Feminism 201: Consent Paranoia
May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
This may be an issue that crops up only between women. But I doubt it. It is certainly an issue that crops up only among people who have a well established desire to have only consensual sex. So if you’re still working on that, you need Feminism 101 type discussions, and not this entry. This discussion is for those people engaging in their personal lives from a strong stance of feminist ethics and working out the complex dynamics of a countercultural value system meeting with the real, quite muddled world. So if you’re starting from there, feel free to read on.
The way I see it, once you are committed to consent, there are two lines of work still to do. The first is developing the skills to negotiate consent in real life situations, where formulaic, performative lessons society has taught us about initiating sex just don’t apply and often work against us. The second is managing the all the stuff that crops up for you and your partners regarding sex, when triggers from past trauma and mixed up shaming messages and simple lack of helpful skills all get in the way of everyone actually having the experiences they want. This post is about a place where those two things seem to really connect.
I’m in a steady sexual relationship with another radical feminist, Valerie. She identifies as a kinkster, and I don’t (although radical feminism and polyamory with people of diverse genders obscures the definition of “vanilla” to some extent.) One of our most important conversations about sex took place after I joked around about rope play. She hit the breaks suddenly and had what could only be described as a crisis of consent. She was about to do the freak-and-run, but luckily she decided to stay and talk it out. We hit upon a major internal experience we were both having but not able to articulate, which we started calling “consent paranoia”.
Basically, we were both second-guessing each other’s expressions of consent, but were not able to constructively address it. As a result, one of us would stop something from happening (express non-consent) not out of a lack of personal desires but out of a sense that the other person was not or could not be genuinely consenting. Since then, there have been times when both of us have starting backing off and realized the motivation was not lack of consent or desire personally, but worry about the presence of consent from the other person, even against all evidence. I don’t think this experience is totally uncommon, but without a name for it, there is rarely a dialogue about how to address and manage it in a healthy way.
In essence, without recognizing it, we sometimes start making choices for each other, that is the choice to stop, not out of a will to dominate, but out of a desire not to cause harm. Is that so bad? No, it’s not so bad. The risk factors are quite low here, compared with deciding to go on with something someone does not consent to; nobody is going to get sexually traumatized. But some consensual sex and the corresponding connection was not going to be had and anything that estranges two people seems like an issue to me. I think the more good sex is had the better the world will be and the easier it will be to name and be outraged by abuse masquerading as sex.
A lot of us recognize that we have ourselves failed to express non-consent or expressed consent when we were not consenting for some reason or another. A lot of times, that reason is external, i.e. we’re with an abusive partner. But sometimes, it’s internal, like when we’re too afraid of hurting someone’s feelings to say no, or this and not that, or just not right now. Or it’s because we simply do not know what we want and don’t know how to exist without anxiety in a state of “maybe” or how to go about searching out what we want so we can express our consent. It’s definitely good to know this is a reality and that false expressions of consent can happen and to incorporate knowledge of that dynamic into how we engage with one another, especially when we don’t know our partner too well. In the past, I had what I now believe was a nonconsensual sexual experience with someone who was not only expressing consent but initiating the interaction. I was relieved when Jaclyn Friedman addressed this in a Q&A she crafted from an attack on her work. I had one of those “Thank God, it’s not just me!” moments.
I think what we need is not to ignore or suppress consent paranoia, especially since it feels very similar to actually noticing when someone is giving mixed messages or feigning consent, but to develop the further skills to negotiate consent when our risk tolerance not for ourselves but for our partners gets too high for our comfort. It can certainly feel awkward to say, “Are you sure?” or “I’m getting some mixed signals from you, and I need us to slow down,” and then address worries cropping up for us internally. Being able to just say, “I’m having some consent paranoia,” has done a lot for me. This kind of honesty requires a lot of vulnerability and trust in a partner.
Negotiating not just yes and no but the maybe aspect of sex in a way that is tolerable for all parties is an important skill that our society generally does not acknowledge as even being a part of sex. Soliciting an affirmation from your partner that non-consent will be addressed, that you won’t be allowed to venture accidentally into leading experiences of non-consent, that they will be accountable to themselves and to you is necessary for a feminist’s peace of mind and should be considered a part of maintaining your own consent. It seems sad to say it, but a lot of people do not assume that their partners only want to engage in acts they are fully consenting to, but that they want to engage in anything they can get away with. Consent is not understood to be the bottom line for enacting desires, the battery without which the fantasy cannot and does not run in real life. I think we need to communicate this to our partners in a myriad of ways consistently over time. And I hope this creates new awareness and new standards of what people expect from sex partners once they’ve had a partner who is mindful and skilled in managing consent.
As I said, I don’t think this issue is exclusive to relationships among women. I’ve known men who second guess or simply feel guilty about expressions of consent from their female partners because of an internalized sense that their sexuality is inherently violating and damaging and degrading to whomever they have sex with. The “I got her to do this” creepy showboat side of performative sexist masculinity also can add a flavor of creepiness to the genuine desires of men with willing partners. Men get a share of sexual trauma instilled in them from our society, as well. How many men grow up being taught that their penis is an instrument of pleasure rather than an instrument of pain, a means for creating connection rather than forcing submission? How many men grow up being taught that their bodies are designed to nurture and create and take please and joy in the world rather than to dominate and kill, or, at best, protect and work? A lot of men find it hard to believe they can be mutually desired and censor their sexual behaviors rather than addressing worries and negative feeling that come up when they seek them out. I’m sure a lot of men experience consent paranoia as regularly as women do.
What are the causes of consent paranoia? Seems to me like it can be a lot of things – differing communication styles, internalized shame, politicization of particular sex acts, changes in a partners signals over time, obsession with consent, low lighting. Whatever it is, knowing how to distinguish concern about a partner’s consent within a spectrum of one’s own is something everyone operating from an ethic of consent has to manage that seems to generally go unnamed.