Consent Accidents and Consent Violations
I was at a discussion group recently and someone shared a term that I hadn’t heard before: consent accidents. This is a really valuable nuance in the ongoing conversations about consent and nurturance culture because it recognizes that there’s a difference between a consent violation and a consent accident.
A consent violation happens when someone chooses to ignore or cross someone’s boundaries. People do that for a lot of reasons, including selfishness, arrogance, not caring about their partner, getting off on harming someone (which is distinct from the consensual experience of BDSM), or being somewhere else on the douchebag-rapist spectrum.
Consent accidents, however, are different because they happen because of error, miscommunication, misunderstanding, or not having all the information. That doesn’t make it less painful. If you step on my toes, it hurts whether it was an accident or on purpose. But how I approach the situation and what we do to resolve it might look very different.
There are some really big challenges for navigating this. First, if something happens that leaves you feeling hurt, it can really difficult to know the difference between accident and violation. That might be because of past experiences, wounds, triggers, or trauma which can amplify the hurt. It might be because it’s often difficult to know what someone’s intentions and motivations are. And in a world that excuses perpetrator’s actions and blames victims by saying things like “they didn’t mean to do it,” it can be incredibly hard to stand up for yourself.
Another difficulty is that identifying where things went awry is really hard when you’re feeling hurt. Pain, fear, anger, shame, sadness, and grief are all ways that you might feel when your consent isn’t attended to, whether it’s an accident or a violation. Any of those emotions, individually or in combination, can make it hard to see the situation with clarity, to talk about it with compassion for yourself and your partner, and to hold each of yourselves accountable for your choices and actions.
On the flip side, if you tell the other person what happened, they’ll also have their emotional reactions. Shame, in particular, tends to make us either attack the other person by blaming them or attack ourselves by giving up our right to our feelings and needs. If your partner gets defensive, they might try to dodge responsibility, take on all the blame, or attack you. Those are pretty common ways of reacting to shame, and most of us have done them at one point or another. Unfortunately, they also dovetail with victim-blaming, gaslighting, and the many other ways in which people who have been assaulted or abused get silenced.
Since it can be really difficult to identify what happened and know whether an event was a consent accident or violation, I’m really happy to have discovered this flow chart that Josh Weaver developed (used with permission). This was specifically designed for BDSM scenarios, so the acronym in the blue rectangle might not be familiar to you. WIITWD = What It Is That We Do (I think there’s a typo in the flowchart).
Update: I dislike the top right diamond that says “They’re a dick” for three reasons. First, using sexual anatomy a a pejorative reinforces sex-negativity. After all, we wouldn’t call someone an elbow or a knee because we don’t see those body parts as bad. (Here’s an old article of mine on the topic.) Second, I think that using the word “dick” implies that the person being evaluated is male since we rarely use that word to describe non-masculine folks. People of all genders can violate consent and I see no reason to reinforce that gendered stereotype. And third, I think this flowchart creates a false dichotomy of “good people who don’t cross boundaries” and “bad people who do.” This kind of thinking actually makes it easier for perpetrators to get away with it since it generally takes a lot to convince people to see someone they care for or were conned by as a bad person.
I think if we took that top right diamond out and edited the chart, it would be amazing. But I still think it’s worth using since the decision-making process it guides you through is important. If you want to edit Weaver’s flowchart, I suggest you either do it (and feel free to send me a link) or contact him about it.
This is an great tool for making decisions about our experiences, but there’s one piece that I think needs to be unpacked. The box labeled “was it intentional?” doesn’t offer much guidance for how to know. Of course, in an ideal world, we’d all be able to trust our partners when they say that it wasn’t. And I also know that some folks avoid responsibility for their actions by saying they were accidental when they really weren’t. Plus, when we get called in or called out, it’s easy to slide into a shame reaction and try to avoid, rather than leaning into the discomfort and moving forward.
The tricky thing is that while it would be lovely to assume good intentions, we sometimes need evidence. It’s on the person whose behavior crossed the line to demonstrate where their intentions were coming from, and the way you do that is by taking responsibility for the effects of your actions, regardless of what you intended. When someone tells you that they’ve been hurt by something you did despite your intentions, here are some good things to say to help the situation move forward.
Resolving a Consent Accident
The key to effectively addressing a consent accident is being able to bring in all of the pieces. Most people are more practiced or skilled at some of these than others, and they’re all important. There are a lot of ways to phrase each one, so take these as general suggestions and tailor them to fit your language, your relationship, and your situation.
Thank you for telling me. It’s really difficult to call someone in. It’s hard to take the risk of vulnerability when there’s already pain. It’s a brave thing to share that with a partner, especially in a world that blames, shames, and attacks people who speak up about sexual assault. So if someone tells you that they feel hurt by something you did or something that happened, one of the best things you can do in those situations is honor their courage. Express your gratitude that they told you what happened, even if your perspective on the experience is very different.
I’m sorry that you had that experience. If you can empathize with them, it will start to build a bridge between the two of you and heal the disconnection that happened. Let them know that you understand that they didn’t have the experience they wanted and offer some sympathy. This doesn’t mean that you’re taking the blame for things. It’s simply telling them that you understand that they didn’t have the experience they wanted. Some ways to say this:
- I’m sorry that you didn’t have as good a time as we both wanted.
- I’m sorry that you were hurt and didn’t feel comfortable telling me at the time.
- I’m sorry that we did something that you weren’t a full yes to.
Note: this is not the time to problem solve or assign responsibility. That will come later.
I had no intention of hurting you, and I see that it happened. This is where you start to bring in the both/and. You didn’t mean to injure them, and it still happened. Maybe there was a miscommunication. Maybe you genuinely thought that what you were doing was what they wanted. Maybe you didn’t pick up on their nonverbal cues. Maybe they were saying their safeword but the music was too loud and you couldn’t hear it. While it might be true that you didn’t realize what was happening (and I hope that if you had, you would have stopped), that doesn’t change the fact that an injury happened. Whether it was a physical or emotional hurt, it still happened.
There needs to be room for acknowledging both of these pieces because, by definition, this is the crux of the accident. The way you show that you recognize that it took place is by holding these two elements. It’s important to weigh them both equally because they’re equally true. If you overemphasize to the fact that you didn’t mean it, you’re trying to dodge your responsibility to work towards healing and resolution. While that might be an understandable defense mechanism against feeling shame, it’s going to accelerate the situation. And if you under emphasize the fact that you didn’t mean it, you run the risk of taking on too much responsibility and sliding into self-blame. Aim for the middle zone, where both of these pieces are important, and neither is more important than the other.
I’m sorry I did that thing I did. This one isn’t always relevant since consent accidents can happen even when you’ve done everything you could reasonably be expected to do. Consent is about due diligence rather than absolute safety. But when there is something you could have done differently, you need to genuinely apologize for it.
It might not be enough to say “I’m sorry.” You’ll improve your odds if you say, “I’m sorry I didn’t ask if you wanted me to touch you there/use those words/spank your butt/etc.” If you name the thing, you show that you truly understand where the accident happened. That’s a lot more effective because it shows that you understand what happened. You don’t need to go into every single detail, but you do need to show that you get it.
If you’re genuinely confident that you performed due diligence, you can say something like, “I really regret that this happened.” That’s a good way to acknowledge that there was an unfortunate event without taking on responsibility beyond what you could reasonably be expected to take. But be careful with this one. You need to make sure that you truly performed due diligence, and if you’re feeling defensive or reactive, you might be dodging responsibility instead.
What could I have done differently? There are actually two questions here: What could I have done that I didn’t do? What did I do that I shouldn’t have done? These are both super challenging things to ask because it puts us in the vulnerable position of looking at any missteps we might have made. One reason it’s helpful to start off with thanking your partner for coming to you is that it reminds you that they took a big risk in initiating the conversation. That makes it easier to take the big risk of asking them where things went awry.
There are two things that are important to hold onto. First, your partner might not know how to put into words what you could have done differently. If that happens, you might need to explore that. What was the moment when things shifted for you? When did you first notice that it didn’t feel right to you? What was I doing? And what could I have done that would have kept it from happening? These questions can be really hard to ask, especially since you need to do your best to set your defensiveness aside and approach them from a place of genuine curiosity. You might find it easier if you have a coach or therapist to help with that.
The other important piece is that if your partner is in a place of pain or shame, they might not have an answer to this question yet. Or they might be speaking from that hurt, which can lead them to make unreasonable demands. I find that before you get into the problem-solving, you need to turn towards the feelings and give them their room. It might take some time for them to move through their trajectory. And your partner might need to get support for their feelings from someone else first. It’s hard to hold space for painful emotions that are the result of your own actions. But until the feelings have had a chance to do their thing, it’s difficult to come up with good answers to the question of what you could have done differently.
It might take some time to find those answers, or they might come in stages. One of you might wake up the next morning and realize there’s something to add. If it’s something you’re available for, tell them that this is an open conversation and that if something else occurs to them, they’re welcome to come tell you. Even if there isn’t anything to add, knowing that you’re open to that goes a long way towards demonstrating that this was an accident because you’re showing that you’re taking responsibility for what happened.
This is what I’ll do to keep this from happening again. If there’s something you can do to learn from the experience and expand your skill set to reduce the chances of a repetition, commit to it. You might need to do some reading about how to do that sex act safely. You might need to talk with a coach or a friend to figure out what was going on for you. You might need to change your habits around alcohol and sex, or learn to have a safer sex conversation, or figure out how to talk about what a potential sexual experience means to you. Whatever you need to do, make it happen. Get the support and the learning you need to avoid this accident in the future.
Depending on the connection you have with the other person, you can ask them if they want you to let them know how that goes. In an ongoing relationship, they might want to hear about your progress. Someone you have a fling with might not. The important thing here is that you need to not ask them to perform emotional labor for you. Get your support elsewhere and offer them accountability.
Do you need anything else from me? Does this give you what you need? It’s easy to think that you’ve taken care of things, only to find that the situation feels unresolved to the person who felt hurt. If they answer with anything other than a clear yes, go back and ask them what else would help them feel complete with this. Maybe they need a more specific apology. Maybe they need to hear that you aren’t angry. Maybe they need a specific timeline for your next steps. Maybe they need some time apart to take care of their feelings.
If they don’t feel like the situation is complete but they don’t know what they need, offer them some space to figure it out. Let them know that they’re welcome to take the time they need and come back to you later. They might need to do this in stages, especially if there’s some old relationship patterns at play or if they have a history of sexual trauma. It can be hard to not have all the answers right away, but if you can sit with that discomfort, you’ll probably get much better results than if you push for an immediate resolution.
Moving Forward From A Consent Accident
The value in taking these steps is that they help heal the hurt and make it much easier to keep the pain and anger from crystallizing into resentment. Resentment is the biggest relationship killer and once it becomes habitual, it’s difficult to shift out of it. As John Gottman points out, in happy relationships, we’re good friends who sometimes annoy each other. In unhappy relationships, we become enemies. Resentment is one of the main ways we slide into enemy territory. That’s true for flings and casual partners, just as it is for ongoing relationships.
Consent accidents are going to happen. We make mistakes. We get distracted by our arousal or intoxication. We misremember or misunderstand where someone’s comfort zone is. Our preferences and desires change (and we sometimes don’t realize it until afterward). There are a lot of reasons we accidentally hurt someone. The best way to be prepared for it is to know what to do when (not if) it happens. The time to learn first aid is before someone gets hurt.
You can also reduce the odds of consent accidents happening if you use this simple framework for creating room for consent. If you start off with a solid foundation, you make it easier for your partner to tell you in the moment if something isn’t working. That gives you more room to recalibrate and reduces the chances of things going wrong. An ounce of prevention, and all that.
Sometimes, it’s hard to sort out what to do in these situations. If you don’t know where to look for information, support, or guidance, it can feel like a lot to figure out what to do on your own. As a sex and relationship coach, I work with individuals, couples, and poly groups of all genders and sexual orientations, and I’d be happy to help you find your way. I offer a free 30 minute Get Acquainted call (phone or skype), which gives us an opportunity to talk about your situation and how I can support you. I work with people from all over the world, so get in touch with me and let’s figure out how to get things moving in the right direction.