Oh, what a beautiful topic consent is. I’m sure that every single sexy human who is reading this post has had their consent violated. Sometimes, with their knowledge, other times without. Maybe there’s a person reading this who’s violated someone else’s consent, and maybe (hopefully), they repaired these actions and have pursued a more genuine and empathetic way of approaching someone else’s personal boundaries. Who knows? I’m just shooting in the dark here.. ;D
So, anyway, did you know that consent isn’t just about saying yes? Because, sometimes, yes doesn’t always mean yes. Did I just blow your mind? (I hope you can feel the sarcasm that oozes from that question) Alright, I’ll stop being facetious and jump into this topic that I deem extremely important, especially during the age of very little and low-quality sex ed.
Yes doesn’t necessarily mean yes. Why? Because consent is fluid, it can be reneged, or revoked at any time. This isn’t just something that you ask for one time, it’s a living, breathing contract between the persons involved. And I’m not solely referring to sex, either. How would you feel if you signed a contract and someone broke it? Pretty damn upset, but in this case, the contract is anew every step of the way. Fluidity is the key to a happy and healthy encounter. Why? Because your body never stops being your body.
Now, what exactly does consent look like? Well, PlannedParenthood has a great acronym to help us all remember and it’s called Consent Fries!
Freely Given; As in, you didn’t have to coerce anyone into it.
Reversible; Yup! That’s right. I changed my d*mn mind, even in the middle of the encounter, and it’s pertinent you respect that.
Informed; Wait, what am I getting myself into again?
Enthusiastic; This one can be taken a lot of different ways depending on the dynamic you have with your counterpart, because.. I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m not entirely jumping for joy, but they have my enthusiasm and consent.
Specific; Each individual affection requires consent. Even if you’ve done it in the past. (“Sweet, I met all the requirements, but I’m not going to specifically ask if I can put it in her a** because we’ve done that before and I’m sure she’ll be fine with it.”) BAD HUMAN. Try again.
Super glad we aired that one out. Ya know, this isn’t really common knowledge. In romance movies, sitcoms, cartoons, books, porn.. consent gets overlooked more times than not, and unfortunately, this is where most of us have received the larger portion of our sexuality education. So, if you’re a survivor of consent violation, just know that it’s not your fault. I seriously can’t stress that enough. And, if you’ve ever violated someone else’s consent, accept that fact, own that fact, and do better next time. End of story.
Please watch this featured video if you haven’t already. You will love it.
Something important to remember is that “consent and refusal are not the only talking points in sex” (2019, Kukla). I just love that quote. Society tells us that in order for sex be mutual and consensual we must follow the “request-and-consent-or-refuse” model and we’re in the clear. Well, have you ever consented to something that you didn’t necessarily enjoy, or that was harmful? Were you doing it for the sake of just having sex? It’s an important point to factor in. Some people consent to things that are not necessarily good for them; I know I have.
So what are some other ways of approaching the language used to initiate sex? Most of the time we’re not talking about the actual act of sex, but rather the nuances surrounding our arousals, fantasies, needs, or the feelings of our counterparts when discussing a certain idea. Let’s dive into the different speech acts we can utilize through the mind of Rebecca Kukla, aprofessor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, as well as, the author of Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies (2005).
“I will focus on two: invitations and gift offers.
What kind of speech act is an invitation? What does it do? Invitations create a hospitable space for the invitee to enter. When you invite someone to something, they are not obligated to accept the invitation. But also, you are not merely opening a neutral possibility; you are making clear that they would be welcome. If I say to you: ‘I’m cooking dinner at my place on Wednesday and I want you to please come, and if you don’t I’ll be hurt,’ then I am requesting your presence, not inviting you. Conversely, if I say to you: ‘I’m cooking dinner at my place on Wednesday and you can show up or not, it’s totally up to you, I don’t care either way,’ then this is not really an invitation but perhaps more like an offer; at best it’s a highly unwelcoming, inept invitation. Invitations leave the invitee free to accept or reject them. If you turn down my invitation, I get to be disappointed, but not aggrieved (although I can feel aggrieved if it is turned down rudely or insultingly). An interesting quirk of invitations is that, if they are accepted, gratitude is called for both from the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you.
Although an invitation leaves the recipient free to turn it down, this does not give anyone carte blanche to issue any invitation they want. Invitations can be infelicitous, or inappropriate. I can’t invite you to come to vote in my precinct. This is infelicitous: I don’t have the standing, and it’s not an invitation that institutions make it possible for you to take up. And a felicitous invitation can be inappropriate. If I meet a stranger on the bus and chat with her for two minutes about the traffic, it would be inappropriate for me to invite her to my wedding.
A sexual invitation opens up the possibility of sex, and makes clear that sex would be welcome. Invitations are welcoming without being demanding. Although we are usually pleased when people accept our sexual invitations, we generally don’t want people to agree to sex with us as a favour to us, as it would be if it were the granting of a request. And the invitation needs to be felicitous and appropriate. I cannot invite you to have sex with someone else other than me (which would be both infelicitous and unethical). I cannot invite you to have sex with me if doing so would be an abuse of power, or if for other reasons it would be difficult for you to say no to the invitation (which would be both inappropriate and unethical), or at the end of a two-minute chat about the weather in the grocery line (which would be inappropriate and probably uncomfortable). The mere fact that an invitation can be freely turned down does not give people licence to issue infelicitous or inappropriate invitations – which is something that street harassers, for instance, often don’t seem to understand.
Ipropose centring invitations rather than requests in our model of the language of sexual initiation. This opens up a whole set of new ethical and pragmatic questions. When are sexual invitations felicitous and appropriate, and who has authority to issue them to whom? Since invitations strike a complex balance between welcoming and leaving the recipient free, what maintains this balance and what throws it off-kilter? An invitation might be degrading by being insufficiently welcoming, for instance. Or it might be coercive by being too pressing. Notice that if I invite you, appropriately, to have sex with me, then consent and refusal are not even the right categories of speech acts when it comes to your uptake. It is not felicitous to consent to an invitation; rather, one accepts it or turns it down. So the consent model distorts our understanding of how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex.
When we are first trying to establish sexual intimacy with someone, sexual invitations are more common and typically healthier than sexual requests. Once we are in an established, long-term relationship with a partner, sex is sometimes initiated via a gift offer. While it would be odd and almost always inappropriate to offer sex as a gift to someone we barely know, it’s not unusual for longtime partners to offer each other gifts of sex. I might offer my partner sex as a way of saying goodbye before leaving for a trip. I might offer to role-play or indulge a fetish that both of us know is not my ‘thing’. There is nothing inherently problematic about offering to engage in a sexual activity with someone we care about out of generosity rather than direct desire. Although some have recently advocated for a model of ethical sex that requires ‘enthusiastic consent’ from everyone involved, not all sexual encounters or all activities within them have to be enthusiastically desired by all parties in order to be ethical and worthwhile.
Gifts are, of essence, freely given and generous; a gift that I am compelled to offer is not actually a gift. (In practice, we are routinely compelled by various rules of etiquette to give various ‘gifts’ – but these are not really gifts, and insofar as they have that surface presentation, they have to masquerade as freely given). Gifts, by nature, cannot be demanded or even requested. If you ask me to indulge some sexual desire of yours, then my doing so is not a gift but the granting of a favour. A gift must be designed to please the recipient; it might not actually succeed in pleasing, but an offering that is not expected to please is not actually a gift. It is also essential to gift-giving that the recipient need not accept the gift. Gifts that are accepted call for both gratitude and reciprocation from the receiver.
Every culture also has distinctive norms governing the refusal and acceptance of gifts. A striking feature of gift-giving is its essentially reciprocal character, which is part of every gift-giving system despite cultural variations. Gifts need to be reciprocated, and this is part of how they sustain relationships.
Unsolicited dick pics are typically not appropriate gifts
Part of what is complicated about the norms of gift reciprocity is that they are inherently open-ended. What counts as proper reciprocation is tricky. For instance, reciprocating a gift too quickly or too closely in kind is a norm violation: if you give me a book that you think I would love, it is inappropriate for me to immediately hand you a different book back, and even more inappropriate for me to give you the same book back at any time. The size, timing and content of reciprocation must all be keyed subtly and not too directly to the original gift. Partly because gifts must be given generously and not compelled, this logic of reciprocity is tricky – while gifts call for reciprocation, if the reciprocation they call for is too specific, then they are no longer gifts but something more like barters.
An invitation need not presume that the recipient wants to accept it. But a gift offer is designed to be an act of generosity that pleases the recipient (whether or not it succeeds in doing so), and it calls for reciprocation. This is part of why, unlike sexual invitations, sexual gift offers are typically presumptuous and inappropriate in the early stages of getting to know someone, when you don’t yet know what would please them and you aren’t yet in a position to impose an obligation to reciprocate on them. But generous offers of sexual gifts, designed first and foremost to please one’s partner rather than to directly satisfy one’s own sexual desires, are a normal part of an ongoing healthy relationship. Such gifts do create an obligation to reciprocate, though not immediately, or exactly in kind, or on any particular schedule. If you routinely indulge my sexual desires out of generosity, it is disrespectful and undermining of our relationship if I never reciprocate.
Notice that typically, if someone offers me an appropriate gift, I need a good reason to turn it down. Turning down a gift is a hurtful snub. This is not true for sexual gifts offers, which can be turned down for any reason at all; no one has the standing to feel aggrieved by their rejection. If I offer to indulge your fetish, say, and you turn me down, I might be disappointed or surprised, but I don’t get to take you as having wronged me in any way.
Sexual gifts, like invitations, can be appropriate or inappropriate, and felicitous or infelicitous. Unsolicited dick pics are typically not appropriate gifts, for instance. Sexual gifts offered too early in a relationship are inappropriate. It would be infelicitous for me to try to give you some other person’s sexual attentions as a gift. An authentic, appropriate and thoughtful sexual gift offer within a relationship calls for an expression of gratitude (though not necessarily for acceptance), even if the recipient happens not to be in the mood for that particular gift at that time.” (2019, Kukla)
So there it is folks, the different layers of consent and language tools to ensure that we’re creating a safe space for someone to accept or deny the offer of sex. I really hoped you enjoyed this writing, and if you want to see the full articles, resources are posted below.