Working with Consent Paranoia and Consent Confusion

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Before becoming mindful of consent most (and more likely all) of us participate in rape culture.  There are a million different parts to play.  From actively coercing others imagining ourselves entitled to what we take, to betraying own consent by communicating consent that is not authentic or following a prescriptive pattern in sex or relationships rather than negotiating for who and what we want, to good old slut shaming, to advising our friends to compromise boundaries for the sake of protecting attachments to partners, parents, traditions – it seems nearly every situation calls upon us to either reinforce or defy a status quo of coercion.

I doubt if anyone comes to feminism, to consciousness of consent, without some regret over the past, some grief to tolerate, some healing to do.  Awakening to feminist consciousness is a crisis.  We see with a new lens, not only our society but also ourselves.  We have to learn to stop coercing, as we pick up the habit long before we are conscious adults.  Consent doesn’t just happen.  It is not habitual, not the status quo.

I’ve talked before about the other side of the coin of coercion – about all the sex that does not happen because people are coerced not to have it.  I care a lot about this sex, because only a world where consensual sex becomes the norm  — where it is understood and talked about, represented in art and media and the backbone of law regarding sex, and so on – will clear lines be drawn between sex and rape, coercion and consent, justice and injustice, abuse and love.

In this post, I’d like to talk about even more sex that doesn’t happen, specifically the sex that does not happen because we have become mindful of consent but do not know how go about ensuring it while initiating sex.

Sex doesn’t just happen, we learn how to make it happen, just as we learn how to make anything happen.  I’d say there are essentially three ways we can learn to make sex happen a) blatant coercion, like bullying and physical violence b) cryptic coercion, like manipulation, flattery, and begging and c) consensually.  There’s a lot more skills taught for a and b than there are for c.  We learn from our society how to make sex happen predominantly by using coercion.  Even if we’re lucky enough to have decent technical sex education, we don’t learn the necessary skills to negotiate consent.

For the consent-minded, sex is spooking. Consent requires upholding boundaries between ourselves and others and knowing how to negotiate situations in which the choice is made by all parties to let some of those boundaries down.  Consent paranoia – that panicked, decidedly turned-off feeling we get when suspect our partners are not consenting or consenting falsely – is a decidedly healthy, enlightened neurosis.  But I should like to think we move forward and learn the skills necessary to represent our own consent and interpret that of our partners accurately and consistently.

Maybe you’re a brash egotist who learned how to check your privilege and will have smooth sailing from here.  But the rest of us shy freaks need to get into some dialogues and work out how to gain some confidence and grounding with sex and consent.  The first sexual experience I had after becoming a feminist with another recently feminist friend got more and more anxious and stilted until I said, “I’m not sure what you want,” which brought out a relieved response of, “I’m not sure what you want either.”  That experience petered out because neither of us really knew how to get a grasp on what we wanted or trust the other person to express consent and not be persuaded by a desire to please.

One thing I’ve learned is to translate my consent paranoia into expressed consent confusion, not just to feel anxious about consent but to recognize and name how I’m feeling and ask the other person for more information if I can.  It finally occurred to me to ask Valerie, “How do you express consent?”  From her answer, I realized there were times I was reading her response all wrong, assuming her responses would read like mine.

In films, consensual sex “just happens.”  In life, people have to make it happen, write the script, direct, provide technical support and dramaturgy – the whole thing.  It’s essentially a creative process, and I think most of us are at least partially if not desperately blocked.  There is often a lot of consent confusion to clarify before we can decide how to act.  Personally, I am happy to be in a place where while the sex might not always be happening, there is no risk of the rape happening instead.  But I’d like to move on from here.

While I may not be coercing people (including myself) into sex, I do sometimes find that sex is not happening because I and my partner don’t know how to initiate it.  There are lots of questions to answer after consciousness of consent hits you.  How do you ask questions without killing the mood?  How to you redirect what’s happening if your response to what you initially asked for is not what you expected without worrying too much about our partner’s feelings or confidence?  How do you know what you want?  How do you consensually ask your partner to choose for you?  How do you learn to read someone’s response to interpret nonverbal consent?  How much responsibility can and should you take for another person’s consent?


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