Consent Isn’t Just Sexy, It’s Everything
The most essential, important, fundamental component of any healthy human relationship is consent.
Consent hinges on two things: honesty, and communication.
We usually talk about consent in the context of sexual consent, and while this is an important component, consent goes far beyond the realm of sex. Consent pertains to conversation, emotional support, listening, spending time together, expectations, treatment of one another, rules of engagement. Consent can only be freely given if it is honestly communicated. Consent can be removed at any time, for any reason.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s start with sexual consent. To consent to a sexual experience, you have to communicate that consent in some form that is both understandable and understood. I do not believe that consent has to be a specific verbal ‘yes.’ It can be communicated through body language, tone, action, however, a verbal ‘yes’ is one of the simplest ways of expressing consent, because it doesn’t require one’s partner(s) to make assumptions about one’s meaning (more on this later).
For consent to be given, it has to be honest. If it’s coerced, pressured, a lie – it isn’t consent.
For consent to be given, it has to be communicated. The communicator has to have agency in the communication, the receiver has to receive and understand that consent has been given.
All of this is pretty straightforward.
Consent is at the root of it all, whether it be a basic understanding of giving consent to a particular experience (“yes means yes”), or a much more complex understanding of not being obligated to any person in your life except for the duties you have consented to.
Another thing tied up in all this is that no one is obligated to you, and you are obligated to no one. You can remove consent to any experience at any time. You are not obligated to explain yourself. This also means that anyone else can do the same. There are no rules.
I’ll Repeat This: There Are No Rules
The only rules that exist within a given human relationship are the rules that both parties have consented to.
If I believe that you being my partner means you have to text me every day, or pay for my meals, or be sexually monogamous with me, and that all of these things you will do simply on the basis of being my partner without asking you what the term means to you, you haven’t consented to the relationship. I have made assumptions. I have determined what the rules are for you without you ever consenting to follow them, or ever asking if your rules are different.
Not believing in labels on a relationship is so often cast off as weak, or commitment-phobic, or hipster bullshit. But not labeling any relationship is actually an incredibly powerful idea, because with labels come assumptions. And assumptions break consent.
It is fine to have expectations of other people. Trust is an expectation. If I go on a long drive with you into a dark forest and trust that you won’t kill me, I’m expecting that my understanding of your intentions matches up to reality. Expectations are normal, healthy, and in some ways, necessary. Expectations are not the same as assumptions.
Assumptions are expectations without consent.
I may have a wholly different set of understandings of what a given relationship means, or what that person will do for me, or what our dynamic is. If I never bother to honestly communicate with that person about those expectations, there is no consent given or received.
Everyone’s perception is different. Everyone’s reality is, by extension, different. Everyone’s definitions, expectations, moralities, ideals, communication styles, interests, desires are different.
I’ve heard countless times (and I would guess you have too) the phrase “He never really loved me because he did this,” “She wasn’t my real friend if she acted like this,” “You never cared, did you? If you did, you wouldn’t do this,” et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.
If care is consented to – that is, if it is chosen actively – it can be removed at any time. If love comes from a place of agency and understanding, it can be removed at any time. There is nothing unfair about ending a friendship, a relationship, at any time for any reason. Even if the ending of the relationship broke the rules agreed upon by both partners. When one party stops consenting to the rules, those rules stop being the rules.
Because the thing about consent is that, when it can’t be removed at will, it stops being consent. It becomes an obligation, and obligation is a lie.
No matter what you do, you are not obligated to it. There are no rules. You do what you agree to do for as long as you agree to do it. You freely consent to do whatever it is you’re doing, even if it feels obligatory, because you can always, always not do it.
Even if not doing it means death.
Death is a choice you can make.
Having a choice doesn’t mean both options are good.
Because Your First Words Weren’t “I Do Not Consent to This Search”
The only maybe amendment to my idea that no one is morally obligated to anyone else comes with parents and their children. This one is tricky for me.
When you choose have a child, you consent to have it. This is why reproductive rights are absolutely crucial. If you do not consent to the experience, if you do not consent to make a person, the whole relationship is out of whack and breaks the fundamental tenets of how harmonious relationships work.
On the flip side of this is that your child never consented to come into this world. If we gave birth to fully functioning adults, this would all be different. But we don’t. When we create humans, we initially create humans who cannot survive on their own, who require care and nurturing. If we consent to create humans, we consent, on some level, to caring for them at least in their early years.
I could write a long list of ideas about how parents should raise their children, but I’m not a parent, so I can’t make those decisions for others. Parent-child relationships do, in some sense, complicate the idea of lack of obligation. Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term seriously complicates this idea. It’s the same basic principle behind the idea that children can’t consent to sex with adults: consent requires a balance of power to be consent. It requires that neither party feel forced or obligated or coerced. Children who cannot survive on their own do not have the same power as adults who can. They cannot consent in the same way, and they require care from others that others are, in some ways, more obligated to than they would be to an equal.
You Didn’t Choose to Be Born
The fact that no one consents to be born has one other manifestation: that living is not an obligation. Being here isn’t something you have to do. If you decide you don’t want to exist, you don’t want to live, you don’t want to be on this planet, you don’t have to.
You can choose not to. Suicide is okay.
To threaten anyone with your own suicide is, to me, a manipulative, weak thing to do. To threaten anyone against their own suicide with the pain you would feel from their suicide is equally manipulative and weak.
If you’re suicidal and honest about it, that’s strength. If you would feel pain from someone else’s actions and communicate that to them when asked, that too is strong. It becomes weak is when the honest communication is attached to a threat, when it seeks to remove someone else’s agency, to coerce action.
I Want You to Want Me
Let’s say I come to your party and only stay for twenty minutes before deciding I really want to go for a walk. You complain that I’m flaky, always changing my mind on a whim. Well, yeah. I did. My mind changed. I wanted to be here, and now I don’t.
Would you prefer I stay here when I don’t want to be here?
For some people, though most won’t likely admit it, the answer is yes. They do want other people to do what they want them to, regardless of whether or not the other person wants to. For most people, I would guess, the answer isn’t yes, it’s, “I want you to want to be here.”
Aye, here’s the rub. We don’t only want to control other people’s actions, we want to control their emotions. We want to control their values, their perceptions, their realities. And we can’t. We never, ever can. And to attempt to do so violates consent.
I’m wary of any time I feel that my goals, desires, or perceived needs involve the actions or emotions of other people. In keeping with the idea that there is a place for all things, there is a place for dependence, for desire of others, for desire for control. But let’s call it what it is: We want to control other people, and we can’t.
The number of times I’ve wanted to make someone I’ve been attracted to be attracted to me in return is probably higher than I can count. But I’m hard pressed to think of the last time when I honestly wanted to make myself become attracted to someone who was attracted to me. We so often think the problem of the situation lies in others. We wish we could change their actions, feelings, thoughts, behaviors.
We can’t. We never can. We can only ever change ourselves, our words, our actions, our beliefs, our thoughts. We can hope that the changes we make in ourselves will create the changes we wish to see in others. But we can never know that they can, and we can never force it.
To live with integrity is to live your life the way you want to in the hopes that it changes the world, and the acceptance that it may not. You can’t force anyone else to change.
You can help to tear down the structures that make change harder, that limit consent, that make it more difficult to question assumptions and keep people from being able to honestly communicate their needs. You can hope that that creates change, just like you can hope that being kind to a stranger will make them go on to be kind to the next person they see. But you can’t ever force change on anyone. You can only change yourself.
When Someone Says They Don’t Care, Believe Them
If you assume someone in your life is telling you anything other than the truth, if you act according to your perception that they’re lying, you’ve removed their agency. You’ve turned their No into a Yes. This does not mean that they’re not lying, but you don’t get to decide for them that something is a lie. If someone isn’t honest with you, that isn’t really your problem. They’ve communicated. Act according to that communication.
The only way in which anyone else’s dishonesty is your problem is if you or society have coerced them to not be able to express their honesty. If you hold a gun to someone’s head and say “I will shoot you if you don’t have sex with me. Would you like to have sex with me?” they’re probably going to say “Yes,” even if they don’t. The ability to consent is severely limited, because the power dynamic is so imbalanced.
Do You Have to Go to Work?
Back to the idea of obligation, on the subject of imbalance of power. When I say you have complete agency, that anything you do you can consent to and consent not to, this is slightly tempered (though not erased) by power imbalances.
Like, are you obligated to go to work today? At the end of it, no, you’re not. Even if you’ll get fired for not going. Even if getting fired means you’ll be homeless, lose your mortgage, starve to death. You can always choose not to.
Having agency does not mean there are no negative consequences of your actions.
Because to assume that you can act with impunity means to assume that others don’t have agency. That they cannot respond in their own right to your actions. That you can control yourself and control them.
You may be thinking – going to work at a job I hate or starving to death? That’s not much of a choice. And you’re right. It’s not. It is, still, a choice. But not much of one.
Because the balance of power is stacked against you. You’re not obligated to go to work, you’re not obligated to do anything, but the choice between going to work and starving to death isn’t much of a choice. And when you limit someone’s freedom tremendously, when you pit their consent against such high stakes that honesty is tantamount to impossible, then the whole idea of consent rings false.
Imbalanced power tempers consent. By extent, it tempers freedom. It does not eliminate consent or freedom. But it limits it.
The only world in which honesty and communication reign is a world in which everyone is free. In which everyone has agency, everyone lives the life they consent to.
Being A Good Person For Dogs
If you don’t know, ask. Always, always, always ask.
Listen to the answer.
Trust that the other person is being honest, but also accept that there is a whole heap of social conditioning that makes honesty more difficult.
Accept that any possible lack of honesty is (usually) not your problem.
Be honest yourself.
Communicate your needs.
Don’t make assumptions about other people’s needs. Don’t assume other people know your needs if you haven’t told them.
Don’t violate consent.