On abused consent

Hey guess what I’ve been thinking about again also.  Did you guess CSA rhetoric?  Because the answer is CSA rhetoric.

Even more specifically, I’ve been thinking about that line again from Indiana Jones, where Marion says, “I was a child! I was in love!” because when I think about it, it’s amazing to me that that line got written for her at all and put in a movie with a budget and lasting cultural esteem and everything, that that got to be a thing that a character in a movie like that would say.  That’s what’s surprising to me now, not the fact that hardly anyone seems to openly regard that movie as A Movie About A CSA Victim Reconciling With Her Abuser.

Which.  It is, by the way.

No, what’s surprising is that kind of high-profile acknowledgement of a child wanting. choosing. an inappropriate relationship with an adult.  And her looking back when she’s older, and not being okay with it.

(although it’s worth noting, I think, that this particular portrayal may have an awful lot to do with the CSA perpetrator in question being Our “Hero”)

But it’s interesting because what we get is a depiction of a CSA victim angry at her abuser for what she essentially frames as taking advantage of her consent — 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 call it, not just in the “traditional euphemism for rape” sense but because he also took advantage of her feelings, too, not just that she was a child but that she was “in love.”  It’s the combination of those things, a child, in love, that she highlights.

It’s interesting because so much of the rhetoric I’m used to seeing around how to articulate how/why “adult-child sexual 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, too — with the line “There’s no such thing as consent for sex between a therapist and a patient.”  And when you’re clinging to nonconsent as the only criterion for abuse, anyone who says “children can consent, though” just sounds like an abuse apologist, rather than potentially someone who’s actually expanding the definition of abuse beyond the concurrently nonconsensual.

But looking at examples like those, I have to wonder why fixate on the word “consent” in particular when there’s clearly another common thread, and why the customary asterisk saying “but children can’t consent (to sex (with adults)) because brains” and so on and so forth, and why stick to a framework of consent-inability as a way to write out permission as insufficient to excuse abuse, instead of saying, for instance, that children’s consent to sexual interaction with adults & non-peers is mediated by a power dynamic that we believe in moralizing as inherently exploitative when leveraged for sex.

Because I know I can’t be the only person it’s occurred to — “it” here meaning any kind of alternative framing to that consent-inability rhetoric, at all.  What I wonder, rather, is why consent-inability is the most popular explanation for a sexual ethos that excludes CSA.  With what I know, what I have to take from it is people just… don’t want to draw so tight a connection between power imbalances and sexual exploitation.  They don’t want to take that step.  And the obvious reason to hesitate, there, is how it would necessarily create ripples throughout the rest of our approach to all things consent-and-power-related, and that we might have to wrestle with the implications in a complicated world where few people are ever truly on an even playing field and it becomes a messy business to figure out where to draw the line.  It’s easy to see what makes people wary of exploring the option.

Because once you open up “there’s such a thing as abused consent,” there’s no going back, is there?

7 responses to “On abused consent

  • toafan

    My instinct is to call BS on “I probably shouldn’t be posting this”.

    That does depend on how you mean it. If you’re using it here to mean something like “I’m not sure it is safe for me to be the one posting this idea”, I don’t know if you are the only person qualified to judge that but I certainly ain’t.

    But if you mean something like “this shouldn’t be posted ever”, I disagree. This is… I’m not sure how to phrase it. Both accurate and mind-expanding, at the very least. Capitol-I Important. Capitol-V Vital.

    My interests mostly trend towards the physical sciences rather than social philosophy, so my first thoughts for an analogy are “Galileo” or “Einstein”. (Newton might be more accurate, but without the context of being near-contemporary it’s hard to grok how bug a deal his work was.) People who kept poking and discovered something simple that required a complete overhaul which nevertheless made things more accurate.

    I still owe you a reply on concurrent consent, which ought to turn interesting.

    • Coyote

      Uh. Thanks? I guess? What I meant was mostly… I’m not sure if this is a bad idea. I’m not sure if I’m going to hurt someone with this. I’m not sure if I’m going to get hurt with this. I’m not sure I’ve thought this through enough.

      • toafan

        > I’m not sure I’ve thought this through enough.

        Well. That’s one of the good things about posting it, though? Whether or not you’ve thought it through “enough“, you’ve thought it through to the extent that you have a coherent complete idea that can then be expanded on or argued against. And I am asserting (amongst other things) that having that discussion is valuable in and of itself, even if that discussion concludes after rigorous logic that you posted mistaken ideas here. I know that I wouldn’t have even thought about talking about this if you hadn’t posted.

  • mintythings

    It is very strange that some people describe it as if children are incapable of being interested in sex, or… I guess, “incapable of thinking they want to have sex” would be one way to put it? I’ve never really thought about the strangeness of that, honestly, because I sort of immediately dismissed it as an exaggeration or a metaphor.

    I understand the point people are trying to make by reserving the word consent for situations where there’s absolutely no power imbalance or coercion or anything along those lines (and generally that’s the way I use it myself) but like… if you’re going to say things like “it’s impossible to consent in X situation” you have to be clear that that’s what you mean by consent. Otherwise it’s likely to come off as denying the experiences of the very people you’re trying to help, or making them feel even more complicit than they already feel for “consenting” in whatever way.

    Anyway, I agree that a lot of the ways people think about child abuse are full of exceptions and workarounds so that they don’t have to reconcile how they feel about child abuse with how they feel about abuse/rape of adults. Because there are a lot of reasons why those things don’t fit together. Apart from the issue of power imbalances between adults, I think the other big thing people don’t want to consider is victim-blaming and the standards people are held to in order to be considered “innocent victims”.

    There’s a pervasive idea that children are by definition innocent and helpless (by which I mean, in this context, unable to defend themselves and not to blame if they get hurt), and I have a lot of feelings about this idea, but the relevant thing here is that it lets people avoid having to explain why “she led me on” sounds absurd and offensive when applied to a child, but totally justifiable when applied to a teenager. Children are innocent because of course they are. Why isn’t women’s and teenage girls’ innocence as easy to believe in? Well, they’re not children, so it’s different.

    Sexism is probably also a factor in that young boys have to be in a separate category from adult men, because seeing men as Innocent Helpless Victims doesn’t work with people’s ideas about masculinity and vulnerability. People generally don’t have a problem with the idea of young boys being victims of child abuse (I think I’ve heard that child sexual abuse cases about boys actually get more publicity than girls? or that people erroneously think most child sexual abuse victims are boys? I don’t remember.) but a lot of those same people do have a problem with the idea of adult men being victims of rape or partner abuse.

    And actually, about power imbalances, I don’t think it’s just that people don’t want to think about what power imbalances there might be in their relationships with other adults. I think people also don’t want to acknowledge just how huge the power imbalance is between adults and children, even teenagers, who are in their care in some way. Because even people who are generally well-educated about rape, and who understand the idea of power dynamics, often still fall back on “It’s just wrong, it just is, you just can’t consent” when it comes to people who are under 18.

    Also, even people who say “It’s because people who are older than you have more power”… I’ve never seen anyone really get into what that means, because when you’re talking about e.g. an age difference between two teenage high school students, it’s not that the older one has authority or legal power over the younger in the way that a teacher or parent does. Lack of understanding of psychological aspects of abuse, and focusing instead just on actions, fits in here somewhere too.

    tl;dr you are totally right that this is a thing.

    • Funaria

      “Otherwise it’s likely to come off as denying the experiences of the very people you’re trying to help, or making them feel even more complicit than they already feel for “consenting” in whatever way.”
      This. So much this.

      Content warning for very general discussion of CSA and fear of therapy.

      I was 5 or so, the earliest I remember but I remember it being nothing new, so it must have been happening before that too. While it wasn’t something I would choose to do, when it happened I didn’t necessarily dislike the sensations. This lack of dislike makes me feel complicit in the abuse, even though as an adult looking back I know it wasn’t my fault. Because of that feeling that I ‘consented’ I haven’t been able to bring myself to get therapy since I feel like I would either end up lying to the therapist or be shamed by them for not being a perfect victim/survivor. Who knows what they would think about my asexuality if it came up, but anecdotal evidence online suggests it wouldn’t be pretty.

  • epochryphal

    totally agree. and i think it’s super related to “disabled people can’t consent” and that any argument based on neurology/brains is gonna be ableist and oppressive and shitty as fuck. it should be about safety, not about some kind of Mental Readiness Threshold.

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