A woman walks through a bar. As she passes his table, a man reaches out and grabs her hand. He pulls her onto his lap and kisses her.
A woman walks through a bar. As she passes his table, a man holds his hand out to her. They make eye contact. He takes her hand, pulls her onto his lap, and they kiss.
I have said before, here on this very website, that consent is simple. I'd like to modify that statement now. Most of the time, consent is simple. Sometimes, though, it's incredibly fucking complicated.
After reading this blog by an acquaintance of mine about our mutual social group, I started thinking about the complexities of consent. Consent can feel like a harder thing to police in a sex-positive environment like KAOS, or kink. That's not because it's actually harder, but because people are actually, consciously, doing the work. Looking out for people who are getting unwanted attention at parties isn't an issue if nobody's doing it.
I think there are levels of understanding of consent issues. It's like when you're learning science: every time you progress to a new level, the first thing they teach you is that everything you've already been taught is bollocks. The basic, kindergarten level of understanding consent is "No means no." This is fine when you're also learning turn-taking and not to eat paint. Primary-level understanding of consent is "Yes means yes." An absence of a verbal refusal is not consent. California has just passed a law saying you can't have sex with someone who's unconscious, and it was controversial.
And I don't want to take us to a tertiary level of talking about consent today. Let's not talk about consensual non-consent and stuff yet. Or indeed, for the peace of mind of most of you, at all.
So let's look at a secondary level of understanding of consent. I like to think of this as "hearing about Good2Go and immediately realising it's a bloody stupid idea".
“Are We Good2Go?” the first screen asks, prompting the partner to answer “No, Thanks,” “Yes, but … we need to talk,” or “I’m Good2Go.”
So, you're 'good to go', right? You've agreed to have sex. So, lads, you've just agreed she can anally penetrate you with a strap-on? That wasn't what you meant by 'sex'? Well, you never said. The app never specifies what you're consenting to. It's supposed to help clear up "he said she said" (ugh) rape cases. Imagine using the app, and then wanting to withdraw consent later on. It might be well-intentioned, but it's a literal fucking disaster.
One of the things about kink is that people pretty much have to be quite specific about what they're consenting to:
Consent in BDSM is a really big deal, because the stuff we do would be torture without consent. It's sad that it's any different for [vanilla] sex, but not a whole lot of people could convince themselves "well they seemed like they wanted to be dressed up like a ballerina and smeared with mashed potatoes, they did go up to my bedroom after all" to themselves.
A secondary level of consent understanding realises that you're not consenting to sex, but to a particular act with a particular person.
Those of us who are big on enthusiastic consent, or positive consent, or having sex on purpose, have a set of ideals. There should always be talking. There should always be relative sobriety. There should be check-ins, because consent can be withdrawn at any time.
We also live in a country where, were it not for the drunken hook-up at parties, we'd have died out as a species.
Those ideals are bloody good ideas. Most of the time, consent is simple. Even without words, people should be able to tell the difference between someone who is really into what's going on, and someone who's hating every minute of it. If you can't do that, you should never, under any circumstances, have sex without getting verbal consent. A woman isn't a gatekeeper of sex, she should be an active participant.
See those examples up the top of the column? The bottom one happened to me. Not a word was spoken between the two of us, but he paused, and allowed me to consent. That was what made it a really great evening, and not an assault.
When we talk about consent like this, though, sometimes we erase the experiences of really decent people, and create an atmosphere where they won't talk about them because it doesn't feel safe. I asked people to tell me their experiences of complicated consent, and remarkably they did.
One recurring theme was intoxication. Now, I know we say you should never have sex with someone who's so drunk they can't consent, but that assumes that, as an observer, you can tell. Certainly I've run across people who, when they're intoxicated, appear pretty much sober. They don't slur, they don't stagger, they don't – like me – get incredibly loud and interesting. And when they wake up in the morning, they have no memory at all of what happened the night before. What if you sleep with one of those people, not knowing they do that?
People can refuse consent for any reason, and we don't get to say that reason's not good enough. But I've never actually bothered to ask anyone if they vote ACT before I slept with them. Can they be expected to realise it's important to tell me? What if they're in a monogamous relationship? Do I have to tell them I'm bi? Do they have to tell me if they're trans? It's not okay to lie to people – about your age, your marital status, whether you want kids – to get consent, but you're not always going to realise what the trigger issues are.
And then there's sleep. A friend told me this story, and it chimed, because I had it happen to me. You're asleep, and you wake up slowly realising that someone is engaging in foreplay with you, and it feels quite nice, and then you wake up enough to realise that NO that's wrong. And when you say, "What the fuck are you doing?", they look at you blankly and say, "You started it." And you did. In your sleep.
In cases like that, I think it's important to realise that one person can have a really awful, traumatic experience without the other person intending to hurt them at all.
Other things at a secondary level of understanding: consent can last longer than the relationship. If it was secret, do you have the right to tell people after it ended? I mean, it's your life, right? But it's also the other person's. Got photos? Great. Got consent to share them? No? Then don't.
All aspects of relationships can be tricky, especially because most of the time, we're just supposed to "know". We look back at situations and have no idea what we "should" have done. We make mistakes. It's important is that we have the space to acknowledge those mistakes so we can learn from them.