A Concern

This post is a response to Sennkestra’s comment on Queenie’s gray area of experience post.  So, consequently, expect talk of consent, sex, and trauma in the abstract, with vague example situations here and there of rape culture.  In their comment, Sennkestra made a distinction between two different models of consent, one ethics-based, and one experience-based.

Here’s the relevant passage to read:

Instead, what I’d like to see is a sort of decoupling of the questions of “was this sex consensual*” and “was this sex healthy/good/enjoyable or traumatic/bad/negative?” I want an approach that recognizes that even completely ‘consensual’ encounters can be harmful, unpleasant things that shouldn’t have happened. I want an approach that can recognize that even good, healthy, enjoyable encounters can still be examples of poor consent.

But I think part of the issue in trying to decouple these is that there are sort of two purposes for models of consent: The first is to serve as a sort of ethical guideline for when it’s appropriate to initiate sexual activity (i.e., is it ok for person A to have sex with person B?); but the other way I’ve seen them used is a sort of framework for understanding and discussing personal experiences with sex (i.e. to give Person B a way to frame their experiences – were these positive or negative experiences for me? were they heathy? did I really know what I was getting into?).

The ethical-guideline model of consent is centered on Person A: How should they make decisions? What is/isn’t ok for them to do? Did they act in an ethically correct way? and perhaps most importantly: Should they be legally or socially sanctioned? This model of consent is useful for things like writing rape/sexual assault laws, criminal proceedings, college policies, figuring out how to deal with your peers, etc. etc. – the interpersonal implications of consent. However, it’s not very good for figuring out what the impact was on person B.

On the other hand, I feel like the personal-experience model of consent is centered around Person B: how did they feel? Was this a healthy or a traumatic experience? Did they enjoy it or was it not that great? Did they know what they were getting into? Were they fully informed? Were there outside factors negatively affecting their decisions? This model of consent is useful for the figuring out one’s own emotions and reactions – the personal implications of consent. However, it’s not always very good for figuring out what the appropriate interpersonal social response from others should be.

I think both of these approaches have their merits, but I think they are useful for different things. A personal-experience model generally is less useful for things like determining “consent” for the purposes of sexual assault cases. An ethical-guideline model is generally not useful for conversations about the effects past trauma on a person. We need to be able to talk about “was it a negative experience for Person B” without having to say “was it all Person A’s fault”; and we need ways to acknowledge things like “compulsory sexuality” that can negatively influence things but still be outside either individuals control.

As to how to fix that…that’s a little more difficult. Finding a way to differentiate ethical-guidelines approaches from personal-experience approaches might help, but it’s only a little part of a larger mess (And how to do that is complicated – I personally prefer to reserve “consensual” for questions on the ethical-guidelines side of things, and use other terms for discussing the personal-experience side of things, but I don’t know that that’s a workable overall solution).

So, here are my thoughts on that, in no particular order:

There’s something about this distinction that certainly appeals to me.  Experience/impact being distinct from ethical sanction.  Yes.  Means we can stop doing “consensual experience = positive experience” and “acceptable experience = acceptable consent.”  Just because a person wasn’t bothered by it doesn’t mean it was morally okay.

I really need this, actually.  I need this because people have told me stories of stuff and I’ve been like “whoa, they should have gotten your permission for that” but their response was “I didn’t mind” (with an implied, so you’d be wrong to condemn it).  But.  Thing is.  If you treat it that way, then you’re establishing a precedent for “I think it’s okay for someone to do XYZ without asking” which, uh.  May be fine for you but is terrifying for people like me, thanks.

However.

For one (minor) thing, I take issue with “Was this a healthy or a traumatic experience?” as one of the evaluation questions.  Presumably it wasn’t intended to say that those are the only two options in a this-or-that binary, but it could come across that way, and I just want to clarify: an experience can be one you wished hadn’t happened and was harmful to you (i.e. “unhealthy,” though the health metaphor is limited here) while, at the same time, not being an experience that manifests brainwise as trauma.  That’s something we need to allow space for, too.  All the more so in light of the fact that people can sometimes be hesitant to name and recognize their trauma as trauma.

For another (less minor) thing, I have concerns about these models/this distinction spreading to people who would manipulate them for their own self-justification.  People who disregard that only Person B has the right to evaluate Person B’s experience.  People who twist the experience-model into an after-the-fact secondary ethical-model that becomes prioritized over the first one — “Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have done that, but it turned out alright, so there’s really nothing wrong with it.”  I’m having visions of Person As responding to criticism of their unethical/poor choices with accusations that, by condemning something that brought sexual pleasure to both parties, the critic is being oppressive and sex-negative.

…That’s already some of what happens, actually.  I’m just worried that, in the wrong hands, this could add fuel to the fire.  You can repeat until you’re blue in the face that only Person B is able to judge what their own experience is, but knowing we live in a world where people are routinely labeled without their say-so, I wouldn’t count on that to be respected.

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9 responses to “A Concern

  • Siggy

    I am not too worried that the personal experience model will be used to replace the ethical model. The personal experience model is actually more restrictive! There are many cases where people have a negative experience (ie it’s bad within the personal experience model), but do not have any interest in punishing the perpetrators (ie it’s acceptable within the ethical-guideline model). There aren’t many cases where it’s the other way around.

    • Coyote

      I don’t know how these scenarios compare quantitatively, but I guess I’ve encountered enough accounts of the reverse that it’s primed to come to mind.

      • Siggy

        Yeah, it could go either way, it’s just my personal impression.

        Ozy independently made a very similar distinction. Their concern is not that the personal experience model of consent is too permissive, but that it’s too restrictive. It could lead to people saying, “everyone’s breaking the rules all the time, so I’ll just break them some more.”

      • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

        I’ve been mulling this over for the past two weeks and it occurred to me that a very common example of the reverse (an example of “ethically wrong but not at the time experienced negatively”) is sexual abuse where the abuser uses grooming as a tactic.

        An example that I thought of was a situation that happened at a high school near where I grew up: a student who was 15 had a teacher-crush, and the teacher began a sexual relationship with that student. Definitely ethically wrong, but at the time of the abuse it is possible that the student believed it to be something they wanted and did not (at least initially) experience it as traumatic. People who have been sexually abused in this manner often have very conflicted feelings about the abuse (esp. how the abuser should be dealt with) due to that they viewed some of the experiences at the time as positive. The “but they wanted it” defense attempted by sexual abusers–as well as the “but you wanted it” kind of shaming that others will direct at the abused person–compounds this.

    • Sennkestra

      Actually, when it comes to certain things being “bad” from an ethical model but maybe “good” from a personal experience model, there are definitely situations where that happens – statutory rape is the first biggie that comes to mind, specifically when underaged people might be quite happy and feel good about their sexual experiences with an older partner, but society considers them too young to be able to ethically/properly engage in sex, and thus considers the partner’s behaviour worthy of punishment (even if the “victim” doesn’t agree). It’s also where you can, I think, most clearly see ethical behaviour vs. personal experience arguments playing out, as people debate over what should matter more: social injunctions against sex with minors or minors’ ability to definine consent and evaluate their experiences for themselves. I think it’s also a good illustration about how even when you try to use this division, consent issues are still really complicated and messy.

      As for whether this will be manipulated/abused by people with ill intent…I don’t worry about it too much, mostly for the somewhat depressing reason that manipulative people are already basically using those same arguments anyway. This sort of thinking is something a lot of people already do unconsciously (as in debates over statutory rape, as mentioned above). All that this model does is clarify things a bit with some new vocabulary.

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  • Sennkestra

    Heya, so I’m just getting to this late, but good point about the “trauma” thing! I think I fell into the trap of kind of carelessly watering down the word “traumatic” to just mean “anything bad”, so thanks for commenting on that.

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