Is consent possible? Can we do better?

The older I get, the more suspicious I've become about consent. We stock so many books and zines about what consent is, how to ensure one has enthusiastic consent, about developing and maintaining good boundaries, and while I can wholeheartedly get behind this movement and all of the tea-as-sex analogies, there's something that's never sat right with me about the way we talk about consent.

Which is to say, I'm not sure we're ever fully able to consent to anything honestly, and I'm not sure we can ever fully trust others to consent either.

The most glaring flaw with consent education - especially in your standard college consent workshop - is that the people who tend to cause the most harm are people who don't actually care about consent in the first place. That is, there are people who lack empathy or have a desire to harm others and they aren't going to pay heed to even the most effective consent education.

However, even for the most moral amongst us, there's still a considerable consent gap that I'm not sure can reliably be bridged in even our closest relationships.

I remember many years ago when therapists identified and added "fawn" to the usual roster of trauma responses. It used to be just "fight or flight" and then "fight, flight, or freeze", right? But "fawn" is probably the most complicated trauma response of them all especially when it comes to negotiating and obtaining consent.

The fawn trauma response really made me reexamine so many of my historical personal and work relationships and all of those times when I perhaps naively thought a person was actively and enthusiastically consenting to even the most benign bids.

The most anodyne example I can think of was a CAYA members meeting a decade or so ago. At the time, our membership was at 100% (that doesn't happen much around here), so we started forming committees to distribute the work and decision making more equally. We'd come up with a list of various committees and went around the group looking for volunteers for those committees.

One member enthusiastically - so enthusiastically! - raised their hand with gusto (as Midori would say) for almost every committee. As someone who was quite overloaded with responsibility, I was psyched that other members were showing such interest and enthusiasm about sharing the work of running the co-op.

However, once the thrill of the meeting wore off (lol) and the months went by, those committees never materialized, the work didn't get done, and our co-op started to really flounder. If you're an avid follower our ebbs and flows, you'll likely know this came to a head around 2013.


What I didn't realize at the time, but can see so clearly now, is that the enthusiasm at the meeting was a fawn response, and the subsequent inaction was a freeze response.

What is most interesting to me was that these trauma responses weren't happening in response to any of us as individuals, but to the organization itself. It was personal historical trauma that was playing out in a whole new arena that acutely threatened all of our livelihoods.

I've always been someone who largely has taken a 'yes' - especially a boisterously hand-waving enthusiastic 'yes' - at face value. I mean, what else can we do when navigating life is already so fraught and complicated? None of us is resourced enough to really dig deep into the current and historical motivations of everyone we encounter in life. Even if we had the time and space and energy to interrogate the inner workings of everyone we negotiate with, only a handful of us are therapists and qualified to dig deep into the psyches of others responsibly.

Now, even for the few of us that don't have deep and lasting trauma, there are so many everyday considerations that create substantial barriers to true consent.

The entire structure of our lives is not conducive to true and wholehearted consent. Just consider on a very surface level the economic pressure we're all under to ensure we have housing and food and money for the bus. Very few of us are truly able to say that we enthusiastically and actively consent to getting up each and every morning to go to work - or look for work - even when we really fucking love our jobs.

Now, this isn't a feature of capitalism particularly - surely even before these complex oppressive economic structures developed, people weren't always super excited to wake up and go hunt or gather every single day. If I were to take this line of thinking further, I'd likely conclude that the instinct for survival is a bit coercive in itself. Given that all living things seem to have this same instinct, we can't really frame it as a choice.

So, when it comes to sex and intimacy, much like the sex-as-tea metaphor, consent gets even more complicated and perhaps even less possible.

How many couples do you know who moved in together at some point because economically, it just made more sense? Like, I'm spending five-nights-a-week at your house anyway, so we might as well just move in together? And now, however long later, who can afford to get an apartment on their own?

How many people are in straight relationships because of the often subconscious compulsory heterosexuality they’re immersed in?

How many folks engage in sex with others because they're wanting physical affection or intimacy or a way to feel desired or valuable or because they don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or risk a violent response?

Even without significant trauma in our history, consent is a super high bar when there are so many internal and external pressures on us.

I recall talking to my partner's cousin's partner casually over brunch about all of this and observing her palpably recoil from the conversation. I think she inferred that my conclusion was going to be that if true consent isn't possible, we shouldn't bother with it in the first place - but my conclusion isn't that at all.

In fact, I aspire to something much bigger and fulsome than what we think of as consent.

Now, look, if you're engaging in lots of one-off hookups or hanging out at your favourite government recommended low-covid risk glory holes, feel free to skip the rest of this essay (I think).

As someone who has engaged with the phenomenal Wheel of Consent in a pretty coercive environment (the irony, right?), I actually want to advocate for something so much bigger and better than consentx.

I want for us a world or a job or a community or a lover that can feel into our full and messy humanity when we engage with each other.

I want the people in our lives to see how difficult consent (and boundaries) can be to achieve and how imperfect these negotiations between people almost always are.

And I want to reserve some empathy for everyone who thought that yes was a yes when it turned out later to be a maybe or a no.

I know we don't live in a world or a system that allows for the level of understanding and empathy we all deserve - I mean, if we empathized with each other in a fulsome way, we either wouldn't be able to function in an everyday way (that's a lot of feeling to hold for others!) or the system would instantly implode, but hey, homelessness and war wouldn’t be possible if we stopped othering each other and opted to recognize our mutual humanity.

I guess what I’m asking for or wishing for is that we all take the time to really see and acknowledge each other’s humanity in a deep and real way. I know things are hard out there and this moment is particularly fraught, and I know we’re all carrying around so much pain, but I think there’s room for our undeniable humanity in this rather inhumane world.

When we dig deeper and really connect with each other, something much bigger and better than mere consent is possible. I want a world that is focused on true altruistic love, mutual understanding, and enthusiastic desire to do better by others and to honour our own humanity in the process.

Or, you know, maybe gloryholes are good too.


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