Updated: Aug 23, 2022
It’s great that vanilla America is finally discovering the idea of consent. Not our judges or politicians apparently, but a large number of non-kinkly folks are starting to think about sex and consent in a way they never have.
Articles in widely read papers about the idea of consent and things like Tea and Consent going viral actually speaks volumes about the cultural shifting that is taking place. Less than two years ago I was submitting articles about consent to publications like the Good Men Project and Cosmo and being rejected because talking about negotiating consent was considered to “extreme” and “too sexual” for readers while their tips on how to finger bang your male partner were apparently “mild.”
Like any topic a large number of folks are new to, the discussion follows a format:
introduction of an idea
limited understanding leads to a repetition of key points without deeper conversation
going overboard on restrictions and application of the idea
loss of interest.
Look, I am all for consent becoming the basis of American sexual culture. However, the current state is a extreme. For example:
Consent polices have been introduced at a large number of colleges. This is great because campus rape is a huge problem. According to RAAIN women in college are three times as likely to be assaulted as other groups of women and men in college are 78 percent more likely to experience sexual assault than men 18-24 not in college. That is horrifying. Clearly something needs to be done.
Many colleges have adopted the idea of “affirmative consent,” or “yes-means-yes.” This is a step forward from “no-means-no” but the interpretation of this idea is wide-ranging and sometimes unwieldy.
There are a number of college campuses in my area (northern CA) which require that both participants in a sexual encounter (they never address more than two folks having sex at once) verbally affirm their desire to progress from one sexual activity to the next every time they engage in sex. These policies do not address issues that come up in real life situations such as implied consent, discussing sex days or weeks prior to engaging in it, or having sex while intoxicated with an established partner.
The failure to address these issues is a failure to look at sex and how it really happens. Sticking to the letter of these policies, two married graduate students living in student family housing would be in violation of campus consent policies if they shared a few drinks and then had sex without agreeing to all sexual activities as they progressed. First, both students would violate the policy because they were drunk and not able to give a sober, informed consent. Secondly, there is no part of the policy which acknowledges a married couple may have standing consent agreements.
This is not to say married people can’t rape or assault each other. Clearly that happens. However, most of us in long-standing relationships actually don’t follow the clear “yes-means-yes” consent policies every time we have sex. The failure to follow these consent rules does not mean we are assaulting each other. Rather, it draws attention to talk about the more complex nature of consent.
The reality is, for most of us, consent is more complicated than, “you can kiss me now,” later followed by, “you can have oral sex with me now,” and so on. In new relationships and with new sexual activities partners need to establish consent. I would never advocate surprising a partner with something up the butt if you both had not talked about it and established consent prior to trying this. But in long term relationships and in established power exchange relationships, implied consent becomes a thing.
Implied consent is actually a major concept in many power exchange relationships. Whether you are Master/slave, Dom(me)/sub, Top/bottom, DD/lg or another permutation of a power exchange relationship, most likely you have talked about limits- hard and soft. More likely, you agreed to large categories of activities but not each specific action within a category.
Let’s take impact play as an example. I negotiate with my long term dominant that I am good with impact play. I like them know I like canes, paddles are okay, and whips are something I am not horribly fond of. The dominant is good with this and we move on to other topics.
We play together for several months and then the dominant decides to surprise me with a new toy- a chain flogger. We agreed on impact in general, but I did not specify floggers or the materials toys could be made out of. If we were going by the letter of many “yes-means-yes” policies, if the dominant used the chain flogger without talking to me about it, they could be in violation of my consent since I had not specifically said floggers were okay.
For many kinky folks however, consenting to impact play in general and then engaging with the same person repeatedly over many months would provide a basis to believe that introducing a new impact tool is perfectly acceptable. As a sub, I do have the option to say no, to use a safe word or to experience the flogger and then after the scene address my feelings about it with my dominant. Technically I did not give informed, verbal and enthusiastic consent to the flogger, but the relationship and previous play was a strong basis for assuming consent.
Consent can get even trickier. What about an unconscious person?
Currently there are multiple American jurisdictions- including Oklahoma– where forcing oral sex on an unconscious person (sleeping, drunk or drugged) is acceptable. This is clearly a violation of consent in most cases. If I go to a bar, get drunk, a guy takes me home and I pass out then he sticks his dick in my mouth, that is not okay. At that point, I am going to assume he consents to having his prick bit off if I wake up.
But what about a newly dating couple who is spending the night together for the third time? What if I am with a new-ish partner. We have been dating for six weeks. He spends the night and we have consensual sex before falling asleep. Then, I wake up at 5 AM because he got morning wood and decided to initiate sex and he is already penetrating me. Is that rape?
This is a very grey area. Personally, I like waking up to morning nookie so having this happen with an established partner would be sexy for me. For other people, this would not be okay. I deal with it by letting my partners know up from that I like surprise sex in the morning. However, when someone does not give explicit consent for this, is it rape? This is where the rules of “informed, conscious and enthusiastic consent” makes reality complicated for dating couples.
Consent and Subcultures
Some of our kinky subcultures really blur levels of consent. I have had multiple conversations with gay leathermen about consent. They are some of the most informed and biggest supporters of improving understandings about consent and enforcing consent. But… in some spaces it gets blurry.
Can entering a gay leather bar imply some level of consent?
It is not uncommon in some leather spaces for gay men to touch each other’s chests, packages, and asses without asking for explicit consent. As one friend put it, “In a gay leather bar, a guy grabbing my dick is like a handshake.”
Clearly at a work function or even in a hetero leather bar, grabbing someone’s penis is not a cultural thing and falls under the heading “consent violation.” But what about a sexual subculture that has long established certain types of touching can be acceptable with clearly expressed verbal consent? Is this behavior now sexual assault and should be stopped or is participating in spaces where that is a clear parameter of the subculture an implied consent?
What has been lost in the larger discussions around the #metoo consent issues is that there is context to actions. Some actions are horribly egregious and the fact that employers and people in powerful positions have felt free to assault people without fearing repercussions is not okay and must be addressed.
When it comes to established personal relationships, the lines are less clear. I support laws that allow spouses to file rape charges. People get raped in marriages, sometimes repeatedly by their partners, and we need legal policies which protect folks. Date rape is still an enormous issue for all genders. We have to have the consent 101 conversation over and over until most of us get that date rape is not okay.
I don’t want this to revert into a situation where the victim is assumed to be lying and has to undergo all sorts of emotional and mental gymnastics to prove that they were assaulted. That was never okay.
However, as a community of sexual minorities, kinky folks lead the world in establishing a community-based understanding that consent is key to a healthy relationship. We need to push forward with Consent 201 conversations to figure out how we address these less-defined areas of consent without reverting to a “blame the victim” culture.