liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
[personal profile] liv
Lots of internet communities I'm peripherally aware of talk about consent culture. I think the idea started from sex-positive feminism, a sort of more advanced stage of dealing with sexual consent beyond just "no means no". People should actively choose the sex they want to have, without being subjected to even subtle or indirect pressure. It's not a big leap to notice that this principle applies to interactions that aren't particularly sexual, hugs and other social touch, say, and indeed relationships and emotional connections beyond just physical touch.

So in a consent culture frame, the only reason to enter into any kind of relationship, or to continue an existing relationship, is because everybody involved actively wants that relationship. That includes capital-R officially together romantic couple relationships, of course, but also everyone involved should consent to how close they want to be as friends or acquaintances or whether they even want to have any kind of contact and interaction at all. This seems a totally logical extension of principles I hold about autonomy, and I want to live in a world where relationships are freely chosen and not coerced. I think I need to adapt my own attitudes and behaviour to promote consent culture values, though. And I definitely want to think through the detail of how this works in practice.

I am setting to one side really fraught questions about how a consent culture attitude towards relationships works with parenting. I have several friends who are trying to raise their kids in a consent culture frame, which I really admire. There are questions of just how much very young children can meaningfully consent to or refuse relationships, which is one thing. I don't for a moment believe that consent culture advocates are suggesting that parents can just abandon their dependent children on a whim, so obviously that is an exception to the principle that you can leave or reduce any relationship at any time for any reason. In any case, I want to examine the consequences of a consent culture attitude to relationships between adults, because simply stating the principle of all relationships being freely chosen doesn't give you a complete moral guide.

I think part of what's prompting this introspection is that I'm aware of a number of serious, divorce-level breakups going on within my various circles. People ending relationships that were intended to be lifelong, with major major life and financial consequences. I mean, that's partly a factor of the age I am, I'm in my mid-30s so I know people who are getting divorced. But I'm seeing a lot of people dealing with the consequences of a partner deciding they don't want to be in a relationship any more. And some who are leaving partners who have done something completely unforgivable. Consent culture says that if your partner abuses you, you have the absolute right to leave them, which seems vastly preferable to telling abuse victims that they must honour commitments made on the assumption that their partner would not in fact be cruel or violent to them. Consent culture also says that you can just walk away from a relationship, even a marriage, even if you have financial entanglements, even if your partner is partly dependent on you or has made major sacrifices and rearranged their life for the sake of the relationship. I think that's morally right, but it no longer seems simple.

I am trying to figure out how to be the kind of person who doesn't coerce people into relationships with me that they don't want. I don't think I'm quite capable of going through life with no expectation at all that relationships that currently exist will continue into the future, whether that's emotional closeness or the practical reality of what I depend on other people for. Perhaps I can manage a lower level than that, perhaps I can get away with assuming that existing commitments will continue in most cases but being aware that the other people involved have an ongoing choice and may in fact decide to dial back or break off the relationship. But does aiming for that lower level mean I'm committing the ultimate consent culture sin of "entitlement" to other people's time, affection, practical support etc? Also I am seriously trying to work out how I actually live like that, practically and emotionally, taking as a serious possibility the idea that people in my life might withdraw consent for that particular relationship.

The other thing that's prompted this is that I've been reading lots of Captain Awkward and seeing the advice that the Captain and the community give to people, coming from a consent culture perspective, and introspecting about whether I'm living up to the ideals behind the advice. I mean, to take a minor example, I've been in situations where I preferred spending three minutes giving a blowjob over three hours reassuring a partner that my not really feeling in the mood for sex doesn't mean I reject them or that they're a terrible person. Based on how the Awkward Army respond to people who mention similar experiences, I fear they would tell me that I was horribly violating consent culture principles by doing this, I wasn't "using my words", I wasn't properly defending my boundaries or practising "good" consent. Or else that I was actually having sex with Darth Vader without realizing it and the fact of my partner having crises of confidence was actually abusive. I mean, this was all ages ago, and perhaps it's relevant that I didn't feel moved to write to an agony column asking for help dealing with this problem. Lots and lots of things are only a problem if they're a problem! I guess, ideally, everybody should be completely self-actualized and never feel insecure about rejection, whether sexual or otherwise, but that does seem an unreasonably high standard for people to have to reach to be competent to engage in consensual sex and relationships.

Captain Awkward has also been giving lots of advice to people who have experienced a relationship being ended unilaterally, including friendships, romantic relationships, and familial relationships between adults. And again, I feel like I'm not really living up to their standards. More ancient history examples here:

I had a friend I was really close to, we talked about everything, really intense affection. One day we had a quarrel, which started out being about my negotiating to reduce how much she was calling me in the middle of the night, because much as I cared about her I wasn't physically able to offer that particular form of support as often as she requested it. And I lost my temper and said something mean, and the next day I wrote to apologise because I really shouldn't have said what I said. I received a reply saying that she didn't want to talk to me any more. I tried to respect her choice, but I messed it up. Partly I didn't know what she intended by not wanting to talk any more, whether for example it was permanent or just at that moment. I didn't want to ask for clarification because that would be forcing her to continue talking to me when she'd said she didn't want to, and equally I didn't feel able to repeat my apology or ask for ways to make amends. Over time it became clear she wasn't interested in reestablishing contact at all, and she even told me not to participate in LJ communities she was also a member of, because she didn't want to see my username or comments anywhere. I was pretty heartbroken about this, but, well, I had said the mean thing, and she had the perfect right to cut me out of her life and was not obliged to give me a second chance. A couple of years later I wrote her a letter asking if she could consider forgiving me and what I would have to do to convince her I wouldn't do anything like that again. I tried to be as non-pushy about it as possible, but what actually happened was that she considered that I was stalking her and threatened to call the police if I ever contacted her in any way ever again. I mean, I only just coincidentally happened to see the threat because she didn't communicate it to me directly, and she had asked me not to read her public blog, but I just happened to see it on a friend's friends page.

By the standards of the Awkward Army, I am a terrible person for asking for forgiveness like that. I'm not really allowed to feel that this reaction was disproportionate to my saying one mean thing in heated moment. I suspect that this person may believe I did something worse than what I actually did, but since I'm not allowed to communicate I have no way of finding out if there was an actual misunderstanding or if my snapping at her was really that bad. And much as I do want to live in consent culture, I am not sure I want to live in a world where a strong, long-established friendship is completely obliterated by one person saying one word wrong, with no possibility of forgiveness or sorting it out. In this case, yes, I was deliberately mean, but it's easy enough to have a genuine misunderstanding, and it feels as if consent culture leaves no possible way of ever clarifying any mistakes.

Or take my one bad breakup. I had a kind of summer romance thing when I was 20, met someone I got on really well with, was blindsided to discover he had a crush on me, and after days of intense negotiations agreed that we could try dating, but we swore blind that even if it didn't work out we would find a way to stay friends afterwards. The relationship was kind of a bad idea in retrospect; I hurt this guy badly through inexperience, and we had a really really horrible fight which ended with him breaking up with me. And then we did what we'd promised eachother and tried to rebuild the friendship, and basically failed because we were in such an emotional mess. I got together with someone else rather soon after the breakup, which he couldn't really cope with, and as a result of that he asked me not to contact him for a while. Again, I respected that, though I liked him really much as a friend and was really sad about breaking off contact. A long time later, I again wrote to my ex and asked if we could try starting to talk again, which, I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have done. In fact he did seem ok with it, and we agreed to meet up and see if we could still be friends. At that time he made it really clear that he didn't want to hear about anything major or personal in my life, so we kept the conversation at a small-talk level. And I didn't manage to maintain that sort of superficial contact, there was geography in the way, and he doesn't really do email or internet, and I wasn't organized to find the time to write paper letters if I wasn't getting the reward of a close friendship with meaningful discussions.

How would that have gone if I'd followed consent culture principles? Part of me thinks I should have pushed less, I shouldn't have ever sent that follow-up letter, I should have waited for him to take the initiative if he wanted to re-establish contact. But part of me thinks that we promised eachother we'd find a way to continue being friends, even if was emotionally hard, and we should have put more effort in to trying to fix what went wrong when it turned out we weren't compatible as romantic partners. Or maybe I should have put more time into the friendly acquaintances level of connection which is what he asked for. Honestly letting that slide wasn't a deliberate choice by either of us, it was just that practicalities got in the way.

There's also this recent letter about a friendship ending. Not absolutely everything in that letter is applicable to me (for a start, I'm not at all socially anxious, I'm extroverted and gregarious, and I have lots of other friends), but lots of it is. I had a really really close best friend, I can't even really describe how close, because it sounds completely ridiculous. And she just kind of stopped contacting me; we never quarrelled, just her passionate declarations of eternal friendship got further and further spaced out, until the last one came after a two-year gap, just as passionate as everything that had gone before with no hint that it would be the last letter I'd receive from her. I mean, that was well over a decade ago now, and I still half-hope that maybe she will get back in touch. I have no workable contact details for her any more (again, she doesn't to my knowledge socialize online), but I don't know whether I should try looking for her since in words she said she would always want to hear everything about my life, or whether I should respect her apparent decision to end the friendship, even though she never communicated that decision to me? Was I wrong to continue writing at all when I wasn't getting replies? I can't help wondering if the friendship ended over a misunderstanding which I could have cleared up if only we'd had one more chance to communicate.

I suspect the other reason I'm angsty about this stuff is that I'm in the middle of committing myself financially and life-shape wise to buying a house with [personal profile] jack. Of course I entirely accept that he has the right to end our marriage if he should choose to, and I wouldn't in the least want to compel him to stay with me if the relationship wasn't making him happy. But what if he doesn't even want the level of contact and cooperation necessary for disentangling our finances without going through a horrible, expensive, adversarial process? Not that I think this is likely, at all, I'm not in the least worried that he's some kind of gold-digger who is setting me up to steal my savings! But surely people can get married and / or move in together with some kind of expectation that the relationship will continue, that if there are problems you will make some kind of good faith effort to fix them, that if in fact the relationship does come to an end there is some sort of, I hate to say it, but some obligation to stay in contact the minimum necessary to sort things out?

It's certainly easy to imagine relationships with more pressing external reasons to maintain some kind of at least business relationship even if the affectionate relationship is no longer mutual. People who break up and who are co-parenting children, for example, or couples where one partner actually can't manage financially or practically without the other. Lots of feminism, especially the rare disability-positive feminism I'm most drawn to, points out that people aren't truly independent, the possibility is a cultural myth. I happen to be in a situation that if my marriage did come to an end, I would probably be ok, because for example I have a job which earns me enough money to support myself without needing to rely on my husband, as well as many other advantages. Even as it is, I'm making decisions that are financially sound if we do in fact stay together forever, and financially reasonable if we remain committed to our agreement that we will try to do the right thing by eachother even if we break up, and potentially financially disastrous if (hypothetically) my husband revokes his consent to be in a friendly, cooperative relationship with me at all. And most people are just not fortunate enough to be able to go into all their life relationships with the attitude that, well, if it doesn't work out that'll be a loss but not a disaster. Plenty of people in fact give up jobs or relocate for the sake of relationships, plenty of people can manage if they share housing costs and physical labour and tasks, but can't manage on their own. Anyway, you can't make any kind of life plans if you simply have no idea whether people are going to want to continue in serious, major relationships with you from one day to the next!

Last time I tried to talk about something like this, I think some people got the impression I was advocating forcing people to stay in abusive relationships, for largely spurious reasons like "for the children" or "because God said so". I don't want that at all, I want to be in consent culture, I'm just trying to work out how to be confident and secure enough, let alone all the practical considerations, to make sure I don't find myself coercing people to be in relationships with me that they don't want.
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