Current Thoughts: Consent, part 2 – internal and external

{Originally posted on my tumblr on Tues Jan 21 2014}

When people talk about consent, they often use the word to mean two different things. One of them is internal consent, which is what I talked about in part 1. The other one is external consent, which is communication about the internal state of consent. It is important to recognize that it is internal consent that matters. External consent is necessary because since consent is an internal state, the only way anyone but the person experiencing it can know about it is if they are told. To discuss this, I make a table with the four possibilities.

1.External consent is yes
|| Internal consent is yes
2.External consent is not yes
|| Internal consent is yes
3.External consent is yes
|| Internal consent is not yes
4.External consent is not yes
|| Internal consent is not yes

Cases 1 and 4 are the simple cases.
In 1, the person is in a state of consent and has communicated this, so things can happen.
In 4, the person is not in a state of consent and has either communicated this, or simply not communicated anything affirmative, so things should not happen.

Case 2 comes up a lot when people talk about consent. My thoughts on it are as follows.
First, since it is impossible to distinguish case 2 from case 4 from the outside, it is not ethical to proceed on a lack of external consent in the hopes that case 2 is the true one. This relates to a concept from statistics: the two kinds or errors possible here vary inversely, so you use prioroties to decide how much of each you’re willing to permit. Since according to my system of ethics, the priority is to avoid violating consent whenever possible, as many cases as might happen of not acting in case 2 (even though there was internal consent for this) are permitted in order to avoid cases of acting in case 4 (and violating someone’s consent). Therefore anyone who does proceed against external consent is doing something wrong, even if internal consent turns out to have actually been present.
Second, people who have acted in what turned out to be a case 2 is what I call ‘Schrödinger’s rape’ or ‘you are only not a rapist bcause you got very lucky’ {substitute words other than rape/rapist for when the violation is not sexual}. This is like sticking a gun out of your window and firing repeatedly into the street, but it turning out that you didn’t actually hit anyone. Less damagae occured than could have, which is good, but this does not make the action less wrong.

Case 3 is the most complicated one. It is one we want to do everything possible to avoid, but at the same time the only way to avoid it entirely is to never go forward with anything at all, and this isn’t possible. My general conclusion, ethically, is that the more likely case 3 is to occur, the more measures have to be taken against it. This is why I think that as long as we live in the society and culture we do, it is necessary to reassure people you might be asking something of that no is perfectly acceptable, and as OK as a yes. This is one of the areas where, if someone gives external consent but I feel there is something wrong, it is my ethical responsibility to do something about this and not simply proceed, and possibly to end up deciding not to proceed at all. This is why there are situations where the final determination does end up being ‘it is never alright to do this even if the person says yes’ (for instance, statuatory rape), because the chances of case 3 occuring are too high.

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Current Thoughts – Consent, part 1: definition

{Originally posted on my tumblr on Tues Jan 21 2014}

[‘Current thoughts’ means that a. this is such a central topic that it’s incredibly possible that I will run into some thoughts/readings/information etc that will cause my thoughts to change in some way, and b. that this is such a central topic that the only way my brain will let me make a post about it is if I explicitly mark the possibility of making a ‘better’ post later.]

Under the definition I use for consent, consent is an internal state. This makes it somewhat difficult to elaborate in words, because it is something felt, and therefore ends up somewhat like describing colors. The way that works best for me to express it is to say that consent is about something being congruous with you. Metaphorically, I think of consent as an ‘all systems go’ responce to an internal systems check. All the lights are green, everything is in place, and if something is out of place (say there’s a pillow on the floor of the bridge) then it is alright for it to be out of place in this particular situation. I also sometimes think of it as things fitting correctly – perhaps lego bricks making a particular figure, or the scales of leaf mail. Consent is when everything fits and nothing sticks out in a way it shouldn’t.

This conceptualization has several corollaries/ramifications.

First, it means that consent can change from one state to another at any time. All systems could be green, everything could be fitting correctly, and then suddenly there’s a wrong note, something is out of place, there’s a red warning light on one of the consoles.

Second, it means that it is possible to not be consenting and not realize it at the time (this has happened to me).
By another analogy, this is like accidentally leaving your keys on the table when you leave the house. The state is what it is, but this fact hasn’t registered in consious awareness.
This could have happened because of someone, if say they insisted on rushing me out of the house while I was trying to make sure I had everything (so, if someone doesn’t give me the time to realize that I do not have consent for what they want from me). In that case, that person has done something wrong.
It could have happened because of internalized social badthings, for instance if I feel guilty over taking a long time to leave the house and thus leave before I’ve actually had a chance to do everything I need to (so, if I do something because I feel I ought to, and don’t realize that I’m not in a state of consent for it). In this case, it is an instance of this social badthing doing harm.
But it could also have just happened as an accident because our brains are often imperfect.
None of these situations change the fact that consent has been crossed, and it is perfectly valid for people to realize after the fact that they were not in a state of consent while something was happening, even if they didn’t realize this at the time.

[part 2]

On consent conversations and treating vulnerability as perjorative

[Originally written on Fetlife around three months ago]

Basically every time I see a writing/conversations/post about how ideas about consent can deal with situations where people are not consenting, but are not able to externally express this (for instance, they say yes, but only because they feel pressured, or they aren’t OK with continuing but don’t safeword because of fear or pressure or other such reasons), there is a particular thing that tends to come up in one way or another.

This thing is the idea that trying to acknowledge and deal with these situations is somehow saying bad things about submissive/bottoms/women/whoever is being assumed to be likely to be the victim of such a situation. That it’s infantalizing them or saying they’re all weak and can’t take care of themselves, etc, etc. I want to talk about two things that are incredibly wrong these statements.

1) Vulnerability is not and should not be treated as a pejorative or a moral failing.

There are many traits that a person might have that make it more likely that something bad might happen to them. For example, I have no idea how to collect edible things from outside. This makes it more likely that I will someday starve. Titling this post, I kept trying to think of the right word for these things, but if there is one, it seems that I don’t know it. But certainly there is a whole collection of terms we use to talk about this – I’m using vulnerability, but there’s also weakness, and lack of ability, and the aforementioned ‘can’t take care of yourself’, etc. And in our culture, we have a major problem where instead of treating this as something that might be very unpleasant and harmful to a person, we treat this as something bad about them. This is something that is bad and needs to get better.

Traits like having trouble asserting yourself, being easily pressured into things, freezing up when in a bad situation, believing you don’t have the right to say no, etc, are examples of such things. They might come from something like social anxiety, or from upbringing/past experiences, or from whatever other source. As someone who struggles with them myself, I can say that they’re not something I’d wish on anyone. But they don’t make the people who have them any less valid and full people with human rights like the right to be treated well and to have their consent respected. It means it might take more effort to make sure these rights are provided for – effort to help people get better, effort to make sure our ideas and practices of consent are inclusive of these problems. But that’s not an excuse – it’s a responsibility.

2) The fact that systems need to provide safety to more vulnerable people doesn’t mean that everyone is that vulnerable.

The entire point of dealing with these issues at all is that we don’t want bad things to happen to people. Ideally at all, more practically as little as possible, since the only way to achieve the ideal is to forbid all play and such entirely. That means that if we have a choice between a system that some people don’t need, but that protects the most people, and a system that fewer people find unneeded but more people get hurt in, we choose the former. In which case, obviously enough, there will be plenty of people for whom a less protective system would have been sufficient. But having a more protective system doesn’t mean that everyone needs it. It means it’s there for the people who do need it.

When I took a sewing class in school, our teacher started out by explaining how to avoid getting stabbed by the sewing machine needle. This doesn’t mean she thought that no one in the class knew this already. It means she thought that making it more likely that no one would get stabbed with a needle was more important that not subjecting a few people to an explanation they didn’t need.

It’s the same principle here. Yes, of course there are plenty of people who don’t need ‘it’s OK to say no’ to be part of a proposition. Of course there are plenty of people who have no trouble safewording if they realize they aren’t liking something after all. No one is saying that there aren’t. What we are saying is that there are also people it isn’t true of. And if people’s wellbeing is in fact a priority for us, it has to be inclusive of them, too.