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As human beings, we all have the right to our own lives and the control over our own bodies. Thus, doing something serious to someone else's body requires consent. Acts that require consent include:

  • Acts that can give bruises and/or cause pain. A boxing match is not assault, and neither is playing around with martial arts -- but only as long as everyone involved is in on it. Doing the same move on a non-consenting person is assault, no more and no less.
  • All and any sexual acts, including fondling -- for example, grabbing a stranger's ass can be considered sexual assault.
  • Acts that cause permanent alterations on the body, such as tattoos and piercings. Giving someone a tattoo that wasn't asked for, that's not legal anywhere.

The discussion about consent is particularly intense when it comes to the sexuality known as BDSM, since this sexuality touches both the first and the second type, and sometimes also the third. (BDSM stands for Bondage, Dominance-games and Sado-Masochism. Started out as a combination of the old terms Bondage&Discipline, Dominance&Submission and Sadism&Masochism.) However, the discussion is not in any way limited to that particular field: it also includes mainstream sexuality as well as all kinds of issues that has nothing to do with sexuality.

However, consent is not a simple matter...

Plain Consent

The simplest form of consent is plain consent. Someone saying "uh, yeah, sure" or whatever. But what if the person doesn't know what s/he's getting into? What if s/he's not in a position to say no?

We don't think that children and mentally handicapped people can consent to everything. And with adults, we still have issues about them knowing what they are getting into and not getting exploited. See Consenting Adults and Informed Consent below.

We also have the reverse issue, with consent being given such high priority that it actually takes away people's right to their own bodies. See Implied Consent below.

Consenting Adults

The idea that everyone involved is not only consenting, but also an adult -- and thus defined as a person capable of giving meaningful consent. Adults are allowed to do business, and also to have sex with each other.

Informed Consent

The idea that everyone involved is not only consenting, but also understands what they are consenting to.

Problems with Consenting Adults and Informed Consent

While both constructs are useful, they are far from waterproof. What if someone is an adult but not informed? Scams are not cool! Or what if someone who's not adult is "informed" and consents to something that is Not Safe For Kids and later regrets it? One of the main points of having age limits is that kids should not be forced to take that kind of responsibility! It's not their own fault if they get into a situation that hurts them, not matter how good an idea it seemed at the time. And also, what if someone is technically adult and technically informed, but has a mental handicap that makes them unfit to make the decision?

Implied consent

We also have the issue of people not wanting to formally ask each other for consent all the time. For most people in a relationship, it would feel quite awkward if your partner was never allowed to touch you without having to ask for consent.

This can be handled by giving consent beforehand -- for instance, asking your significant partner to wake you up with ... well with love. Is such stated consent even needed -- can't lovers just hug each other without asking permission? And can such consent even be given? While most people would probably answer "yes" on both questions, there are those who say no on one or even both. The argument goes that even if you consented beforehand, you might be having a bad morning now and not want any contact -- there's no way to know until afterwards, and by then it's too late. Others would argue that this extreme defense against sexual oppression becomes oppressive in itself.

For implied or generic consent to work, though, it's necessary for those involved to find out what they like. You can consent to "experiment," but in that situation, it isn't clear what you've consented to. There is a lot of controversy over what constitutes an acceptable context for experimentation:

  • Is it feasible to revoke your consent?
    • Must one have a Safe Word in order to maintain one's freedom to revoke consent?
    • If not, how can you tell that you have that freedom?
  • Are you experimenting with a person who knows you well?
  • Are they paying enough attention to your reactions and general well-being?

In BDSM relationships, it is common to work out a limited set of circumstances under which experimentation is allowed, and establish a Safe Word in case the experiment goes wrong somehow. Some people think that all sex, and perhaps all physical contact, should be conducted this way. But many people don't play by those rules, and mostly work out what's OK and what's not by trying things and seeing what happens.

There are some cases where that might be acceptable; it is impossible to ask for consent to talk to someone, for instance, since that would itself require you to talk to them.[1] It is also common to block a person's path to get their attention, shake their hand, and occasionally even enter their home without asking first, and without being explicitly given permission. These things are established as acceptable by conventions like body language, and by the concept of harassment--you may have the right to talk to whomever you like, but they can revoke that 'default consent' by telling you to go away, and can even sue you for failing to do so.

Precisely what standards of consent to apply to what forms of behavior is a very tricky question.

Problems with implied consent

The problem with this is that some people consider others to have given implied consent even when no such implication was intended at all. The most infamous version of this is guys who believe that if a woman is wearing a short skirt (or if she's not wearing a veil) then she's implying that she wants unknown men to stare at her, touch her, or worse. This have given some people (mostly women) a certain aversion to the concept of implied consent.

Safe Sane And Consensual

One of the most popular ways of trying to deal with all these problems is the moral code known as SSC: Safe, Sane, And Consensual.

  • Safe means that the risks are known and minimized: That people know what they are getting into and handle it responsibly.
  • Sane means that everyone involved is at an accountable mental capacity: No one is drugged down, too insane, or too young or immature.
  • Consensual means that everyone involved participates by their own free will.

This is meant to cover all the bases to a reasonable extent. Safe and sane includes adulthood when adulthood is needed, and being informed to the extent one needs to be informed.

Problems with SSC

Not counting people who try to find semantic loopholes to get around the spirit of the rule while still pretending to uphold it, there are still three problems with SSC:

  1. When should something be considered "Safe"? One reasonable interpretation is that risks are known and minimized. However, one could also take it as a totalitarian demand for total safety: No risk whatsoever can ever be tolerated. This is unreasonable, because nothing is ever totally safe. Leaving your home is not safe; you could get mugged or ran over by a car. Staying in your home is not safe either -- you could be attacked by a robber or there could be a fire or whatever. Yet there are people in the BDSM community who with complete sincerity and very literally speaking accuse each other of being unsafe because they have someone sit in a chair without having the chair bolted to the floor and the person tied to the chair -- because, what if they happened to fall off the chair? On the other end of the spectrum, some people consider lethally hazardous activities to be "safe" even as others insist that they are hugely underestimating the risks.
  2. When can a person be considered sufficiently sane for a certain activity? There is room for some really valid discussion here, regarding for example the line between doing SSC BDSM and being self-destructive. However, some people land in a position that people with not-so-severe mental problems consider robs them of their rights as adults. Some people, in particular those on the autistic spectrum, have difficulty communicating when in a heightened emotional state. That makes it impractical for them to communicate during sex, even if they have a Safe Word. Does that mean they shouldn't be allowed to have kinky sex? Does it mean they shouldn't be allowed to practice martial arts?
  3. Also, we still have the problems with implied consent described above.

Risk Aware Consensual Kink

To get away from the previously described problems with SSC, some people in the BDSM community prefer instead to talk about RACK: Risk Aware Consensual Kink. RACK is essentially the same as Informed Consent, but with the added implication that even the most risky and self-destructive behaviors are acceptable, provided that the risks are understood beforehand, and the consent is freely given. This presents its own problems:

  1. It limits the code to kinky sexuality, excluding mainstream sexuality as well as non-sexual practices.
  2. The issues of how safe and sane something really is are interesting and important issues. It's often better to debate them than to bypass the issues.
  3. If you refuse to discuss safety and sanity, the people who consider these issues ethically important will simply ignore you.

The first two reasons are also the reason why the safety-and-consent trope is called Safe, Sane, and Consensual rather then RACK. Limiting the trope to kinky sexuality would make it too narrow, and the debate about where the line should be drawn is what makes it a trope in the first place.

Notes

  1. Exceptions are granted if you're communicating through a liaison, but that means your liaison has to deal with these issues instead.
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