1) Recognize that no individual owes you anything.
You are not entitled to access to deep dark secrets or to whatever behavior or interaction you’re trying to negotiate consent for. If another person is involved and you want something from that person, then you have to recognize that that’s theirs to give or not give. And no matter how badly you want it, no matter how badly you may feel you deserve to have good things, no matter how great you think you would treat it or how well it would match you – you are not entitled to it.
You are not entitled to an explanation. The reason why this thing may not be given to you may be good, it may be bad, it may be non-existant. It doesn’t matter. You may never know. You may know and never agree. That changes nothing about what is or isn’t owed to you.
2) Recognize that position matters.
Power is not just an overt threat. It’s anything from “If I say what I mean then this person will not let that go until we have talked about it for a million years” to “If I don’t appear to be accommodating, this person is capable of meting out all kinds of physical violence on me that I would not be able to prevent – and I don’t know them well enough to know if they would actually try” to “If I don’t appear to be accommodating, this person will fire me / socially assassinate my character / act out against me or people close to me”
Each of the examples were different kinds of power, and they have different results. Just because a specific set of results isn’t concerning to you, doesn’t mean that it isn’t very serious for someone else. Just because I may be in a position where losing my job would not be the end of the world, for someone else, all that they have may be built upon that job.
It is actually very common for two people to enter into negotiations with each of them thinking that the other one has the upper hand. Or to feel like the other person has the ability to hurt them in ways they’d rather not be hurt. Even if they don’t feel like they have the ability to hurt anyone. I can be worried about your social pull and what will happen if I antagonize you at the same time that you are worried about my economic pull and what will happen if you antagonize me. We can both be right.
3) Recognize also that perceived position is still relevant to how consent is played out.
Even if I am not capable of getting you fired, if you think I am, you are going to act accordingly. Which means that you are not going to feel empowered to speak every truth you have with equal amounts of safety. It doesn’t matter if I can or can’t get you fired, because you’re still not going to feel safe if you think I can.
The same thing goes for me. If I think you are capable of doing massive amounts of harm to me, I might not even be comfortable thinking about something I think you would be opposed to. Which leads me to
4) Recognizing your own perspectives and boundaries and what it takes for you to feel safe communicating fully and openly.
Even if you are trying your best to create an open space for someone else to feel comfortable sharing, if you are also feeling threatened, there’s a higher-than-average chance that you are not catching the whole of the situation and there’s a better chance that you are sending off signals that may be contributing to the discomfort.
While I don’t think it’s often used in this way – this is what I think “you have to take care of yourself first” is intended address. It’s not about entitlement or looking out for #1 (I don’t care how much you need to blow off steam, you’re still not entitled to use me to do it without my informed consent), it’s about recognizing what boundaries you need to have to feel protected, and communicating that openly so that people who are comfortable with those can then engage with you and share what they need in boundaries.
Only once you and they are able to bring that self knowledge and communication to the interaction, can you find people you are comfortable with in a way that doesn’t involve a high potential for varying degrees of hurt. And only then can you sit down at the table and begin negotiations in earnest.
And yeah, I get that this seems super long and involved and not everyone wants to go through all these hoops just to have a conversation about sexy times that may or may not happen. But I can and will tell you – until I’m blue in the face, if you let me – that by far ALL of my most incredible experiences have come from the situations when I followed this (wittingly or unwittingly) more effectively than not. Interacting with people who are good at this definitely makes it easier, but when I am able to do it it gets way better. For me, the better I am at being able to do the things above and at actually doing them, the better my ecstatic interactions of any sort are.
And, ultimately, while this is a really positive way of framing it, there is actually a lot of ethical weight that I personally assign to this as well. Because, when I sit down and really think about it, I know that if I don’t have that kind of fun in an evening, the chance that I am harmed is low, and the weight of any harm done to me is most likely to be relatively minimal. But if I end up rolling over someone’s boundaries, especially if they are in the soft/grey area, then there is a much higher chance of someone being harmed, and there’s a much higher chance of that harm being stronger. Even if that person being harmed is me*. And when I weigh the benefits of my having those specific kind of fun times with that particular person on that particular occasion against the potential harm that can be caused if I take shortcuts…. well, it just doesn’t seem like a good decision. Which is why I tend to talk about this kind of stuff until I’m blue in the face.
* I very very much believe that it can be incredibly damaging to find out that what you thought was a mutually beneficial and enjoyable encounter was actually an unpleasant, unintentionally difficult, or even terrible experience for the other parties involved. Whether sex was a part of that encounter or not. I have heard stories about these kinds of encounters and I think most people just generally aren’t really happy with that idea. Instead of reacting violently to distance ourselves from that thought, I think it makes more sense to become comfortable with a different way of talking about and getting into those situations that reduces the likelihood that it happens. Really, the successful outcome is more happy fun times with more people enjoying it measurably more. I am having a hard time seeing the problem with that.
One final note:
I find that I still very regularly meet with a lot of resistance to this idea. To even considering this idea. Which is part of why this post is outlining what process I have found and – more basically – why I think it’s important. And I want to be clear that this is the best process that I have been able to come up with as of right now. I am not saying this is the best process there is. I actively welcome hearing about other ways that people try to work towards similar goals, because there is always room for improvement. In fact, I would love for people to actually try this, and then get together and share feedback about what did and didn’t work and why.
But what I really want to see is a shift in what we seem to be prioritizing when we talk about consent. I think it’s important to consider what we are going into these encounters to do. To have a mutually fun time? Or for me to get mine and leave you to get yours – if you can? And I think that if the goal truly is for both to have a fun time, then considering this process is worth it.
And perhaps I should spend more time on the idea that fun isn’t always an option if you don’t feel safe. And that being in a situation where someone’s boundaries were rolled over and it made the situation less fun, can drastically reduce the possibility of future fun. Especially if there isn’t a language in place that lets us talk about it without turning everyone into either monsters or victims.
Which is why there are two main elements to this: minimize harm, and maximize pleasure. And it’s why – if they were exactly even – I would personally be inclined to weigh minimizing harm higher. I don’t think they are, though. Not by a long shot . But that’s the details for a different post.