On the problematic aspects of enthusiastic consent

On the problematic aspects of enthusiastic consent. Photo by Brady, with nephew's parental consent. 2021.
On the problematic aspects of enthusiastic consent. Photo by Brady, with nephew’s parental consent. 2021.

“If I don’t get a ‘hell yeah’ then it’s gonna be an automatic ‘hell no’ from me. I’ve no time anymore for fake love, and those are just my boundaries. I’ll only accept enthusiastic consent from now on.”

The preface that I like to give when I talk about, explore, and examine enthusiastic consent, is that within the scope of my practice, and many years working with abusers and abused, often one and the same, I’m familiar with many, “tools,” that people use for seemingly good reasons, that consciously or unconsciously, are used as weapons. I know enthusiastic consent far more as that: an effective weapon more than as a helpful tool. I also know many people who refuse to give up their weapons and the power they carry, especially the tested and highly effective ones.

To begin, I professionally and personally know of far too many people overcoming long histories of being forced to show happiness, delight, enthusiasm, joy, as the only way to access parental, familial, or social resources. I know of far too many cases where that same display, that performance of enthusiasm, was used against a person later as a defense against any criticism, or perhaps linguistically, “How can you say it was bad, because you were soo happy?” It is a tangled knot to unwind, how a performance meant to guarantee consent can also be used coercively against the performer later if the performance ever falters, and yet I know many who have lived with that corrosive pressure of performing enthusiasm.

Additionally, with so much societal and social media talk of trauma and abuse coming from emotional manipulation, it seems odd to me that there isn’t more pushback against enthusiastic consent as a standard. That it isn’t broadly seen as triggering for those that were held to performative, rigid, and overdone expressions… does make a little sense though. Most folks don’t realize that they may be continuing patterns of manipulation or harm because they believe their good intentions couldn’t possibly cause harm, and yet, that is exactly how problematic aspects operate: not believing something to be harmful allows for harm to go unseen.

I also know many people who would refuse to give up their weapons, especially the tested and highly effective ones.
Regarding vulnerability, generally the one initiating or the one asking for something is in the more vulnerable position, because within that initiation or request, there is now an opening for rejection. But to only allow for enthusiastic consent is to, in its own artful way, be in the classically vulnerable position of asking but not being vulnerable. Perhaps worse than not being vulnerable, it is defensively anticipating the taking away of the request, waiting to withhold, or prepared to reject, if the performance isn’t good enough.

Within that anticipation, there’s a ground of hostility, unconscious perhaps, in waiting to reject someone for not being enthusiastic enough. Perhaps there is some unacknowledged anger in even asking for consent, but asking and waiting to reject for a lack of enthusiasm isn’t allowing for another to accept as they would want, but only as they are allowed to accept. This is where power dynamics tangle up, because freely consenting on one’s own terms is disallowed, but additionally, another may not be able to freely consent too; children, employees, those intoxicated, and various other conditions may be present that do not allow for the capacity to consent, and to ask for enthusiasm when one cannot consent is an altogether different kind of cruel.

The acceptance of a freely given yes as a yes, or a no as a no from those that can freely consent is then subverted with enthusiastic consent, as if to say: it needs to be performed correctly and to standard. Therefore the one asking for consent is also the judge of when a yes is a yes, or when a no is a no. It is the very same controlling dynamic that is present in, “I’ll decided if your no is a no,” that is present in, “I’ll decide if your yes is a yes.” And enthusiastic consent operates on the same problematic grounds of judging performances.

Perhaps there is some unacknowledged anger in even asking for consent, but asking and waiting to reject for a lack of enthusiasm isn’t allowing for another to accept as they would want, but only as they are allowed to accept…

The danger in the manipulative element, and in the performative element, are there, but there’s also a danger in the corrosive element of enthusiasm as the standard. The desire for enthusiasm makes a certain kind of sense from the classic domestic violence model. Enthusiasm, overjoyed happiness, adoration, love-bombing, can feel like the only valid expression of love that can be trusted as firmly certain. Any other expression of feeling is felt as restrained anger waiting to explode, as experience and history would indicate. To be even more overly reductionistic within that classic model: there is ‘feeling good,’ ‘soon to be bad,’ and ‘bad.’ As the ‘bad’ becomes more volatile, more destructive, what is felt as ‘soon to be bad’ takes over more nuanced expressions, and good expressions become narrowed into even stricter expressions. Enthusiasm somehow remains, and that seemingly good display of enthusiasm and love, is an only ever shrinking resting place of calm in that volatile cycle, but it also dangerously keeps that very same cycle going. 

When only the biggest of displays, the biggest of feelings, are the acceptable minimum, other feelings become less valid along that spectrum as well. Softer feelings, gentler expressions, lighter displays aren’t as valid, and in time, simply direct feelings, clear expressions, and honest displays aren’t seen as valid enough rather than the bigger, more enthusiastic ones. With that highest of emotional standards, anything else can only be less; anything nuanced is likely lost.

There is an earnestness in the tool of enthusiastic consent: giving permission to say no if one is not excited. The simple earnestness of that tool, even for its intended aim, can be wielded destructively. One can, in this exact way, consent without enthusiasm and want it to be received as unconsenting, manipulative, as it were, to say no without saying no. The unintended harm in this, then, is furthering indirect if deceptive communication as valid as direct communication.

Perhaps the shadow of the tool itself, and a tool that is meant to encourage listening and mutual understanding, discourages listening in favor of indirect control.

With enthusiastic consent, to give an uncertain yet trusting yes, isn’t good enough; to give a gentle yet hopeful yes, isn’t good enough; to give a small but curious yes, isn’t good enough; to give an honorable yes because the question was even asked, isn’t good enough. There is a right response and only one right response allowed when it comes to enthusiastic consent… 

My hope would be that when softer expressions of consent are heard, they are heard and accepted as they are, and that the response in kind, were equally kind; a gentle touch of yes received with an equally gentle and accepting touch of that yes.

About the Author


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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn the problematic aspects of enthusiastic consent