Consensual relationships – relationships built with consent – are those where decisions are made through communication rather than coercion.
Liberal democracy is built on the “consent of the governed,” but what if the ways in which that “consent” is secured are simply reproducing and perpetuating the power imbalances that make communication impossible?
We should be asking: what stands between us and consent? What blocks, limits, structures, and redirects communication?
But we don’t seem to be talking about those social inequalities and root causes that make so many relationships – from interpersonal to international – nonconsensual.
Instead, we are increasingly shifting the onus onto the individual. For those who haven’t consented, not only is what happens to them their fault – it was their choice.
You wouldn’t have been arrested if you hadn’t been at that protest.
Nothing would have happened to her if she hadn’t worn that dress.
He wouldn’t have been shot if he hadn’t been dealing drugs.
The illusion of “choice,” or at the very least, the restrictions that limit our agency, appear as events in which we – unquestioning, unaffected – offer consent.
However, given the coercive nature of societal repression, the ideals of communication and respect that make up the foundations of consent are absent. Our unsafe and violent reality is the result.
This “choice” that we never consented to is then used to justify our position. We are put in a cage, and now we are going to be responsible for managing it.
As austerity measures are imposed in the wake of the latest crisis, we are seeing the world restructured through these power imbalances based on a lack of consent. One form this illusion of choice takes is debt.
We are all more and more in debt. What for a moment and in some places seemed a mechanism to bring people out of poverty is, in the moment of crisis, being used to trap them within choices they were never given the chance to consent to.
While debt in the high finance industry is being written off in hopes of social stability, debt is being collected rigorously and violently from those at the bottom. Though it seems dry, objective, and predictable, debt traces exactly the same violent and physical power imbalances that block consent.
If consent is about communication – then what is predatory lending? Or student loan programs that are impossibly convoluted? Once you have “chosen” debt, your consent has been assumed.
Speaking of the relationships of debt naturally leads us to the precarious relationships of employment.
Traversing these relationships – from sweatshop workers to janitors to government workers to graphic designers an investment bankers – is an erosion of consent. Productivity is to be ramped up, benefits (if there are any) are to be cut.
While someone in Montreal can legally choose to be a sex worker, there are laws in place that criminalize those activities that would make this choice safe. The sex worker is not forbidden from choosing, but is caught in a structure that limits these choices through debt, punishes them through state violence, and invests them with unequal and unsafe power relations.
So while we are held responsible for more and more of our choices – our agency, our capacity to choose, and our ability to consent are exactly what are being taken away.
Everyone already knows this is going on. Knowing doesn’t make the reality of coercion any less real.
These nonconsensual mechanisms affect us differently. They separate us into different interest groups – hierarchize our struggles.
But in spite of these obstacles, we can work in solidarity on those interlocking parts that stand between us and consent: in everyday relationships with friends and colleagues, the way we run our organizations, in sex and intimacy, and when we critique state violence and capitalism.
Write Sam and Al: email@example.com.