Relationship Anarchy and a Culture of Consent

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.

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.

10 thoughts on “Relationship Anarchy and a Culture of Consent

  1. My first reaction to this is to this line:

    “If people are permitted to do whatever they want, free from pressure or coercion, what would truly be different?”

    I had a partner for a long time who didn’t consider, at all, ever, anyone else’s health in making his “decisions.” To him “whatever [he] wanted” meant never using protection in sexual encounters and never discussing that he has unprotected sex with others with new partners. There are three ways, I suppose, I can approach this situation.

    First, if he’s that careless, why on earth am I with him in the first place? Good question, eh? In the end, I should have gotten out of this situation the second I knew this to be the case. That would have been within the first month. Would have saved me half a year of heartache. 🙂

    Second, why couldn’t I just choose to use protection with him? I would have if he had fully informed me of the nature of his sexual relationships when we had the discussion. I consider him to have interfered with my ability to make an informed decision (i.e. I can’t be considered to have consented). This is beyond wrong, if you ask me.

    Lastly, if I say, “I won’t have sex with you without protection…” how is that not pressure? Or the inverse, for that matter? Every action carries consequences, good and bad. The mere possibility of a negative consequence is “pressure.” Even if I don’t come out and say “I won’t have sex with you,” the issue of safe sex necessarily implies no sex if “what I want” isn’t complied with. I can’t see a way around this. Any time any person adds conditions to activities (like sex) they are applying pressure.

    To me, the idea of relationship anarchy can only apply to _non-sexual_ aspects of relationships. If you try to apply it to sexual relationships, it seems to fall apart. I could be wrong, I haven’t spent a long time considering this, but my snap judgment is that I don’t see how it is possible to protect everyone’s safety and not apply _some_ sort of pressure.

  2. I don’t see a person’s boundaries and limits as pressure. Yes, every action carries consequences, but not necessarily pressure. Pressure implies manipulation with the intent of emotionally breaking down. I may say “If we are going to have sex, we will use protection. If you don’t want to use protection, I will not have sex with you.” There is my boundary and a consequence, but I place to pressure on my partner(s). The decision is theirs and I respect that, just as I would hope they would respect my decision.

    I’ve been more aware of my emotions, behaviors, boundaries, and language lately, in regard to consent. One thing I realized about myself is that I am a huge hugger. I love hugging people, and I used to just go right for it when meeting someone or getting together with a friend. It seemed so innocent, a hug, but even something as simple as this needs consent. If I can’t be bothered to ask for consent before hugging someone or respecting their hugging boundaries, then where does it end? I might be disappointed if I don’t hug someone but their autonomy and comfort is more important to me.

    About this: “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.”

    I’m reminded of the time I went to a con and was invited to a lovely room party with new friends met at said con. Several people were having sex, and I was asked to join. I very much wanted to, but my then-husband specifically asked me not to have sex with anyone while I was at the con, with the implication that there would be trouble at home if I did. So I didn’t have sex (and the party-goers didn’t pressure me and they respected my decision) and regretted it, and still came home to being interrogated about my vacation activities.

    We made an agreement, one which I reluctantly entered into before going on vacation, because I thought that was what one did when married. I thought I would be so out of control that I needed my husband to make rules for me in order to stay married. However, I now realize that it wasn’t a marriage based on consent culture (with this being one of many examples) and now that I am not bound by enforced rules and agreements, my relationships are more fulfilling, because we actually talk about feelings, consent, and expectations instead of saying “you can’t do this”.

  3. There is certainly a elevated level of emotional maturity, sensitivity, selflessness and awareness that needs to come with the privilege of relationship anarchy. I agree with Wes, that it would be awesome if people could live like this, but it requires like-minded people who aren’t selfish, abusive or manipulative in their tendencies, and let’s just say I don’t have a high enough opinion of humanity to believe this to be possible.

    A significant part of making freedom within relationships is being very clear about expectations, otherwise it is hard to balance. To use the cell phone/text message example; I do expect people in my company, especially in a one-on-one sutuation, to limit their cell phone use. If they’d rather be communicating with someone else, I’d rather they not waste my precious time. Now obvious exceptions are time sensitive issues (like arranging for a pick-up or future appointments) and I’m generally tolerant of finite correspondence with a purpose, especially if they do not significantly cut into my time. A polite acknowledgement of needing to correspond with someone else goes a long way, as I place a significant value on manners and civility. I, in turn, adhere to my own guidelines; after all, if I have set the time aside to enjoy someone’s personal company, I want that person to know that I want to be there with them. That is more important to me than trivial correspondes with anyone else. If I’d rather be talking with someone else, then I should be thoughtful enough to either a) excuse myself from the encounter, or b) bring the other interesting parties along. I should not expect the other person to have to wait on me, that’s selfish.

    And back to my first point, this approach to interactions really only works if all parties involved have the wherewithal to balance their own needs with the needs of those around them. (Unless you just do not care how your actions affect others, in which case, surround yourself with other callous like-minded folk.)

    Same applies to sexual relations. My current relationship is easily the best one I’ve ever had; we pretty much do as we please. HOWEVER, we both place each others happiness and fulfillment before our own, voluntarily and with much love & respect, so we are both satisfied, safe and content. We both communicate desires and expectations, but there isn’t any pressure (again, the others happiness is more important). We are also both confident people, secure in who we are, and happy to give one another the freedom to be true to oneself. This is also the easiest relationship I’ve ever had. I feel extremely blessed to have found someone like-minded.

    On a side note, we are poly with a current state of voluntarily monogamous.

  4. “I don’t see a person’s boundaries and limits as pressure. Yes, every action carries consequences, but not necessarily pressure. Pressure implies manipulation with the intent of emotionally breaking down. I may say “If we are going to have sex, we will use protection. If you don’t want to use protection, I will not have sex with you.” There is my boundary and a consequence, but I place to pressure on my partner(s). The decision is theirs and I respect that, just as I would hope they would respect my decision.”

    This is interesting to me because I was just in a conversation where I was told that it was manipulative to have that exact conversation. “Manipulation” apparently to the other person in this conversation is discussing explicitly or implicitly, negative consequences for behaviors. “You decide how you’re going to handle this other situation in whatever way you think is best. I will then decide if I want to remain in this relationship.” He was using someone in our poly circle for sex and drugs and I was not about to remain in a relationship with him if he was going to do such a thing, no matter how consenting she may have been. In fact, any time I discussed with him my unhappiness with our relationship and the thoughts I had about leaving and the ideas that brought me to that point, it was “manipulative” in his mind. I can’t see having a relationship where I, at some point, say “this behavior is unacceptable and I won’t remain in any sort of relationship with you if you continue to engage in it” as not me putting pressure on someone and _not_ some sort of violation of the idea of “relationship anarchy” (i.e. no rules).

  5. I don’t think that saying “I won’t have sex with you if you don’t use protection” is manipulative in any way.
    It does not limit the other person’s freedom of choice in any way except denying him the option to hurt you by ignoring your boundaries and YOUR freedom of choice.

    If you didn’t want to have sex with him for some other reason, like e.g. that you don’t feel attracted to him, probably everyone would agree that it’s good to not let him ignore your boundaries.
    Why should that be any different only because your reason for not wanting to have sex (because he doesn’t use protection) is a different one? You don’t want it, he doesn’t have the right to step over your boundaries and force you to do it anyway.
    Defending your boundaries has nothing to do with manipulation.

    It’s really kind of sad that this doesn’t seem to be common sense. I hope one day it will be.

  6. Man, I keep thinking that I should respond to people, then other commenters come in and respond better than I would. You guys are awesome.

  7. _*I don’t think that saying “I won’t have sex with you if you don’t use protection” is manipulative in any way.*_

    I don’t think it’s manipulative, either, I’m just saying I’ve been told recently a couple of times that it is.

    _*Defending your boundaries has nothing to do with manipulation.*_

    If we’re defining manipulation as inherently malicious, sure. It’s still applying pressure, whether or not it’s strictly “manipulative” (in a malicious sense). Defending your boundaries or demanding that your boundaries be respected still seems like a _rule_ to me. “Respect my boundaries or no relationship.” Expectation followed by prescribed consequence, implied or explicit.

    I have yet to see anyone either define things in such a way so that they don’t seem to violate the “no rules” aspect of RA, or explain it clearly enough that I understand. As I said before, as far as the emotional aspects of relationships, I dig that. I’m specifically concerned about the _safety_ aspect of sexual/romantic relationships. I remain as yet unconvinced that the idea of “no rules” actually works (or could work, even in theory) with regard to safety.

    You guys seem to be dealing indirectly with what my circles call “positive rights” and “negative rights.” The assertion of what I would consider “positive rights” in a strictly sexual/romantic relationship would be an explicit prescription of how your partners interact with others. Examples include: You may not fall in love with additional partners, you may not have unprotected sex with other partners, you may not (insert anything) as it pertains to other partners. The assertion of “negative rights” in a relationship, any relationship, sexual or romantic or anything at all, only include, “You may not do anything to me which I don’t want you to do (regardless of _why_ I don’t want you to do it).” The difference between the two is, obviously (I hope), that one covers your treatment of others, and one covers only your (and anyone’s) treatment of me.

    While I would say, pretty explicitly, that negative rights _are_ rules, generally speaking, people who are politically/economically “anarchist” accept the assertion of “negative rights” as rules to be non-hierarchical and not in violation of the non-aggression principle, i.e. not inherently in contradiction with the tradition of anarchy (i.e. without rulers).

    Would you say that (“positive” vs. “negative” rights) is the difference between “relationship anarchy” and… I guess… necessarily everything else?

  8. I would agree that, as you’ve described it, RA involves maximum negative rights and minimum positive rights. Some people choose to phrase that as rules vs. boundaries. You can phrase negative rights as “rules,” if you like. It’s merely a semantic choice, and we both recognize a substantive difference between controlling others and asserting our own autonomy. The terminology is not particularly important to me.

    The difference between making agreements and setting expectations is often rather stark, but sometimes is can be very subtle. It certain cases, the only distinction is the intentions and understandings of the partners. If I say “I will leave you if you have unprotected sex with other people,” whether that’s an attempt at control or merely setting expectations comes down to what I intend by it, and the message that my partner receives from it. If I’m saying that in order to persuade my partner not to have unprotected sex, then it’s an attempt at control. If I’m saying it only so my partner has all of the information relevant to her decision (and she understands that), then it’s just expectation-setting.

    One reason trust is so important in relationships is that there is no way to objectively tell the difference. You just have to take my word for it. If my partner doesn’t trust me, then the distinction is meaningless.

  9. Yay! I feel like I actually understand now! hahahahahaha A lot of problems boil down to semantic issues. It was confusing to me that the way RA advocates seem to use different meanings than other sorts of anarchists do, generally. I think that is where I stumbled. But I think I have a better grasp now. Thanks.

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