Blog, Consent, Kink

The Role of Empathy in Consent

Note: this is long, incredibly nuanced, and full of caveats. I tried to trim down as much as I could, but I also believe that not everything is simple, and sometimes the nuance and complexity is important to the discussion.

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday about a series of loaded topics- most notably, talking about trigger warnings in writing, the nuance of unintentional consent incidents that happen in the scene, and the concept of “personal responsibility.” You know…light, easy conversation.

I will occasionally put a content note at the top of writing if I feel like I’m going to be addressing topics that people may want to have a heads up about. I don’t use the language “trigger warning” for a lot of reasons, but I think the intention and purpose comes from the same place: I know that sometimes I write about things that people don’t want to engage with for any number of reasons, and I believe that people should have the autonomy to decide if they want to engage with particularly loaded topics.

This is different than reading something you disagree with. It’s one thing to read something about, say, politics in the scene and disagree with the conclusions someone else makes. This is about recognizing that some topics in general may be traumatic, triggering, or just generally squick someone.

The things that cause those reactions in me are not the things that cause those reactions in someone else. And while I can’t (and don’t) put a content note at the top of every writing I do, I try to recognize those things that are generally accepted to be more sensitive topics and content note those.

Because even though I don’t have a squick reaction or a trauma response (or something else entirely), I recognize that other people do. And it costs me absolutely nothing to put a sentence at the top of a writing: CN: (insert broad topics here).

As we were talking about this, I had the thought that so many of these conversations are based on an underlying assumption of empathy. So many of the discussions I’ve had about consent come down to someone’s ability to understand the experiences of someone else- and the ability to see how an action was threatening, harmful, unintentionally nonconsensual- when they have not experienced something similar in their own lives.

For example, if someone has never had the experience of feeling physically trapped, it may not occur to them that their body language is trapping someone against a wall and making it physically difficult to leave that space. To them, they might be having a lovely conversation with someone they just met; to the other person, they are stuck in a conversation with no way to leave and becoming anxious and physically uncomfortable because they feel trapped with their back against a wall.

The capacity to empathize with the experiences of others greatly impacts our ability to navigate the scene. It changes how we negotiate and the questions we ask. For me, I learned to ask about psychological triggers and physical responses, specifically going nonverbal… because I had a situation in which someone went non-verbal and was not able to communicate, including their ability to revoke consent.

This isn’t a response I have. I have never lost my ability to communicate or revoke my consent. I have struggled to give my consent (in the sense that, sometimes, I have a hard time stating that I want things). But even in those moments, if someone had begun doing something I didn’t want or like, I could still communicate and tell them to stop.

This isn’t something I experience. But I do recognize that it’s something other people experience, and so I take that into account when I negotiate and scene with people. The same goes with content warnings: although those topics don’t cause me issue, I recognize that they could cause others harm, and I choose to mitigate that as best as I can through a content note.

These things didn’t come innately to me. I had to learn them, through a variety of ways. In some cases, I learned because someone came forward and told me directly. In other cases, I learned because I heard other people talk about their experiences. Other things, I learned because of my own lives experiences.

It’s not a one-sided thing. Others are responsible for knowing their own limits and boundaries and communicating (or maintaining them) to the best of their ability. I can put a content note up all day, and someone might still choose to read something they know might be harmful to them. There is nothing I can do about that. But my responsibility- as a writer, as a kinkster, as a human being- is to provide information relevant and necessary to others so that they are able to make informed choices within their own limitations and understanding of their boundaries.

What does this have to do with (non-intentional) consent issues? This is the part that gets hard and nuanced, and I will try to be as clear as possible: it is almost impossible for people to become aware of circumstances and experiences outside of their own lived experiences without being told about them. Sometimes this comes in the form of friends relaying life experiences, sometimes this comes in the form of witnessing something happening to another person, and sometimes this comes in the form of having the hard conversations about crossed boundaries. Sometimes we have to tell- or be told- that we crossed someone’s boundaries, and we have to do the work to understand why.

Because sometimes we don’t know something is a boundary until it gets crossed. And sometimes, the way we negotiate leaves a lot open to interpretation (e.g. “I don’t like gags” could mean “I don’t like anything in my mouth” or “I specifically don’t like ball gags.”) But in order to develop our own sense of empathy, in order to understand how our actions are being interpreted by other people, sometimes, we have to be told in some capacity: not just about the action itself, but the context surrounding the action. It’s not just “this thing was problematic;” it’s often, “this thing was problematic because…

And some people have an advantage in this. People who have lived certain kinds of life experiences- being trapped against a wall, getting catcalled, getting groped, getting objectified nonconsensually, those who have experienced sexual trauma, etc.- tend to have an easier time understanding and empathizing with the experiences of others.

This is a general statement, of course, and I’m not saying that those who experience trauma can’t also perpetrate it, or that marginalized folks immediately come with an abundance of empathy. But my experience has been that women, trans- and non-binary folks, queer folks, and people of color tend to have relatable experiences and an intimate understanding of having boundaries crossed… and therefore make unconscious adjustments in behavior, words, and body language to make others feel more comfortable and safe- because we know what it’s like to be made to feel not safe and how to mitigate that in some ways.

I’m NOT saying that cis, het (and het-leaning), Dom/top white men don’t have empathy or relatable experience. Nor am I saying that that demographic are the only people who cross boundaries. What I AM saying is that a lot of empathy is a learned skill, and while we all learn in different ways, cis het white men tend not have the same kinds of experiences as people who are queer, trans, people of color, and/or women. And that difference in experience can lead to a lack of understanding in how seemingly-innocuous behaviors and actions can be harmful or damaging. And without access to experience- either lived or relayed- harmful behaviors continue to get perpetrated, up to and including consent incidents.

This is NOT an excuse for people violating consent. This is NOT a, “well, boys will be boys,” or, “oh, they just didn’t know better” argument. What I’m saying is, yes, some people have to consciously work harder to understand why certain behaviors are problematic because it is outside their lived experience. And yes, some things that are glaringly obvious to some people wouldn’t even occur to others.

I’ve heard a lot of stories from women that go something like this: “I tried to tell my [male] friend about my experience, and he didn’t believe me, or wrote it off as ‘guys will be guys’ until he saw it happen.” And here’s the thing: it takes both sides. People have to be willing to listen to and hear those stories that are outside of our own experiences and incorporate them into our understanding of our worldview. When your access to understanding things is via people telling you about them, it’s important to listen and hear and recognize that as valid experience. Even- perhaps, especially- when someone is telling you that the problematic behavior is yours.

This is not a conversation about intentional, predatory behavior, nor is this a conversation aimed at demonizing any one particular demographic. This is a conversation about honest-to-god mistakes. About misunderstanding. About using the same words but attaching different understandings and meanings to them. About the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, someone with different life experiences than you, and attempt to interpret your actions through the lens of someone else. About the humility to listen and the courage to change problematic behavior when it’s pointed out.

It’s about meeting in the middle, and finding ways to let someone know that their behavior is problematic. This is NOT a conversation aimed at putting the burden on victims or holding them responsible for changing someone else’s behavior. This is a recognition that, when we play with people, we run the risk that something might go wrong and we might have to address it. That people can’t change unless they know what they need to change.

This is a conversation about empathy. About an honest awareness of our own capacity to view ourselves through the lens of someone else and attempt to interpret our own actions without the benefit of understanding our intentions. This is about learning to see ourselves out of the context of our own lives and within some kind of objective understanding that factors in power dynamics and social standing. It’s about learning what questions to ask and rethinking how we speak and understanding better how we come across to one another.

Understanding is a two-sided coin. It takes both the speaker and the listener (or the author and the reader) actively working together to come to a common ground. In order to change, we must first be willing to hear that there is a problem- and sometimes, that means we have to be able to say there is a problem.

Speaking up is hard enough. Let’s make it a little easier by being receptive to hearing, to listening, and to changing. Because I don’t believe that banning is always the default answer. Sometimes, it’s a matter of having things pointed out as problematic so we don’t continue to perpetrate the same problematic behaviors. What we don’t know, we can learn if we are willing to and others are able and willing to hold us accountable. But what we know and just don’t care to change is what takes this from unintentional mistake to predatory behavior- and that’s an entirely different conversation.

Couple notes: I said it several times throughout, but repeating here to emphasize: this is NOT talking about intentional, predatory behaviors. This is specifically addressing unintentional incidents caused by misunderstanding and/or lack of knowledge and awareness.

I also recognize my own bias in the sense that I specifically only play with people that I feel comfortable going to if something happened that wasn’t ok. Part of my play partner selection involves thinking about how the, “shit went sideways” conversation will go. Part of this means that, in playing with someone, I am willing to assume the emotional labor to point out things that are problematic. That is part of my profile, and therefore my perspective is based heavily on this. More about this idea here.

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