[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 contrasted 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.