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THE UNDERSTANDING GAP BETWEEN CONSENT AND "ENTHUSIASTIC CONSENT"

Updated: Aug 21, 2021


A lot of you may not like what I’m about to say, but we seem to have a problem. A cultural problem.


There is a gap in understanding on the issue of consent.


And a large part of the problem is the varying degree to which people perceive it to be a problem.

After the murder and discovery of Londoner Sarah Everard last week, the “not all men” discussion has exploded on social media and vitriol is spewing back and forth between women and men, with women insisting that men need to take responsibility for the ways that women remain unsafe in society, and men growing defensive about being generalized as dangerous.


The fact is that there is a serious disconnect between male and female perception when it comes to who is responsible for what, and consent to sexual activity stands at the forefront of the conversation. Consent has in the past been boiled down to “no means no,” and then the slightly more specific “yes means yes,” both a diluting of what are actually complicated and nuanced situations during which a couple are trying to communicate a level of comfort with what they are about to do.


Sex makes you vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. It’s physically intimate: you have to be close. Penetrative sex is inherent vulnerability; being in a physical position to be overpowered — like on your back or on your knees, or under the physical control of someone bigger or stronger than you — leaves you exposed and relatively defenseless against your partner. Even someone who is comfortable with casual sexual encounters is inviting someone not only into their physical space, which is something we in the west don’t really do, but also inviting someone to put them in a position of physical defenselessness and to enter their body. We decide to do this so frequently that we may be desensitized to the weight of these decisions. When you think about it, that’s a pretty big deal. And most of the time it all turns out fine. But sometimes it doesn’t.


The majority of us are now aware that the joking concept of “no means yes,” is gross and offensive and predatory. “‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘convince me’” is becoming more widely understood and accepted, so that’s some movement in the right direction. But there’s still a gulf of potential scenarios where one partner believes they have been assaulted and the other believes they haven’t done anything wrong that needs to be discussed and addressed. According to YoungMensHealthSite.org, “Consent is given without the use of force, control, threats, or manipulation. If it takes convincing, it is not consent.” Somewhere in that gap of understanding lie manipulated consent, such as when one partner threatens to leave or to cheat if the other partner doesn’t agree to participate; coerced consent, the fear of being harmed or beaten, perhaps the fear of being overpowered anyway and preferring to “just let it happen” rather than to resist and prolong the encounter; and removal of consent, intoxicated consent, or freely given consent before the consenter loses consciousness. That’s the difference between “consent” and “enthusiastic consent” — enthusiastic consent isn’t just a response of “okay” to the suggestion of a sex act or one partner’s acceptance of what the other partner has started to do. It isn’t just agreement, it is enthusiastic agreement. Meaning it’s the presence of a comfortable, excited, participatory and genuine “yes” to each escalating act rather than the lack of a “no.”


For those who find it awkward, there are numerous Google-able guides on how to elicit an enthusiastic “yes” without “taking all the romance out of everything” as radio host and noted romantic Rush Limbaugh so tastefully put it in 2016 (please note the author’s sarcasm here). Eliciting an enthusiastic “yes” can be fun. But there are other scenarios considered “gray areas” when enthusiastic consent has not been acquired, such as when one partner decides to rescind their initial consent as says “stop” or some variation thereof; when the consenter has said yes and then lost consciousness; or when the consenter has said “yes,” perhaps even enthusiastically, but is too impaired for that consent to have meaning. All of these meet the standard for assault, so go ahead and cross them off of the gray-area list: If your partner wants to stop and informs you of that decision, you must stop. Anyone can change their mind at any time for any reason. If a person has said “yes” but then loses consciousness, their ability to determine whether or not they want to continue has been removed. You cannot have sex with a person who is not conscious. If a person can’t stand or walk, if they can’t control their bodily functions (like if they are vomiting, for example), they do not have the decision-making skills to consent, even if they have agreed to the activity. Don’t take advantage of their vulnerability. It’s an assault.


These circumstances under which enthusiastic consent has not been freely given may seem “less serious” than a forcible assault to some, but the psychological effects can be just as devastating. And this might be in large part to a misunderstanding of why rape and sexual assault can cause lifelong psychological damage: it isn’t the sex act or the physical injuries, it isn’t whether you were penetrated or where; it’s the betrayal, even when the perpetrator is a stranger. It’s the helplessness of being overpowered and being made to feel smaller and weaker, of being in a situation you can’t physically escape, it’s the fear of bodily injury or death, it’s the invasiveness of a sexually focused attack, the sense that loss of agency and control can happen in a moment without being able to predict or defend against it. Sex is emotional intimacy and bonding, it supports self-esteem and a sense of security… to have that vehicle weaponized and used as violence or as an act of possession, control or diminishment can be psychologically cataclysmic.


Violent offenders, rapists who fit into the various categories of power rapists and anger rapists, commit their assaults as a means of asserting control over another person: the consensus among researchers after decades of work is that rape is not at all about sex and is all about violence. Social worker, author and trauma therapist Matthew Atkinson uses a mugging metaphor to explain this in one of his guides: “when someone mugs a person at gunpoint, the goal of the crime is to take something valuable from the victim, usually money. It is not about fulfilling a mugger’s desire to point and use a gun. The gun (and the threat) is the method used to take something else from the victim, and rapists use sex as their weapon in order to take power and control.” Thus, even in a situation falling somewhere into the understanding gap, where one partner overrules the other’s ability to freely give consent, they have taken away their partner’s autonomy, their ability to act upon their own interests and wishes in favor of their own interests and wishes. The prioritization of their own feelings and wants over the comfort of their partner is where the gap in understanding happens. And that self-prioritization is typical behavior of a power-assertive rapist.


Scholar on gender differences Peggy Ornstein asserts in her New York Times piece on the issue of consent that the gap in understanding — or the “perception gap” — where women are sure they have been assaulted and their male partners are just as confident that they did no such thing (and believe they are being persecuted with false accusations) is attributable to the fact that “young men still too often learn to prioritize their pleasure over women’s feelings, to interpret a partner’s behavior through the lens of their own wishes.” Stated another way, the male “sense of entitlement may blind them…leading them to cause harm whether they choose to or not.” Ornstein also tells us that “one of the traits rapists have been found to reliably share is that they don’t believe they are the problem.” Explaining and eliminating the understanding gap by convincing men that they have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement does seem to be the right solution, but historically, the needle has not moved far on convincing men that they are narcissistic and that their narcissism is detrimental to society.


The “we’re not mind-readers” argument — that if one partner decides to remove consent for whatever reason and doesn’t verbalize the wish to stop — could be considered…potentially reasonable. That’s said with much reluctance, because some skepticism exists that if one partner has decided to remove consent and wants to stop the other genuinely has no idea. Something must have happened to affect the experience of the non-consenting partner — they must have felt pain, fear or some other kind of discomfort, maybe even a trauma memory — and the idea that the other partner could be so self-absorbed as to not notice this happening strains belief. So let’s say this clearly: if you are having the kind of sex where you lose emotional contact with your partner, the kind of sex where you might not notice that they have frozen, stopped participating, or disengaged from you, you are not having good sex and your partners are not enjoying it. And what’s more than that is that choosing to continue the sex act when you have perceived this kind of behavior means that you are committing an assault. It makes you a rapist. Marrying those two concepts is crucial to bridging the understanding gap: you should be paying enough attention to notice if your partner wants to stop, and if you don’t stop, you have committed an assault against them.


Many of us can recall personal experiences where our partner has noticed us shifting uncomfortably, looking nervously at the door, or not looking at them for what they feel has been too long, and asked if we were still okay. They noticed our expressions and they noticed a change in our body or attitude and checked on us. They didn’t have to be in love with us to care about our comfort. Perhaps they just wanted the ego boost of knowing that we were enjoying what they were doing. Either way, whatever their motivation, they chose not to commit an assault by ignoring our discomfort.


The concept of acquiring enthusiastic consent rather than a general “okay” may seem daunting to some if they’re overthinking it. In the moment, it’s not difficult to ask your partner if it’s okay with them if you do what you have on your mind. If asking out loud makes you nervous, it’s probably because you’re not sure your partner is going to say yes, and if that’s the case choosing to go ahead without asking and hoping you won’t get stopped is a problem that requires some self-examination. The key to bridging the understanding gap is this: be considerate of other people. Be a good human. Have empathy with others. If you’re not paying enough attention to know whether or not you’re violating someone’s consent, whether you have scared them or pushed them or whether they just want to stop, you’re not good in bed, and you might also be a rapist.


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