Kink in exile

Notes from a kinky nomad

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?

Written by kinkinexile

May 1, 2013 at 1:46 am

Posted in headspace, personal

6 Responses

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  1. In reference to your first paragraph: is there a reason you didn’t or couldn’t withdraw consent in this situation?

    I just wrote a post about this. I think it’s important to repeat: it is possible to consent to something you don’t want. That said, consenting to something you don’t want ought not to include feeling like 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. If I’m consenting to something I don’t want (from “sure honey, we’ll swap cars today so I can change your oil” to “Sure, we can have sex” even if I’m really not physically aroused and doubt I’ll get there), it’s because what I’m consenting to has a purpose and is not harmful to me. (I know how to/have time to maintain our vehicles, my spouse does not; sex and physical attention are reassuring to him when he feels stressed or frightened or disconnected from me/humanity in general)

    I guess consent feels like pride and the security to make my own decisions? I may not enjoy this act, but I see it building or improving something and I believe more important than my enjoyment of the moment. It’s not enthusiastic consent (enthusiastic consent is way better), but it works. If it’s so upsetting you feel physically sick or will have a panic attack…why consent?


    May 1, 2013 at 10:43 am

    • Hey, to (very belatedly) answer your question, I was consenting to be in my best friend’s wedding. I strongly dislike weddings, and had just learned some things about gender as it related to the wedding party that made me extra uneasy. However, there is no way in hell I would have backed out of that, and really very little chance that I would have not consented in the first place. It’s the kind of social obligation that glues relationships together. Complicated yes: yes I want to strengthen our relationship even though I hate the way I’m doing that right now.


      October 24, 2013 at 10:45 pm

  2. Consent feels mostly calm and unworried. I can always be a little nervous going into a new situation, but I feel sure of myself and excited about the results. Also, knowing that I can always just say “No thank you” at any point or safe word out of a situation makes the consent more of my own free will.


    May 9, 2013 at 3:38 am

  3. I relate to this essay as a male submissive. Recently I have had the delightful experience of establishing a relationship with a dominant woman, for the first time in my long life. All my previous experiences had been with professional dommes. Well, about a month ago we were spending an evening together and she was physically very harsh with me. My experience went from being turned on to “when will she stop, I hope she stops soon”. I didn’t ask her to stop, or to lighten up, because I didn’t want to disappoint her. Or to seem less myself. Pride in being able to take it. Later, by email, I told her that it had been too heavy for me and she was very apologetic. The experience gave me lots of food for thought as to my responsibility for myself. In my regular life I am pretty assertive when it comes to my personal experiences, e.g. in restaurants I will ask them to adjust the air conditioning or music level if I think it’s too cold or too loud. But I guess I was still feeling insecure about the relationship and was afraid to rock the boat. I hope that I am now in a more secure frame of mind.


    July 8, 2013 at 3:09 pm

  4. […] What would you change about your behavior towards others if you acknowledged that violating consent hinged not on what they said about how they felt, but on how they actually felt? What would change about your behavior toward yourself? What does consent feel like to you? […]

  5. […] What would you change about your behavior towards others if you acknowledged that violating consent hinged not on what they said about how they felt, but on how they actually felt? What would change about your behavior toward yourself? What does consent feel like to you? […]

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