Consent as an Incomplete Metric for Morality

[tw: tangential to David-Bowie-is-a-pedophile discourse and blunt CSA talk in a linked post, w/ my input having a more specific focus on the concept of “consent” and what it means]

I think it’s interesting to see this conversation happen, not because any particular statement within it is especially insightful (although there’s some of that), but because I think it’s illustrative of complications in delineating what constitutes consent & the relationship between that and delineating what constitutes abuse.

The popular stance I’ve seen among… what I’ll call consent-advocates (think, like, folks IDing as sex-positive feminists, most liberals and individualists in general, most kinky PR agents) is that 1) abuse is what is nonconsensual, but 2) children/minors are not capable of consent (“to sex, with adults” is implied, although I’ve usually seen the wording just left at that).

That’s the stance that’s represented in proletarianrevenge’s comment — and I’m sympathetic to it, in some ways.  It’s working within a consent-is-necessary-for-ethically-acceptable-sex framework and then creating an explanation for how CSA can still be evil regardless of the child’s choices.  And as a rhetorical end goal, that sounds about right.

But it also sounds like it’s working backwards.

Like you start from a premise of “CSA is abuse” (by definition) and layer that over a party line of “abuse is that which is nonconsensual” and so you have to conclude “then children must be unable to consent” (to sex, with adults).  And then you have to keep working backwards to justify that conclusion (children can’t consent because neurological development, children can’t consent because power imbalance, children consent because they don’t know what they’re doing, etc. etc.).

……when, to me, it seems like you could take CSA as an opportunity to realize things like 1) abuse can occur regardless of mutual desire or stated permission, & agreeing-to-it being an ethical requirement for sex doesn’t make it the only requirement, or you could even realize 2) the way that various consent-advocates discuss “consent” often bundles “consent” + “permission” into one term while honoring consent (and thereby honoring permission), and that makes things appear more muddled and unclear than they have to be when the two diverge.

Basically the viewpoint is hinging the “CSA is abuse” premise on this weird roundabout argument of “children can’t meet Consent Qualifications that we rarely bring up in any circumstance except for children” instead of just going for “the adult is exploiting the child” (as an angle that functions independently of how we define childhood or consent-capable brains).

So when someone (like bitterpunktrash) objects to the “children can’t consent” idea while agreeing that CSA is wrong (i.e. you can “consent,” whatever that means, to someone doing bad things to you, and they’re still bad things), we get this conflict between, like…

“CSA is wrong because children can’t consent” vs. “CSA is wrong even if the child agrees to it (aka consents)” — which, you may notice, exposes some connotations to the idea of “consent” and how it’s used.  And to me, that raises some interesting questions.  If consent (however it’s defined) isn’t the only delineating factor in what is or isn’t abuse, then what other criteria apply?

In some ways, I think I know the answer, and in some ways, I feel like I don’t.

Anyway, in light of issues like these, I’m really annoyed when I see, for example, someone defending [insert questionable kink] with repeated yelling (capslock/exasperated reiteration) that the difference between X as a kink and actual [evil thing] is consent consent consent, and then no development or expansion of what “consent” means or any engagement with its complications.

And since the notion of “consent” gets applied to a broad variety of sensitive situations beyond the sexual, I really think intertwining abuse-and-nonconsesuality is a model worth reevaluating.

Because, as I’ve said before — where does this leave abused people who are choosing to stay?  Where does this leave people who do as I once did (and in some ways, still do), who agree to, and want, and choose, and cling to abusive relationships?

Are we going to throw blanket approval all over all of that because it features consent?

How do you even begin to account for grooming?



7 responses to “Consent as an Incomplete Metric for Morality

  • Violation as a Form of Humor | The Ace Theist

    […] that doesn’t change the fact that I’m very wary and suspicious of it, and that I think consent is sometimes insufficient for acceptability, and that potential for pleasure doesn’t erase or override potential for […]

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    The “children can’t meet Consent Qualifications” thing reminds me of that a similar thing is applied to developmentally disabled adults. When someone sexually abuses a developmentally/intellectually disabled adult, it’s talked about as wrong because Disabled People Can’t Consent, rather than because the abuser exploited the disabled person. A consequence of the focus on This Adult Can’t Consent is that developmentally & intellectually disabled adults aren’t seen as having sexual agency at all. It’s very very intertwined with the idea that disabled people are perpetual children.

  • becoming imago

    Consent can be a very confusing idea and experiences can be very complicated. Some of my abusive experiences involved believing I was consenting at the moment and years later realizing I had submitted, not consented. My abuser manipulated me, terrorized me, set up an environment in which I acted constantly out of fear and confusion and believed that what I wanted, needed did not matter, only what he wanted and needed from me. It became habit, the way of being, living in miserable denial. My abusers were always behaving in ways to compromise my consent, to coerce me. I also decided that sex while drinking alcohol should not happen, because it is too risky, consent-wise.

  • Judgment Sets | The Ace Theist

    […] as it’s all consensual… a metric I don’t adhere to, by the way, because I think it’s too clumsy at handling CSA.  But you get the […]

  • a rhetorical invoice | The Ace Theist

    […] time.  What, you think we’re done here?  How does that account for grooming?  What about the idea that some people “can’t” consent?  What about hermeneutical injustice?  And what is consent, by your definition?  What model of […]

  • On abused consent | The Ace Theist

    […] interaction is wrong” (yes) falls back onto “children can’t consent,” as I’ve talked about before.  I’ve seen a similar line of reasoning in that therapist abuse essay I linked last month, […]

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