Consent Frustration – What to do when you’re consenting?

February 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

 How do you communicate consent?

I recently read and loved the article “Submissive Skills” by Clarisse Thorn.  I often find her writing about negotiating consent in BDSM relationships excellent and illuminating.  They feel relevant to dynamics I’ve experienced negotiating consent not being a BDSMer.  I love that she breaks up the usual assumption of the top as the initiator and adds a more complicated portrait of initiating sex as a bottom and in dialogue with a partner.  I especially loved the specific examples of her past lover initiating as a bottom.  She points to often overlooked consent skills that include knowing what you want, interpreting well your body’s response in a given experience, indicating accurately how you want to change a dynamic, and externalizing what is happening internally for your partner to read.

Consent is a dialogue, and usually someone is the initiator.  In discussions of consent, onus is usually placed on the initiator to actively get consent from partners.  And encouragement is usually given to non-initiating partners to communicate non-consent.  These two steps reestablish an egregiously absent bottom line in sexual ethics and go a long way in stopping rape culture.  It reminds initiators that absence of consent is non-consent.  It acknowledges how hard it can be to communicate non-consent.  To me, consent skills begin with learning to protect yourself and your partner from having nonconsensual sex.  Taking no for an answer and expecting, rather, demanding partners who accept no for an answer at any and all points in a relationship without threat or punishment.

Consent is a dialogue and usually someone is the initiator.  In a scenario where both partners have a solid consent ethic, the initiator will be looking to their partner for active communication of consent.  This is where consent confusion and consent paranoia can come in and make life, or rather sex, difficult.  This is why I imagine some people are beginning to replace “enthusiastic consent” with “good consent.”  In a context of consent, (i.e. We have established that we want to have sex with each other), there is still the need for a lot of decision-making an ongoing dialogue of consent (i.e. What sex are we having and how is it going?).  Consent skills might begin with stopping nonconsensual sex from happening, but I think they go on to getting consensual sex to happen.  Perhaps this is one reason why BDSMers like Clarisse Thorn have a lot to teach the rest of us about consent, they’re used to having to create what they want without a status quo in mind.

It is difficult to know and communicate your desires, and it is difficult to accurately and confidently interpret and negotiate with what your partner is telling you.  Consent frustration is what I would call that sense those of us looking for consent sometimes get when we want to say to our partner, “Please tell me when you’re consenting!”  Or, “Tell me louder.”  Or, “Keep telling me.  Tell me again.”  And that desperate sense we sometimes get when we feel, “I just don’t know what I want,” or, “I just can’t say what I want.”  And perhaps also the sense we sometimes get when we feel we just aren’t sure what our partner is telling us.

Before reading Clarisse’s article, I had recently thought to ask my close friend and frequent sex partner Valerie, “How do you communicate consent?”  Even though all the sex we have is consensual and not traumatic, it is sometimes fraught with consent paranoia, confusion, and frustration. Valerie found it hard to answer, and what she did say surprised me, pointing out several ways I was misreading her response, like her going very quiet and relaxed as a positive sign whereas for me that would be a terrible sign meaning I was freaked and checking out.

After reading Clarisse’s article I realized I have some consent skills I hadn’t recognized and so does Valerie.  I have actually worked to externalize my response (in my experience, INTJ’s have to learn to communicate emotion anyways), and I feel comfortable enough when I give a nonverbal signal and I can tell she doesn’t catch to give a stronger signal or just verbalize what I’m saying.  I think I learned some of those skills from my first lover, Tom, whose response was so vivid I could practically feel it in my own body.  He was almost impossible to misread.  Valerie is less comfortable adapting her communication, but she is one of those people amazing at interpreting nonverbal communication she receives.  When we were first together and I was more shy and working myself up to asking for something specific, she would often read cues off my body I thought were subtle and do it before I said anything.  So lack of response to small cues probably seemed to her like expressions of non-consent from me early on.

I imagine most people come to sex and communication of consent with strengths and weaknesses, same as any other context of communication.  We live in a culture that actively alienates us from our own consent, which makes it difficult to prioritize and look for consent in others.  After we learn to care, we probably all need to work on one dimension or another of our consent skills, whether it is seeking out what we want, learning to say no to what we don’t want, learning to negotiate consent when we’re unsure, externalizing signals, feeling comfortable enough to get a little louder and a little clearer when our signals are not read, reading other people better with a broader understanding of how different people might respond, asking the right questions, or making those questions sexy enough to keep the energy going in our interactions.

From my experience, I would say the number one skill needed to overcome consent frustration is patience.  Both with ourselves and our partners.  And I think that if we are even working on it, there’s a lot to be grateful and give ourselves credit for.


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