Deep Consent, Part I: Did We Rape Each Other?

Back in the mid 80s, the term “date rape” had just come into common parlance, particularly on college campuses. The rhetoric of the time went something like, Have you ever had sex when you really didn’t want to, or gave in because of what you perceived your partner wanted? Then, young Jedi…listen up…you were raped! My women’s group was abuzz with this language, and frat houses were under particular scrutiny.

Around that time, I had a boyfriend. We had a very active sex life, and didn’t often get out into the world because we were both so drawn to staying home and f*cking.

One day, we had rather half-hearted sex. Aftwards, a tentative conversation ensued, that went something like this.

Me: Are you OK?

Him: Yeah, why?

Me: I don’t know

Him: Were you really into that?

Me: Not especially, but I went ahead with it because I thought you were.

Him: For real?

Me: Yeah.

Him: Because, I wasn’t really into it either, but I went ahead because I thought you were.

We stared at each other, open-mouthed. We both had done something we didn’t really want to do, because of what we perceived the other wanted. So…

Did we rape each other?

Since that time, I’ve seen much more complexities around consent. I’ll present a model for how we could think about that in a moment.

Consent, or rather the lack thereof, has been getting a lot of press lately, particularly around unwanted sexual acts. As I’ve been pondering this, it occurs to me that the principles and underlying values around consent can be taught and practiced completely independently of sex, and in fact apply across the board to many life situations.

For example, from the time my son was a toddler, I made a point not only to stop a physical activity whenever he asked to (like tickling, for example, which he often requested), but also to ask him how it felt to him to say stop and then have me stop. I did this so he would remember what it was like to have his wishes honored when someone asked him to stop. I would remind of this sometimes when he was climbing on me, or interacting with me physically in a particular way that I didn’t enjoy.

Often I would ask him to stop, and he wouldn’t. I would say, “Hey, remember the last time you asked me to stop and I did? What did that feel like? Wasn’t that nice to have me do as you asked? How about you give me the same?” These approaches appealed to my son’s body as a source of knowledge to help him understand the meaning of consent. I like to call this an embodied epistemology.

Embodied epistemology of consent

Epistemology means the study of knowing. It asks, how do we know that we know? When I studied epistemology as part of my philosophy curriculum in college, the answers to these words were…surprise, surprise…more words. Followed by even more words. Never any talk of feelings or bodies.

Today, I am less interested in words about knowing than I am in how how we can get better at factoring in our embodied knowledge. In my own life, I find that the more I speak from my internal, embodied awareness about what I want, the more connected I feel to myself and to those I love. From this connected place, I can more honestly and awarely communicate my wants and needs, and the definitive yeses, nos, and what-about-this-way responses that fully express what’s inside me.

Clearly, my college boyfriend and I both lacked the ability and willingness to speak up about not being a Hell Yes to sex in that instance. It also could have been that, given how into each other we were, we both thought that having sex with the other person when we were not 100% yes was not the worst thing in the world.

From a more modern perspective, Matthias Schwenteck’s presentation of Betty Martin’s Wheel of consent, we were both on the left side:

In both my boyfriend’s and my minds, we were both serving and allowing. I didn’t see any shadow side to it, and still don’t. But how did we get there? And how can we do better?

I’ll be posting about these questions all week leading up to the workshop this weekend on Deep Consent, where we’ll play with these kinds of things with real, live, juicy humans!

The next topic up is, What do we bring to the table in how we approach consent? By this, I mean, what are our assumptions and behavior patterns around consent? How were we raised and socialized to think about consent? Please share your thoughts below, I may incorporate them into the next post.

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