Frontiers of Consent

This topic is to brainstorm possible ideas and understandings of consent, especially as it touches upon sexuality. It relates to ways that contemporary understandings of sexual consent and agency (at least in the U.S.) seem inconsistent to me. And also how even though interpersonal consent seems more progressive to me than selfish opportunism, I think it still carries a lot of baggage which is seldom remarked upon relating to attitudes of proprerty and territory generally. Also I am thinking of models of consent which are collective, going beyond the merely interpersonal. These are areas typically never considered in contemporary capitalist Western-ish societies, which I expect some people would consider provocative. But it is my intention to consider and discuss, not to provoke. Please do not presume that because I am interested in the far frontiers of what consent is and/or can be, that I am striving to undermine yours or anyone elses preferred models of consent, because that’s not the case! I am sensitive that discussion which seems to “lawyer” at the fringes of consent can easily seem creepy. But I am trying to extrapolate trends and consider possibilities, and to explore agency and autonomy in conventional ways, to maximize interesting possibilities even if it seems like some weird transhuman sci-fi nonsense. My interest here is in how people relate to each other and structure societies, not to find clever/skeevy ways to circumvent others boundaries. That might sound defensive, but I need to clarify my interest because it is a sensitive topic.

At its most basic level, I think that problems of personal consent are not unlike those of personal property. On either side, they are defined by somebody feeling entitled to what they need, with differing levels of justification. As with tangible goods, one party might feel entitled to help themselves to what somebody has, while the other feels entitled to keep it unmolested. So consent can be established as inter-personal, a framework of protocols to ease the negotiation of boundaries - access, engagement, etc. These are the perspectives I most often encounter. They are both founded upon feelings of entitlement, but the strictly personal is limited by its selfishness, while the inter-personal is more sociable and sophisticated. At this stage, getting people to even acknowledge and respect the inter-personality of consent is quite a challenge. But I see in conservative politics and capitalism how it’s an uphill battle because most of social life only accepts the agency of the individual in very limited and superficial ways, so as to enforce hegemonies and hierarchies. For example, who sincerely discusses “consent to be governed”? Or “consent to create any contracts as equals?” In many areas, people tell me that I would be a fool to expect non-sexual consent to be realistic, because of the inter-relationships and externalities of existing power structures. Yet I feel that those difficulties do feed back into other problems of getting sexual consent recognized, as well as other manifestations of disempowerment and disenfranchisement. Sexual liberation and feminism grow as forces which exist as bubbles within strata largely characterized by commodification and coercion.

How I see people transcending the problems of selfishness and coercion in other areas of life is in adopting the discipline of avoiding personal problems, of being able to frame possible problems not only as The Self and The Other, but also as other kinds of groups and collectives. Of striving to overcome individual biases in part by application of ecology and social “set theory”. For example, a personal description of commerce might be “a way to get the stuff I need”, whereas a collective description could be “a way to manage and distribute resources”. Being able to see beyond the immediate personal need greatly increases the dimensionality of the models which can be used. These are areas of conceptuality which I refer to as social, collective, or trans-personal. And not unlike how trans-personal ways of considering old primate stand-bys such as property and territory can open interesting and productive possibilities, I think that this readily applies to human sexuality and consent as well. An example I like to give is that of the centralized control of people possible with the imposed selfishness of the nuclear family model, as compared to the more communal nature of a village / extended-family model. The former is more “modern” because it creates more economic activity which can be exploited by an elite, while being arguably less efficient for the average participant. But many seem reluctant to progress from an inter-personal framework to a trans-personal one because they don’t implement protocols which enable the trans-personal. It’s why those who prefer to not consider themselves selfish still insist upon notions such as property and territory, mostly as reactions against the self-serving approach of those who are still at the personal level. Likewise, it feels risky to abandon inter-personal consent if the only alternative seems to be becoming a mere object of other’s selfishness.

So, I am interested in discussions of frameworks of consent which are social, rather than personal. Possible benefits and disadvantages alike. How can one align one’s sexuality directly with a certain type of cultural or societal climate? To what extent might “personal chemistry” simply be a lot of deeply conditioned mating rituals, and what do you think might be beyond them? What are some of the possible ethics of being a social and sexual being while avoiding selfish personal attachments - to oneself and others? To what extent does this change if instead of individual-as-organism we consider it from the persective of organism-as-colony, or person-as-network? What do you consider as being the frontiers of consent?

A few possibilities:

  • sex as ritual - One consents to a particular kind of sex act, time and place, independent of who the other individual participants are.
  • sex as lottery - Consent is to the process used for selection of other participant(s)
  • sex as commune - Consent to the membership, ideals, or cause of a specific organization or movement

Seems to me like there’s precious little traction to be had on this front, at least until society is unrecognisable…

Folks are a hell of a lot more like chimps than bonobos, and it’s been that way for quite a while.

I don’t even know where to start here.


tl; dr

I think it’s “funny” how discussing this stuff can make one persona non grata to some people. Like how if there is a cultural norm for people to eat dinner with their family, but you go and open a soup kitchen, that you are not “safe” anymore. As if you having different, more altruistic ethics is somehow a personal threat to them and how they choose to live. It seems like deep conditioning when people feel such a strong visceral reaction, but are averse to discussion about it. I think it goes some ways to highlighting how what appears to be “desire” or “personal choice” often only superficially appears more free. Yet some people are eager to point out that “You are still programmed by the process of socialization, Popo!”, “Everyone’s lives are still subject to instinctual baggage!” as if that wasn’t obvious, and how people shouldn’t actually do anything about it.

Free will and personal choice are valid open topic, but only apparently until they intersect with how sexuality, mating, and families are structured.


Humans don’t like to be wrong.

If you try to prove to someone that they are wrong, you’ll probably just end up reinforcing their existing belief, and, as a defense mechanism, they’ll slap a label on you (crazy, eccentric, dumb, evil) that means they don’t have to listen to you.

And the strength of that defensive response will be proportional to how deeply-held the belief that you are challenging is. On this continent, at least, views on “how sexuality, mating, and families are structured” are very deeply-held. If you’re not exceptionally gentle in your attempts to challenge them, you’re going to be shut down very quickly.


The whole idea of “wrong” is something people keep confronting me with, and I really do not relate to it at all. In CBT type terminology, that would sound like a person identifying very closely with their behaviors. But I don’t perceive them as being their behaviors. Some might say that’s only a semantic difference, but I think of defaulting to judgement or non-judgement as being very different methodologies.

I assume that you are referring to the Americas? I guess it seems paradoxical to me, because I am told that this is the land of freedom and choice. Yet people often feel threatened even by only being confronted with how (if) they initially made these choices, without even judging them or suggesting anything different. I am dealing with this with my own children, trying to point out to them the conditioning mechanisms of the people around us - as well as my own, ripping myself apart in front of them to expose the clockwork person.

Without challenging our deeply held assumptions, I don’t understand how people expect to learn anything.

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I think the really cardinal rule about consent, the one which I consider to be entirely non-negotiable, is that it may always be withdrawn.

This is also true at a soup kitchen or potluck - people who come to your meal are not obligated to eat your food.

There may be social consequences - someone who shows up at your potluck and turns their nose up at the offerings may not be invited back, but they’re still under no actual obligation to eat your food.


OK, but how many people who preach consent with regards to sexuality think or act the same way with regards to citizenship, the consent to be governed? The same people who jump on my case about this also complain when I remind them that consent to be governed can be withdrawn as well.

In some ways I think it demonstrates different kinds of consent, so I model them as being social versus personal. Many seem to see this only one-way, as if to ask “Should I be expected to have a personal connection to somebody I choose not to?”, but hardly anybody considers the converse which this can imply: “What are my ethical obligations if for me sex is not an interpersonal activity?” That seems like a relevant question to ask.

But that’s not the same ethos people are operating under here. For example, there was a lot of controversy about this in a discussion recently about sexual harassment. How in a practical sense, harassment can be construed as bothering somebody after they have told you to stop, which I think is perfectly reasonable. Versus how many such rules and laws also stipulate than soliciting a person for sex is only valid if it turns out they were interested, and harassment if they were not. That is a model which strikes me as completely impractical. And I think it reenforces a culture’s expectation and requirement that sexuality be a product of interpersonal relationships. I agree that anybody who has a problem with accepting “no” as an answer is acting from an unreasonable feeling of entitlement, but not that one needs to feel entitled to ask in the first place. Any more than asking a person for the time or directions suggests entitlement.

So by that analogy, it’s like your potluck is even a threat to some people by virtue of having invited them to it. That telling them about your potluck offends their sense of propriety somehow.

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I think it’s “funny” how discussing this stuff can make one persona non grata to some people.

No. You’re not shunned because of what you argue, only because of how you argue.
If you really believe it’s the topic rather than the argument that puts people off, then you are going to come across as condescending at best because no argument will ever be good enough.

As to the OP:

It relates to ways that contemporary understandings of sexual consent and agency (at least in the U.S.) seem inconsistent to me.

Would you expect for even a consistent understanding of consent to be applied consistently? By humans?
There is no concept which is consistently understood and applied as you’re mentioning here.
You may be attempting to create a model of reality which you personally can accept and struggling that others resist being understood in ways that are foreign to their understanding.
What’s more, understanding people does not mean that you can now better interface with them. Understanding can very easily lead to dead ends. You’re better off accepting people as they are, that is, not you.


But I rarely engage in a proper argument, a contest between two articulated positions. What I find dumbfounding is that things often break down with simply trying to encourage a person or group to put forth their own systems. I think it is rather positive and respectful to give a person an audience to detail how they live and interact. “What are your protocols?, How to you measure wealth?, What are your ethics like?” Not unlike a data “handshake” on a network to know what kinds of signals we are dealing with. I am not sure if saying to a person “But of course you must have some systems, how else would you live as a social organism?” might feel confrontational enough to be construed as argumentation, but it feels more like chronic incredulity on my end.

It’s not so much a matter of making descriptive models of how a person works only for understanding, but as a basis for how we make prescriptive models together as a basis for social organization.

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Almost obligatory:

Ever went over a friend’s house to eat
And the food just ain’t no good?
I mean the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mushed,
And the chicken tastes like wood.
So you try to play it off like you think you can
By saying that you’re full,
And then your friend says, “Mama, he’s just being polite
He ain’t finished, uh-uh, that’s bull!”

So your heart starts pumpin’ and you think of a lie
And you say that you already ate.
And your friend says "Man, there’s plenty of food"
So he piles some more on your plate.
While the stinky food’s steamin’, your mind starts to dreamin’
Of the moment that it’s time to leave,
And then you look at your plate and your chicken’s slowly rottin’
Into something that looks like cheese.

So you say "That’s it, I gotta leave this place
I don’t care what these people think,
I’m just sittin’ here makin’ myself nauseous
With this ugly food that stinks."
So you bust out the door while it’s still closed
Still sick from the food you ate,
And then you run to the store for quick relief
From a bottle of Kaopectate.
And then you call your friend two weeks later
To see how he has been,
And he says, “I understand about the food,
Baby Bubba, but we’re still friends.”

–Rappers Delight, The Sugarhill Gang

Yeah, they’re different in both kind and degree, and it’s probably useful to separate the social from the personal. Plenty of wars and insurrections have been fought over social consents being asserted or withdrawn; that’s not a new frontier of thought. But interpersonal interactions, especially sexual ones, necessarily involve more elements of one’s physical body as the territory under dispute, as it were, as opposed to land or resources or, to a lesser degree, religions and such. Conventional progressive wisdom would hold that each person’s body is their temple and their castle, and the dispensation of that castle is solely subject to the whims of its owner’s mind and soul, so if my castle gets it into its head to have a sexual interaction with your castle, we two castle-keepers have to negotiate the terms of the interaction, each of us maintaining veto power and ultimate discretion over what we allow to happen to our own castle. That’s the usual way it is done.

Now, it’s not intellectually dishonest to seek an alternative to that negotiation, necessarily, but many other forms of that negotiation would involve ceding a certain amount of control over one’s castle. Are agency and absolute authority over one’s castle somewhat selfish states? Sure, by definition, if one agrees that one has a self in the first place. Is that in any way inferior to ceding control to other parties, even in cases where trust is absolute? You do seem to imply that the selfishness of demanding control over one’s own body is less “sophisticated” than opening up one’s control of that territory to a communal framework.

And here’s the problem: not too much of that kind of experimentation is going to result in situations that haven’t been tried in the past, often with disastrous results. Sex as ritual, as lottery, as commune… how many exploitative cults have not employed one or more of those frameworks? How many cultists thought they entered into those relationships in clear-eyed, understanding willingness?

This (rather annoyingly) presupposes that being “attached” to one’s bodily integrity, or being “attached” to one’s lovers in an even slightly possessive form (which is a huge umbrella that covers laudable states including protectiveness, fondness, affinity, and a desire to “earn” reciprocal affection) are the kind of “selfish” attachments to be “avoided.” How social can one be without caring about others? How can one care for another without indulging in the very least bit of, for lack of a stronger vocabulary this day, “ownership” that leads one to want Good Things for that person? Now don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean we actually can or should take ownership of those we love or fuck. We have no controlling interest to speak of, as it were. But isn’t it a trifle dishonest to think or speak of “my wife” or “my boyfriend” or “my date” or “my partners” or “my kids” solely in terms that omit or forbid the possessive “my”?

I mean, I’m not one to insist that sex with total randos is necessarily better or worse than sex with a lifetime lover. But it seems to me that a lot of conceivable configurations are best left as concepts, and would be destined to turn out to be failed experiments if implemented. And that’s only because I can conceive of a lot of configurations.

Still, even though a whole lot of people seem to find serial monogamy to be more-or-less their jam (or at least what they’re comfortable thinking about, whether or not that’s the result of ancient and outdated social pressures or simply what blows their skirt up), there are plenty of people who seek alternate constructs, and many who find fulfillment in them. However, when you bring up this point:

…then you start requiring that people cede control of their bodies over to external authorities, and that happens a lot throughout history, and very often ends in tears. You start getting things like sex-as-civic-duty, or sex-as-marital-duty, or sex-as-holy-requirement. I’m perfectly happy to postulate that we can evolve ourselves beyond the pure biological reproductive imperative and just have sex 'cause it’s fun and we want to. But that condition (“fun”) is as subjective a determination as love and desire and jealousy and possessiveness. “Fun” isn’t a comfortable fit with pure altruism, if for no other reason than that plenty of fun things are far from altruistic. But if you’re not having sex for the fun and pleasure of it, then why do it at all? 'Cause you want to have kids? Great! Welcome to the 12th century BCE! 'Cause you want to make someone else feel good? Okay, swell, that’s awfully nice of you. Can you do that well (or halfway convincingly) if you don’t really want to do it yourself?

Well, first of all, how many discouraged nerds have asked this, after having been turned down and rejected by a hundred potential mates who simply aren’t interested in them that way? All of them.

But your point holds true, to a certain extent. Not 100%. I have had a couple dozen romantic and/or sexual relationships in my life, of varying degrees of intensity and longevity, and some of them contained some ineffable biochemical component that can only be described as “chemistry” that had nothing much to do with social conditioning and everything to do with “oh my god, I feel so wonderful when I’m right next to this person that I gotta be there now and always,” which feeling did a lot to offset other incompatibilities, some of which were quite serious, and occasionally ended up being dealbreakers. And some of those relationships were built almost entirely upon foundations that lay upon social conditioning forces rooted deep in puritanical WASPy values that surrounded our childhoods. And weirdly, both foundations seemed to have an equivalent chance at relatively long-term success, though (as anecdotal as anything can be) my current 10-year-marriage does have that strong chemistry component working for it.

That said, although this kind of self-examination is healthy, at a certain point I think it’s best to assume that most people know what they like and what they don’t, and we ought to trust them in that. Once we remove the “self-deterministic” engine for consent, then we cede that control to somebody else, and we have to trust that that somebody else isn’t going to exploit us for their gain and at our expense. Even if you yourself wouldn’t mind volunteering your body parts for the entertainment use of somebody with whom you have no specific consent agreement, few others indeed would find that a desirable headspace to inhabit, I’ll bet.


What I find dumbfounding is that things often break down with simply trying to encourage a person or group to put forth their own systems. I think it is rather positive and respectful to give a person an audience to detail how they live and interact.

That sounds an awful lot like sea lioning. Why the he’ll should people put forth systems if they feel like the current one works for them. From what you’ve posted it sounds like you want to advance your agenda by making other people do the work. Work they have no interest in doing for a payoff they haven’t bought into.

Look, right now I would really like to know two things from your point of view:
The problem as you see it and the way it affects people in society.

Don’t try to pass off that this is a difficult thing for you to navigate as something that needs a solution without openly outlining where the problem lies. Otherwise, any proposed solution by people who have no desire to take note of the water they swim in will likely have the same type of flaws.

Flaws. They will exist. Any perfect solution is suspicious prima facie.

Edited to add smiley face: :slight_smile:


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