This post delves more into what I earlier termed “conflict-aversion,” perhaps better described as interpersonal cost, or social cost, although the latter refers to something different in the field of economics. I’m conceptualizing social cost here as a factor that may be anticipated or taken into account in an individual’s decision making, particularly in the case of concession or “compromise.” The rest of this post considers various examples of how and when this can apply.
[ tw for talk of boundaries, coercion, and emotional manipulation ]
Social cost may take the form of consequences to the “eternal no,” that is, the pressure to consent “eventually.” This is synonymous with concerns about saying no “too many times,” a conceptualization of consent in which each “no” incurs a debt that can only be repaid with a later “yes.” Other people, in this case, believe (or are feared to believe) that sex is already a fated imperative, and that it’s simply up to the noncompliant individual to come around and stop postponing it.
Social cost may take the form of consequences to “yeses and then no,” or in other words, a backlash to saying no to an idea after giving consent in a previous instance — for example, having sex a few times and then not wanting to have it the next time it’s proposed, or agreeing to some physical acts but not sexual intercourse, and so on. The fear is that saying no under these circumstances will be perceived as invalidated by prior decisions, under a conceptualization of consent in which one act of consent locks you into a contract of indentured servitude.
keywords: “but last time”
Social cost may take the form of consequences to the “interrupting no” or “not anymore,” which can occur when someone declines to continue an activity that’s currently in progress. Similar to the above, this fear anticipates a model of consent that applies retroactively, requiring compliance based on a previous decision. “Yes, let’s start this” is interpreted as an oath to complete it.
keywords: “point of no return”
Social cost may take the form of consequences to the “pause/wait,” which may or may not become a “not anymore.” If interpreted as the latter, it may incur the same consequences as described above. Regardless, however, a pause for reevaluation as an individual gets their bearings may run the risk of being interpreted as an unwarranted inconvenience and a disruption to “the flow of things.” In other words, an adverse impact on quality of experience, for one participant, may be expected to be prioritized over another participant’s quality of experience or even their right to autonomy.
keywords: “ruins the mood”
And that’s just a few examples off the top of my head.
Along similar lines, this kind of social cost may be (in some cases) more specifically thought of as a kind of transaction cost, in that you may get what you asked for (the cessation of an activity, for instance) but at a cost for having asked (ex. grumpiness or resentment on the part of your partner). Social cost may also be thought of as granting situations a kind of metaphysical inertia, such that something “keeps going” merely because would be costly to stop.
To be clear, these costs do not have to be experienced firsthand in order to qualify as cost — for example, if you’re worried your partner might react to something in a way you don’t want, that makes it an example of cost (whether your partner would actually react that way or not) because it’s still taken into account as a factor in your decision making, a la cost-benefit analysis.
The purpose of this post is to provide some more language for the way we think and talk about communication, consent, and “social expectations.” By now it’s axiomatic, in the right circles, to say that consent given under threat of retribution isn’t valid or “real” consent. I’ve rarely seen social cost discussed in-depth alongside such claims, however. One might even argue that some degree of social cost will always be inevitable. Still, at this point, I want to take a page from Elizabeth and say you have permission: permission to view social cost as a relevant factor in what guided your decisions, permission to change your mind about how you interpret your own choices, and permission to make a distinction between “real” consent and simply picking the lesser of two evils.