Sexual Values: Consent
In this blog entry I will identify the elements that I think comprise full consent. Just remember, these values and my ways of understanding them are conversation starters only. I hold these values loosely and I could at any moment encounter something that requires me to reevaluate them. If I brought this value up in treatment with a client, I would not say, “These are the 4 elements of consent and see here, you violated elements 2 and 4.” Rather I would be inclined to bring up consent, inquire about how the client understands the concept, and if appropriate I might share some of the ideas that I am sharing here.
To me consent is a more nuanced concept to me than simply, “Yes, you may do that with me and I will do this with you.” Though consent to acts is foundational, for me consent is predicated 5 components: clear relational and sexual commitments, consent in advance, an ongoing process, informed consent about risks, and includes willingness to encounter the unknown.
Clear relational and sexual commitments
The value of this component of consent is easy to illustrate through two vignettes. First, imagine a pair of lesbians who hook up sexually at a party. One is into having a good night and little sexual fun with no commitments but the other believes this liaison is the beginning of a relationship. If the two women discuss what they are looking for even very briefly, they can discover the discrepancy. Then one or the other can change their expectations or call off the encounter. Without that discovery process, both could feel shocked and hurt after the encounter to be asked to uphold the expectations of the other person. This vignettes illustrates that consent is not about just getting the “yes” to a specific sexual behavior. In this case, both women might have consented to all the whats and hows of the sexual encounter but they have very different whys of the sexual encounter. In couples therapy I help both members explain their relationship and sexuality commitments.
My second vignette illustrating the relationship commitment aspect of consent has to do with infidelity. Imagine a heterosexual married couple that has made explicit commitments to monogamy but the wife is unfaithful. Her husband did not consent to the attachment risks, the infection risks, or the social risks of her infidelity. He consented to a relationship where he wouldn’t have to face those risks. Her affair violates his consent. For this reason infidelity is experienced as a violation. Often when providing therapy for infidelity, I need to work with the cheating partner to help that person understand why their partner feels violated. In a couple of cases I have found a conversation about consent as something that might include a sexual and relational context helpful.
Consent in advance
People enter a very different frame of mind during a sexual encounter. Seconds before the blissful cresting edge of an orgasm is not an appropriate time to ask for permission to explore completely new territory. A yes under such circumstances is not likely to be given with a full consideration of the risks and potential consequences. For example, imagine two men, José and Marcus, in the throes of a first sexual experience together. José prefers a path of safer sex. Marcus was less concerned about it but agreed to follow José’s lead. Yet in the final moments before his orgasm, Marcus asks to remove the condom. This could really be an unfair question. Even if José said yes in the throes of passion, he might later regret it and be upset with Marcus for asking during a compromised moment. Consent is given at the beginning of an encounter where the general parameters are laid out and followed to the end.
Consent is an ongoing process
We and our partners change over time. A “no” one day may change to “yes” and a “yes” may change to “no”. As we engage freely in a sexual relationship, however long or short that may be, we bear the responsibility to ourselves to update our consent with our partners as our desires, needs, and joys change. As we act upon the consent our partners give to us, we also need to maintain an openness to our partner’s changing parameters of consent. An acrobatic 20 year old may be more able to consent to some vigorous sexual positions than a senior citizen. And some things, like having sex while gazing in each other’s eyes, that the retired couple may be better prepared to consent to than 20-somethings hooking up for the first time.
Informed consent to risks
The risks of a sexual encounter are not just about sexual transmitted infection risk, status, or the choice(s) of safer sex methods and pregnancy prevention. Interpersonal risks might come with sexuality. For example, imagine a man and woman who are very excited to be starting their sexual and romantic relationship together and who both agree that they are embarking on a long-term relationship. Yet the woman has a new exciting job prospect looming just around the corner which would require a move to a different state. The man in this situation would be unable to consent to starting the sexual aspect of their relationship without knowing that his emotional and sexual investment in the relationship comes with the risk of a sudden end to the relationship if she moves away.
Consent to discovery
Even in a brief sexual encounter, we are agreeing to learn something we don’t yet know. It could be as simple as learning how I respond to this person’s touch. Or as complicated as the partner discovering a desire for a new act that they never had before. For longer-term relationships we are agreeing to learn things neither we nor the partner know yet. For as long as the sexual encounter or relationship lasts we enter the private unfolding umbra of another person’s psyche and we bring them under ours. This aspect of consent requires an attitude of acceptance that we bring to our partners. We cannot anticipate what the sexual encounter will teach is about either ourselves or our partner.
Because new things will be discovered by me and my partner, with consent to discovery, I can realize that my partner’s ongoing development and self-discovery is not an act against me but a natural process that I witness. Without consent to discovery, I can have the experience that my partner is hurting me or doing something to me as they develop. Imagine how a person with and without consent to discovery might respond to the following sexual discoveries in a relationship: a wife discovers that her husband likes wearing panties, a man discovers that his husband likes a “dirty” act; one partner’s unfolding sexual orientation is different at the end of a long-term relationship than when it started. With consent to discovery these new developments may be greeted with surprise and inquiry instead of blame and shaming.
This consent to discovery is not a pre-agreement that we will like what we discover. The discovery may be joyful, surprising, challenging, shocking, painful, confusing, or more. Naturally, consent like this cannot be given unless we are willing to be who we are and to accept that as well. Therefore, this aspect of consent is an act that requires maturity, equality between partners, and self-acceptance. Certainly, not all acts or sexual relationships require the same gravity or breadth of openness to discovery. I am conscious as I write this that it may not even be a central component of consent in many more brief encounters, yet my experience as a relationship therapist tells me that at least in long term relationships, it might be important to acknowledge and cultivate consent to discovery.
With all the requirements above, it should be obvious that abusive relationships or relationships founded upon sexual secrecy obviate the potential for full consent. The full engagement of every person is a requirement of consent. This entry attempts to identify some components of that consent beyond the details of bodies and choreography. I am suggesting that to give consent fully we need to be aware of our sexual and relational commitments; to give and abide by consent in advance; to be willing to renegotiate our and our partner’s(s’) consent; to disclose, know, and accept the risks of our sexual activity; and we need to be willing to encounter the unknown in our partners and ourselves. To me, when viewed through this lens, sexuality challenges us to grow and mature, to be compassionate with others, and self-aware. What an exciting challenge!
Other posts in this series:
- Sexual Values: One Therapist’s Provisional Set
- Values that didn’t make the cut
Editor’s Note 05/24/2017: Since writing this series, I have updated the principles that I use to guide therapy for sexual issues. For an updated view, see this post on Sexual Health Principles.