Relationship Anarchy and a Culture of Consent January 24, 2014Posted by wfenza in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
Over the past few months, I’ve become much more comfortable identifying as a relationship anarchist. For those who missed my last post on the topic, relationship anarchy is a relationship style that abandons the concepts of having rules or obligations. Basically, my relationship philosophy is that everyone should do whatever they want as much of the time as possible.
When I tell this to people, the most common response is something along the lines of “that sounds awful!” Not necessarily that it *is* awful, but just the phrasing tends to jar people. The idea that people should do whatever they want seems completely foreign and borderline abhorrent to a very large number of people.
I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event. If Person A stops being interested in paying attention to Person B, then (the argument goes) Person A should suggest a conversation topic or activity that will allow them to continue paying attention to Person B. The other seemingly acceptable solution was for Person A to tell Person B that they are no longer interested in the conversation, giving Person B an opportunity to suggest a more interesting conversation topic or activity.
The problem with both of those solutions is that it creates an obligation on the part of Person A to continue paying attention to Person B, even though Person A doesn’t want to do so. These solutions only make sense if the goal is to continue the social interaction. People were completely opposed to the idea that simply ending the social interaction (without additional steps), either temporarily or completely, was an acceptable option.
One of the reasons why people are so threatened by the idea of other people doing what they want is that we don’t live in a culture of consent:
A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex–in fact, of human interaction–is centered around mutual consent. It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.
Consent culture is meant as a rejection of rape culture, but it covers so much more than rape prevention. Cliff Pervocracy advocates:
I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.
This is the part that tends to give people the most trouble. Boundary-pushing is shockingly acceptable in our culture, as are “etiquette rules,” (cell phone use being just one example) that encourage people to do things that they don’t want to do for the sake of meeting other people’s expectations.
Relationship anarchy, at least in theory, does away with all of that. When there are no rules or preexisting structures, and everyone is encouraged to do what they want, then nobody is pressured into doing anything. RA is, of course, not a panacea. Communicating desires and/or expectations (hugely important things to do!) can still often be interpreted as the application of social pressure to meet such desires or expectations,* so even people who claim to have no rules should take special care that they aren’t created de facto relationship rules, and that all parties understand that there’s a difference between communicating a desire and insisting (or even asking) a partner to meet that desire.
The poly community likes to endlessly debate about the appropriateness of partners having rules and making agreements. My view is that having any sort of control over one another’s choices is contrary to the goal of building a culture of consent (important: that doesn’t mean that there’s no good reason to do it). In a culture of consent, people would be encourage to do whatever they want in relationships. That doesn’t mean that there would be no consequences for their behavior, but it does mean that situations would not be intentionally constructed to discourage people from doing what they want.
As I seemingly repeat ad nauseum, rules and agreements only matter if one or both parties wants to break them. If nobody ever wants to break the agreement, the agreement is not necessary. By making the agreement, you’re planning for what happens in the event that at least one partner wants to break the agreement,** and you’re deciding that, in that case, that partner should stick to what you’ve agreed. In the culture I wish we had, such things would be viewed with great suspicion, if not outright hostility.
The scary part about consent culture is the same thing as the scary part about atheism. Namely – if there are no rules and nobody is pressuring people to behave a certain way, people will do awful things! Atheists generally have no trouble shrugging off this criticism, most often pointing out that they have no desire to do awful things, and if fear of god is the only thing preventing people from committing atrocities, then we are truly in trouble. I would make the same argument with respect to relationships. If people are permitted to do whatever they want, free from pressure or coercion, what would truly be different? If you’re in a relationship, consider this question: what is it that your partner wants to do that would be so awful if they did it? For those who are not, do you really want to be in a relationship with a person who would mistreat you if not for the social pressure put on them? I certainly don’t.
In a culture truly based on consent, wouldn’t all relationships be anarchic?***
*Franklin Veaux has some very good examples regarding the difference between communicating expectations/desires and making rules.
** Seemingly, some people make the puzzling decision to use agreements and rules as a way of communicating mutual expectations/desires. I advocate against doing so, as I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between the two ideas. However, if your rules are simply meant as a way to communicate, and not to actually encourage/pressure anyone to do (or refrain from doing) anything, this paragraph does not apply to your rules.
*** Other than those explicitly and consensually based on BDSM or other forms of control which, if done ethically, are completely at-will and can be changed at any time with no penalty.