A More Detailed Topography of Social Cost

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.

keywords: “yet”

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.

15 responses to “A More Detailed Topography of Social Cost

  • epochryphal

    Yessssssss yes yes all of this.

    Thanks also for breaking out “withdrawing consent” into more specifically during an act or in a relationship. Those two get conflated a lot and the experience is really different I feel.

    “Threats/coercion” is, yeah. So broad, and Serious sounding, and if it’s all internal anticipatory cost-benefit calculating, it’s really hard to put a finger on the source. (Even if it’s because of internalizing a response pattern, one where partner goes into crisis if consent is ever “imperfect” and the result is an exhausting caretaking experience. Even if it’s really clearly railroaded.)

    So yes, social cost (and fewer buzzwords), maybe more accessible — but also a definite risk of becoming a baseline, not-enough to be anything else, all-in-your-head not-real-pressure, thing. Argh.

    I agree, I think permission to self-describe and change framing, is super vital.

    • Coyote


      "if it's all internal anticipatory cost-benefit calculating, it's really hard to put a finger on the source."

      Exactly. And I think/hope, if there's more awareness of this concept, then maybe, with people having it on their minds that this can happen, it'll make way for more open conversations and dispelling doubt? I mean, the ideal healthy relationship is based on more than just the absence of being "actively pressured," right. In the culture we live in, it makes a lot of sense to worry about how someone will react to a no, especially with sex, and I would think a caring partner would actively try to lower these costs if they understood that.

  • Captain Heartless

    (tw: rape, consent) I haven’t entirely kept up on the recent conversations about grey areas, but I feel like this is really useful. Because I’m not sure how to characterize some of my past experiences, and I think the best way is to simply say that social costs coerced me in to doing things I didn’t want to? I recently had an (awkward) conversation with a friend where he basically told me that it sounded like I was raped and I disagreed with him- and his point was basically decisions under fear of retribution aren’t consent regardless of where the fear is coming from. But to me, it seemed strange to label it like that, since the threat/fear wasn’t necessarily from my partner- but from what I was afraid could happen (not to mention the fact I’m not sure I knew I could say no, the idea just wasn’t in my vocabulary). So it’s a weird case of having (arguably) a victim, but no clear perpetrator- and one that I’m not even sure counts as a grey area, even if it’s still definitely a bad situation. And I’ve always wondered what to call it.

    (as an aside, this conversation was about events so far in the past that I barely remember them, can’t definitively say what I was thinking at the time or what happened, and definitely don’t care what to call them, so it wasn’t as much of a weird conversation as it sounds- especially since my memory has been having trouble with certain things recently, so I was in part trying to draw on his memories of how I felt/acted at the time it all happened)

    • Coyote

      Thanks for commenting. Yeah, that sounds like the kind of situation I was imagining this would be useful for — not as a comprehensive answer, of course, but as a starting point. You might also be interested in the conversation on this post.

  • awriterofsorts

    This was really on point with me, even in a ‘healthy’ relationship I feel like all of these apply. It is an unpleasant grey area, but this discussion has added a lot of clarity to my thoughts.

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