DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: When it comes to the topic of consent, that is definitely better than just thinking you can read someone’s mind. However, one thing I’ve noticed where these discussions fall short and I’ve never been able to see an answer to, is that asking for consent to something is potentially a transgressive act, and someone could feel creeped out or violated merely by being asked for consent to something.
Examples of this could be things like approaching someone or hitting on them. Asking for consent to approach is a contradiction in itself, as you cannot ask without approaching in the first place, as well as consent to hit on someone, because as soon as you ask, that person knew you wanted to do that and can feel violated because of it. This can also be further on in the relationship, even after they’ve already had sex a few times. If one person has a fetish that’s outside of social norms and wants to use it within the bedroom, asking for consent is definitely important there. But it could also be transgressive, since the person could be offended that their partner could even think of seeing them like that, or that they might be one of THOSE people and feel violated for that.
And obviously, asking for consent to ask for consent is a ludicrous idea, it might as well just be asking for consent. So how does someone ask for consent in situations like these?
Looking For Lines
DEAR LOOKING FOR LINES: This is going to seem like a digression, but there’s a point to it; stick with me for a second.
So, Pride month has come and gone, and so have some of the supposed “controversies” that crop up around it. For the last few years, there’s been a concerted effort by folks to try to undermine Pride in various ways. Sometimes it’s involved arguing about respectability politics and who does or doesn’t “belong” at Pride. Other times it’s been about trying to create divisions within the LGBTQ community. This year, the discourse has centered around whether kink has any place at Pride and how people who’ve come to Pride “may not have consented” to, say, seeing someone wearing a leather harness or wearing a puppy play mask. Many people have pointed out that much of this discussion around whether someone wearing clothes that signal an interest in BDSM or other kinks is somehow a consent violation runs the risk of defining down consent to the point of meaninglessness or trying to apply it to things that it doesn’t actually apply to.
(Please note: I have no interest in having discussions about whether kink does or doesn’t have a place at Pride in the comments. This is about the similarities in attitudes.)
I couldn’t help but think about that when I read your letter, LFL. I don’t think that you’re trying to dilute what consent means or how it’s used, but I think you’re overthinking to a point that you’re defining it almost to the point of meaninglessness and trying to apply it to areas where it doesn’t actually fit. If I’m being honest, it sounds like a lot of this is an attempt to work out your own approach anxiety or worries about your own sense of self-worth rather than actual questions about consent.
Part of the problem is that you’re conflating the idea of consent — particularly as applied to sexual situations — with the idea that there’s a right to not be offended or upset by something, which is an entirely different issue. It’s quite literally impossible to exist in the world and never come across something you disagree with, are bothered by or don’t like, and attempting to apply the idea of consent to that just dilutes the entire issue. And quite honestly, there’ve been folks who’ve attempted to weaponize that very concept; consider the number of folks who insist that seeing LGBTQ people being demonstrably affectionate with their partner(s) is somehow a violation of their rights. Or the argument from TERFs and anti-trans organizations that being trans — particularly being a trans woman — is somehow a sexual fetish and thus their mere existence in public is somehow dragging bystanders into their sex life.
But let’s look at some of what you’ve brought up.
The idea of “I feel violated by knowing that you were interested in me”, for example, is almost comically over the top. It’s the sort of thing that gets trotted out either as a worst-case fear or somebody’s straw-feminist argument about how asking somebody on a date will get you fired. While somebody’s anxieties can certainly make it feel like this is a possibility, this is more high-school clique s--t AT BEST than reality. The idea of knowing that somebody finds you attractive or desirable is somehow a violation borders on incel logic.
Similarly, consent can’t really be applied to what goes on in somebody else’s head — such as in your example of “being offended that their partner could think of seeing them like that.” Even taking the logistics of it out of the equation — does someone need to ask for permission to fantasize over, say, an Instagram model’s thirst traps? — this goes well into people not having body or mental autonomy. Folks don’t get to control what you think or what you feel, even under the idea of “consent”.
This also gets very rapidly into mistaken ideas of just what consent is or what it’s asking for… or, for that matter, the ludicrously over-the-top scenarios that people throw out to insist that enthusiastic consent is somehow bad or intrusive. Approaching someone and starting a conversation — particularly in places where this is expected behavior — isn’t a transgressive act. Nor is starting to flirt with someone when you’ve caught a vibe. But much of what you’re asking about is covered by basic manners and understanding the social context. Asking if you can sit down or if this seat is taken, for example, is a form of asking for consent. You’re asking for permission to join that person or persons at their table. Similarly, not trying to talk to folks who, say, have headphones on or are absorbed in their book or their phone is simple polineness; they’re not interested in talking to someone at that moment.
There’s also recognizing the social context and what behaviors are acceptable at specific times and aren’t acceptable at others. Somebody having a Tinder account, for example doesn’t mean that they’re also open to being approached by people on Facebook. They’re on Tinder specifically to meet people to date or have sex with; that same token doesn’t apply to Facebook or Instagram. The behavior that’s accepted and expected at a singles bar or a nightclub is going to be unusual (at best) or unwelcome (at worst) at Whole Foods.
Asking your partner about trying your particular kink or fetish isn’t transgressive; it’s advocating for your needs and interests within the scope of your relationship. The idea that merely asking is somehow a violation because your partner might be squicked out by it isn’t an issue of consent, it’s just the codification of the idea that kinks or fetishes are inherently negative and that having an interest in them is somehow violating the integrity of others. Under the scenario you’ve proposed, it’s literally impossible to actually ask somebody… damn near anything, really.
And all of this is without getting into more complex topics like implied consent — knowing, for example, that I can come up and kiss my wife without asking every time — or continual consent. That just ends up taking us further and further afield from a question that’s already pretty out there as is.
Much of what you talk about comes down to basic social calibration and understanding social rules — what is or isn’t acceptable, what is or isn’t rude and so on. You can even maximize your odds of not bothering someone by trying to ensure that you prioritize approaching people who are showing interest in being approached or in talking to you and paying attention to signs of discomfort or disinterest and not staying where you aren’t wanted. You keep things with the bounds of expected social norms, take “no” with good grace and do your best not to step on people’s toes — literally and metaphorically.
Wanting to be sure you go where you’re wanted and cause as little distress as possible is admirable. However, you’re going about it the wrong way, trying to apply concepts in ways that were never intended and that aren’t actually germane to what you’re talking about. That just ends up rendering the concept of consent meaningless and losing its purpose (addressing and challenging sexual violence) entirety.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com