“Words like violence, break the silence
Come crashing in, into my little world
Painful to me, pierce right through me
Can’t you understand, oh, my little girl?”–Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence”
First off, let me apologize for the delay in this blog entry. After a great pre-Thanksgiving week, it’s been a rough couple days here at the Bratty Cat. There were some confirmed Covid cases in my family, causing Panda and I to quarantine ourselves for a week, plus, some emotional growing pains in the polycule. It’s times like this that I have to remind myself that, at the end of my life, when I tally up the good and the bad, the fortunate things that have happened to me more than outweigh these temporary hardships.
So, I saw a Facebook post the other week on the importance of consent and I thought it was one of those topics that really should be revisited on a regular basis. Like weight loss, it’s an easy concept to understand, however, surprisingly difficult to implement. Now, I know there are feminist friends of mine who will immediately call me on the carpet for that statement, however, to truly understand consent, one must go simply beyond the words and begin to unwind CENTURIES of societal programming. If you don’t understand consent, that’s okay, you weren’t conditioned to. However, much like we are all personally responsible to be better than the generations who came before us, you are responsible to educate yourself and begin to implement positive consent practices.
There was a time in my life when I wasn’t always so gung-ho about the concept of consent. Like most men, I was raised with this concept that it’s a man’s job to be forward and, dare I say, aggressive, when it comes to romancing women. Of course I’m not talking about forcing myself on anyone, and I was always told that “No means no”, however, that very straightforward message was unwittingly being co-opted and muddled by messaging being fed to me by friends, family, and especially the media.
One of Panda and I’s guilty pleasures during the Holiday season is Hallmark Christmas movies. Where else do you get to see 80’s child-stars play out worn-out tropes in a super-saccharine setting with a hyper-predictable ending. I’m convinced that Hallmark hasn’t made a new movie in thirty years and instead just keeps Xeroxing the same script and making minor changes with each new production. There’s only three things certain in life: Death, taxes, and that blonde-haired white women can find true love by saving a bakery in a small mountain town.
As much as I like to poke fun of these cookie-cutter tributes to mediocrity, while they’ve gotten better over the years, they, and really the whole Rom-Com genre in general have done a major disservice to the conversation around consent in this country. While we view them as light-hearted, funny, and yes, even romantic, the messages they send, which are reinforced by all of us, paint consent as awkward, unsexy, and impractical.
Before we talk about what type of messaging these films portray and why it’s problematic, let’s first discuss what consent is. Once we can define it, it becomes a lot easier to see what poor consent practices look like, and then how to change those practices to embrace Enthusiastic Positive Consent, or EPC.
Since I’m a big fan of the dictionary, we’re gonna start there. Webster’s defines consent as “agreement as to action or opinion”. While that’s a good start, I would argue that it’s lacking a key component which is that consent is “voluntary”, meaning that it’s of sound mind and body and not coerced in any way. If a robber sticks a gun to my head and tells me “your money or your life”, by the strictest definition, I can consent to give them my money, however, can we really argue it’s voluntary if I’m being threatened with bodily harm. Likewise, if someone is intoxicated or high due to alcohol, drugs, or some other chemical imbalance, they are no longer of sound mind and body, so they can’t really offer consent to what happens. In it’s fullest, most meaningful sense, consent invokes the ideals of choice, freedom, and the absence of any threats or intimidation.
So what’s so confusing about this concept and why do we need to talk about it? Let’s circle back to those beautiful train-wrecks that are Hallmark Christmas movies. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like they’ve gotten better, and every know and then I still see this happen: The two main characters are attending the town Christmas tree lighting, they notice they’re under the mistletoe, they look deep into each others eyes, and they lean in for a magical kiss as the snow starts to fall all around them.
Sounds pretty romantic, doesn’t it? Well, let me posit the situation this way: Let’s say you’re at your friend’s house and, because they are your friend, they regularly welcome you to whatever is in their fridge. One day you’re over watching football and you reach into their fridge and grab the last beer. You crack it open and you friend becomes visibly upset. They explain that this was their last beer from a case from a special craft brewery they bought on vacation and they were saving that beer for themselves for later that night. What would be your response? Well, I would hope it would be something along the lines of “My bad. I wasn’t aware this beer was special. I wouldn’t have opened it otherwise. I’m sorry”, and you would probably even offer it to your friend rather than drinking it yourself.
This is a textbook example of a consent violation. Why did you go into that fridge and open that beer? Well, first off, you didn’t know the beer was special. You thought this was any old beer that you had helped yourself to in the past. You were ignorant, and I use that term in the academic sense meaning “You didn’t know”. You lacked information that would have aided in your decision making. Second, you made an assumption. You assumed that because you had helped yourself to beer in your friend’s fridge numerous times before, this would be no different (there’s a term for this called “blanket consent” which we will touch on in a few moments). Bottom line, you weren’t being mean or malicious. Rather you acted on incorrect information and didn’t take time to verify that information before acting.
Now, let’s flash back to our couple in the Hallmark movie standing in the snow ready to engage in that romantic kiss. Is this a consent violation? Well, do either party, the man, or the woman, know the other wants to kiss? Did either of them bother to inquire if a kiss would be appropriate? The answer to both of these questions would be “No”. There was ignorance on behalf of both parties (lack of knowledge of desire) and assumptions made (“This person clearly wants to kiss me!”), and then action without verification.
I would like to pause here and point out, as demonstrated by the above example, consent violations are equal opportunity when it comes to gender. While we often discuss them in terms of men violating women’s consent because of established societal gender norms and (I assume because I have no data to back this up), men commit them more often than women, this is not to say that women can’t commit consent violations and men can’t be victims. In the example above, the woman could be considered an equal and willing participant in the kiss, depending on who leaned in first and how each party responded. One time at a swing club, yours truly was a victim of a consent violation as a woman grabbed me and kissed me on my lips before I could object. While the majority of the focus is on how men need to engage in better consent practices (and they absolutely do), women also have a part to play in all of this.
So, if consent is so straight-forward (Don’t so something to someone else without first asking permission), why do we struggle with it so much. I believe there’s two reasons: Confusion and lack of communication.
I believe that 90% of all consent violations are unintentional, and by that I mean they originate from a place of good intentions, but we acted on incorrect information and/or did not take time to verify this information. As someone who has both committed consent violations as well as had consent violations committed against them, I can say they all boiled down to “I totally thought you and I were okay with that.” There’s not malice involved, it’s just that nobody clearly explained boundaries.
Going back to the example about the beer, this is a clear case of confusion over consent. Your buddy has told you on numerous times “Help yourself to anything in the fridge”. You naturally assumed that this rule still applied and acted accordingly. This is a valid response. However, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to check in with your friend every now and then. “Hey, I know I’m here all the time to watch the game. Is it still cool that I help myself to what’s in your fridge.” This kind of periodic checking-in goes a long way to prevent future consent violations. Now, your friend may “You never need to ask me this again.” This is what we refer to as “blanket consent”. One of my metas has this over me. She knows that whenever she wants, she can grab me or kiss me and I won’t complain because I’ve given her “pre-clearance.” Now the other side of that coin is that she recognizes I can revoke that blanket consent at any time. It’s a matter of deep trust that I place in her, and I wouldn’t give her that trust if I didn’t think that she was worthy of it.
The other big reason, lack of communication, comes from the fact that we as a society simply don’t talk about it. Let’s be honest: It’s considered, un-sexy, awkward, and just plain weird. There was a time where in my life where I myself fell into this camp. I clearly remember sitting on Penguin’s couch telling her to her face “If everyone asked for consent, no one would ever get laid”. To an extent, I still think that statement isn’t entirely untrue. It’s not just men who view consent as unnecessary, but I’ve met women who feel the same way. This is what I mean when I said that lack of consent was an equal-gender offender. Much like men need to be willing to ask “Can I kiss you?” Women need to be able to vocalize “I would like to kiss you” as well. I remember when Vixen and I went on our second date. Because this was pre-vaccines, we went to a public park and had a picnic. She leaned in, looked me in the eyes and said “I would really like to kiss you right now”. I’ll be honest, I pretty much came in my pants at that exact moment. There is nothing more arousing than your partner saying “I want you.”
Now that I’ve laid out how black and white consent can be, I’m gonna backtrack and muddy up the waters a bit (I wouldn’t be a true brat if I didn’t intentionally kick that sand castle you spent all day building every now and then). While vocalizing consent is simple it’s not always easy, and I don’t mean because society has beaten into our heads that it’s unnecessary if not harmful. Not everyone, for one reason or another, has found their voice. Maybe it’s because they’ve been conditioned by family not to speak up (Panda falls into this category). Maybe they have some past trauma that they struggle with that causes them to “freeze up” in times of danger. I know when I had my last consent violation (the kiss at the club I mentioned earlier), part of the reason that it happened was that I froze in place and thought it easier just to let it happen rather than try to fight it. It’s more than just “Fight or flight”. Sometimes it’s “Freeze, fawn, or flop”. Whatever the reason, sometimes a verbal “Yes”, isn’t always a “Yes”. What’s our recourse then? How can we know our partners really are consenting?
First, I would encourage an open and honest conversation with your partners. Let them know how important enthusiastic positive consent is and that part of building trust is knowing that you can rely on each other’s word. Encourage them to use their voice, no matter how small it may be.
Second, learning to read body language becomes oh so important. For neurodivergent people such as myself, this can be incredibly difficult, and I will say it’s been a long, hard process for me. Just the other week, Penguin gave me some feedback on how I don’t follow her body language well, to which I thanked her, and also mentioned that I wish she had been more vocal about this sooner, which further emphasizes how crucial consistent, honest communication can be.
The good news is, the more time you spend with your partners, you learn to understand their own unique body language and can act accordingly. One thing I noticed very early on with Panda is that when she’s being overly-compliant (agreeing simply because she’s attempting to avoid conflict), she refuses to look me in the eyes. Knowing this, and more importantly, her knowing that I know this, it’s a way for me to know if she really is agreeing to something or if she’s simply trying to avoid a fight. Likewise, Vixen sometimes has a tone to her voice that conveys when she’s feeling tired or defeated. If I ask for agreement in something, I can tell, not by the words, but by how she says them, that something might be bothering her, and that’s a cue to stop, check, and probably have a deeper conversation.
If after reading all this you sound confused, don’t worry. Like I’ve said before, consent is simple in theory, but difficult to execute. It’s both black and white, and yet somehow has a lot of shades of grey. Let me leave you with this: You will continue to make consent violations. You will continue to have consent violations made against you. These two statements are virtually guarantees. So much of consent comes from assumptions and lack of communication and you will never be perfect at it. However, the more you actively practice Enthusiastic Positive Consent, the better you will get at it, and the more fulfilling your relationships will be.
As always, until next time, stay kinky, my friends…
–The Bratty Cat
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