This started as a nitpick about Saints Row the Third (a pretty great game, otherwise). SR3 is a game mostly about driving / flying around and shooting things, and its characters and story are (to me) enjoyable. But the nervousness of its developers about sex and sex work bleeds through its characters. It’s an issue that nags me, but rationally it’s something of a missed opportunity. We are super-skiddish about sex in this culture, which makes it difficult to imagine other cultures (even subcultures of this one) in which sex is regarded as an acceptable part of life, or even something to celebrate.* Some insight into the sex industry and the BDSM community might have been refreshing.
Volition seemed to get over their inhibition a little bit (sorta) by Saints Row IV in which, thanks to a parody aimed at BioWare games (mostly Mass Effect), the Boss gets to have sex with every single character in the Saints, just by clicking Romance. At least the devs were trying. But I digress.
SR3 has a BDSM club and Brothel and trafficked-humans-slave-marketplace called (ironically) Safeword, and there were some bits of SR3 dialog about safewords that seemed incongruous with my experience with them, so I figured I’d write a useful notes about safewords bit.
But here’s the thing. Safewords are an advanced notion of consent. BDSM can delve into kinds of play that are emotionally (or even physically) dangerous, and so it’s strictly opt-in. And United States society is really bad about consent. Like consent remedial class between the kid who fell off the jungle gym and the kid who starts fires. After all, we don’t teach consent in public school even in high-school sex-ed, and colleges still don’t cover it except in Women’s Health class. And we still have college fraternities who believe No means yes. Yes means anal. So yeah. When it comes to consent, we, in the United States are really, really dumb.
So I thought I should do a primer on Consent 101.
But here’s another thing: US society isn’t just ignorant. It’s willfully ignorant. And not just because men are frustrated with trying to date women. Not just because we still think women should just be silent, obedient walking incubation tanks. Our corporations sell our names on their mailing lists to others without asking. If they do ask, it’s opt-out (You have to find the button to say No, which they often hide, and often ignore.) We bundle odious, lengthy and incomprehensible contracts to software and technology that often serve as necessary tools in our life and work. Even our kids are indoctrinated with Christian dogma without the ability for parents to opt-out.
My own relationship with my operating system is marred by a non-consensual advertising campaign. Microsoft keeps trying to reinstall it despite that I opted out multiple times. Microsoft is still at it.
We can’t even vote for privacy or respect of rights in our elections. These issues are just not on the table. When I say we suck when it comes to consent. I mean we suck. Like a singularity.
To be fair, a lot of nations suck at it. But over in the European Union, they’re at least trying to sort it out and not turn into a gross dictatorship. Not so, here.
But that issues of consent are commonplace doesn’t change how much the US sucks. The US just sucks with a lot of other sucky company. Not just sexual consent, but any. We treat each other like Westros passersby on lonely country roads, where invariably, the bigger guys rob the littler ones because they can.
Consent is about reciprocity. It’s about respecting the other guy has value and agency, and is worthy of the same respect by which you would be treated. The Golden Rule is all about this.
Because in the old days, in order for you and I to interact, I had to put a gun to your head, and you had to hold an armed grenade. That way, if things got ugly, we both died. (Only at that point we hadn’t invented guns or grenades, or for that matter walking upright.) But we opted out with the power of force or flight. Which meant that the smaller party got his shit fucked up if he accidentally crossed a line.
It made for tense social relations.
It’s this reason that in Ancient Rome, allegiances were formed by two men vowing while holding each other’s testicles to show that they trust each other not to hurt each other, or pull the trigger in the handgun-head-grenade ritual. Baboons still engage in this very same testicle-holding practice to demonstrate trust and agreement to a relationship of reciprocity.
When we talk of civility, or politeness, or even respect, we talk of checking for consent. Making sure everyone is opting in, or, (if everyone is here for the carved turkey) giving everyone a chance to opt out. This is the stuff by which we can construct large societies. The tricky part is respecting people who are odd enough that you don’t like them. And accepting that they have the right to be odd and your neighbor at the same time. That’s the part that Americans have a hard time getting. Especially, the big corporate Americans who are (for now) legally people too.
I’m odd to almost everyone. I also like internet and space programs. And those don’t come with out a lot of testicle holding. You need a lot of trust and respect and exchange to get them.
Anyway, that’s why we should get savvy about consent, and we so totally are not. Later I’ll actually talk about consent 101 and maybe even work my way back to safewords.
* By comparison, Star Trek was imagined by Gene Roddenberry to be a free love future featuring casual sex and open relationships and none of that tension we typically have about military fraternizing or sexing the VIPs or engaging in sexual relations as a part of diplomatic relations. While non-hung-up societies are a mainstay of 20th century science fiction, it was too much for the writers, and for the effort the franchise became even more conservative and sometimes downright Victorian-level uptight.