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.
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:
- Readers in England and Wales can visit the Rape Crisis England and Wales website, which also has info on the national freephone helpline, 0808 802 9999
- Scottish readers and trans* people anywhere in the UK may prefer to visit the website of Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, phone number 0131 556 9437, which has a good track record of trans*-inclusivity
- Irish readers could go to Rape Crisis Network Ireland which offers, among other things, information on finding your nearest crisis centre
- Readers in the USA could visit RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which offers a hotline, an online hotline and information on local counselling centres
- RAINN also has a page on international resources which may be useful for readers in other countries.
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.
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.
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.
- Modern Feminist Views on Consent
- A Non-Binary Power Model of Consent
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
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?
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.
- 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?”
- Sexual partners can put pressure on people who don’t experience sexual attraction (or choose not to have sex) to prove that they aren’t “broken” (e.g. by trauma history or hormonal imbalance) by saying they consent to sex. This can happen even without the sexual partner putting on conscious pressure, as this social script is easily internalised. (Thank you to an asexual reader for contributing this point.)
- 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!