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.