sex work can involve enthusiastic consent, when the sex worker enthusiastically consents to sell sexual services.]
This is the kind of standard that I’m looking for in terms of consent to sexual activity. While it’s a good ideal in general life, there are plenty of ways in which life tends to fall short of that ideal and most of the time it’s no biggie. When it comes to bodily integrity, though, I tend to be a bit hardline about this stuff, and sex (as an embodied experience) is clearly in that category (as is sport, fighting, practical joking, and suchlike).
I regularly agree to do things in life (not in sex, yet) for other people that I find no pleasure, and often great inconvenience or even suffering, in doing. Nevertheless, I believe I say “yes” with enthusiasm for the “yes”, and without experiencing any of the negative pressures that negate the “enthusiastic consent” standard. I do them because I value that person and I want that person to be happy. My consent is enthusiastic because I am enthusiastic about that person.
What distinguishes this from coercion, or guilt, or “obligation” is that I know that nothing about my relationship with that other person is contingent upon my activity. I say yes, we’re good. I say no, we are also good. I say, “Exsqueeze me? Flibbergibletsquash”, we’re good – although probably slightly concerned about my mental wellbeing as well. The point is, nothing depends on my doing it except the things that I chose to care about. My friend or family member knows that my yes is my choice, made because I choose to care, and not because of any condition attached to their request.
Alternatively, say that the help they ask for is something essential: if they don’t get it, then something bad will happen to them. I’m going to say that I don’t have a choice in that situation: this friend of mine needs me and I, because I care about what happens to them, have no choice but to act. Is my action, then, a form of enthusiastic consent, or does my having to act render it coerced or pressured? That question, of course, is as old as the debate over free will and determinism, and as hard to answer definitively. I believe that if it is possible for me to contemplate taking no action, then I have the ability to choose that path, even if my personality and values mean that I cannot envisage a situation when I actually would do so. Most times, I don’t even pause to think of not doing it until after I have already started to act. But I am able to have the thought.
Again, my forced choice of acting in that situation is not forced by any person, but rather by circumstance. “Will you help me?” “Yes.” That yes is enthusiastic in the same way as my “yes” to being bisexual is enthusiastic – it’s just who I am!
That discusses a general “life events” version of enthusiastic consent, but the standard is looser anyway in life, as I already mentioned. There are plenty of small situations where small pressures do influence a “yes”, and it’s no big deal. But we want to talk about sex, where I say that I am much less flexible in my adherence to the idea of enthusiastic consent. Can I find examples in sexual behaviour where I would say that it is possible to be enthusiastic about saying “yes” while also disliking or not wanting the activity?
BDSM is a great field for discussing this. I have heard stories told – indeed, at the last “debating munch” I went to, there were some – about bottoms or Submissives who do exactly this. The language is typically, “I want you to make me do this thing that I hate”. And more often than not, in the story as told, the top or Dom is reluctant. The example being used that I overheard was of a type of impact play (IIRC) that the Submissive partner hates, and it is only used as a punishment when zie has deliberately failed to follow an order from hir Dominant partner. Zie said that not only did zie consent to the use of this as a punishment, but in fact zie insisted that this should be the way punishment worked in their dynamic. Even outside the sphere of D/s punishment and discipline rules, there are examples in which the motives are sometimes altruistic (e.g. “I want to do this for you, even though I hate it”) and sometimes pragmatic (“I hate how it feels, but I love how it feels afterwards” is one such construction). What links all of the reasons given is that they have nothing to do with the relationship as such, by which I mean that they are offered as additions to a relationship, not in order to maintain it. They are offered independently of the motives or requirements of the top partner, but rather come from the motivations and desires that the bottom partner constructs hirself.
Yes, it is possible (as “sex-criticial” or “sex-negative” feminists wish to) to argue such reasons as coming from some subconscious or unconscious coercion by societal norms. However, saying that does not change what the reasons are, and doesn’t change the pay-off that is expected (whatever that might be). It also demands a construction, “You only want to do it because you feel you should want that pay-off, when you should really want a different pay-off, and because you think this is the only way to get your pay-off, when there are other ways.” This is, needless to say, deeply offensive, insulting and belittling. Especially as people who make the choices in question typically are well aware of the alternatives, and they’ve chosen one that they like best.
All of which is just why I am enthusiastic about “enthusiastic consent” as a term. For me, the idea of an “enthusiastic yes” is far more potent than a simple “enthusiastic sex”. When you don’t know someone well, then you want both “yes” and “sex” to be enthusiastic, but as you get to know them and get to understand what they offer freely and why – that is, once you have a functioning relationship – then you can talk about these things and find out what things they don’t like but still want to say yes to. And they can find out yours.