Tag Archives: Consent Culture

Consent-Based Relationships

As part of this year’s Beyond the Love polyamory conference, I gave a presentation on relationship anarchy. Most of the content has already appeared on the blog in my previous posts about relationship anarchy, and it drew heavily from my posts about rules and decision-making.

The presentation closed with a discussion of how anarchic relationships actually work in practice. The main idea is that anarchic relationships are completely consent-based, down to the smallest details. This is how I visualize it:
anarchic relationships

As you can see, the idea is that “a relationship” consists of the activities that both people genuinely want to engage in. Anything that I want to do that you don’t want to do, we don’t do. I either do that with someone else who consents, I do it alone, or I just don’t do it.

This can sound somewhat harsh, but in practice it isn’t that far from what most people believe. What I want to do is infinitely changeable. The fact that a partner wants to do something can easily move something into the “I want to do that” category. There are many things I do with my current partners that wouldn’t be enjoyable without them. Just knowing that something would help a partner to be happy is often all the motivation I need to do it. But sometimes it isn’t, and that’s ok too. And that’s the key difference in a consent-based relationship. When your relationship is based on consent, you will affirm and support a partner’s decision to say “no” to you.

I don’t actually know too many people who disagree with this outlook. But I know a LOT of people who will get angry at a partner for not doing what they want. My theory is that the anger is inspired by the fact that their happiness is not a sufficient motivating factor. I also think that people are very good at fooling themselves into believing that their partner is acting free of coercion, when really their partner is just doing what they want to avoid a fight or other negative consequences. It’s easy to say “I’m angry because you wouldn’t come with me to my cousin’s wedding.” It’s more complicated to say “I’m upset because my happiness wasn’t enough to motivate you to want to come to the wedding.” In the former, the solution is easy – just go to the wedding! With the latter, there is no clear solution, and you may just need to adjust your future expectations to reflect the reality of the situation.

Despite that, however, I think it’s a good idea to affirm the general idea that a consent-based relationship involves only activities that both parties genuinely want to do. If you find yourself doing things that you don’t actually want to do, it’s worth thinking about why you’re doing them. If fear of consequences imposed by your partner is motivating you, it may be a sign that there is a problem in your relationship.

It is my firm belief that all ethical relationships are consent-based. Coercing a partner into doing what you want is never an ethical thing to do. Just as consent is the foundation of sexual ethics, consent is also the foundation of relationship ethics. It forms the base on which all other relationship ethics are derived. Relationship anarchy is about ensuring the maximum freedom for everyone, and that starts with respecting everyone’s consent.


Self-Interested Feminism

Recently, Emma Watson delivered a speech at the UN pleading for men to get more involved in the cause of feminism:

Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.

Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s.

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

There has been some pushback to this idea. Many people feel that men should support feminism out of a sense of altruism. Anne Thériault had this to say at Feminspire:

Rape culture is something that men should care about not because it might affect them, but because it affects anyone at all. Men should care about women’s safety, full stop, without having the concept somehow relate back to them. Everyone should care about everyone else’s well-being – that’s what good people are supposed to do.

I find altruism of that variety unreliable at best, illusory at worst. Either way, I feel that the most ethical things to do is often to prioritize our own well-being over that of others. There is nothing unethical about trying to make ourselves happy, so long as we are not doing disproportionate harm. Nobody has to be a hero. We are not morally required to work to change society, even if we acknowledge that society is unjust.

As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I’m not a feminist because I care deeply about all of my fellow humans. I’m a feminist out of self-interest. I’m a feminist because my personal goals align with the goals of the feminist movement. And I think that most men, if they rationally examined the situation, would agree. Patriarchy, rape culture, and male privilege suck for everyone.

I. The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too

This is not actually my most important reason, but it is a reason. This point has been so well documented that it’s nearly self-evident. Here is Katie McDonough at Salon:

Women and girls make up the majority of victims of sexual violence, but a culture that straight up says that teenage boys can’t be raped makes it almost impossible for male survivors to come forward. Destructive ideas about sexual male entitlement are at the heart of rape culture and the reason that so many women and girls are victimized in their lifetimes, but they also feed into this idea that men always want sex, which makes men who have been victims of rape question whether or not what happened to them even counts as a crime. It took a really, really long time for this to even become a crime. These same norms also encourage men to have really warped relationships to desire and sexual satisfaction. This stuff hurts women the most because of the violence it engenders, but it hurts men, too.

The ridiculousness of rape culture is to the point where we actually have articles with titles like “Can Boys Be ‘Coerced’ Into Sex?” Spoiler: they can. Here is Charlie Glickman:

One of the primary reasons that boys and men gay bash and bully queers is that they need to perform masculinity in order to show the world that they’re in the Box. And since very few guys can always be in the Box for their entire lives, the trick is to act like you are in order to cover for any lapses. In effect, the performance of masculinity requires constant vigilance to make sure that nobody sees any missteps. Since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out.

"a good captain needs abilities like boldness, daring and a good velour uniform"

“a good captain needs abilities like boldness, daring and a good velour uniform”

Glickman’s article, which I encourage you to read, discusses how masculinity is a performance that men must keep up at all times, or else they’re not real men. This form of toxic masculinity proclaims that men are violent, unemotional, and aggressive, or else they are weak and womanly.

Men’s Rights Activists, though deeply confused about the causes, also tend to notice the ways in which patriarchy hurts men. What they tend not to realize is that these things that they label as “female privilege” are actually benevolent sexism, stem from exactly the same places as women’s oppression, and that reverse sexism is really just a necessary result of ordinary sexism.

Concerns like those noted above have been a problem for me as far back as I can remember. One of my most vivid memories of elementary school is the experience of being terrified to tell my best friend that he was my best friend, because that would be “gay” or something. I never told him, and throughout my young childhood, I was always insecure about how much he liked me because I was too afraid to talk about it with him.

Patriarchy harms men in general, and me personally. I struggle against the need to perform my masculinity daily, and feminism is the only movement that supports me at all in that struggle.

II. Patriarchy Makes People Awful

In Part I, I reviewed several of the ways that patriarchy hurts men. Many of those same forces encourage men to be terrible people. The need to perform masculinity encourages men to be aggressive, violent, competitive, and unemotional. This naturally hurts men who don’t conform to their prescribed gender role, but it also hurts everyone else, who are forced to deal with a bunch of men who either are, or who are pretending to be, aggressive, violent, competitive, and unemotional. The fact that most men effectively perform masculinity is the primary reason why I dislike most men, and have trouble forming male friendships. Would you like someone who fits the above description of masculinity? I wouldn’t.

Patriarchy also teaches women to behave in ways that I don’t like. Harriet J from Fugitivus has a good list of the problematic ways in which patriarchy encourages women to behave:

  • it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)
  • it is not okay to appear distraught or emotional (“crazy bitch”)
  • it is not okay to make personal decisions that the adults or other peers in your life do not agree with, and it is not okay to refuse to explain those decisions to others (“stuck-up bitch”)
  • it is not okay to refuse to agree with somebody, over and over and over again (“angry bitch”)
  • it is not okay to have (or express) conflicted, fluid, or experimental feelings about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your desires, and your needs (“bitch got daddy issues”)
  • it is not okay to use your physical strength (if you have it) to set physical boundaries (“dyke bitch”)
  • it is not okay to raise your voice (“shrill bitch”)
  • it is not okay to completely and utterly shut down somebody who obviously likes you (“mean dyke/frigid bitch”)

The result of all this conditioning means that women are overwhelmingly encouraged to resort to Guess Culture, subtlety, and indirect communication. I hate that style of (non) communication, and I hate that our patriarchal culture punishes women who communicate directly. In our efforts to move toward Ask Culture and encouraging direct communication, patriarchy is our enemy.

III. Feminism Means Better Sex

Just today, Miri Mogilevsky posted about how feminism can make you better in bed. The whole post is great, but here is a relevant quote:

Of course, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. But if you do want to do it, you should never have to feel guilty or abnormal just because your desires don’t conform to gender roles. Sex is a lot more fun when you don’t have to measure yourself against invisible, constantly-shifting standards like “Real Man” or “Real Woman.”

I also favor sexual promiscuity, and think that people should be having all the sex they want to have without fear of stigma or judgment. Patriarchy opposes this goal, and feminism supports it:

In a time when nonheterosexuality is close to losing the status of ‘alternative,’ transgender people have scored Medicare coverage for gender-confirming surgeries, Fifty Shades of Grey has made it clear that kinky desires are as mainstream as it gets, and open relationships are more visible than ever, there is one sexual lifestyle that remains imbued with stigma: unbridled promiscuity. Accepting promiscuity—having lots of (mostly) casual sex with lots of different people—as a valid lifestyle choice is perhaps the final frontier in creating a sex-positive, open-minded, sexually tolerant society.

Dan Fincke, of Camels with Hammers, also argues in favor of what he calls the Sexual Utopia:

By sexual utopians I mean anyone who wants us to get as close as is reasonable to a world of maximal guilt free sexual pleasure with no irrational hang ups or needlessly burdensome restrictions. People who dream of the day when we can indulge more freely in positive sexual experiences, unencumbered by arbitrary moralisms. Nudity is natural and good. It’s aesthetically pleasurable and not even always sexually. We should celebrate the beauty of the human form rather than hide it. Everyone should love and have sex with whomever consensually wants to have sex with them. Alternative sexual orientations and genders should be celebrated, not merely tolerated. Kink that doesn’t harm anyone shouldn’t be seen as immoral. Whatever floats your boat so long as no one gets hurt. People should be able to negotiate the terms of their own relationships rather than have adultery defined in some absolute way that forbids any sexual openness among committed people. Friendships can incorporate a dimension of sexual enjoyment apart from romantic commitments. Even entire friendships can be all about two people’s enjoyment of having sex with each other if that’s what they enjoy. Young people should be empowered to make wise sexual choices instead of repressed with abstinence-only fear-mongering. And there should be no stigmas about making or consuming porn or engaging in prostitution or patronizing a prostitute, etc., so long as everyone involved is treated respectfully and is kept healthy. And, of course, if you’re asexual or a celibate or abstinent or a strict lifelong monogamist, etc., then that’s okay too!

How do we get there? Feminism:

Only in a culture where women aren’t punished for sexuality, aren’t commodified and treated like objects to be traded, and don’t see men trying to sexually exploit them around every corner will they be empowered to choose sexual utopia. But so long as rapes are excused and so long as sexual exploitation of their images is dismissed as irrelevant (and only theft is acknowledged as a real harm) and so long as their feelings about sex are going to be disregarded in moral calculations involving them, they have every right to become protective and restrictive. Women will and should only expose themselves to more risks of sexual openness when men prove more responsible not to regularly exploit them, dismiss their feelings, and blame them for all the consequences.

Smashing the patriarchy, dismantling rape culture, and doing away with male privilege are the only ways that I can think of to encourage people to feel safe having the sex that they want to have. And when people are having the sex they want to have (and not the sex they don’t want to have) that makes sex better for everyone except people who want to have sex that doesn’t involve enthusiastic consent, and I do not think the desires of such people should be taken into account.

IV. Male Privilege Is Not Worth The Cost

Mia McKenzie, of Black Girl Dangerous, feels that telling men to be feminists out of self-interest is disingenuous, because it ignores the ways that men actually benefit from a patriarchal culture. Her list of benefits:

1 out of every 5 American women has reported experiencing rape in her lifetime. For American men, it’s 1 in 71.

White (cis-gender) American women earn 78% of what their white male counterparts earn. Black (cis-gender) American women earn 89% of what their Black male counterparts earn and 64% of what their white male counterparts earn. Latina (cis-gender) women earn 89% of what their Latino male counterparts earn and 53% of what their white male counterparts earn.

Only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.

Of course, the gender pay gap exists everywhere in the world, including the UK. And so does rape.

For starters, the only arguably zero-sum benefit listed is the one about CEO’s, and I certainly wouldn’t be upset if we had more gender balance in our CEO’s. I’m not planning on being a Fortune 500 CEO, so increasing equality in that sense wouldn’t harm me in any way that I can see. The gender pay gap is not zero-sum at all. Equal pay doesn’t require that men’s pay be reduced, it requires that women’s pay be increased. The assumption that monetary gains for women would come out of men’s paychecks doesn’t seem obvious to me, especially when corporate profits are rising at the same time wages are falling. While there might be some balancing effects by which employers pay men less in order to pay women more, there are plenty of other sources for that money to come from, most notably from corporate profits.

Statistics about rape are definitely not zero-sum. The fact that one in five women has been raped is not an advantage to non-rapist men in any way! There is definitely no need to increase men being raped in order to decrease women being raped. If suddenly, only one in 71 women experienced rape in their lifetimes, I think most men would be happy about the reduced numbers. Certainly, being a man means that I experience the privilege of being much less likely to be raped (or cat-called, or harassed, etc.), but that’s not a benefit I lose by dismantling the patriarchy.

Sometimes, I do receive benefits that come at the expense of women. When I’m applying for a job or a promotion (or elected office), I’m favored over female competitors. When I want to make my voice heard, it’s easier for me to do so over competing female voices. Patriarchy makes it easier for me to convince women to do what I want. I probably got more attention from teachers as a child than my female classmates. But I would gladly give up those advantages in exchange for the advantages of an egalitarian society that I’ve outlined above. Most other manifestations of male privilege can be equalized by expanding male privilege to women, not by denying it to men.

V. Conclusion

The feminist movement, as it currently exists, has some serious issues. Those issues may be serious enough for reasonable people to abandon the movement altogether. It is not my intention to argue here that people should all go out and donate to mainstream feminist nonprofits or read mainstream feminist writings (thought I can’t say those are bad ideas). My intention is simply to argue that a more egalitarian society will help all genders, including men, and that creating a more egalitarian society is the explicit goal of the feminist movement. Reasonable people can disagree on tactics, but I feel that the majority of men should be able to agree that the patriarchy should be smashed, rape culture dismantled, and male privilege be destroyed where necessary and expanded, where possible, to include all genders. These are the goals of feminism, and I feel that men have compelling, self-interested reasons to support them.

The Importance of Affirmative Verbal Consent

For the past few weeks, the internet has been debating California’s new law which requires aid-receiving universities to adopt an “affirmative consent” standard in disciplinary hearings. Predictably, there have been many objections, claiming that asking for consent will “ruin the moment” or that we’re criminalizing normal sex. Charlie Glickman wrote an excellent response to such concerns:

The thing is, I understand where some of these fears are coming from. Leaving aside the folks who are actual rapists… changing the rules of the game is scary. We live in a culture that teaches and shames us into bad sexual communication. We shame men who don’t want to have sex within a narrow range of acceptable activities. We shame women who express their desires or want sex more than we think they should. (And slut-shaming enables rape.) We’ve created a performance model of sex, in which people copy what they see in porn because they don’t know any better. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are miserable because they’re performing sex rather than enjoying it. So when we talk about shifting what sexual consent means, even when it’s for the better, we’re stirring up a lot of pain, triggers, shame, and trauma.

One thing we need to move through this is a more clear idea of what “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” looks like. It’s a great phrase for a legal document, but unless you get turned on by that sort of thing, it’s a rather dry concept. As a sex & relationship coach, I want to see something that you could actually put into practice in the bedroom.

Glickman asked people for example of what nonverbal consent looks like on his Facebook page. Here are the highlights:

  • Looking me in the eye and giving me a hand signal that says ‘come towards me’
  • When I guide someones hands and place them on my body nodding yes.
  • I think that the only real test of affirmative consent is when the other person takes initiative of her or his own accord–without prompting or pressure. Without stopping and waiting for that initiative, there is just too much room for misunderstanding, especially with a newish partner. 

For example, when offering a kiss, coming close enough almost to make contact but not quite, and waiting for a partner to bridge the gap–or not–communicates both my desire to act and my desire to be met, without words.

 If there is hesitation, then I know that more verbal conversation is in order, and that’s good. It saves much grief all around.
  • Reciprocation. Guiding hands. Asking about preferences. (Is this ok? Faster? Slower? How is this?) Taking initiative, responding in like, exploring your body with their hands, etc.

Look for things about the hook up that your partner seems apprehensive about, such as stiffening up, pulling or leaning away, or generally letting you do all the work –pretty good indicator that you are with someone who isn’t into it and probably cannot tell you or is scared shitless to tell you.
  • Gripping, grabbing, pulling me closer, reaching for kisses, initiating position changes, following after a touch when it stops or moves, nuzzling, smooching whatever part is near enough, and playing with my hair are all signs of active, engaged enthusiasm for me.

Glickman followed up that list with a warning:

I really like this list because it shows some of the many ways that we can show someone that we’re actively enjoying a sexual experience. Of course, there’s always the chance that someone is performing rather than actually expressing their pleasure. Non-verbal communication can be faked, especially if someone feels pressured into it. Plus, it lacks bandwidth and it’s ambiguous since two different people might have very different ideas about what any of these things might mean.

That’s why non-verbal consent can only be relied on when you already know your partner and how they respond. Until you have that foundation, due diligence suggests making verbal communication your standard. It’s unfortunately easy to do something that you genuinely believe your partner is enjoying and then find out later that they didn’t. I’ve been on both sides of that and it’s no fun.

In his article linked above, Glickman proposed a “due diligence” standard for consent, which includes things like checking in routinely, asking a partner what they want you to do, and having a discussion regarding safer sex concerns. Glickman explained the need for due diligence:

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had sexual partners who didn’t tell me that what we were doing wasn’t comfortable for them. Some of them told me afterward, and unfortunately, there have probably been others who didn’t. I’ve also been the one who wasn’t able to speak up and tell my partner that I wanted something different, or that I wanted to stop. I know what it’s like to feel like my partner assaulted me, even as I recognize that they had no idea at the time. I know what it’s like to not say no and feel violated, and I know what it’s like to find out later that someone felt that way about an experience we had. Both sides of that are pretty awful.

So, yes, it is possible to accidentally assault someone, in the sense that we can do something that we didn’t realize they didn’t want to do. When that happens, we need to hold onto the fact that an injury happened AND the fact that we didn’t intend it. Those are equally important, although I find that healing works best when the fact of the injury gets attention first. And having said all that, it’s also important to be honest with ourselves about whether we’ve actually done enough to qualify as due diligence. We need to have the self-awareness and honor to be able to acknowledge when we could have done more. We need to be able to be honest with ourselves and our partners about whether we really did the best that we could.

I can personally attest to the need for a due diligence standard, because under Charlie’s definition, I have accidentally assaulted someone. Around a year ago, I had a first date with someone. For privacy reasons, I won’t be going into too much detail, but I was in a situation where I believed that the sexual activity in which we were engaging was enthusiastically consented to. I was wrong, and it was my fault. I made the mistake, as Charlie specifically warned against, of relying on nonverbal communication. I didn’t do my due diligence. I didn’t ask for verbal consent. I didn’t pay close enough attention to my partner’s hesitation. I didn’t have a safer sex discussion beforehand. I didn’t ask her what she wanted to do. I just saw that she was actively participating and assumed that meant she was enthusiastic about what we were doing. I also didn’t communicate my own desires about where I wanted to set boundaries (and, as a result, things went further than I wanted). I let my own fear of rejection and insecurity distract me from the importance of communication and establishing unequivocal consent. I forgot that women are taught that their needs don’t matter. I forgot to move in the direction of greatest courage. Through my negligence, I hurt someone who deserved nothing but love and care.

Afterward, I took her friendly and flirty interactions with me as a sign that she had enjoyed herself. I didn’t find out how she felt until over nine months later, when her boyfriend told me. I was, and am, deeply sorry and ashamed of my actions. I urge everyone reading to take heed of my mistakes and commit to a Due Diligence standard for all sexual (or quasi-sexual) partners in the future.

While I don’t think I would be disciplined under the new California law for this situation, the law was never meant to establish best practices, only minimum disciplinary standards. I think Charlie’s Due Diligence standard is a much better model of enthusiastic consent. I’ve been employing Charlie’s standard ever since, and I can promise everyone, it does nothing to ruin the mood. If anything, it makes sex more fun and less nerve-wracking. When people are explicit about what they want and what they don’t, there is no fear of accidentally crossing any boundaries, and it makes the entire experience lower-pressure for everyone. Also, talking about what you want to do with someone can be really hot. Just saying.

I’m glad that California’s new law has gotten people talking about this. It’s an important discussion to have. I hope that the national conversation that we’re having will help move us in the direction of consent culture. I hope that discussing this out in the open will inspire more people to commit to a Due Diligence standard, rather than just “no means no.

Empowering Love

When you love someone, what does that mean to you? When I previously wrote about this topic, I defined it this way:

I define love as the mental state by which another person’s happiness becomes linked to your own such that changes in their happiness cause corresponding changes in your happiness. I make no distinction between romantic love and any other type of love. A person can love a romantic partner, a family member, a dog, or all of humanity (though I wouldn’t recommend it). When you love someone, their happiness makes you happy. It’s in your self-interest to help them be happy in any way that you can.

DO-YOU-LIKE-MELimerence (otherwise known as infatuation) is defined as “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation.” Limerence is inherently selfish, being all about what you want, regardless of what the object of your limerence wants.

It’s easy to see how love and limerence can come into conflict. Conflict is only avoidable if all parties experience the exact same amount of limerence. In that situation, all parties will obsess over each other in a mutually reinforcing cycle of euphoria. This is pretty much the textbook definition of New Relationship Energy. Ideally, all parties in a relationship start out at equal levels of love and limerence, then over time, love grows and limerence fades.

But what happens when parties experience substantially differing amounts of limerence? If this happens early on in a relationship, the less limerent party(-ies) can get creeped out, and in extreme cases, this sort of thing can lead to boundary pushing or even stalking. In less extreme circumstances, the situation can be handled by clear boundary-setting by the less limerent partner(s), and respecting of those boundaries by the more limerent partner(s).

This can also happen in more established relationships, where both parties love one another, but one experiences more limerence than the other. It can often lead to intense feelings on the part of the more limerent partner of jealousy, possessiveness, and desperation for a partner’s affections, time, or attention. The less limerent partner can often feel intense pressure to give reluctant attention, to hide their feelings, and act as though their feelings match their partner’s. The situation is also exacerbated by societal narratives that tell us that if something is “true love,” the intense limerent feelings should last forever, and if they fade, that means there is something wrong with us or our relationships.

The solution generally starts with developing an appreciation for Old Relationship Energy (ORE). While NRE is flashy and fun, ORE is safe, comfortable, and for a lot of people, more rewarding. Strong limerence is often accompanied by intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and feelings of despair. It can be intoxicating for a while, but if sustained, it can cause all sorts of problems. In healthy relationships, limerence will fade with time. This is a good thing. Learn to appreciate it.

Love as Empowerment

"If you love someone, set them free. If they fly away, they were never yours to begin with. If they come back, be grateful and sweet and happy they are near you, and recognize that they can fly away any time, so just don't be an asshole, okay?" — Edward Martin (quoted in More Than Two)

“If you love someone, set them free. If they fly away, they were never yours to begin with. If they come back, be grateful and sweet and happy they are near you, and recognize that they can fly away any time, so just don’t be an asshole, okay?” — Edward Martin (as quoted in More Than Two)

The other way that I’ve found to managing mismatched limerence is to develop what I call empowering love. Empowering love is a way of loving another person such that we stop wanting to limit them, even if it means we don’t get what we want. Empowering love means that we want our loved one to pursue their happiness wherever it leads them, even if it leads them away from ourselves. Empowering love turns our limerence on its head, causing us to only value the enthusiastic attention of our partners. Empowering love is key component of consent culture, and is one of the driving forces behind relationship anarchy.

Empowering love changes the focus of our feelings. When we love someone in an empowering way, our love stops being about what we want, and it becomes about what our partners want. It’s also scary, because it requires an acknowledgment that our partners might leave us, and there is nothing we can do about that. But that’s always true, whether we want to believe it or not.

Empowering love is the opposite of possessiveness. Where possessive feelings encourage us to hold tight to our partners and nurture a sense of ownership, empowering love encourages us to free our partners and trust in their decisions. Better to lose an empowered partner than to keep a partner as a possession.

Love doesn’t have to mean limits. Love can mean empowerment.

Atlanta Poly Weekend was Awesome, and you Should All Go Next Year


[UPDATE: I am no longer supporting Atlanta Poly Weekend because they support abusers and scapegoat their victims]

Atlanta Poly Weekend was this past weekend (June 6-8, 2014), and it was an awesome experience for the Living Within Reason crew. It was a 28-hour round trip drive, but totally worth it, and we’re definitely planning on going again next year.

We left from South Jersey on Thursday evening. Jessie, Gina, and I picked up our friend Miri (the amazing author of Brute Reason) after a few Bolt Bus-related difficulties, and started the 14-hour drive to Atlanta. Gina & I switched off driving, and managed to get there by 10am. Thankfully, our room was ready (check-in was supposed to be at 3pm) and we all went upstairs to take a nap.

Click to Preorder!

Click to Preorder!

I made sure to be up by 12:30pm for Franklin Veaux’s and Eve Rickert’s workshop on creating a culture of consent. It was a great workshop, mostly consisting of a guided discussion about what a culture of consent would look like, and how to create a culture of consent in our spaces. Franklin and Eve have a lot of credibility on this issue due to their well-established public advocacy, as well as their new book More Than Two, which was available at the conference. I picked up a copy, and I’m excited to see what’s in it. Highlights from the consent culture discussion:

ConsentCultre Storify

Next up was my workshop on skeptical monogamy: good reasons to be monogamous. The workshop was based on my linked blog post, but included a much more in-depth discussion on how to apply skepticism in our relationships, and how that fits with concepts like love, trust, and rational decision-making. I had a lively and enthusiastic audience, and I really enjoyed hosting the discussion. Miri tweeted a few highlights:


After my workshop, we decided it was dinner time, and had some delicious cheeseburgers at a place called Farm Burger. Good stuff. Then we came back, and got ready for our burlesque performance. Our troupe, Bust & Trunks Burlesque (joined by local performer Candi LeCouer) put on a 45-minute show doing a few of our Doctor Who numbers, as well as some Stepford Wives and Labyrinth. Candi did an amazing Maleficent number. The crowd was great. People were enthusiastic, but respectful, and everyone had a good time. The rest of the evening was spent socializing, playing Cards Against Humanity, and getting to know the other attendees.

Saturday morning, Gina led a burlesque 101 workshop. I caught the latter half, which was a fun time for everyone. People learned a few moves, and we discussed our philosophy about how to do burlesque in an empowering way, consistent with the idea of consent culture and sexpositivity. Sadly, it meant we had to miss a workshop by the always-excellent Sterling Bates on personality types and relationships, but we’d attended it last year and was able to interrogate him about it later.

The next workshop we attended was The Five Love Languages for Poly by Joreth Innkeeper. I absolutely loved this workshop. Joreth has clearly done this before, as her presentation was professional, well-organized, and informative. The Five Love Languages are usually a mixed bag. While the concept is great, the original author is coming from a conservative, Christian, monogamous perspective, and it shows in her work. Joreth was able to extract the key concepts and present them in a more skeptic-friendly and poly-friendly way. She also went a little deeper, and broke each love language down into separate dialects. I’m extremely glad I caught her presentation. Small sample of Twitter highlights below. See the full list on Storify:

Five Love Languages

Next up (after a quick Starbucks run with some excellent new friends) was the charity auction for Lost N Found Youth. Gina donated a number of her drawings, which all sold! One even went for $45! She’s officially an artist! She also bought a cool 3D abstract art piece which will be hanging on one of our walls soon.

Following the auction, I attended the Breaking Up Poly panel, hosted by Joreth Innkeeper and Sterling Bates. Joreth and Sterling are two of my favorite people (they’re going to hang out with us when we go to Disney! Woo!), so I knew I had to attend this one. The presentation was Joreth’s usual excellent quality, and it gave a lot of helpful suggestions. The idea was that bad breakups are bad for the community, and often people break up just because they aren’t compatible as lovers, not because either party is toxic or abusive (though they gave the caveat that their advice was not meant to be followed in abusive situations). They gave a lot of useful suggestions regarding how to break up with someone in a compassionate and respectful way, which lays the groundwork for continuing a relationship as friend, or at the very least, not enemies. Highlights (see Storify for more):

Breaking up Poly Tweets

After dinner at the local Mexican restaurant, it was time for my presentation on Relationship Anarchy and the Spectrum of Relationship Control. I was nervous about this one, because relationship anarchy can be a controversial position, and it’s sometimes difficult to talk about the negative implications of relationship rules without offending people. Also, my visual aides didn’t really work, so I’ll be preparing something else next time I do this workshop. The reactions was largely positive, however, and I think people got a lot out of it, especially for a concept that many people probably hadn’t encountered previously. Twitter highlights:

Relationship Anarchy Tweets

Afterward, Gina taught a workshop on Costuming for Burlesque (mostly pastie-making), then there was a dance party in the main panel room. Good stuff! Unfortunately, there was an incident where the same creepy male attendee approached both Jessie and Gina with crude, objectifying, sexual propositions (in Jessie’s case, it was before he even introduced himself). Jessie reported him to the conference organizers, who took appropriate action. While a warning probably would have been enough, unfortunately, the offender (and his partner), rather than express understanding and contrition, attempted to escalate the situation, resulting in a future attendance ban. Situations like this are always regrettable, but the APW staff handled it beautifully, and we all feel safe attending in the future. Aside from that incident, the dance party was a great time. I didn’t get to bed until after 3am!

Sunday morning, given the 14-hour drive ahead of us, we were anxious to get on the road. However, we couldn’t leave before Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s discussion on putting the ethics in ethical non-monogamy. The polyamory community lays claim to the title “ethical non monogamy.” If we’re going to do so, argue Franklin and Eve, we have a responsibility to create a community where ethics are defined an enforced. More Than Two (available in September) is primarily about ethics in the polyamory community, and Franklin and Eve led a discussion on how to create ethical communities, and what kind of ethics we need in our spaces. Twitter highlights:

Relationship Ethics tweets

Afterward, we said our goodbyes to all the new friends we made, and the old friends that we got to see for the second time, and made the brutal 14-hour drive home (complete with horrible traffic jam)! However, despite the drive, the experience was definitely worth it, and we are definitely planning to attend next year.

The Value of Reluctant Attention



“Seduction isn’t making someone do what they don’t want to do; seduction is enticing someone into doing what they secretly want to do already.”
-Benjamin T. Russell

Enthusiastic consent is a phrase that’s rather familiar to anyone with any exposure to the feminist movement. As Project Respect describes it:

Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.

Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal “yes” or “no” – it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well.

Consent is also mutual (both people have to agree) and must be continuous. You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.

Among decent people, this idea has proliferated for reasons that ought to be self-evident. Showing respect to a partner means respecting their wishes, and deferring to their wishes when it comes to whether to have sex.

That last sentence in the quote above is one of the most important: “You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.” No matter what you’ve agreed to or implied, you can change your mind at any time, and you are under NO obligation to meet your partner’s (admittedly legitimate) expectations.

Undeniably, this idea has caught on among decent people. It appeals to me (and I suspect many others) for the reasons given by its advocates (i.e. it shows respect for your partner), but also because reluctant sex is unfulfilling and ungratifying. Why would I want to have sex with someone who doesn’t actually want to be having sex with me? How is that any fun at all? Isn’t that what masturbation is for?

grumpy-cat-says-noThis begs the question, then: why not require enthusiastic consent for ALL social interactions, not just sex? I can’t see any reason not to do so. This is an idea that’s being advocated as part of consent culture:

I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.

When I previously wrote about consent culture, I was baffled by people’s insistence that checking a smartphone while you were out socially with someone was rude:

I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event.

Since then, I’ve debated this topic several more times, and these attitudes are shockingly common. People truly think that agreeing to spend time socially with someone creates an obligation to pay attention to that person throughout the experience. Directing your attention elsewhere (or in particular to a smartphone) is “rude.” More than one person has analogized the situation to the signing of a contract, whereby both parties have pledged their attention to one another.

In these conversations, I am finding myself increasingly bewildered. Do people really find this sort of attention – the type given reluctantly as part of a bargain – valuable? I don’t. In the same way that I don’t want sex with people that don’t actually want to be having sex with me, I don’t want conversation with people that don’t actually want to be talking with me. Reluctant social attention is no more rewarding for me than reluctant sex.

So why do people buy into these etiquette rules that suggest that directing your attention where you want to direct it is rude? If looking at your phone (or a newspaper, or a TV that’s on, or whatever) is rude, the implication is that the polite thing to do is to give your reluctant attention to the person you’re with (often without even letting them know that you’d rather do something else). That’s a terrible solution! In that circumstance, nobody gets what they want. You don’t get to direct your attention where you want, and I end up with only our reluctant attention. I think it’s a much better that you look at your phone and enjoy yourself until you think of something (or I suggest something) that you’d like to discuss with me. In a social setting, your job is not to entertain me. I can entertain myself if you’d rather do something else, and I’d much rather entertain myself than receive your reluctant attention.

I get the other side. It’s no fun to go out expecting to spend time with someone only to find that their nose is buried in their phone the whole time. I’m not arguing that people should go around agreeing to hang out with other people, and then ignoring them the whole time. That would suck. I don’t want to hang out with people who do that. I’m arguing that the fail in that situation occurs when you make the agreement if you had reason to know that it was likely that you would not be interested in actually spending time with that person. If something unpredictable happened which changed your mind (and you communicated that in a timely fashion), then nobody is to blame. Likewise, if you prefer to interact with people in short bursts (interrupted by something more solitary), rather than in a continuous hours-long interaction, that’s fine, and if people can’t deal with that, they just shouldn’t make plans with you.

What I’m strongly advocating against is the suggestion that, because you’ve agreed to pay attention to someone, then you should do so, even if you don’t really want to. I’d rather live in a culture where people only value enthusiastically consensual interactions. This idea is intuitive when it comes to sex, so why not apply it to all social interaction?

Relationship Anarchy and a Culture of Consent

Over the past few months, I’ve become much more comfortable identifying as a relationship anarchist. For those who missed my last post on the topic, relationship anarchy is a relationship style that abandons the concepts of having rules or obligations. Basically, my relationship philosophy is that everyone should do whatever they want as much of the time as possible.

When I tell this to people, the most common response is something along the lines of “that sounds awful!” Not necessarily that it *is* awful, but just the phrasing tends to jar people. The idea that people should do whatever they want seems completely foreign and borderline abhorrent to a very large number of people.

I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event. If Person A stops being interested in paying attention to Person B, then (the argument goes) Person A should suggest a conversation topic or activity that will allow them to continue paying attention to Person B. The other seemingly acceptable solution was for Person A to tell Person B that they are no longer interested in the conversation, giving Person B an opportunity to suggest a more interesting conversation topic or activity.

The problem with both of those solutions is that it creates an obligation on the part of Person A to continue paying attention to Person B, even though Person A doesn’t want to do so. These solutions only make sense if the goal is to continue the social interaction. People were completely opposed to the idea that simply ending the social interaction (without additional steps), either temporarily or completely, was an acceptable option.

One of the reasons why people are so threatened by the idea of other people doing what they want is that we don’t live in a culture of consent:

A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex–in fact, of human interaction–is centered around mutual consent. It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.

Consent culture is meant as a rejection of rape culture, but it covers so much more than rape prevention. Cliff Pervocracy advocates:

I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.

This is the part that tends to give people the most trouble. Boundary-pushing is shockingly acceptable in our culture, as are “etiquette rules,” (cell phone use being just one example) that encourage people to do things that they don’t want to do for the sake of meeting other people’s expectations.

Relationship anarchy, at least in theory, does away with all of that. When there are no rules or preexisting structures, and everyone is encouraged to do what they want, then nobody is pressured into doing anything. RA is, of course, not a panacea. Communicating desires and/or expectations (hugely important things to do!) can still often be interpreted as the application of social pressure to meet such desires or expectations,* so even people who claim to have no rules should take special care that they aren’t created de facto relationship rules, and that all parties understand that there’s a difference between communicating a desire and insisting (or even asking) a partner to meet that desire.

The poly community likes to endlessly debate about the appropriateness of partners having rules and making agreements. My view is that having any sort of control over one another’s choices is contrary to the goal of building a culture of consent (important: that doesn’t mean that there’s no good reason to do it). In a culture of consent, people would be encourage to do whatever they want in relationships. That doesn’t mean that there would be no consequences for their behavior, but it does mean that situations would not be intentionally constructed to discourage people from doing what they want.

As I seemingly repeat ad nauseum, rules and agreements only matter if one or both parties wants to break them. If nobody ever wants to break the agreement, the agreement is not necessary. By making the agreement, you’re planning for what happens in the event that at least one partner wants to break the agreement,** and you’re deciding that, in that case, that partner should stick to what you’ve agreed. In the culture I wish we had, such things would be viewed with great suspicion, if not outright hostility.

The scary part about consent culture is the same thing as the scary part about atheism. Namely – if there are no rules and nobody is pressuring people to behave a certain way, people will do awful things! Atheists generally have no trouble shrugging off this criticism, most often pointing out that they have no desire to do awful things, and if fear of god is the only thing preventing people from committing atrocities, then we are truly in trouble. I would make the same argument with respect to relationships. If people are permitted to do whatever they want, free from pressure or coercion, what would truly be different? If you’re in a relationship, consider this question: what is it that your partner wants to do that would be so awful if they did it? For those who are not, do you really want to be in a relationship with a person who would mistreat you if not for the social pressure put on them? I certainly don’t.

In a culture truly based on consent, wouldn’t all relationships be anarchic?***

*Franklin Veaux has some very good examples regarding the difference between communicating expectations/desires and making rules.

** Seemingly, some people make the puzzling decision to use agreements and rules as a way of communicating mutual expectations/desires. I advocate against doing so, as I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between the two ideas. However, if your rules are simply meant as a way to communicate, and not to actually encourage/pressure anyone to do (or refrain from doing) anything, this paragraph does not apply to your rules.

*** Other than those explicitly and consensually based on BDSM or other forms of control which, if done ethically, are completely at-will and can be changed at any time with no penalty.