Some thoughts on consent

With the state of California passing a new law defining an Affirmative Consent standard for public colleges and universities (and the wonderful commentary about it on the Yes Means Yes blog), the recent firing of radio personality Jian Ghomeshi over his sex life (which he claims is targeting him for participation in BDSM, though several women are alleging that he abused them non-consensually under the guise of BDSM), everyone all over the Internet is talking about consent these days.

And as seems to happen when everyone all over the Internet talks about something, a lot of folks are getting it wrong.

I’d like to think consent is something we all understand. And, in most situations, we do. A lot of folks are flapping their mouth-parts about how we can never really truly get consent for sexual activities because men and women are just so different and don’t understand each other, but seriously, that’s a load of bullshit. Bullshit with extra spicy smell-o-riffic chunks.

If you take sex out of the equation, we all understand consent pretty well. If you invite someone out to dinner and he says “well, you know, I’d love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day,” we know he’s said “no,” even though he hasn’t used the word “no.” If we ask someone whether we can use her bike or not and she says “listen, I really don’t know that I feel comfortable with that arrangement,” we know she hasn’t consented. And if she says “The combination on the bike lock is 5678, I need it back before class on Tuesday,” we know that she has, even though she didn’t say the word “yes.”

We get this. It’s part of the most basic, rudimentary socialization.

But for some reason, when it comes to sex, otherwise grown, mature adults start thrashing around, as if they lack the social graces of a reasonably well-socialized 6-year-old.

Some of this might be down to living in a culture that just plain doesn’t teach us about what consent is. I wish I would have understood this stuff better myself, back when I was still sorting out all this interpersonal-relationship stuff.

But a big part of the reason, I suspect, lies in the way we think about sexual consent. We get what consent is outside the world of sex, but when it comes to sex, we act like the purpose of consent is to follow a checklist of procedures designed to let us do what we want without getting in trouble. Otherwise intelligent, reasonable adults, for example, have asked if California’s new law means students on California campuses will need to get written permission to shag. (The short answer is ‘no,’ but folks who so profoundly don’t understand what consent is that the question seems reasonable to them, might want to think about doing just that.) Someone on my Twitter timeline asked ‘what if two people have sex but neither one of them gave affirmative consent–who’s at fault there?’ (The answer is if neither of them gave affirmative consent, then no sex act took place. For a sex act to take place, someone had to initiate the contact of the slippery bits, and that initiation is an act of consent.1) People–again, otherwise intelligent people who appear at least savvy enough to work a computer–have said things like ‘if nobody said no, that’s consent, right?’ (No. We’re conditioned strongly not to say ‘no,’ as in the “well, you know, I’d love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day” example above.)

Consent is not a checklist you go through in order to be cleared to do what you want, the way a fighter pilot goes through his checklist before being catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier (“Afterburners, check! Flaps, check! Condom, check! Let’s fuck!”). The purpose of consent isn’t to tell you what you can get away with; the purpose of consent is to make sure you and your partners are both on the same page and both enjoying what’s going on.

Consent isn’t something you get once, at the start of the proceedings. It’s ongoing. This is important, because it means the idea of getting written consent up-front to hanky-panky is entirely missing the point. Consent exists in the moment, and it can always be revoked as soon as someone no longer likes what’s happening. Even if I sign a form in triplicate, duly notarized, saying I want to shag you, if we get down to business and I change my mind, I have the right to say ‘stop.’

It’s not hard to get consent, really it isn’t. It simply means paying attention to your partner, checking in. It doesn’t have to ‘spoil the mood’ or ‘interrupt the flow’ or any of those other things the masses of people who don’t understand consent are apt to complain about. Consent doesn’t even have to be verbal. If you go in to kiss someone and she leans back, that’s not consent. If she meets you halfway, it is. We know this. Most of us are really good, in non-sexual contexts, of figuring out the difference between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ even without hearing those specific words. We just forget, when it comes to sex.

Seriously, this shouldn’t be that hard. The key elements of consent are:

  • Is the other person into what you want to do? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask. Don’t focus on what you want the answer to be; focus on what the answer is.
  • Is the other person still into it while you’re doing it? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask.
  • Is the other person having fun? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask.

There’s a point in here: consent isn’t something you get so you can have fun, consent is about making sure everyone is having fun. If you don’t care whether your partner is having fun, well, then, perhaps one explanation is you’re a terrible person and you oughtn’t be interacting with anyone in any capacity until you learn that other people are actually real. Oh, and by the way, consent is valid only if it’s informed; if you’re withholding information, lying, misleading, or manipulating other folks to get check marks in those ticky-boxes, you’re not really getting consent at all. I shouldn’t have to say this. It pains me that I feel I do.

Now, bad sex happens. It’s a fact of life. Bad sex doesn’t (necessarily) mean consent was violated.2

But it pays–it really, really does–to remember that consent is ongoing. If the person you’re with suddenly goes all withdrawn and unresponsive, and that’s not part of the particular fetish you’re exploring, perhaps it’s a good idea to check in, you know?

There’s a depressing part of all these discussions about consent, and that is the widespread cultural narrative that allegations of coercion, assault, or abuse are likely to be vindictive women making up stories to entrap and punish blameless men.3 It’s so entrenched that it’s hard to see any woman reporting sexual abuse who’s not immediately attacked all over the Internetverse for it…which would seem to fly in the face of all logic and reason. (Because any woman who talks openly about sexual assault is likely to be attacked vigorously and aggressively, it’s difficult to imagine the motivation of someone to invent such a tale. What’s her goal…to see how many people will call her a liar on YouTube?) And while we’re on the subject, “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean “everyone who reports being sexually assaulted is a liar until proven otherwise.” This shouldn’t need to be said, but there it is. (And just for the record: If you’re one of those folks whose first reaction to learning about allegations of sexual abuse is “she’s making it up,” shame on you.)

This seamy dark side to the consent conversation comes, I think, from the notion of consent as a list of ticky-boxes you check off before you get down ‘n’ dirty. If you went through the pre-flight checklist and ticked off all the things on the list, you should be golden, right? So what’s she doing making all this fuss afterward? She consented, right?

This is also something we get when it comes to issues of consent outside the bedroom. If a roommate offers to let us borrow the bike all week, then on Wednesday says “sorry, mate, but my car’s in the shop, I need the bike after all,” we know that she has the right to do this. I can’t help but think if we were to apply exactly the same standards to sexual consent that we apply to consent to borrow a roommate’s bicycle, a whole lot of people would be a whole lot happier. Yes, your roommate might fabricate a story about how you stole her bike…but really, what are the odds? I mean, seriously? And someone reporting bike theft isn’t even subject to the same explosive blowback as someone reporting sexual assault!

Now, I will admit I’ve made some assumptions in all this. I’m assuming that you’re genuinely good-intentioned and you value the idea of consent. There is a group who benefits from making consent seem muddier and more difficult than it is; the same group also benefits from reflexive thoughts of “She’s making it up!” whenever a report of abuse surfaces. I’ll give you three guesses who’s in that group.4

It’s possible to participate in all kinds of sexual activities with all sorts of partners under a wide range of different circumstances and not ever end up being accused of assault. It’s not even that difficult, really. All it takes, at the end of the day, is remembering that there’s more than one person involved, and checking in with the other folks to see how they’re doing. You don’t need to get it in writing. You don’t need to involve lawyers and witnesses. You just need to pay attention. If you’re shagging someone you’ve never shagged before and you aren’t sure how to read their signals and body language, use your words! I promise it’s not hard.5

Far from spoiling the mood, it can even be hot. “You like that, hmm? You like when I touch you there? You want more? Tell me you like it.”

Seriously. Give it a try some time. Keep in mind, it’s not about getting someone else to let you do what you want. It’s about two (or more!) of you doing things you all like to do.

Oh, and if someone comes to you with a story about being sexually assaulted? Here’s a strategy: In absence of clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, believe them.

1 Absent some other form of coercion, anyway. It isn’t consent if someone gives you head to get you to stop beating her. Lookin’ at you here, Mr. Ghomeshi.

2 Though one of the things that separates people who are good at sex from people who are bad at sex, I think, is the former sorts of people pay attention to their partners as a matter of course.

3 It’s a narrative that hurts men too, by the way. Imagine the blowback if you’re a guy who’s reporting being sexually assaulted…and yes, it does happen.

4 And if you need all three, you might be a terrible person.

5 If you can’t use your words about sex, maybe you might benefit from addressing that problem before the next time you have sex, ‘kay?

Sharks and Loathing in Las Vegas

I am a man who wears bunny ears.

As I write this, I am on the last leg of the book tour–six events over the next four days and I am finally done. Part of the tour took me through Las Vegas. And Vegas…Vegas is not what I expected.

Close your eyes. Imagine Las Vegas, that epicenter of sin and decadence in the desert. What do you picture? Giant neons. Slot machines. Organized crime. Women in huge feather headdresses. Not, you might think, the sort of place where a man in bunny ears would exactly stand out…

…and you’d be wrong.

Vegas is, it seems, not prepared for a man in bunny ears, oh no. The hostility with which the Las Vegas culture1 responds to the sudden appearance of a man in bunny ears in its collective midst is remarkable.

But let me backtrack for a moment.

As I have traveled the country talking about polyamory and ethics and such, I’ve brought a stuffed shark with us. The shark, who joined our team2 in Atlanta, has made appearances all over North America, solely for the purpose of being exploited.

It started as a lark, you see. There is person is a marine biologist who studies sharks. He also writes angry blog entries in response to phony stories on the Discovery Channel, stories with lurid titles about how mermaids might be real (spoiler: they aren’t) and speculating whether Megalodon, the enormous prehistoric dinosaur-shark, might still be alive (hint: it isn’t).

There are trolls on the Internet, and some of these trolls want to believe in mermaids and Megalodon. So they follow this person about online, posting pictures of him and diatribes about him with the Twitter hashtag “#nerdsexploitingsharks“.

Which is, thought I, absolutely begging for hijacking.

So, half an hour before I was scheduled to do a lecture in Atlanta, I darted out in frantic search of a stuffed shark to exploit. I found one at the Atlanta Aquarium, and it’s been accompanying us ever since, being photographed in exploitative situations and posted to social media under #nerdsexploitingsharks.

So. Back to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas doesn’t like a man in bunny ears. Las Vegas especially doesn’t like a man in bunny ears carrying a stuffed shark.

Now, there are many ways to carry a stuffed shark. If you ever find yourself in Las Vegas wearing bunny ears and carrying a stuffed shark, you might try one or more of these carry techniques. I present this information in the name of Science!3

The Security Blanket

An attitude that says “Yes, I have a stuffed shark, and what of it? I need my shark if I am to face a cold, cruel world.” Advantages: Few people will approach a person who uses a shark as a security blanket. Disadvantages: Few people will approach a person who uses a shark as a security blanket.

The ‘Shark? What shark?’

Who, me? I’m not carrying a stuffed shark! Oh, this? How did this get there? Advantages: From the front, you simply look like a man in bunny ears, not a man in bunny ears with a stuffed shark. Disadvantages: Las Vegas loves guns. The sight of a man in bunny ears with his hands out of sight might upset some folks with delicate sensibilities, and some of those folks with delicate sensibilities might be armed.

The Casual Carry

This technique challenges the observer: “Yeah, I’m carrying a stuffed shark, and how do you like THEM apples?” Advantages: People might assume you’re a famous performer, or, failing that, an eccentric Mob hitman with a pistol inside the shark like that one scene in Hudson Hawk, only with a shark instead of a teddy bear. Disadvantages: People might assume you’re barking mad.

The en garde!

Yeah, I have bunny ears. And a shark. Which might or might not contain a concealed pistol. Don’t fuck with me. Advantages: People give you a wide berth on the sidewalk. Disadvantages: You might get shot.

The Binky

Similar to the Security Blanket, but less neurotic, the Binky tells the world that, yes, the world is cold and cruel, and yes, your shark helps you navigate the rivers of cruelty all around you, but you don’t really need the shark. You just like the shark, okay? Advantages: More relaxed and casual than the Security Blanket; this attitude tells the world you really can stand on your own two feet. You know, if you want to. Disadvantages: Small children point at you.

The Bromance

“I love you, man!” This attitude tells the world you and your shark have a special friendship…but, like, totally in a heterosexual way. Advantages: It’s totally, like, a heterosexual thing. Not, like, that other thing. Disadvantages: You may be mistaken for a dudebro. Who wears bunny ears. And carries a stuffed shark.

The Two-Handed Casual

“I’m just carrying a stuffed shark from one place to another place. Nothing to see here. Move along.” Advantages: Very workmanlike. People won’t get the impression that you’re, y’know, attached to the shark or anything. Disadvantages: It’s still pretty weird to see a guy in bunny ears carrying a stuffed shark, no matter how workmanlike he may be. Plus you don’t have a hand free to drink alcohol, play slots, and convince yourself that this thing you’re having is fun.

The Secure in my Masculinity

This pose shows the world that you’re absolutely certain of your manhood and you’re not too threatened to express your true feelings, even if you happen to be in the middle of one of the world’s largest casinos. Advantages: People will stay far, far away from you. Disadvantages: Unless they’re security.

1 Insofar as Las Vegas can be said to have a “culture.” My observations of Las Vegas culture suggests it is made up primarily of people who have no idea how to have fun desperately trying to have fun and convincing themselves the thing they are having is, indeed, fun. And alcohol.

2 Was purchased and exploited.

3 I am frequently asked “are you a scientist?” I usually say “no.” I think I am probably going to have to start saying “yes,” so when people ask “what kind of scientist? Chemist? Biologist?” I can say “Mad.”

Musings on being fucked: Christian millennialism and the Fermi paradox

When all the world’s armies are assembled in the valley that surrounds Mount Megiddo they will be staging a resistance front against the advancing armies of the Chinese. It will be the world’s worst nightmare – nuclear holocaust at its worst. A full-out nuclear bombardment between the armies of the Antichrist’s and the Kings of the East.

It is during this nuclear confrontation that a strange sight from the sky will catch their attention. The Antichrist’s armies will begin their defense in the Jezreel Valley in which the hill of Megiddo is located. […] At the height of their nuclear assault on the advancing armies something strange will happen.

Jesus predicted the suddenness of His return. He said, “For just as lightening comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27). And again He said, “…and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
–Sherry Shriner Live

Believers must be active in helping to fulfill certain biblical conditions necessary to usher in the return of Christ. Key to this plan is for Gentiles to help accomplish God’s purpose for the Jews. […] Jesus is saying that His Second Coming will not take place until there is a Jewish population in Jerusalem who will welcome Him with all of their hearts.
— Johannes Facius, Hastening the Coming of the Messiah: Your Role in Fulfilling Prophecy

There is a problem in astronomy, commonly referred to as the Fermi paradox. In a nutshell, the problem is, where is everyone?

Life seems to be tenacious and ubiquitous. Wherever we look here on earth, we see life–even in the most inhospitable of places. The stuff seems downright determined to exist. When combined with the observation that the number of planetary systems throughout the universe seems much greater than even the most optimistic projections of, say, thirty years ago, it really seems quite likely that life exists out there somewhere. In fact, it seems quite likely that life exists everywhere out there. And given that sapient, tool-using life evolved here, it seems quite probable that sapient, tool-using life evolved somewhere else as well…indeed, quite often. (Given that our local galactic supercluster contains literally quadrillions of stars, if sapient life exists in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places life evolved and if life evolves in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places that have planets, the universe should be positively teeming with sapience.)

These aren’t stars. They’re galaxies. Where is everyone? (Image: Hubble Space Telescope)

When you’re sapient and tool-using, radio waves are obvious. It’s difficult to imagine getting much beyond the steam engine without discovering them. Electromagnetic radiation bathes the universe, and most any tool-using sapience will, sooner or later, stumble across it. All kinds of technologies create, use, and radiate electromagnetic radiation. So if there are sapient civilizations out there, we should see evidence of it–even if they aren’t intentionally attempting to communicate with anyone.

But we don’t.

So the question is, why not?

This is Fermi’s paradox, and researchers have proposed three answers: we’re first, we’re rare, or we’re fucked. I have, until now, been leaning toward the “we’re rare” answer, but more and more, I think the answer might be “we’re fucked.”

Let’s talk about the “first” or “rare” possibilities.

The “first” possibility posits that our planet is exceptionally rare, perhaps even unique–of all the planets around all the stars everywhere in the universe, no other place has the combination of ingredients (liquid water and so on) necessary for complex life. Alternately, life is common but sapient life is not. It’s possible; there’s nothing especially inevitable about sapience. Evolution is not goal-directed, and big brains aren’t necessarily a survival strategy more common or more compelling than any other. After all, we’re newbies. There was no sapient life on earth for most of its history.

Assuming we are that unique, though, seems to underestimate the number of planets that exist, and overestimate the specialness of our particular corner of existence. There’s nothing about our star, our solar system, or even our galaxy that sets it apart in any way we can see from any of a zillion others out there. And even if sapience isn’t inevitable–a reasonable assumption–if life evolved elsewhere, surely some fraction of it must have evolved toward sapience! With quadrillions of opportunities, you’d expect to see it somewhere else.

The “we’re rare” hypothesis posits that life is common, but life like what we see here is orders of magnitude less common, because something happened here that’s very unlikely even on galactic or universal scales. Perhaps it’s the jump from prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) to eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus, which are capable of forming complex multicellular animals). For almost the entire history of life on earth, only single-celled life existed, after all; multicellular life is a recent innovation. Maybe the universe is teeming with life, but none of it is more complex than bacteria.

Depressing thought: The universe has us and these guys in it, and that’s it.

The third hypothesis is “we’re fucked,” and that’s the one I’m most concerned about.

The “we’re fucked” hypothesis suggests that sapient life isn’t everywhere we look because wherever it emerges, it gets wiped out. It might be that it gets wiped out by a spacefaring civilization, a la Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker science fiction stories.

But maybe…just maybe…it won’t be an evil extraterrestrial what does us in. Maybe tool-using sapience intrinsically contains the seeds of its own annihilation.

K. Eric Drexler wrote a book called Engines of Creation, in which he posited a coming age of nanotechnology that would offer the ability to manipulate, disassemble, and assemble matter at a molecular level.

It’s not as farfetched as it seems. You and I, after all, are vastly complex entities constructed from the level of molecules by programmable molecular machinery able to assemble large-scale, fine-grained structures from the ground up.

All the fabrication technologies we use now are, in essence, merely evolutionary refinements on stone knives and bearskins. When we want to make something, we take raw materials and hack at, carve, heat, forge, or mold them into what we want.

Even the Large Hadron Collider is basically just incremental small improvements on this

The ability to create things from the atomic level up, instead from big masses of materials down, promises to be more revolutionary than the invention of agriculture, the Iron Age, and the invention of the steam engine combined. Many of the things we take for granted–resources will always be scarce, resources must always be distributed unequally, it is not possible for a world of billions of people to have the standard of living of North America–will fade like a bad dream. Nanotech assembly offers the possibility of a post-scarcity society1.

It also promises to turn another deeply-held belief into a myth: Nuclear weapons are the scariest weapons we will ever face.

Molecular-level assembly implies molecular-level disassembly as well. And that…well, that opens the door to weapons of mass destruction on a scale as unimaginable to us as the H-bomb is to a Roman Centurion.

Cute little popgun you got there, son. Did your mom give you that?

Miracle nanotechnology notwithstanding, the course of human advancement has meant the distribution of greater and greater destructive power across wider and wider numbers of people. An average citizen today can go down to Wal-Mart and buy weapon technology that could have turned the tide of some of the world’s most significant historical battles. Even without nanotech, there’s no reason to think weapons technology and distribution just suddenly stopped in, say, 2006, and will not continue to increase from here on.

And that takes us to millennialist zealotry.

There are, in the world today, people who believe they have a sacred duty, given them by omnipotent supernatural entities, to usher in the Final Conflict between good and evil that will annihilate all the wicked with righteous fire, purging them from God’s creation. These millennialists don’t just believe the End is coming–they believe God has charged them with the task of bringing it about.

Christian millennialists long for nuclear war, which they believe will trigger the Second Coming. Some Hindus believe they must help bring about the end of days, so that the final avatar of Vishnu will return on a white horse to bring about the end of the current cycle and its corruption. In Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo sect believed it to be their duty to create the conditions for nuclear Armageddon, which they believed would trigger the ascendancy of the sect’s leader Shoko Asahara to his full divine status as the Lamb of God. Judaism, Islam, and nearly all other religious traditions have at least some adherents who likewise embrace the idea of global warfare that will cleanse the world of evil.

The notion of the purification of the world through violence is not unique to any culture or age–the ancient Israelites, for example, were enthusiastic fans of the notion–but it has particularly deep roots in American civic culture, and we export that idea all over the world. (The notion of the mythic superhero, for instance, is an embodiment of the idea of purifying violence, as the book Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil explains in some depth.)

I’m not suggesting that religious zealots have a patent on inventive destructiveness. From Chairman Mao to Josef Stalin, the 20th century is replete with examples of secular governments that are as gleefully, viciously bonkers as the most passionate of religious extremists.

But religious extremism does seem unique in one regard: we don’t generally see secularists embracing the fiery destruction of the entire world in order to cleanse os of evil. Violent secular institutions might want resources, or land, or good old-fashioned power, but they don’t usually seem to want to destroy the whole of creation in order to invoke a supernatural force to save it.

Putting it all together, we can expect that as time goes on, the trend toward making increasingly destructive technology available to increasingly large numbers of people will likely continue. Which means that, one day, we will likely arrive at the point where a sufficiently determined individual or small group of people can, in fact, literally unleash destruction on a global scale.

Imagine that, say, any reasonably motivated group of 100 or more people anywhere in the world could actually start a nuclear war. Given that millennialist end-times ideology is a thing, how safe would you feel?

It is possible, just possible, that we don’t see a ubniverse teeming with sapient, tool-using, radio-broadcasting, exploring-the-cosmos life because sapient tool-using species eventually reach the point where any single individual has the ability to wipe out the whole species, and very shortly after that happens, someone wipes out the whole species.

“But Franklin,” I hear you say, “even if there are human beings who can and will do that, given the chance, that doesn’t mean space aliens would! They’re not going to be anything like us!”

Well, right. Sure. Other sapient species wouldn’t be like us.

But here’s the thing: We are, it seems, pretty unremarkable. We live on an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable galaxy. We’re probably not special snowflakes; statistically, the odds are good that the trajectory we have taken is, um, unremarkable.

Yes, yes, they’re all unique and special…but they all have six arms, too.
(Image: National Science Foundation.)

Sure, sapient aliens might be, overall, less warlike and aggressive (or more warlike and aggressive!) than we are, but does that mean every single individual is? If we take millions of sapient tool-using intelligent species and give every individual of every one of those races the ability to push a button and destroy the whole species, how many species do you think would survive?

Perhaps the solution to the Fermi paradox is not that we’re first or we’re rare; perhaps we’re fucked. Perhaps we are rolling down a well-traveled groove, worn deep by millions of sapient species before us, a groove that ends in a predictable place.

I sincerely hope that’s not the case. But it seems possible it might be. Maybe, just maybe, our best hope to last as long as we can is to counter millennial thinking as vigorously as possible–not to save us, ultimately, but to buy as much time as we possibly can.

1Post-scarcity society of the sort that a lot of transhumanists talk about may never really be a thing, given there will always be something that is scarce, even if that “something” is intangible. Creativity, for instance, can’t be mass-produced. But a looser kind of post-scarcity society, in which material resources are abundant, does have some plausibility.