Consent Is Compilcated

Recently listened to a conversation between a Feminist and an MRA talk about consent. The feminist was advocating enthusiastic consent while the MRA was arguing that the current model of consent was sufficient. Here are some vague thoughts I had from my perspective as a Gender Egalitarian.

Consent is really complicated. I sided closer to the Feminist but bot sides acted like if they just solved this one question then the matter of consent would be settled.

Lets break this down into external and internal consent. Internal consent is how a person feels about the sex on the inside, whether or not they want to have sex. External consent is outwards signs that they give the other person (or people but lets assume its just two people for now) they they want to have sex, like saying “I want to have sex” or making sounds that signal enjoyment. Both internal and external consent are on a scale and while they are correlated one does not guarantee the other. The Feminist and MRA were arguing over where the line society draws on the spectrum of external consent should be. I have heard people use different definitions of enthusiastic consent, some that include nonverbal consent like touching or signs of enjoyment and others that require verbal consent.

Clearly all we care about is internal consent, and external consent just increases the likelihood of internal consent. If internal consent is very certain (like in a long term relationship, doing sexually activities both have verbally talked about and agreed to before hand and using safety words) then apparent lack of external consent (like in non con play) is usually fine.

But this distinction means that someone can give enthusiastic external consent, say “i want you to do X” at every step, and still not give internal consent. Maybe they feel like i they don’t give external consent their partner will be upset. Or they are just to nervous to say no.Enthusiastic consent doesn’t guarantee internal consent. But it is still a good idea because it does make internal consent more likely. Although I’m not sure if enthusiastic verbal consent makes internal consent a lot more likely than enthusiastic non verbal external consent

Another problem is that internal consent is also a spectrum. Someone one can not know whether  they want to have sex, or have a small preference for not wanting sex but not enough to express external non consent.

Another related issues is how alcohol affects consent. Most people agree that people who have had one standard drink can consent to sex and that people who have passed out cannot. But there is no way to objectively decide where on the alcohol spectrum to draw the line, both legally and morally. In a Alcohol affects other internal consent and a its relations to external consent.

I also think that while consent remains a very good deontological heuristic, there are still possible situation where there are consequentialist reasons for not having sex with someone even if they consent. For example if someone really wants to have sex but you are fairly sure they will regret it afterwards,because for example they have a religious belief that will make them feel shame.

Consent is really complicated and the solution that i personally use (“try REALLY hard to not accidentally do something that someone doesn’t consent too”) is to vague to give directly to other people.

4 thoughts on “Consent Is Compilcated

  1. genderneutrallanguage

    Internal consent is NOT what we care about. This is where the entire consent argument goes off the tracks. While internal consent is important for how they feel about it in the morning or next week or a month from now, it has not bearing at all what so ever in the slightest as to what constitues consent in legal or social context.

    Yes means yes, even if you don’t mean yes. No means no, even if you don’t mean no. Since humans do not have the ability to read each others minds the one and only factor in determining consent is external consent.

    1. hopefullythishelps Post author

      But assuming we are being consequentialist (rather than deontological), what makes rape bad is the negative emotions the rape survivor experiences during and after the rap and/or there preference not to be raped right? The latter is pretty much what i would call internal consent, and the former is correlated more strongly to lack of internal consent than to lack of external consent i would guess.

      ” Since humans do not have the ability to read each others minds the one and only factor in determining consent is external consent.”

      Exactly, i think we actually agree. Humans can’t read each others mind so we can’t directly observe internal consent (what we care about) so we have to rely on external consent (which we hope correlates to external conset).

      1. genderneutrallanguage

        Being consequentialist, it is still external consent that is the one and only thing that matters. It is the consequences for the alleged rapist that shape that individuals thoughts actions and beliefs. My choice to take or not take actions is based upon my consequences and the affects on me.

        By making the claim that internal consent is what’s actually important you are shifting the burden from information I can know, external consent, to information I can’t know, internal consent. If we care at all about internal consent in determining what is or is not rape then the affect is to create the assumption that all sex is rape until proven otherwise. The consequences for the person initiating sex are the consequences of rape unless they can prove the unknowable of internal consent of another. For the consequences of initiating sex to be the consequences of initiating sex, not rape, then internal consent is irrelevant.

        The point of view is very important when trying to talk philosophically about something. While you are correct when looking at the issue from the point of view of the “acted upon”, you are still simply dead wrong when looking at the issue from the point of view of the “actor”.

  2. hopefullythishelps Post author

    “It is the consequences for the alleged rapist that shape that individuals thoughts actions and beliefs.”

    But my strong desire to not rape people is not just because of the negative legal or social consequences that could happen to me, but also because of my desire to not violate other peoples preferences and to not harm others (and also just a gut feeling of “RAPE IS BAD”).

    So i completely agree with you that when a court of law is determining if it was rape, they should focus on external consent. Also, if someone has sex with some who externally consented but internally didn’t consent, i don’t think that person should be charged with rape. If this wasn’t clear from the post i will edit it to reflect this.

    But from a moral perspective i still think Internal consent is whats important. But i don’t mean “If you have sex with someone who gave external consent but not internal consent then you are morally just as bad as if you dint have either external or internal consent.” I find that this isnt a useful frame work to think about moral issues. Instead i try to focus on possible states the world could be in and which are better than others. So what i mean by “Internal consent is what is important” is “if i had magic god like powers and could change the world anyway i wanted i would prevent sex where both partners gave external consent but only one internally consented.”


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