The One On The Myth Of Unspoken Consent

Trigger Warning for rape, rape culture, violent imagery, and possibly offensive broad generalizations about normative society.

Author’s Note: This entry is edited from a post I made on a fetlife group devoted to the subject of consent.

This is going to be one of my soapboxing like a boss posts, but I regret nothing. I am going to say negative things about romantic love and neurotypicality, and maybe other things, too. These statements aren’t intended as universal, but are just points of reference to discuss flaws in the dominant paradigm and also my own biases bleeding through. I have a tendency to get pissed off at the normals because the normals have a tendency to fear and loath me. I’m a product of my conditioning. Those of you who read my blog ever are aware this is par for the course.

If you read this blog, you probably already know the problem with popular notions of consent is that they define consent as the absence of a “no”, when they should define it as the presence of a “yes”. Because of this we get bullshit notions like “grey rape”. Because if consent only means the absence of a “no”, then nonconsent is only the presence of a “no”. And that idea has mutated to the point where rape means a man forcing himself on a woman and violently penetrating at least one of her orifices with his penis while she screams and struggles. Date rape means a man drugging a woman and taking advantage while she is incapacitated, and is considered not as serious. Like, he only raped you a little bit. Could have been worse. And everything else, whether there was a “yes”, a “no”, a “maybe”, is not rape. So if you’re a man who was raped, if you were raped by your spouse, if you drugged yourself and then got raped, too bad. No judicial system for you.

In fact, even if you say no, out loud and everything, if you don’t repeat it or try to fight your perp off, well, that counts as consent in our society. Consent isn’t only the absence of a “no”, remember? Because silence is consent, and consent is irrevocable, if you don’t keep saying no, you are rescinding that “no”, for ever.

And unspoken consent isn’t just an accepted form, it’s the ideal. No romance novel or porno or any other wank material features a request for consent and a definitive, verbal “yes”, let alone any negotiation. You’re expected to just know, to be able to read your partner so well you don’t need words. Actually discussing sex, the specifics of it, what your limits are, what works for you and what doesn’t, well, it takes away from the “magic” and “spontaneity” and “passion”, doesn’t it?

The ideal of unspoken consent seems, to me, to be born out of both conventional notions of romance and of empathy. I’m going to take on empathy first.

I would contend that what most people think of as empathy is actually sympathy, as most people can only summon it up for people like them. Few people empathize with those whose experience is alien to them, and therefore, this is not true empathy. This is the fatal flaw of our cultural reliance on empathy to guide us. We are trained to use “empathy” to read the emotions of those around us and to inform us of “right” and “wrong”. We’re also trained that our empathy will never fail us, because what we know in our heart to be true and all that jazz. Implicit in this acculturation is a bias toward the instinctive “knowledge” we glean by empathizing over the information verbally imparted to us. Basically, your lips say no, but your [insert any other noun here] say[s] yes.

If someone’s body language or aura or anything else appears to be telling us one thing, we believe that. We ignore what they actually tell us with their words. We ignore the possibility that we may have misread them.

This is also rooted in the idea that everyone’s reality is the same. Everyone’s body language is the same. Everyone emotes in the same way. Furthermore, it’s rooted in the idea that everyone possesses the inherent ability to read everyone else’s body language.

Then there’s romance, which I’m bringing up second because it’s built partly on the ideal of empathy. The current dominant paradigm of romantic love is one characterized primarily by a lack of communication. Messages like “love means never having to say you’re sorry” are thrown at us from all directions. The general notion is definitely that if your love is real and true, you don’t need to talk about it, or anything else, for that matter. You’ll just know, beyond all doubt, in your heart of hearts. And while we do put a great deal of emphasis on saying the words “I love you”, we value actual physical displays, whether gifts, PDA, or acts of heroism, far more.

Therefore, if your love is real and true, then you absolutely must express this by consummating your love through penetrative intercourse, and your coupling must be a beautiful and moving experience and you both have to come, but you must not actually discuss any of this like rational adults. Obviously, it would just be awkward to say something like “honey, would you like to have sex now?” You must wait until the moment is right, and when it is, you’ll just know, and then, it will just happen. And any man who is a “real man” is expected to know when his woman has a real orgasm and when she’s faking it, and if he’s a gentleman, he’ll never say anything about it either way. And if she’s a good woman, she’ll fake it so he can still feel like a real man, and she’ll never mention it. Etc.

You know what else? Binarism and biological essentialism and also ableism. A combination of these, and a lot of other busted notions, which lead to the idea that all men work the same way, and all women work the same way. Yes, we’re all familiar with gender stereotypes, like guys don’t talk about their feelings, and all women like shoes. But that isn’t what I’m talking about here. What about notions like all women enjoy vaginal penetration? All men can achieve orgasm from oral sex? There is an overwhelming, but entirely unspoken, idea that there is one right way to fuck a man, and one right way to fuck a woman. Not only does that screw over, pun intended, trans and intersex folks, it screws over non-neurotypicals, people with disabilities, men with erectile dysfunction, women with vaginismus or anorgasmia, people who are stone, grey asexuals, people with kinks or fetishes, and anyone else you can possibly think of who experiences their sexuality in any way that is even subtly different from the supposed “norm”.

And now I’d like to tangent back to the problem of empathy. Obviously, the idea that everyone can instinctively read each other like books is a problem for folks on the autistic spectrum and other NNTs. However, this is not just a problem of auties being expected to read people when they can’t. This is a problem of neurotypicals thinking they can read auties when they can’t. Many NNTs emote in highly atypical ways, if at all. And, in fact, I have found the later to be much more of an issue than the former. See, even if I can’t read people, I am aware that I can’t, and so I listen to what they say, and I ask questions as I need to. I mostly get along alright. But neurotypicals feel they have no such “social handicaps” and have not learned to compensate for them. Neurotypicals don’t listen to what I say, they listen to what my body language says, and they assume that my body speaks the same language theirs does, and that it is saying something that makes sense to them.

I have learned the hard way that I cannot trust anyone to read my body language. I cannot expect cowering in a corner and cringing away from physical contact to effectively send the message “I want to be alone”. I have also learned the hard way that I cannot trust anyone to listen to the actual words coming out of my mouth. I cannot expect someone to understand “I like you and I want to stay friends but I’ve gotten really uncomfortable with all the sex and I’d like to stop having it” as what I actually said and not as super secret code for “I only wanted you for the sex and now I don’t want that, either” or to understand that “not without a condom” or “not tonight” mean “I do not currently want to have sex under these conditions so let’s please not have sex”.

We live in a society which discourages active, honest consent and communication in every way it possibly can. Openly discussing the particulars of your sexuality, listening to your partner, engaging in any atypical sexual act, and engaging only in sexual acts that both parties genuinely want to participate in are all radical acts. A society that teaches you not to talk about any of the things that truly matter, because if they truly matter you will magically know, is a society that assumes everyone is exactly the same.

The ideal of unspoken communication is a powerfully homogenizing force, one that forces you to pretend you’re just like everyone else or risk the stigma of freakhood. Basically, it’s better to rape and be raped than to admit you’re different. It’s better to be sexually and/or emotionally unfulfilled, overtaxed, or abused than to risk becoming an outcast.

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~ by onetiddlyridley on September 5, 2011.

4 Responses to “The One On The Myth Of Unspoken Consent”

  1. Agree with virtually all of this, though “it’s better to rape and be raped than to admit you’re different” sounds overly dramatic imo. Many of us spend so much time trying to work out how to describe ourselves – genderqueer? trans? some neologism I have to make myself? Ah, I’ll just say I’m bi and leave it at that – and make ourselves understood with people who assume that everybody either wants to give/have babies or have a gay version of that ideal in a lifelong ‘relationship’ (as if we don’t have ongoing, developing relationships with everybody we know). Heteronormativity is a tedious tyranny to be sure.

    • It is overly dramatic, certainly, but I also believe it’s true. We’re trained not to ask permission and not to speak up when we feel uncomfortable or unsafe, that it’s better to risk violating someone or to allow yourself to be violated than to actually openly and honestly discuss anything.

  2. I won’t argue with that. I suspect it’s the word ‘rape’ that made me rear back a little. Anyway, a fine piece that deserves a wide audience. Please keep thinking and writing on these essential matters.

    • Yeah, rape is a very strong word which inspires very strong reactions. I did think about whether it was too strong a word, but I think that’s the point. There are so many things that people are afraid to call “rape” because of the internalized messages of society, fear of being seen as crying wolf, etc. Again, that’s how we get terms like “grey rape”, which I reject. I firmly believe all nonconsensual sexual activity is rape. While, as in everything, there are shades of grey, when we start assigning different levels of legitimacy to rape we’re getting into oppression olympics type stuff and just playing into rape culture. So, if I can use the shock value of calling something “rape” to add impact to that message, I certainly will.

      Sorry for ranting at you. I just have a lot of thoughts. Anyway, thank you so much for your responses and support. It is greatly appreciated!

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