In our podcasts we’ve been talking about how people can get better at consent, but what about people who practice deliberate non consent? What can we do?
Content warning: In this post – and podcast – we discuss deliberately non-consensual behaviour. We don’t give any detailed descriptions, but we do touch on things like rape culture, the low conviction rate for sexual assault, and how people often make excuses for other peoples’ non-consensual behaviour. If these things feel live for you at the moment do please think about how to engage with this in a way that is kind and gentle with yourself – if you want to engage at all.
We talk a lot about the fact that we all live in a highly non-consensual culture around sex and more generally. This does two things: (1) It makes it difficult for people who want to be consensual to do so, and (2) It enables people who want to be non-consensual to do so.
We’ve covered the issue of how those of us who want to be consensual can do that quite a lot on the podcast (e.g. in hookups and in longer term relationships). We’ve spent less time thinking about people who are actively non-consensual and what communities and individuals can do about them, so that’s what we’re covering here.
Understanding deliberate non consent
Why might people actually want to be non-consensual? There are many reasons, and they may have more or less self-awareness about these. For example, it might be that they feel powerful when they exert their power over others and that validates them. It might be that – due to a particular belief system or worldview – they think they know better than other people what those people will like or benefit from. It may be that coercion or non-consensual sex is a turn-on for them. It may be that their non-consensual behaviour gives them something in terms of work, money, or status. It could be that they just want to get off sexually and that they treat the people they have sex with as objects towards that end. It may be a combination of all of these things.
What to say to somebody who is deliberately non-consensual
We sometimes receive questions from people who have behaved in a deliberately non-consensual way. We have to think carefully about our answers because we want them to be able to hear what we have to say – which requires some degree of compassion and hearing where they are coming from – while at the same time wanting to make it absolutely clear that those behaviours are unacceptable and should never happen again. There’s something important about holding a compassionate acceptance of a person and holding a clear boundary about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour so not allowing or enabling them to behave non-consensually.
It’s likely that people who are deliberately non-consensual have had their own boundaries badly violated at some point. While it’s vital to remember that a very small number of people who have been abused go on to abuse other people themselves, it certainly is the case that most people who abuse have been abused. This is not at all to excuse such behaviour, but it does help us to realise that there are reasons behind abusive and non-consensual patterns.
These things are often very intractable, so if you are drawn to behaving non-consensually please do your work – whether with a therapist or other practitioner – to really look at your stuff and shift your patterns. This is likely to take years rather than months and it will involve the painful business of sitting with the sides of yourself that are vulnerable and have been violated, as well as the sides of yourself that are capable of non-consent and of harming others (actually this is pretty helpful work for everyone to do). While you are doing this work, please do not put yourself in any situations where you’re likely to behave non-consensually again. This means stepping down from leadership positions or away from any work which puts you one-to-one with others you could abuse your power over.
Frequently those who dehumanise other people also treat themselves in similar ways. Long term if you can do this work, you will find that you are able to be kinder to yourself, and forge far more mutual and fulfilling relationships with other people. It’ll be a painful process, but your life will be so much better for it.
What we can do as communities, friendship groups, etc.
Perhaps the obvious thing to do when somebody is non-consensual is to report to the police. However we want to acknowledge a tension here because engaging with the criminal justice system is not what everyone wants to do, particularly because it can be retraumatising, because conviction rates for sexual assault are low, and because survivors of certain kinds can be treated badly (e.g. kinksters, sex workers, people of colour). However these issues with the criminal justice system should not be used to silence survivors. If this avenue isn’t open then it’s up to communities to do this work themselves as well as they can.
Sadly in many sex positive, kinky, polyamorous and similar communities there have been real issues with people who behave non-consensually getting into well-respected leadership positions and maintaining their positions partly because nobody wants to risk the community by calling out their behaviour or engaging with criminal justice systems. They become a ‘missing stair’ which everybody steps around and nobody does anything about, especially if some people have benefitted from them, or had good experiences with them, and therefore protect them against accusations.
The main thing communities need to do is to build consent cultures. If we can all get used to modelling consensual behaviour, and to looking at our own – and other’s behaviour – from that perspective, then we’re also a lot more likely to notice when somebody is regularly violating consent or going over the line. If non-consent is relatively normalised then it’s much harder to spot.
Here’s a few ideas for building consensual cultures in communities:
- Consider sharing workloads so we don’t end up with just a few charismatic visible leaders doing everything. It’s great if each event can have a group of people running it together, for example. If there isn’t enough energy or people to put it on safely-enough it doesn’t have to happen.Try not to put individuals on pedestals and recognise we’re all flawed human beings.
- Make a standard practice of openness and transparency about when you have been non-consensual in some way or experienced this from others, and encourage others to do the same, perhaps in a regular meet-up where it’s safe to share stories and talk about how to improve consent.
- Have consent guidelines for organisers and attendees of your events and make sure you go over these so everyone is aware. Here’s some we were involved with, and here’s the nest social code which is great for more general parties.
- Consider having consensual practices built into the early parts of your event as a kind of warm-up – this can do a brilliant job of cultivating a consensual culture from the start and can also be a great way to introduce people to each other and break the ice.
- Encourage a pal system at events, and pods for leaders so they can keep checking their behaviours and deal with any complaints.
- Listen when people say that something non-consensual has happened and act upon it.
We also recommend checking out this post for people new to a scene about how you can notice and handle non-consensual behaviour, and choose your communities with care. There’s lots of great material about consent cultures online which Kitty Stryker has recently published this book about.