Today is November 30, the International Day of Consent. I’m on my way to Florida to help care for my mom, who is in the last stages of terminal cancer. As I type these words, I’m sitting in an airport terminal, trying to wrap my head around the fact this might be the last time I ever see her. I can’t say I’m dealing with this very well.
Given that today is the International Day of Consent, I’d like to say a few words about consent. And given that I’m not in the best of moods, the words I have to say aren’t fluffy-bunny “consent is wonderful, you should get consent, see what a virtuous person I am telling people to get consent.” Instead, I’m going to say something meaningful about consent, namely that way too many people who talk the talk about consent are spouting empty words, and I suspect a lot of folks aren’t going to like to hear what I have to say.
You know what? If this essay pisses you off, I don’t care.
So let’s start here:
Pretty straightforward, right? I think most reasonable people agree if someone says no, that means no. In fact, if you don’t agree, I don’t want to talk to you. Kindly fuck off, and keep fucking off.
That goes for any no, by the way. A soft “no” still means no.
Important corollary: No does not mean “challenge accepted!” It does not mean “I wonder how I can persuade you to say yes.” No ends a conversation. No doesn’t mean “well, I should ask for the reasons they said no, and if those reasons aren’t good enough, I should argue” No doesn’t mean “convince me.” No doesn’t invite dialogue. The appropriate response to a no, hard or soft, is to accept you don’t get to do the thing.
I hope most of you are already nodding along. You do get this, right? Right?
Okay, let’s take the next step:
“Maybe” is not “yes.” It might become a yes in the future. It might be an invitation to further dialogue, maybe. But it is not a yes right now.
Valid consent needs to be free, informed, and enthusiastic. It is always limited in scope and can always be withdrawn. “Maybe” is none of those things.
Still with me? Good. Because for a lot of folks who claim to value consent, what I’m going to say next might just make you mad. For way too many of you out there, including a lot of folks in the kink community who ought to know better:
Did you feel it? A disturbance in the Force?
Ah, now we get to it. For a lot of people, “consent” is not a rigorous process of making sure the people around you are enthusiastically on board with what you’re doing, it’s whatever gets them the attention and kudos they want in the moment. It’s a brand. It’s a word that signals virtue.
In the right situation, given the right narrative, a lot of folks out there will cheerfully embrace a weird, topsy-turvy, Ministry of Truth doublespeak argument that yes means no.
I’ve run into this personally. A bunch of folks, folks who I genuinely once respected and admired, who suddenly did an abrupt shift through the looking glass into mirror-world and insisted, with a straight face, that yes means no.
And I’m not talking about a yes given under duress. I’m not talking about a yes that was wheedled or badgered, a yes that came at the end of a lot of pleading, a yes from a person who is not an adult, a yes that comes from a place of power imbalance, a yes that started with a no. Those yesses are all nos. That kind of “yes” is not free, informed, and enthusiastic. If you get someone to a yes by wearing down their no, that…isn’t actually a yes, just so we’re clear.
I’m talking about a free and informed yes given by an enthusiastic adult who is fully on board with whatever the thing is. In fact, I’ll even go one further:
Not only do a lot of folks who claim to respect consent say, under the right circumstances, that yes means no, they’ll even tell you that a “yes” that comes from a place of “Hi there! Here’s a thing that I really really want to do. You interested in doing this with me, please?” means no.
“So Franklin, what the fuck are you talking about?”
Lemme tell you a story. It’s a story about divorce, and kink, and a vanilla partner twenty years later, and it doesn’t have a particularly happy ending, but my goodness is it an interesting story.
So let’s set the Wayback Machine to the year 2000, twenty-three years before I sit in this airport terminal typing these words.
I met her at a polyamory get-together. She’d just moved to town from California with her husband, with whom she was getting a divorce. They’d been having problems in California, talked about divorcing, and decided maybe a change of scene would help. (Yeah, I know, but hey, it’s better than having a baby to save the marriage.)
We met again at a party hosted by one of the folks in the local poly scene. She later wrote, in a now-deleted blog, about how she felt “electric” when she was near me.
She talked quite a lot about her husband: how incompatible they were, how she wanted to explore BDSM but he didn’t want to, how she felt stifled by the fact he wouldn’t do the things she wanted to explore. he had a whole collection of BDSM gear in her closet, she said, that he was reluctant to use with her.
A few weeks later, she emailed me to ask if she could have some more BDSM gear (specifically electrical play gear) shipped to my house, because she didn’t want to deal with the awkward conversation with her husband about it. I said sure, whatever.
You’d think this would be unambiguous consent. To listen to a lot of “consent warriors,” you’d be wrong.
Fast forward a year. She’s finalizing her divorce, and she’s asked me out. One of the very first things she says, in this newly-minted relationship, is she wants to explore BDSM with me. “I have this whole collection of bondage gear,” she says. “I want to use it with you.” (Top-shelf kit, too—leather cuffs, a collapsible spreader bar, a very nice hogtie collection.)
For a lot of folks in the BDSM community…
I say yes, because my understanding of consent is that when an adult person asks you to explore something with them, that means they’re consenting to explore that thing with them, but what do I know? Good thing we have a bunch of folks who know better.
Anyway, kink becomes part of our relationship. I explore a lot of things with her I’d never tried before, as we discuss our respective fantasies and find the overlaps.
Over the next year or so, this mutual exploration of kink becomes so important to her, she tells me she doesn’t want me going to kink events and play parties with my other girlfriend (now my wife), she wants to reserve that for us.
I told her no, I wouldn’t do that—I was happy to make BDSM a part of our life, but my other partners also liked kink and I wouldn’t be reserving that just for her. She has a bit of a reaction to that, but I stand my ground.
Now let’s fast forward again to 2006. She finishes her undergraduate degree and heads off to grad school. I move to Georgia when the company I’m a minority partner in moves to Atlanta. I blog about it. We decide to remain partners, though she soon starts dating a kinky couple in Tallahassee. BDSM becomes part of their relationship as well; indeed, it is, she informs me, part of what attracted her to her new boyfriend, a dom in the local scene.
That works until it doesn’t, as is often the case when a submissive dates a couple. She soon begins dating another fellow, a guy who’s monogamous by nature and is okay with her shagging other women but not other men. “He doesn’t like the thought of me playing with another penis,” she tells me one afternoon. “We can’t be lovers any more, but we’ll always be partners. We’ll always be family.’
So it goes.
Fast forward a bit more. The new guy is gone, and she’s now dating a friend of mine, as the submissive partner in a full-time “TPE” relationship, which if you aren’t kinky basically means she’s kind of his sexual slave all the time. Things go pear-shaped quickly. She claims he’s abusing her, he claims the opposite, I fly out to support her, their relationship explodes, it’s a mess. Through it all, she keeps telling me I’m the only person in her life who’s never abused her. I believe her. I shouldn’t.
Sorry, gotta board my flight. Back in a bit.
Okay, picking this up from my seat as I fly through the air:
Fast forward one more time to the present day. I learn she’s been talking to a person claiming to be a “journalist,” telling the world that she never wanted to be involved in BDSM, or maybe se did but someone in their mid-20s is too young to consent, and anyway she’s not into BDSM any more and isn’t it terribly abusive that I participated in it with her?
And this story gets some currency with some prominent folks in the kink community, which is shocking and a bit disappointing.
Because, you see, a person who accepts this narrative, does not and cannot accept that consent exists.
So, let me spell this out plainly, and since I’m feeling a bit salty and I’m not in a space to worry too much about sugar-coating my words to make them more palatable to the folks I’m about to call out:
We cannot accept that consent exists if we cannot accept that yes means yes.
If you’re reading this and you think I’m talking about you, there’s a pretty good chance you’re right.
I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this. Somewhere between “no means no” and “I really want to do this, I’m divorcing my husband at least partly because he doesn’t want to do this, please please do this with me means no,’ some folks who really ought to know better have lost the thread.
As someone close to me put it, it’s as if “yes means yes only if I have the option of retroactively deciding twenty years later that I don’t want to do it any more and I don’t think that I made the right choice back then, so I want the option of retroactively calling the choices I made ‘consent violations’ in order to avoid the discomfort of dealing with my own changing perceptions about it.” And I must admit I’m a little surprised by the number of folks who are on board with that, at least so long as being on board with that serves as a way to declare their virtue. (“Look at me, I support women! I’m virtuous!”)
It’s really, really hard not to see this as gaslighting.
As gaslighty and dishonest as all this feels, I don’t even think it’s malicious. I think we all have, to some degree or another, the tendency to project our current emotional state backward in time, and assume the way we feel now is the way we always felt. Nobody reading (or writing!) this can say they’ve never been guilty of projecting what we feel now back into the past. We do not remember things as they were, we remember things as we are.
And honestly, maybe that’s why she would always keep a blog or a journal for a year or so, then delete it, then a while later start a new one, only to delete it again. It’s incredibly freeing, this constant burning down of your own record. It allows you to say “no, I didn’t do that, I didn’t say that, I didn’t feel that. I have always felt the way I feel right now.”
Destroy your past, free your mind. (Image by Volodymyr)
I no longer entirely believe her version of how her TPE relationship with my old friend went south. I do believe the experience was traumatic for her, that it hurt her badly, and that it forever put her off kink—that much is pobably true.
Maybe “Yes means no” is simply a way of saying “Yes means I don’t want to bear responsibility for having said yes, if it later turns out things go badly, or I believe I shouldn’t have said yes.”
Thing is, once you accept that, the entire framework of consent crumbles. At some point, if you care about consent, you have to accept that consent exists. Consent is a thing that people can do. We need to be able to accept that a yes, freely and enthusiastically given, does mean yes.
And honestly, yes, retroactively changing your mind about consent given twenty years ago, ten years after a different, bad, relationship, is gaslighty.
And anyone who’s ever thought about consent—real consent, not just Consent™ as a brand—ought to know this.
So here we are, It’s International Day of Consent 2023. I for one would like to live in a world where consent is more than a brand, used to signal your virtue to your tribe.
Consent matters. If no means no, then let’s maybe consider a world where yes means yes. The alternative, “yes means yes until I decide a few decades from now it is embarrassing, so now it means no” is deeply, deeply fucked. And if you care about consent, I suggest you don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
And if you are one of the folks I’m talking about, if you think that an enthusiastic “here’s something I want to try, here’s my collection of fetish gear, please do this with me” can, after decades and a bad kink experience with a totally different person, become a consent violation, if that sounds reasonable to you, then please, for the sake of the entire community, say so up front, so reasonable people know not to play with you.
Because seriously, that means you don’t know what consent means, so fuck that shit.