February 28, 2013

Consent, reciprocity, and choice

This blog post has been written by Mat, a SASC volunteer.

 I am currently questioning the interconnection between three terms in our intersectional lexicon at the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC).  Consent, reciprocity, and choice.  

Consent is a central concept that has been (re)deployed by volunteers of the SASC.  The relationship building implied by the “Got Consent?” strategy is useful for reducing sexual violence because it specifies the necessity of a substantive form of communication; in order to build some shared sense of reciprocity between people.  

The practice of the “Got Consent?” message, particularly around relations marked as sexual, represents a critical capacity to act in ‘reciprocity’ with others.  Sex, marked as different from every other interaction in life, is often organized in our cultural discourses as the subversive domain in which everyone is relatively powerless or subjected to passions beyond their control.  Situated amidst discourses of sex and gender, the body is drawn up as something to be controlled and subjected to a truth of sex.  Incited to resist the moral laws that treat life as a control-system, the body becomes strategic and subversive.  I’ve mentioned in other work, and in conversations, that because negative and hierarchical discourses of sex are so pervasive, reciprocity between thought and life, and between each person, is a social challenge in which everyone is situated.

 The intersections of hierarchical identity, formed by ability, national status, gender, race, sex, class, etc, are often thrust upon us and we do not always consent to these categories, but rather we find ourselves situated within these discourses anyway.  Additionally, hierarchical forms of thinking are implied in discourses that claim the mind over the heart, the soul over the body, and reason over emotion.  We are invited to imagine the spiritual as separate from the physical, as if any of these concepts refer to distinct things.  Just by imagining these concepts as separate, and distinct, we are invited to think about life through parts, as if they are ordered parts, and usually as if there is one over the other, and as if one is subjected to the other.  I think that because we are situated amidst the discourses of a ‘rape culture’, we do not always consent, or choose, the ideas that have affected us, and that have shaped our capacity to act in our social discourses.  We are rather caught up in these discourses, and we can be strategic for our own freedom, as well as everyone else’s, if we know how to, and are exposed to such ideas and practices.  


 The victim did not “choose” to be a target and perhaps more problematically, I don’t think the perpetrator quite “chose” to be a tyrant.   Neither deserves to be condemned on the basis that they made a choice, because whether they think they made a choice or not, does not bear upon legal practice of holding people accountable for what they have done to harm others.  Every action, narrated as choice, is also the culmination of our capacity to act as determined by how we’ve become affected to act.  Choice is not a “cause” of behaviour, but it the narrative of how a behaviour was thought to be necessary and possible.   We try to enforcement judgement for what some might do to hurt others, but the narrative of “choice” also works to ignore the inscribed “subjectivity” of the individual, and how their desires are produced, however problematically and inconsistently, within a hierarchical social discourse of identity, and sexuality.  So when we deploy the notion of “choice” in our social relations, this also acts upon people holding them accountable for their behaviour on the basis that they made ‘free’, unsituated, uncontingent choices.  Situated as gendered, and/or queer, as women, and men, and hierarchically classified, still one is never quite and entirely free from the presence of these discourses and their effects. 

This can be a very strange critique but I also want to promise that there is no safe place for tyranny and oppression in this model. I don’t quite imagine consent as a choice, but I experience negotiating consent. Consent, in my experience, is determined by possibility, necessity, probability, and intensity- based upon how it feels affirming and validating at any given second.   Consent is a much more useful word, than the notion of ‘choice’ when it comes to organizing sexual reciprocity with others.  I don’t choose to consent, but rather consent is the living moment and I don’t choose that it should stop, but rather it ‘must’ stop to preserve my sense of freedom and toleration.  It feels right or it doesn’t.  Consent is not the cause of an individual choice, but rather, consent is negotiated and this ongoing negotiation affirms the possibility of reciprocity.  I don’t want to blame people on the account that they made a “choice” to rape and/or to be victimized; I want to empower people by demonstrating how a notion of ‘free choices’ becomes a narrative that can sometimes blame the self for situations far outside of its control, and that disguises how the self is implicated and inscribed within a ‘rape culture’.  (On the other hand, I find the whole discussion between choice, freedom, and consent very difficult to think through.) 

I suspect that a discourse of the self making “choices”, or “free choices”, is not an effective language for understanding reciprocity and negotiated consent between people.  We are still left with many critical capacities and exercises that expose different forms of subjection in thought.  Creating critical capacities to negotiate sexual reciprocity, like the slogan “Got Consent?” works to disseminate and reinforce a critical message even despite many other pervasive social problems still bearing upon the problem of sexual violence.  Every time a hierarchical relationship between thought and life, and between people becomes exposed, the possibility of social reciprocity is improved. 

I only mean to explore these issues, and I realize that they may raise difficult perspectives and reflections. Please feel free to add provocations, questions, disagreements, critiques, or responses of any type. Thanks for reading. 

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