Consent is Evolving
These days, most people agree that consent is a good thing. (Not everyone does, but that’s a topic for a different blog!) Universities run courses in consent. Schools are starting to teach it in age-appropriate ways. Academics and activists are writing books about it. Bloggers and vloggers are explaining its nuances. Since #MeToo, consent has almost become a mainstream topic of conversation.
Creating a culture of consent means recognising that consent is important in all areas of life: with friends, family, work colleagues, as well as in sexual relationships. But because consent or its absence in sexual interactions can make all the difference between a loving experience and rape, this is where most of the discussion about consent is focused.
As consent conversations broaden, it's even important to know what we mean by ‘consent’. For if we don’t define consent, we can’t truly say if it’s present or not. However, defining it isn’t as straight forward as some might assume. Ideas about sexual consent have evolved over recent decades, and are still changing.
I’ll briefly review some key stages in the definitions of consent, and conclude with where I think we are now:
1. No Means No
This seemingly basic definition of consent emerged as an empowering feminist slogan, particularly in the UK and USA during the 1970’s and 80’s. It directly challenges the prevalent cultural myth of heterosexual ‘seduction culture’ – i.e. that when a woman says ‘no’ to sex she secretly really wants it, and so it is up to the man to keep pursuing and seducing her until she finally says ‘yes’. This myth, widely prevalent in TV shows and films, is a core element of rape culture.‘No means no’ affirms that no one should ever be pressured into unwanted sex, and a woman’s ‘no’ should be taken seriously.
2. Yes Means Yes
This definition of consent emerged at the end of the 20th century.It acknowledges that someone may be unable to verbalise a clear ‘No’ for a variety of reasons: they may be tongue-tied, or drunk, or even asleep.Key to this is understanding that an absence of a ‘no’ does not constitute consent. The emphasis also shifts towards the empowerment that can be contained in expressing a ‘Yes’, rather than just the defensive, gate-keeping stance of a ‘No’.
3. Enthusiastic Consent
Coming to prominence in the second decade of the 21st century, this takes consent a step further, clarifying that an “Uh-huh, I guess so” is not usually a safe basis from which to initiate sex. Now, only an ‘enthusiastic’ yes means yes. It comes from a greater understanding that there may be all sorts of social and cultural pressures on people (especially, but not only, those socialised as women) to grudgingly agree to something, and grudging agreement is not the same as authentic consent.
The FRIES acronym for consent emerged around five years ago. Four further conditions are added to ‘Enthusiastic Consent’ to determine whether or not consent has been established:
Freely given (there must be no pressure to agree)
Reversible (each person can change their mind at any time)
Informed (you need to know the details of what’s being suggested)
Enthusiastic (this is the ‘enthusiastic yes’ described above)
Specific (if someone agrees to one thing, it doesn’t mean they’ve agreed to anything else).
FRIES brings a more thorough understanding of what needs to be communicated beforehand, and also establishes that consent should continue throughout an interaction, rather just being a ‘tick-box’ exercise to get out of the way at the beginning.
5. Authentic Consent (also known as Explicit Consent)
In everyday life, we commonly consent to things without feeling ‘enthusiastic’ about them.We might lean back in the dentist’s chair to receive a filling, or help a neighbour take out their rubbish. Such things don’t require ‘enthusiasm’ for consent to be present. And so it can be in sex. People may explicitly, authentically consent to sex for all sorts of reasons, including trying to get pregnant, or because it is their job. While enthusiastic consent can be a really useful safe-guard against non-consensual ‘going along with’, insisting that all consent can only ever be ‘enthusiastic’ is limiting.
6. The Wheel of Consent
This is a model of consent developed by Dr. Betty Martin which brings additional powerful nuances to how we make consent agreements in all areas of life, including sex. It begins by asking two questions:
who is doing (me or you)?
who is it for (me or you)?
Answering these two questions together creates four dynamics, each of which requires a different type of consent agreement to be made.
The Wheel of Consent also includes a simple embodied exercise to help slow down, tune into our body, and notice our authentic responses to shared touch of each of the four types.This can bring deeper embodied clarity about what we want for ourselves, what we are willing to do for another, and what we are not wiling to do. It also provides a language for clearer communication about each person’s experience.
The Wheel of Consent is a powerful and revolutionary approach to improving consent skills. Sadly, it has so far attracted surprisingly little attention from writers in the field. (Recent books which discuss consent in some detail, by Kathryn Angel, Amia Srinivasan, Milena Popova and Rachel Thompson all fail to mention the Wheel of Consent.)
7. Inclusive Consent (also known as Critical Consent)
I like the term ‘Inclusive Consent’ because this approach to consent explicitly includes many people’s experience that cultural conditioning, trauma responses and power imbalances can all deeply affect our capacity to make authentic consent agreements with others. It includes the perspective that sometimes people don’t know what they want, or their boundaries are already compromised by factors over which they have little or no control. Racism, sexism, homophobia and ablism are just some examples of systemic factors which limit the possibility of consent taking place. In some situations, cultural marginalisation may mean that agreeing to unwanted sex (or anything else) is safer, or the only possible option. Personal and/or systemic trauma may mean we don’t feel safe enough to tune into our own body to notice our yes or no. Consent is not always achievable, even if both parties have a perfect theoretical understanding of, for example, the Wheel of Consent.
This idea of consent is summarised up by Milena Popova in her book ‘Sexual Consent’:
“When we move away from looking at consent as something that happens between individuals in a specific situation and start looking at it as something enmeshed in social structures, cultural practices, and complex operations of power, the radical potential of the idea of consent becomes really clear. This version of consent allows us to ask much bigger questions than who said yes and who said no. It allows us to start exploring the social and cultural forces that shape the options we have, how we see ourselves, how we are seen by others, right down to our very desires. It allows us to ask what the conditions are that we need to create for consent to be truly free, and truly meaningful.”
Similarly the writer and academic Amia Srinivasan points out,
“Who gives, who takes, who demands, who serves, who wants, who is wanted, who benefits, who suffers: the rules for all this were set long before we entered the world.”
It’s one thing to begin to recognize the variety of culturally conditioned ‘rules’ around consent, and quite another to clarify how we can undo or ‘re-write’ them, both in our communities and in our personal lives. Consent educator Meg-John Barker addresses these issues directly. One key clarification they make is 'consent as the aim': have we made consent the explicit aim of our interaction, rather than anything in particular happening? Another is having multiple options beyond a default script: are we aware of the 'default script' in this situation, and have we shifted this to multiple options? A third is power awareness: are we aware of the cultural and personal power imbalances between us and their potential impact on capacity to feel free-enough and safe-enough to consent? Another is accountability: can we notice when we’ve been non-consensual, name that with the person concerned (if they’re up for it), hear the impact, and offer to make reparations?
Because of the many and varied ways we have each been conditioned and impacted, both culturally and personally, consent is complex; and it is great that our ideas about it have evolved. Rather than being just a one-word answer, consent is now understood to be an ongoing series of agreements and negotiations, involving deep listening, both to oneself and each other, and with awareness of the factors which can impact the whole process. Our understanding of consent will surely continue to evolve, especially as we extend our knowledge in fields like attachment theory, plurality (awareness of multiple inner parts), the nervous system, personal trauma and systemic marginalization and oppression.
There are perhaps two ways we could describe this evolution of consent. One is to define the word ‘consent’ in a limited way, and then point out that this fixed definition is no longer sufficient for our needs. The other is to allow our definition of consent to continue evolving (as it has already been doing for many years.)
The first of these approaches (fixing the definition) is taken by some current writers. Katherine Angel writes that we should: “…ask whether the burden of sexual ethics should be placed on consent, rather than, say, conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty…”
Similarly, Maya Dusenbery writes; “Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”
Meanwhile educators such as Betty Martin, M.J. Barker and Milena Popova allow their definition of consent to evolve to include the kinds of qualities Katherine Angel calls for – i.e. ‘conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty.’
To me this feels a more responsive and elegant way forwards. If, after years of promoting consent as the key to sex, educators now say “Ah, we changed our mind, ‘consent’ is old fashioned, we now need something else” my fear is this might alienate many people who are still struggling to get to grips with consent. It also leaves unanswered the question of what brand new word should we use to mean ‘conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty…’
But if we let consent evolve to mean what’s described by MJ Barker or Milena Popova (and beyond) then the sex we have (and all our personal interactions) might become radically, powerfully, inclusively consensual - in the fullest meaning of the word.
Rupert James, November 2021
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