Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent, Part Two: “Yes”

This article is a follow-up to Under Duress, Part One: “No”, which discussed “no means no”, ambiguous sexual requests, implicit refusals and drunken consent.

Trigger Warnings

This article contains discussions of rape, rape apologism and narrative examples of the ways in which multiple systems of domination can be used to put pressure on sexual consent. It contains a fictional account of retraumatisation after abuse.

If, after reading this, you feel like you would like to talk to somebody about personal experiences of non-consent:

Summary

When rape apologists are using our models of consent to defend rape and to deflect feminist analyses, it’s at least worth considering the limitations of the models. This article is part two in a two-part series of articles examining the issues.

Part One: “No”: Understanding consent as a binary is powerful because it allows us to say that “no means no”, a statement which has had and still has incredible power to change attitudes about rape for the better. However, it can make it more difficult for us to conceive of what else might mean “no”, as well as to distinguish between different kinds of “yes” given in different contexts. It can be used to victim-blame. It doesn’t always accommodate some of the complexities of communication (although we should beware, because “miscommunication” is a shield rapists often like to hide behind). And admitting “no always means no” seems to mean that we must also admit “yes always means yes”; this can conflict with the subtleties of a fully radical feminist analysis of rape culture.

Part Two: “Yes”: Modern feminist views on consent have often been in conflict. One way to resolve that conflict may be to look for unified models of consent which takes into account ideas from multiple feminisms. Here I suggest a non-binary power model of consent, which looks at systems of domination such as patriarchy, and the pressure they enable people to place on consent. In this model, “no” still means “no” but “yes” should be understood as a statement meaning, “I choose to say ‘yes’, understanding the consequences of saying ‘no’”. A focus on systems of domination – plural – allows us to consider other dynamics of rape beyond men raping women without moving away from fifty years of feminist work on rape and consent.

Gendered Language

Where I discuss rape and consent, I have used a mixture of gender-neutral language and male = perpetrator, female = survivor pronouns. Any discussion of rape and consent is almost inevitably pushed into one of two traps in the use of gendered language; it’s written exclusively in terms of male perpetrators and female survivors and erases other dynamics of rape, or it’s written in exclusively gender-neutral terms and erases the strongly gendered power dynamics of most rape. Even attempts to reference gender proportionally are doomed to fail, because when other pronouns are used just once or twice, it can feel more like tokenism than representation. Please read this article recognising that each use of pronouns and genders is completely deliberate but is not intended to be definitive or exclusive.

Contents

This article breaks down roughly into two sections. The first introduces modern feminist views on consent and the second explores a non-binary power model of consent.

  1. Modern Feminist Views on Consent
    1. Yes Means Yes? Agency Feminism
    2. Yes Means No? Radical Feminism on Consent
    3. Adverse Encounters Between Radical and Agency Feminisms
  2. A Non-Binary Power Model of Consent
    1. Intersectionality and Multiple Power Relations
    2. The Non-Binary Power Model
    3. Interlude: No Still Means No
    4. Severe and Unnegotiatable Power Dynamics
  3. Conclusions

Modern Feminist Views on Consent

As a radical feminist who has many friends who self-describe as sex-positive feminists, I can find myself in a complicated position when I write about consent. Some of the disagreements I see can be very frustrating when it seems like in many areas our understandings are close. I don’t feel like we need to be in complete agreement on all things in order to identify areas where we can reach similar understandings and find common cause. I think that consent has the potential to be one of those areas, and so to explore that possibility, I’d like to set out what I feel the territory looks like now, as well as highlight some of the ways in which conflict can arise.

Yes Means Yes? Agency Feminism

First, I’d like to discuss a school of thought in feminism which I’m going to call ‘agency feminism’, which emphasises women as active, not passive, agents. In agency feminism, the basic unit of consent is the individual, and the definition of “consensual” is whether or not the person involves says it’s consensual.

Agency feminism is very closely tied to sex-positive feminism, but I would prefer not to use that term in this article as I don’t consider other feminisms to be sex-negative. I’d also like to be able to treat the aspects of sex-positive feminism relating to the subject of agency separately to other aspects of sex-positive feminism. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge that other feminist movements, such as some socialist feminisms, also feature a focus on agency.

“No means no,” argues agency feminism, has taken women from the point where they existed to be used by men in sex to the point where they can be conceived of as not consenting to sex. The phrase “yes means yes” is used to emphasise positive consent coming from desire, not just the passive ‘absence of a no’ acceptance of a sex act. As Heather Corinna writes in her imagination of a sex-positive future, An Immodest Proposal:

We [see a woman's] yes as the answer to someone else’s desire, rather than as an affirmation of her own… [and later] What if she were the one initiating, she were getting off… We, as a culture, still tend to consider even a woman’s yes to a man’s sexual invitation revolutionary.

That emphasis on women’s desire is picked up on by work which aims to discover those desires. In her blog post, What do you want?, Holly Pervocracy talks about her struggle to get in touch with her own desires, recognising and fighting back against the way in which “… the socialization of young women is all about how to not indulge your desires”:

… you can’t even start that process [of consensual negotiation] until you know exactly what you’re negotiating about, and that requires you to know exactly what your own raw, impractical, selfish desires are.

Agency feminism is also a ‘rights and responsibilities’ model. If the right is for our sexual choices to be considered the equal of men’s, in that we have the sex we want to have, and only the sex we want to have (“only yes means yes”), the responsibility is for us to only ask for and to initiate and give consent for the sex that we want (“yes only means yes”). In the foreword to Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, Margaret Cho writes that:

These days, I say yes only when I mean yes. It does require some vigilance on my part to make sure I don’t just go on sexual automatic pilot and let people do whatever. It forces me to be really honest with myself and others. It makes me remember that loving myself is also about protecting myself and defending my own borders. I say yes to me.

But what about when rape culture and other factors make the ‘responsibilities’ of agency feminism different or impossible to execute, or create perverse pressures? The understanding that individual women may choose to take responsibility for giving a “yes” if and only if they really mean “yes” should never be taken to mean that the “yes” of all women is a carte blanche. My experience with agency feminist thinkers is that they freely acknowledge this, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll consider the “yes means yes” of agency feminism to actually mean:

My yes means yes

or perhaps,

This yes means yes

Yes Means No? Radical Feminism on Consent

You could describe the social training of women in part as an education in how not to say “no”, a subject which Harriet J (I don’t know whether she describes herself as a radical feminist, but this is relevant to the subject) writes about in Another Post About Rape:

If we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways. And we should not be surprised when they behave these ways during attempted or completed rapes.

And it’s not just during attempted rapes (or at least, attempted rapes as they are understood in the mainstream). Sometimes “yes” means, “I can’t handle another argument with you”, or, “I want to please you”, or, “Let’s just get this over with”.

Radical (and some other) feminists identify a ubiquitous pressure against women’s consent which is part of and partially created by rape culture. In an interview discussing her book, Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues, Catharine MacKinnon described it as follows:

The [sexist] assumption is that women can be unequal to men economically, socially, culturally, politically, and in religion, but the moment they have sexual interactions, they are free and equal. That’s the assumption – and I think it ought to be thought about, and in particular what consent then means… My view is that when there is force or substantially coercive circumstances between the parties, individual consent is beside the point.

Radical feminists argue that the concept of a straightforward “yes” is unique to those groups who don’t experience pressure on their consent. A “yes” under pressure can’t be unequivocally understood as “yes” because it may mean “maybe” or indeed “no”. The act of a man taking a woman’s “yes” as a “yes” is an act which directly denies conditions of sex inequality between men and women under patriarchy.

Properly, the radical feminist understanding of consent can’t be summed-up as an “x means y” statement. When under duress, there’s no such thing as a simple “yes” or “no”; the very idea of a statement ‘meaning’ one of those things becomes questionable when an answer may have as much (or more) to do with the power factors at play than with what a person really wants to communicate.

But it’s been my experience that statements like, “this is too complicated to summarise” are mostly ignored by people who encounter them, and that they will attempt to take away a summary regardless. We’ll be talking in the next section about what happens when people take away a summary of radical feminist thought on consent, so here’s an attempt to paraphrase the kind of conclusion which people often draw from listening to radical feminists speak on the subject.

First, let’s imagine that a man does not want to be a rapist, because if he does, any idea of ‘consent’ is out of the window. To a willing rapist, whether he hears “yes”, “maybe” or “no”, society gives him generous permission to press ahead regardless and justify it later (more on this in Intersectionality and Multiple Power Relations below).

As a radical feminist, I’d like our hypothetical non-rapey man to know that:

Yes means maybe, and maybe means no

- in the context of women answering sexual invitations from men

Breaking down that summary a little: “Yes means maybe…”, because there’s no way for the man receiving a yes to be sure that sex inequality isn’t compelling a yes. “… and maybe means no” because, as discussed in part one of this article, I don’t think there’s necessarily any value in distinguishing between someone who’s cool with maybe raping and someone who rapes.

Adverse Encounters Between Radical and Agency Feminisms

There’s no doubt that agency feminist and radical feminist ideas have clashed repeatedly on the subject of consent. I’m interested in looking at the places where they can inform each other, but before that happens, it might be useful to look at some common encounters between these feminist ideas which have gone some way towards creating that conflict.

“But I said yes!”: A woman is having enjoyable sex with male partners. She doesn’t experience the sex as violating. When she reads a radical feminist article which discusses the significant power imbalances in hetero sexual relationships, it doesn’t seem to match her lived experiences. She feels that she doesn’t experience significant pressure on her consent, and that this invalidates the article. She’s encountered a general position of “yes means [maybe means] no” and individualised it to her situation, hearing “your yes means no”. Because her account is palatable to patriarchy, she is widely platformed to speak about her adverse encounter with these ideas, and many people agree with her. She can easily find other people online recounting similar experiences, and even gets some coverage in the mainstream media. These experiences accumulate and become an agency feminist lobby which is not just for enthusiastic consent but against radical feminism. As a result, more women who encounter radical feminist concepts are predisposed to take one look, think, “This doesn’t match my experience – just like everyone else is saying,” and dismiss them.

“But she said yes!”: A woman is performing sexual acts with a male partner which she doesn’t want to do. She has, however, said “yes” to them, and may even sometimes initiate them. She tries to speak up about it, but nobody listens. She breaks up with her partner and names the behaviour as rape (both of which can be very difficult things to do). Her account is not palatable to patriarchy and she is attacked, silenced and retraumatised. But now, her ex-partner speaks up; he explains that she was saying “yes”, and as such she took responsibility (remember that word?) for the sex acts that occurred in their relationship. “It’s not rape,” he says, “And those feminists agree with me.” He has taken an individualist agency-feminist position – the rights and responsibilities model of “my yes means yes” – and has generalised it to all situations, a kind of “every yes means yes”. His account is recognised as unreliable by many feminists, but it is very palatable to the anti-feminist mainstream, and it is widely reported, as well as being picked up as a cause célèbre by reactionary anti-feminist movements such as MRAs (Male RightsRapist Advocates). These experiences accumulate in the daily lives of survivors and of volunteers working at rape crisis centres and become part of the fabric of rape culture understood all too well by many radical feminists.

Neither woman has done anything wrong. One defended her sex life in the face of what she perceived as a matronising undermining of her agency, and was supported in doing so by a dominant culture which has an interest in covering up inequality and the theory which exposes that inequality. The other gave a “yes” in self-defence, one which was later used against her by an abuser, supported by that same culture. In each case, the blame lies with patriarchy.

How, as feminists, can we embrace the understanding that “yes can mean no” without feeling that our own experiences of good sex – if we have those experiences – are being called into question? And how can we defend our own experience without the means of our self-defence being turned around and used out of context by a patriarchy determined to close ranks behind every instance of sexism and abuse?

Satirical 'advice animal' image macro of the 'Mens Rights Marmoset' which contrasts two sentences: 'Don't like it when female superheroes are depicted as living sex dolls aimed to fulfil the sexual fantasies of adolescent males?' and 'Stop slut shaming!'

Sexists love using 'pro-sex' feminist soundbytes, but rarely understand them

One answer might be to insist on both radical and agency feminist models of consent being firmly kept in context and to maintain loudly that in the general case, “yes means maybe means no” even as in the individual case, “this yes means yes”. Unfortunately, feminists don’t have control over the ways in which our discourses are represented in the mainstream. Even within feminism, the selective-platforming effect and the differing amounts of abuse/silencing directed at different feminisms mean that our positions are distorted.

Ultimately, the subtlety of these two properly complimentary perspectives is undermined, they are held up as ‘contradictory’ – or we are held up as ‘hypocritical’, the horror! – and the discourse is polarised. It’s divide and rule, and we fight amongst ourselves instead of fighting against rape and for our own self-determination.

A Non-Binary Power Model of Consent: Acknowledging Multiple Systems of Domination

This is why I wanted to write this article in the first place. I’d like to talk about a non-binary way of thinking about consent, one which takes into account the ubiquitous nature of pressure on consent, but which explicitly acknowledges that women are intelligent, sensible actors who make decisions in their own interest. It also extends the analysis to cover more power relations than patriarchy.

This may be a model which many feminists have seen before. In truth, it’s not so different to understandings of consent held by both agency feminists and radical feminists, because all feminists admit the existence of domination and rape, and the way we understand consent must match the real world.

Intersectionality and Multiple Power Relations

The common narrative is that in what’s come to be called the ‘third wave’ of feminism – a term I reject, as it seems to imply the ‘second wave’ is somehow over or has been superceded – feminists have gradually begun to extend our work into the area of intersectionality, the consideration of power relations other than sexism (and the ways in which sexism interacts with these).

Personally, I associate this development more with time than any particular ‘wave’ of feminism. Some feminists have always been aware that sexism is not the only power relation which exists; after all, Black feminists could hardly avoid the subject. Feminist movements are still notoriously bad at handling intersectionality, but nowadays there does seem to be more awareness, sporadic though it may be, that other power dynamics are worth taking seriously alongside – or integral to – feminist work.

An intersectional understanding holds that sexism is one of a number of systems of domination, along with racism, disablism, capitalism, cissexism, ageism, monosexism, classism, homophobia, rape culture, compulsory sexuality, nativism and others, each of which has some unique features and some features in common.

One feature which shows up in many of these systems is a form of power-over privilege (I introduced this term in another recent article). One of many things that power-over privilege can do is to allow one party, situated in the dominant position according to that system and benefiting from that privilege, to place pressure on the consent of another.

Taking a quick look across the systems of domination mentioned so far, we can identify some ways in which consent becomes pressured when those systems are in play. I’ve picked one example for each, and this isn’t an exclusive or a definitive list. I know much more about some of these systems than others! If you have suggestions which would be more illustrative, let me know. There’s always a risk in drawing equivalence between different systems of domination, in that important differences can be erased. I hope that this list does as much to suggest the ways in which these systems work differently as it does to highlight how they can do similar work.

Systems with which I am personally familiar:

  • Homophobia: Since similar-gender sexual relations are not widely discussed in society, a claim that, “This sex act is what real gay people do” has coercive power when made by someone with more perceived experience of similar-gender relations over someone who is or who feels less experienced
  • Cissexism: Internalised feelings of ‘illegitimacy’ of trans* lives and bodies can mean that when confronted with the sexual agenda of a cis person, some trans* people may simply ‘go along’ without a legitimate site from which to assert their own desires
  • Capitalism: The threat of firing allows easy manipulation of consent in the workplace
  • Sexism: Patriarchy socialises women to show ‘politeness’ to men. Many women have felt unable to refuse consent due to dynamics of ‘politeness’ (often dynamics manipulated by the man)

Systems from which I’m drawing my understanding and examples from people personally familiar with them:

  • Classism: Taking a difference in educational backgrounds as one aspect of a classist society, there can be an ‘arguing privilege’ whereby a partner who has – or acts as though they have – a more accomplished academic education is able to win arguments with their partner through deploying jargon, rhetorical tactics or by appeals to authority (this article is itself an example of ‘arguing privilege’, though hopefully not a use of it which places pressure on anyone’s consent!)
  • Monosexism: Some straight men will simply assume consent from bisexual women for multi-partner sex, acting as if the bisexuality of their partner(s) entitles them to a threesome
  • Disablism: In her article, Seeking Asylum: On Intimate Partner Violence & Disability (published in the anthology The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities), Peggy Munson writes about how sometimes an abusive relationship with a person who performs caring duties is preferable or necessary when compared to life (and potentially death) when others are not willing to take on those duties
  • Nativism: In her article, When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States (published in the anthology Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, Miriam Zoila Pérez writes that “[women's] dependency on abusers for their immigration status is the ultimate form of control… this creates the power imbalance that facilitates these abuses”
  • Racism: Racism conditions white people to expect racialised people to serve their needs, this can create pressure in itself or when combined with internalised racism/colonialism. It’s worth noting that, while racism and classism are distinct systems and are often wrongly conflated, they have aspects in common and can often work together.

Systems which I’ve mostly encountered second- or third-hand, where I’m suggesting examples based on my very limited knowledge:

  • Ageism: There are widely documented cases of rape and abuse perpetrated by younger people against pension-age people in so-called ‘care’ environments
  • Ageism (again): I’m finding it impossible to pick just one example of ways in which adults can place pressure on a child’s consent. An adult can completely control the world and experience of a child and essentially pressure their consent at will.

    Why do you want to have sex?

    this image is licensed as non-attribution, non-commercial, share-alike

  • Compulsory Sexuality: Something often clearly perceived by asexual communities is that there is a drive in Western cultures towards sexual behaviour being the norm, and a marginalisation of desires not to have sex. On an individual level, this means that the question, “Why don’t you want to have sex?” is asked more often than “Why do you want to have sex?”
  • Rape Culture: Once a person begins to take the dominant position in a dynamic of rape or ongoing abuse, while they may have used other privileges to gain that dominant position, from that point onward they are also directly enabled by rape culture in their role as rapists / abusers (to put it another way, rape culture helps rapists to keep raping and keeps survivors in their place, in addition to any other power dynamics in play)

Even if you disagree with one or more items on this list, there are many more ways in which the systems of domination above can be used to place pressure on consent, as well as many other systems of domination not listed here. I hope that this list of examples shows that consent does not exist in a vacuum, and that one or more dynamics are almost always in play which compromise the act of consent.

A danger of including ‘sexism’ on a list like this is that it places sexism alongside and in implied equivalence to the other systems of domination. This is part appropriate, part misleading. It’s appropriate because each of these systems of domination are different and are used against different people. Some of them are not used against women at all, or are used in varying degrees against women and people of other genders. A great number of them, however, are disproportionately used against women in the context of pressure on sexual consent. This is because under patriarchy, where women refuse to perform their function as members of the sex class – namely, sex and/or reproduction – patriarchy inevitably brings pressure to bear.

People wanting to pressure consent will use the easiest tool to hand, or will allow themselves to passively benefit from the pressure their situation exerts on their behalf. In some cases, that might simply be sexism. In others, racism plus sexism; in others, disablism plus sexism, and occasionally, when the person whose consent is being pressured is not a woman, one or more tools not including sexism. But overwhelmingly, it is women’s consent which is pressured. This does not mean that pressure on others’ consent is unimportant, but a discussion of consent which doesn’t take this fact into account is a discussion which is at odds with (and an insult to!) the reality of countless women’s experiences.

Finally, there may seem to be some exceptions to the cases in which rape culture directly enables rape, but these are as much stories as real scenarios – they do happen, but they are told out of all proportion. The repeated telling of these stories serves a function: through comparison to them, other rapes can be dismissed as, famously, not “rape-rape”. Jaclyn Friedman describes one of these stories in her article, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, where she writes:

The ['Real'/ideal] rapist is a scary stranger, with a weapon, even better if he’s a poor man of color. The victim [sic] is a young, white, conventionally pretty, sober, innocent virgin. Also, there are witnesses and/or incontrovertible physical evidence, and the victim [sic] goes running to the authorities as soon as the assault is over.

The Non-Binary Power Model

When consequences for saying “no” (e.g. social sanction, direct violence) are potentially higher than consequences for saying “yes” (e.g. experiencing rape) or when the sexual negotiation takes place in distorted conversational territory which may severely impede or discourage giving a “no” in the first place, there is no “yes” which can be directly understood as consensual. These dynamics don’t need to be explicitly invoked; simply knowing that they exist is enough to know, for example, that they could potentially be invoked by a partner who turns nasty after being refused. A partner with a knife is threatening whether they use it or not. The dynamics don’t even need to be in the forefront of your mind; many people have subconscious understandings of power dynamics even if they never articulate or even explicitly conceptualise them.

It isn’t always possible to know which systems of domination are in play in any given situation. Some marginalisations are invisible. People’s life experiences differ, so that even though they may be marginalised under one or more systems of domination, they may be more or less marginalised, or some of the tactics opened up by that system of domination may be more or less effective. Different tactics may be differently effective at different times. Different sex partners may be more or less adept at deploying those tactics, or their behaviour may be more or less effective in unconsciously bringing them to bear. Different social situations may mitigate the effectiveness of some tactics.

All of this means that, a lot of the time, a partner receiving a “yes” can’t know for sure the degree of pressure which is being brought to bear upon the person giving the “yes”. They may have a rough idea, based on their relative knowledge of systems of oppression, but through ignorance, carelessness or culpable disinterest they may be missing vital information. None of these are excuses. As raised previously (in relation to drunken consent), there may not be explicit intent to take advantage of pressure on consent, but it’s always the case that the person ‘benefiting’ (I place this in quotes as I don’t consider the ability to rape a benefit) from that pressure knows enough to know that pressure might exist on consent, and that it might even be sufficient to allow them to violate their sex partner’s boundaries in a way which causes that partner to experience rape. Any “yes” may mean “maybe” or indeed “no”, and assigning any number of responsibilities to the person asked for that “yes” does not change the power dynamics of the situation.

I suggest a non-binary power model of consent, under which we understand the word “yes” to mean:

I choose to say “yes”, understanding the consequences of saying “no”.

The word ‘choice’ here is not used in a liberal sense and does not imply a free choice; the more punitive the potential consequences of a “no”, the less free the “yes”.

The keen-eyed will see that this is actually not a model of consent. It is in fact a model we can use to comprehend the meaning of consent acts such as “yes”, when made under multiple systems of domination.

Nonetheless, it embraces both the “my yes means yes” of agency feminism and the “yes means maybe means no” of radical feminism. From within the experience of a person asked for consent, we can understand “yes” as the best possible choice in their situation given the possible consequences of a “no”. From outside the experience of the person asked for consent – for example, as a person asking for consent in good faith, or as a bystander – we can understand that the strength of the relationship of this “yes” to a genuine “yes” is in inverse proportion to the severity of the anticipated consequences of a “no”.

For this phrasing of the ‘best possible choice’ concept, I’d like to thank Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes, who said:

We are not for prostitution. We have never glamorised it, and we never promote it. But we do think in many cases it is the best choice out of a set of very bad choices. We won’t get rid of prostitution until we get rid of of exploitation and poverty.

I’d also like to acknowledge Dominique Millette’s article, Women, Agency and Choices, which says much the same thing in different words.

In the best possible world, there are no consequences for saying “no”, and every “yes” is free. In this world (under patriarchy and other systems of domination) the consequences always exist and we must address them as best we can. Indeed, Dworkin made this understanding clear when she wrote that:

Rape and prostitution negate self-determination and choices for women; and anyone who wants intercourse to be freedom and to mean freedom had better find a way to get rid of them.

- Dworkin, Intercourse, (Arrow, 1988) p170

If we want to talk about rights and responsibilities, we must consider how much freedom a sex partner has to execute on the responsibilities we’ve assigned them, and to consider our own responsibilities to offset the pressure we are able to place on consent through the systems of domination in which we participate in a dominant position over our sex partner. If we want to create a situation where a “yes” is most likely to mean “yes”, we must work, first to understand and then to defuse, the potential consequences of a “no”. This work can be done cooperatively, but the responsibility for it falls on the partner with more power. If they’re not doing that work, we have to assume that they don’t care about consent and act accordingly.

With great power, comes great responsibility.

Spiderman knows it – do you?

If we are in a situation where we are dominant over our partner in some ways, and they are dominant in us over others, then just like the drunk sexual partners discussed earlier, we must not throw up our hands and say, “It’s too confusing”. We must look seriously and soberly, while outside a sexual situation, at what sets of consequences can be brought to bear against a “no”. We must look at how our privileges and marginalisations intersect, paying particular attention to the unique multiple oppressions that can form at intersections of multiple systems of domination. We might identify that in some situations, one partner is able to bring more pressure to bear, and in other situations, the other.

We must also acknowledge a dynamic we’ve barely touched on, that of gendered and other forms of ongoing abuse within a relationship. Where abuse is a system, in which one partner progressively establishes dominance over the other through a broad spectrum of abusive tactics, there’s no question of weighing up multiple systems of domination to determine who can oppress whom, because no matter what potentials exist in theory, only some of them are being actualised. In some cases, it’s easy to understand who is the abuser – in the vast majority of heterogendered cases, it’s the man – in others, more difficult, but people familiar with motifs of abuse can usually recognise tell-tale signs of an abuser operating an abusive system within a relationship.

At this point, some people may find themselves beginning to exclaim, “No! Not my Nigel! He’d never do that.” Well, if you genuinely feel no pressure on your consent, I’m happy for you. That’s pretty awesome and pretty rare. Perhaps you and your partner exist in a situation in which neither of you have the potential to dominate each other’s ability to consent. Perhaps you do have that potential, but it’s never come up. Perhaps it’s come up and Nigel’s expertly defused it. Perhaps it’s come up, you haven’t realised, and it’s in play but hasn’t hurt you yet. Do you know the difference?

Interlude: No Still Means No

Go on, if you’ve been dying to ask it ever since I told you to take a seat in the last part. What if she means yes, but she says no? That is to say, what if she says “no” but means “yes but I don’t want to be slut-shamed”?

With our non-binary power model of consent we can turn around our earlier conclusion, and comprehend her act as meaning:

I choose to say “no” understanding the consequences of saying “yes”.

The answer here is exactly the same as above. If you want to improve the situation, don’t attack the speech act. No still means no, because you are not a damn psychic. Instead, work to remove the negative consequences.

There’s a great quote – I wish I could find where I first encountered it – which goes: “Accurate communication cannot exist within a punishing environment”. Change the environment. Work to fight slut-shaming.

Actually, I know some agency feminists you could start working with…

Severe and Unnegotiatable Power Dynamics

One question worth asking is:

Do power gradients exist which are so severe that any supposed consent up that power gradient is so pressured as to be an essentially meaningless choice?

I’d say, “yesbut”. Yes, because so much power can be drawn from systems of domination. But, the consequences sit with the person taking that consent and not the person giving it.

The person giving consent is still making their best possible choice, even if it’s practically no choice at all because the consequences of any other answer are potentially so severe. It is the person receiving it who knows (and they know!) that they are backed up by massive power and privilege. If they won’t make significant and visibly successful efforts to disarm that power (and some power, like the power of an employer or a carer, may be impossible to disarm) before they ask for consent – an act which, due to their power, is equivalent to demanding “yes” – then they shouldn’t be treated any differently than anybody else who uses power to force a sex act.

For illustrative purposes, here’s a non-exhaustive list of examples of the power dynamics which this blog considers to be unnegotiable – that is, that they are so severe that it is as-good-as-impossible to do this power-disarming work:

  • The power held by adults over children
  • The power held by employers over employees
  • The power held by ‘carers’ over people in ‘care environments’
  • The power held by someone who is paying for ‘sex’

I can’t speak for some dynamics. I know I experience the cis/trans* dynamic as very powerful; I require a lot of work – and after writing this, I feel inspired to ask for more – from my cissexual partners in order to keep our sex feeling sufficiently consensual to me, and it can still feel borderline. I’d like to invite readers who experience other power dynamics, for example bisexual people dating monosexual people, or Black people dating white people, to contribute their stories of consensuality or otherwise.

What about sex inequality? Reinforced by heterosexism, monosexism, wage inequality, age inequality and other complimentary oppressions, sex inequality is not immune to this analysis, even though (especially though!) it is considered a condition of normality and goes unremarked outside of feminist space.

Intercourse occurs in a context of a power relation that is pervasive and incontrovertible. The context in which the act takes place, whatever the meaning of the act and of in itself, is one in which men have social, economic, political, and physical power over women. Some men do not have all these kinds of power over all women; but most men have some kinds of power over all women; and most men have controlling power over what they call their women – the women they fuck. The power is predetermined by gender, by being male.

- Dworkin, Intercourse, (Arrow, 1988) p148

This blog considers the power relation in relationships between men and women to be severe: a power dynamic over which, unless a man is visibly and significantly offsetting his power, he must be considered potentially abusive and at the least dangerously, wilfully ignorant – myself, I don’t care to make the distinction. I do know women (whose relationship history includes relationships with men) who don’t relate experiences of being hurt by male partners. But I don’t know many, and it seems like every time a women-only space opens up, more of the women I know reveal an all-too familiar history.

Conclusions from Part Two: “Yes”

Few of the thoughts in this article are really new. Instead, what I’ve been looking to do is to take ideas from many feminisms and bring them together in a way which responds to some of the conversations I’ve encountered, online and in person, about consent.

Here’s a quick summing up of the points made in this article:

  • It’s long past time we thought of women as people who have their own sexual desire and agency, not just as sexual gatekeepers
  • While we do that, we should remember that society does treat women as sexual gatekeepers and punishes them for stepping outside that role – blame society, not women who remain in the role
  • Perpetrators can rape down more power gradients than just men raping women
  • This should never be used to minimalise or erase the historical and ongoing global reality of male rape against women
  • Consent is never 100%; there are always pressures working against it, and so you can never know for sure that another person is consenting
  • Saying that consent is not 100% is not the same as saying you, personally, have no agency or ability to consent; whatever your circumstances, you make the best-seeming possible choice at the time
  • Somebody trying to understand another’s level of consent must not cherry-pick a feminism which allows them to interpret it as “yes”, when the truth may be “maybe”
  • If you would like to have sex which is as close as possible to consensual, work on identifying and reducing power differentials between parties and removing negative consequences for non-consent
  • Sexual consent over power dynamics (such as parent-child) is unnegotiable, over others (such as sexism) it’s such that anybody soliciting consent should be regarded with suspicion and potentially resisted unless they make significant and visibly effective efforts to defuse their personal power

And a gentle reminder: if you would like to speak to somebody about personal experiences of non-consent after reading this article, please click here for more information.

As a reward for making it this far, and to stimulate further thought and discussion on the subject, I leave you with a patented Radical TransFeminist infographic on the struggle between rape culture and feminists over the territory of consent. Please share widely!

So, which one will you be?

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64 thoughts on “Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent, Part Two: “Yes”

  1. This is brilliant. Really interesting, really thought provoking. Thank you for writing.

    Personally, I have two experiences of unequal power dynamics in relationships which I’d like to share, one negative and one much more positive;

    1. (*Trigger warning for talk of abusive relationships.*) What if you’re in a relationship with another person, and essentially dependent on them (whether for the short or longer term) to keep a roof over your head? Say you’re studying or looking for work or unable to work or for some other reason not financially independent. And you know that if you don’t do what this person wants sexually, they’ll probably break up with you and throw you out. They’ve even told you you’re useless to them if you’re not ‘putting out.’ So you go along with it without complaint, because the potential consequences of ‘no’ are too great to risk.

    2. I’m currently in a relationship with a man, in which I’m the considerably younger partner. On the face of it, being both much younger and female puts me in a very unequal position, power dynamics wise. I am fortunate enough, though, that my older partner is very aware of this and the possible impact on my ability to consent, and it has been made clear right from the beginning of our relationship – even before we were being sexual with each other – that there would be no negative consequences of saying ‘no’ to anything. And, indeed, I have said no on more than one occasion and every experience has shown this to be true. Another thing which negates this to an extent is that I frequently (not always, but maybe 50% or more of the time) instigate sex between us. And we _both_ always, always check for consent if there’s any room for doubt at all – which I always do, with any partner, and hope would be a matter of course for everyone.

    Apologies for the long and rambling reply! I tend to get very passionate about these subjects so it’s really good that you’ve opened up a space to talk about it here. Oh, and I absolutely completely agree with what you say about some power-dynamics which are just non-negotiable.

    Thanks for putting into words so many things that I’ve mulled over repeatedly.

  2. Thankyou for writing this especially for mentioning the cis/trans* power dynamic.I’m not sure if I can quite get across how I feel about it but here goes.
    I feel that many people underestimate this including ourselves. The time I’ve been most vulnarable and also the time I was seriously harmed from my consent being violated was before my trans status was even visible to myself.
    I’m not sure what to do about situations like mine especially when the fact that I didn’t have much of a choice about partners was not only making me vulnerable but at the time felt like opression in itself.

  3. @missamaranth: Thank you. :) And I’m really sorry to hear about the first thing you described – that situation sounds vile. :/ Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’d love to see more of this, this sharing of actual experiences of power dynamics, and talking about them as such, publicly, politically, not just as a thing which goes on behind closed doors. There are workshops on negotiation but how often do they acknowledge the really huge systems of power and control which stand behind the power dynamics of individual relationships? I don’t think I’ve ever been in a workshop on sexual negotiation where, say, a man stood up and said, “Obviously, as a man in relationships with women, I have a lot of power. Here are some of the ways I take up my duty to offset that power…”

    Or a cissexual person! Imagine if cis people did that! @louise, I totally agree with you that the cis/trans* power dynamic is fucking huge and, yeah, amazing point that often we’re not even aware that there’s a structural cis/trans* relationship in our relationships, let alone aware of the consequences of that for power and consent, let alone actually doing something about them! I’m sorry that somebody’s used that to hurt you.

    I think that this “not much of a choice about partners” thing is part of oppressions, this kind of, “You’re a lesser class, you can’t afford to be too picky” – it’s something I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog. I know I’ve felt it at work myself, and I’ve really tried to resist it but it’s palpable. Actually, I’ve felt it from both positions on the privilege gradient, up and down, and both were horrible (this is not to imply that being privileged hurts as much as being marginalised).

  4. this is an incredible post; i love your brain! again, very triggering and clever.

    here’s my story about power dynamics:

    at one point, when i was out of the country, i ran out of money and had nowhere to stay. a cis man i was acquainted with let me stay with him in exchange for sex. this went on for about a month before i decided to live on the beach during the rainy season– i wish i’d done that in the beginning.

    i didn’t say “no” and i suppose i could’ve– but i was a broke, homeless, queer, transgender foreigner. i felt absolutely trapped; i had no way (at the time) of earning money and i didn’t have anywhere else to go. i didn’t say “no” to anything because i needed food and shelter.

  5. No still means no, because you are not a damn psychic.

    THIS. This so very much. I’ve actually been meaning to write a post about “what about when she says no but really means yes” for a very long time – would you mind if I quoted (with appropriate references) this post when I eventually get around to it?

  6. I would LOVE to talk with you more about this in email if you’re willing. Such great ideas, and really appreciate the depth, care and freaking genius here. Would be fantastic to brainstorm a bit about how to work some of them better into the way we talk about consent with the young people over at Scarleteen. If you’ve the time and interest, please toss me an email. Thanks!

  7. I’ve actually been meaning to write a post about “what about when she says no but really means yes” for a very long time – would you mind if I quoted (with appropriate references) this post when I eventually get around to it?

    I’d be delighted! I’d also be interested to talk with you, if you like, about where the “she says no but means yes” story comes from, because I don’t think, “I want to say yes but I don’t want to be slut-shamed” is the only version of it, and even if it’s the version in her head, his head may be running a different cultural script.

  8. @mx. punk: I’m sorry that happened. I wish these things were talked about more. Thank you for sharing your story – I hope that more people will read these, and share their own stories, and that we can start having more grown-up conversations about what constitutes “consent”.

  9. Thank you for taking the time to write this article (and part one). It is thorough, brilliant, and validating for those of us who have been in these ambiguous situations.

  10. Pingback: Reading for 1/25/12 « Witty in the Morning

  11. I think there is another way in which several of these systems operate as external abuse priming a person to feel pressure in their own consent. I’m speaking from the USA not the UK, but here I think there’s a substantial impact of externally perceived desirability. This falls under fat-shaming, transphobia, the shame of inexperience (if you’re in a social circle that doesn’t talk usefully about sex), disablism, and many categories of women in particular being seen as undesirable. I think, speaking in part for myself at a younger age, that a person who feels undesirable may consent to sexual acts they do not really want, with a partner they may not want, out of a feeling that they can get no better options. The feeling of undesirability in my experience comes primarily from external social abuse, but it is easily manipulated by an unscrupulous partner and can be hard for a well-meaning one to figure out. There is also a related dynamic that I think gets a lot if teenage girls non-consensually pregnant, which is the idea that one must have sex in order to be loved. I am not so good at articulating and developing these ideas though, so I wonder what you think: does this fit in your model somehow?

  12. Whenever the question comes up of “but what if she/he says no but means yes???” I always want to say: SO WHAT. Seriously: are you okay with MAYBE raping someone, just for the sake of MAYBE fulfilling someone’s secret desire for sex?

    I can acknowledge that yes, there’s the issue of slut-shaming, and every other obstacle to women’s active expression of desire and pursuit of the fulfillment of that desire. But this question just seems like such concern-trolling – as in, someone pretending to be concerned about someone else, when really it’s all about the concern-troll getting something out of the situation. “Oh, but I’m just so *concerned* that you might be needing some hot hot sex right now.” Riiiight. Besides, although unexpressed and unfilfilled sexual desire might be frustrating, agonising, saddening, I don’t know how it could compare to the trauma of rape and coercion in this context (although withholding/manipulating sex can be used as a tactic in coercion and abuse itself, I hope it’s clear that’s not what I’m referring to here.)

    To talk about that a bit; this dynamic has played out in every sexual relationship I’ve had except one (that’s 1 out of 5): sex (by which I mean all physical affection, because it’s been my experience that when physical affection is initiated without consent, it’s about sex) was always initiated before I was “ready,” and even that wording, “ready,” is so problematic. What does it mean to be ready? And how do you know you are? As an adult, I want to go back and tell my adolescent self: if you’re wondering if you’re ready, you’re not. Women are seen as sexual “gatekeepers,” but on the other hand, we’re told we can’t trust our own impulses and desires; that we might not even know if and when we want it, if and when we’re “ready.” Men are supposed to “teach” us when we’re ready – who is the real gatekeeper?

    To put it another way, it’s never been my experience that men have “waited too long” to “initiate” sex or “request consent.” I think this notion – that women will say no and mean yes because they’re just so passive and men have to be active – is fabricated and perpetuated by pick-up-artist and nice-guy culture, which sees itself validated when women say “I don’t like passive men,” when what this statement really gets at is that “women” don’t like men who seem afraid, unresponsive, and uncommunicative (“passive.”) You don’t have to push for sex to be an active partner; you can express enthusiasm and interest and passion while checking your power-over privilege, providing multiple, ample opportunities for someone to leave, back out of a conversation, politely decline, without negative consequences etc. And if you think that maybe someone is saying no when they are really thinking “mmm, maybe, I don’t know, I think I want to say yes but I’m afraid of judgement/consequences/not having a change of underwear” then I’m pretty sure neither your nor your prospective partner’s genitals are going to wither, fall off and die if you just don’t get to have sex *this time.*

    Sorry for the long comment, really loving this blog series and the conversation it inspires. Xox

  13. @hall-of-rage: Totally. I listed a number of oppressions to get people thinking about the way that different socially backed-up systems can feed into sexual consent. My model, if I have a model, is just that consent exists in the context of power, and that power comes in many flavours. I think the examples you’ve highlighted are really common and, yeah, they play on multiple systems. I think maybe they include “compulsory sexuality”, too, this push towards everyone having to be sexual.

    Thank you for commenting, and thank you also for reposting the infographic on your blog! :)

  14. @Leesha wrote:

    Oh, but I’m just so *concerned* that you might be needing some hot hot sex right now

    Hah! I know, right? I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. So much of the conversation that goes on about consent isn’t actually about an effort to ensure mutually awesome sex in the slightest; it’s about defending the act of coercing sex and preserving social access to sex for powerful groups (which often but not always means sexual access to women for heterosexual men). The ubiquity of experiences like yours just goes to show it. I’m so sorry that so many of your sexual experiences have been with men who exerted that kind of pressure.

    I really want to do – and to see! – more writing about this kind of “consent performance” as done by men who experience sufficient social pressure to feel the need to demonstrate lip service to ideas of consent, but don’t really have any internalised drive towards creating an environment where sex can be mutual and less coercive. The dance can be dazzling at times, and is performed with great skill by some leftist, ‘feminist’ men, who know all the right words to say. But it’s still a performance, paper over the cracks. I want to see more work by people who are willing to punch right through and reveal how hollow some of these acts really are.

  15. Thank you so much for writing this. I was never able to articulate why certain elements of my past relationship felt wrong, and your thoughtful posting broke things down in a really accessible manner. It also helped cover why male friends on campus had such a negative response to a campaign that is ongoing (including the use of these images: http://feministphilosophers.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/anti_rape_ads_m.jpg). Being able to engage in a thoughtful way with individuals who are otherwise comfortable in the privilege can be difficult, but extremely rewarding.

  16. I shared the What Rapists Do/What Feminists Do graphic on my Facebook (I’ve been sharing a lot of rape philosophy articles on my Facebook recently, and have been met with support, as well as people discussing their feelings of discomfort over the articles with me, as well as opposition, as well as opposition which resulted in an argument which resulted in the person opposing me realising that it’s important to me and they’d prefer to offer me support instead). Here’s the consequence of sharing the graphic:
    Me: *explains what the different parts of the graphic mean using my interpretation of this blog entry*
    R (male Facebook friend): “If someone says no initially, but is then persuaded by the other party to consent to sex, what’s the deal then?”
    Me: “R: according to radical feminist philosophy (actually, probably according to a lot of philosophy, and just generally good-person speak), if the person was persuaded to take the sex, and later felt violated, or angry at themselves for “letting it happen”, or uncomfortable about the fact that it occurred despite their wishes, then it was rape.
    “If the person who was persuaded to take the sex later felt okay about it, then it was NOT rape. (I should mention that this includes during… During and/or later.)
    “Legally, though, R, if you use this technique to “maybe” rape somebody, then I’m sure that the police and the public will be on your side. It’s likely that you won’t be convicted even if they say “no” and you continue without obtaining a “maybe” or a “yes”.
    “If I ever hear though, R, that you’ve taken a person’s “anything”, I don’t care if it’s “no” or “maybe” or “yes” or “I really need to get to sleep” or “well… okay then”, and that person experiences a feeling of being raped, then you will be blocked from my friends list, I will make a note to ignore it if you call or SMS me, and I will never have anything to do with you again.”
    R: “I’m speechless, that’s so insulting that you would even suggest that [my name], especially after how long we’ve known eachother. ”
    Me: “Get over yourself.”
    Private Facebook message from R: “I don’t think we can be friends anymore [my name], I don’t want to feel like I’m a rape victim every time I visit your wall, and honest to god that is how im starting to feel. Yes I meant victim. Good luck I hope you find what you’re looking for”

  17. Now that I’ve shared that unpleasant experience, I just want to say that it’s been really helpful for me – in sorting my mind out over my experiences, and in coming to terms with them – to read through articles like these, and I especially appreciated this one. I don’t know a single person in real life who will offer me unconditional support (in the past people have done it with ignorance, selfishness or a motive), and I only know a few online, who are male and are thus are still coming to terms with their own knee-jerk reactions to feel offended instead of understanding how helpful this all is for me (they’re getting there, though). Thank you so much for writing these two articles.

  18. @qvaken: Your response to R is inspiring! Thank you for sharing it. I also especially liked the bit from him where he compared hypothetically being held to account for coercive behaviour to himself actually being raped. That was nice. Anyway, it sounds to me as if you may already have found what you’re looking for: the unfriend button.

    I’m really sorry that there aren’t people in your life who will give you straightforward, unconditional support. Nobody deserves to deal with any of this alone. I’m happy to hear that some people are perhaps slowly getting there, but, ah, people are slow sometimes, aren’t they? :/ To any extent to which these articles have been helpful: I’m so glad, and thank you for letting me know.

  19. Lisa, this is a brilliant follow up to your previous blog post. Exploring rape in terms of the linguistic ambiguity in how people talk about consent and what those yeses and nos mean to everyone involved is so enlightening for understanding how rape happens, and how rape culture is perpetrated. As is your nuanced look at intersectionality. These posts have really helped firm up my notion of what I want from prospective partners in terms of respect for my consent, as well as making me question some of my own behaviour and assumptions about the consent of my partners. The sexuality/asexuality gradient is definitely something that needs more attention and I’m glad you addressed it here as it was something I started worrying about (and indeed have changed my behaviour about) after reading your last post.

    The acceptance that typical privilege dynamics don’t always play out within the context of wider systematic abuse was personally a welcome inclusion. I’ve even had my apparent position of privilege in certain systems used to bully and manipulate me within an abusive relationship, but have never felt able to talk about that aspect of the abuse because I don’t want to have my experiences used to validate the oppressive privilege of one group to another or invalidate the claims of those trying to shake it off.

  20. @K: Thank you! I’m really, really glad that it was helpful. :)

    The sexuality/asexuality gradient is definitely something that needs more attention and I’m glad you addressed it here as it was something I started worrying about (and indeed have changed my behaviour about) after reading your last post.

    I actually got really interested in the subject since writing this post, and I think my next post may be all about it! Not about asexuality, per se, because I’m not asexual and I shouldn’t be setting out any substantial theory/discussion from a distance. But relating to this drive towards sexuality. I think it needs a lot more attention!

  21. This is awesome. I made it all the way through, and think it should be required reading for humanity. I’m a queer girl who has had relationships with men and women, and I’ve typically chosen male partners with great care. Its so difficult to overcome that power imbalance, that other things fall by the wayside. I’m a total bottom, but don’t feel safe for the most part around large/aggressive/dominant men. So I’ve typically chosen sweet sensitve somewhat submissive men as partners. Suffice it to say, two tops do not a bottom make. :) I’m also relatively small and have typically partnered with relatively small man people. I’ve noted that my man partners have been about the opposite from what I’m usually into with women. I suspect bc one set of ‘attractions’ is less pressured than the other. Or maybe I’m just a contrary little crittur. :)

  22. @Rachel: Thank you! Yeah; my personal choice is not to date men at all, but I think the road to political lesbianism is varied and rich and there are some interesting towns along the way, and I can totally understand choices like yours. :)

  23. I’m also embarking on an interesting road that someone else called ‘radical separatist kink’. I find myself able to explore BDSM pretty safely with my current GF, but we’ve chosen to mostly stick to women’s spaces or queer spaces. Before reading this I’d known consciously that I’m far choosier with man people; but hadn’t considered it an issue regarding consent. It was when I consciously gave myself permission to explore BDSM that I realized I’d always avoided my own desires when dealing with men people, b/c the pressures on such unequal relationships are already so great.

  24. Really interesting article. I was in a very imbalanced relationship with a much older and wealthier man, however instead of having pressures on my consent, my own natural sexual desire was used against me by him withholding sex and in fact all physical affection from me as a punishment (he even admitted this to me). This perpetuated the damage to my self-esteem, increasing my feelings of powerlessness and his power over me. Thinking about it now – could it be that pressures on my consent still existed in this situation where I believed that I was completely consensual and that he was not? Is it possible that my pursuing him sexually was to do with trying to please him, and keep him and make him happy rather than the true fulfilment of my own sexual needs? And so even though he was rejecting my advances, he was still ‘benefiting’ from the pressures on my consent; increased power and control over the other partner. I’m not sure but it is really interesting to think about.

  25. My story of unequal power dynamics:

    TRIGGER WARNING, discussion of rape/manipulation/etc.

    I’m a cis girl who was first raped as a young teenager. This went on for over a year, several times a week, and it was hell. Since then, I’ve had four long term monogamous relationships (including my current relationship) with cis men. Three out of these four relationships were sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive. I’ve had many sexual partners, male and female, outside of these long term relationships. I’ve had a few other experiences with date rape. When I think about how many times I’ve been manipulated, abused, and raped (all by cis men), I ALSO think about how many times I’ve told my story and been met with skepticism. “Surely you must be lying! One person can’t be abused THAT many times. That’s just too convenient, isn’t it? You’re probably looking for attention or something, aren’t you?” I’ve heard many variations on this.

    The thing is, once you’ve been abused once, it’s REALLY difficult to have a healthy fucking relationship. How do you enthusiastically and openly communicate (about sex or anything else) when you’re pretty sure that your partner is going to disrespect you and take/do what they want anyway? How do you forgive your partner for not making more of an effort to communicate with you about sex when it’s clear that you’re not enthusiastically consenting?

    Thankfully, I’m in a healthy relationship right now with someone who is aware of his privilege and power, and tries his best to keep from pressuring me in any way. I couldn’t communicate with him well at first, but I did talk to him about my history and from then on he also knew he had power over me in a different way; the way we interact is influenced not only by gender but also by the fact that I am a survivor of abuse. Even in the best of circumstances, he knew that my ‘yes’ could really mean ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ or ‘please god no just don’t touch me I can’t deal with this right now’.

    At this point, I think I’m just rambling. I could say a lot more about this, but I’ll just say this for now; THANK YOU for writing this. Both parts are incredibly well-written and, in my opinion as someone who does research on sex and gender, so important to focus on. You claim that you’ve said nothing new, but I disagree. I’ve read a ton of the consent literature out there (the conversational analysis of refusals with K&F is one of my favorites) and no one else has managed to articulate the issues surrounding our current model of consent in such a brilliantly concise way.

  26. Siobhan: I had a similar thing. I told him early on that I’d had things happen in the past and that I was hoping to explore my sexuality properly now in a safe environment. Then, for the next year, he refused sex a lot, wouldn’t care if I got upset, and got angry at me if I tried to talk to him about it. Then he’d initiate sex, either one night after ignoring my advances, or right after he’d yelled at me and scared me until I apologised for doing something that I didn’t think was wrong (he’d initiate the sex because he’d be “so happy that we’d worked it out”), or during messed up times, like when I was crying because I had caught some adults showing his son some porn. And I gave in every time, except for that one time that I was crying, and it progressively destroyed my self-esteem more and more to know that he always had a choice and I just didn’t.

    D: I’ve just given up on the whole relationship thing for the time being!

  27. “If we want to create a situation where a ‘yes’ is most likely to mean ‘yes’…”

    Is most likely not raping someone really enough?

    This isn’t some devil’s-advocate “gotcha!” — I don’t think most likely is enough. I don’t know how it would ever be possible to gain surety, but I don’t think most likely is enough.

  28. I don’t know how it would ever be possible to gain surety, but I don’t think most likely is enough.

    It’s not, and it’s not. The current state of affairs is unacceptable.

    I’m going to hold you out one ray of hope. The situation is only completely inescapable if you view consent as an atomic act which occurs once and is then followed (or not) by sex. That’s the wrong way to treat consent; it is quite literally treating it as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Consent is not an event, or a state. Consent is a process and should really be called ‘better consent’, like ‘safer sex’. I want to get away from this idea that consent can ever be ‘had’. I want instead to ask: ‘How good is your consent process? Given the individual power dynamics in your relationship, how good should it be? Is the person (or people) with the power taking enough steps to not abuse it?’

    If you’re a man who has sex with women, and if you’re sincere in your recognition that “most likely” is not enough, then I genuinely recommend that you take extreme measures. You’re going to have to understand radical feminist politics, yourself, and get them into your head. You’re going to have to have long conversations about consent – potentially emasculating conversations. You’re going to have to do everything possible to undermine the male privilege you hold over your partners in the full knowledge that you’ll never be able to do enough. And, really important here, you’re going to need to never, ever whine about this to women. It’s tough, but (assuming you remain outside of the prison system) you aren’t living under rape; count your blessings!

  29. @Siobhan: Withholding of intimacy is a tactic used by abusers. I think that, within dynamics of abuse, ‘consent’ almost becomes meaningless, because of that system of control which abuse establishes. I’m so sorry the bastard put you through that. :/

  30. @D: I believe you. I mean, it’s not just that it can be hard to have healthy relationships after abuse; it’s that, from what I’ve heard, the fuckers seem to have some kind of sixth sense to home in on survivors. I’m so glad to hear that your current relationship is happier. :)

  31. @qvaken: You’re not the only person I know who’s stepping back from the whole relationships thing for a while. What has it come to when this is the only thing that it make sense for us to do?! Solidarity, sister, and I wish you strength in whatever you choose – and, if you choose a relationship with a man, I wish you a unicorn, that is to say, a genuinely feminist man who will respect you and Own His Own Shit!

  32. Hi, thanks a lot for these posts, I found them very interesting, if somewhat unsettling – very much one of those privilege-awareness eye-opener posts.
    One question I had was with regards this part:
    “A woman is performing sexual acts with a male partner which she doesn’t want to do. She has, however, said “yes” to them, and may even sometimes initiate them.”
    I understand, especially now, that it is incumbent on the person asking for consent to check their privilege, but if the woman has initiated the acts, how can the man question them without denying agency? I guess, if you wouldn’t mind, I would really appreciate if you could pick apart that scenario as you did the others.
    Thanks again!

  33. @gabbylm: I think I’d frame this as, “How do you maximise agency” rather than “how do you avoid denying agency”. You maximise agency by removing the factors which limit it, i.e. taking concrete actions to mitigate male privilege. I think there’s also something about not seeing “initiation” as an atomic event but a process. Depending on how alive you are to possibilities like coercion, internalised male sex-right etc., that process can look different depending on how much it’s driven by those things vs. being driven by desire. For example, when is it happening? Immediately after an argument? Can you have a conversation at some other time which aims to work out what that means? Is it because she finds sex an awesome way to make up after arguing? Or is it as appeasement? For that matter, how hard are you working to not be a person who seems like they need “appeasing”, or to make it clear that sex wouldn’t count as appeasement, or to have dynamics in your relationship so that even the idea of sex as appeasement is incomprehensible because sex is not a currency. Etc., etc. That’s just one example.

  34. A terrific pair of articles, thank you: makes clear and concrete a lot of my woolly thinking on the subject. The two take-home lines for me were “Why are you so relaxed – and even enthusiastic – about maybe raping someone?” and “I choose to say ‘yes’, understanding the consequences of saying ‘no’”.

    In the first part you wrote “If she – and it’s always a she; more on that later – says “no”, then the sex is off.” Did I miss your return to that “always”? It’s quite a bold claim, on the face of it (and taken literally clashes with some of my experiences).

  35. @glorkspangle: I’m not sure I ever did return to it explicitly, actually. The point was that culturally accepted models of consent are almost always framed about the consent of the woman (though I’d like to note that, if they’re going to be framed around the consent of just one party, under just one dynamic, then the consent of the woman, when the other partner is a man, is the correct one to pick – obviously more nuanced understandings are preferable).

  36. Right, because our culture assumes first that all men want sex all the time (the implicit male yes), that sex is always initiated by men (so if a man freakily doesn’t want sex then the question won’t even arise) and that in any given instance a man is dominant. Of course all three of these assumptions often correspond to ground truth – and in this patriarchy we must obviously focus first on a woman’s consent. And also female-on-male rape is (seems to be) fairly rare: if a dominant woman wants sex and a man does not, even grudging sex (which may well be rape) is less likely. And of course in PIV sex the physical and psychological dynamic is very asymmetric (I suspect that grudging sex for a man is considerably less likely to seem like a violation and therefore rape). But I think that your “I choose to say ‘yes’, understanding the consequences of saying ‘no’” points out exactly the inadequacies of our culturally accepted models of consent.

    The last thing I want to do is to derail the discussion to male self-pity, so I’ll just thank you once again for this pair of articles, and shut up.

  37. Pingback: Towards a sex-neutral feminism – Second Council House of Virgo

  38. Pingback: Leesgroep 26 april 2012 « FEL feminisme

  39. Pingback: It’s time to move on the conversations about kink and feminism. | Silicone Valley

  40. Pingback: Towards a Sex Neutral Feminism « village aunties

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  42. Very nicely laid out, thank you for this! I’m going to have to dig through more of your posts so that I can see if you ever expand on the power dynamic between cis/trans within your relationships because that is so completely out of my realm of experience that I can’t even imagine how that would play out…

    I also really appreciate what Leesha touched on about “what if no means yes?” A coy yes or a hidden desire. I fell thoroughly into that trap of a narrative. In fact, I find myself an acception to what qvaken said:

    ” “…if the person was persuaded to take the sex, and later felt violated, or angry at themselves for “letting it happen”, or uncomfortable about the fact that it occurred despite their wishes, then it was rape. “If the person who was persuaded to take the sex later felt okay about it, then it was NOT rape.” ”

    I experienced something non consensual but decided to reframe it as something (anything!) other than rape. I decided that obviously I had let it happen and had made a series of decisions that led to this happening, and that I know myself to find sexual things pleasureable, and I wasn’t in pain after the fact…and therefore I must have wanted it. (Dworkin reference: she wanted it, they all do.) I knew this man was not particularly good for me and I would have preferred the situation to be rather diferent (um, caring whether I wanted to do this or not would have been a start) but I did not want to have been raped so I changed my self-definintion to be someone who wants sexual intercourse. I sometimes wonder if he was surprised that I called him and wanted to see him again, because even then I knew he knew he had done something not quite right. My reasons for not wanting sex must have been silly, stupid, childish, repressed…irrelevant. Because, you see, they were irrelevant to him. And he was older than little virginal me-pretending-to-be-an-adult-living-away-from-home-for-the-first-time, so he would know. I wasn’t bleeding and in pain, it must not have been that bad.

    It wasn’t until I started really reading serious feminist stuff [including that Harriet J post you mentioned] a month or two ago that I realized that I was honest to goodness raped. Well, date raped which legitimately rapey in a way I refused to admit. I can now see the power dynamics and my naivity. And I can look back and see the small things that make it obvious now he intended to have sex with me no matter what I wanted, no way to tell what level of violence he would have used if I had been more physically resistent or had actually screamed. This incident happened MORE THAN TEN YEARS AGO. I looked back on this for TEN YEARS and made myself feel okay about it so it would NOT be rape. None the less, it was rape.

    I’m now trying to untangle just how my being “okay” has effected me. I never told anyone enough about it who could have otherwise identified this as rape (if they weren’t caught by the rape culture narrative). Hell, I was seeing a psychotherapist at the time and did not tell her that I had sex for the first time that had spontaneously changed my long-standing decisions about having intercourse. I have never said no to sex since then. I have given enthusiastic consent and initiated sex far too fast in every one of my relationships since this time…because I was broken-in, yeah? Though it confirmed the messages I had already picked up from the rape culture and pornography, it thorougly skewed my attitude towards men, relationships, my own body, my sense of self-worth. I adopted a much more fatalistic view of my own power over my own life and goals. I went gradually downhill into a depressive episode (that I refused to attribute to this “sex”) and dropped out of college. Anyhow, I went through all that mostly to say, even being persuaded and being “okay” about sex afterward is not the end-all in determining if it was rape.

    One more thing to Lisa: “Do power gradients exist which are so severe that any supposed consent up that power gradient is so pressured as to be an essentially meaningless choice?” I’m surprised you didn’t add prostitution to this list.

    [@seebster: I edited this comment slightly for line formatting, which got messed up. I hope I didn't mess up any of your paragraphs, let me know if I did and I'll change it. -Lisa]

  43. @seebster: Ten years… I’m sorry. I guess the only comfort I can offer is that you’re not the only one. Rape culture can bury who we are so deep that it takes a lifetime to dig ourselves out.

    I haven’t talked a lot about the cis/trans* power dynamic in my posts. There’s no one trans* experience, so I can only speak for myself, in a way which might touch on the way the dynamic works for people who are in similar situations to me.

    For me, it’s about authentic bodies and sexualities. It’s about the lack of power, confidence and self-love which comes from being told your whole life that your body is vile, a trap, hilarious and a site of violence (even if, as a white trans* woman not connected with the sex industry, for me the “violence” part is mostly fear talk not actual danger, talk I’m trying to unlearn), and that your sexuality is a lie, rape incarnate, “tolerated”, or embraced in theory (“of course trans* women are welcome”) and shunned in practice (“but between you and me, I would never date one. Eugh.”).

    When within that system of inauthenticity, for me, what I want is less real, what others want is more real (and more right), and their desires – or really, their dynamics of sex and sexuality – are able to supplant mine more easily. It’s a powerful tool for a cissexual abuser and it’s still powerful even if they don’t abuse.

    It’s a system of inauthenticity which cissexual women should be able to find parallels with, as Zoe Moss describes in Sisterhood Is Powerful, or as Dworkin describes in Intercourse when she writes about Dirt. In a patriarchy, women’s bodies are Dirt. That includes transsexual women’s bodies.

    Another factor which cissexual women will probably recognise: as a feminist transsexual woman, the roles I see available are “sexy, porn-loving and slut-reclaiming” (not my thing, thanks) and “angelic non-sexual” (also not me). Which cissexual women will recognise as whore/virgin, of course, although “whore” can easily be substituted with “rapist” if she actually expresses any sexual agency (how I hate that word), in the case of transsexual women – she must be sexy and up-for-sex in theory, but purely receptive in practice, or she is “rapey”. I guess for cissexual women, “rapist” could be substituted for “cougar” or “maneater”? A woman who wants sex on her terms? Either way, at least a double bind, and a deeply disempowering one.

    So then let’s add on top of that a pile of other things:

    • “You should be grateful”
    • The ability to trigger the transsexual partner’s body dysphoria at will through words/actions, even if never used, is like the cissexual partner storing a pair of charged electrodes by the bed
    • The cissexual partner’s knowledge that their place in the community is more secure than the transsexual partner’s, so that if it comes to “my word / her word”, it’s an easy win
    • Extra bonus “she’s really a man so I couldn’t rape her”
    • For the transsexual partner, relative likely material poverty and disadvantage, relative likely mental health differences, relative higher likelihood of previous sexual trauma, relative higher likelihood of past or present suicidal attempts or thoughts, etc.

    And your other question:

    I’m surprised you didn’t add prostitution to [the list of unnegotiable power dynamics].

    Me too. This was cowardice on my part. I’ve now edited the list.

  44. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. (Also for fixing the line breaks; I write comments in notepad so I can scroll up to quote things and because I’ve lost carefully written comments by accidentally closing windows before. I noticed as soon as I pressed send on the reply that I hadn’t turned off the word wrap before I pasted!)

    You made the power dynamic in trans/cis relationships much clearer to me, thank you. A couple lines elicited a vocalized “oooff” and “ouch” from me. How painful that has the potential to be. Mind games/traps with yourself, yet imposed on you from the outside in insipid ways. I can relate to that.

    I can also relate to the double bind, of course. Although it took me a couple re-reading of this sentence, I think I get what you’re saying with “Which cissexual women will recognize as whore/virgin, of course, although “whore” can easily be substituted with “rapist” if she actually expresses any sexual agency (how I hate that word), in the case of transsexual women – she must be sexy and up-for-sex in theory, but purely receptive in practice, or she is “rapey”.” Is this an indirect reference to the current criticism of the “cotton ceiling” concept as rape-y?

    I’m so glad I’ve found your blog, for purely selfish reasons, of course. Your voice is beautiful and immensely accessible.

  45. Oh, and I completely missed out the huge power button of outing, if applicable. That’s a serious one.

    Yeah, the choices of language was a vague reference to that, but also to the blend of trans-/homo-/biphobia expressed by cissexual men towards transsexual women. Sorry it was a twisty sentence, I was writing it fairly off-the-cuff.

    Thank you for the compliments! :)

  46. Pingback: #46 Understand that consent is temporary. « More Women in Skepticism

  47. i’m so glad i came across this. I have realised that I’ve avoided reading, talking or thinking about consent too deeply for a long time out of fear of what it might bring up. A series of events over the last few days spurred me to think about it all and i was recommended your article. I feel like I may be strong enough to start dealing with my history and reading this has made me feel stronger, because it really hits the nail on the head and gives voice to a lot my experiences. thank you for your bravery :)

  48. Pingback: Reading group – Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent « FEL feminisme

  49. Pingback: Consent doesn’t have to be enthusiastic | Second Council House of Virgo

  50. Pingback: Consent and abuse of power in kink and other sexual communities « Rewriting The Rules

  51. I asked some friends for advice on a blog-post I writing on the basics of consent and one of them sent me here.

    Having read them there are two things I wanted to say to you.

    Firstly, these two posts are amongst the best written things I’ve ever read.

    Secondly, these posts have taken so many things that were nagging at the back of my mind and brought into the spotlight and dissected clearly for me to look at and try to understand so thank you for that.

  52. I wonder if you would comment on trans activism around the Chris Wilson case with respect to the dynamics of consent as outlined above. I feel that there is definitely a double standard operating in the law – insofar as there are not prosecutions of cismen for withholding information what they assume would produce a ‘no’ though this happens all the time. At the same time, I do think that when a man deliberately withholds information knowing or assuming that disclosure would produce a ‘no’ from a woman, he does so because he really doesn’t care about her agency or her consent – he feels a sense of entitlement to her body, which would be disrupted by sharing the relevant information. Given this understanding, the sympathy expressed towards Chris Wilson by transactivists upsets me, as does the ‘we’re all being criminalised’ line (especially since writers are often at pains to say that they personally do disclose their trans history!). It’s as if the equality being demanded is the equal right to exercise entitlement over women’s bodies, and my gut reaction to this is very negative. Your thoughts are welcome.

  53. The young women who are challenging collegiate rape culture now in the U.S. are sharing this pair of posts with each other all across the continent and find it incredibly helpful, clarifying and insightful. I thank you so much for such meticulous thought.

  54. Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading | A Counterfeit Journalist's Blog

  55. Pingback: Consent: Mandatory – Not Sexy. | MS. Informed

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  58. I know I’m really late to the party, but this post had a huge impact on me. I’m a cis heteroromantic asexual woman, so I mainly have relationships with cis heterosexual men and those relationships have included sex, and looking back on my sexual experiences, some where obviously not consensual and then most of my other sexual experiences, I’m not sure if they were consensual or not due to compulsory sexuality and internalized ideas about my asexuality making me broken and the idea that if I’m not willing to have sex, I will never have a meaningful relationship (or that allosexual people can not go without sex and good luck finding an asexual man who your romantically compatible with) and the fact that I was socialized to put other people’s happiness/needs over my own and right now I’m kind of feeling like because all of those issues, maybe my ability to consent is so compromised that it is essentially meaningless and it’s hard to bring up among asexual people because you have the whole issue of allosexual people telling indifferent asexual people that they have no sexual agency or that an asexual person would never truly consent to sex and I feel like a lot of people want to believe that they have more power than they really do so they don’t want to address how their ability to make choices is restrained, so this is a conversation that really needs to happen.

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