It would be really nice if consent were as black-and-white as I want it to be. But even in my own life, I recognize that that is not necessarily true.
Example: Two people in an ongoing play/sometimes-sexual relationship decide to do a scene. One person is feeling a little off and not incredibly sexual, and communicate that play sounds great, but that sex isn’t really something they’re interested in right now. The other person is fine with this. During the course of the scene, they do things that are not inherently, in-and-of-themselves sexual, but have been included when these two had sex in the past, which stirs up sexual feelings in the first person.
Was their consent violated?
Example: Two people who don’t know one another well are making out. One person gets triggered and goes non-verbal while the other person, who has never been exposed to someone going non-verbal, says things like, “If you want me to stop, just say no.” They make out for awhile and then part ways when the non-triggered person has an appointment to keep. They leave feeling like they had a nice time while the other is triggered and unsure that the other person would have stopped, absent a direct “no,” if they didn’t have somewhere else to be.
Was their consent violated?
Consent is a nuanced, tricky thing. I’m not saying these things to provide “outs” for violators and perpetrators; I’m saying these things because I’ve walked some sticky, grey areas of consent. Both of the examples I described above are slightly-modified experiences that I have seen happen.
In one of those cases, an individual felt their consent had, in fact, been violated. Whether I agree or not is irrelevant because we all define our own consent practices for ourselves, and our consent practices are a direct result of how we analyze and mitigate risk.
I, personally, in my relationships, don’t always use ongoing, verbal consent. The risk I assume in doing that is that I might violate someone’s consent. I mitigate this risk as best as I can by having discussions about what things are ok to assume and what things aren’t (e.g. I no longer ask my partner of 7 years if it’s ok to kiss him, although I would in a heartbeat if he asked me to, and at times, we have gone back to that when needed. I clarify with newer sweethearts what level of physical interaction is reasonable to assume, and once that baseline is established, ask that they inform me when that changes.)
Consent, at its most basic, is the idea that, free from coercion or manipulation, in our own baseline of mental stability, free from fear of negative repercussions or consequences, we agree to engage in an action or series of actions, accepting that actions have risks and we take responsibility for the risks we assume based on our own level of comfort, knowledge, and understanding.
This is consent for me. And within that definition, there are so many ways that could go wrong.
Free from coercion or manipulation: this includes unbalanced power dynamics (e.g. “big name” person asks new-to-the-scene, somewhat inexperienced person to Do A Thing). Here’s the thing: sometimes, that situation might be coercive; other times, it might not be. It’s not that anyone who does This Thing is automatically violating consent; it’s a circumstance in which the risk that it is coercive/manipulative is significantly higher, which also increases the risk of violating someone’s consent.
In our own baseline of mental stability: for some people, that might include the capacity to have a drink; for others, any substance alters their ability to give and maintain consent. If someone experiences mania, how does that factor in when discussing risk profiles and assessments? (Hi, I would be one of those people). If someone smokes pot constantly because that is how they function best, is that something they need to disclose if that is their baseline normal of mental stability?
Free from fear of negative repercussions? For some people, attending a kink event at all- even if they never engage with anyone- puts them at risk for negative repercussions. What about someone who is in a long-term relationship and has lost their sex drive such that having sex feels not-good, but not having sex would cause significant turmoil because their partner isn’t able to get their sexual needs met, and a sexual dynamic is one that they agreed to maintain?
And then we get into the concept of accepting risk. I cannot stress this enough: having a high risk profile does not mean you deserve to have your consent violated. What it does mean, however, is that you have to understand and critically analyze how you define consent and consent violation. As a person with a high risk profile, I cannot stress this enough.
For example, if it is outside someone’s risk profile to have unprotected sex, and they have a sexual encounter in which their partner removes their barriers and, as a result, that person contracts an STI, it is not that person’s responsibility because they misjudged the character of their sexual partner (also, ignoring someone’s stated boundary is a consent violation in and of itself). If, however, it is within someone’s risk profile to have unprotected sex, then they do assume greater risk with respect to STI transmission. It is still not their fault if they contract an STI because their partner did not disclose STI status, but let’s say their partner was between tests and wasn’t aware that they had contracted something and passed it along. Did that person consent to having an STI? No. But did they engage in behavior in which they knew that the risk of contracting an STI was significantly higher? Sure.
We have to take responsibility for the level of risk we are willing to assume, and the level of risk we are willing to assume is based on our knowledge base, access to information and resources, and ability to mitigate the risks we identify. So if someone does have unbarriered sex, perhaps part of their risk mitigation is to get tested more frequently (every 3 months instead of every 6, for example).
How we define, assess, and mitigate the risks that we are willing to accept directly impacts how we define and navigate consent. My point in all of this is not to equivocate, nor is it to imply, in any capacity, that it is a victim’s fault for having their consent violated. Please hear me: it is no one’s fault but the person who chooses to disregard someone else’s boundaries. If someone isn’t sure of someone else’s boundaries and chooses to act without clarifying, they run the risk of violating consent and must decide if that is a risk they are willing to take.
Also. We have to understand that what is a violation of consent for one person might not be for another, based on comfort, boundaries, and risk assessment. That consent isn’t always easy with black-and-white answers. There are interpersonal dynamics, social and power dynamics, brain chemistry, and so forth. Saying that someone is responsible for the risks they assume in their engagement of sex and play is not the same as saying they are responsible when they are placed in situations that are outside their stated risk profile. There is a difference in saying that someone needs to accept responsibility for their own actions versus responsibility for the actions of others.
It is never a victim’s fault for having their consent violated. Period, full stop.
How we recognize, define, and talk about consent violations is directly related to how we understand, analyze, discuss, and construct risk assessment and mitigation. This is part of what makes these conversations so tricky and difficult: people from different experiences and backgrounds, with different knowledge sets and information, who have constructed different types of risk assessment jump into discussions of consent violations, talking about “personal responsibility.” Personal responsibility goes so far as to recognize that, as adults, we are responsible for establishing boundaries that are in line with the levels of risk we are willing to assume. Consent violations disregard those boundaries, often putting us at levels of risk we were not willing to assume- and that is not the victim’s responsibility.
Consent is nuanced and complicated. One of the risks we must assume if we play outside of the cut-and-dry, opt-in, ongoing affirmative and enthusiastic consent model is that we all run the risk of violating someone’s consent. In some situations, that risk might be relatively low (e.g. I feel pretty good about kissing my partner without checking in first in normal circumstances). In other situations, that risk might be a lot higher (e.g. doing things that are inherently sexual when sex was never discussed because it “feels right” in the moment and appears to be organically where the situation is going- even checking in could be considered mid-scene negotiation, and therefore inherently coercive/done when someone is in an altered state of mind).
As we all build our own risk profiles, think about how it impacts your consent models. Think about consent violations as a conceivable risk for the ways you play, and think about how to mitigate that risk (because sometimes, it’s not as simple as “just don’t violate someone’s consent”- see my two initial examples).
I wish consent were cut-and-dry, black-and-white, straightforward and easy. But again, unless we are all willing to only play with ongoing, affirmative, opt-in, well-negotiated play every single time (and we could guarantee that the community is free of unchecked narcissism and sociopathy), then consent violations are a risk in play. It’s a risk in how I play in ongoing, established relationships (which, by the way, are where a significant number of consent violations occur; this is actually a more dangerous way to play, not less).
Understand your risk profile. Understand what risks you are assuming- not just physical, but emotional, mental, psychological, etc. Understand how your risk profile impacts your consent model. Understand what risks are yours to assume, and what is not yours to be held responsible for. Again: it is never a victim’s fault if their consent is violated. And. Risk assessment should be part of how we talk about consent, because they are intrinsically linked.
Assume responsibility for your own actions, to the best of your knowledge and ability, which is absolutely not the same as being told to assume responsibility for the busted actions of other people.