If you spend a lot of time reading advice columns and relationship forums, one thing you will rapidly notice is that many people are dating somebody who routinely violates consent, is abusive, and has a personality disorder of some kind. And then you will find that this kind of language creeps into a lot of commentary, either by way of allegory (abused wife comparisons are particularly popular) or by straight-up accusation (“Donald Trump” — sigh — “is gaslighting America”).
Sometimes, however, the invocation of consent gets a bit strange. Take, for instance, an infamous 2016 letter to the “Ask a Manager” advice column about a person who wanted her co-workers to call her partner in a BDSM relationship “her master.” The letter writer, one of the co-workers, struggles to explain why this request seems unreasonable, but says that it “borders on involving other non-consenting parties into your relationship.” The consent theme is then taken up by the commenters — a search for “consent” yields 71 results.
But while you might invoke consent to shut down a particularly dense co-worker, it’s not clear to me that consent is really the issue here. The demand is not that other people treat her significant other as their master, after all, or to otherwise rework their behavior around him (asking him for permission to invite her to office parties, for instance). People are uncomfortable partly because they feel involved in someone’s sex life, but also, perhaps, out of a feeling that someone can’t quite distinguish between a game (even a serious game) and the rest of their life: after all, the co-worker really isn’t her partner’s slave. And this is a lightly consequential, but I think helpful, example of how consent serves as a stand-in for something slightly more ambiguous and harder to articulate as a principle.
What happens, exactly, when we reduce our moral language to issues of consent and abuse?
That consent, within the bedroom, is an insufficient standard for how we treat each other is a well-hashed out argument, one usefully explored (for instance) by Joseph Fischel, a professor at Yale University, in his recent book Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Social Justice. As Fischel points out, acts can be consensual and wrong; but also we sometimes invoke “consent” to give a voice to objections in which consent rather literally can’t apply. One such example in the book is necrophilia. A corpse can’t consent because a corpse can’t do anything. But as far as consent goes, a corpse is in the same category as a couch or a bookshelf. To talk about consent is to avoid why we are disturbed by necrophilia.
So what happens, exactly, when we reduce our moral language to issues of consent and abuse? We seem to gain something, if only a flexible and clear way of describing boundaries and justifying harm. On the other hand, we might also lose something: what we might consider worthy of moral opprobrium, for instance, and what’s just an issue of sensitivity. And finally, it’s possible that the language of consent is handy because it reinforces something bad about how we treat other people. Consent is self-protective, after all, and the instinct to protect ourselves doesn’t always take us good places.
You’re probably expecting that I’m going to say it’s time to toughen up: Donald Trump isn’t gaslighting you, your friend isn’t abusive, that wasn’t rape, you’re trivializing Real Problems. But while the internet is rife with people armchair diagnosing other people as abusive, my experience in real life has been watching people describe obviously malicious behavior, including things that are clearly rape, and then blame themselves or wonder why they’re upset. People who are all but professionally wounded do exist, but they are — in my experience — a minority.
Which brings me to what strikes me as the bigger problem: the sphere of permissible harm. Abuse, as a subset of consent violation, involves calculated malice. But consent itself is contractual and thus, in a sense, objective. It moves the harm out of the world of the messy and interpersonal, or the world in which harm is harmful just because it’s harming you, in which you can meaningfully dispute the rights of others to treat you as only a means to an end. You said, or reasonably conveyed, “yes,” or you didn’t. The person actively willed you ill, or they didn’t. You signed on to be a part of someone’s 24/7 submissive relationship… or you didn’t.
In a classically “ambiguous” case like a professor sleeping with an adult student, the consent argument revolves around whether or not we view students as capable of consent. It’s insulting to make that argument about an adult. But it’s also insufficient to view that as the only question when it comes to such relationships or the only way of judging real harm. A blanket ban on such relationships is, in my opinion, a good thing. But banning it in the name of consent requires voiding one party’s voice entirely. And if you, the student in such a situation, know your consent was not violated, but nonetheless have still been harmed, you are left either without a way to talk about what’s happened to you or else you have to agree to adopt the language you’re being handed. To communicate your experience may require being forced into bad faith.
As far as public life goes, it’s also worth making one last point: sometimes, things are not “consensual,” but they aren’t wrong.
More interesting, however, is when we move out of the realm of the bedroom — in which to say that something can be consensual but wrong is not really controversial — into the public world of work and politics. Because people can agree to contracts of all sorts “freely” — to sign, for instance, a non-compete agreement to get a job — and still be harmed by what they are asked to agree to. In the world of labor, people consent to all sorts of things, and their consent is real. But the demand can be, and often is, wrong.
Nor is it correct to characterize a company seeking to protect itself in this way as abusive, even if it’s acting immorally (which it is), because it is probably merely indifferent to the well-being of its employees, not malicious. To gaslight somebody requires a level of commitment to disorienting your chosen victim so intense that it would almost be comforting to think that the various, huge, indifferent systems with which we interact are designed to gaslight us rather than simply not taking us into account at all.
And the problem with the Gaslighter-In-Chief isn’t that he’s a liar, but the kind of policies he stands behind and enacts. If he simply told the truth but did all the same things, he wouldn’t suddenly be a better president. But even Trump’s lies, which are frequently weird and unprovoked, wouldn’t really be gaslighting either unless you genuinely went from not believing him to believing him every time. What they provoke instead is a kind of cynicism.
But as far as public life goes, it’s also worth making one last point: sometimes, things are not “consensual,” but they aren’t wrong. Resentment at paying taxes for welfare programs that help the poor; anger at people who try, unauthorized, to cross the border; protests against building homelessness shelters in your neighborhood; refusal to vaccinate — all of these positions are compatible with grounding your idea of harm in consent. In fact, one curious thing about the call to “toughen up,” much beloved of consent critics, is that toughness is entirely compatible with an ethic based only on being responsible for the things you’ve directly agreed to.
After all, vaccination is an issue both of bodily autonomy and fear of contamination. The principle behind vaccination — giving yourself a weak version of a disease so you can resist the strong — has always been a little unsettling. Furthermore, the better we get at not contracting certain viruses when we’re young enough that they are harmless, the more serious diseases requiring vaccination may arise. The less vulnerability we share with each other, the more protected we are in some ways and the more exposed we are in others.
And while the clash over vaccines has many elements, one principle at stake is whether or not the state has the right to breach your autonomy for the greater good. And the answer, it seems to me, is that in this case they do, just as building a shelter for the homeless takes priority over the property values of the people around it.
Because much of human interdependence is unchosen, and the stranger who shows up at your doorstep (or your border) can lay a real moral claim on you whether you like it or not. People are weak and needy, sometimes only temporarily and sometimes permanently. Ecologically, too, there is no toughing out what we are doing to one another. And within the space created by human need and frailty are most of the things that make life genuinely good. But allowing those things to flourish depends as much or more on mutual weakness as individual strength.
People have retreated into the language of consent and abuse for what I regard as basically understandable reasons: to avoid having relationships criminalized, to force people to see harm done to them. But it’s a losing position, not only because most interpersonal harm exists in a more subjective space, but because politically we suffer from an overemphasis on self-determination and a denial of our own fragility, from the idea that when we take action we willingly sign up for every possible consequence, that we are only responsible for the things we want to be. Consent provides a way to protest treating other people as objects. But when it comes to treating other people as people, we have a ways to go.