Guest Post: Enthusiastic consent in multiple contexts

Before I got out of bed this morning, I was already furious at a brand. Hoping to feel productive without putting my feet on the floor, I decided to spend some time unsubscribing from e-mails that no longer interest me (or never did). 

Mercifully, the majority of unsubscribes are a one-click affair these days, but there are still brands who require additional nonsense, just to ensure that by the time you unsubscribe, you are actively hostile toward the company, their products, and their children’s children. For instance: 

  • “Enter your e-mail to unsubscribe”—as if I automatically know which of the fifteen addresses that all forward to my main account found its way onto your mailing list. I just used your link to click away from my mail, and now I have to go back there to check? Drop dead. 
  • The endless list of newsletters I must reject individually, lest I forsake a rare and precious opportunity to receive some very specific future correspondence. Brand, I hereby offer you eternal and unequivocal absolution for not e-mailing me, ever, about anything. If I miss a sale someday, that’s on me.
  • The “Sorry to see you go!” e-mail in response to my saying, “Please send no more emails.” 
  • The one-click unsubscribe (good) that takes you to a page with a sneaky “Resubscribe” button, exactly where other brands require a second click to unsubscribe. 

Listen, even allowing for the possibility of an accidental unsubscribe, nobody—n o b o d y—cares enough about your emails to require an “undo” option. The immediate resubscribe gambit is as pointless as it is shady, since it exists solely to “retain” customers who just told you they don’t want your stuff. Why? 

The brand that made a permanent enemy of me today required completion of three separate quests to earn release from their mailing list. 

  1. Select a reason from a drop-down menu (which did not even offer “This page right here; this is why” as an option).
  2. Enter my e-mail address. (Hmph.) 

Spam is not my area of expertise, except insofar as I’ve been married to Al Iverson for a long time, and he can get pretty loud on work calls. But I have written an entire book on rape culture and lectured widely on consent, which is highly relevant here. 

Specifically, we need to talk about enthusiastic consent. 

As psychologist Lisa Damour puts it in this short video, “Consent is a very low bar.” In email as in sex, consent separates the legal from the illegal, the allowable from the unwanted—but on its own, it doesn’t tell you whether the person you’re connecting with will ever want to see you again. The absence of “no” is the bare minimum standard. The presence of “yes, I want this” is what creates a good experience for everyone involved.

Damour’s telling you how to talk to your teens about sex, but she could as easily be telling you how to talk to your marketing department about deliverability. “Permission to go ahead” is “not the standard we want to be setting.” 

The vast majority of brands I unsubscribed from this morning had my permission, whether because I actively sought out their marketing e-mails (2%) or bought something from them and forgot to unclick the “Go ahead and e-mail me” box (98%). What they didn’t have was my enthusiastic engagement with those e-mails, for all the usual drop-down reasons: I don’t remember signing up for this; I am no longer interested; you send too many damn e-mails and never seem to notice that I don’t open them, much less click through. 

A lukewarm opt-in clears the consent bar, but open rates and click-through are the measures of enthusiastic consent—i.e., real customers saying, “Yes! I want you!” People who never look past the subject line are just not that into you, and you know it. Release them as painlessly as possible and give yourself the gift of focusing your list on people who actually want what you’re selling. 

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