This a post about consent, so insert trigger warning here, as appropriate.
I have a student who…
That phrase, “I have a student who…,” indicates a quantity of work and thought and conversation and reading by both me and the student that I can never adequately express. “I have a student who” means that we’ve been deep in the throes of radical new thinking.
I have a student who spends a lot of time thinking about consent, and she frequently uses this term “enthusiastic consent,” which I *love* but which I find… not problematic, but complicated due to the issue of responsive desire.
Willingness, as Suzanne Iasenza calls it, or “agreeing to” as figleaf once mentioned in the comments, without active WANTING, is what I’m talking about here.
I live at an intellectual/professional crossroads between promoting active consent (“Yes means yes!”) and encouraging people to recognize responsive desire and not feel broken if they don’t just WANT sex out of the blue (“Willing can mean yes!”).
So I’ve got a new phrase, an alternative to “enthusiastic consent” or even just plain old “consent.” Willing Consent. Yes when you’re willing.
It’s a problematic concept. Under what circumstances is a person willing, though not necessarily wanting? I’ve tried thinking about it this way:
- 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.
- When I care about you though I don’t desire you (right now).
- When I fear or dread the consequences of saying no and I don’t fear the consequences of saying yes.
- When I believe that desire may begin after I say yes.
- 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 that if I say no you’ll only keep on trying to persuade me.
- 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.
Now it’s perfectly legitimate to say that coerced consent is no consent at all, and even that unwilling consent is not consent. There was a case a decade or so ago where the jury had to decide whether or not it constituted “consent” that a woman who had been raped had asked the perpetrator at least to use a condom. “(Of course that’s not consent,” you think, but it is a complicated question, legally.)
But I wonder about the edginess of willing consent. So often people – especially young or relatively unexperienced people – say yes to things when they’re not sure what they want, and from my way of thinking here it seems that a great deal of the difference between “willing” and “unwilling” as to do with anticipated consequences, which can never be known until after the fact, rather than the desire felt in the moment.
Perhaps it is the question, “Do I want to want this person?” that best distinguishes between willing and unwilling. If I don’t want you now, do I at least WANT to want you?”
Mind you, I’m not at all sure that I would use any of this thinking in the way I talk to students about consent. Is it not better to keep it SIMPLE rather than strictly accurate?