Guest Blogger

Ending Coercion, Building Consent: Making Consent Sexy

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 30, 2014 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: coercion, consent, masculinity, patriarchy, sexual culture, sexual freedom

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Anthony Rella is a psychotherapist and writer living in Seattle, Washington with his husband and dog. More on his work can be found at anthonyrella.com.


Bodily autonomy declares our bodies as territory to which we alone are sovereign. We grow into this sovereignty from childhood, when most of us experienced small to large compromises to our bodily autonomy. A caregiver might have touched us to feed, to bathe, to keep out of traffic, to restrain during a painful experience, to hug, to kiss, and we might have felt confused about whether it was okay to refuse. Great caregivers walk the line of eliciting consent and communicating respect for the child's body.

At times, nonconsensual touch seems necessary for the interests of the person, like holding down a patient in crisis to administer an injection, but there is an abusive shadow looming around all such decisions. The person with greater strength could become a despot, imposing their will upon the body of another. Without this respect for the person's bodily autonomy and ability to consent, the stronger person is more likely to harm or disempower the weaker person, even if the stronger person thinks they have the other's best interest in mind.

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"Strength" and "weakness" here signify both physical strength and also social privilege. We see violations of bodily autonomy frequently in the exchanges between dominant and marginalized people. Black women report that white people frequently touch their hair without asking and without welcome. Men often touch women with a casual familiarity that they would never dream of doing to another man, even men who love men. Sharing touch is a human need, but touch without respect for bodily autonomy is an act of oppression.

I can check for consent to touch even without requiring a signed waiver. One way is to simply ask someone, "Can I touch this?", and then respect the answer they provide. One might also touch a neutral area lightly, like the shoulder, staying present to the other's energy and body language so that we can see whether this is acceptable or unwelcome.

"Are you going to wear a condom?"

"No."

"I want you to wear a condom."

"Still, I want you to wear a condom."

The value of respect for subjectivity begins with the acknowledgment that each of us experiences the world differently. The information we gather through our senses is always filtered and interpreted through our cognitive beliefs about the world and capacity for curiosity, our emotional sensitivities and tendencies, our histories, our hopes, our current biological states. Each subjective experience has worth and truth value, and no person can claim to have a wholly "objective" view.

Our subjective experiences can shift rapidly and without logic. I might enjoy being touched by someone and then suddenly feel I do not want to be touched at all. If my partner respects my subjectivity, then he stops touching me when I say so. If I respect my own subjectivity, then I can ask without blame and shame, acknowledging that everything was okay until it stopped being okay. Respect for subjectivity invites presence and connection, conscious relationship.

We bring our sexual agendas into every interaction and strive to find a way to join. If one partner wants to wear a condom and the other does not, then they can find people whose interests match theirs, or find an option they both like. We can have intellectual and moral conversations about condoms and Truvada and respect each other's differences without coercing someone into doing what we want.

When someone feels hurt by something we did, or refuses our advances, it's natural to feel embarrassed or ashamed. It's also common to react to shame by trying to turn it back, to make the other person look "wrong" or "bad" so we can feel better. Shame is another subjective experience, telling us a great deal about ourselves and very little about the truth of the other person's experience.

An ethic of respect for subjectivity implies that we have no justification to manipulate or change someone else's subjective experience without their consent. If someone feels hurt, that is their responsibility to manage. Respecting subjectivity means I do take responsibility when my actions have resulted in harm, and I am willing to listen to and honor the feelings of myself and my partners. This does not mean abasing myself or claiming I meant harm, only recognizing that my actions had this impact.

We have difficulty respecting subjectivity because many of us experience the world believing our perceptions and interpretations are accurate. This is because our experience is normal for ourselves, and if we questioned them at all times we would be unable to function. Too often the normality of perception becomes confused with "objectivity."

When another person's subjective experience does not match our own, it's easy to get confused or suspicious, fearing that the other person is trying to manipulate us in some way. We might fear that we have to accommodate their subjective feelings and deny our own -- "He's so happy, I can't say this now;" "He's so angry, I might as well do it." Then we feel controlled, because we've submitted our own experience to another's. Our perception becomes narrowed and we forget our options: to leave, to say what we really think and feel, to ask for something, to refuse.

"Could you stop and pull out for a minute? I'm kind of tight and it hurts."

"Oh, no. You need to learn a lesson about going home with strange men."

Sexual coercion arises when one partner disrespects the subjectivity and bodily autonomy of himself or his partners. Drugging a person to get them to have sex with you is certainly coercive, but it's also coercive when an intoxicated partner forces a sexual act upon you. Using financial or emotional collateral to blackmail someone into sex is coercive, although this does not mean sex work is intrinsically coercive. Using a position of power and authority to undermine someone's reservations and compel them to have sex is coercive.

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We must distinguish between the legal and the affective realms of consent, where the burden of proof is significantly different. When we come from an intellectual, legalistic standpoint, we are bound by the letter of the law. Our feelings alone are not proof of coercion, and abusers can find ways to work around laws.

In the field of relationship, inter-subjectivity is law. If he's not willing to respect your perspective, then he does not deserve your sexual energy, whether it's a brief hook-up or a long-term relationship.

All that is required is to be honest about what you are feeling and act in accord with that -- to say yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no. To take a risk with humility, willing to accept however the other person responds. To accept with grace and refuse without scorn. To take responsibility for one's role -- "I was into this, but now I need to stop."

With such honesty and integrity comes greater and deeper intimacy and connection, from which arise great sexual experiences. Partners read each other and communicate their responses through word, touch, and body language.

This exchange of sexual energy is fluid and emerges with presence, not from trying to force ourselves to feel or be a certain way. It is beyond roles, beyond position, it is beyond words, but it begins when we face each other and say "yes" with mind, heart, and body.

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