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Consent To Nebulous, or, “Yes! Now What Was The Question?”

July 2, 2010

The whole idea of “asking for it” presumes an “it,” and hinges usually on the speaker’s investment in a very narrow model of sexuality. Probably most readers of this blog are deeply troubled and angered when folks say that somebody’s consent to something can be presumed from their consent to something else. It seems obvious that it doesn’t follow. Yet people keep saying that by doing X, someone (usually female rape survivors) consent to Y.

The recent ad in Scotland that Cara at The Curvature blogged about is a good example. It effectively lampoons the notion that women consent to be sexually penetrated by some random men merely by wearing a short skirt. Yet this trope is so ubiquitous that I could throw in literally hundreds of examples.

The argument isn’t much of a rational one at all. Mostly, it works on the social dynamics of the sex class and the commodity model of sex where women’s agency is seen as an obstacle between men and getting off. But to the extent that there’s an actual argument there, it is absolutely dependent on the ellision of what kind of sex we’re talking about. The speaker dissolves the scene into a gauzy amorphous “it” that she was “asking for.”

That kind of ellision is not unique to rape apologists, and sometimes I hear it from people who I would expect to be quite a lot more comfortable talking about the details of sexual conduct. I recall about a lifetime ago sitting at the DC area burgermunch back when usenet groups were a backbone of the BDSM community, and talking with an older leatherman about negotiating with bottoms. He said young guys would tell him he could do whatever he wanted, to which he’s respond, “then it’s okay if I vivisect you, right?” He wasn’t actually cutting people into pieces of course, but he wanted to challenge their sloppy response. Obviously, they assumed that there were limits, and that his limits were congruent with theirs, but they should have known better and needed to be comfortable laying it on the table.

I think more about this as a BDSMer than probably most non-kinksters do. Because of what we do, we know we’re off the standard map of sexual interaction and we know or should know that we need to discuss our boundaries instead of assuming them. But that kind of forthrightness also provides a great model to interrogate assumptions that people with more mainstream sexualities may make.

People who read my posts are going to know something about what I like; longtime readers will know for example that I do BDSM, that I bottom to women and that I like genital torture. So if I show up at an event, am I consenting to any random woman top to walk up and start squeezing my balls? Hell no! If I consent to be tied up, and I consenting to be caned? Hell no! Isn’t that obvious? Doesn’t everyone agree with that?

I’m not unmindful that these things seem more obvious because I’m a cis man. In fact, that’s the strength of using myself as an example. Nobody would deny me the agency to choose my play partners, and not to be accosted by strangers because they have some indication of what I do, and to have my play boundaries respected by my partners. Yet some folks treat these as difficult questions where women’s autonomy is concerned. They’re not difficult questions, and anyone who entertains the notion that I ought to have more right to my own boundaries than a woman does is in serious need of anal-cranial removal.

But let’s take the “asking for it” bit to its logical conclusion. Let’s say I meet a top in at a play party and we talk about what she wants to do, and then she ties my hands to a St. Andrew’s Cross and … what? What exactly have I consented to?

If you said, “whatever you two agreed to, and not whatever you two have not agreed to” they you have it right. Anyone with a different answer needs a remedial class in consent. It may be that what we’ve agreed to is, “do what you like, if I need to stop I’ll safeword,” or it might be a lot more specific than that. Most of us have hard limits of some kind; being a kinkster tends to make one develop an awareness of what they are and get used to verbalizing them. But any other answer either (a) means I’ve agreed to do whatever a partner can think up, even if it’s dangerous, permanent or far more intense than I can deal with; or (b) involves a completely arbitrary determination by the speaker about what is and isn’t okay and what I should or shouldn’t expect.

So now, and this is not a change of topic, I want to address Kendra Wilkinson. I don’t really keep up with celebrity news, so I’m not sure where she’s from or how she got famous in the first place. I have a vague sense that she’s famous for being famous, perhaps from being a reality TV subject. I’d say I’m too lazy to go read her wikipedia page, but in fact I just don’t care. It doesn’t matter, for this purpose, whether she’s famous for saving kittens from burning buildings or drinking thirty seven Yagerbombs in fifteen minutes.

There’s a videotape of her that I read about at Jezebel and from our fearless leader Jaclyn. I have not seen it, for two reasons. First, she doesn’t want me to. She’s said that the release of the tape has been very upsetting for her. Second, from the description, things were done to her that she did not consent to, and I really, really don’t want to watch a woman being made to do things that she does not consent to.

Jaclyn goes right at this idea that “consent” is to a nebulous “it”:

The second barrier to recognizing this as rape is the common delusion that sex is one thing — that once a person has said yes or no to “it,” that’s all their partner needs to know. The tape starts with Kendra already naked and in bed with this guy. We, the average viewers, are meant to assume she’s already consented to “having sex” with him. But even if that’s true, what did she consent to? Even if she said, “yes, let’s have sex,” does that mean she’s consented to being recorded? Did she consent to oral sex on camera? Did she consent to him coming inside her? Clearly not. Even if she consented to any of these things in advance, does that mean she can’t change her mind?

[Emphasis supplied.]

Like I tell my kids, if she’s not having fun, you have to stop.

Consent to a blowjob is not consent to a facial, consent to bondage is not consent to caning, consent to intercourse is not consent to be on camera, consent to PIV is not consent to anal, and consent to have a drink in a guy’s room wearing a short skirt is not consent to fuck him. The more explicit the discussion, the harder it is for the proponents of “consent to ‘it'” to keep a straight face, and so one good retort might be, “what, exactly, are you saying she consented to? What could he then do, in your view?” I expect most folks will get very uncomfortable and try to avoid specifics, while others will show that they have very narrow and specific ideas about the “right” way to have sex — the completely arbitrary list of what is normal and what one should expect is a common feature of discussions of mainstream sexual conduct, isn’t it?

Breaking through the nebulous “it” to address the specifics may make some people think about what they’re saying in a different light, and get critical about what they think consent means and what they think sex can or should entail. (Hopefully, eventually, they come to the conclusion that between consenting adults there is no “should.”) As to others, nothing’s going to change their minds, but calling them out for hiding behind the nebulous “it” might make the wrongness of their position so manifest as to leave an impression on whoever hears it.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    July 3, 2010 1:09 pm

    Thomas,

    “Obviously, they assumed that there were limits, and that his limits were congruent with theirs, but they should have known better and needed to be comfortable laying it on the table.”

    this is once again about implicit and explicit consent and, of course, communication. I don’t think it’s as easy as you make it sound to dismiss the realm of “implicit” consent contained in “it”, certainly for people with “normative” sexualities who have every reason to believe that their implicit understanding of “it” is congruent. Sure, it’s always a good idea to check if that is *actually* the case (check this post at Clarisse Thorn’s blog in a comment to which I had the idea of a bar game to do this – http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/sex-communication-tactic-derived-from-sm-1-checklists), but even so, “it” still has a meaning. I wonder if that may be less evident to people with non-standard sexual preferences.

    Here’s an interesting example: I assume you have heard about Nancy Schwartzman’s film “the line” and the accompanying website whereisyourline.org. Nancy Schwartzman was, in her memory, forced to have anal intercourse after having consented to sex (“it”), but the man who did it said it was consensual. I don’t think it was actually too blurry in her case, although she explicitly says she did not say no when it happened.

    So on her quest to explain why she felt she was raped despite having had agreed to “it”, she eventually talks to a sex worker in Nevada about sexual negotiation and she mentions the core question in passing (taken from the movie’s transcript at http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/239/transcript_239.pdf)

    Nancy: How could I not know that? I mean it just makes me realize how risky anything is. ***And then he made this interesting point – we did other things without asking. I touched you here, you licked me there, I didnʼt ask you.*** (emphasis mine)
    Alexis: When youʼre talking about penetration, I assume youʼve kissed somebody before, heʼs kissed somebody before. Heʼs played with a girlʼs boobs, youʼve touched a guyʼs cock. But he doesnʼt know if youʼve ever been fucked in the ass !

    So, even in a film about exploring what constitutes consent and how the consent is communicated, there is an explicit assumption about the normative and implicitly assumed realm of “it”.

  2. July 5, 2010 10:45 pm

    “then it’s okay if I vivisect you, right?”

    oh i’m gonna keep this line in mind for the future😉

    consent is seriously the hardest concept for people to grasp, even though it’s so simple. i cannot wait until society has moved beyond the age old “but she was asking for it!” excuse.

  3. Jen permalink
    July 22, 2010 3:39 pm

    Because of what we do, we know we’re off the standard map of sexual interaction and we know or should know that we need to discuss our boundaries instead of assuming them.

    Isn’t the whole point that there is no “standard map of sexual interaction”? No kissing-leads-to-groping-leads-to-oral-leads-to-penetration roadmap? I’m not a BDSMer myself, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck on anybody’s standard map.

    Also, just in general, I want to say that I LOVE this blog. Thank you for the excellent and thoughtful posts!

  4. Lexica permalink
    July 27, 2010 12:57 pm

    A professional domme I once met mentioned that she would get prospective clients saying “I’ll do ANYTHING, Mistress!” (Which, as an aside, annoyed her because if a guy hadn’t finished negotiating with her, she wasn’t his Mistress.)

    “Oh, good!” she would say with enthusiasm. “I’ve always wanted to do a no-anesthesia amputation scene. Left leg or right?”

    This was generally met with the sound of a gulp and then silence, after which she would help them get the negotiation back on a more productive track.

    (And then there was the prospective client who said he wanted her to run him over in a car. “That’s likely to result in you being dead,” she replied. “I don’t do dead.”)

Trackbacks

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