There’s been a whole lot of talk lately about this new idea called “enthusiastic consent.” I wanted to talk about it today and why that idea is such a game-changer not only in the arena of sexuality but also in every arena of life, and why I think that all of us–especially religious people–should adopt it as a personal philosophy.
A while ago, one of those Duck Dynasty fauxbillies made a (justifiably) huge brouhaha when he suggested that way back when during the days of Jim Crow, black people were much happier then than they are now with all this ickie equality they’ve been saddled with by mean ole white people. How did he come by that simply astonishing fact? Because none of those black people had complained directly to King Him:
I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Now, obviously, immediately a number of people took to the digital press and airwaves to tell Phil Robertson exactly why he might not ever have heard black people complaining about how they got treated: namely, that such complaining not only wouldn’t have helped them a lot, but also might have gotten them killed or persecuted along with all the other black people being killed and persecuted. There is no indication whatsoever that Phil Robertson ever got the memo, though, or that he ever understood the truth of the matter, which is simply this: he’s a member of a couple of different privileged classes, and there are a whole bunch of reasons why he might not have heard such complaints and only one of many of those reasons might be “because nobody was actually unhappy about being treated like subhuman garbage and subjected to inhuman treatment over racial animosity.”
Many of us were shocked beyond words that this guy would ever say that he thought the reason for the silence was that there was simply nothing for those black folks to complain about. But for me, my shock went a lot deeper than that, and I’ve been quietly processing it for a while now. For some reason what he said really bothered me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’ve written about this shameful example of humanity before now, but there was just something about his blithe indifference to human suffering that really twigged me, really pinged my radar, and I was never totally sure about why. Thankfully, I’m one of those rumination types of people, and when something bothers me, I think about it until I know why.
Well, now I’ve figured it out.
This comment was a lot more than just one twit’s blithe privilege blindness. It did more than just highlight the signal inability of privileged people to even see the suffering of those who don’t share the privilege. What he was doing was indulging in that common luxury of privileged people: confusing silence for consent and happiness.
Phil Robertson not only doesn’t understand privilege, but he also simply doesn’t understand the concept of “enthusiastic consent,” and neither do the toxic Christians who are likewise oblivious to the suffering of those they marginalize and the awful behavior they try to rationalize that causes the suffering of those around themselves.
“Consent” here means the permission one gains from the target of one’s proposed act or speech. Most of us are familiar with the idea because of our growing cultural understanding of consensual sexuality; before a sex act can be initiated, consent to that act must be gained from all participants in the festivities. But consent as a concept goes way past just sex. To a certain extent it’s an idea that every single one of us uses every single day in our regular interactions. Sometimes we ask explicitly for that consent–for example, I used to visit a chiropractor who’d ask me for permission before doing stuff to me, and when you call your cell phone company, the agent will (or at least should!) usually ask if he or she can access your records before helping you. When missionaries knock on your door, they’ll ask if you have time to talk–in essence asking you for consent to discuss religion with you. When a person asks someone out on a date, that is another form of consent-seeking.
As humans, we are constantly checking for consent and agreement with each other. It’s pretty glaring when somebody doesn’t get that consent before moving ahead with physical contact or emotional ingratiation. I’m sure the folks reading this blog all have a memory of some creepy person who kept touching them or trying to rub their shoulders or hug them, and I can also tell you that Biff, my preacher ex, managed to commit the emotional equivalent of this action with my family members after I’d dumped him and fled the country to escape him.
As we’ve discussed before here, consent as a concept is not one that toxic Christians recognize anyway. Some of them even feel that their god strong-arms or “invades” people, to borrow a term from this charming young toxic Christian I ran across elsewhere who said she was praying to see that happen to dissenters who disagreed with her rather childish and simplistic theological views. Others may feel their god decided from the beginning of the universe who was going to be “saved” and who wasn’t. For all the “free will” whining you hear out of Christians, they don’t really understand what that term means, and certainly I’ve never seen the idea spelled out in the Bible in the way they’re using it; typically, free will is not happening when there’s a huge threat looming in the background for anybody who makes the “wrong” choice. We call that forcing someone under duress, you know. Telling me that I’ll be shot if I don’t give my wallet to a mugger doesn’t mean I gave that person my wallet out of my own free will! Though to a Christian, that exact scenario with only minor rewording is just an average Sunday night revival service. But it lets the Christian throw his or her hands into the air and abdicate all responsibility for following a god who operates in such a beastly way: “Welp! Guess they decided out of their own free will to endure hopeless torture for eternity!” As you might imagine, I find the whole thing monstrous from top to bottom.
Certainly Christians’ holy book doesn’t seem to notice or care about consent much–only about sin. Consent is a fairly new idea for humanity, something whose ramifications we will revisit shortly. But the Bible’s and by extension Christians’ concept of “sin” centers around whether or not an act or thought would make Jesus angry or upset, not around whether or not it actually hurts anybody or violates anybody’s rights or liberties. That’s why they can make thought crimes into sins and why they come down so hard on actions that bear no consequences whatsoever for their own lives, like particular types of sexual expression or acts of sacrilege.
See, here’s the big problem Christians are facing in the modern age:
* Sin is a very old concept. So are the ideas of thought crimes, mindless obedience, and the criminalization of perfectly consensual acts that harm nobody.
* Consent is a very new concept, as is free will; it’s hard to read the Bible and come out of it thinking that either one is considered very important.
* But in the modern age, people are moving away from the idea of thought crimes being acceptable and moving toward the idea of consent being important. We’re starting to value free speech and consent more than we ever did before.
* The inescapable conclusion I reach: either the Bible’s writers didn’t think it was important to spell this stuff out, or else the ideas didn’t really exist in the first place. That means that either the old ideas are wrong, or the new ideas are wrong. They can’t both be correct. (Though some Christians are trying to merge the ideas, saying that sometimes consent is important, while at others it is irrelevant.)
Sane Christians have already come to the conclusion that when it comes down to human rights or the Bible, human rights should win, and that means that consent needs to be given its full value. Unfortunately, toxic Christians have gone the other direction. It’s hard to see them carrying on about forced gestation, the rolling back of various groups’ hard-won civil rights, illegal government-sanctioned prayers, and public-school indoctrination sessions and think they care even one single bit about consent.
When a group of people doesn’t care about consent, then all sorts of atrocities become perfectly acceptable and even pleasing to their god. One such atrocity, slavery, perfectly illustrates how divorced from reality and morality Christianity is becoming. Their conceptualization of slavery itself makes clear that they idolize the idea of being slaves to Jesus, as we’ve also discussed here before, and many of their social and cultural positions only make sense when you realize that they don’t care about consent at all and in fact demonize the very idea of wanting it. Meanwhile, people are still being enslaved in the world today–many at the hands of Christians.
And a lot of this abuse happened because nobody spoke up while toxic Christians were getting rolling on their takeover of American culture. Nobody significant or in great enough numbers said anything. And so Christians decided that obviously meant that nobody minded what they were doing.
One thing you’ll notice if you read the Friendly Atheist blog’s constant drumbeat litany of Christian overreach is how often non-Christians are caught in a catch-22: if we object to each and every infringement of our rights, then we’re shrill and overreactive, but if we save our objections only for the big fights, then we get criticized for not having objected much earlier to the smaller instances overreach. Our silence is assumed to mean that we’ve consented to whatever it is the Christians are doing. If we’re not actively fighting against every single bit of overreach, then obviously we don’t mind a bit of overreach. Right?
And in all these cases of Unequally Yoked couples, one common theme I hear is that consent between the couple is lost entirely in the pain of deconversion and disappointment. Often the Christian spouse doesn’t want to talk at all about the deconversion. Also often, the Christian spouse starts doing all kinds of overreach-y kind of things that the non-Christian often just puts up with to keep the peace–like Biff, my Christian ex-husband, who would do stuff like playing Christian Contemporary Music really loudly in the house around me, or make assumptions about me attending church with him (“so on Sunday after we go to church we’ll do such and such errands”), or pray super-loudly in the house where he knew I could hear every single word he intoned, moaned, shrieked, and howled. When one of these instances of overreach happens and a fight doesn’t ensue, often it feels like the Christian spouse gets exultant, as if victory (defined here as “the ex-Christian spouse re-converting amid trumpet blasts and songs of angels”) is right around the corner. It’s so wearisome and tiring; it’s like being at war all the time and not being sure when the next volley of grenades is going to come through the doorway. But it really feels like our still-Christian spouses think that if they can just wear us down with enough Christian “love” and gestures, that we’ll be back in church Any Day Now™. Right?
I’ve stopped even being astonished at how often toxic Christians think they can just sneak in with their attempts to proselytize and control others, though I confess that sometimes I can all but hear them chortling and giggling with glee at how they think they’re going to get one over on those meaniepie atheists (as you can hear on that special Nova did about the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial–those Christianists who were on the Dover school board seem downright giddy about how they’ve managed to rebrand Creationism in a way they clearly think will totally fool those ickie atheists). As long as nobody’s complaining, the sky’s the limit. Rights, in a toxic Christian’s bizarre worldview, depend solely on whether someone will complain about their violation. If nobody’s complaining, then nobody’s rights are being violated. Rights are silly things anyway, totally dependent on the majority’s vote and approval, and if Christians decide someone doesn’t deserve rights, then that person by golly gets no rights. Right?
Are you seeing what I’m getting at here? Christianity has become a religion of asking forgiveness rather than permission. The ends always justify the means, and no action is too awful, too low, or too boorish if it accomplishes the goal. That is not a good way to live as people. It’s dishonest and unkind. Christians themselves are quickly starting to feel to the rest of us like that weird roommate we’ve all had who didn’t realize that he shouldn’t put the dirty peanut-butter knife back in the drawer after using it and who never paid rent till we threatened to evict him–you had one like that too, right? That guy who had to be specifically told that animals need to be cared for regularly and that if you don’t pay your phone bill you lose service? The one who harassed women on buses under the pretense of “just wanting to talk to them”? The one who seemed downright astonished to learn that the rest of the household wasn’t actually totally fine with doing his chores or washing his dirty dishes? Christians are becoming like that guy. No wonder most of the rest of us are losing patience.
And it’s not like we haven’t been making a little noise, but clearly it wasn’t enough to pierce their bubble and get through to them–and why should it even be our responsibility to teach them anyway? Shouldn’t they be seeking our consent rather than straining to hear the muted sound of our dissatisfaction after the fact of their various abuses of us? If they’re wondering why we don’t seem to be quite as willing to go along with their nonsense, they don’t need to look too far beyond their own behavior. If they genuinely want to engage with us about their faith and persuade us to join their cause, then angering and creeping us out is not the way to do it–that behavior is not any more effective than what you see out of any Nice Guy™’s playbook.
So when I heard about the concept of “enthusiastic consent,” a lot of things clicked into place for me.
Enthusiastic consent is a concept I’m borrowing and extending to other parts of life. Simply put, it means that just quiet compliance and silence doesn’t mean consent. It’s not enough. People should be seeking–and getting–not just meek assent but a loud and clear “YES” before proceeding with the interaction. It asks women and men both to opt out of Rape Culture myths in which men are always demanding sex and wearing down their partners, and in which women “give in” to sexual demands. It asks us all to stop buying into romance-novel and douche-bro myths about “no” just being a reluctant “yes,” about rejections that can, with effort and just the right moves, be transformed into acquiescence. It demands that we all reject the thinking that men sometimes just can’t control themselves or that sometimes a woman does something that necessitates a sexual assault. It tells men that they don’t have the right to a woman’s attention or the right to push past her objections for any reason. It points out how women have been conditioned to be meek and quiet about their own needs, and it asks for compassion from men so that women can feel safe about being more assertive even if that means those women might reject them if they don’t want to interact.
Most people already believe firmly that some interactions (like sexual intercourse or BDSM play) must be accompanied by consent, but in the past, silence was often confused with that consent–and it was hardly universally required for all interactions. Maybe it should be.
Have you ever heard someone who’s been dumped talk about how the breakup just happened out of the clear blue sky? Like one day everything seemed fine, but the next day suddenly this bombshell got dropped? There’s a reason those people get so blindsided: they’ve confused quietness with consent. They’ve mistakenly assumed that if nobody’s arguing, that must mean everything is fine. “My ex said s/he wasn’t happy when we broke up, but we never argued!” is one of the things you’ll hear from these people–and one must ask: why not? Because if a breakup happens after a long period of no arguments, especially if at one time there were arguments aplenty, that tells me exactly why the breakup happened. It should be a huge concern for a person to hear something like this; it could mean that the person who did the dumping was just one of those precipitous human beings who flits in and out all the time, sure, but it almost always means that the person who initiated the breakup figured out eventually to quit bothering with arguments.
I can speak from personal experience here; when living with Biff, he pretty much assumed that if I wasn’t kicking up a huge fuss over something, that everything was okay. I learned not to say anything–because nothing would change if I did. It would either result in nothing good or something terribly bad, and either way, I just stopped bothering. It should worry someone when a partner’s complaints just stop like mine did, but Biff was overjoyed at my sudden compliance.
I was in a relationship after that one in which my partner talked a very big game about being “open and honest” (incidentally, that exact phrase is now on my top 10 Red Flags list), but like most folks who say that, not only was he neither of those things himself but he didn’t actually welcome them in a partner. It took me a while to catch on because I was still fairly fresh out of Christianity, which had taught me to distrust my perceptions and to defer to my partner’s opinion. Eventually I learned to quit complaining; the attempt would not only not produce any good discussion or change, but he’d pout and sulk for weeks if I tried to raise any objections to how I was being treated or voiced any opinions that didn’t meet with his approval. When I finally wised up and dumped him, he was absolutely astonished and outraged that I hadn’t tried to talk to him about our problems before making my move. That was when I finally figured some things out, but it took a long time.
Now there’s this idea of “enthusiastic consent”–this idea that partners (and potential partners) should check in with each other to gain not just a meek acquiescence but a firm and loud “YES!” before movement should be made.
Imagine what those past relationships of mine would have looked like if either of those two men had considered my enthusiastic consent important to them. Imagine what they would have looked like had I myself considered it so. I’ve met plenty of men since who were like that, and the difference is simply eye-opening. I’ve since even heard of a man who actually asked women, “Do you mind if I flirt with you?”–which I’d find absolutely charming, personally; he reports that he’s never been turned down, but he’d have been fine if he had been because what decent man wants to flirt with women who don’t want to flirt back with him? I mean seriously, who’d even want to have sex with someone who wasn’t 100% into the idea? And guess what? When someone knows that enthusiastic participation is valued and that without that enthusiasm that no festivities will be happening, then it becomes a lot easier to offer it in safety and security. So once I realized I had rights and that my consent mattered, I never looked back at that awful charred land I’d walked through on bare feet. I’ve found a better country since then, and I’m never leaving it.
Imagine what Christianity would look like if Christians thought consent was important.
Imagine a Christianity where Christians treated others with respect and courtesy, giving each human being the dignity that person deserves. Imagine a Christianity where Christians would rather die than commit the offense of forcing themselves on another person. Imagine a Christianity where a Christian asks an outsider, “Is it okay if I pray for you–and is there anything else I can do?” instead of smugly informing that outsider, “I’ll be praying that Jesus invades you and forces you to think like I do.” Imagine a Christianity where a Christian asks, “I had a great time at church today!” and waits for someone to take the conversational bait instead of barging up to total strangers to ask if they’ve ever heard of Jesus. Imagine a Christianity where Christians asked before taking, checked in before trampling, and continued doing both throughout an interaction to make sure they weren’t accidentally marginalizing or ostracizing people around themselves. What would that even look like?
I know this is a difficult thing to imagine. It’d require Christians–like other privileged groups–to move out of their comfort zone and start caring about what non-privileged groups think of them. It’d mean accepting that other people have rights and opinions that might not mesh with their own. It’d most especially mean Christians would no longer be able to do whatever they want without worrying about others’ reactions.
Yes, I’m talking about cooperating rather than conquering. I’m talking about working together instead of working against each other. I’m talking about being an ensemble cast instead of the Christian being the star and everybody else being a supporting cast member. Of course, all of this stuff is why Christians will never adopt the idea wholesale, just as Nice Guys™ can’t handle the idea: both groups of people know that most people will not give them enthusiastic consent because, well, they act like overly-entitled jackasses. All they have is the grudging half-acquiescence of the reluctant forced audiences they prey upon now, and just as Nice Guys™ already could tell anybody who asks, many Christians will no doubt have little inclination to make themselves into people that others want to engage with so they can gain that consent before intruding on others. But that’s okay too; their refusal to do it will become more and more glaring as the rest of us move forward.
We need to be aware of creating and fostering a society in which we’re not just trying to avoid and wear down people’s refusals before we run roughshod over them, a society in which silence is not mistaken for assent to victimization. We need to be creating a society where consent is not implicit but explicit, where nothing but a “yes” means “yes” and anything else is “no.”
The more people catch on to the idea of enthusiastic consent, the more the privileged groups will have to face the facts: the writing is on the wall. Enthusiastic consent is here to stay. It’s not going away. This is a genie that will never go back into the bottle. It is a fire in the belly of everybody good who hears about it. It changes everything. It alters the whole world. It provides a new framework, a new paradigm, a new way of looking at others, and in its light the old ways look callow and crude. The privileged people who resist this idea will be angry at its adoption by the rest of us, but they will either learn to live with it as best they can (as they learned to live with the half-assed model of consent we have been using) or they will end up on some Tumblr blog getting rightfully mocked, and folks, we can always use another awesome Tumblr snark blog (and a bonus awesome one I found a bit ago).
As I told a sane Christian last week, though, when it comes to religion, what’s the point of being a jackass? A Christian can either treat me with respect and love, or treat me like most Christians treat people–with contempt, disdain, rudeness, and control-lust. I’m not going to reconvert either way, but a Christian who goes that latter route will not do anything but harden my resolve, make me way less likely to give any future Christians benefit of the doubt about anything, and inspire me to write sharply-critical blog posts. What’s the point of being gratuitously mean to me or trying to control me like that? And in the same way, when Christians mistreat each other in this way, it can give their fellow pew-warmers some really troubling doubts. So they might as well do what Jesus told them do to in the first place and be loving, right?
So Christians, if you’re not hearing the rest of us complain, that doesn’t mean that we’re happy with you or okay with what you’re doing. You should be thankful if we’re still raising a fuss, and very worried if you hear only silence from us all of a sudden.
That silence you hear could well mean we’re about to dump you straight to the curb.
Next time, we’re going to take a lighthearted look at some good and bad ways Christians have engaged with me about their faith in the past. Christians (usually) say they’re all about converting the world, but they seem singularly disinterested in hearing about effective ways of talking to people about their religion. If you’re curious about what does and doesn’t turn me off and push my thrill buttons, then join me next time.