The Real Problem With The Tea-Consent Metaphor

By Elizabeth King

Over the last week, there has been quite a bit of buzz about the tea/sexual consent metaphor that first appeared in early March on the blog Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess. The title of the piece is “Consent: not actually that complicated.” The piece is being called “the most perfect” and a “brilliant” sexual consent metaphor. While I couldn’t possibly agree more that consent is needed for sex, I’m troubled by the idea that it is as simple as offering tea. While it’s wonderful to see the idea of consent represented as the incredibly simple concept it is, the tea metaphor doesn’t actually pan out so well when we look a bit closer at it.

The tea metaphor for consent goes like this: Treat asking for sex like asking someone if they would like tea. If the reply is enthusiastic and the other person tells you how damn thirsty they are that all they want is tea, tea, tea, go ahead and brew a pot. If they say no, thanks, they don’t want any tea with you, cool the kettle and back off. The same should go for sex: If you explicitly ask someone if they’re DTF and they proceed to drool and say “Hell yes!” you’re safe to proceed and continue checking in throughout the experience. If they say no, just drop it and move on. They don’t want to go there with you and that’s fine, but you have to accept that answer and let it be. Nice and simple the point gets across. But is this the right point to make?

A particularly celebrated message from this piece was that you would never make tea for an unconscious person because that just doesn’t make any sense; the blog calls it “ludicrous.” And this is where I think the metaphor starts to fall apart in a way that demands our attention.

Consent is not about what “makes sense,” or what seems logical. It is not about whether or not something seems “ludicrous” or silly. Consent is about the equal distribution of power across multiple parties. Proceeding without consent isn’t illogical—it’s a violent violation. Bringing tea into this conversation, well, waters down the concept of consent, and as a result what consent really is, and why it’s the most important thing about sex.

Asking for consent is choice to another person; it is the recognition that a person is independent from what you want from them, and that their level of comfort will dictate the possibilities of the situation. It is also a guarantee that nobody will be violated or forcefully denied their autonomy.

This is what consent is about. It isn’t about whether something “makes sense” the way making tea for an unconscious person does not. It is about an equal distribution of power.

I think we also need to call attention to the fact that making tea for someone who doesn’t want any has virtually zero consequences. Certainly trying to get a sleeping person to drink hot tea could cause some burning, but it is not a violation. It is not the same as disregarding someone’s humanity and right to physical safety. Obnoxious and a little weird? Yes. The same as rape? Definitely not.

We also need to remind ourselves that sex is unlike tea in the sense that it is not something that one person creates and serves to another person. The request for sex could be more one-sided like a tea party invite, but sex is, thank goodness, nothing like a cup of tea.

Sex is an activity shared by two (or maybe more! you do you, group-sex folks) people, where there is creativity, mutual input, and many opportunities within a single scenario to share, play, and have a great time. I don’t even think the consenting tea-drinkers in the original piece drink it together!

So when we’re talking tea, we’re not only losing the core of why consent is important, but we’re making consensual sex sound a lot less fun than I know it to be. We’re also ignoring the weight of the consequences for proceeding without consent. Let’s be real: Someone insisting that you drink tea with them is odd and annoying, but it’s not a violent and traumatizing event.

I appreciate metaphors and analogies, and in general find them to be one of the best ways I learn something new. However, I think we risk a lot when we veer away from anything other than a straightforward mandate when it comes to sexual consent. We used to hear “no means no,” but that is clearly problematic when it comes to situations where someone is intoxicated, or otherwise unable to give true consent.

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