You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense

Posted: November 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

(This post co-authored by maymay and myself.)

Did you ever consent to something, but still came away feeling violated? Ever said “yes” to someone and then wished you could take it back? Well, you can.

Here’s the thing: it is possible to consent to having some experience and then, sometime in the future, not consent to having had that experience.

Put another way, you have “the right to retroactively withdraw consent” from any encounters you had, at any point in the past, that no longer feel good or safe to you.

Currently, the way we talk about consent leaves no space for people to re-evaluate their own experiences. Nevertheless, people frequently do re-evaluate their experiences—including and perhaps even especially their sexual experiences—based on a variety of factors. Newly learned information, changing circumstances, or the way they themselves have changed are all things that can and do alter people’s feelings about the past. Discourses about consent that don’t make space for such after-the-fact evaluations are flawed.

There’s a better way to think and talk about consent, one that honors peoples’ entire experience of a situation—past, present, and future—not just the tiny time-slices of that experience during which they were asked, “Is this cool with you?” Instead of understanding consent as “giving someone permission to do a thing,” we can and should talk about it as “being okay with a thing happening.”

In this essay, we begin an exploration into how current mainstream and even progressive feminist discourses about (specifically) sexual consent fail to address the lived experience of navigating consent within rape culture. We point out that a legalistic framing of consent as expressed rather than experienced ultimately centers the needs of would-be rapists over the needs of rape survivors. We also consider how our relationship to consent changes when we acknowledge that whether a person actually feels violated is more important than whether they expected to feel violated.

How does our relationship to consent change if we think of “consent” as a real experience people have of feeling that what happened to them was okay, and “violation” as more nuanced than simply committing an un-permitted action?

In such a model, if Bob and Andy have sex, and Andy says, “Yes,” “Sure,” “Okay, fine, whatever,” or even, “Ooh baby, do it to me!” but still wakes up the next morning feeling like he was raped, that means Andy was raped. Conversely, if Andy and François have a steamy make-out session in which no words are exchanged but they both go home feeling great about it, and they keep feeling great about it, that experience was consensual.

If our concern is with not violating a person, rather than not violating a rule, then “a violation” is defined by what happens when a person processes and continually re-processes their feelings about an experience. Likewise, if our concern is about behaving ethically and with integrity, rather than making sure we are not held accountable for coercive actions, then we should respect consent as an experience people have, not a commitment people make.

Consent does not equal permission; it is a felt sense.

Of course, this understanding of consent fucking terrifies people (mostly men and sadomasochistic “Dominants”), because it implies that consent (as they understand it) can be “revoked” retroactively. But this is only a problem for someone whose desire to understand consent is primarily focused on how to not get in trouble for violating consent, or at the very least on how not to feel bad about themselves for violating consent, rather than on how to not violate consent.

I’ve had my boundaries violated in the past. You probably have, too. If that experience was traumatic, where did the trauma come from? Did it come from the fact that someone broke a rule? (Maybe. A trust violation can be traumatizing even if no other harm occurred.) Or did it come from the fact that someone interacted with me in a way that made me feel unsafe, hurt, and violated?
Your Kink Is Not My Kink, but would you like some Dorito’s? by unquietpirate

Typically, we define “consent” as the act of communicating to someone that it is okay for them to interact with us in a particular way. In other words, people generally believe consent is synonymous with permission. Andy “consented” to sex if Bob asked, “Will you have sex with me?” and Andy said, “Yes.” They behave as if “consenting” means agreeing to do something.

If Andy says “yes” to sex with Bob but still winds up feeling like his boundaries were violated, Bob bears no responsibility for Andy’s discomfort as long as Bob stuck to their agreement. Bob can be a nice guy and help Andy process his feelings, if he wants, or he can be a dick and just tell Andy it’s not his problem. Later, Andy can choose not to play with Bob again because he had a bad time, but he is not “allowed” to call Bob a rapist—Andy would be making a “false accusation”—because Bob didn’t break any rules. We call this the “consent-as-permission model,” or “contractual-consent.”

The problem with this model is that it is fundamentally legalistic. It’s all about whether or not permission to perform an act was obtained; it asks nothing about peoples’ experiences after they say “yes.” Instead, the Consent-as-Permission model asks questions like, “What counts as a ‘yes’?”, “Under what circumstances is a ‘yes’ inadmissible?”, and “In the case of a dispute, what kinds of documentation are required to prove the presence or absence of a ‘yes’?

In recent years, new variants on this contractual-consent paradigm have emerged, but none address its root limitation. For instance, the “Enthusiastic Consent” variant says that a “yes” is inadmissible unless the answer to “Will you have sex with me?” is “enthusiastically” affirmed (i.e., not merely “yes,” but “YES!”). Similarly, the “Ongoing Consent” variant says that a “yes” effectively runs on a timer, and when the timer runs out consent must be re-acquired. But all of these variants miss the point; at their core, they treat consent like an exchange of goods, a transaction in which a nebulous, arbitrarily-defined set of sanctioned actions can or can not be taken under certain conditions that are themselves defined by the negotiating process through which “consent” is either obtained or denied.

This framing of consent (and violation) is wrong. It is tragically wrong. Regardless of how we tweak it, the consent-as-permission model retains a focus on the experience of the person receiving permission, not the person who is or is not consenting. Such a system encourages us to design “consent contracts,” negotiated agreements about what behaviors are permissible in what situations. In such a system, the most rational thing to do is also the least ethical: prioritize avoiding accountability for acts of rape over respecting another person’s consent.

Moreover, the current Consent-as-Permission model doesn’t even work in a number of common situations.

For the privileged few of us who are able to communicate freely and easily about sex, Consent-as-Permission increases the likelihood that we won’t have sexual experiences in which we feel violated. In cases where we are very clear about our own desires, as well as capable of articulating them safely to ourselves and others, it’s relatively straightforward to make our verbal expressions of consent align with our felt experience of consenting. However, there are a number of common situations where defining “consent” as “saying yes” can cause serious harm.

The Consent-as-Permission model deals very poorly with all but the most extreme versions of the following situations:

  • The Pressured Yes – When a “yes” is obtained through abuse or threat of violence.
  • The Compromised Yes – When the desire to say “yes” is the result of environmental influences such as drugs, emotional stress, or sexual trauma.
  • I Don’t Knows – When a person is unsure about what feels good or safe to them but still wants to “test the waters” of erotic intimacy.
  • Barriers to Verbal Communication – When people negotiating a “consent contract” have trouble talking about what they want or expect will feel okay.
  • New Information – When new information about others or personal realizations about oneself surface that change one’s perception of something that happened to them.
  • Gradated Consent Violations – When a “consent contract” is broken in a way that a person feels comfortable with, or in a way that they feel somewhat but not extremely uncomfortable with, as compared to a way that feels disturbing or traumatizing.
  • “Consensual Non-Consent” – When a person intentionally chooses to say “yes” to experiences that feel non-consensual to them.

Most of us are not taught to trust our own feelings and desires, which means many of us don’t know what we want or what will feel good, okay, or even safe sexually. We are constantly in the process of figuring that out. A model of consent that requires in-the-moment sexual self-awareness to be so reliable that you’re willing to make a contract based on it is inaccessible to most people.

Further, all these legalistic discourses essentially treat consent as a binary value: either it’s present, or it’s not. Putting aside literal legal definitions, if (“enthusiastic and ongoing”) consent is deemed present, then even some progressive feminist (“sex-positive”) discourses blanketly decree no “violation” can occur. But this inevitably also defines a consent violation in a black-and-white way without any space for nuance or gradation.

Conflating giving permission (to try something) with consenting (feeling okay about something) often leads to confusing situations where people feel traumatized or violated but tell themselves, “Well…I said yes, so I must’ve wanted it.”

Clinging to a legalistic model of consent is tempting for some people. For one thing, that’s what we’re familiar with.

For another, talking about consent in a way that over-emphasizes the breaking of rules (i.e., a form of legalism) makes it easier to interface with the legal system, since that system also uses a “rule breaking” framework to determine the “wrongness” of some act. It’s much easier to provide a prosecutor with evidence about broken contracts than to provide one with evidence about feeling violated. But it’s well understood that the “criminal justice” system is, at best, an ineffective last-resort for survivors of sexual violence. Making it more difficult to ask for help from an institution that isn’t helping anyway is hardly a sacrifice.

The consent-as-permission model is also attractive because it requires very little self-reflection. A permission binary—“they said yes” versus “they said no”—is more simply quantifiable than having to be conscientious about what people are actually experiencing and what responsibilities you might have in relation to that experience. People invested in the consent-as-permission model are therefore also highly invested in treating rape and abuse as something committed only by “abusers,” and thus, by definition not themselves or their friends, since they are “not that kind of people.”

Finally, it’s tempting to retain the consent-as-permission model because of the fear that “it’s all we’ve got.” Lacking alternative methodologies to discourage socially harmful behavior, we tend to rely on whatever methodologies we think will work—even if those methodologies prove ineffective. However, we do in fact have an array of tools that do not rely on the legal system, law enforcement, or punitive deterrents. For instance, we can make more use of tools such as social shaming, transformative justice, and other community accountability processes that have effected radical changes. Tools like the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook, which amplify the power of traditional self-protective mechanisms, offer a glimpse into what such systems could look like at scale.

Ultimately, support for a legalistic model of consent has no ethical foundation. The powers that be have demonstrated no ability or willingness to build effective systems to address sexual violence. Building our own systems as half-assed imitations of those powers does us no good.

What needs to change in order for an experiential model of consent to supplant a permission-based one?

Getting in touch with our felt sense of “consenting”

Just as traditional legalism conditions people to confuse right and wrong with legal and illegal, consent-legalism conditions people to confuse consenting and nonconsenting with allowed and disallowed. This obscures our felt sense of consent.

We are all raised in a culture that teaches us from a very young age that our bodies are not our own. We force our children into an oppressively ordered school system as soon as they can walk, praise and reward them for enthusiastic participation in that system, and then somehow expect them to have clear intuitions about the difference between coercion and desire. Technically, we said “yes” to math homework through most of middle and high school. Does that mean we were voluntarily doing pre-calc problems instead of hanging out with friends?

Tapping into our intuitive and embodied understanding of what “okay” feels like for us will be challenging, but it is necessary for an improved relationship to consent. Unquietpirate’s post, “Your Kink is Not My Kink But Would You Like Some Dorito’s?,” begins a discussion on what that recovery process might look like in the realm of sexual consent:

Since all our somatic experiences of choice are so buried, the way we talk about “consent” often devolves into a conversation about permission and rules instead. Certainly, it’s important to teach people not to do things to other peoples’ bodies that they haven’t been given permission to do. Absolutely. But that’s not really enough to generate the kinds of fulfilling, pleasurable, whole human experiences that I think most of us would like to have in our sex, in our play, in our learning, in our work, etc. [One way to recover from “eating disorders” called] Intuitive Eating has developed a concrete and, in my experience, effective methodology for helping people get back in touch with their somatic sense of what they do and don’t want to eat, what is and isn’t healthy for their particular bodies, etc. I wonder what a similar methodology would look like in other arenas of consent?

This process will look very different for different people, depending on their personal histories and positionalities, which is why it is important for this conversation to take root in a wide range of places.

We need to understand giving permission as a way of communicating about consent, not as consent itself. We also need to understand that giving (or not giving) permission is not the only legitimate way to communicate about consent.

As a way of sharing information about desires and expectations, premeditated “consent contracts” can be a useful communication exercise. But problems arise when they become a way for potential rapists to cover their asses in the event that they violate a partner. Miscommunications occur, including miscommunications about permission, but a miscommunication is never an excuse for rape.

Facing our own abusiveness

Both mainstream and numerous feminist discourses tend to treat violation through sexual violence as something committed by “abusers” (i.e., “them,” not “us”). Most often, people treat having raped or having been raped as a defining facet of who someone is, as a person; they don’t treat rape like something people do, they treat rape like it’s something people are. We don’t think that’s helpful.

Realistically, anybody who is having any kind of sex in the context of rape culture is likely to violate someone’s consent at some point. The most ethical response to this fact, obviously, is to not have sex—and, in fact, if enough people decided to opt out of rape culture by opting completely out of erotic intimacy, that would ultimately bring rape culture crashing down. But a “sexual hunger strike to bring about the end of rape culture” is an unrealistically high ethical bar to set for most real people who are trying to survive in a world where intimacy is a human necessity.

Instead, we need to take it as a given that if you choose to have sex in the context of rape culture, especially if you choose to have sex with people who have less power than you, and especially if you choose to have kinds of sex that explicitly play with that power differential, at some point you are probably going to violate someone’s consent—if you haven’t already. We need a process for dealing with that other than abject denial. We need to develop ways of regularly acknowledging, taking accountability for, and participating in healing work around the damage our coercive behavior causes.

When rape is framed as a piece of one’s identity rather than as an act one committed, the possibility that one could “be a rapist” is simply unconscionable for most people to stomach. Their terror at this prospect spurs them to justify or excuse their behavior. We’re going to have to come to grips with what it means to violate others in a way our justifiable fear of “being rapists” has so far prevented us from doing.

Slowing Down

If you accept the premise that someone’s experience of sexual violation “counts” as rape, regardless of whether they granted verbal permission beforehand, then in order to avoid being accused of rape you’ll have to shift your mindset from, “I’d better make sure I was told it was okay to do this first,” to “I’d better make damn sure this person isn’t going to wake up tomorrow and feel like I raped them.” The latter is a standard requiring much more communication, understanding, and compassion from the people involved than the former, especially in situations with near-strangers like one-night stands, hook-ups, or play partners you might meet at a club.

What would you change about your behavior towards others if you acknowledged that violating consent hinged not on what they said about how they felt, but on how they actually felt? What would change about your behavior toward yourself? What does consent feel like to you?

Understanding consent as something that is experienced, rather than as something that is “given,” addresses the problems caused by conflating permission with consent. Importantly, treating consent as a felt sense respects the agency of the person consenting; it enables them to consent to anything, and only things, that they feel okay about. This includes, ironically, situations that they feel okay not feeling okay about, yet without absolving non-consensual situations of their violative aspect.

This ability for layering, or meta-consent, means that it is possible to agentically consent to having your consent violated. This is the most important difference between the Consent as Felt Sense model and the two major current discourses about consent, both of which argue that it is impossible to consent to violation:

  • Radical feminists use a “false consciousness” model, which claims that if you appear to be choosing (i.e., contracting for) violation, you must not be authentically choosing. In other words, you have been brainwashed or are being threatened into giving permission.
  • In the sex-positive and BDSM scenes, a “performative violence” model is more common; it claims that if you appear to be choosing violation, it must not actually be violation. In other words, what might look like rape or violence is actually something else entirely, because you’ve given permission for it.

Both of these framings are wrong.

If I freely give you a signed and notarized piece of paper saying, “Do whatever you want to me,” that doesn’t mean I now magically can’t be raped. It might mean I can’t prosecute you for rape—but given the legal system’s track record, I probably couldn’t have done that anyway. It hopefully means I have a process for integrating rape into my experience in a way that makes it okay for me. But if you choose to take advantage of this carte blanche opportunity to rape me, what you’re doing is still rape.

The legalistic Consent-as-Permission model focuses on behavior, on the “doing” of sex acts. It addresses what a given person, in a given place, at a given time, with a given history can or cannot reasonably choose to allow to happen to them in a given situation. But it has nothing to say about how that person feels about the choice they made. It doesn’t even offer any guidance for answering questions like, “What if I don’t know what I want?” and “What if what I want, or wanted, changes over time?”

Legalistic approaches to consent are responsible for the cultural paralysis in addressing rape and other undesirable intimate violations. If we focused cultural resources on developing a compassionate discourse for understanding the ways that consent violations are gradated, that violations have degrees of impact informed by myriad factors, and that “consenting” is more about developing our own felt sense of an experience than strictly adhering to a set of cultural doctrines, we might finally be able to stop repeating these boring, immature, circular finger-pointing arguments we’ve been having since the “Sex Wars” in the 80’s.

  1. Lisa says:

    Hi, this is Lisa, author of one of the posts linked in your article (under “pressured yes”). I’d like it if you removed the link to my article and found a different source. As I’ve made clear elsewhere I don’t want my work to be any part of any project in which maymay is involved. If you won’t remove the link then please leave this comment in place so that my objection is noted. I’m not up for any further discussion on this subject, so there’s no need to make any other response (I also won’t be following any discussion).

    • maymay says:

      As I’ve made clear elsewhere I don’t want my work to be any part of any project in which maymay is involved.

      Well then, sucks to be you, doesn’t it, Lisa?

      Sometimes I wonder what it must be like inside your petty, brilliant little mind. Then I stop caring. That part’s fun, too. 🙂

    • thirdxlucky says:


      I read your work and it meaningfully influences my thinking. Regardless of whether I credit you or not, I cannot, at this point, change the fact that your work has fundamentally altered the way I understand things like consent and sexual ethics. When discussing ideas that are informed by my exposure to your writing, would you prefer that I do so without citing you, or simply that when I do cite you, I don’t link to you directly?

      If you choose not to respond to this comment, I won’t pursue it further. Thanks.

      • Lisa says:

        Please don’t cite, link or mention me in any work which is a collaboration with maymay or otherwise lends him credibility.

      • thirdxlucky says:

        Okay. Thank you for clarifying. I won’t commit to attempting to exert control over what maymay chooses to link etc. within our collaborative work but, personally, I will honor your request to the best of my ability in my future writing.

      • Lisa says:

        That’s great; thanks.

      • Cody says:

        You just wrote an article about consent and now you won’t listen to Lisa’s lack of consent? How hypocritical of you.

      • thirdxlucky says:

        It cracks me up that you TumblrInAction folks keep coming in here and trying to post this comment, or making the same comment in your subreddit every time you re-link this post and freak out about it again, like you didn’t just have the same exact conversation about it last month. I swear, TiA is one of my most reliable sources of traffic on this blog. So, thanks, I guess.

        First of all, don’t y’all have a Really Big Deal Rule in your group about not initiating contact with the blogs you’re making fun of? My understanding is that it’s a bannable offense. I don’t care, personally, but one of the 5,000ish other Redditors who’ve looked at this post in the past month might. So, I thought I’d go ahead and approve your comment for their benefit,

        Secondly, did you really just accuse me of violating Lisa Millbank’s consent by linking to her blog without her permission? While that’s an argument I’m willing to entertain, consider that also means you and your Reddit buddies are violating my consent just as badly by linking to this post without my permission, over and over and over again. So, Cody, I guess we’re all hypocrites here.

  2. Interesting piece. I think the focus on the emotional experience of consent is crucial, and I have two immediate thoughts.

    First, it seems to me that the examples you are presenting as failures the permission model of consent imply a sort of straw-man argument. No one who currently talks about consent for more than a sentence or so considers intoxicated or physically threatened persons to be consentable. So that.

    Second, it feels to me like the idea of treating sexual consent as retroactively removable makes emotional sense, but it also pushes the concept very far from what we mean by “consent” in other contexts, which is usually understood to be irrevocable after some point. Maymay, you provide a rather striking example of this in the comments: it would appear that Lisa has retroactively removed her consent to provide you with a link, and you are (aggressively!) clear that that isn’t a meaningful act on her part.

    I realize that you have specifically narrowed the focus here to sexuality, but this seems like such a different concept of consent that maybe we should no longer be using the word?

  3. IsaacSapphire says:

    One thing that I’ve found that consent-as-felt-sense highlights and handles well (and which consent-as-permission does not) is the falsity of the actor vs object binary of sexual roles, where people are viewed as actors OR as objects of others’ actions. This is an inaccurate and incomplete view, yet another broken binary, but it’s an unexamined assumption that underlies a lot of sexual ethics.

    So if Andy is the bottom/sub/masochist/penetrated/woman and Bob is the top/dom/sadist/penetrator/man, then for consent-as-permission, Bob is supposed to ask Andy if he’d like some act performed upon him, Andy answers, and Bob’s a rapist (and Andy has been raped) or not based on if he asked permission and if he respected Andy’s “No.” That Andy cannot rape Bob is implicit in this view but doesn’t seem to be explicitly addressed much.

    But, with consent-as-felt-sense, Bob can feel that se was pressured into performing some act on Andy. Bob’s feelings of regret, of violation, even though se never said no, are validated under consent-as-felt-sense, where they are ignored and invalidated under consent-as-permission.

    For this reason (and more beside, but I’ve started with this), I agree that consent-as-felt-sense is a better model of consent, as Einstein’s model of the universe is a better model than Newton’s (and, like Newton’s model, consent-as-permission is not without value, even after a better model comes along; it’s still good training wheels.)

    • bandanablog says:

      Yes, all of this. Sorry this took me a while to reply to. 🙂

      And I agree that consent-as-permission is not a terrible starting place; given that most of us have been raised in a culture where we have very little ability to access our own felt sense, it helps to give people some rough guidelines (e.g. “ask first!”, “no means no”, and “yes means yes”) when they’re just starting out. It’s, arguably, better than nothing. And, certainly, in almost every sexual situation (except maybe some “consensual non-consent” variants), permission should still be considered *necessary*, just not sufficient, for consent.

      I just hope and wish that when we’re teaching people the “consent as permission” model, we’ll do it in the same way that my 9th grade math teacher taught us Euclidean Geometry — by saying, “Everything I’m going to teach you in this class is wrong. It’s a very simplified way to start thinking about Geometry, but it’s not actually how Geometry works, so please just use this class as an entry point into thinking about the mathematical world but don’t start believing that this is how the world actually works.”

    • therapist says:

      You realize that you just conflated everything to the left of the slash with male and everything to the right of the slash with female? Because my 13 inch strap on wielding sadistic domme wife would like a word with you. [REDACTED]

      • thirdxlucky says:

        I’ve edited your comment because I do not allow rape threats on my blog. Do it again and I’ll ban you.

  4. DRBS says:

    In the article you refer to people who are terrified by this model are people who are more focused on how to not get in trouble for violating consent than on how to not violate consent.

    Does the inverse hold that people who are not terrified by this model are people who are more focused on how to not violate consent than on getting people in trouble for violating consent?

    • bandanablog says:

      Yes. 🙂

      This model should feel like a relief to people who want to re-focus the consent conversation on serving the needs of survivors, rather than on punishing rapists. That doesn’t automatically mean that rapists shouldn’t be punished. It means that figuring out what to do about rapists is not the most important question in this conversation — figuring out what to do FOR survivors is.

  5. sieleben says:

    “Consent” is a concept that has been around longer than feminism or fantasizing about an alleged “rape culture”.
    Consent is a clear term and of course it can be revoked after it has been given. You can, for example, give consent to your insurance company to debit your monthly fees straight from your bank account.
    Than, if you no longer want it, you can revoke it and tell your insurance company that you do not consent to automotically invoices anymore.

    But, the fact remains that the insurance company has taken money out of your bank account in the past. No matter how you fell about that, it has happened and you have given the permission!
    Therefore you cannot blame the insurance company for invoicing the fees.

    This is the core of the matter: Stuff that happened in the past, cannot be made undone, no matter how you feel about that.

    So, a “rape” can never happen “in retrospective”. If the woman did not perceive an sexual act as rape at the moment of the actual encounter how in the world can a guy estimate that this sexual encounter will be perceived as “rape” in the future?

    Your concept of consent as “a felt sense” is completely unlogically, prone to subjective interpretation and fraud! It would never ever hold true for any legal contract or document. How can you actually be serious about that?

    • thirdxlucky says:

      There are a number of ranty MRA comments like this one in my queue right now, but since they basically all say the exact same thing and I don’t want to spam the people who are subscribed to my comment feed, I’m only approving this one. (Ironically, because this is the *most* clearly written and correctly spelled one. So, that’s embarrassing.)

      Anyway, your shallow arguments have already been addressed elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash here. You can just go read: 3 Reasons Why Rape Fans on Both Sides of the Fence Hate “Consent as Felt Sense”

      • sieleben says:

        Dear thirdxlucky,

        1) My comment might have some flaws in grammar, yes. Due to the fact that I’m no native English speaker, it could be forgiven, no? No need to use it as a personal flout, is it? If you feel up to having a fluent conversation with me in German, Dutch or maybe French you can visit my blog and we can have a chat?

        2) I really don’t appreciate being called a “Rape Fan”, even indirectly. How is it that one is instantly being attacked on a personal level and put into some “corner” when discussion with “Feminist Aktivist” such as you? Is it not possible to have a decent conversation without those taunts, flouts and insults?

        3) Thank you, for the link of your other article, even if I’m not able to relate to the headline in any way..

        After reading it. I really came to the conclusion that the arguments, which were brought forward by your critics, hold more substance, than your own article. I really don’t see your point in enlarging the definition of “rape” so that potentially every male, having sex with a woman, can be labled as a “rapist”.
        Furthermore I do not see a logical reason to macerate the perfectly good definition of a term (itc. “consent”) so that I becomes something that it is clearly not. The definition of “consent” is pretty clear, but your definition of consent as a subjective fealing that might change overtime, is not.

      • thirdxlucky says:

        Dear sieleben,

        1) My comment might have some flaws in grammar, yes. Due to the fact that I’m no native English speaker, it could be forgiven, no? No need to use it as a personal flout, is it? If you feel up to having a fluent conversation with me in German, Dutch or maybe French you can visit my blog and we can have a chat?

        Fair point. My apologies. What you should take from this, I suppose, is that your written English is significantly better than that of many native speakers. But you probably knew that already.

        I should be clear that I don’t generally engage with rape apologists, no matter how perfect their grammar is, because the contortions they go through in order to make defenses of rape sound “rational”, “logical”, and “plausible” are offensive on both an intellectual and a gut-churning visceral level. But as long as you’re here, I’ll take the opportunity to answer some questions that I’m sure are going to get asked over and over again (in significantly less lovely English than yours.)

        2) I really don’t appreciate being called a “Rape Fan”, even indirectly.

        Well, I don’t appreciate your rape apologism, nor your weirdly gendered assumptions that all victims of rape are women, so I suppose we’re square.

        How is it that one is instantly being attacked on a personal level and put into some “corner” when discussion with “Feminist Aktivist” such as you? Is it not possible to have a decent conversation without those taunts, flouts and insults?

        And yet, funnily, you’re the one here blankly accusing me of being a “Feminist Activist,” when that is certainly not how I would describe my politics around consent.

        On top of the fact that I have been accused by feminists all my life of being overconcerned with mens’ experiences, feelings, needs, safety etc. I would argue that my consent work falls much more firmly under the umbrella of mental health advocacy than it does into the weirdly heterosexual Boys vs. Girls playground battle you MRAs and Feminists seem to be forever waging against each other.

        If nothing else, the conversation maymay and I are having about consent is certainly not the same one “Feminist Activists” are having about it — and I believe it makes them just about as uncomfortable as it makes you.

        So, if you are interpreting my work through the lens of what you believe you know about “feminism” — and given the oversimplified shallowness of your responses and your fixation on gender, I bet you are — I suggest that you take a step back and question your own assumptions.

        3) Thank you, for the link of your other article, even if I’m not able to relate to the headline in any way..

        A. It wasn’t my article. Maymay, the co-author of this piece, wrote it.

        B. This is the second time you’ve pointed out, with no prompting from me, that the title of the article does not describe you. I’m curious about why you feel so defensive. For my part, when I read an article about something that I’m confident does not describe me, I don’t feel the need to point out ad nauseum that the article doesn’t describe me.

        If someone sends me an article about polar bears and I’m pretty sure I’m not a polar bear, I don’t reply with, “Nice article, even though I’m not a polar bear. You know I’m not a polar bear, right? Okay, just making sure. Not a polar bear.” I just read it.

        After reading it. I really came to the conclusion that the arguments, which were brought forward by your critics, hold more substance, than your own article.

        That’s a very interesting conclusion. Thanks for informing me of your opinion but providing no substance or specifics to back it up.

        Since you claim to have read the article but don’t sound like you actually gleaned anything from it, I’ll point you at a couple of shorter and more digestible links instead:

        You Can Take It Back: The Bite-Sized Brownie Version

        Why would we treat abusive sexual experiences differently from abusive jobs?

        People retroactively realize their boundaries were violated all the time, regardless of what we say about it.

        I really don’t see your point in enlarging the definition of “rape” so that potentially every male, having sex with a woman, can be labled as a “rapist”.

        I really don’t see your point in trying to restrict the definition of “rape” to only a very narrow subset of all forced or coerced sexual violations that are only differentiated from other sexual violations on the basis of some kind of judicial technicality.

        (I also don’t understand your continued fixation on this idea that “only men are rapists” and “only women are rape victims.” Where did you get this idea?)

        You realize the law is made up, right? Rape has been occurring in society since long before there was a legal definition of it. Since long before there was a “legal system” at all. You think people didn’t know what rape was, didn’t know whether or not they had been raped (or committed rape), before some external authority came along to tell them what the official definition of the word in the eyes of the law is?

        Furthermore I do not see a logical reason to macerate the perfectly good definition of a term (itc. “consent”) so that I becomes something that it is clearly not. The definition of “consent” is pretty clear, but your definition of consent as a subjective fealing that might change overtime, is not.

        Actually, as I’ve said many times before and I’m sure, unfortunately, that I will have to say many times again: It’s y’all who are trying to make “consent” mean something other than what it does. The word you are looking for, the one that has a very clear definition describing the thing you’re after, is permission.

        If you want to talk about permission in the context of sex, and what constitutes its legal definition, and whether or not people gave it, and what should be done if people have sex with people who didn’t, feel free to have that conversation ’til the cows come home. But “consent” means, and has always meant, something MUCH broader, more complex, and more experiential than permission. That’s why they are two separate words.

        There’s no logical reason to continuously try and oversimply the notion of consent so as to make it mean nothing more than “permission” — especially since you already have another perfectly good and very clearly defined word that actually means what you wish “consent” meant. This angry and emotional obsession of yours with trying to clumsily dumb down the definition of “consent” strikes me as nothing more than defensive flailing by people who are afraid they might be rapists.

        But, of course, that doesn’t describe you — as you so clearly pointed out above.

        (Still not a polar bear.)

  6. Jason Hunt says:

    I found your column after being told to read up about consent and that ‘of course it can be taken back’. Here are my thoughts after reading it:
    – The ‘legalistic’ approach to consent, as you call it, is necessary because real women in real world can very easily destroy an innocent man’s life for a variety of reasons, ranging from their own emotional immaturity, desire for revenge, desire for drama, desire for publicity, blackmail, extortion or god knows what else. I will give you an example from my own experience: my ex girlfriend demanded to be tied up and she loved chains and always asked for them, but I felt uneasy about it so I recorded everything secretly. After we broke up some time later, she went to the police and accused me of sexual assault. She dropped charges when she learned about the recordings. We eventually got back together and she told me she did it because she wanted to move back with her parents, and she thought they will only let her if they feel sorry for her. I have firearms at home, so her little stunt could have sent me to jail for 10 years.
    – Sex is a social contract, it is an agreement. Universal rules apply. If a person feels bad about choosing to participate in a sexual act after the fact, it’s not rape, it is a mistake and a lesson for future.
    – You can’t expect a man to predict future emotions of a girl, or read her state of mind when she says one thing but feels something else. There is specific time to take consent back: right as it happens, as soon as you realize you are in something you don’t feel agreeable to. Any time after that is too late.
    – When you think about taking back sexual consent, and put things into perspective, you are really talking about sending a man to prison for 3 years, destroying his professional, social and family life, simply because a girl who wanted to have sex with him changed her mind after the fact. If you feel okay with it, you must really hate men.

    Lastly, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to change the way you respond to comments. Currently you come across as a complete douche.


    • thirdxlucky says:

      I will give you an example from my own experience: my ex girlfriend demanded to be tied up and she loved chains and always asked for them, but I felt uneasy about it so I recorded everything secretly.


      May I make a suggestion? How about the next time someone asks you to tie them up and you feel uneasy about it, instead of secretly recording them in order to be able to prove later that you didn’t want to, you say, “No, I don’t feel comfortable with that, sorry.”

      Or even, “I’m uneasy with doing this, but I’ll feel more okay if we have a video record in case anything goes wrong. Are you comfortable with me videotaping our encounter?”

      No wonder people have told you that you need to read up on consent, and that your girlfriend accused you of sexual assaulting her — you did. Videotaping your sex with her without her knowledge was absolutely a violation of her consent, and utterly unnecessary even to “protect yourself”, because you could have protected yourself equally well and less creepily by just not tying her up if you didn’t want to. Jesus.

      That’s the only part of your comment I’m going to respond to, because the rest is pat MRA drivel that’s been addressed a million times elsewhere on the Internet. (Although I do think your repeated contrasting of “men” vs. “girls” is pretty telling.)

      Lastly, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to change the way you respond to comments.

      Thanks for the advice, dude.

      Currently you come across as a complete douche.


      I may come across as a “complete douche”, but you just publicly admitted to violating your girlfriend’s consent and then acted like that makes you the victim in this situation. So, I am certainly not the only douche around these parts.

  7. alcockell says:

    Speaking as an autistic man… I understand linear logic and go-no-go decisions.. but “consent as felt sense” just doesn’t compute. At all.

    Just to comment… leaves me completely confused.

    • thirdxlucky says:

      Hi alcockell,

      Here’s a much shorter and more linear-logical explanation of consent as a felt sense:

      You Can Take It Back: The Bite-Sized Brownie Version

      Hopefully that will help make things more clear! Thanks for your comment.

      • alcockell says:

        Ummm… errr…. WHAT?
        “Even though I said yes I reserve the right to retroactively rescind that clearance at any time, and go back and say that I was raped at (date) and (time) based on how I currently feel”?

        Umm – that TERRIFIES me.. to the point of complete paralysis before even THINKING about sex AT ALL.

        HOW are autistic people supposed to operate under that kind of rule – unless there is some independent way of proving that consent was signed off and granted… even in a theoretical model?

        HOW is that supposed to work legally?

      • thirdxlucky says:

        Ummm… errr…. WHAT? “Even though I said yes I reserve the right to retroactively rescind that clearance at any time, and go back and say that I was raped at (date) and (time) based on how I currently feel”?

        So, people already do this. They do it in all kinds of contexts, not just the context of rape. Here’s one example of retroactively revoking consent in the context of an abusive work situation. It’s also common for people who were abused as children to not recognize what happened to them as abuse until they are much older. This is totally normal human behavior. We’re not suggesting anything radical here. We’re suggesting a new framework — rather than denial — for how to deal with the fact that this is something people already do.

        Umm – that TERRIFIES me.. to the point of complete paralysis before even THINKING about sex AT ALL.

        Yep. Having sex in the context of rape culture is pretty fucking terrifying. That’s true for everybody.

        HOW are autistic people supposed to operate under that kind of rule – unless there is some independent way of proving that consent was signed off and granted… even in a theoretical model?

        That’s an important question. Here’s a thread where some other autistic folks are discussing how they engage with a felt consent model. Maybe you’ll find something helpful there.

        HOW is that supposed to work legally?

        It’s not. A felt sense model of consent is only one small part of a much larger project which includes prison abolition as a core ideal.

  8. Kit says:

    I know this article is really old and I don’t know if you’ll see this, but I really wanted to thank you.

    I recently had a bad experience. My partner knew I am a highly sex-averse asexual from the beginning, and even knew I had issues with personal agency and saying no, and that I shut down in sexual situations. (Which, in hindsight, could have been why they pushed so hard. Because they knew I would break eventually.) But I wasn’t physically forced, just subtly pressured and emotionally manipulated, and I could have said no. Instead I panicked and shut down the second they started touching me, so I gave consent even and played along even though I was crying and wishing it would just be over already.

    When my partner later noticed I was acting strange (a couple weeks after the incident) I wasn’t asked why or what was wrong, I was simply sent a message with the definition of the word consent with with an implied shrug. It was unprompted, and I took it as a sign that they knew why I was upset but disagreed. “It was consensual, so your regret isn’t my problem.”

    The first time someone referred to this as rape and sent me an article about “coerced consent” I was horrified (although in retrospect my partner has said many of the things in that article). I hadn’t considered it that at all. It was my fault for being an idiot and a pushover, and for not wanting it. I felt guilty for feeling traumatized by something I’d consented to, and I thought it was unfair for me to feel distanced from and afraid of my partner because of my own weaknesses and issues.

    But finding your article has helped me accept that I am validated in feeling the way I do. I don’t know if I would consider what happened “rape” or consider myself a “rape survivor” because those are very strong words and I feel using them may offend people who have truly been raped. But I feel that my feelings are valid, and that helped give me the courage to finally leave this person.

    So thank you, so SO much.

    • thirdxlucky says:

      Oh wow. I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I really appreciate your vulnerability in sharing your story here. It makes me glad to know that the piece was helpful in any way, and also really glad to hear you’ve gotten yourself out what sounds like it was a terrible situation.

      >> I don’t know if I would consider what happened “rape” or consider myself a “rape survivor” because those are very strong words…

      *nods nods* It is TOTALLY okay for you to describe and understand your experience in whatever way makes sense to you.

      I’ve tried to clarify elsewhere that we used the word “rape” here precisely because it is such a strong word. We wanted to make clear that it’s ALWAYS okay for people to call what happened to them what it was, up to and including people who’ve experienced rape, even if they gave permission beforehand.

      But that doesn’t mean every experience of consent violation is rape. You know more about what happened to you and the right words to describe it than anybody else can.

      Thank you, again, so much for this comment. 🙂

  9. Fuck Off says:

    Fuck off

  10. Xis says:

    Hi thirdxlucky,

    To begin with I want to say that I think this article is very important to understanding consent, which makes it all the more tragic how it is being misinterpreted deliberately and otherwise. At the same time that lack of understanding illustrates to me just how critical this entire idea is. It took me a couple of reads to entirely wrap my head around it, but this should not be as controversial as it has been. Of course I am assuming a given reader is a reasonable person capable of following the logic you and your coauthor have laid out, which may be too high of a standard. Still, from an optimistic point of view one could call the engagement encouraging so long as you weed out the trolls.

    All of that being said, I think I might have an easier time grasping this concept because I can relate it so easily to my own experiences. I have never been raped but I was in a relationship that I realized, months after it had ended, was abusive. The unhelpful legalistic way of thinking about these things only made me feel confused and somewhat guilty. I had the perception that because I didn’t realize at the time what was happening, and it took me so long in the aftermath to figure out why I felt as I did, that the pain I felt was somehow lesser or not as valid as the pain of someone who could definitively point to their abuser at the time and claim abuse. I figured simply because the pain wasn’t bad enough during the relationship or in subsequent months and years that I could never compare myself to someone who was “actually” abused. It took me a long time to find my way through what I thought and felt about it all, though it also helped that I learned what gaslighting was. I’ve come to accept that, regardless of whether anyone else thinks, legalistically or otherwise, that I was abused -that I know I was abused.

    It’s frightening to even think about. In a way it’s difficult for me to blame people who don’t want to accept that they may have been raped or otherwise abused even if they felt at the time or later on that the situation was unacceptable. That sense of violation is horrifying and I know at least in my own case there was some comfort in being able to deny it. That wasn’t healthy, obviously, but it was easier to deal with if I pretended it didn’t really exist. So I can empathize with that reaction.

    Thank you and your coauthor as well for writing this piece. I hope that it continues to be viewed and to provoke discussion, and that others like myself can find a bit of hope in it. Keep up the good work.

    • thirdxlucky says:

      Hey there. Thank you so much for this comment. I appreciate the encouragement and your description of your situation and how you felt in the aftermath resonates with me a lot. I’m sorry to hear that happened to you, but very glad if the piece has helped your healing process in any way.

  11. JGraff says:

    This post found its way to a Facebook thread, where someone commented about what I perceived as their misgivings about consensual encounters being retroactively judged as nonconsensual even after both participants agreed that a threshold for satisfactory consent affirmation had been reached. I was asked by one of the authors of this piece to repost my reply in this thread, which was:

    [name], I actually think, though, that defining an encounter, at a specific moment in time, as strictly consensual, and rendering it immutably true in one’s mind that this will never not be the case, is at least a slight flattening of the complexity of the emotional experience of consenting to something.

    It’s very possible for someone to say “I signaled explicit consent for this thing, and I can hold myself accountable to my informed choice to do that, but that signal did not accurately represent the totality of my emotional experience of it, and it is also valid for me to begin now to also tell the story of the ways in which my consent came from an incomplete understanding of myself and my emotional state in that moment. I no longer consider it fully consensual even though I can own and take responsibility for my choice to signal in the moment as if it were.”

    And I think the point of the article is to say, that’s a valid approach to take, and I think the author would say (and I’d agree) that it’d be a problem for that person’s partner to try to say “no, that WAS fully consensual, you are wrong or lying to claim otherwise,” instead of saying “it pains me to realize that your signals of consent were compromised or incomplete in ways I could not see or sense in that moment, and I would like to be accountable to the choices I made and how they may have caused unintended harm; even though I maintain that I did my best and acted in accordance with the information I had access to via your signals, I can also recognize that there is more to your truth and your story than that, and I participated in that in ways that make me also partially responsible.”

    • thirdxlucky says:

      Thanks for reposting this! I think your final paragraph is a really nice encapsulation of what we were trying to suggest in terms of moving toward different and better responses to situations like the one you describe.

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