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.