What does consent *feel* like?
I’m sitting in a hotel room getting ready to do something I don’t want to. As I get ready to quite literally smile and nod through discomfort I’m finding this to be a surprisingly good opportunity to reflect on what consent feels like. It does not feel like this. I know because my stomach is tight, my shoulders are tense, I’m comforting myself with how long until it’s over not how long until it begins.
But I’m getting ready to do something I consented to. I had a choice, I consented. Consent has shades of grey. The space between “no. stop.” and “don’t stop” is not binary and I think we forget that too often.
So what does consent feel like? First, what does the grey space look like? Typically, when I’m in that grey space, when I’m doing something I’ve consented to but don’t want to do, it is because of something else. When I was younger it was sometimes because I didn’t know how to say “no” politely. Now, when I’m more concerned with my comfort than politeness in these situations, I still do things I would rather not to keep from hurting a partner’s feelings for example, or to avoid an argument. When my sex drive took a nose dive in a long term relationship a few years ago, my gynecologist told me to start having sex slowly and see if I get turned on 10-15 minutes into the sex. This was actually great, and fairly common, advice.
There’s a temptation in these grey spaces to assign blame, except you can’t. What we actually have is a social problem. We tell women – and if you’re in the BDSM scene, submissive people – that it is their obligation to express and defend their limits without considering the complexity of this problem.
Maybe you’re confused now, or indignant? “Well if she says yes how am I supposed to know she didn’t want it?” Or “personal responsibility!” Don’t worry, we’re all being screwed by this together. We tell men, and tops, to ask permission (sometimes we don’t even tell them that much, but I’ll be optimistic) but we don’t fully explain the ways in which consent can be coerced or altered here either.
The thing I find startling, the thing that really fucking needs to change, is that most women I know (and submissive identified people I’ve spoken with, again if you’re reading from a BDSM perspective) have a well developed palette of experiences in this grey space. We *know* that there are different motivations behind our yeses and some of these are “I don’t want to have a fight with you” or “submission is a fetish for not saying no” or whatever else. And I don’t begrudge the recipients of my complicated yeses, but I am a little pissed off that we don’t have these conversations, especially that we don’t have these conversations when we talk about the importance of consent.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say that we don’t have to get it 100% right 100% of the time. Frankly, communication is hard, people’s motivations are tricky and I think coming to a complete standstill over “we’ll never get consent 100% right so lets either stop having sex or stop trying to get it right” is a complete derail. Humans don’t do perfect, stop using that as an excuse to not do *better*. Be honest, do you really have nooooo way to tell if he/she/they want it, or are you just being lazy and taking advantage of a complex problem when it suits you? Do you really think that working toward building consent together is a slap in the face to personal responsibility? Or do you maybe have some personal responsibility in here too? And don’t go the other way on me here, don’t go all 2nd wave feminist and tell me my consent doesn’t exist cause society is busted.
The bottom line is that I’ve both offered complicated yeses and I have blindly accepted them. I’ve been oblivious to “yes” that means “maybe” and I’ve intentionally pushed “maybe” to “yes.” (I think I’ve never pushed an outright “no” anywhere, if I have, I’m sorry, let’s talk…if you’d like to). I’ve been pushed into faulty yeses that I only realized we’re problematic in hindsight (20:20) and I’ve had genuine yeses deferred by partners who were too kind to put me in the former situation (something I’ve found frustrating in the moment but have always been grateful for in the long run.)
I guess all I’m saying is that consent is not a binary state and while “no means no” is a good start, perhaps it’s time to take a look at some complications.
So what does consent feel like? What does it feel like when your tooth simply doesn’t hurt? This one for me is defined by calmness and ease of movement. It’s not arousal, arousal is actually a distinct different thing, consent has something in common with being present.
Complicated yeses come from some exterior need – I’m worried about an argument, your feelings, etiquette – I know what worried feels like. By comparison, memories of consent feel like, well, like a simple statement of fact.
I keep wanting to point to something more than the absents of physiological signs of distress, or something more specific, but that’s really all I have. What does consent feel like to you?