reflecting back on years of consent without information about asexuality
content warning: mentions of sex and abuse; talk of consent issues.
this is the second of what has now become three posts that i’m writing about my personal experiences with sexual abuse / violence and consent issues, the first of which can be found here. this post focuses on how my ability to consent may or may not have been affected by not knowing about the existence of asexuality prior to consenting to sex in past relationships.
even though there are those who insist that consent is as simple as “yes” or “no,” that there is no gray area involved– you either consented or you didn’t– for lots of people consent can be more complicated than that.
in my time on Tumblr, various posts have come across my dashboard on the topic of consent and/or agency, specifically in the context of being asexual. sometimes when i read one of those posts, some part of me is screaming and on the verge of panicking until i close the tab in my browser– but not before ‘liking’ or bookmarking the post because i tell myself that i’ll come back to it later. “later” because i don’t want to deal with it “right now.” (read: “ever.”)
well, here’s me attempting to sit down and deal with stuff, finally.
as someone who has been in two long-term relationships spanning 9 years in total, 5 of which were sexually active and all of which happened before i came out to myself as asexual (among other things), having my ability to consent or even the quality (for lack of a better word) of my consent be brought into question (literally or hypothetically) makes me feel some kinda way.
that said, i have no interest in criticizing any of the existing consent models, nor in adding to them with a model of my own. i’m just here to think aloud, blabbering into the void that is the internet. as usual.
in the post “Asexuality and Consent Issues”, Anagnori writes:
But what of the asexual people who do not know what they are? What of the asexuals who consent to acts of sex purely because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do? What of the asexual people who have sex because they want to be “normal,” knowing that their friends, family and lovers will reject or look down on them if they are abnormal? They do not have the information about asexuality that they need to make fully informed decisions about their sex lives. […] They can still consent to sex, and may even enjoy it, but they are not entirely free, and their consent is not freely given.
this is where i become conflicted because even though i am (was?) one of the asexual people that Anagnori is describing, in my opinion my consent was given freely.
Anagnori goes on to ask this hypothetical question.
How many asexual people consent to sex that they would not have consented to if they grew up knowing that asexuality was a good, normal, and healthy way to be?
to this, i would eagerly raise my hand to be counted among the aces who would not have consented to sex had i known that not having sex is just as natural and okay as having it. that asexuals exist and that i am one of them. hell, even if i hadn’t known any of that, if i had just known that “no” was a thing that i could have said in good conscious, even that would have been enough back then…
that said, just because i didn’t know that i am asexual or that i could say “no” with the conviction that i would (hopefully) say it today, does that automatically mean that my consent wasn’t freely given…? it wasn’t given under duress, which is why i feel like it was freely given. it just wasn’t informed consent… yes, there was coercion involved on that part of society, not my partners, but still…
and then there’s this post by Queenie responding to an ask that i could have written myself. the ask, originally from Resources for Ace Survivors, reads:
I consented to sex multiple times with my partner. I knew I didn’t like sex, but I consented. It ruined our relationship because I didn’t have the information or the courage to say that I didn’t like it, so I grew afraid of seeing them in case we ended up having sex. I don’t know what to call this situation; it’s not abuse because I consented and they didn’t know (although they did question my responsiveness and body language) but it wasn’t enthusiastic consent. Please can you help?
having consented to sex multiple times with a partner; knowing that i didn’t care for it, but consenting anyway; my partners questioning my (lack of) responsiveness & body language at times; the eventual avoidance of a particular partner in order to avoid being confronted about sex– all of it, including not feeling like it qualifies as abuse since i had verbally consented at some point or another, describes my past situations pretty well.
in the post, Queenie linked to several consent models and while i did find bits and pieces of those models relatable, i still found all of them difficult to navigate. this is especially the case in regards to a specific incident that continually comes to mind whenever i read things on consent, but i’ll get to that in my next post. bear with me.
the biggest thing that struck me about this particular post was this:
When I first started dating,
I made a list of all the reasons I shouldn’t have sex with my boyfriend. […] The list went on and on, but nowhere on the list was “I genuinely do not want to have sex with him.” Spoiler alert: I genuinely did not want to have sex with him. But that wasn’t good enough! “I don’t want to” wasn’t a reason not to have sex, because everyone wants to have sex under the proper conditions.
in the beginning of my first relationship, that was exactly how i felt. not wanting to have sex wasn’t a good enough reason to say “no”, so i said “yes.” and as is unfortunately common in many sexually active relationships, after the first few times, my partner stopped asking and i no longer said an actual “yes” or “no,” it was just assumed that sex was a thing that could and would happen. the duty was on me to speak up if i didn’t want it, but to me simply not wanting it wasn’t good enough to say anything, so it repeatedly happened whether i actually wanted it or not. (spoiler alert: i never actually wanted it.)
even when it came to my second relationship, it was pretty much the same thing on repeat but with the added baggage of telling myself that it was totally my fault that things didn’t work out sex wise in my first relationship. that this new relationship was a new start with a new person and if i could compromise myself for that other person, then surely i could do it again for this person! but also it’d be better this time because this person wasn’t that other person and i’d try really, really hard…!
……yeah, that didn’t work.
more recently, i came across a post titled “Hermeneutical Injustice in Consent and Asexuality” by starchythoughts. with this post, i was finally able to put a word to the issues surrounding consent in my previous relationships.
Coined by Miranda Fricker in her book, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, hermeneutical injustice is “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to a structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutical resource.” […] Fricker concludes,
“hermeneutical injustice is not inflicted by any agent, but rather is caused by a feature of the collective hermeneutical resource – a one-off blind spot (in incidental cases), or (in systematic cases) a lacuna generated by a structural identity prejudice in the hermeneutical repertoire…”
this post also describes how it felt for me when i finally (re-)discovered asexuality and came out to myself in the midst of my second relationship.
When I learned about asexuality, it was like the floodgates opened. Suddenly there was a term for my experiences and an entire community built around discussing them. Backed by this collective knowledge, I’m much more confident in my self, my boundaries, and my relationships. However, I was still left with pain and bitterness about my previous relationship; I didn’t have a model or framework in which to analyze a situation where lack of knowledge – for which no one was accountable – would’ve affected consent.
there’s so much about my past relationships that even now, years later, i have yet to give much thought to. i have, unfortunately, mastered the art of packing away my feelings and thoughts into boxes and shoving them into dark corners of my mind where i never have to face them. however, now that i’m equipped with my ace identity, various consent models and the term ‘hermeneutical injustice,’ i guess i can finally begin laying some things to rest in my own mind…
the hurt and resentment that i feel having gone through 9 years worth of (failed) relationships deprived of information will forever be there, but i’ve more or less concluded that i personally have always had agency over my consent and gave it freely at one point or another, even if it was uninformed (and somewhat coerced– fuck you society). while what happened / how things happened was regrettable, to say the least, for me personally it wasn’t abuse. that certainly isn’t to say that the anon in the aforementioned post by Queenie (or anyone else) would or should feel the same way, that’s just the conclusion that i’ve come to re: my own personal situations.
that said, there is still that one incident that is still… questionable for me. that specific incident doesn’t have much of anything to do with my lack of awareness about my asexuality, which is why i’ve extracted it from this post instead giving it its own post. it has much more to do with what even counts as consent… which in turn has me questioning how “active” and “enthusiastic” consent has to be to count. if i didn’t act on my ‘responsibility’ to verbally retract my consent by explicitly saying “no,” does that mean i automatically consented…?
to be continued… here.