Consent and Conflictedness
Suppose I have a friend who knows I'm interested in them sexually, but hasn't decided to do anything sexual with me before. One day, this friend comes up to me, obviously upset, and says they want to have sex with me. What should I do?
On one hand, I have an immediate feeling of “this is wrong”. I feel like, while they're in this emotional state, doing anything would risk hurting them in the long-term. On the other hand, I believe that people have the right to choose what risks to take for themselves, and it feels wrong to say “I'm refusing for your sake” when they clearly indicated consent. When I was younger, a lot of adults did things that hurt me while saying they were helping me. I don't want to act like that towards anyone else.
I came up with this post while trying to reconcile those two feelings.
Parts of self
A person isn't a rigid box with fixed opinions about everything. Their outward beliefs may change based on how they're feeling or what context they're in. They may also have internal conflict, where they disagree with themselves about what to think.
It can help to model this as parts of self. Ideally, most parts of yourself agree about who you are and what you want. But there will always be parts that have different interests, or even disagree about what you, as a whole, should be doing. You could think of it as a sort of internal family argument, like this:
“I want ice cream!”
“But you know that when we eat ice cream, we get a headache. I don't want us to get a headache!”
“But I wanna!”
If this person does end up eating ice cream, the second part might feel angry or betrayed. It might come out in thoughts like “Why did I do that?! I'm angry at myself for eating the ice cream when I knew I'd get a headache.” By thinking of these as separate parts of self, we can help them make compromises or set boundaries with each other, instead of escalating fighting.
When I was a teenager, I made an internal decision that I wouldn't make any big decisions without consensus from all of my parts of self. All parts of me agreed that they wouldn't take risks without consulting the rest of me first. This helped protect me from a lot of things. Not everyone can get to this ideal right away, but pretty much everyone can find some ways to improve their internal cooperation.
Anyway, this isn't a full post about “parts of self” theory. It's more about…
Interacting with other people who have internal conflict
I said I don't want to stop someone from taking a risk for themselves. But of course I would stop someone from risking harm to a different person. And if a person has internal conflict, it's like they're two different people. I wouldn't necessarily let one part harm the other part just because it wanted to.
In my example, the friend probably has a lot of internal conflict. One part of them has a lot of desire, and that part is obviously giving consent. But what about the other parts? At the very least, I should stop my friend and try communicating with them. “If we do this, how will you feel about it tomorrow? In a week? Since you've never wanted to do this before, I assumed you weren't comfortable doing it – was I wrong? Has that changed?”
There are three general ways this can go:
- “Oh crap, you're right. I'd feel terrible tomorrow.”
Result: Hooray! I helped my friend communicate with themselves and make the best decision.
- “Actually, I've been wanting this for a while, I just never found the right time to bring it up. Being upset today just made me finally think – what am I waiting for?”
Result: It worked out! It looks like I actually do have consent from all parts of them. And getting that out in the open may prevent more miscommunications in the future.
- “I don't care! I want this now, why are you hesitating?”
Result: Uh oh. The currently-active part of my friend is refusing to give the other parts a voice, probably because it knows they won't be okay with it. I have to stand my ground. “Look, I'm your friend and I want you to be happy, but I'm also the friend of the 'you' of tomorrow and the 'you' of next week. I'm not going to do something if I think it will make them feel bad.”
If the conflict continues
“But,” you say, “what if I'm a part of self who wants to have sex, but I share my body with another part that never wants to have sex? Are you saying that nobody should ever have sex with me because the other part doesn't consent?”
Well, that's a more difficult problem.
Consent is a scale, where you should try to get as much consent as possible in order to minimize the risk of hurting someone. Some things are definitely abuse, but even if you have enough consent that it's not abuse, that doesn't necessarily mean everything's fine. That's why you shouldn't accept consent from drunk people, even though some people are pretty alert when they're drunk. Maybe you can get tolerable consent from that drunk person, but it wouldn't be too hard for you to wait until they're not drunk, and get better consent.
With someone who has long-term internal conflict, there might not be such an easy way to get better consent. So unlike with the drunk person, I can't say “Aha, you shouldn't do that, because this other way is so much better!” It's a difficult problem. But I do know that it's worth a lot of work to try to solve this problem.
Do the communication work. Try to help the person develop a better relationship with themselves, so they can find arrangements that all parts of themselves can accept.
– EliApproximate readability: 5.78 (4268 characters, 1011 words, 69 sentences, 4.22 characters per word, 14.65 words per sentence)
If I know you're drunk, I know that drunk people may be less aware of their feelings, so I'd play it safe and ask you again when I believed that you were sober.
Even if I don't know you're drunk, I might have other ways of guessing. When I've known someone for a while, I have a general sense of how well their internal cooperation works. (Are they normally good at predicting how they'll feel in different situations? How much do they express negative judgments of their own past actions? How well do they accept the fact that they sometimes desire different things than what they're desiring at the moment?) My response to (2) would be different if I knew that particular friend had bad internal cooperation. In that case, I would steer much more towards my response to (3).
Now, sure, someone who read this post would know the right lies to tell to me. And if one part of them was very good at suppressing their other parts of self, they could calmly give fake answers while I was trying to get the attention of the other parts. At some point, it's impossible to tell the difference between “this person is intelligently suppressing a part that doesn't agree” and “this person just doesn't have any parts that don't agree”. But fortunately, I don't think many people are as Machiavellian as that. And if I had actually noticed them doing anything like that in the past, I would know to be careful of it. I might wait until another day to see if they still wanted the same thing, regardless of what they said at the time.
The basic rule is “As long as you still have doubts about the consent, try to find more safety checks you can do.”
Do you have stances on “appropriate” vs “inappropriate” ways of coming to a conclusion for multiple parts? For instance, if a part of me disagreed, but was outvoted and thus shut up, is that within my right to determine how my internal function works, or does that still count as lack of consent for you?
I'm perhaps more intrigued by this post overall than most (other people|other posts) because I've been on both sides of “I agreed to sexy things with you at the time but now I regret it.” (as well as one side of “I think you will regret this and so will not do sexy things with you right now.”) and my response to regretting it was very different from the relevant other person's response to regretting it and having an Appropriate way to handle that beforehand sure would be nice.
On the other hand, if the disagreeing part's message was more like “Stop it! Stop it! I can't stand this!” and the others were like “Too bad, it's ten against one and WE say we're doing this”, I'd say it was not legitimate consent.
Naturally, it's hard for an outsider to tell which of those things is happening. And it's not always clear-cut because there can be coercion involved. But ideally, you'd be close to the first case and far away from the second one. And there's sometimes a risk that the disagreeing part will feel worse about it afterwards than you think it will beforehand, so it's good if your system has good ways to take care of upset parts in case that does happen.