On Consent 

So what even is consent? I'm serious. It seems like an easy to understand thing, but for something so universally praised it also seems like people have a lot of different ways to approach it.
If I google what consent means, a variety of sources use this exact same basic definition. It's hard to say who's copying off of who, but this seems to be a common way of describing consent:
“Permission for something to happen, or an agreement to do something.” 
That certainly seems simple enough, but there's a lot of room to grow there. Say that you're walking home from school and a bully comes over and says “I'm going to beat the shit out of you.” You might say nothing back, give no reaction. You might make no moves to stop them either. Does that mean you're giving permission for it to happen? Absolutely not. But the bully might have taken you not engaging with the threat as you giving permission to let the consequences to happen. Which is why people have coined the term enthusiastic consent. RAINN.org defines enthusiastic consent as:
“Looking for the presence of a 'yes' rather than an absence of a 'no.'"
That's a great starting point to better understanding consent, but there are definitely still some holes in our definition. For instance, say you agree to go to a haunted house. You're consenting to walk through a spooky building while people try to scare you, but if it ends up that part of the experience is someone running out and stabbing you with a knife for real, it's hard to make the argument that you consented to that by being there. This is where the idea of informed consent comes in. You can't truly consent to something if you don't understand the scope of what it is. Oxford Languages, via Google's Dictionary feature, defines informed consent as:
“Permission granted in the knowledge of the possible consequences, typically that which is given by a patient to a doctor for treatments with full knowledge of the possible risks and side effects.”
The term is used a lot in the medical field, with the idea being that a doctor or researcher can't just tell someone “I'm going to do medicine or research on you do you consent” without explaining exactly what the risks might be. And that makes a lot of sense. Nobody else should be able to decide what happens to you without you understanding and agreeing. 
But it still feels like we're missing some aspects of consent. For instance, say someone is on a whole lot of drugs, and they go to a boxing ring, and they start asking people to punch them in the face. They could be giving permission for the action to occur, and the boxer could be saying to them that it's going to cause them serious injury and that it could even cause brain damage. If the person on drugs keeps asking and the boxer relents and punches him, did our druggie consent to that action? What about if someone has your family hostage and they tell you to cut off one of your fingers? Sure you agreed, they could tell you about the dangers of cutting off your fingers, but that doesn't mean that you actually consented to the action. Or hey, say that one time you consent to your friend staying over at your house while you're gone. Does that mean that they now have explicit access rights to come crash at your place whenever they want? 
Now we get into more complicated definitions. Indiana University, under the heading of Stop Sexual Violence, defines consent as:
“Consent is agreement or permission expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions that are mutually understandable to all parties involved, to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time.”
It also goes on to elaborate on some further stipulations that are required for consent under their definition.
This is certainly my favorite definition so far. Consent needs to be voluntary, mutually understandable, and has a timeline. This definition is about sex, but realistically should be the standard that we hold consent to no matter what. Right? 
Well, here's where things really take a turn. Consent is a system we've created based off of respect. It wasn't that long ago that people were the literal property of other people, either implicitly or explicitly, and very rarely was consent an issue at that point. As a society, we've tried to create a world where we treat others like we want to be treated, respect other people's boundaries, and make sure that we don't do things that are going to needlessly harm others. And a large part of that is consent. We care about other people's consent because we give them a base level of respect so that their desires and understandings have an effect on our actions. 
We don't, however, extend this kind of respect to animals very often. Most animal owners may talk about how they “love” their dog or cat, and how they're “part of the family.” But they're part of the family in a significantly lesser status. One where their consent matters little. And the worst part is, it's not like it's really even that hard to see the ways that animals engage with consent. 
Here's an example I love to use! If you've ever argued with me on Twitter, this might be familiar to you. Say that you visit a friend of yours, and that friend has a cat. The cat is sitting on the couch and you end up sitting next to them. You decide that you're going to give the cat a little pet. One of a few things might happen. First of all, the cat may love it. You might be a master petter, and the cat eager to receive attention, and they start purring, and maybe even roll onto their back for some belly rubs. They may make basically no reaction, just continuing to sit there through your pets, not engaging in any way. They may also decide to up and leave, deciding that your pets aren't good, or just not being comfortable enough around you to allow you to touch them. 
The last example is obviously the cat revoking consent for pets. They've clearly communicated that they do not want to be pet, and are not giving you permission.
The second example, the cat is also not giving consent. They may be allowing you to be there, and to do it, but they also aren't really that enthusiastic about it. Maybe they're sitting in a particularly nice sun spot, or they're good and comfy, and so leaving because of your pets would prove a bigger inconvenience than just waiting for you to get bored.
The first example however, they're absolutely consenting to those pets. They're engaged, they're loving it, they're asking for more.
With this scenario it's pretty easy to understand that animals are capable of giving and taking away consent. Which is why it's no shock that when I ran a poll on Twitter asking if dogs could consent to being pet, 90% of the respondents said yes.
And yet, our relationship to consent with animals stops pretty much right there. Very few people think of whether or not an animal allows them to pet them as a consent ask. Which begs the question, why don't we care about animal consent? 
I ran a total of 6 polls in the past week asking about consent, and the second one was asking whether or not a dog can consent to getting taken for a ride. Getting into a car, and being driven around for whatever reason. Maybe you're bringing your pal to the pet store to pick out a new toy, maybe you're going to a farther away park that's nicer. Whatever the reason, is that something that they can consent to. 85% of respondents said yes they can. 
Which was shocking to me, because shouldn't the answer be no? I mean, think about it. Informed consent means that there needs to be an understanding of the risks involved. Does a dog conceptually understand the ramifications of a car crash, or even the idea of going 60 miles per hour? They certainly don't. They may enjoy getting in the car, they may hang their head out the window, they may even really love the destination, but from a factual point of view they cannot consent to riding in the car. So light your torches, grab your pitchforks, let's start a campaign against these vile abusers! Down with chauffeuring dogs around! Cut tires, call dog ride givers out on social media! 
No? We aren't doing that? Fair enough. As a society, we certainly don't see driving around with man's best friend as an abusive situation. So why isn't that seen as abusive?
I also asked the fine people of Twitter whether a dog could consent to getting spayed or neutered. 83% of the voters said no. Which makes absolute sense. There may be reasons that we reduce the breeding opportunities for dogs, even if the procedure we use is harmful and outdated. But in America, somewhere between 70% and 80% of dogs undergo this process. Do you think that each family had that conversation with their pup beforehand? Showing them scissors cutting some grapes, and then moving the scissors to the dog's grapes going back and forth until they agree? Do you think they explained the long term psychological and physical repercussions of the surgery?
Of course not. That would be silly. Because when it comes to that decision consent doesn't matter. It's the wills of the humans in the scenario, regardless of what the dog wants. Like, it would actually seem even more abusive to do the scissors thing with them. But why is that? Because you're making it explicit to them what you're doing to them? Because you're informing them? Should we maybe re-examine the ethics of this thing we do to dogs that would seem obviously abusive if we communicated to the dogs we were going to do it to them? If we actually attempted to get their consent?
The next question was whether or not dogs could consent to being adopted. This one was slightly more divisive at 73% yes. But once again, I was blown away. Because of course they can't. In the worst of situations, you're taking a baby away from their mom at a very young age to be sold to a human family to marvel at. You don't have the mother's permission for that, and you especially don't have the consent of the puppy still learning to even exist. I mean really, what a horrible situation. But not all dogs are brought into families as babies, what about going to a shelter and adopting a dog? Those dogs would probably much rather live in a nice home with a nice person than in a small cramped shelter full of other dogs. And hey, when you go to the shelter you might have a dog that runs up and gives you a sniff and a wag and seems to love hanging out with you. But when you're signing those adoption papers, is the dog signing as well? They might be happy to go with you, but are they aware that you're taking them forever? For what's likely to be their entire lives? Do they like you that much, or do you think with an understanding of that they might wait for the next option? They may consent to going home with you that day, but we can't assume consent once means consent forever. 
There's no way they can consent to being adopted. Even if you love them, and treat them amazingly, by the standard definition of consent they just can't. 
Along a similar line, the next question I asked was whether or not dogs could consent to being owned. 64% of people said yes. And here's where I got really lost. Because ownership is antithetical to the concept of consent in its entirety. If a being is owned, they've lost their individual autonomy. To be a dog and to be owned is to have surgeries you don't agree to for the convenience of your owners, to be limited in when and where you can go, to have what you eat controlled, where you use the bathroom controlled. Even down to your behavior, it's something that's predicated much more by your owners training you into certain things than it is you making an actual decision. We've been through a number of these examples already, you get where I'm going with this. Dogs cannot consent to being owned. Every single pet owner is dismissing an animal's consent
I could honestly end the article there and nothing that I've said would be false. To my knowledge anyway. But I'm not going to, because even if it's not false, it's not exactly the full picture either. See, here's the thing about consent. It's complicated. It's very complicated. But it's also simple. When consent is taken as a set of strict rules, we end up in a place where we're constantly stumbling over them. Just think about it. We're flexible in our usage of consent even in human-human interactions. When I take a friend to a casino, am I violating their consent if I don't explain to them that gambling can be addictive? If I offer someone a soda am I abusing them by not giving them a waiver explaining the nutritional downsides first before they decide whether or not they want to accept it? If I have a friend who wants to go on stage and sing, and at first they decide they're too nervous but I goad them into it, have I assaulted them? They certainly weren't asking me to, especially not enthusiastically. Hell, if I install an ad blocker and YouTube circumvents it in order to keep giving me those advertisements I don't want to see, is that not a consent issue too? None of those things are abusive. And yet in their own ways all of them violate consent. And nobody is up in arms about it. Well, YouTube is a dramatic platform, maybe someone is up in arms about that one. 
And here's the frustrating part about all of this. I think consent is amazing. I think it's a very good thing that we have. I think that understanding consent is so important to existing in a functioning society where everyone has equal rights. I'm incredibly pro-consent. But that's hard when we barely even understand what consent is. 
The final question that I asked in my journey researching this was one that you've definitely heard before. Can dogs consent to sex? I'd give you the results, but at the end of the day, they don't really matter. The best definition that we had so far was:
“Consent is agreement or permission expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions that are mutually understandable to all parties involved, to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time.”
Dogs can absolutely express affirmative actions to support their interest in sex in a mutually understandable way to all parties involved. If I get on my hands and knees, and my partner decides to hop up and mount me, both of us are consenting to that action. He can be incredibly enthusiastic in that action, he can have an understanding of what it is we plan on doing. He can hit all the points of consent that serve as the barrier for human relationships. 
But that doesn't really matter either. Because when people say that animals can't consent, they don't mean that animals don't have the capacity to consent. They don't really think about consent at all. What they're really saying is that they don't like sex with animals, and they're co-opting a really important word to describe their dislike because it's more work to actually come up with a real argument. And that pisses me off, because when you say that “animals can't consent,” it pushes the pervasive social narrative that animals don't deserve to have their consent valued. If people really cared about animals consent, they'd have much bigger problems to fight than just us. And we haven't even touched on the animal farming industry, where I can assure you the consent of the animals in question is the last thing on people's minds.
Even for zoos, sex is just one very small part of the ways that we communicate with our partners. We try to value their consent in every aspect of our lives. And we hope everyone else with animals in their lives do as well.
Animals consent all the time. It's just up to whether or not you're willing to listen to them.
Article written by Tarro (January 2024) 
Questions, comments or concerns? Check out our Discord server! discord.gg/EfVTPh45RE