How certain sexual preferences can be unfair or violent
How certain conversational styles can be unfair or violent
For many people these days, the first ethical question about sex is when it begins. A recognition of mutual consent is the requirement for sex to be initiated, and that opening agreement should be revisited throughout the encounter, with each act prompting a new question. It is quite fair that most people would like to know what is happening when they are having sex and have the opportunity to decide whether it happens. However, if we take seriously some of what we have been entertaining about the extension of sexuality to realms that we do not normally conceive as sexual, in other words if talking is a form of fucking, then it is very difficult to say where sex begins and how that moment can be negotiated. With some of this thinking in mind, I wonder whether we can see sexual ethics in a new light, perhaps expanding it as we reconceive it. I will admit that I very much feel myself to be going out on a limb here, but I sense that there is something important about the particular conjunction of sex and discourse at the site of ethics, and so I propose that we risk getting hurt.
“May I kiss you here?” is a question we all understand, and one which is designed to receive a response, but “May I flirt with you?” is a question that seems vaguely nonsensical and appears to answer itself in the negative. For one thing, people are used to being thrown into different kinds of conversation quite rapidly without being warned about or even immediately noticing the shift. Part of the erotics of conversation consists precisely in this slipperiness, which is exciting and dangerous at once since its movements seem to be completely unavailable to the clearcut distinctions that appear to underly the model of autonomous and intentional consent.
But part of what is so endlessly frustrating about conversation is that there are very few ways to negotiate its boundaries and forms. This starts with the question of consensual engagement: while politeness in our culture dictates that physical contact is verboten except in clearly established circumstances, conversation is a guaranteed right for all who are merely acquainted, and only to be ruled out in exceptional cases. Those who are exceptionally beautiful or particularly sensitive to social exchanges are acutely aware of the extent to which anyone may simply start talking to them at any time. I’m not necessarily suggesting that there need to be stricter boundaries around verbal engagement, only that this discrepancy in verbal boundaries might lead us to overlook the sexual aspect of conversation, since it is treated so much more casually.
Beyond the question of conversational initiation, there is the issue of conversational styles and preferences. There exists very little in the way of markers for different modes of conversation, in the way that one might sexually identify as a top or a bottom. In fact, categories like ‘top/bottom’ make their way into these ‘non-sexual’ circumstances in order to explain dynamics that otherwise would remain nameless. The rough and ready binarism of these categories serves some use, but it certainly fails to capture the wider range of dynamics present in conversational exchanges (and sexual ones as well). Could there be a more multidimensional grid on which people might place themselves, a sort of D&D alignment chart of conversational compatibility? Or is the fact that a person remains undefined in terms of their approach to speech precisely what makes conversation possible?
These questions are not simply asked in the spirit of helping us all better find our helpmeets, thus addressing the problem expressed in Milton’s complaint; they are also designed to cast in a different light the problems that his wife may have faced, in other words thinking about phenomena like mansplaining, gaslighting, trauma dumping, and love bombing as psychosexual. But whereas many of us believe we know what it means to consent to be slapped, humiliated, or cuckolded, it does not even seem correct to think of one’s consenting to psychosexually abusive behaviors. This is partially because what consent tenuously means in the context of BDSM is that the meaning of the acts and exchanges is contained to the scene (of course, this is actually impossible but perhaps practically good enough), whereas psychosexual behavior cannot be so easily contained within the boundaries of a defined scenario. Perhaps the only model we have for thinking about a person intentionally consenting to psychosexual abuse is a therapy relationship, which is perhaps also society’s greatest attempt to draw strict boundaries around a scene of conversation.
But what constitutes consent in these scenarios where it is dependent upon a tenuous compartmentalization of psychosexual space? This is where I turn to Avgi Saketopolou’s terms “overwhelm” and “limit consent,” from her recent book Sexuality Beyond Consent. While I lack the space to fully explain these notions, I’m inspired by their suggestion that what we consent to always exceeds our ability to consent, and that consent ultimately involves a fragile commitment to (but never mastery of) the unruly, unfair, violent parts of ourselves. To put it a bit crudely, for Saketopolou, the domme must consent to give a flogging as much as the sub must consent to receive it, and this is a key difference between a scene of actual abuse and one of shared exploration. The person who exercises their capacity for cruelty unthinkingly is doing so non-consensually; it is their not truly consenting to play the role of the aggressor that makes them unable to ascertain or respond to the consent of the other.
If there is any bearing that such concepts might have on how we think about conversation, it may be this: conversation involves a kind of limit consent precisely because we cannot know not only what will be said to us, but indeed because we cannot know what we ourselves will say. This is often most acutely felt when talking about sex (or one of its many proxies), but I have hoped to suggest that there is something sexual at play even when sex is not an explicit topic. I will close this series of blog posts, then, by returning to the prompt which motivated my reflections: to write about a topic which I feel more comfortable addressing conversationally. Of course, the question animating such a prompt is how exactly we are to understand the difference between writing and conversation. Indeed, in writing these reflections, I have felt the nervous sense of going out on a limb that accompanies a spirited conversation. Yet I have also wondered to what extent this feeling results not from exposure to another but from exposure to oneself. If conversation provides us with a real other and thus a real self, writing provides an imagined other and thus an imagined self. Have I been speaking to you all this while? Or masturbating to myself in the dark? It might not matter. You might feel it either way.