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.
[ addition 1/27/18: Siggy’s post on this model ]
July 12th, 2016 at 11:13 pm
ahhh, i have a lot that i’d like to say in response to this post, but i’m on my phone at work so it’ll have to wait until later. for now i just want to say thank you. i really appreciate this post. a lot.
July 13th, 2016 at 11:11 am
this is the first time i’ve come across the concept of “consent” that places the focus on feelings rather than on actions (or lack thereof) and…. thank you so much for passing this along. it’s definitely something i’m going to need time to think about, but reading this post made me kind of emotional (in a good way).
at the same time, though, a part of me feels conflicted even though i agree with what you’ve said. it almost feels like an inner battle between what i want to believe vs what i’ve been told to believe my entire life. damn social programming…
indeed, my feelings are mine and i do not owe them to anyone. no justification is necessary for feeling the way that i do now vs how i may (or may not) have felt in the past and i certainly don’t have to (and shouldn’t) refer to something as consensual if i don’t feel like it was. all of this is true for more than just me, but i’m writing this in first person because it’s easier.
for me personally, i guess my biggest issue with taking consent back isn’t whether or not i can take it back retrospectively so much as being angry at myself for not having done more to “enthusiastically” take it back at the time… and in reference to the one incident in particular, i also still question whether i in fact actually consented at all… and even with all of that aside, if i do exercise my right to take back my consent retrospectively, the social programming that tells me to feel guilty and horrible for doing it, especially now so many years after the fact, kicks in and it’s just… ugh….
i really have to think on this…. but thank you. <3 i feel like this is a really valuable post that more people need to read, but i don't want to put it on Tumblr without your permission.
July 13th, 2016 at 12:09 pm
Yeah, it really is hard. All of it. I also resent myself for not doing more to protect myself at times, and the thing that I find helpful for smoothing over that is hearing from other people — survivors, mostly — to go into “freeze” mode when you’re stressed or freaked or overwhelmed. Me and the copilot have described this to each other as “scared bunny” mode. It’s a less acknowledged cousin to fight or flight, you can look up the technical talk, but for me finding it mentioned in personal stories is what does more for me. …Not sure what good that is to anyone else, just putting it out there. It is a Thing.
And anyway — I’m always flattered when people want to share my stuff (even when it’s not my original idea, heh). Feel free!
July 13th, 2016 at 5:20 pm
I like this model and it puts into words some of my own thoughts regarding consent.
One situation I think a lot about is gay nightclubs, where people sometimes grope without first asking permission. Every time I complain about this, somebody says that they like being groped. And I say, well sure, sometimes it’s consensual, but is it worth the risk that it won’t be consensual? But people have a hard time understanding this. I think the key point is that consent is really an internal state of mind, whereas expressed consent is merely an indicator.
July 13th, 2016 at 5:27 pm
Very, very pertinent example! Those positive experiences exist, but those folks’ personal good luck isn’t a blanket justification for anyone to take the risk. That idea makes me frothing mad.
July 13th, 2016 at 5:27 pm
BTW is this at all based on maymay’s “consent as felt sense” model?
[edit: link removed by the blogger, but it comes up on google easily if you want to find it]
July 13th, 2016 at 5:28 pm
Yes. It is. As I mentioned earlier, I struggled over the decision of whether or not to link that post.
July 13th, 2016 at 5:35 pm
Ah, may I ask why? If I write about it should I avoid linking it too?
July 13th, 2016 at 5:42 pm
Heh, up to you. I found parts of it viscerally upsetting and so feel like it would need a trigger warning, but I dunno a succinct enough trigger warning for [redacted] that’s not… too detailed & defeating the point of being a warning.
My main motivation for posting this was to have a version to link that didn’t have that in it.
Also, y’know, accusations of one of the coauthors being a stalker and all.
July 13th, 2016 at 5:48 pm
Thanks. lol, I guess I undercut you by putting the link in the comments. You may delete this thread if you want.
July 13th, 2016 at 6:39 pm
[…] Here is a response to the consent model I just talked about. […]
July 15th, 2016 at 6:53 am
[…] wrote about preemptive vs. concurrent + reflective consent, and discussed further […]
July 16th, 2016 at 7:36 pm
I can only profoundly thank you for this. I got two paragraphs in before the weight of empathy hit me. The survivor experience is so accurate to how I feel, but I’ve never seen it written out this clearly.
This is especially true to me as an asexual, who didn’t realise until it was far, far too late. I think this model is particularly valuable for acespec people who might not recognise their own feelings (and/or lack thereof) in advance. So many aces I know didn’t realise they were different to the societal standard until their partner started following a model they couldn’t. This means the ability to take back consent offered before we truly understood ourselves is invaluable.
July 17th, 2016 at 12:00 am
Too true. Thanks for commenting, and take care. <3
July 21st, 2016 at 1:50 pm
As someone who is both a survivor, and who also suffers from OCD and has a scrupulousity obsession about not violating others’ consent, I honestly don’t know what to make of this. If someone retrospectively feels violated by something I did, have I then raped them? I’m not trying to prioritize perpetrators’ voices over those of survivors, but I am not sure just from reading this what implications you intend regarding partners who have retrospectively violated someone’s consent according to this model.
July 21st, 2016 at 2:03 pm
While writing this, I did think about anxieties re: “have I hurt someone?” …and the conclusion I came to is, when I’m inclined to worry, and someone says “no really, it’s fine,” then if I’m going to doubt them, I’ll doubt them regardless. It doesn’t really change anything.
I’m not intending any implications.
July 21st, 2016 at 10:30 pm
Another thing that can be relevant and important here is that someone can be violated and it can be not their partner who did it. (Of course sometimes it was their partner and that’s important too. And sometimes it was both, also). (er, their partner *in the interaction*; obviously whether or not that person is their partner in some other sense does not change things here).
July 22nd, 2016 at 10:47 am
@Coyote The issue here for me is that I doubt every single interaction I’ve ever initiated due to my brain issues (sometimes even regarding nonsexual things), so “if I have doubts then I won’t believe the person anyway” isn’t a great answer to my question. @code16 Can you clarify what circumstances someone could be violated without a perpetrator? I’ve never heard that before and I think it would be really helpful to me to understand better.
July 22nd, 2016 at 11:07 am
I’m not sure what you’re asking me anymore.
August 2nd, 2016 at 4:15 am
Personally, although I consider myself to be a survivor, I do not consider my then-partner to have sexually assaulted me (at least, not the first time it happened). This is because I gave him explicit verbal consent and though my memory of the event is almost non-existent, I don’t believe I gave him enough feedback for him to reasonably doubt that that consent was ongoing. This sits alongside my knowledge that, if I had really understood myself at the time, I would have known that I wasn’t giving enthusiastic consent — but I didn’t recognise that myself, so I feel cannot reasonably expect him to. I hope that makes sense.
August 16th, 2016 at 9:18 am
Hi, thank you for your well written thoughts. Very interested to work backwards from the positive philosophical definition to the negative legal implications (“Whose actions should be condemned?”).
September 5th, 2016 at 2:25 pm
[…] how they make sense to you as corresponds to what was happening to them, or suggest the idea of (non)consent as a felt experience (that can change after the fact) rather than an interaction template, all without even […]
October 4th, 2016 at 6:38 pm
[…] Remember that essay, “Hermeneutical Injustice in Consent and Asexuality,” that was making the rounds a while back? Remember that post I made on concurrent and reflective consent? […]
October 4th, 2016 at 7:23 pm
[…] shouldn’t even have a dog in this hunt, since I don’t group communication and consent as the same thing anyway. But geez, it bothers me, people thinking they’re entitled to automatic […]
November 4th, 2016 at 10:12 pm
I’m figuring out how to word this.
Because like, I agree with everything you’re actually saying. Especially your point about the distinction between consent as emotional experience and communication about consent and communication of consent.
But I think we name parts of it differently? Like what you’re talking about with the altering perception of a past event, where a hypothetical person looks back and goes “in retrospect I didn’t like that”/”in retrospect I think that was a bad idea”/”I wish I hadn’t done that”/”this new information throws that past event in an uncomfortable and slightly creepy light”. That is an extremely valid and important point. But I don’t think I consider that emotional experience to fall under “consent”, although I’m not sure what I might call it instead.
Unless I’ve misunderstood what you’re saying somehow?
November 4th, 2016 at 10:29 pm
“But I don’t think I consider that emotional experience to fall under ‘consent'”
Can you… elaborate on what does?
February 11th, 2017 at 12:45 pm
[…] — yes, consent, I’m calling it, because that’s what it was at the time, temporary consent in every generally understood sense except for the problem of her age; and taking advantage of, I […]
February 10th, 2021 at 8:00 pm
[…] I have serious disagreements with their framing, as I will discuss below. I would instead recommend coyote’s take, which was what first made the model click for me. If you want even more reading, Ozy has a critique […]
September 7th, 2021 at 7:09 pm
Consent is not your feelings. It is the communication of a shared desire to someone else regarding an activity. To call it something else is morally reprehensible in it’s implications. You can think about remorse and feelings all you want just leave consent out of it. By your own logic if a person believes that enthusiastic consent has been given that person has not violated consent. Because feelings.
By that rule what was agreed to made no difference because one or more parties to an action “felt” (believed) consent was given. Your feelings do not trump those of others in any given activity.
Is this so hard for you all to understand? Consent has a definition. IF you want to make a separate term and social contract for revocable consent and communicated that to all that you engage with-that’s ok. Just don’t use the word consent. Otherwise I’ll revoke my consent to your terminology and meaning. Do you see my point?
September 7th, 2021 at 10:30 pm
How did you end up here?