Eek, I totally haven’t posted in a month. I’m sorry. I’ve sort of had a backlog of really emotionally heavy post ideas that I wasn’t ready for, but still distracted me from writing anything light. Also getting my cast off caused me to rush into spending most of my typing energy editing my current novel project. But I can write this now, so I will.
Trigger Warning : This is going to be about Rape and Child Sexual Abuse and Stuff Like That
I’m talking about consent here, mostly consent to have sex. There is a daunting amount of theory that already exists about consent in various feminist and other circles and I don’t feel anywhere close to being able to add to the general theory. But I’ve always been bothered by the way consent and “ability to consent” is talked about and how it meshes or fails to mesh with my own experience. And my community has recently been complaining rightly about various decisions to deny the right to have sex to intellectually disabled people based on “ability to consent” language. I can’t speak directly for intellectually disabled people, but the way my experiences have been misleadingly talked about give me some insight into the problematic ways the mainstream thinks about consent. I think some of those thought patterns explain why judges end up thinking its a good idea to prevent ID people from having sex. I think some of the same mistakes are happening.
This is mostly going to be an appeal for people to think differently about why sexual abuse is bad, in a way that actually takes into account my experiences. I don’t have a full theory, but anybody who does needs to take into account this kind of data. Some already do I think, but some definitely don’t already. I’m writing this to convince those that don’t and give a possibly new argument for the use of those that do.
Why Kids “Can’t Consent” to Sex
When I was first talking about my child sexual abuse experiences to other people, I was really insulted by the idea that I was definitionally innocent, no matter my role in what happened. I was even more angry at the ideas that things that were done to me by force and things that were done to me by persuasion were the same. I remember my childhood far too vividly to write off my child self as not yet a person, not yet a moral agent. I remember making decisions, some good, some bad, some lacking critical information, some impulsive and some thought through to some extent. I’m ashamed of some decisions and proud of others. There are plenty that I write off due to my very forgivable ignorance, but there are also that I think truly reflected the sort of person I was.
I eventually came to basically agree with them as I contemplated how completely outmatched I was by my abused, but I still want and feel I deserve the ability to think of the decisions that I made in that situation as actual decisions even if they are decisions in extreme circumstances. And I think I was right to feel insulted. Many of the people who told me I couldn’t consent were conceptualizing this inability in really insulting ways. They were absolving me for all the wrong reasons. I think these bad conceptualizations are common.
Why People Thought I Couldn’t Consent
*There is an idea that children are not smart enough to understand sex and so they have to be protected from its potential negative consequences. This is so close to reasonable and yet so destructive, all the more so because the difference between it and reality is so subtle.
Here, maybe this will help: Imagine a species whose adults have exactly the intellectual and emotional regulation capabilities of six-year-old humans, but enough physical capabilities to survive in the wild. It’s likely that they would be able to create something like a civilization, though probably not as sophisticated as ours. I’m basically certain that they would have a sense of morality even if it is less nuanced. They would of course have sex with each other, they have to reproduce after all. That sex would me on average much more poorly thought through. But I hope everybody should agree that humans should not prevent this entire alien species from having sex with each other for their own good. (If you don’t agree, why aren’t you morally panicking about much dumber animals in real life that are allowed to have sex with each other in the wild. Surely they understand what they’re doing even less?)
I think this illustrates the point that the problem with kids having sex isn’t an absolute lack of understanding, but a comparative lack of understanding compared to the adult that is abusing them. I think kids can consent to sex with each other. I think most people who have experienced sexual play with other kids growing up, understand this. It may or may not be healthy. It may or may not be a bad idea. But it is definitely possible to be consensual. (It is also possible to be nonconsensual of course. Kids can force or coerce each other same as adults can.)
*People told me it was always completely impossible to resist an adults advances. There’s not much to be said about this. One only has to start to question it to see it for what it is, a poorly thought through attempt at reassurance that lots of people say, but nobody really believes. “There’s nothing you could have done,” is a good short-term fix for guilt. But it only increases feelings of helplessness. Sometimes it’s true, particularly in violent cases. But it’s not doing anybody any favors to force every survivor to that level of feeling traumatized just to get rid of guilt in a simpler way. Sometimes “You could have avoided it, but only at the cost of something worse. You made the correct decision between bad options and it wasn’t you’re fault you were in such a bad situation” is true and should be said. But sometimes the kid didn’t make the correct decision.
In case it’s not clear, here is the real reason not to feel guilty in the very common case where the kid makes an actual choice to cooperate. “It seemed worth it at the time. You didn’t know it would make you feel this way so many years later. And your ignorance isn’t culpable; you were a little kid and learning “common sense” takes time. You’re not even necessarily gullible and even the gullible don’t deserve this. You’re abuser knew or should have known you would feel this way. They chose not to let that stop them. They did this to you on purpose; you didn’t let this happen to you on purpose.”
*People told me or implied that children are not morally responsible for their decisions.
The problem is they also want to give you moral credit for whatever you did to survive. Because they do realize how unfair it is to deny us that in many cases. But in the manner of people who give inane reassurances to people they sympathize with but don’t respect (such as children and abuse survivors), they say nice things without worrying about their consistency, confident that we’ll never notice. How exactly are my good decisions to my credit, but my bad decisions not to my blame? Are you really saying I was a moral agent or are you just telling me to be proud to make me feel better?
But I remember being a moral agent.
I Remember… (Warning: Trigger intensity increasing)
At first I let her touch me, because she was my nanny and I was supposed to listen to her. I grew to like the praise she would give me. I grew to like the feelings of closeness. But I really hated the physical feelings, and I didn’t always have the self control to hold still and cooperate. She never needed force to start, but sometimes, at first, she needed force to finish. Eventually I learned to cooperate. She rewarded me with lots of love and understanding, lots of sympathy when it hurt or made me upset or confused. Eventually I trusted her enough to ask not to play that game. But then she’d ignore me and favor my little brother so I came to understand sex as the cost of my relationship with her.
I chose the relationship as more important. Given that she was the only adult that accepted my weird autistic ways, I think I was actually making the correct choice. I always said yes, from then on. I even initiated when I needed attention and she always rewarded me. I understood the exchange I was making, just not all of the consequences, and none of the wider social meaning. But I don’t think any of that would have changed my choice much. It was simply the best decision in the position I was in. The choice I was offered was exploitative, but not, I think, coercive. The status quo was always an option for me. I could always have had her just leave me alone. But that wasn’t what I wanted.
By the end I noticed something else. I noticed she was desperate too. I noticed that she was scared and sad. I notices that what she did to me seemed to make her feel better. I loved her. She was my best friend and I wanted her to be happy. So, by the end, I started initiating the game when I thought she wanted it, or just looked sad, not just when I needed attention. By the end I was doing it for her, not for what it could get me. It’s the first seriously selfless thing I can remember doing. I’m actually proud of it still, even as I realize how screwed up her love was, mine wasn’t.
So Did I Consent Those Last Few Times?
I believe that what she was doing to me never stopped being bad, never stopped being abuse, never stopped being a thing that should be a crime. But I think it’s a distortion to say that I wasn’t consenting by the end. I like the power difference model in general, the concept that kids cannot consent because of differences of knowledge and power. But by the end I wasn’t doing it out of desperation or being exploited. I was self-destructively offering myself to help a pedophile I loved get what they wanted, a kid. I was poorly informed about the consequences, but that was just me being a kid doing something that was a bad idea.
I think the critical problem is not that I wasn’t freely saying yes, but that she had a responsibility to say no. There was no failure of will on my part, just of failure of responsibility on hers. Sex with kids screws them up; this is known. Respecting my wishes as a person doesn’t enter into it. I wasn’t doing it for me. She was the only direct beneficiary of the sex itself. If she really cared about me it would not have been worth it to her, to get what she wanted at the cost she knew I would pay.
Why Poking Kids is actually bad.
The special power relationship is important, but the special responsibility is why the rule is actually exceptionless. Power relationships can be overcome. But kids are a work in progress. It is the responsibility of all adults collectively to make a world for them and to teach them smart lessons. All evidence suggests that if it’s possible to have a healthy sexual relationship between an adult and a child, then it’s really hard and the consequences of failure are spectacular. Power relationships are overcome by putting the needs of the weaker party first. Kids are general not the ones who want sex in these relationships. Somebody who put the kid’s interests first would take sex off the table because it’s just such a bad idea for the kid.
It’s not about what the kid can’t do; it’s about what the adult can’t do. The adult can’t accept the kids consent with a clear conscience. The kid is free to answer but the question should never arise.
So about ID adults.
ID adults are not works in progress. ID adults have sex drives so the sex can be for their actual benefit. ID adults have no massive power difference between each other. ID adults cannot simply wait to grow up and have safer sex then. These should be obvious and sufficient arguments.
It seems like the only reason that people might think preventing an kind of disabled adults from having sex is a good idea is by analogy to kids and the erroneous belief that the problems with kids having sex are due to the above explanations, particularly some requirement of average human adult intelligence to consent to something that most of the animal world does all the time. They are misusing the metaphor.
I Don’t Want My Experiences As a Survivor Used to Deny the Rights of Consenting Adults to Have Sex
So that’s what I’m angry about, and that’s what I want people to take into account in these conversations.