The problem with consent.

I have written a great deal about consent. The reason should be obvious: consent is a fundamental principle of ethics, and yet we seem to give it little respect, diluting the concept beyond all recognition. Some people also confuse voluntary agreement, or even just agreement, with consent (“yes is yes,” “enthusiastic consent”).

In a great entry on this very subject, Meghan Murphy points out the ridiculous argumentative load we put on consent:

Consent is the magical fairy dust which turns rape into sex; trafficking into free speech; and sexualized abuse, torture, and subjugation into sexual liberation — or so many people claim.

Indeed, for liberals (especially liberal feminists) and voluntaryists, “consent” seems to be the only standard of morality, but when they say “consent” they really mean “agreement.” There is a huge difference between the two: as I’ve written before, consent is a much more narrow concept than agreement. Saying “yes” does not equal consent. For instance, we recognize that sexual relations between a person in a position of authority and another person who is under their authority is immoral and improper, even if both said “yes.”

But beyond the sexual realm, which is the topic of Murphy’s entry, we can look at consent as a social problem. Consent is not a simple matter. For example, it is generally believed that the social order is in place based on the consent of the governed. Well, that’s obviously false: no one explicitly consents to whatever social order or structure is in place. But it is a fiction that serves the interests of those who are in power and those who benefit from that power, in short, those who already agree to the social order. It is those who disagree with the social order who are most likely to incur its wrath, but we then punish them in the name of that same social order they haven’t even consented to.

In short, there is an equivocation between “consent” and “compliance” or “submission.” The inferiors in a hierarchy are constantly asked to acquiesce to their own subjection. They do so because they have no other choice, as to refuse to acquiesce either means losing whatever place they already have, or losing face and risking punishment, if the former is impossible. But this is not “consent” on the same level as consent for an action between two superiors in a hierarchy. A worker agreeing to work late is not the same as two managers agreeing on a budget. A child agreeing to clean its room is not the same as two parents deciding where to go eat.

These are qualitatively different experiences, because inequality makes agreement more or less mandatory. As an inferior, you’re not really weighting alternatives, you’re managing expectations. Beyond being free from certain kinds of oppression and having certain opportunities, privilege also means not being pressured to say “yes” or to conform. It means being able to make up your own mind.

Consent as ideology cannot be distinguished from habitual acquiescence, assent, silent dissent, submission, or even enforced submission. Unless refusal or consent or withdrawal of consent are real possibilities, we can no longer speak of ‘consent’ in any genuine sense.
Dr. Carol Pateman, “Women and Consent,” Political Theory, vol. 8, p. 149.

There are some people, especially in BDSM, who believe that they can truly consent to submission. This is a bizarre concept, but it’s all part of the murky realm of “non-consensual consent” in BDSM, where consent is redefined and reframed so much that it basically reduces itself to a contract and a safe word. They are not “consenting” to submit any more than other inferiors consent to submit.

Another problem with consent in a context of inequality is that we only consider relevant consent to specific actions, not to the structures that mold those actions. We simply assume that the structures are valid and assume that any further issues are problems with the individuals involved (“bad apples,” “evil people,” “a twisted mind,” and so on). This is obviously closely related to vulgar individualism and the refusal to look at systemic issues, which I’ve written about extensively, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Consent does not exist for the inferiors, but for the superiors, who want to ensure obedience and maintain the illusion of consent. And the illusion of consent serves to justify ongoing oppression and exploitation. Pornography, prostitution, BDSM, black imprisonment, child control and abuse, workplace exploitation, and even war, are justified by a mechanical “yes,” a contract, or the belief in some hypothetical future consent.

11 thoughts on “The problem with consent.

  1. Alex February 6, 2016 at 21:06


    This is a bit off topic but I would like to hear your thoughts on it. A few years ago columnist Matthew Parris wrote the following.

    “When I die, and if I have to arrange it myself, I will consult nobody,and do it unassisted if I can. I entertain not a flicker of moral or practical doubt on the subject, and never have. Speaking only for myself — in such matters one should never judge for others — if Nature does not do the job in a timely manner I shall consider it a duty to take matters into my own hands. I can’t tell you how simple I find these arguments: so simple that I’ve hardly bothered to write about the issue. Suicide is the greatest of human freedoms, underwriting all the others, for it gives us the possibility of defying every thing and every one there is. The possibility of suicide is what makes life voluntary and each new day an act of will. No wonder the faith community gnash their teeth at suicide. God Himself, if He existed, would gnash His teeth at suicide: the supreme act of defiance, the final rasberry. The knowledge that I’m here by choice, that every breath I take I take by choice, injects into my soul a transcendent joy”


    “Is suicide not the greatest of all tokens of the primacy of the human will ? How shall a man ever demonstrate with more finality that he is the captain of his soul, the master of his ship, than by taking it by his own choice on to the rocks ? Self-inflicted death is the ultimate defiance, the one freedom in your life and mine which nothing and nobody — not even God — can take away…. I have never contemplated suicide and hope I never shall. But to know that I can — to know that tomorrow I too could make that splendid, terrible two-fingered gesture to creation itself is more than life-enhancing: it is sublime”

    I think Matthew Parris has a valid point although I’m not sure if I’d want to say that suicide is the “supreme act of defiance”. I see what he means, but my gut reaction is that this way of speaking glorifies suicide. Suicide is usually incredibly sad, I’m a little nervous about talking about it in that way. But yes, perhaps if one sees life, for whatever reason, as having an unbearable ‘thing’, an entity, something you continually battle with, then you could be said to be defying it — ultimately, you are saying….”‘I don’t have to live you”.

    Also, it would seem to me that suicide can sometimes be the most rational and logical of acts. The will to live comes from instinct and emotion, hardly something that should be given over to as a matter of course. They are there as evolutionary processes, a process not known for its compassion or rationality.

    Any thoughts?

    • Francois Tremblay February 6, 2016 at 23:46

      I think that’s an awesome quote. No doubt that I will post it on this blog!

  2. Varady51 February 7, 2016 at 10:20

    I think this columnist is being too romantic.

    I would simply say this: Humans are hedonic creatures, in addition to calculative creatures. That is not to say we are solely motivated by pleasure and pain, but the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, does explain a great deal of our behaviour. Thus, we (some more than others) have the ability to figure out whether our future likely has more pleasure and less pain in store for us, or more pain and less pleasure. If our future is found wanting (likely, to be wanting), and, being self-conscious and conscientious creatures, having an awareness of life and death and all that these processes likely entail (life = presence of experiences both positive and negative, death = absence of experiences both positive and negative), some of us, especially the more hedonic among us, may decide that no experience is better than to continue experiencing a life of consecutive and consistent disappointments, hardships, anguish and dread.

    • Francois Tremblay February 7, 2016 at 16:31

      I have no idea what that has to do with the issue of consent. Are you quite sure you’re on the right entry?

      • Varady51 February 7, 2016 at 19:16

        It was a response to the Matthew Parris commentary about suicide.

        • Francois Tremblay February 8, 2016 at 01:18

          Well then remember to use Reply. :)

          I still have no idea how what you said had to do with the quote. Oh well…

  3. A February 7, 2016 at 11:18

    What, then BDSM is impossible to consent to? Even amongst those who share the fetish? To say only superiors can consent is to assume that if a couple wants to have sex and the man asks, the woman never consents. Please read “Lysistrata”.

    • Francois Tremblay February 7, 2016 at 16:29

      “What, then BDSM is impossible to consent to?”

      Yes, that is correct.

      “To say only superiors can consent is to assume that if a couple wants to have sex and the man asks, the woman never consents.”

      Some feminists have raised that point, yes.

  4. RaFeCa February 8, 2016 at 02:02

    Reblogged this on RaFeCaMe.

  5. Sundazed October 7, 2016 at 02:27

    “Consent does not exist for the inferiors, but for the superiors, who want to ensure obedience and maintain the illusion of consent” Sums up everything in one sentence there.
    Great post!

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