The felt sense model of consent

[cn: non-explicit discussion of rape and sexual consent]

I recently wrote a guide to terms relating to sexual violence, and I included brief descriptions of a few common models of consent. While I do not reject these models of consent, I do advocate a lesser-known model of consent. It’s known as “consent as a felt sense”.

This model was first described by maymay and unquietpirate, although I have serious disagreements with their framing, as I will discuss below. I would instead recommend coyote’s take, which was what first made the model click for me. If you want even more reading, Ozy has a critique of the model.

The communication vs the message

The standard narrative of consent is someone saying “yes” or “no” to a sexual proposition. This narrative isn’t entirely accurate. Studies show that saying “no” is a disfavored way to express refusal, and people commonly couch or soften their refusals, both inside and outside sexual contexts. It’s also well-known that consent can be expressed non-verbally. Once we get past the myths and legends, we see that consent isn’t about saying one particular word or another. It’s about communication, by whatever means are effective.

But the thing about communication, is that there is a message that we are trying to communicate. Perhaps the intended message is “I consent”, but this quickly devolves into recursive circle. “I wish to communicate to you that I wish to communicate to you that I consent.” Upon reflection, we come to the conclusion that “I consent” means “I am okay with this”.

And that’s the felt sense model of consent. Consent is not about outward communication, it’s about the internal state of being okay with the situation. “Consent” is constrasted with “violation”, which is the internal state of feeling bad about the situation.

Examples of violation and consent

To understand how the felt sense model works, let’s apply it to a variety of scenarios. We’ll start with a few kinds of sexual coercion, which is considered non-consensual under standard models of consent. We will see that the felt sense model agrees that they are non-consensual, and also elegantly explains why they are non-consensual.

  • A person says “yes” under duress. This is not consent, because the person is likely to feel violated despite having communicated their permission.
  • A person says “yes” at the beginning, but feels violated at some point in the middle. Despite the communication of consent, the person still felt violated, so it’s non-consensual.
  • A person does not feel violated during the incident, but feels violated upon reflection on the incident. For instance, someone may have sex while drunk or unconscious, and then feel violated when they sober up. Or, a person may feel violated about an incident that happened when they were very young. Under the felt sense model, we can consider these scenarios to be non-consensual. In other words, you can take consent back.
  • A person says “yes” to sex, but only because of cultural expectations. For example, in the ace community we sometimes talk about aces who try sex because they’re never told that asexuality is even a possibility. If the person feels violated, this suggests a lack of consent.

In the last example, note that there is no single person at fault. That’s an important point about the felt sense model. The felt sense model doesn’t assign blame.  For this reason, I would not use the felt sense consent model when defining “rape”, at least not directly (and I’m disagreeing with maymay/unquietpirate on this point).  Before we can even talk about who is guilty of causing harm, we first need to acknowledge the harm itself, and that’s what the felt sense model is about. In any particular case, we might decide that one person is guilty, or that nobody is guilty, or that everyone is a little bit guilty, but this is beyond the scope of the felt sense model.

Many people balk at the idea that a person can decide, upon reflection, that they were violated by a past incident. But if that’s how someone feels, we should acknowledge that the feeling is real, and possibly connect them to supportive resources. Most survivor resources aren’t focused on punishing perpetrators, they’re focused on trauma, PTSD, and people living their lives.

Let’s consider a couple more scenarios that highlight subtle differences between the felt sense model and other models of consent.

  • A person only feels somewhat violated, or fluctuates between feeling violated and not, or is unsure. Since consent and violation are internal states, the felt sense model allows for the possibility that there is a spectrum between them. Whether this person should seek survivor resources is up to them.
  • A pair of people fail to clearly communicate consent, but it all turns out fine in the end. The felt consent model admits that yes, fine, that situation may have been consensual. However, note that the felt sense model doesn’t assign blame, nor does it clear people of blame.

Towards an integrated consent model

In the original post by maymay and unquietpirate, they frame the felt sense model as a rejection of other consent models. They don’t like rules-based models, or models that try to say what should be legal or illegal. I think they have anarchist leanings, and good for them. But for the rest of us who aren’t anarchists, it would be valuable to discuss how the felt sense model relates to more common consent models, and to the law.

In my view, there should be a three-tiered system of consent models. The relation between the different tiers is similar to the relation between atomic theory, chemistry, and biology. That is, we start with the reductionist model at the lowest tier, and build upwards towards more complex and emergent models.

On the lowest tier, we have the felt sense model. The felt sense model establishes the kind of harm that we are trying to reduce. On the second tier, we have something like the informed consent model, or enthusiastic consent model. These models establish some social rules and norms that will minimize the harm. On the highest tier, we have models like affirmative consent, which establishes policies (for the government, or say a university) to enforce the social rules. On this tier, we decide what is legal or illegal, what things can be used as evidence of illegal behavior, and what kind of punishments are appropriate.

Here is a brief description of how we might move from the first to the second tier. In the felt sense model, there is a spectrum of feelings of violation, and so one of the first things we need to do is decide what degree of violation is unacceptable. Then we need determine what kind of situations frequently and predictably produce violation, and which can be reasonably avoided. Note the word “frequently” implies that these situations occasionally do not lead to violation, just by lucky chance. Nonetheless, we might consider people morally culpable for taking the unnecessary risk, especially when the risk affects other people. One standard is that sex without permission is very risky, and this risk can be greatly reduced by the basic measure of asking for (and respecting) permission. Beyond this standard, we also have the model of enthusiastic consent, which highlights that people can feel violated even after communicating permission, especially when under pressure, under the influence of alcohol, or under implied threat.  We expect people to recognize coercive situations, and to recognize refusal even when it doesn’t come in the form of a simple “no”.

To some extent, the three-tiered system describes how we already think about consent. For example, explanations of enthusiastic consent often say things like this:

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 a whole body experience” refers to the internal, felt sense aspect of consent. But then in the next sentence, it says “paying attention to your partner”, which is about communication. People also regularly confuse enthusiastic and affirmative consent. The three tiers of consent are already here, we’re just smooshing them together. By separating them out, we can think about the issue in a more orderly and compassionate manner.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I do not think that you can use the word “violated” and then turn around and say “The felt sense model doesn’t assign blame.” The word “violated” always implies blame. You cannot have a violation without a violator, and being a violator is always blameworthy. If someone said “I’m not blaming you, but I think you have violated me,” I would be baffled, and accuse them of stating an oxymoron.

    I can see that there may be some advantages to a consent model that gives people permission to acknowledge regrets about an encounter without assigning blame, but if so, you’re going to need to use a different word besides violation to describe it.

    Also, in the second and fourth bullet points, it looks as if you’re talking about occasions where affirmative verbal consent is given, but the encounter is still to be considered non-consensual. That seems to be diluting the very concept of consent to a dangerous degree — with the unintended consequence that people who actually are violated won’t be able to make use of the term.

  2. says

    Well, that’s why I always say “X felt violated” rather than “X was violated by Y”. Violation is the name of an emotion, and I don’t think there is a better word to convey the same meaning. You can check a thesaurus and everything.

    The idea that consent must be continuous, and can be withdrawn in the middle of an activity, is not original to the felt sense model, and is in fact a common component in any consent model. For instance, see RAINN or Project Respect.

  3. says

    @1, brucegee1962

    it looks as if you’re talking about occasions where affirmative verbal consent is given, but the encounter is still to be considered non-consensual. That seems to be diluting the very concept of consent to a dangerous degree —

    I don’t think it’s much different from other lies. If someone falsely claims they are happy about receiving socks for Christmas, any dilution of the concept of “happiness/thankfulness” might be part of what this activism works to solve, not what this activism exacerbates.

    And, to be clear, sometimes lies are justified. It seems to me that lies flourish where there is fear of people.

    That said, here is what I thought near the beginning of reading Siggy’s post: if this is the right model (and I think it is), then the word “consent” might be the wrong word to use. Because the word “consent” seems to refer to an act of communication, not a feeling of liking or disliking. And activists have to go on to specify what counts as “true consent” when they could more easily (by obviating the semantic arguments) cut to the chase and talk about what the real issue is: the feelings (and how and why the feelings happen, and why we should care about these feelings, etc.).

  4. says

    @Siggy (is that how people address people here? with the @s? am I doing this right?)
    Man, you do not know how anxious I was seeing the link to this on godlessace and hoping this wasn’t going to be a major disagreement between us. Imagine my relief at seeing the words “I would instead recommend coyote’s take”!


    I can see that there may be some advantages to a consent model that gives people permission to acknowledge regrets about an encounter without assigning blame, but […] it looks as if you’re talking about occasions where affirmative verbal consent is given, but the encounter is still to be considered non-consensual.

    I actually consider that to be one of the strengths of this model. Giving people the space and the opportunity to recognize certain outward behaviors as the result of pressure/internalized obligation/”false consciousness” or whathaveyou is something I value. Alternatively, thinking of sex more legalistically, with “they said yes so they need to stick to that,” is treating interpersonal interaction like signing for a house… which is a mentality that has utility for people who want to hurt people and use rules to absolve themselves.

  5. says

    @Brian Pansky,
    I wouldn’t object to using different words for “consent” the feeling and “consent” the communication. But I think both meanings have already been around for a while in the concept of enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent is when you communicate consent, and you really mean it.

    I really mean it when I say that your post made the model click for me. My previous exposure to the model was only through Ozy’s critique of it. I eventually decided that Ozy’s critique was unique to how maymay/unquietpirate were choosing to frame the model, i.e. using it to define “rape” and to assign blame.

  6. siggysrobotboyfriend says

    I’m not a fan of the retroactively portion of the felt sense model, regardless of the purpose of the model. The basic reason is that the most common reason for retroactive feelings of violation from an otherwise consensual encounter is likely to involve learning some undisclosed characteristic of the partner that the person who feels violated sees as undesirable: the partner’s race/ethnicity/caste, religion, gender, gender history, political views, marital status, sexual fidelity, STI status, or identity.

    Some cases that fall in this bucket are absolutely non-consensual by any reasonable standard–for example, an someone pretending to be their identical twin to get “consent” from the twin’s ling-term partner. That’s maximally non-consensual.

    But I’m very reluctant to label all such cases non-consensual. In particular, I’ll categorically state that “I feel violated because I assumed this person was cis but they were actually trans” should not make an encounter non-consensual by any standard.

    So now we’re stuck deciding which reasons for a retroactive felt sense of violation should count as consent-vitiating, and which shouldn’t. Maybe this is feasible but it requires some extra theoretical fleshing out beyond felt senses of harm.

  7. says

    #6, siggysrobotboyfriend

    I’m guessing your main concern is about consequences. “If someone did such and such, then what social or legal consequences should they face, if any?” And you fear that the social and/or legal consequences will be the same, even in different situations that you don’t think merit those same consequences. And some situations might not merit any social or legal consequences.

    But if we talk about regular consent (or feelings) in the moment (not retroactive), I doubt you would have the same objection. You’d accept that their “no” (or their emotion) was real, even if it was based on ethnicity, politics, or gender, or any of the other things you mention. So these seem fair game for people to base their consent on.

    I’d say something like “retroactive consent” makes sense, even though I might call it something else. Because things (even information) can impact us, regardless of whether or not we knew about (or fully understood and believed) those things in the past. This is the concrete reality that “retroactive consent” is trying to capture. Plus, you know, our feelings are real, and so we care about them. Even if those feelings are about past events.

    Anyways, maybe I could adjust your concluding paragraph to something like “So now we’re stuck deciding which reasons for a retroactive felt sense of violation should have such and such consequences, and which should have other consequences, or no consequences. Maybe this is feasible but it requires some extra theoretical fleshing out beyond felt senses of harm.”


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