Okay, I know, I know…I’m a couple days late with this one. Unfortunately for me (and you!), real life and paying the bills always has to take precedence, which means I don’t always manage to get to my blogs in the timeframe or manner I promised. But still, here I am. Here you are. So let’s talk about a personal favorite topic of mine: Consent.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines consent like this:
(Legal Definition) compliance in or approval of what is done or proposed by another; specifically : the voluntary agreement or acquiescence by a person of [legal] age [of majority] or with requisite mental capacity [AND] who is not under duress or coercion and usually who has knowledge or understanding [of potential outcomes] (emphasis and bracketed comments added by author).
–Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
There are a lot of theories about consent, as I learned while researching the content for the consent workshop I put on with Scarlet Eva last week in Portland.
Tea theory is perhaps the best-known to the layperson, and is probably the best one-line encapsulation of consent out there. This concept boils down to, “You can’t pour tea down an unconscious person’s throat. Just because you’re offering tea doesn’t oblige another party to accept it. And even if someone asks for tea, they have every right to change their mind.” Fairly simple, and a great conversation starter on the topic, right?
In the sociological realm, we have several theories of consent to choose from.
Social constructionism says that everyone living in a given place or time contributes to the reality of that place and time. This theory is perhaps better known as “consensual reality,” and was meditated upon at length in The Matrix trilogy.
Fuctionalism/Criticism says that positive, informed consent must be obtained for a thing to occur, such as a doctor giving treatment or performing surgery on a patient. In this case, the “function” of consent is to verify the patient is capable of understanding what will be done, what the risks and benefits are and how those balance relative to their own life. When you fill out paperwork at a doctor’s office or hospital (assuming American residence here, although I hear this is not drastically different in most of the Western world), you are stating you consent to treatment and understand the potential problems and pluses associated with it.
However, criticism, the other side of this coin, states that if you do not have affirmative power to say no, you also by definition don’t have the power to say yes. This problem presents itself in dealings with the government, with medical professionals in life or death scenarios, etc. Yes, you have a choice to take lifesaving treatment or not, to obey the laws or not…but the cost of noncompliance often negates any real ability to consent or not.
Positivism says that by doing a certain thing or being in a certain place, you are by definition granting consent for this thing to occur. Bodies of law are based on the concept of positivism, and work with functionalism and the notion of “implied consent” to define the rights and obligations of a people to the government and vice versa. A basic example is driving a car. Since this is considered a privilege and not a right, the act of driving on a public road entitles police to stop, question, search and detain drivers for largely any reason. Positivism and the concept of implied consent permit this, even though many citizens question just how real consent is in this case. Remember, if you don’t have the right to say no, you also don’t have the ability to say yes!
Postmodernism says that the very nature of consent and its ever-shifting facets mean that consent is largely undefinable except in the moment between adults of sound mind and equivalent understanding. Attempts to regulate, legislate and define a “bright line” boundary of consent largely fail because the nature of consent is so fluid, and the difference between what is said and what is understood to be meant can be so vast.
In short, there’s no catch-all matrix of consent which really encompasses all possible usages of consent. But…I’m going to try anyway.
You’ve probably seen a pentagram somewhere before.
While this isn’t the only version of a pentagram, the word literally meaning “a five-sided shape,” the five-pointed star within a circle is by far the most common usage. It is often associated, rightly or otherwise, with Wicca and other neopagan practices, magick [sic] in general and sometimes Satanic or devil-worship practices. It pops up in book cover art, video games, occult-themed movies and textbooks on magickal practices.
I like the pentagram shape because to my mind, it’s a very stable and balanced shape. In its Western magickal incarnation, the pentagram usually denotes the human body (think the Vitruvian Man by da Vinci) or the four archetypical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water plus Spirit, bounded and constrained within the circle of human Will. In Chinese philosophy, it indicates Earth, Metal, Water, Wood and Fire. Drawn inverted, it is commonly called the Sign of the Goat and (depending upon the intent of the practitioner) may be a sign of black magick or Satanic or demonic worship, but not always.
In the context of Pentagram Theory, the pentagram indicates the progression of consent, its cyclical and ongoing nature, and the need for communication as indicated by the circle. As a diagram, Pentagram Theory looks like this:
Negotiation: You are meeting the other party or parties on equal footing and sorting out what exactly is meant by what is being discussed. Scarlet Eva brought up spanking as a good example. If I’m thinking I’m going to get after my partner’s ass with a paddle, and she’s thinking an over-the-knee, openhanded spanking, there’s a good chance this scene’s going to go sideways very quickly! Thus, getting on the same page with the intended vocabulary and what IS on the table is important here.
Limitation: The flipside of negotiation, now you’re setting boundaries on what is NOT on the table. “I don’t want to be spanked with a bare hand” would be an obvious limitation. This is the place where hard and soft limits, boundaries and other restricting factors are laid out for consideration.
Affirmation: Both/all parties now agree that they are going to do this thing, subject to their understanding of what is and is not on the table, and that they both understand the scene/act/dynamic will be governed in a specific way which they grant positive, informed consent for.
Actualization: Now both/all parties are putting the act/scene/dynamic into action and taking it from theoretical to real. This is the place where the conceptual models established during negotiation and limitation are implemented.
Evaluation/Reflection: Now that the consented-to thing is done, all necessary aftercare has been provided, the endorphins and feel-good chemicals have worn off a bit and everyone has stabilized, this is the debriefing phase. I personally advocate for debriefing in person, asking detailed, open-ended questions about what went well, what could have gone better, what needs to be changed in future, etc. In addition, BOTH parties need to feel free to speak openly and honestly about any problems or deficiencies they noticed and how to best correct these moving forward. Interestingly, this brings us back around to right where we started: negotiation!
As the graphic above shows, all of these points are circumscribed by
Communication: This is the vehicle, the lubricant and the pivotal aspect upon which everything else hinges, as well as the one thing which makes everything else possible and keeps the dynamic moving forward. If you cannot communicate openly, effectively and unequivocally, either pro or con, with any others involved, then by definition you cannot give consent! Even play which restricts a submissive’s ability to speak, such as using a ball gag, generally allows some way to signal that the Dominant needs to slow down, check in or stop immediately. Taking away communication is almost always disastrous for the dynamic and everyone concerned.
WHEN YOU REMOVE COMMUNICATION FROM THE EQUATION AT ANY STEP, THE STRUCTURE CANNOT HOLD AND WILL INEVITABLY FALL APART IF THIS IS NOT CORRECTED!
Do I think the Pentagram Theory and its associated model are perfect? Certainly not! I’m sure it has its own set of problems and overlooks a number of possible scenarios in which one or more of these points may be consensually removed by both parties. However, I feel like for the vast majority of relationships and D/s dynamics, even hardcore Gorean Master/slave relationships, Pentagram Theory is a fairly good representation of how a properly managed dynamic works and ought to function. It also has the benefit of being relatively easy to remember and visualize, which I think makes it particularly useful and much simpler for all parties to dissect and evaluate their dynamic based on “Where are we at RIGHT NOW?”
There’s no such thing as a wrong way to get to consent. Pentagram Theory is just one model of many. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how Pentagram Theory works with your dynamic or relationship, and especially any flaws you see with it. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!