Here’s an idea I heard from someone else and want to pass along. It’s relevant to starchythoughts’ post Hermeneutical Injustice in Consent and Asexuality, and I’m writing about it partially in response to Vesper’s more recent reflection post and the kinds of things they wrote about here.
Most models of “consent” solely address 1) outwardly displayed behaviors 2) toward a future possibility, activity, or action. There’s some good reasons for that. But there’s some other things worth thinking about, too — namely, 1) inwardly experienced mind states 2) during a present case 3) or toward a case in the past.
When someone says “I consented,” they’re usually referring to some kind of outward behavior (or even the lack thereof) that could interchangeably be called “permission.” This phrase, “I consented, but…,” sometimes comes up in stories I’ve heard where the teller came away from the event feeling hurt, confused, or violated in the end and feels some measure of conflicted about that fact. What I want to do here is draw attention to the possibility of reconfiguring what the word “consent” can apply to — or rearranging the weight that we place on which parts of it.
If “consent” is a preemptive, outward act, then it is like checking off the “I agree to these terms and conditions” box on a legal disclaimer. It serves a CYA function. The question of defining “consent” revolves around the question of “Whose actions should be condemned?”
But if “consent” is also — or could refer to — a concurrent, internal experience, then it could exist as a feeling independent of acts, a feeling that might even change or strengthen in retrospect. It could exist on a nonlinear spectrum in relation to violation, to describe a sense of “alrightness” with a memory or present/ongoing experience. The question of “consent” would concern only “How do you feel — now — about what is happening (or what happened)?”
Where the model of “enthusiastic consent” fails, as a lot of us have discussed, is in presuming a certain outward behavioral template standard for a certain internal experience. What many models of consent are trying to get at, as far as I can tell, is this connection — the authenticity of permission in representing underlying consent. By which I mean, in this case, consent as an internal experience.
If that’s what consent was — if we considered that a relevant component of consent, if we placed weight on that aspect, if we prioritized that element as the stuff itself rather than the outward attempts to communicate about it — if that’s what consent was, then…
Consent could never be indentured servitude that binds you in conflict with your current feelings. Because what consent would describe is your current feelings. Maybe you thought something was consensual enough before, but when you think back on it, you don’t feel the same way anymore. You can take it back.
At any point down the line. No matter how long it’s been. There is no expiration date on what you’re allowed to feel. You can take it back.
You are not obligated to slash and contort your feelings on the basis of whether someone else “took all the right steps” or not. It’s not about them. Or it doesn’t have to be, if you don’t feel it is. You don’t have to blame anyone in order to react the way you do, you don’t have to build a case, you don’t have to do anything but let yourself regard the experience the way you do. Whatever way that you regard it. Because you can owe someone basic courtesy, but it’s impossible to owe anyone a feeling. Your feelings are yours. You can take it back.
This framework is crucial to me. It is to a lot of people. If something is experienced as violating, then you can call it that. And if something doesn’t “feel” “consensual,” then you don’t have to call it that.
In that light, consent isn’t something you even “give” at all.
You can take it back.
Because it was always yours to begin with.