Enthusiastic consent! It’s hard not to love that idea, right? Everyone communicating openly, only doing things they find really hot, with people they find really sexy, and giving and receiving excitement and good feelings for everyone. Enthusiastic consent is making it onto the list of rules in more and more dungeons, play clubs, and in the law, and the vast majority of sex-positive people have welcomed it.
As an ethicist and an emotional masochist, I’m going to look at how we can critically deconstruct the idea of enthusiastic consent so that when we put it back together, it can give us more of what we want without making people who don’t find enthusiasm sexy feel like we’re marginalized.
What is consent?
The best definition I could find of giving consent comes from Aya Gruber, who I’m going to return to later. In her work, she splits consent into two parts. The first part is mental: consenting to do something means you’re in a state of wanting to do it. You desire that the thing you’re consenting to actually happens, you’re willing to make it happen or at least not stop it. The second part of consent is behavioral, it’s communicating something to the person or people who are asking you for consent. So, nodding, saying“yes,”things like that. I’m not going to make a list because that’s a whole other minefield…
It’s easy to add enthusiasm to Gruber’s framework, we just have to add it to both parts of the definition. We need the mental state of enthusiasm, accompanied by a performance of enthusiasm. It’s really wanting to do the thing, being totally hot for the thing, and then behaving in a way that communicates this state of being totally into something.
Giving and receiving enthusiastic consent means creating a certain kind of spectacle. Because enthusiasm can only be communicated through our behavior, enthusiastic consent is a kind of performance with certain rules and expectations that go along with it. Smiling, looking excited, using a particular tone of voice, moving your body in a certain way. So there’s this performative enthusiasm going on, and then there’s the person or people witnessing that performance, taking that spectacle in and making sense of it according to their own set of references and their own desires.
Why do we care?
There are lots of ethical reasons to value consent. For deontologists, and sex-positive feminists, getting consent speaks to respect for human dignity, and freedom, and mutuality. Creating a context for full consent means minimizing illegitimate uses of coercion, power, and authority, creating space for individual self-expression and assertion of agency. In many BDSM discussion groups, consent is framed in terms of its utility value, specifically in terms of harm reduction — we’re doing some potentially harmful and violent things to each other, and it’s important to make sure we’re keeping ourselves and each other safe.
Gruber, however, sees the asking for and giving of consent in a functionalist way, as a transaction where consent is a token of responsibility. Everyone involved in a consent transaction understands that consenting gives them a share in the responsibility for whatever they’re consenting to, which is the first part of co-creating an experience. Gruber argues that the process of asking for and receiving consent is an activity that reinforces social norms of acceptable sexual behavior, as all the people involved negotiate with each other within a framework of shared norms.
I think Gruber is mostly right about this, and consent can be best understood as a regulatory framework. But I want to develop her point about shared norms a little bit and say that communities that come together around sex, like BDSM community, are pluralistic, with lots of different kinds of people who are into lots of different types of things. I think a focus on giving and getting consent is important because it allows us as individuals to define the kinds of actions that are acceptable for us, that we are willing to take responsibility for. Creating a context where consent can be given and received freely is not about reducing harms as much as it is about letting individuals determine what is a harm for them in their situation.
Consent culture as a framework for permissible sexual activity allows for these different norms and value systems to exist alongside each other and interact through a script, as well as protecting individuals against illegitimate uses of coercion and authority. As part of consent culture, enthusiastic consent is supposed to be a kind of best practice, the best type of consent, and for a lot of people, it’s seen as the only ethical kind of consent. It’s in the rules at many play clubs — yes means yes only with enthusiasm!
Adding enthusiasm to consent is a way to make sure that the people consenting do really have the mental state of wanting to do the thing. Consent that is bullied out of someone, or manipulated, or coerced doesn’t do the work that we need consent to do, it doesn’t show us that we’re equally responsible for what’s happening and that it’s something everyone involved wants.
We meet some problems when we start to ask, is enthusiastic consent helping us create this context where we can express our desires and self-identify harms? I’m going to argue that when we look at what consent and consent culture looks like from some critical distance, when we see it as enmeshed in society and its power structures, we can see where it isn’t meeting our need for a context that allows everyone to express what they want, what they’re able to give, and what they class as harmful to them. We’re fixating on enthusiastic consent and giving it more power than we should. In fact, we’re fetishizing it.
How is consent a fetish?
If you search for consent on FetLife, you’ll see there are thousands of people who say they’re “into” it as a fetish. On one interpretation of fetish, just as a gateway to sexual pleasure, that’s okay, that’s fine, they’re saying, “I need consent to get off, non-consensual activity just won’t do it for me.” But let’s think for a minute about what a fetish is and how things that are fetishized behave in discourse. The relatively modern, Western definition of a fetish is pretty closely bound up with sexuality, and much of today’s sociological work on fetishes owes a lot to Freud.
Freud defines a fetishized object in three parts. First, a fetish object is something that is given power by whoever is doing the fetishizing. Second, the attribution of power has to be disconnected from the original intended purpose of the object, from its telos. And finally, the fetish object has to replace something else, something that is intended to do the job that the fetish object is being used to do.
A conceptual fetish is like a sexual fetish in all of these three ways. It has an overdetermination of value and power, it is being used for a purpose it is not suited for, it has become detached from its proper context, and dominates the discourse around it.
Enthusiastic consent is given a lot of power, we see this whenever it’s used in the rules in clubs and at parties, and where it appears as affirmative consent in the law. I believe that this power is being given to enthusiasm without a good justification, because, enthusiasm doesn’t make consent any more or less valid. Anyone can perform an emotional reaction, and it’s possible to coerce someone to consent enthusiastically, if you wanted to. More than that, though, the practice of enthusiastic consent is given so much power that in many spaces and for many people, it’s become the only acceptable way to perform and witness consent. So it’s become detached from, or replaces, other important considerations about what it takes for consent to be valid — under what circumstances consenting counts as a token for assuming shared responsibility — and for that reason I think it satisfies Freud’s criteria as a fetish.
To get deeper into how enthusiasm in consent is working as a fetish object, we have to go a little further forward in time, to Baudrillard. In the Critique of The Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard explores fetishism as a fixation on the ostentation and symbolic value of a token-object, that becomes increasingly disconnected from the use-value it might have. As far as we understand the code that these tokens are used in, we can understand how something like a car can have both a functional value and a value in ostentation and in identity-expression for a consumer.
To go back to Aya Gruber’s definition of consent as a kind of token that is understood as meaning, “I take my share of responsibility for what will happen next,” we can start to understand how this token of consent has both a functional value and an ostentation value. Functionally, the behavior of consent is intended to express the mental state of consent. Consent behaviors need to be understandable by everyone involved, they need to be a part of a code. But the way that consent is expressed, the performative element, also has an ostentation value, it is also used to express what we value and who we are.
So why might we hold enthusiastic consent as a fetish with an ostentation value that is much higher than its functional value? Why is enthusiastic consent seen as the gold standard, best possible kind of consent, when as I’ve shown, enthusiasm doesn’t make consent any more or less valid?
The functional and ostentation value of enthusiasm in consent
I think this is happening because privileging enthusiastic consent means privileging the kinds of sex, play, and intimacy, that come from this kind of consent. By which I mean, hedonistic, hot, awesome sex, having sex for its own sake, as a creative, joyful act, that’s the kind of sex that happens after enthusiastic consent, that’s the kind of sex that this social script is reinforcing. We as sex-positive people tend to feel like enthusiastic, fun, hot, consensual sex is the most desirable kind of sex, the most liberating and empowering kind of sex. So we put the highest value on the performance of consent that best expresses our beliefs about what the best sex is.
The claim that sex for pleasure is the most acceptable kind of sex is problematic, though, and it brings with it a whole lot of questions around how we understand and contextualize pleasure. Our beliefs about what is and ought to be pleasurable and desirable don’t exist outside of our political context, they are informed by beliefs about gender, sex, race, sexuality, physicality and disability, and a lot of other intersecting things. For example, what is pleasurable to women is traditionally conceived of in very narrow and gendered terms as sensitive, communicative, loving, committed, gentle sex. If enthusiastic consent means consenting to sex for pleasure, and we don’t interrogate what we mean by pleasure, then we’re likely to end up contributing to patriarchal norms of desire and desirability.
And if an approach to sex that is focused on consent as a framework where we can come together and exchange responsibility tokens is vital because it accommodates a plurality of different sexual expressions, different kinds of desire and different values, like I’ve been arguing, then we are in trouble if we’re tacitly promoting one mode of sexual self-expression over another.
Enthusiastic consent is a fetish under the rubric of the commodity; we over-value it because it represents an image of sex that is divorced from many of the ways sexual desire is experienced. Enthusiastic consent represents a model of consent that does tie to desire and to reasons to engage in sex, but only certain kinds of desires and reasons: not obligation, not as a kind of labor, nothing but pure hedonism. That’s why enthusiastic consent is a kind of fetish.
Problems with fetishizing consent
I feel like the centering of explicit consent is progress compared to the more traditional, more ambiguous script that a lot of us grew up with, where people, especially people who were socialized as female, are taught that wanting to fuck is terrible, that asserting boundaries is wrong, and where people who were socialized as male are taught that it’s totally cool to pressure people for sex, all that bad stuff. This old script makes hedonistic, hot for its own sake, playful sexual intimacy into something we should be ashamed of, and that’s not okay.
But at the same time, we need to remember that enthusiastic consent is a social script too, and we need to be very clear that when we define consensual sex as sex that you enthusiastically want to do for its own sake, you’re taking part in regulating what we see as good, healthy, ethical sexual activity. Especially when enthusiastic consent is being actively used in clubs and parties as the only kind of consent that counts. Gruber defines unconsensual sex as sex that happens under circumstances that are outside our cultural norms of acceptability.
Is enthusiasm a good norm?
For example, what about those times where you definitely consent to something, but not for the kinds of reasons that produce enthusiasm? For an example, shame is a significant part of a lot of peoples’ erotic lives, and demanding enthusiasm from them pretty much makes it impossible for them to get into a space where they’re really going to enjoy the experience at all. If enthusiastic consent is a norm of acceptability, then we actually end up disempowering and marginalizing a lot of people, making it more difficult for them to partake in the dialogues that lead to acceptable, consensual sex.
And there are other reasons to have sex beyond the purely hedonistic, and desires that don’t map onto the kinds of cultural expectations people have around sex and desire. Financial gain, security, compassion for someone, because you feel like you don’t want the other person to be frustrated — all these can be reasonable justifications for your decision to engage in sex or play with someone else.
Consent should be a framework to allow for a plurality of desires and reasons to engage. We should work to deprioritize the ostentation value of consent in favor of creating a context where it can attain its full functional value. So what can we do to get closer to the right kind of consent, and not end up marginalizing people who want to have sex and play for reasons that don’t mesh well with a demand for enthusiasm and excitement?
How to mitigate the problem
We can look at what the best conditions for consent are, apart from the performance element. We need to look at what a person needs to have so that they can decide for themselves whether to consent to something.
For a start, we need to focus on information. What do you need to know about what’s going to happen before you can really consent to it? What questions should you be asking? The next thing we need to focus on is negative freedom from coercive pressures at every level — between individuals, and at deeper levels of enculturation.It’s harder to get to what the right kind of consent is and how we can promote it if we focus on the performance of the actors and not the conditions in which they act. When we focus on the spectacle of giving and receiving consent, on the performance of enthusiasm, we’re focusing on the act of consenting rather than what happens next; on the sizzle, not the steak. As play partners, event planners, and actually in pretty much every aspect of our lives, we should focus on creating space where we can navigate all the kinds of consent that get us excited.