This past weekend, I had the privilege of presenting at Wicked Women, where I taught my healthy vs. abusive kink class and the workshop I developed with Kamela Dolinova on creative negotiation and embodied consent. One of the many things I love about teaching workshops is that I come away having learned as much, of not more than those taking my workshops. Every single participant enriched those spaces with their insights, energy, stories, and questions. This week’s post actually stems from a question that was asked during the embodied consent course, which I don’t feel I did justice to in the moment.

To give some relevant context, of our main teaching points in this workshop is the concept of congruence. Congruence, in this case, refers to finding a place in yourself where your physical, emotional, and intellectual responses are in alignment. This is not such an easy thing to achieve in the context of kink, where the external and internal experience of a power dynamic can be diametrically opposed.

If I understood the question correctly, the participant wanted to know what we thought about relationship dynamics that intentionally engaged spaces where one partner or the other consented less than wholeheartedly or underwent something that they would not otherwise consent to. At the time, I went back to the idea of congruence. If that semi-enthusiasm is congruent with what works for you at the time, I said, then I would still count that within the realm of consent. This answer did not seem to satisfy the asker or, to be perfectly honest, me. Since the end of class, I’ve been been turning this question over in my head.

It seems that all of the cool kids on the internet these days are talking about affirmative/enthusiastic consent. Just recently, Charlie Glickman wrote an awesome article on what such consent might look like.

To me, the enthusiastic consent model gets us one step closer to making the delineation between consent and assent. My definition of consent entails congruence between the expression and intention of “yes.” Additionally, all parties involved must know and agree that “no” and “maybe” are available options. Assent is simply the expression of “yes.” I doubt I am the only one who has assented to many things without ever consenting, from cleaning my room, to giving someone a ride to the airport at 6 am, to going past boundaries that in retrospect, I wish were not crossed.

In that light, can there be unenthusiastic consent? If so, what does that look like? Can true consent be coerced or determined after the fact?

Perhaps, instead of advocating one form of consent, we expand on the idea of congruence. (Click here to read more)

I’m reminded of a class I took in Chicago some years ago on humiliation play. The presenters were a married couple, and the wife identified as an emotional masochist. The wife talked at length about why they no longer play with Safewords.

“In the moment,” she explained, “I just want it to stop. I hate it, I hate him. I will do anything to just. Make it. Stop.”

And so she would safeword, and he would stop. The next day, she found herself getting angry and frustrated at him for stopping. This of course frustrated him because… Well… Safeword=stop. What was congruent for her in the heat of the moment felt discordant after the fact.

It was only after they decided to stop using Safewords that they were able to have a well functioning dynamic. They set very clear boundaries around home life and play life, and for aftercare, she required him to leave her alone for an hour or three. She explained that being alone gave her the space to process the scene and recalibrate her internal experience of her husband from evil monster to loving partner.

While this dynamic most certainly does not fall into a traditional consent framework, it works for that couple and provides more satisfaction and mutual empowerment than enthusiastic consent.

An argument can be made that since “no” and “maybe” unavailable during the scene, just before and possibly after, there could not be consent. I would beg to differ… I liken the experience of consensual non-consent type scenes to that of riding a roller coaster. You make the conscious decision to get on that roller coaster, but once that train starts clicking up the first incline, there is no turning back. Whether I consent to each individual loop-de-loop is no longer of consequence. That loss of control can be liberating for some, terrifying for others. And both experiences are valid. Just as there are roller coaster enthusiasts, there are some who need the freedom to consent unenthusiastically or endure something that sucks in the moment to achieve congruence after the fact.

Given my stated values of individual and community empowerment, to impose my conception of healthy consent on my fellow kinksters would be hypocritical and condescending. I have neither the right nor the standing to police someone else’s relationship choices, regardless of whether I consider those choices healthy.

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