On consent (again).

On consent (again).

You can buy t-shirts that say “consent is sexy.”

And you can buy t-shirts that have the word “sexy” crossed out & replaced to read “consent is sexy mandatory.”

I dislike this slogan, and the word “mandatory” doesn’t fix it for me. Yes, it’s true that respecting people’s bodily autonomy is mandatory, that it’s not just some extra added spice that makes an evening better.

But the specific wording bothers me. Because “consent” means agreement. Consent means saying yes.

According to the dictionary definitions of the words, the phrase “consent is sexy” means a sexy person would say yes.

Now, you might protest. “Nobody is going to interpret the phrase that way!”

And, sure. The intent of the phrase is to convey that “asking first is sexy,” that “respecting another person’s right to say ‘no’ is sexy,” that “cherishing your partners’ autonomy is sexy.” The word “consent” here is just a shorthand, standing in for the full script of seeking consent, & waiting to proceed until you’re certain that you have your partners’ consent, & checking in often, & being willing to stop if anyone involved doesn’t consent to what’s going on.

But using the word “consent” to mean all that is pretty ambiguous. And the whole function of the phrase – of the practice of affirmative consent – is to protect people from harms that can emerge from ambiguity.

I’ve discussed some of this previously – that, for example, different interpretations of common words & phrases can cause people to mistakenly believe that everyone involved has agreed to a proposal. If I think the phrase “make out” means kissing, and you think that “make out” means having sex, and you’d asked if I wanted to make out, then we might run into problems even after I enthusiastically consent.

I’d be approaching the situation thinking that we’ve agreed to kiss. You’d be under the belief that we’re about to have sex. That the kissing is just the first phase of what we’ll soon be tumbling through.

And, sure, I could speak up later. To say “no,” to stop things from progressing past what I thought we had agreed to. But it can feel pretty overwhelming to extricate oneself from unwanted physical intimacy after it’s already happening.

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At issue, generally, is whether we respect the right of others to be the protagonists of their own stories. Whether we see the world around us as a backdrop for our own glories, or whether we’re willing to recognize that we are no more important than anyone else.

Unfortunately, modern technological developments often nudge us in the opposite direction. Away from empathy, toward self-importance. Facebook, Google, Spotify – their predictive algorithms lend the illusion that our desires reshape reality. If we like a certain sort of music, that’s what we encounter. If we hold a certain set of beliefs, then all the news we’re shown seem to agree!

Cultivating these private spheres of individual experience can make us less empathetic. We might not mean to, but our relationships with technology cause us to inadvertently deprioritize the thoughts and feelings of those around us.

In Sex Robots and Vegan Meat, Jenny Kleeman writes that:

So many of the arguments against sex robots focus on their impact on women, but the rise of the sex robot is going to affect us all. It’s not just about the objectification of women – although the robots do objectify women. It’s not only about men being given an opportunity to act out rape fantasies and misogynistic violence – although a small number may well want a sex robot for that reason.

It’s about how humanity will change when we can have relationships with robots.

When it becomes possible to own a partner who exists purely to please his or her owner, a constantly available partner without in-laws or menstrual cycles or bathroom habits or emotional baggage or independent ambitions, when it’s possible to have an ideal sexual relationship without ever having to compromise, where the pleasure of only one half of the partnership matters, surely our capacity to have mutual relationships with other people will be diminished.

When empathy is no longer a requirement of social interaction we will all be a little less human.

The world isn’t ours to command. The world isn’t something owned. The world around us is a gift that we are permitted temporarily to borrow.

But modern technologies often inculcate a false belief in our mastery of the world around us. That our surroundings should be here to please us. A fantasy land where we fully expect our desires to be consented to – hey siri, what’s the average rainfall in Australia? Your phone isn’t too busy to look that up right now. Your phone has been patiently waiting, listening in, just hoping you’d ask for something like this!

If everything else is easy, shouldn’t sex be easy too? Why should it take so much work just to build a relationship with another human being?

image by Cristian Eslava on flickr

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For affirmative consent culture to work, everyone’s autonomy must be respected.

But women’s authority over their own selves is often discounted.

In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel discusses experiments in which cis-gendered women were shown a variety of pornographic video clips. Many of these women said that they disliked the violent scenes.

“But wait!” the researchers exclaimed. “The women’s bodies responded with physiological signs of arousal! Clearly, these women are lying!”

Angel writes that:

Women experience genital responses to all manner of stimuli, including, yes, bonobos, and including sexual threat stimuli – whether images or fantasies of rape, or actual experiences of assault. Hastily inferring from measurements of genital arousal to the truth of what women are aroused by, and even further to the truth of what they desire, is spurious.

If we care about pleasure, and if we care about consent as well as enthusiasm, then the subjective is precisely, vitally, what we should attend to. We should prioritize what women say, in all its complexity, rather than fetishizing what their bodies do in the name of a spurious scientism.

It’s an extreme form of objectification, that we might trust a physiological responses measured from a woman’s body instead of the actual words articulated by her brain.

And it’s in stark contrast to the way we typically treat disagreements between men’s brains & bodies.

Many cis-gendered men have claimed to be aroused even when their bodies’ physiological response clearly indicated that they weren’t. If somebody with a penis doesn’t have an erection, the message from their body is every bit as loud & clear – if not more – as vaginal lubrication measured in a laboratory.

But with cis-men, we trust what they say.

Angel writes that:

His subjective sense of interest in sex, despite his impotence, is taken as the truth. It is he, not his body, that speaks the truth – and we believe him.

Personhood, and its relationship to the body, is different in men and women: men are authorities on themselves, while women are not.

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In a recent New York Times editorial – “You Were Duped into Saying Yes. Is That Still Consent?” – Roseanna Sommers explores the way harm can be conveyed backward through time, almost like the way quantum entanglement causes information to leap into the past.

Sommers proposes a situation with limited physical danger: a man claiming to be romantically available in order to have sex with a woman who’d say “no” if she knew that he was monogamously attached.

And it’s a nebulous situation – the New York Times received many aggrieved letters to the editor after printing this column – because the shared touch seemed desirable, and only became unwanted later (or perhaps never) when more information was unveiled.

Two people had sex, perhaps enjoyed it, and went their separate ways. If the woman never heard another word about her partner, she might remember the experience fondly. But if she learned that he was married at the time, she’d feel betrayed. The remembrance shifts. Now, upon recollecting an event that happened fully in the past, she might feel violated.

Mental harm is real, and it matters. But perhaps these issues of trust seem simpler when it comes to STI status – in that case, lying before sex is also a physical threat. A physical assault.

Whether the risk is borne by a person’s mind or body, though, the underlying issue is the same – do we respect our potential partners as autonomous individuals, or not?

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Affirmative consent requires mutual trust. A space where an invitation can be earnestly extended without threat of reprisal, and where an answer can be freely given & respected.

But I had never considered what we, as loving, sexual people, might lose in a world where the only way to feel safe from unwanted touch is to unambiguously state our desires in advance.

In Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown questions, “Is it possible for the world to be as sexy if there’s consent and permission and openness about our deepest desires, if we truly bring our nakedness into the light?

I don’t know. I still love touching into the forbidden places – partially because they are forbidden. I know for sure that part of this is conditioning, being raised in a culture of repression, sex shaming, patriarchy, and danger. But it’s also how my desire is wired, even after decades of therapy and somatics.

In an essay on unwanted touch, Melissa Febos describes her experiences at a “cuddle party.” The rules for this event, articulated forcefully in advance, were that “If you’re a yes, say YES. If you’re a no, say NO. If you’re a maybe, say NO.

But “maybe” is an important psychological space. As the protagonists of our own stories, we will grow and change. What we want may not be a static thing. Part of the pleasure of being alive is that we tentatively approach our own selves – our knowledge of ourselves – throughout our journeys.

“Maybe” is a way of being, and of learning, that we risk excluding people from if we prioritize an aggressive or sexually-dominant partner’s need to hear an unambiguous “no” in order to refrain from causing harm.

In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel explains this deftly:

It’s tempting to insist that women are themselves the authority on their desires; that they categorically know what they want. But is anyone an authority on themselves, whether on their sexuality or anything else?

I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that insisting so gets us very far. Women are not the authority on themselves – not because they, unlike men, have difficulty detecting their ‘true’ desires, but because no one, perhaps especially when it comes to sex, is an authority on themselves.

And why should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?

The negotiation of imbalances in power between men and women, between all of us, occurs minute by minute, second by second. And there is no realm, whether sexual or otherwise, in which that act of negotiation is no longer necessary.

Whatever we do, in sex and elsewhere, we calibrate our desires with those of the other, and try to understand what it is that we want.

But we don’t simply work out what we want and then act on that knowledge. Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over.

The joy may lie in it never being done.

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header image by Cynthia Zhang for The Daily Northwestern

On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”