Consent is Not So Simple – A Feminist Perspective

Consent is Not So Simple – A Feminist Perspective January 14, 2016

Image credit: Nicolas Raymond, creative commons usage. Source:
Image credit: Nicolas Raymond, creative commons usage.

Consent is not simple. For our culture it’s not simple. For me it’s not simple. It’s not simple in my psyche or my heart or my spirit. It’s not simple in my lived experience.

In the complexity of how consent and agency work, I claim my right to hold some parts of my story close to the chest. There are parts of my story that I hold in confidence. That I hold in my own shadows, safe and protected in the hidden places that only I get to visit.

Holding parts of my story in darkness is my right. This is part of having sexual agency.

And, there are parts that I feel called to add to the collective conversation about consent at this moment in time. Telling my stories is also part of my rights of agency. And part of my personal activism.

I feel the need to tell these stories now not because of allegations made toward David Bowie. Not because of the starstruck reminiscences of Lori Maddox. I feel the need to tell these stories because the larger conversation about consent has many of us reeling, feeling, grasping for meaning. It has us triggered and looking for structure, for safety.

Collectively we are seeking boxes to fit it all into.

But sexuality does not fit into boxes. Sexuality is messy. Sexuality lives in the shadows cast by remnants of the foundation of puritanical values that this country was built on. Sexuality grows like roots: crooked and gnarled and reaching into dark, fertile, furtive soil.

Where the structures of culture are solid, stolid, slow to shift, sexuality is organic, vibrant, electric, complex. And hidden. Sexuality is, for the most part, pushed underground.

Collectively and personally any work on understanding sexual context and content must be preceded by bringing our sexual complexities out into the light of day. In our culture even the act of bringing sexuality into the light is transgressive. There is no easy way to even have conversations about the messiness of sexuality.

Being honest, I have to come at the topic from so many angles that everything shatters on impact.

“We are, all of us, capable of such great good and such horrifying evil.” wrote Nalo Hopkinson in the foreword of Falling in Love with Hominids. Many of us love people who are – or were at one time – abusers. Many of us love even someone (or someones) who abused us. Many of us have had experiences in our lives where based on cultural standards we may be cast into the category of abuser. (Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.)

We are – each of us – capable of a great many things. This is not saying to give anyone a pass. This is merely an acknowledgement that real life is messy. And further, it is an acknowledgment of my participation in the blurry edges of consent and of rape culture.

We can both remember and forgive as a people. We can hold folks accountable and keep them with us. We can remember, not forgive, and still move forward. We have options.

Aida Manduly

Consent is not simple because standardized laws don’t fit individual lives. It’s not simple because women in our culture (and by our culture I mean the global culture) never achieve the point where we are given bodily agency. There is no point at which we get to choose to own our sexual experience without judgement. There is no point at which our bodies and our sexual expression are no longer legislated. There is no point at which we are suddenly free to decide how to best act from and achieve our desires free of external influence.

Questions of consent are not simple because owning our sexuality is a revolutionary act. Regardless of age. Regardless of sexual designation. Regardless of race. Regardless of gender expression. Regardless of sexual orientation. And still, as in everything, the issues of intersectionality deeply affect our understandings, and even more importantly, our judgements of sexual expression.

As a woman my sexual expression – regardless of what form it takes – is scrutinized. Is regarded as suspect. The sexual expression of women is continuously feared and questioned and squelched.

In our culture sex is at once vilified and pedastalized. Sex is a commodity, but once we take control of the means (or meaning) of production we are outlaws. Literally. On the one hand, we are required to participate in the commodification of our bodies by way of corporate dress codes that require the use of makeup, the wearing of bras and nylons, the adherence to weight requirements in places of employment.

On the other hand, if we decide to profit off our own bodies, we are literally breaking the law.

As a sex-worker identified woman (this is an identity I will carry for life, regardless of whether I am at the moment actively in service to the energy of sexual healing or not) I have had to defend my right to my own sexual choice and agency. Many, feminist and nonfeminist alike, maintain that being a whore cannot be a choice that comes from agency.

As a whore, I disagree.

Sluts Unite! The author at PantheaCon, circa 2005
Sluts Unite! The author at PantheaCon, circa 2005

As a person who is not given to monogamy I’ve had to defend my right to follow the heart of my true sexual orientation and expression. As a nonmongamous anarchist I have had to defend my right to love and to interact sexually as a free agent. As a person who values all relationships and does not define sexual intimacy as the only factor, I have had to explain my relationship with sexual expression as a fluid and sometimes mercurial aspect of how I love. As a person who believes that sex can be its own reward, its own ends, and its own means, I have had to claim my ground again and again.

As an unrepentant slut and a self-identified whore I have had to defend my sexual identity and my personal image for all of my adult life.

As a devotee of Babalon my sexual acts and persona are part of my dedication to one of my matron deities, and an undeniable aspect of my spiritual Work. As a sexual healer who has worked outside the clear-cut lines of legally enforced morality, my sexual expression has caused turbulence in my life. I have lost friendships, been shunned, lost love relationships, and lived in fear of legal repercussions.

Just because we act outside the overculture doesn’t mean we exist fully outside of it. The work of a sexual revolutionary is challenging work.

And speaking of sexual revolution, I willingly and freely acknowledge that the sexual revolution of the free love era was in many cases cover for sexual coercion. However I must by the same token acknowledge that in at least as many cases it was not. In the stories I have heard from my foremothers, in many cases the breaking open and blowing apart of the 1950s straightjacket of conformity was a needed release, a revelation, a revolution indeed. One that took place in both personal and collective forms, and produced both personal and collective change.

Because consent had, in many cases, already been stolen from many women. In that time, as in this one, for many women first sexual contact was not consensual. For many, having sex by choice was – and is – a way to claim agency, and to reclaim the function and actuality of consent.

Age_of_ConsentEven with the lumbering, crushing, regressive quality of culture, culture does shift. Age of consent laws are a good example, and even barometer, of shifts of sexual mores.

It is important to remember that sexual values are culturally bound. And that culture is temporally mutable. And more importantly even than that, we have our own internal processes that are informed by culture, but at the same time separate from it.

There are double standards. An man in his 60s dating woman half his age is common place, but until very recently a woman in her 60s dating a man in his 30s, or 20s as the case may be, was considered shocking.

At the same time, and on the other side of the coin, the concerns that teenage boys are not considered violable in the same way that girls are. While a teenage boy who has sex with a woman in her 20s or 30s may consider himself to have “hit the jackpot,” if we are to move outside of ideas of purity, virginity, and girls as property, then in actuality a boy of 15 who has been seduced by a woman in her late 20s has been victimized just as surely as a teenage girl has been in the same situation.

And while age of consent laws can be circumvented by marriage (with the approval of the parents of the minor) in many states in the US and many countries globally, there is no arguing the fact that insistence on marriage is rooted in religious values, not based in some other aspect of agency. If marriage is permissible with parental consent, then why not sexual relations? And should a parent even be involved with a minors choice-making around sexual expression?

This permission is a vestige of women-as-chattel reasoning. The girl is the responsibility of her father, until she is the responsibility of her husband.

And at what point do we consider a young person as having sexual agency? At what point do we consider a woman as having sexual agency?

4aaI grew up in a permissive counterculture. I grew up with nonmongamy and fertility rites and Rocky Horror. I grew up with hippies and free love and divorce and group marriage and cheating and freebird. I grew up with boundaries disappeared,  eschewed, violated, repaired, honored, edged around, and obliterated.

Some of this was for good, some for ill. And intent means nothing when all is said and done.

When I was 15 I seduced a woman who was years older than me. I set about it methodically. I courted her. I sent her letters telling her what I wanted to do to her. I wrote out my fantasies. I asked her to give me this gift.

She did.

Afterward I was uncomfortable and embarrassed. Through the sexual experience I had found that while I loved her, I was not in love with her. I was not clear on my sexual orientation. And I was not good at communicating boundaries yet. I was clumsy, and it got weird.

When I was 16 I entered into a relationship with a man a decade older than me. This was not clumsy. Was not weird. I was clear on my desire and intention.

I met this man while on a trip to the city for a political demonstration. His flatmate offered us a place to stay and our crew took the flatmate up on it. That night the man I had a relationship with and I went for a walk through east Oakland under the full moon. He played flute and we ended up at a park. We sat in the silver glow of the moon, energy sparking and arcing between our bodies.

We didn’t have sex that night. I was in a relationship with a 19-year-old at the time, and my new friend wasn’t interested in making a mess of things. Instead he came and visited. He met my mom. He courted me. Shortly after that I ended my relationship with my boyfriend and eased into the newer relationship. I wasn’t deft. There was overlap. I cheated. I hurt my boyfriend in the process of ending it.

And then I was in a relationship with a man. I could relate to him so much more easily. He was interested in the things I was interested in. He understood my activism. He had his own views. We argued them out over days and nights. We talked about agency and feminism and anarchism and consumerism. We talked about the means of production, and the cold war, about “Ray-gun” era economics and trickle-down theory. We went to punk shows, shared poetry, performed spoken word in the smoke-filled, cavernous common area of the warehouse he lived in (and I lived in, part time) while sipping gin and tonics.

He didn’t need me to coddle him or rescue him. He took care of me. He took care of my family.

IMG_4137We were together for over a year. My memories of that man, and of the relationship, are not purely positive, but the weight of it was amazing and formative. I learned so much, experienced so much, met so many people I wouldn’t have gotten to meet otherwise. We talked revolution and anarchist theory. We worked on trucks, built things, went on roadtrips.

As blurry as some of the edges became in that relationship, I wouldn’t trade the experiences for a life where I didn’t have those experiences.

I ended that relationship badly as well.

When I was 17 – without the consent of the lover mentioned above – I entered into a relationship with another man who was also a decade older than me. We had known each other since I was 15. He was well-loved by my family. We entered into a love relationship shortly before my 18th birthday, and he was careful not to push the edge of legal consent. The week I turned 18 we became sexual partners by legal definition. (Was the playful, sensual touch leading up to that not sex? According to my current definition of sex, we were surely lovers before we had penetrative sex. But according to law, there is a line.)

This man was the first lover who challenged me to become ME in so many positive ways. Again, it wasn’t all positive – but what is? We were together for years, and he is still one of my greatest loves, and though we don’t see each other as often as I would like, I still count him as one of my best friends.

When I was turning 18 the Pagan scene in which I had grown up had no idea how to handle the issue of intergenerational community. As I edged up to my birthday, one man whom I considered an uncle said, within earshot, “When Lasara turns 18 there’s gonna be a line a mile long!” I was completely grossed out. My response was, “If I’d wanted to sleep with any of you I would have by now!” 18 wasn’t a thing I was waiting for. And 18 wasn’t going to all of a sudden make me available to “goddess-worshipping” men who didn’t really get how to honor the agency of women.

polyamory2And, in my early 20s I slept with, dated, seduced, and was seduced by, a number of men a generation older than me. I also slept with, seduced, and was seduced by people younger than myself.

When I was 22 I had a sweet, whirlwind affair with a woman who was 16. It was legal – the age of consent was 14 in New Mexico in the early ’90s. (Many age-of-consent laws have changed since I was a youth.) It was illegal and very dangerous though because we were both girls.

At the time I was also involved with two men who were a few years older, a man who was my age, and a woman who was my age.

When I was 23 I entered into a relationship with a 16-year-old man. (We’ll call him J–.) While also dating a 30-year-old man. And while casually loving/fucking/playing around with an assortment of other men and women of varied ages. J– is one of my eternal greatest loves. We were sexually involved on and off for years. I consider him to be part of my family. He’s in his late 30s now and I’m in my mid 40s. He’s been an integral part of my life for over twenty years. I don’t like to imagine my life without him.

But way back then, it was not seamless how I handled ending my relationship with my J–. It was not graceful. There was heartbreak. At the time I felt I was doing the right thing. I was ready to have kids, but J– was 17. During this time I met and married my first husband, who was almost exactly my age, and we had kids.

Twenty years, two kids, one marriage, and many loves later, I’m now married to a man 7 years my senior. My husband and I have the same difference of years that J– and I have, only my husband is older. Of course no one bats an eye; 44 and 50 is a common enough difference in age. Seven years at this point in the spectrum of age equals much less relative time then it did back then.

people-standing-togetherHere’s the thing: in each case I mentioned, age differences were an obstacle, not a feature. The connections were about love in some cases, and about sex in some cases. Always about a meeting of minds and hearts and desires. And for me, always about honesty – to the best of my ability. And it was about freedom, and agency.

Would I have sex with someone who is under the age of consent now? For gods’ sake, not a chance. (It makes me feel gross to even think about it.) And I would judge anyone in their 40s harshly for having sex with someone who is under the age of consent.

Would I judge someone in their 20s for having consensual sex with someone who was 16? Not unless there were predatory circumstances surrounding the situation. What about someone who was in their early 20s having sex with someone who was 15? What if the older person was in their late 20s? The younger the age of the younger person, the harder it is for me to consider consent as possible. And the wider the spread of years between people the more factors there are in place that make coercion the more likely probability than consent.

There are vast differences between ages 13 and 16. There are also great differences between people at these different ages. Different bodies and minds mature at different rates. Circumstances change people. Life experiences change people. Cultural expectations change people.

We cannot extricate ourselves from the ever-shifting structures of power and oppression. If we were to define consent as only possible between two (or more) people of the same standing, consent could only happen between two (or more) straight, cis, white men who are the same age, and have the same level of wealth and power.

Carly-image-for-week-1Questions of power and consent are messy. They are not confined, defined, contained, explained by law alone. Age doesn’t equal consent. And lack of age of majority doesn’t equal victim. And every time we tell a woman that she doesn’t own her own history we are telling girls they don’t own their own futures, their own bodies, their own sexuality, their own experiences.

We are still working the edges of this thing called consent out. Our culture is not designed to produce informed consent. Not socially, not consumeristically, not sociologically. We have a lot of dismantling to do before we arrive at a consensual reality in which sexual consent is a simple matter. There are tools we can, and must, cultivate in order to create a culture of consent. And, consent doesn’t only mean learning how to say – and hear – no. It also means learning how to say yes.

Because in honing a language of consent, enthusiastic consent is a must. Enthusiastic consent relies on being able to say YES without fear of harm. This includes psychological harm. This includes shaming. Until we can also say yes, our noes are a bitter victory.


Edit 1/16/2016: Comments are closed. Thank you for reading.

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