Willing Consent

[Potential trigger warning for extended but non-explicit discussion of consent.]

Enthusiastic consent is probably a concept you’ve heard about if you’ve been hanging around here for a while. It’s a term that was coined in an attempt to raise the standard of consent, in order to avoid allowing rapists to defend their actions by claiming that they were simply a “misunderstanding” as well as to remove any form of coercion as socially acceptable to use when pursuing sex. The idea is that all sex should be wanted sex, that a “yes” can never be assumed unless explicitly stated (unless perhaps you know your partner VERY well and have already discussed where each of your boundaries are), and that if anyone is being pressured to have sex, then the deal’s off. I think it’s a very good idea, and if it was expected that everyone follow this protocol when seeking consent, we’d all be much better off.

However, I realize that a lot of asexual people have a problem with the way that enthusiastic consent is framed. There seems to be an expectation of a certain level of desire there, and the word “enthusiasm” throws people off. It seems to be interpreted as pressure to “be sexual” if you will, or in other words to not be asexual (and indeed some people probably do intentionally mean to pressure others to reject asexuality because they view it as some kind of unhealthy “repression” but many who embrace the concept have explicitly clarified that they are not), though personally I don’t interpret it that way because I think desire and sexual attraction are independent of one another. Tons of people, including my own partner, have sex with people they are not sexually attracted to, but desire nevertheless. You can be asexual (and for the inevitable confused googler who will eventually arrive here, I’ll say that asexuality only means not experiencing sexual attraction, not to be confused with anything else) and still have some desire for sex. So I think that yes, asexuals can very well enthusiastically consent.

Still, for those who don’t particularly desire sex, it may seem like too high a standard. Ironically, a standard designed to remove pressure may actually be causing some people to feel pressured, so it may be a good idea to start using a new term in addition to enthusiastic consent. A couple weeks ago, Emily Nagoski made a post on different types of consent, proposing a new category of willing consent:

Enthusiastic consent:
When I want you
When I don’t fear the consequences of saying yes OR saying no.
When saying no means missing out on something I want.

Willing consent:
When I care about you though I don’t desire you (right now).
When I’m pretty sure saying yes will have an okay result and I think maybe that I’d regret saying no. (edited from the OP, see comments)
When I believe that desire may begin after I say yes.

Unwilling consent:
When I fear the consequences of saying no more than I fear the consequences of saying yes
When I feel not just an absence of desire but an absence of desire for desire.
When I hope that by saying yes, you will stop bothering me, or think that if I say no you’ll only keep on trying to persuade me.

Coerced consent:
When you threaten me with harmful consequences if I say no.
When I feel I’ll be hurt if I say yes, but I’ll be hurt more if I say no.
When saying yes means experiencing something I actively dread.

I think this idea works pretty well. I wouldn’t classify my own consent as willing consent personally, even though I only have responsive desire, because I think it pretty much always meets the qualifications for enthusiastic consent. But if it works for anyone else? Sure, it’s a fine term, although I feel it’s a little redundant because consent means willingness in the first place. But since that has gotten muddied up by people not understanding what consent actually means, the redundancy is okay. I want to put quotes around “consent” for those last two though, because I think they describe compliance, not consent. Calling those things “consent” is harmful, in my opinion, because it may give people the wrong idea of what consent means, and make them think any of those behaviors are morally acceptable just because they think it still constitutes consent, and therefore “it’s not rape so it’s okay.”

I want to point out something else, though: sometimes people both desire and feel repulsed by the idea of having sex, at the same time. Sometimes people are not completely sure if they want to have sex, but do still make an unpressured decision to go ahead with it and see how it goes. I’d call that cautious consent. In that situation, as long as there is no pressure to have sex, no fear of what your partner would do if you said no, and as long as the initiating partner asks for consent explicitly and gives you time to decide, I’d say it still constitutes consent. But if the initiator doesn’t ask for permission and just starts touching before giving you time to make up your mind, if they try to persuade you into having sex, or if they do gain permission but ignore your reservations or limits, I wouldn’t call it consent. In that sort of situation I think it’s best to proceed slowly and carefully, like you’re at a yellow light. It may turn green or it may turn red, so you have to keep checking in to see if it’s still okay.

So, what do you all think? Do you like these terms? Can you think of any better ones?

[By the way, please be patient with me this time, because I’m not at home right now so it may take comments a while to go through.]

8 thoughts on “Willing Consent

  1. I remember being really happy with the Nagoski post and considering linking it out to the asexual blogosphere when I last found it. I have some problems with Emily’s work, but she’s a great model for a sex-positive individual who spends a lot of time looking at and validating the issues of people who aren’t necessarily highly-sexed, some of her thoughts on compromise and responsive desire and such make her quite accessible to an asexual audience.

    My earlier version of some sort of consent spectrum is here:

    I like Emily’s focus on the balance of the bad things that’ll happen if you say no v. the good things that’ll happen if you say yes. It essentially means that if you aren’t going to get much out of the sex, you can still consent as much as you want (all you’re doing is wasting time you’d otherwise waste on sudoku or something), but being pressured into it belies consent.


    • Oh yeah, I remembered your post while I was writing this one. I wanted to link it, but since I’m not on my computer I figured I’d just leave it… so, glad you provided the link in the comments. :)


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  4. Reblogged this on The Purple Bat and commented:
    Doesn’t really have anything to do with pop culture\entertainment\superheroes, but I think it does have to do a lot with the stuff I’m planning to talk about, and it’s always good to be clear on these types of things anyway.


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  6. [MODERATOR EDIT: Warning, this comment includes a description of rape.]

    There’s a problem with “When saying no means missing out on something I want” as part of the definition of enthusiastic consent.
    I say this as someone who was raped by a friend of my boyfriend. I felt a lot of guilt because I had been thinking about sleeping with someone, and I liked how it felt to be touched by him. However, there were plenty of factors removing my sense of control. I was sick with exhaustion and couldn’t get out of bed. I told him he should not sleep in my bed. He came into the bed to comfort me because I was having panic attacks. I think it was fundamentally unreasonable to initiate sex with someone in this state in the first place, and this is what he did. I said, ‘No more sex’, after he’d been holding me and kissing my body, but he later returned to my room and started again. I DID think I would be missing out on something I wanted, in a way. I did desire him. I was also repulsed by him, and closed my eyes, avoiding his attempts to kiss my face. Being held was comforting. Being touched turned me on. But I had made an adult decision to not have sex with him, my sexual response was PURELY a response to a physical initiation I did not ask for, and I communicated this as best I could. What happened next I experienced in a child like state; I had going on in my head all this stuff about how I was a masochist, and submissive, and passive, and that this to me was erotic. It was disturbing because I had asked for it not to happen and this was ignored. Personally I prefer shit sex to erotic sex that I asked to not have. Using “want” in a definition of consent is problematic; it should be more about whether you actually consented. I know this is an asexual forum; please don’t be implying that private desire, say, is more important than desire you express.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is you can be raped by someone you do desire, and ‘want’. I can like playing a submissive role in sex, but still say no.


    • I guess what I’m trying to say is you can be raped by someone you do desire, and ‘want’. I can like playing a submissive role in sex, but still say no.

      Of course you can! And uh, I have had similar experiences. Maybe not in the same way, but still. (Btw, for future reference, I would appreciate some warning if you are going to share a story like that.)

      I know this is an asexual forum; please don’t be implying that private desire, say, is more important than desire you express.

      ??? Huh? Why would you assume I would say that? I don’t understand where your assumptions are coming from.

      Also, this is most emphatically not a forum. It’s a personal blog, run by one single person (me). I actually get VERY frustrated because people often assume that this, which is my personal space, is some kind of dedicated educational space.

      Keep in mind also that the post you are commenting on is an OLD post, wherein I related an idea I came across one time. It is not something I strongly espoused then, nor is it my final word on the topic. This post should be (but often is not) viewed as working through ideas, and capturing my thinking at a single moment in time.


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