On Fries, Bnnanas, Consent, and Being Excellent to Each Other
Let’s say we already agree that consent is important. We want to treat people with respect at a minimum, and with love, compassion, and kindness wherever we can. We understand that consent is vital to our ability to interact with each other in a loving and respectful way. We only want to do things to each other and with each other that will bring maximum satisfaction to everyone involved. If maximum satisfaction isn’t within our reach, then we at least want to do no harm. Does that sound good? Lovely brotherhood of man and all that? Good.
So, let’s skip past all the horror of this long, long fight to dismantle and rearrange the systems that have allowed racism, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, rape-culture, and all sorts of othering and hatred to thrive. There is a reason why it has been so hard for people to understand, practice, and grow consent culture, but let’s let that dog lie and just agree to agree that we are going to keep trying to do things differently, to be better to each other and to ourselves. It is necessary to understand where we came from and what we don’t want, but let’s focus for a moment on what we do want.
So, what is consent? On a most basic level, it is simply permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. Unfortunately, the above-mentioned systems have had us so culturally and emotionally fucked up that that definition just doesn’t serve anymore, if it ever did. We need precision. We need clarity. Where getting and giving consent usually falls apart is in higher stakes situations: situations where things like ego, self-image, social mores and expectations, and complex feelings like desire and shame come into play. In the past, we have been the least able to communicate with each other when we are the most vulnerable and most need to communicate and build trust, in intimate and sexual settings. So, a lot of radicals (those darn activists, feminists and sex educators) have been hard at work trying to build a better system.
Planned Parenthood, for example, has a beautifully simple definition of consent. They use the acronym F.R.I.E.S. This definition says that consent is:
Freely given – there is no force, threat, manipulation, coercion, or pressure, and the person giving consent is not too intoxicated too make a clear decision. Free will rules!
Reversible – a person who has given consent can change their mind at any time. Any. Time. Consent never amounts to an obligation or a debt.
Informed – a person needs to know what it is they’re consenting to, or else it’s not consent. Be honest about what you’re asking for.
Enthusiastic – reluctant or grudging consent is not consent at all. This doesn’t mean you can’t try new, scary, fun things. You can be enthusiastic about your consent and not sure about the activity.
Specific – agreeing to one thing does not imply agreement to other things. If a person consents to do one thing with you that doesn’t mean they want to do all the things.
Now, this may seem like a lot if you’re not used to it. Maybe it seems a little overwhelming, or scary, or difficult to track, but it’s not that hard. This is how we take care of ourselves and each other. This is how we do no harm and maximize pleasure.
Think about a banana.
You offer someone a banana and they don’t want it. Do you force the person to eat it? Do you threaten the person? Do you whine until they cave and eat it anyway? Do you trick them? If the person is so drunk they don’t know what they’re doing, do you make them eat it (what if they were allergic and you didn’t know)? All that sounds weird, right?
Now, what if the person has said yes, they would love a banana, but later on, they change their mind. Do they now have to eat it anyway? Nope.
What if you offer a person a banana, and they’re into it, but the banana is stuffed with peanut butter, or frozen, or in any state other than plain ol’ banana state. You should tell them, right?
You offer someone a banana and they fuckin’ hate bananas. They don’t want to hurt your feelings because you love bananas so much, or maybe they’re not too good at speaking up for themselves. They’re sort of willing to try it if they have to… but they would rather not. You can see them cringe as you come towards them with it. Super uncomfortable for everyone, yeah?
You found someone who wants to enjoy a banana with you! Awesome. Does that mean they then have to eat an apple and a pear and an orange and a string cheese and everything else in your fridge? Definitely not.
The only reason why being mindful of consent is any more difficult when it comes to sex than it is when dealing with bananas, is because of those pesky complex feelings like fear, shame, and desire. We don’t give a damn if someone doesn’t want a banana, but we are trained to equate sexual “success” or “failure” with self-worth. We have to un-train ourselves and each other in this regard. It’s like someone said they don’t want to eat a banana with me and now I am humiliated and worthless... Silly, right? Someone’s preference is not a reflection of your worth or your success or failure. It is healthy to say no. It is equally healthy to be able to hear a no and honor it.
Now, conversations around consent are largely concerned with common decency and respecting everyone’s autonomy. Let’s not do things to each other that we don’t want done. Yes, absolutely.
But developing consent skills is also super fucking hot. Clear consent communication allows all of us to ask for exactly what we want and find out exactly what our partners want. Even if our sexual partners aren’t into the same things we are, we can find our common ground, and get that maximum satisfaction for everyone. If we aren’t compatible at all, we get the opportunity to find a partner who really wants what we have to offer. Is it sexier to manipulate and pressure someone into eating a banana, or to find someone who really fucking wants our banana? Isn’t it hotter when desire is organic and not fake or forced?
As the kink and BDSM communities can attest, clear consent communication also allows us to explore more and go farther than we can when we’re not sure what the limits are or what people really want. Consent expert Marcia B. talks about the phenomena of how children behave in a schoolyard. If there is no fence, they all tend to huddle together in the middle of the yard where it is safest. If there is a fence around the schoolyard, the kids tend to play all the way out at the edges of the yard near the fence. If we know where our boundaries are, we can go all the way to them. If we don’t know, we stay where it is “safe.” This is how absolute trust is built and absolute trust is extremely powerful and gives us a degree of freedom that nothing else will. Clear consent communication lets us get real weird with our bananas if we want to. Up the ass? Up the nose? Sure! As long as everyone involved is into it.
If building consent skills still seems a little sticky or awkward, that’s totally normal. Doing anything new or differently always feels strange. Give yourself room to be awkward, to have feelings, to make mistakes. Give the same to your partners. We all probably need practice saying and hearing no. All it takes is a willingness to keep working at doing and being better.
In other words, be excellent to each other!