Monday, May 20, 2013

On hyperconsent

I first heard the term "hyperconsent" on a couch while my fingers ran along a new friend's collarbones. It wasn't her place — her city, even — but she seemed perfectly at home on the couch cushions the same way that the weary are lying down at a long day's end. The air was thick with the intermingling scents of incense and goon, and the taste of the latter still weighed heavy on my tongue (we'd had just enough to stain our lips slightly red).

She and I spoke in hushed tones, trying not to disturb the flat's usual inhabitants, who'd excused themselves to bed not much earlier.

"Is this okay?"

"Is what?"

"Touching. Here."

The answer was yes.

We were in varying states of undress. She was in scarely more than the brassiere and loose-flowing top she'd been wearing all night. I was still layered in jacket and shirt and scarf and jeans, and (if memory serves) hadn't gotten around to removing my shoes either.

(There's something interesting in the erotic symbology of overdressed vs. under-; of measured words and catlike grace vs. dilated pupils and increasingly ragged breath. That's not for this post, though.)

As I said. I asked her, may I do this?; I asked her, is this okay?

"It's good that you do that," she said. "Asking. Hyperconsent."


I am immensely glad to have grown up in a world where we can have this kind of discourse. If I'd been born eighty years earlier, I might have made it to the age of twenty-one believing that there was no such thing as rape between husband and wife. The thought freaks me the fuck out.

There are a lot of young boys out there who haven't had the opportunities I've had, who've never had the chance to hear narratives about gender that aren't prince-saves-princess stories, kitchen jokes, sitcoms about nuclear families, or send-ups of straw feminists. And some of them?, they're not going to grow up to be good people. And though whatever damage they may inflict upon their fellow human beings will be their fault, what won't be their fault will be the ossified worldviews that cause them to think that they're doing nothing wrong. That one will be on their parents. Their teachers. Their sporting heroes. They won't have had a chance to avoid it.

And that scares me. A lot.


"Hyperconsent".

Meaning, from the few contexts I've seen it used, consistently and carefully checking for consent.

What exactly is the alternative there?

It bugs me that there's a word for that. Or at the very least, it bugs me that the word is "hyperconsent". Prefix "Hyper-". As in above, beyond, excessively. "Hyperactive" and "hypersensitive" describe medical symptoms. "Hyperenergetic" means "energetic to an extreme". Language conveys a lot of subliminal meaning, and if we don't scrutinise words like this where their messaging is staring us right in the face, we are in for a world of trouble later down the line.

"Hyperconsent". Does the "hyper-" stand for "making extra sure"? It makes it sound like common sense is an unusual case. It makes it sound as if treating other people how they wish to be treated could be taken to a pathological extreme.

If that's hyperconsent, what's mere "consent"? ("Well, they didn't say no, either..." springs to mind.)

And if consent includes at least asking someone whether they're okay with something, when you don't yet know them well enough to intuit what their non-verbal cues mean (and make no mistake, everyone is different; you can not infallibly intuit it two hours and four martinis after meeting someone, and even if you could avoid false positives 99% of the time, is that 1% chance of being a rapist really worth pretending to be a strong, silent "smooth operator" for?)... if consent means exactly what it says on the tin, then what then is hyperconsent? What is consent taken to an extreme?

(A flippant aside: perhaps meta-BDSM? Find a partner who really wants to be on the receiving end of a rape fantasy, restrain him/her/zir and then spend the rest of the night gently asking "is this okay, m'sweet?".)

In language and in life, checking for consent should be the baseline. And I'm not talking about token double binds like "can I put it in (or would you prefer I act passive aggressive for the rest of the night)?", I mean actual honest-to-all consent, no brow-beating, no duress, and checking for it whenever it's relevant, whenever a reasonable person could be concerned that you're about to cross a personal boundary. Touching him on the face. Touching her on the breast. Holding hands with your boyfriend in public for the first time. Giving your adorable three-year-old niece a wet kiss. It may (regrettably) not be the norm, but doing the right thing by your partner(s) should be the goddamn baseline. It should not be an unusual sexual preference. It should be what J. L. Austin calls a "trouser-word": noteworthy only when it is absent.

It should not mean the same thing when you prefix it with "hyper-".