You can (still) take it back.

[cw: rape culture, invalidation talk, and abstract talk of rape, CSA, etc. including vague talk of personal experiences]

Here is a response to the consent model I just talked about.

I’ll be quoting/responding in snippets, so if you want the full context, you can check the links first.

I feel somewhat uncomfortable with describing consent as something that can be taken back.

I know what you mean.  I was uncomfortable when I first encountered it too.  There’s definitely a conversation worth having about where that discomfort comes from.

On the surface, it reminds me of the “she wanted it, but the next day she changed her mind and now she is accusing him of rape” narrative.

If that’s a reason for objecting to the model, then it’s not a legitimate one.

Yes, saying “you can take it back” does validate people who, as it says, take it back.  Yes, that does raise the specter of the “what if she consented and then later she changed her mind” rhetorical cudgel wielded by rape apologists.  Yes, that’s something to bear in mind, something the model confronts directly.

Here’s the thing: that happens.  Someone thinking they’re okay with something (or even wanting something) and then later looking back and realizing the experience was abusive/exploitative/violating is a thing that happens.  I’ve heard it mostly from date rape/partner rape survivors and people who dated adults as children.  Sometimes it takes time and distance for you to clean out the brainwashing and the gaslighting and figure out what really happened.  Sometimes you’ll never be sure.

There is no reason to punish or condemn people for that.

I’m well aware that’s a controversial opinion to a lot of folks — but I’ll be damned, literally, if I let them attack and invalidate abuse victims for exhibiting the symptoms of abuse victims.

Also, I know I’m talking abstract and “they” and “them” here, but uh, granting myself permission to take my consent back/change my mind about what was ethical to do to me is something crucial for me in recognizing some of my own abuse, including sexually violating stuff that happened to me as a child that I’m just now recognizing and literally currently in the midst of processing and have been for a few months and am still newly reckoning with, so, uh. #awkward

Anyway.  Yeah, it should remind you of that.  It reminds you of that because that’s exactly what it’s for.

On the other hand, it is really important to recognize that the emotional side of consent is what truly matters. The communication rules side only exists to prevent feelings of violation. I doubt any set of rules can prevent every possible situation that could cause emotional sense of nonconsent in the present and future, and sadly many people are not even following the most basic rules.

We’re so concerned with what is legally considered rape (in many places not enough is), in other words with permission, with “can I” questions rather than “would you like me to” questions, that we’ve lost sight of the goal of not harming each other. I can understand why. Even a person who perfectly understands themselves and the situation they’re in can want something they will regret later, because people can change in unpredictable ways. This can’t be prevented. Changes in understanding of the self because of new information might often be preventable, but that’s a difficult problem. It’s tempting to reduce the issue to whether true permission is given, which at least looks easy.


I wonder whether it would be useful to let consent be about rules and communication, and find a different word for the emotional side.

You could just as easily use the words “rules” and “communication” for rules and communication — or, like I did in the original post, substitute “external expression of consent” with “permission.”

It’s obvious to me that many people are already reaching for consent-as-a-feeling when they talk about consent anyway.  “Children can’t consent”?  Children are obviously technically capable of “permission,” but having sex with a child as an adult is still nasty and exploitative.  “Drunk people can’t consent”?  There are obviously degrees of drunkenness that wouldn’t preclude technical permission, and when people say “drunk people can’t consent” they’re not ignorant of the fact; they’re just using consent to mean something other than communicated permission.

So I don’t see the point of “finding a different word” for a way that consent is already being used in the basic mantras of sexual ethics.

Not just because it would stop accusations that we want to make person A a criminal by nothing more than person B changing their mind after the event,

1) Defining consent as a feeling has nothing to do with legal or criminal status.  I literally said nothing about codified law and am not even interested in the applications to codified law.

2) This is literally a reworded version of the “What about false accusations?” question, which was an irrelevant derailment tactic to begin with.  I’m gonna assume you don’t need the 101 on that.

but because it would make sure the real goal of preventing harm as far as possible does not get forgotten.

Question.  How does acknowledging more instances of harm interfere with the goal of preventing harm?  Is that what you’re implying, or am I just reading this wrong?


[note: what we have here is a situation in which a wordpress post got linked on tumblr for spreadability (cool), and then that post got reblog-commented on on tumblrand now that response is being responded to on the original wordpress blog.  If you want me to see something or discuss something with me — and I understand that that might not apply, but if it does — I have a comment section.  It does not require an account or identifying info.  You can check the box to get an email notification if someone replies to your comment.  If you’d rather type out your response on tumblr, you can drop a link to that tumblr post in the comment section of the post you’re replying to.  I’d appreciate it.]

16 responses to “You can (still) take it back.

  • Kasey Weird

    Thank you for writing these posts. Seriously.

    • Coyote

      Thank you for thanking me? That sounds weird to say, but this is coming at a good time, because I’ve been getting comment notifications on that “what to do if you’ve got an ace partner” post again, and those are always stressful.

  • Siggy

    I was going to raise the same issue as mishalindetak, but for some reason I thought better of it. Thanks for discussing it!

    Another situation to consider is when a person is raped while unconscious. Obviously they don’t feel violated while unconscious, they feel violated after the fact. I think this shows that it is absolutely necessary to consider feelings of violation after the fact. Other cases: CSA, people who are very drunk.

  • epochryphal

    yeah. this has to be centered around person B’s subjective experience first and foremost, not person A’s culpability.

    see also: if/when person B expresses a felt sense of violation, it is goddamn necessary that person A not recenter the conversation on “but does that make me a rapist? oh my god?? i feel so guilty???”

    and that’s true whether or not person B is saying any variety of “you shouldn’t have done x” or “you couldn’t have known” or “no one’s to blame here” or “next time watch for y” or so on. still shouldn’t be about A.

    and yeah, when we scoot over to culpability and B making demands of A, it gets harder, with or without formal law — it can be a community callout with “do steps 1-12 to atone or we’ll exile you” — but then we’re getting into a bigger problem of transformative justice and balancing people’s rights and emotions. which is just, way too big to expect a model of consent to address. current models hella don’t. (where are the Rules drawing the Line for when a survivor’s right to justice becomes too cruel or abusive? i sure haven’t found them.)

  • Sennkestra

    (So I could swear I’ve written this up somewhere before but I can’t find it so I must never have published it, but here’s my thoughts on consent and differing models and all that:)

    I feel like there’s sort of two overlapping models of consent that come up a lot – on the one hand, there is consent as a behavioral model – a way for a person to determine who it is or isn’t ethical for them to have sex with. On the other hand, there’s also consent as personal experience model – a way for a person to processing personal feelings and decisions/motivations/experiences.

    So like in epochyrphal’s example, behavioral-consent models are centered around and intended for use by person A, to help them determine what actions are appropriate in a given situation. It’s very much a practical actions and behavior centered model, not one that addresses internal feelings at all. On the other hand, personal experience-consent is centered around person B, and how they experience and process the event – what they did or did not want, what may have influenced their actions, how it impacted them afterwards, any harm they may have experienced. Unlike a behavioral-model, this model is much more focused on “invisible” internal thoughts and emotions.

    I think that both models have their uses, just in different situations – if you’re deciding whether to have sex with someone or are passing judgement on a potential offender, then a behavioral-model is probably more useful. If you are processing what just happened when you had sex or are comforting a friend, then the personal-experience is more useful.

    The problem is that they really aren’t differentiated in common consent-discourse, and if they get all mixed up it just ends with poor communication and lots of disagreement (Like when person X is trying to express “B was harmed” but person Y is hearing “A should be punished” and neither realize they are arguing from two different premises)

    I think that’s where the “different word” argument comes from – having some way to distinguish these two models of consent can help clarify discussions and avoid miscommunication. That said, the word “consent” is so deeply entrenched in both models that I don’t think calling one just “consent” and the other something completely different would ever work.

    • Coyote

      I am pretty sure I recall you saying these things in a comment somewhere, but I can’t remember if it was on my blog or the Asexual Agenda.

    • Sennkestra

      I find it interesting though that you bring up “minors can’t consent” and “drunk people can’t consent” as examples of feelings-based models of consent – to me they seem like the exact opposite!

      The way I see it, I guess, these are prime examples of behavioral models of consent – they are useful blanket rules for person A to follow when deciding whether to have sex, and don’t seem so much geared towards actually helping person B interpret their own experiences (especially since applying broad blanket rules are generally not so helpful for processing the nuances of individual experience).

      That said, I’d imagine the reason for adding such rules to a behavioral consent model (as opposed to having a bare minimum behavioral consent model that begins and ends at “did they say no”) is definitely motivated by the concerns that personal experience-consent addresses – that is, sex with drunk people or minors (even with expressed permission) is unethical because it has such a high likelihood of causing harm and being experienced negatively and as violation either during or after the fact.

      • Coyote

        Well, yes, they’re framed as rules. And the basis of those rules is something other than what behaviors the person does or is capable of in the moment.

        I didn’t realize my original comments were unclear.

      • Siggy

        I agree there is a divide between the experience-centered model and the behavior-centered model. But in my view, “you can take it back” has the power to unite the two models, which is what makes it so great.

        The fact that minors can enthusiastically say “yes” poses a problem for experience-based models. (Behavior-centered models, of course can just have a rule against sex with minors.) However, it’s common for people who have experienced CSA to look back when they’re older, and feel violated in retrospect. By allowing for reflective violation, we can solve the discrepancy between the experience-centered and behavior-centered models.

      • Leah

        I find this point really interesting in light of this model. What do we make of experiences like minors giving an enthusiastic “yes” to adults and never feeling violated about it, or people who have sex when very drunk but don’t feel violated? I have a friend who is in recovery, and she has told me that she doesn’t view people who had sex with her while she was drunk as having raped her, even in situations where most people would consider her incapable of consent. These people knew that she was intoxicated and couldn’t consent, yet she doesn’t feel that her consent was violated. I see a separation between behavior-centered consent and experience-centered consent in that too; it feels to me like the people who slept with her still did something wrong, even though she ultimately didn’t feel violated. Am I making sense?

  • Linkspam: July 15th, 2016 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote wrote about preemptive vs. concurrent + reflective consent, and discussed further responses. […]

  • Misha Lindetak

    Could you do me a favor and delete my comments on this post? To explain my thoughts I need to use my personal experiences for examples, because without the “I was there” it’s really easy to say “that doesn’t happen”, and also because I’m not good at speaking about this subject in a more abstract way yet. Not the entire world needs to know everything about my past.

    And again, if there had not been three people asking me to, I would not have joined this discussion.

    You can leave this one comment if you want.

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