-Benjamin T. Russell
Enthusiastic consent is a phrase that’s rather familiar to anyone with any exposure to the feminist movement. As Project Respect describes it:
Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.
Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal “yes” or “no” – it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well.
Consent is also mutual (both people have to agree) and must be continuous. You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.
Among decent people, this idea has proliferated for reasons that ought to be self-evident. Showing respect to a partner means respecting their wishes, and deferring to their wishes when it comes to whether to have sex.
That last sentence in the quote above is one of the most important: “You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.” No matter what you’ve agreed to or implied, you can change your mind at any time, and you are under NO obligation to meet your partner’s (admittedly legitimate) expectations.
Undeniably, this idea has caught on among decent people. It appeals to me (and I suspect many others) for the reasons given by its advocates (i.e. it shows respect for your partner), but also because reluctant sex is unfulfilling and ungratifying. Why would I want to have sex with someone who doesn’t actually want to be having sex with me? How is that any fun at all? Isn’t that what masturbation is for?
This begs the question, then: why not require enthusiastic consent for ALL social interactions, not just sex? I can’t see any reason not to do so. This is an idea that’s being advocated as part of consent culture:
I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.
I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event.
Since then, I’ve debated this topic several more times, and these attitudes are shockingly common. People truly think that agreeing to spend time socially with someone creates an obligation to pay attention to that person throughout the experience. Directing your attention elsewhere (or in particular to a smartphone) is “rude.” More than one person has analogized the situation to the signing of a contract, whereby both parties have pledged their attention to one another.
In these conversations, I am finding myself increasingly bewildered. Do people really find this sort of attention – the type given reluctantly as part of a bargain – valuable? I don’t. In the same way that I don’t want sex with people that don’t actually want to be having sex with me, I don’t want conversation with people that don’t actually want to be talking with me. Reluctant social attention is no more rewarding for me than reluctant sex.
So why do people buy into these etiquette rules that suggest that directing your attention where you want to direct it is rude? If looking at your phone (or a newspaper, or a TV that’s on, or whatever) is rude, the implication is that the polite thing to do is to give your reluctant attention to the person you’re with (often without even letting them know that you’d rather do something else). That’s a terrible solution! In that circumstance, nobody gets what they want. You don’t get to direct your attention where you want, and I end up with only our reluctant attention. I think it’s a much better that you look at your phone and enjoy yourself until you think of something (or I suggest something) that you’d like to discuss with me. In a social setting, your job is not to entertain me. I can entertain myself if you’d rather do something else, and I’d much rather entertain myself than receive your reluctant attention.
I get the other side. It’s no fun to go out expecting to spend time with someone only to find that their nose is buried in their phone the whole time. I’m not arguing that people should go around agreeing to hang out with other people, and then ignoring them the whole time. That would suck. I don’t want to hang out with people who do that. I’m arguing that the fail in that situation occurs when you make the agreement if you had reason to know that it was likely that you would not be interested in actually spending time with that person. If something unpredictable happened which changed your mind (and you communicated that in a timely fashion), then nobody is to blame. Likewise, if you prefer to interact with people in short bursts (interrupted by something more solitary), rather than in a continuous hours-long interaction, that’s fine, and if people can’t deal with that, they just shouldn’t make plans with you.
What I’m strongly advocating against is the suggestion that, because you’ve agreed to pay attention to someone, then you should do so, even if you don’t really want to. I’d rather live in a culture where people only value enthusiastically consensual interactions. This idea is intuitive when it comes to sex, so why not apply it to all social interaction?