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To consent is to feel together (2021)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

When talking about consent, I often claim that trust is more important than consent. The modern usage of the word is to agree, often by defining the terms of the agreement. I’m okay with this, but not with that. The Swedish word we use is ‘samtycke’; ‘sam’ means together, and ‘tycke’ is ‘opinion’ often related to thought. When people practice consent, it often seems to be defining what I want and what I don’t want because it’s important to get what one wants, right? Looking at the origins of the word, I think it offers another usage. The English word has two components; ‘con’ that means with or together, and ‘sent’, from the Old French ‘sentire’, that is to feel. Feeling together and I find this so much more beautiful.

When choosing my partners for tantra and BDSM, I instinctually operate like this. If I trust that we can feel together, then my need for do’s and don’t’s is minimal. Because I am curious about what we will become together, so I don’t need to define what we want to do. I cherish the surprise. When I notice that we don’t feel together, there is a disturbance in our relating; then I must slow down and communicate to feel safe again. And this happens all the time; it is the constant calibration of a relationship. As a workshop leader, my experience is; this is what most people long for, to feel present together and open to life’s mystery unfolding through us. One can decorate it in any cliche, but I think it is really what we desire.

Why is it then that consent often becomes this statement of what I want and don’t want?

Fundamentally, I think it’s because we are taught not to feel. It starts early; newly borns will feel and express their immediate need until it’s met; crying when hungry until fed. Growing up is learning to delay our needs, putting our feelings on hold, and focusing on what needs doing. There is this epic TEDTalk by Sir Ken Robinson about how schools kill creativity; you can watch it here. We learn how to keep studying when tired and bored, and work another full-time job, another year until we can fulfil that dream. I believe that human beings are remarkable at pushing ourselves to succeed, but it comes at a cost: we forget how to listen to our feelings and honour them. Therefore we don’t know how to be sensible with others, feeling together, and consent in the old sense of the word. So people burn out, hurt each other and get outcasted for behaving differently. When resources get limited, it becomes more and more important how they are divided. Who deserves them? The one that performs, and this is measured by what we do and not how we feel. Naomi Klein wrote the books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, and they lived with me for many years. In one sentence, the message is, by pushing people into urgency, they do more and feel less and get very easy to manipulate. Of course, performing and doing is also very valuable, and the world is still becoming a better place, day by day. I genuinely believe this. But there must be a balance between feeling and doing.

With this culture, maybe it is not so strange that consent often gets approached from a doing perspective. I want to do this, this and that, and you should ask me if I want chips or ice cream. Even in many BDSM settings leading the development of consent, I experience a lack of feeling together. There is usually an opt-out or safe word to communicate stopping or slowing down, but that is about it; after that, the rest is doing and wanting. And of course, if I am (forced) to be doing, I want it to be what I want. So wanting becomes essential. And this is so paradoxical because want many people long for is surrender and submission. To no longer have to want and instead dedicate themselves to something greater than themselves. So how can I surrender when I need to consent, in the modern sense of the word, to everything that happens to me?

I see a lot of hurt in the world, from people doing and wanting things with each other, without feeling together. When I want to do something so much that I miss feeling into another, that’s when I hurt them. When I’m preoccupied with doing what I think I want, what I think they want, what I believe, society taught us to want. And when we are hurt, we build armor, raise walls, and fight wars. We do this by defining how things are and how they should be. To avoid feeling and being hurt again. It is so normal and so human. And if you play hard to ensure that you get what you want, I’ll play hard to ensure that I get what I want. It creates a freezing void and a stand-still. Eventually, one forgets how to feel together because no one trusts that we can do it. Personally, I would prefer to do less, whatever little thing that fits inside the trust, for us to feel together. Otherwise, it’s simply not worth it—the consent built upon doing and waiting is not what I want. Or feel like.

I think there is a common misconception of BDSM that I must write about here: that most dominants are doing based on a predecided kink or fantasy. While in my experience, it is more about feeling together in the moment. It originates from a burning curiosity for each other. Who will we become in the polarity and power dynamic? I love to stress in workshops that every action must have a reaction, and there is no reason to tie a second rope until the tale of the first rope has been told. I could rant about this forever, but I want to talk about how this misconception ties into the problematic view of consent as wanting.

In media today, there is quite some focus on kids choking each other like an erotic breath play that sometimes results in death. Horrible, yes, I agree, but I think it’s a search for an identity mixed with a curiosity about BDSM. It’s about wanting to be someone or something. I assume that it’s mainly guys wanting to be macho and dominant and girls wanting to be slutty and submissive. The source of this “wanting” isn’t important to me; some will blame violent pornography and video games, or if you like me, were born in 1980, pen-and-paper roleplaying and metal music. The problem is this egocentric wanting-culture. I would guess that these kids exploring erotic breath play have consent and are not brutal monsters. Because choking the blood flow to the brain creates a euphoric feeling. It makes one high and the sexual stimulation more intense. I won’t go into how it works here, but google it if you are curious. So the problem is engaging in a dangerous and rewarding activity from a wanting perspective, with high walls and lots of armor that prevents one from feeling together.

So when I think about consent, I think more about being vulnerable and present while feeling together and less about strictly defining what I want and what I do not want. The whole talk beforehand is about setting a stage for feeling and daring to communicate that. If you are looking for a more concrete guide to playing safer, read this text that I wrote about a year ago.