This article is for people who are proficient and practiced in consent and have immersed in consent culture and practices. If you have not explored consent culture before, please do not read this article, as I think it’ll do more harm than good.
With that being said…
Consent culture is definitely a step in the right direction
The world needs more people who practice consent.
It is an undeniably crucial aid in balancing out a society full of violation, unattuned intimacy, and false assumptions of others’ desires.
The Consent Academy defines consent as “a voluntary agreement, made without coercion, between persons with decision-making capacity, knowledge, understanding, and autonomy…Consent is also a way of life, centered around the belief that everyone has the right to give an honest and authentic answer to what they choose to do and a responsibility to accept the answers given by others.”
To honor another’s consent means to honor how they want to be treated. If you can imagine a world where everyone practiced perfect consent, bullying wouldn’t happen if the victim didn’t agree to get teased. Undesired sexual touch wouldn’t happen if the recipient didn’t consent to be touched that way.
Consent practices are empowering because they encourage individuals to practice how to feel their desire and ask for it, and how to know their limits and voice them. When individuals extend respect to the limits and desires of both themself and the other party present, feelings of safety ensue. And feelings of safety can give rise to ecstatic, magical connections.
In a world that can feel violent and unsafe, how nourishing is it to be in a space where your “no” is fully honored? And in a world that can feel chaotic and incalculable, how gratifying is it to actualize your desires simply by voicing them?
And goddamn if we lived in a consent-based world, it would alleviate so much of the toxic masculinity that grossly sexualizes fem-presenting folks and tries to elicit toxicity out of other masc-presenting folks.
So I want to be very clear – I am for consent.
After spending lots of time in communities that have wholeheartedly embraced consent practices, I’ve come to discover that cultures that adopt consent practices (which I’ll refer to generally as “consent culture”) also tend to carry other norms and worldviews.
In the rest of this piece, I’ll detail out the drawbacks of the norms and worldviews associated with consent culture.
Consent culture assumes that people are fragile and need sheltering
Consent culture assume that people are fragile
Consent culture veers towards the adage of asking for permission instead of forgiveness. This implies that the harm of doing the wrong thing is greater than the benefit of just doing the thing.
Living by this adage has benefits, in that implies an orientation of respect and care for others. Asking for permission is especially important in sexual engagements where trauma is so commonplace and trust can be slow to build.
But there is a time to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. In other words, just taking action, and if it causes harm, cleaning it up afterward.
Consent culture’s preference for permission (over forgiveness) points to its attempt to avoid causing harm at all costs.
This mindset seems to co-arise with the assumption that other people are fragile and can’t handle harm, and so you must shelter them from your impact.
Consent culture coddles people, which atrophies their self-reliance
The truth is, life can be hard and painful. It’s full of harm. When we try to over-protect others we can actually end up coddling them and disempowering their ability to handle the full breadth of life.
When we stand up for others too often, we can actually steal their power in standing up for themself. When we assume others can’t state a boundary once we’ve taken action, we rob them of the empowering opportunity to draw a boundary. When we assume others are fragile weaklings who must be protected, our very protectance only further fosters their fragile weakness.
Yes, it’s usually good to avoid harm for yourself and others. But sometimes the pain experienced in life can be the greatest gift towards your self-knowledge, growth, and wisdom.
To go so far out of your way to rob others from experiencing life in its fullness is to try to shelter them from the mess and beauty that is life.
Consent culture oversimplifies “right” and “wrong”
Consent culture assumes that a boundary violation is the worst possible scenario
Boundary violations are a bad thing. I don’t want them to happen.
And they do happen. Boundaries get crossed and consent gets violated. It’s just part of our imperfect human existence.
I want to strive to be in a world that accepts this reality. Where yes, everyone is within their boundaries as much as possible, but where it’s okay when folks do slip out of their boundaries. Life can go on. It can be a learning opportunity.
As stated above, consent culture views pain as a bad thing to be avoided. Further, consent culture deems the boundary violation as the worst type of pain. A code-red.
There are lots of types of pain that come up in connection. To name a few — misunderstandings, exclusion, shaming, broken promises. A boundary violation is one type of connection pain.
Consent culture has given so much weight to the boundary violation, that it creates this radioactive aura around even the possibility of becoming either a violator or a victim. Where if anyone finds themself on either side of a boundary violation, shame will be nearly unavoidable.
Not all consent violations warrant a villain
There are three types of consent violations.
Type 1 is where someone violates another’s consent intentionally for self-serving gain. These people are some combination of malicious, selfish, and woefully unempathetic.
Type 2 is where someone violates others’ consent unintentionally, but repetitively. These people are destructively unaware.
Type 3 consent violations just happen. There is some communication breakdown. These events are messy, non-intentional, and maybe even co-created.
In types 1 and 2, it’s reasonable to put responsibility on the violator. They must be held accountable for their actions and should understand the impact of their behavior and commit to learning and doing better.
But in type 3 is there always a clear-cut villain to blame?
As a probably relatable example, let’s say Chris and Terry are engaging in touch.
Chris asks Terry to spoon them from behind. Terry says yes. So Terry nuzzles up behind Chris and starts the spooning.
After a few seconds, Chris starts to feel uncomfortable and their body feels contracted. They don’t say anything and continue to endure their discomfort, which causes their contraction to become more intense.
Terry is none the wiser and believes Chris is enjoying the snuggle as much as Terry is.
In this fictional example, we have a consent violation. Chris became out-of-consent, but didn’t voice their “no,” and continued to endure.
Consent culture tends to put the blame on Terry here. Terry should’ve done better, checked in more often, and been more attuned. Terry was the violator, so the blame must be on them right?
But it’s more complex than that. Yes, Terry could have checked in more with Chris throughout the cuddle, or been more attuned to Chris’ body language. Or asked Chris beforehand if they tend to freeze.
But Chris also could have communicated more upfront about their freeze response, or spoken up to Terry when they felt discomfort, or left the cuddle.
In this example, I don’t think either party is to blame. This consent violation was co-created by Chris and Terry because of insufficient communication, lack of attunement, and maybe some bad luck.
Can we re-orient from blame to learning?
Instead of calling Terry a violator and ending the story here, can both parties take responsibility and turn this into a learning experience?
The whole “victim-violator” language and framework necessitates having someone to blame.
Consent culture can over-emphasize “calling out,” and might encourage folks to look out for consent violations and for violators to punish.
This can extend outside of a situation that you are involved in, and sometimes folks police a space, on the hunt for violators. But such third-party policing can also create conflicts that don’t exist and push bias and confusion to those involved.
Outside of clear-cut cases, what if we change our emphasis from looking for violators to turning everything into a learning opportunity? While still holding people accountable for what they did and did not say, and did and did not do.
Even with great awareness, communication, and education, boundaries will get crossed, and messes will ensue. But if we can accept this reality and fall in love with the growth and healing that comes with repair, then we can evolve and learn together.
Consent culture can stifle connection
Consent culture kills impulses
Because of the aforementioned radioactive aura around boundary violations, consent culture breeds a fear of crossing boundaries and becoming a violator. Folks can become so hypervigilant to avoid crossing a boundary or stepping on a toe, that connection and expression suffer.
Telling that joke or touching that elbow might be too risky. So let’s keep it reeled in, just to be safe. Or so the thinking goes.
But the problem with this impulse-stifling is that the most beautiful and impactful intimacy comes when all parties involved are perfectly surrendered to their impulses and wait at the cusp of the unknown together to see what the mystery of their connection draws forth from themself and the other.
Impulses in connection can be tiny, transient, fragile flashes. Only alive for a split second. In that window, you can either act on the impulse and bring forth its downstream ripples or let it die and wait for the next impulse to come. The more impulses you bring to life, the more freely they continue to flow forth, each impulse gaining momentum from its predecessor.
The impulse to say “no,” “yellow,” or to redirect the flow of connection is as valid as any other.
But when impulses are blocked – by either the fear of violating another or simply by the stunting impact of gaining verbal consent for each movement – exquisite intimacy cannot be found. Instead, rigidity, disconnection, and awkwardness ensue.
Stunted momentum in groups
A cousin of this phenomenon occurs in consent culture group contexts, manifesting as stuckness and inefficient decision-making.
If every group decision requires full consent from everyone, progress moves as slow as chunky mud.
Ever try eating with a group of 10 people and needing a full “yes” from everyone on the restaurant? Or if you’ve lived with a group and tried to get everyone’s consent before you re-arrange the living room pillow formation? Great opportunities to practice patience. 😊
This is where assertive leadership becomes necessary – taking action and waiting for forgiveness. There is also a group decision-making methodology called “do-acracy” where the agreement is, when in doubt, just DO. Get creative with the damn pillows and talk about it afterward.
Consent culture’s reliance on words can weaken intuitive listening
Consent culture can diminish physical attunement to boundaries
Besides just disrupting the flow of connection, consent culture can, ironically, actually disconnect people from the subtleties of others’ consent.
If you rely solely on the verbal “yes” or “no” of the person you are engaging with, you may miss the whole world of non-verbal information coming through.
Sometimes folks may say “yes” or “no” to a request when that’s not what they really want. Underneath their words, their true desires are always expressed through their body – their emotions, physicality, voice. The body can’t lie. It just is.
I’m a part of a dance community called contact improvisation. It’s a relational, non-verbal improv dance form. Essentially it’s a bunch of people exploring touch, gravity, and intimacy. All negotiation is done in the moment non-verbally. There have been motions from the newer generations to add safewords to this non-verbal dance form.
While I actually do think safewords provide benefit to non-verbal intimacy, it must be noted that the reliance on a verbal word can deter a person from fully attuning to the connection. In such a fast-paced dance where consent happens in each microsecond, you are missing the point if your only clue to the other person’s “no” is their words.
When you breathe the same breath as the other, and share the rhythms of their body, then you can avoid many (but not all) “no’s” before they reach the lips of the other. Overly relying on verbal consent may actually create complacency and cause you to check out of deep physical attunement with your partner’s body – the place that actually sources their consent.
And sometimes you might not notice your own boundaries as they emerge in your body. So what a gift it is to have a partner so tuned into your emotions, body, and energy that they may feel boundaries you didn’t know you had. And as mentioned above, even if you both miss your boundary, that’s okay too.
Consent culture can diminish attunement to others’ desires
Consent culture suggests that only you know your own desire.
This can be an empowering stance for folks who were taught as kids to listen to what their parents, religion, or school wanted for them. But never what they wanted for themselves. This can be especially pertinent for females whose desires have been forever shunted below males’ in our patriarchal world.
But what about when you can’t find your desire? Or there’s something you want, but it’s just out of grasp of your awareness?
It can be beautiful to constantly ask my partner what they want, and to serve their requests. It feels great to clean their dishes, rub their feet, or tuck them in at night when I know for certain it’s what they want, because they asked for it. It’s equally gratifying for them to receive these gestures from me, and especially empowering when they asked for them.
What if I can intuit what my partner wants right when the desire surfaces, or before they even know to ask for it?
What if I see that every Friday they leave dirty dishes in their room, and feel the slog each Sunday to clean them all. Maybe I can attune myself to their schedule and clean their dishes for them before they ask.
Or during our next naked cuddle, maybe I can attune myself to their body language and groans, and touch them in ways they didn’t even know they wanted to be touched.
Sure, this type of skillful attunement may rob my partner of the empowering opportunity to discover and ask for what they want, but it can also create a perfect union where they can fully relax into my support and feel taken care of, and get brought to new levels of ecstasy or gratitude.
I’m not saying this type of giving is better than simply waiting for their ask. It’s just a different kind that is not made readily available in consent cultures. And it certainly deserves its seat at the table.
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Consent culture values safety over growth
Consent culture discourages others from taking an assertive role in your growth
Part of the power of consent culture is the assumption that only you can ever know what you want or need.
This can be incredibly healing and empowering for people who have been in relationships with partners or family members where their body, desires, thoughts, and beliefs didn’t belong to them. Being surrounded by people who believe that only you know what you want and need empowers your agency. That is a great thing.
However, you can’t see your own blindspots. If you are stuck in life, you might not know what you need to get unstuck.
Let’s say you and I are connecting. And we both value our personal growth. Further, let’s even say you are my coach or therapist – I’m paying you for my growth. What if you perceive, with decent clarity, that provoking me with some anger will push me into a space of empowerment or breakthrough. And if you asked my consent first, it’d strip the power from your act.
I’ve seen this happen many times. Where Patty sees a blindspot in Katty and leads them into a new space of growth.
I definitely wouldn’t propagate the belief that you always know better than others what they need for their growth. And for anyone who does take actions like these, I’d recommend maintaining the humility that your intuitive guess might always be wrong (and probably is more often than not!). Nonetheless, every once in a while, there may be a time and place for this type of blindspot poking.
There can be a power to being put on the spot, to getting caught off guard without your defenses up. You can find yourself in a liquid-state, on the cusp of solidifying into a newly transformed version of yourself. Or you may get triggered and confront parts of yourself you needed to see to pop out of your rut.
Consent culture does not welcome peer pressure under any circumstances
Consent culture has rightly labeled peer pressure as a harmful cultural norm. Peer pressure can get people to act out of their desire, and do things they wouldn’t normally do.
Peer pressure is especially harmful because it’s usually employed unconsciously by a group of fear-based conformists, hoping that pressuring the one individual will secure their own status in the group.
Can peer pressure ever be employed consciously and with loving intent? Might there be a time and place to get skillfully pushed beyond your own limits?
My childhood friend group was a band of competitive, nerdy jocks with a penchant for peer pressure. There certainly was plenty of unhealthy machismo and conformism in this crew. But I also feel grateful for the icy lakes I jumped into, the rock faces I climbed, and the growth edges I pushed due to the pressure/support of my peers.
Again, I wouldn’t encourage peer pressure as a frequent norm if your goal is to create a safe and empowered culture. But when skillfully applied, peer pressure can be used to get you to jump into the thing that you really want but are too afraid to do on your own.
Consent culture so prioritizes the safety that comes with respecting each person’s agency, that huge evolution opportunities can be missed, especially from others conspiring to aid you in your growth.
Consent culture misses all the hidden information inside a “no”
In consent culture, a “no” tends to be sacred. This stance has huge upside. How much collective trauma is out there because someone’s “no” was disregarded or overpowered? It is so damn empowering and affirming to have your “no” respected.
Different “no’s” come from different places. Sometimes it can be a great gift to challenge your friend’s “no.”
Imagine you’re at an open mic with your friend who has been desperately desiring to sing in front of others for years. When your friend gets asked to sing on stage by the emcee, they immediately say “no.”
Now, what if you paused, empathized, and explored their “no?” Could it be possible that their “no” came from a place of fear, and with further probing, there was actually a massive “yes” wanting to come forth?
What if you physically pushed them on stage without them agreeing? In the right dynamic, there might be a place for this non-consensual act.
Similarly, it can be equally valuable to challenge others’ “yesses” to make sure the other person is totally into whatever it is they said “yes” to.
Consent culture also has people assume that they should never experience something they are a “no” to. While it’s probably unhealthy to spend all of your time in situations you don’t want to be in, “no” is just another experience to have, and a place that you can explore and learn from. You can push your own edges and learn about yourself if you are willing to venture into your “no” from time to time.
If we can dare to strip the sacredness from “no” from time to time, we may forgo some of our safety and comfort, but learn about ourselves and find “yesses” we didn’t know we had.
Consent culture can create containers too floppy to produce growth
Personal growth workshops are incredible opportunities to enter into a highly curated group culture and experience a potent transformation. And so much of the transformational power of a container comes from its norms.
When a facilitation space is overdone on consent culture norms, externally it might look like a bunch of people lying around the room. Some doodling, others staring off to space. Every few seconds someone may walk to the bathroom or get water. Sometimes people chitchat while the facilitator is talking.
Soft spaces have value. They can feel easeful and welcoming.
But compare that space to one where everyone is coordinated in a perfect circle. Kneeling on meditation benches, spines ramrod straight. Razor-sharp attention on each other. Breath synced up. All full-well knowing that nobody will leave the circle for the next 60 minutes.
When soft containers get too soft, they become floppy – and personal comfort washes out the possibility for growth. When hard containers get too hard, they become militaristic – and the container’s discipline becomes more traumatic than growthy.
There is absolutely a time and place for each type of space (and everywhere on the spectrum).
Hard container can create powerful connection and transformation that soft spaces simply cannot. And consent culture steers very far away from hard spaces. And that’s a damn shame. Because half of the pallet for transformation has gone missing.
We must find balance
Consent culture emerged as a healing antidote to our non-consensual, patriarchal mainstream culture. It has brought with it a beautiful value set that has empowered personal agency, mutual respect, and compassion.
It is undeniably good that the consent culture has entered into this world that has lost its balance in the opposite direction.
However, if you spend enough time in consent cultures, you will see that the norms and ethos of these spaces have actually teetered too far in the other direction. These cultures arose as a balancing force, but have now lost or condemned crucial aspects of the other side.
The main drawbacks of consent culture are:
-Its assumption that people are fragile and need protecting
-Its blame-oriented mindset around boundary violations and the victim-violator framework
-Its stunting of the trusting-in-impulses needed for true connection
-Its over-emphasis on verbal consent can weaken intuitive listening
-Its aversion to being assertive in others’ growth
-Its unwillingness to look inside of a “no,” and
-Its overly floppy facilitation spaces can wash out opportunities for growth
For those exploring personal growth and connection spaces alongside me, we can find a beautiful and empowered balance if we can embrace all of the gifts that consent culture has given us, while also hanging onto some more traditional forms of communicating.
This might mean:
-Assuming others are strong, resilient, and can protect themselves
-Focusing more on learning and repair than blame
-Giving space for forgiveness instead of permission (ie encouraging attuned impulse-following)
-Embracing the nuance of consent, which includes non-verbal and intuitive attunement
-Pushing other friends in their growth
-Exploring what’s underneath a “no”
-Embracing “harder” facilitation spaces.
May we continue to ride the pendulum back and forth between cultural extremes until we one day find the utopic sweet spot! 💕
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💕 Mike ✌🏼