I Want You to Want Me to Want You [and vice versa]: The Simple Complexity of Sexual Consent
“Life is complex in its expression, involving more than percipience, namely desire, emotion, will, and feeling.”
—Alfred North Whitehead
I enter this conversation with the voices of generations that have come before, and generations yet to come. They are screaming through the keyhole of this potentially transformational moment in history. Some tell stories of epic passionate encounters, both found and unfound. Some have rage written in scar tissue. Many agonize in regret for brutally taking that which was not offered. Some meant well but failed. Not everyone meant well. Pain makes more pain which makes numbness that makes more pain.
Unspoken assumptions about perceived dominance (in terms of gender, status and appeal) inform affections. These presuppositions are marinated into every interaction, sometimes as rebellion against the past, other times in conformity to it. The hints and signals of old patterns can be blatant, easy to recognize. Or they can be subtle, making it difficult to find a way out of the deep scripts of past generations. Calling out these obsolete patterns is useful, but it is unwise to assume that will banish the patterns so easily. More likely they will morph and twist into new frames. In the arc of the story of women, bras are an example: Women burned their bras in the 1960s as a statement of emancipation, but now bras have now become a symbol of confident sexuality in super-sexy lingerie. My daughter asked, “Why burn bras? They are so pretty?” What can I say?
Blind spots lurk everywhere. There is no way to know what to do in a concrete way. A wide-angled attention is needed. To be lost now is a good thing; it’s a commendable attribute in a potential partner to tread carefully into the territory of intimacy. Rather than cavalier, savvy, and cool, the thing to look for now is someone who is “OK’’ not knowing what to say or do to encourage the relationship toward physical intimacy. In that caution is a message that it matters that we do not hurt each other: a message that says, “I want you to want me to want you.”
The urgent need to stop exploitation is a matter of protecting vulnerable people and has been met by a call for new rules, policies, and punitive measures. Criteria are drawn and redrawn to more effectively refine the guidelines for behavior in the office, at home, and in dating relations, to minimize harassment. While these measures are necessary, the larger cultural appetites and sensitivity to harming others must also be addressed. What is the pattern that connects issues of gender equality to the health of the oceans, the crisis of the wealth gap, and the rising diabetes epidemic? At first this may appear to be a string of unconnected, silo-ed emergency situations—until a pattern of repeated epistemological framing comes into view. As children we become habituated to modes of objectification, fragmentation, and separation, and these lessons get reaffirmed throughout our lives as a way of making sense of the world and removing complexity. Institutions share the pattern of separating departments; in education, health, economy, politics, etc. Supposedly those separations are creating clarity and order, but what is the cost? As the surrounding world is defined through objectification, what insensitivity and numbness is learned? Is this reductionism a root cause of the exploitation that spans relations from gender to ecology?
The stories that our bodies hold are fluid. It is hard to know what history informs present decisions, and how much of the sense of “I” is really able to act outside of the currents of culture. It is impossible to draw a firm line between what was and what will be, and yet that is exactly the mandate of this era. To address the horrors of exploitation in any direction, a new sense-making is necessary. To act in new ways, use new language, and make new observations is needed. This is a process of altering and infusing new stories as they enter our bloodstreams, catalyzing shifts in the alchemy of our relationships. The old and the new will season each other. It is a dangerous time to be loud, and an even more dangerous time to be silent. Either way, the past and future are with us.
Life is complex. It just is.
To be alive is to be in constant interaction with the complexity that exists all around us and within each living organism—and more, as complexity includes ideas, cultures, and the curious, infinite responses between them. The pursuit of making sense of life, for any organism, requires participating in the interrelational characteristics of complexity in every moment. The ability to make sense of the surrounding world is fundamental to survival and sometimes results in evolution. To walk across a room, plant a garden, or make love is to engage, mostly unconsciously, with what seems to be an impossible array of complex processes. Sense-making is a process of processes, merging conceptual, physical, sensorial, biological, and linguistic systems within larger contexts of culture and the biosphere. Interdependencies form and inform these contexts. Complexity is vast.
The global crises that currently stem from exploitation of the environment and human rights violations are clear examples of situations too interrelated to be solved by any one nation, or within any single sector. But complexity is also intimate. Less obvious but equally important is the study of the parallel complexity that exists at the personal level. Interdependencies form and inform these contexts. Decisions made by global leaders, as well as decisions made in the intimacy of our personal lives, require gathering information from which to make choices. What information has been considered, explicitly or implicitly? Could a better understanding of complexity at an intensely personal level allow for a more immediate, embodied understanding of complexity on larger societal and ecological levels—and vice versa?
To begin to consider complexity at an intimate level, let us imagine the complex contexts that sex brings together. Sex is sensual, emotional, biological, political, economic, cultural… Sex is complex. And what about consent?
The opposite of complexity is not simplicity, it is reductionism.
Reducing the complexity of sex to a collection of rules and procedures is a disastrous way to try to make any sense of it. The tragedies of sexual abuse are critical socio-cultural wounds that must be faced and addressed. But to do so is to notice how sexual abuse is framed within the society and culture that create it. Reductionism as a form of description, reducing complex ‘‘whole’’ ideas and phenomena to their simple decontextualized ‘‘parts,’’ disables any perception of vital relational information, resulting in spinning-off consequences of consequences that disrupt, damage, and destroy in unpredictable ways. This is as true at the level of global politics as it is at the level of intimate sexual consent.
Physical attraction and the body’s pull to be close to another person is a simple phenomenon of life. Simple, in that physical attraction is an expected experience that most adult humans have known. But it is also complex. This mutual yearning emerges through combined complex systems from culture to cognition, and from the microbiome to material wealth. While attraction includes multiple, inexplicable ways of receiving and responding to the presence of another person, acting on that attraction in a respectful way requires consent. What is mutual yearning?
What, then, are the processes that inform sexual consent? At first glance, consent can be seen as a mutual decision to share sexual interaction. But with consent comes the complexity of all the institutions of our world, alongside all of biology. From law to pregnancy, disease, religion or finance, consent is loaded with mixed layers of complexity that have to be communicated. It is hard to imagine a more abundant source of trauma, destruction, and pain than that stemming from reducing sexual consent to a simple “yes” or “no.” The confusion of sexual consent is one of many emergencies arising from patterns of reductionist perception. The global crises of this era all require that more, not less, contextual information be included. Increasing ability to perceive and live into interrelational, contextual understanding of our intimate personal lives may be a key to perceiving the complexity of our larger, shared survival within the biosphere.
Consent is more than a binary of yes and no
Sexual consent is often described as the binary of saying either “yes” or “no,” but it has become clear that this binary leaves everyone vulnerable. Misunderstandings, accusations, pain, and trauma spin out of an approach that reduces such a multilayered and complex interaction to a simple “yes” or “no.” Richer communication and understanding are necessary.
The context of the relationship often has more relevance to this permission than what is actually verbalized. While the “yes” and “no” are certainly important, it is also imperative to bring greater visibility to the contexts in which consent is determined. While the context of consent appears to be located in the privacy of the relationship between two people, in fact there are multiple contexts that reach out into the realms of family, community, culture, and legal and economic status. A reductionist approach to consent excludes these contextual factors, which may even include the survival of those giving consent. Thus, sexual interaction can become a confusing and often destructive transaction that cannot be clarified by the institutions of law, cannot be cured by medicine, and cannot be pulled out of the culture(s) in which it occurs in order to be redefined.
The reductionism with which consent is often described can make it impossible for us to perceive the information that we need, if we are to make sense of each other’s communication, both verbal and nonverbal. To reduce consent to a toggle between “yes” and “no” does not leave room for the consideration of other, influential conditions and contexts. The binary short-circuits the communication, sending incoherent messages into the relationship.
Given the complexities that occur within a sexual encounter, and given the culturally habituated mechanistic presumptions about how to control unpredictable experiences, it is not surprising that there has been a demand for a way to lock down communication around consent. By eliminating the variables that surround consent, a well-intended attempt has been made to provide a clear way to communicate in an unclear moment. The choice of “yes” and “no,” while offering a clean line with which to define consent, has brought its own subsequent abuses and horrors. “Yes” does not necessarily mean yes. “No” is not always no. People sometimes consent when they have no choice, or when they feel afraid not to, or when they are bribed or manipulated. Likewise, people say “no” when they are forced to by law, culture, or religion. People may think at first that they want to be touched and then if something does not feel right, they may want to stop. Some people who are guilty of abusive sex are never accused… and should be; others are falsely accused. The imposition of a binary does not help much.
Trans-contextual considerations of consent
When any complex circumstance is short-circuited, it is likely that a binary or polarity will remain. Washed of its relational messiness, the outcome will appear as a clean linear solution with a toggle switch. Good and bad, left and right, us and them. But the choice is a trap, a lure, a false flag. The complexity is not vanquished just because it has been removed; it will return.
It is easy to shrug off the possibility of ever being able to take into consideration the many contexts of contexts that reach out from the tiniest detail into the cosmic eternity. But it can, and it must, become habit to at least approach the complexity with the humility of knowing we cannot know it all, and trying to include as much relational information as possible, personally, professionally, and publicly.
Warm Data is a term I have been using to refer to relational, trans-contextual information in complex systems. The following is a cursory and incomplete listing of some of the Warm Data contexts that inform consent. It is given to offer a glimpse into how these contexts entangle, magnifying the effects of reductionism. Consent is not just about sex. The contexts listed are not the only contexts that inform consent, nor are they exhaustive in their trans-contextual description. The intent is to provide a small taste of how multiple aspects of life are interdependent in the process of considering ‘‘consent.’’ The Warm Data arise as the contexts start to reiterate, overlap, and link to the reader’s personal experience. A budding awareness of the way that consent ties in to all aspects of life reveals the liminal realm—between contexts, where substantive change is possible.
The self: The self is complex. To enter into a conversation with another person is a coming together of ecologies. It is not possible to consider consent without first developing a notion of self. Who are we? Many contextual processes make up identity. I am a mother, a daughter, a friend, a professional filmmaker, a writer. I am American, and I am European. I am a traveler, I am the 40 trillion organisms that live on and in my body in relation to the larger ecology. I am language and gender. I am my tax records. I am an ecology of selves. These selves may not be in agreement, or seek the same kinds of relationships. And where is the edge of the self? Is it the skin? Or is it the ideas that are relevant to that person? Is culture the edge of the self?
Reducing identity to a single context is a common way to claim belonging in a particular group. But to singularize the self in this way is a harsh edit of so much of who a person is, was, and will be. Expanding our notion of self offers insight into the variables that make us who we are from one day to the next. Ever calibrating, ever responding to the world around us. Familiarity with our own complexity is a step toward the generosity of giving others permission to be complex, too.
Economic: What are the economic repercussions of denying consent? Often consent is given by necessity of personal economics. The loss of income or position can be an unspoken casualty of saying “no.” Safety and security for one’s self and children are at risk if a relationship providing economic support is withdrawn. Survival can depend upon sexual consent. Differentials in pay, sexual attractiveness, and economic success are tightly interwoven. Economic imbalance in the relationship becomes a point of leverage that affects consent. Dominance, status, and influence are often gained through material wealth. Coupling into wealth has a long history of manipulative leveraging on all sides.
Educational: Gender roles and expected behaviors are woven into the classroom experience. From the way that history is written to the way literature depicts heroes, leaders, and even the study of feminism, younger generations learn that the world they are entering is different for men than for women. Consent is affected by this in that young people learn who has a say and who does not.
Political: The law cannot effectively meet the challenges of consent. Rape and abuse accusations require evidence, which is often impossible to provide. This leaves the justice process dependent upon “your word versus mine.” Both victims and those who are falsely accused are unsupported by this inability of the law to take the complexity of the situation into account. Meanwhile many abusers use the loopholes in the law to escape punishment. The law is dependent upon a binary which is often not only irrelevant but insufficient to the case. The circumstances around consent can be so complex and overlap so much that it is impossible to reach a definitive statement of “legal” or “illegal.” Contextual information is necessary. “No” is clearer than “yes.” Most people have at some point conveyed “yes” when they did not really want to, some for more urgent reasons than others. When factors such as someone’s housing, food for their children, continued employment, or religious status is leveraged against intimacy (even indirectly) it is likely that “yes” is more complicated than it sounds. Laws of marriage, and the distribution of wealth and property, all figure into the overall set of political ramifications of consent, in nearly all cultures including our own.
The language of rights is mismatched to a reality of interdependency and vulnerability, but also to the idea of intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, as something freely given. The word “consent” holds a meta-message; an agreement, a contract, a signing away of rights. The principle of consent is that no one has a right to another person’s intimacy. To claim otherwise is entitlement, a wide cultural pattern that we are trying to get away from. Yet everyone is tied to others by histories of relationship, reciprocity, succoring, empathy, kindness, cruelty, distrust, hate, emotion, interest… These all affect consent in the moment and in the wider context. It is also true that attraction is affected by social factors and bigotries; the unpopularity of some groups or categories can make intimacy harder for many people, and it is not entitlement for their members to discuss how intimacy is not an even playing field. But this right to observe and discuss the way the world affects you does not extend to advocating the right to leverage or guilt others into intimacy. Because it is the sovereignty of the right to consent or not that is key to the autonomy and dignity of every human being.
“Go for it” – Motto of the modern world.
“Just do it” – Nike slogan
Having met the monster that is the great-great-grandchild of colonial history, I see that we have a serious re-direct to address. The idea of prototyping a change model to stamp across the globe, or the idea that we should GO GET the change we want—these ideas are steeped in the same thinking patterns that have created the destructive violation of the world. The thinking patterns of “taking,” “having,” ”owning,” “leading,” “controlling,” and “winning” link competition, capitalism, colonialism, and numbness.
Even though people have known their aggressive actions were hurtful and illegal, they were accepted in the culture. “Locker room talk” and the related idea that “boys will be boys” were considered normal and even “natural” behavior in a way that provided implicit acceptance of exploitations. The idea that if you want something, you should “go for it” is an idea that carries with it a history of successful conquests, possible precisely because careful permission was not sought. This “just do it” trait is the backbone of industrial “progress,” and leaves a wake of ecological, economic, and social destruction. The same attitude in sexual advances is accepted as assertiveness, and up until now has been not questioned or revealed as predatory.
Sensitivity to exploitation as it is occurring around us at all times is difficult. Numbness makes it easier to continue. It was not so long ago that women were considered property. In the context of sexual interaction a new language is forming. Still, other numbnesses remain. The human rights violations and ecological destruction that produce food, clothing, and technology in our daily lives is still largely unseen. These awakenings are necessarily linked. The treachery of greed, which has generated appetites for taking from the bodies of others, is the same treachery that generates appetites for money, fame, and status. This appetite is numb to the vulnerability of living interdependency. It has to be, if it is to succeed.
“We stare at the television in the corner of the room.
I think of all the images she must carry in her body,
How the memory hardens into a tumor.
Apathy is the same as war,
It all kills you, she says.
Slow like a cancer in the breast
Or fast like a machete in the neck.”
We cannot change our trajectory now using the same sensibilities that got us here. The sensitive get trampled, while the aggressor, the oppressor, the “assertive” succeed. This is a noise so loud that the new growth cannot be heard, But “receiving” is so different from taking. Isn’t it so? We can choose to emulate the kind of people who enter a room without assessing what position to take, without considering what status to take... or we can recognize that new sense-making means receiving new information and staying open to the context. It is all about sensitizing into what nuance, and micro nourishing, it is necessary to give.
Cultural: What does it mean to be desirable? Where do these ideas come from? Notions of femininity and masculinity are generated in the culture. Marriage, partnership, and sexual “norms” exist in cultural expression. Language, fashion, film, music, art—all carry the messages of what consents are expected.
The binary of “yes” and “no” is completely framed inside culture. The culture may have a law that says sex without consent is rape. But if people cannot say “no,” non-consensual sex is normalized. Cultural pressures to keep marriages intact, or to be a good spouse, may require fulfilling the needs and desires of one’s partner. To say “no” would be to break the partnership, to say “yes” is to consent to sexual contact without wanting to. The stories that inform notions of coupling, shame, goodness, and well-being are all infused with culturally shared assumptions.
Media: The media provides the conduit through which many unspoken assumptions are conveyed. Consent is woven into ideas of dating and into love stories. But these assumptions are not just directly described through imagery of love, they are implicit in other ways. News, science, or opinion pieces that often have nothing to do directly with sex, are infused with sexuality, giving silent, hidden messages about consent.
The stories of what love is, what sex is, what happiness is, and so on spin out of the media. In the most public ways these images are of the heteronormative, happy (usually white) twenty-something couple with perfect bodies at the beach in a state of constant mutual eroticized desire, and in that image the rays of disenfranchisement are myriad. The perfect couple is young, making elder generations invisible sexually. The perfect couple is rich, white, and skinny, and that leaves out most of the world. The perfect couple is heterosexual, and interact along hetero scripts of affection. Boy initiates, girl accepts. But what about the infinitudes of other forms of interaction, gender possibility and the expression of more unscripted sexual pleasures? Are they bad? Should consent be contingent upon portrayal of a certain image?
Family: Each family has a culture of its own, scars of its own. I remember the day my mother told me the story of when she was raped. I remember telling my daughter the story of when I was raped. The generations are linked in their trauma, and in their healing. Somehow sharing this story was an instruction on how to survive in the world. Family is the matrix through which all the contexts of our lives intersect.
Sexual consent can become twisted up into a muddle of the hopes of keeping the family together, protecting children, protecting the home, protecting reputation. How many marriages or domestic partnerships have sexual encounters that are not wanted, but believed to be obligatory? Not all nations today consider non-consensual sex within a marriage to be rape. Religion and culture are obviously relevant to family as well.
Sometimes there is nothing more pleasing than to please the person one loves, even if one’s own desire is not boiling. But to do so in fear of economic consequence can lead to resentment that can become a lifetime of marital date-rape. Does that protect the family? Is there support within the marriage to refuse each other? Rejection never sits well. But false consent is also toxic.
Ecology: Attention to destructive patterns of exploitation between people may help make visible the exploitations between humanity and the environment. The violence of reductionism lies in the objectification that comes from separating living systems into parts, cut off from their relational vitality. Complexity is concealed when severed from interrelational contexts, limiting understanding, respect, and care for the interdependency of life at all levels. Objectification leads to exploitation. The description of human beings as objects, for example using the metaphor of a “role” or “resource,” is a dangerous reductionism leaving us all vulnerable. The decontextualizing of human beings from their bodies, communities, and cultures devolves toward ownership and economic valuation. Things are owned, not relational processes. Isolation from context is premised upon machine metaphors in which parts can be broken, replaced, or fixed as components. Mental health, physical health, and emotional health are interdependent processes that reach well beyond the identified parties and into families, communities, and future relationships. This ecological pattern of interdependency is a door into recognizing that an understanding of the complexity of the self in intimate relationships is a necessary contribution to understanding complexity, and care of that complexity in other relationships such as to the biosphere.
Technology: The mechanistic efficiency of technology seems only to increase. The “next gen” stuff is always faster, smoother, and trickier than the previous model. We are told the machines can make sense faster than we can. I would ask, what kind of sense? Programs for sorting and categorizing analytic data and statistics are creeping increasingly into our most private information, but do they know us? Sci-fi stories have for decades explored whether computers/robots can experience sensations and feelings. And when we make sense of the world through our devices, how does that sense-making differ from the matrix of interlocked messages met by brain and blood, in conversation, in culture, consciously and unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly?
The culture of dating through digital apps has fundamentally altered the scripts of romance in ways we are not yet aware of. I have a feeling that shopping online for love has already become addictive for some: the continuous hunt for the next desirable contact. But there is no denying the experience of people who find each other, find love, through these very digital technologies. Is it really so different from meeting someplace else like a park, a bar, or a friend’s wedding? The rise of digital apps to confirm consent is a cultural signal that there is a need for evidenced proof in case of future dispute. This speaks volumes about the placement of concern around consent as a legal issue. It also speaks to the misplacement of attention to consent as though it were a “thing” that could be separated from the complex contextual joinings of two people.
We do not know yet what the next generations whose free moments are spent with technology are learning or not learning in the realm of non-verbal communication. Are they adopting an instinct of linking and connecting from their time online? How are their bodies developing differently in lieu of hours spent in physical contact with soil and grass and climbing trees? The subtleties and nuances of reading another person face to face are somehow affected by emoji culture, but we do not know how yet. Sexual development in the era of online pornography is not comparable to the old days of stolen copies of an uncle’s Playboy magazine. What is happening to the relationships between body and imagination, and how that will play out in sexual encounters, is not known yet—let alone the way it will alter mutual sexual respect.
The contexts are changing
Embracing the complexity of the trans-contextual processes that every encounter includes is a beginning. But the project of making sense of our own and other people’s communication about sexuality will always be baffling. Inexplicable physical and emotional responses defy comprehension as a single direct signal. Yet, to achieve clarity about the encounter, such a singularity is precisely what both parties are told to seek. In the unfathomable genesis of hormones, fantasies, and complicated emotions, sex transports us out of the direct zones of plain language. The complexity of sexual interaction requires recognition of, and inquiry into, the contexts in which the interaction is taking place. Habits of making sense in terms of separation, silos, and singular causality obscure the complexity of consent, and subsequently respect for the complexity. The context in which the communication is taking place limits what it is possible to say.
In this moment, the topic of consent is filled with instabilities recently brought into public view through the #MeToo movement. Suddenly with this collective attention to the mishaps and abuses of consent, there is a loss of sureness about how to discern mutual consent, or even how to discuss it without triggering old inadequate language and oversights. This is how it is now. The context in which this conversation about consent is taking place has become rapidly blurred.
Confusion about defining acceptable conduct is coupled with the fire of fed-up fury over a world that has let us all down, men and women alike. If advances are made now, they are read through a different set of contextual lenses than the same advances might have been read even a year ago. Despite the long history that led up to the viral #MeToo moment, when the shift began, it happened swiftly. As a generalized example: Now, if someone is persistently making unwanted advances, the assumption is that that person is making them in spite of knowing what damage is caused by that behavior. Not long ago that same person, making the same unpleasant advances, would likely have been described as clumsy, old fashioned, pushy. Now, millions of voices have spoken to the violation, damage, and torment of that behavior. Now, anyone who behaves in this manner is viewed either as contending with some sort of pathology, or as a singular asshole. In any case, they are likely to lose status financially, legally, professionally, and socially. The same messaging has a very different meaning than it used to. The context is changing.
“Try not to live in a linguistic slum.”
Nothing makes much sense, and yet sensing is critical to finding a new language of consent, new forms, and new gestures. This is a process that runs across the contexts of our lives. Society is rife with rape and sexual abuse pulling against well-versed discourses of feminism. Reaching far beyond the back of the bar or the bedroom, the contexts that inform consent are inter-systemic. Identifiable patterns of exploitation and oppression bind personal daily habits and expenditures to the suffering of others and the ecology. I live in a pull of contradictions. Living in a world of exploitation becomes normal, feeding the distrust and the reasons for distrust between people. I am unable to remove the messages of my culture from my body. The perplexing incongruities of society proclaim care for citizens but put business first, entangling justice with profit. I carry these paradoxical perceptions. The mixed messaging of assumptions around sexuality are informed both physically and intellectually with centuries of pain. It is marinated into our language, our bodies, and our emotional responses.
Constructs of masculinity and femininity upheld by the structures of historical roles of men and women are disappearing. The familiar walls are crumbling. They were weight-bearing walls; they held the architecture of sexual expectations.
A clean start with a new set of rules is impossible. Wherever the future leads us, we take our existing scars. With that in mind, I am curious what a “healthy” sexual relationship is for individuals and the community. I am trying to get out, get in, get over, get through… get there: get to where the complexity of sexual interchange, interaction, and intercourse is. Sexual consent is complex, and includes an aggregate of the many conditions that inform intimacy between two people. New vocabulary as well as new approaches to the conversation will be needed if new territories of mutual desire are to be discovered.
Lost together, learning together
As a student of complexity and systems theory, I have found that it is often the case in inquiry about larger contextual processes of a system, that one’s loyalty comes into question. It makes people suspicious when they cannot discern whose side I am on. Let me be clear: My loyalty in this exploration is to those brave people who find themselves enamored with another person in a world that is changing shape, and not knowing what to say or do, they pause. They are pausing because it matters to them that they form relationships that do not damage those to whom they wish to offer their affection. I believe that establishing future patterns of expression of affection lies with these people who in this moment are attentive, silenced, nervous, and careful. There is no measure of the regret I would feel if my attempts toward finding possibilities for understanding one another are misunderstood. I am not here to betray, vilify, or victimize. This articulation is perilous, and I may fail.
The confusion of this era contributes to more confusion, even about what we are confused about. I suppose that those people who do not care about the damage they may inflict upon others still do not care. But those who do care to assure mutual consent are stumbling between old mistakes and new ones.
The old scripts of flirtation and courtship have thankfully begun to rot; their hierarchies and exploitations have been revealed. But now what? A necessary lostness has come with the shakedown of so many who abused their positions. Now, especially since the #MeToo movement began, caution is the emerging script for some, while others indulge nostalgia for the clarity of previous understanding of roles and responsibilities. There are sharp consequences everywhere in the topic of consent. The slightest mis-saying will scream louder than any attempt to unsay it.
This moment of confusion is a portal to the next phase of our ways of being together. Perhaps there is another territory of contact and communication. It will not be a prepackaged solution, or a set of steps to a promised harmony. Fractures forming in the perceptions of gender and consent are opening the possibility of seeing sexual interaction in new ways.
Deep in the complexity of consent is the needed existence of mutual desire. This is mysterious territory. What makes people attracted to each other is one of the most inexplicable, unknowable phenomena of human interaction. Still, even though the sources and causations of sexual attraction are beyond description and predictability, it is imperative that the complexity of desire is considered. Especially, hopefully, mutual desire.
“We have these earthly bodies. We don’t know what they want. Half the time, we pretend they are under our mental thumb, but that is the illusion of the healthy and protected. Of sedate lovers. For the body has emotions it conceives and carries through without anyone or anything else. Love is one of these, I guess. Going back to something very old knit into the brain as we were growing. Hopeless. Scorching. Ordinary.”
Sexual preferences and appetites form and shift in territories of the self that are not necessarily rational, verbal, or explicit. People often do not know why they want what they want. They cannot explain or justify their stirrings. Every great love story and poet has explored this universe of charming and dangerous mystery. The ways in which one person perceives another involve vast processes of hidden information. Memory of pleasurable and painful experiences, cultural messages of beauty and strength, ideas of happiness, fulfillment, and success — all lurk beneath the realm of conscious verbal analysis. Nothing makes much sense in the murky physical, emotional, and cultural connections that take place to produce attraction. Ironically, sensual processes make their own sense, with little regard for the way sense-making might occur in rational, logical terms. Contradictions, rebellions, forbiddenness—all are so prevalent in this unknowable realm of behavior that they are clichés in most love stories, fiction or not. The contexts of body, intellect, history, and so much more combine in indescribable ways.
you touching my arm
setting fire to my mind
Tread carefully on any path of ideas or wordings that touch this wound. How do people know if the consent is mutual? An easy rulebook of instructions, while it might seem advisable, will only result in more confusion. The complexity will continue to elude predictability, wreaking havoc until an understanding of the contextual processes is given its due. I am raw. I am nervous as I write this. Any small misstep may trigger venomous ire from all sides. Silence tightens.
“I want you to want me”
— The title lyrics from a 1970s’ song by the band Cheap Trick.
This reciprocity is not enough—it becomes a game of luring, attracting and seduction that is too easily imbued with dominance, power games and abuse. A deeper consideration of “consent” has another dimension in it, which is where possibility and complexity reside.
I want you to want me to want you.
A is attracted to B.
A pays close attention to B’s verbal and nonverbal communication. Is there perceived reciprocity? So far, that is “I want you to want me”-- the next level is crucial in this new era. Is A turned on by B being turned on by A’s attraction, and vice versa?
Let me break that down. A wants B to notice, and even be turned on by, the desire of A. But more than that, A wants B to want A to feel that desire. It's not just consent that matters, it’s that a potential partner is desirous, craving, and excited to be wanted by the other—who likes it, too. Here desire, which can be so dangerous, so greedy, so unthinking when it is felt by one person in isolation, is pulled into a looping reciprocity and becomes mutual.
This is where the horizon changes shape—completely. This is where the contexts of consent become important to perception, for both people, the community, and even the larger ecology. This marks a change in approach.
We have no idea how to do this. We have no stories to show us. We have no elders to describe it. We simply must walk together into this darkness and keep trying. This lostness is not a cop-out. To reside in ambiguity requires rigor and integrity. Not having a script or a protocol is hard work, and takes much more attention to the Warm Data. Looking for the complexity in another person and responding to it is a process of care and curiosity in the minutiae of each moment.
I think it is the trying that matters most of all. To care that someone you want wants you to want them each time you come together intimately is a recognition of their complexity as well as your own. This means finding new ways of reading gestures carefully. It will be necessary to speak in language that does not pull old scripts into the new conversations. We will need to practice listening with the body into unfamiliar sensations of attraction and respect as they unfold in new contexts of culture. Playfully together, we may find possibilities as yet unimagined. For the coming decades we will be holding our expression of affection lightly, so that when our inexperienced attempts crash, they do not demolish life.
“If the future is to remain open and free, we need people who can tolerate the unknown, who will not need the support of completely worked out systems or traditional blueprints from the past.”
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