Consent is sexy

Alternative title: “I’ll want to have sex with you more if you want to have sex with me enthusiastically as well” – AKA “If you don’t want to have sex with me that’s fine but I won’t try and have sex with you anyway, because that would make me a rapist”.

Consent is very sexy indeed. I happened across consentissexy.org a while ago and not only do I mostly love it, but it also gave me some food for thought. A lot of recent discourse around consent has – for me, at least – been around Julian Assange and his sexual conduct. Consequently, I’ve been reading loads of information and blogs on the subject of consent and I think broadly, the ‘model’ of consent I would go with is that of enthusiastic consent. (There are of course, limitations and some odd situations where it might not apply – I think it’s a good one to keep in mind though)

Enthusiastic consent is basically, I suppose, a way of figuring out if you’re really doing the right thing – are they ‘into’ it in the same way as you? Is their body language a bit off? Are they looking upset or a bit nervous? Ask them if they’re okay. That’s it. Just think to yourself: how is that person feeling? It’s just a check, to make sure that everyone is enthusiastic about what’s happening. I think if everyone followed this honestly, it would help to clear up and perhaps prevent some horrible situations.

I had a whole raft of posts in my browser for ages because, um, I think collectively they explain it better than I could.

It’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that they don’t like the answer – a lot of rape apologism/’misunderstanding’ is around this idea that consent is somehow difficult to understand. You don’t sign a piece of paper, or explicitly say “ok, let’s DO THIS” (Well, you might do…!) but this article talks about research that shows that ‘no’ is very discouraged in our society, and that when it comes to anything, we all hesitate to say a straight-forward no. Rejections are couched in “I like you but”s, or “I would LOVE to but I’m busy then”. We all understand rejections in other social contexts, so why not sexually?

Not saying no is a very, very long way from saying yes – this kind of follows on from the first one. It asks, why are people so reluctant to say no, and why do people think that if someone doesn’t explicitly say no, then it’s an automatic yes? Not saying no is not the same as saying yes!

The (non-existent) terrible, horrible, no good, very bad consequences of enthusiastic consent – this discusses enthusiastic consent in more detail.

Under Duress: Agency, power & consent (part one: “no”) – this discusses consent and the power of ‘no’ more clearly.

Consent is not a light-switch – this is interesting. Consent to one act is not necessarily consent to another. That’s really important. Consent is an ongoing state depending on your interaction at that time. You cannot consent to something later when you are asleep, and it shouldn’t be assumed that because you have consented to one thing, that you consent to anything else.

The only thing I have left to add is a fantastic comment at the end of the consent blog at I Blame The Patriarchy, which is the best analogy of consent, I think:

Nobody asks their friend ‘Want to play tennis?’ then when Friend says ‘I would LOVE to, you know I love playing with you – but I am really tired and I have this thing I have to do really early,’ shows up at 6pm on the court expecting to see their friend. Nor do they just start serving balls at their friend’s face.

Sometimes consent is difficult. It’s not a magical on-off switch, and no one is really going to explicitly ‘give’ you it. You just need to figure out where the other person is comfortable (ie at what level of interaction), which requires ongoing communication and awareness of their responses, even in body language etc. It’s kinda hard at first maybe, but, y’know, consent is definitely sexy.

About A Girl
Mostly writes on Half The World Is Watching. She is interested in and writes about feminist issues, politics and activism. An 80s child at heart, she loves old things, computer games, and keeping up with the development of social media.

15 Responses to Consent is sexy

  1. hellhathfrozenover says:

    Actually in ‘Merica, according to the FBI’s new definition of rape if the woman has been drinking or using drugs she is unable to give consent and any sexual contact by the male legally binds him as a rapist (even if they have both been using). Also there is no wording in the definition for forced penile insertion, so even if an adult woman forces her self on an underage boy HE is the rapist. Also woman can and do reverse their consent after the fact and accuse the male of rape (got drunk with her and had what you thought was “consensual” sex because she inserted you into her but she later regretted that “drunken” hookup makes him a rapists,didn’t want your husband to know your office fling was “consensual” then cry rape and watch your responsibility fly out the window as his life is ruined by the accusation.

  2. John Walsh says:

    Thanks for the positive comment on our campaign Consent is Sexy. We’ve just added a new poster on porn – which has quickly attracted some interesting comment … see http://www.consentissexy.net/poster-13/?gktab=3
    Re the comment from hellhathfrozenover : high false rape incidence is a rape myth. False rape statistics are wrongly inflated when authorities include those cases which are dropped as a result of lacking evidence or being decided by authorities to be “unfounded” simply because there’s not enough evidence to prosecute.

  3. Lisa says:

    Consent is “sexy” in the same way as not punching your lover in the face is “sexy”.

    Non-consent is both everyday and horrific, is the way I’d put it. But consent being “sexy”? The true and honest practice of consent (rather than the “getting a ‘yes’ / dodging a ‘no'” game played by many men who have adapted their tactics of violation to an era which pays lip service to “no means no”) is a good practice, yes, but not a sexy one. It’s past time we stopped equating “good” with “sexy”. Sexy isn’t good. Sexy is sexy. A genuine desire for consent is what a lover needs in order to not be a monster, not in order to be sexy.

    If “not a monster” is the best you’ve seen, I guess it does look sexy. But that makes me very sad.

  4. John Walsh says:

    Lisa, I empathize with your comments.

    And, it would be great to live in a world in which we only needed to promote consent as the ‘right’ or ‘good’ thing to do.

    But do we live in that world ?

    We have found that a more sex-positive, more effective way to promote consent is as a practice with positive benefits for everyone. Which is the truth, of course.

    The Consent is Sexy campaign promotes sexual consent as a ‘good’ practice AND a sexy one.
    They don’t exclude each other.
    Our message is: consensual sex is better sex than non-consensual sex.
    Consensual sex is sexier sex than non-consensual sex.
    For the simple reason that consensual sex is enthusiastic sex wanted by both partners.
    (Most people agree that enthusiastic sex is sexy.)

    This is the simple idea that we want to make popular – to help shift attitudes and behavior.

    Soph, many thanks for the mention, but our website is http://www.consentissexy.net … not .org

  5. Lisa says:

    I don’t find consent sexy. I find it, “so what?” That’s great that someone’s started practicing consent. Now let’s see if I find anything sexy about them now they’ve stopped being a sexual predator.

    • John Walsh says:

      Consent is a “so what’ issue when it hasn’t been taken away from you – which is the reality for too many women.

      • Lisa says:

        I’m aware of the scale of the problem with sexually predatory behaviour and rape. I’m sorry for any confusion in my use of the phrase “so what”. I meant that the amount of sexiness in consent is “so what”, not that the practice of consensuality itself is “so what”. Rape and sexual assault are perpetrated on a grand scale. An individual choosing not to perpetrate rape or sexual assault does not make them sexy in my eyes. “I’m not a rapist!” *waggles eyebrows* “Um… so what?”

  6. John Walsh says:

    “An individual choosing not to perpetrate rape or sexual assault does not make them sexy in my eyes. “I’m not a rapist!” *waggles eyebrows* “Um… so what?”“

    Choosing not to rape or assault is NOT the same as asking for consent.
    Declaring, “I’m not a rapist!” is NOT asking for consent.

    Asking for and receiving consent provides the clearest confirmation of mutual desire – which is the essential foundation for ‘good’ or ‘sexy’ sex.
    Whatever that may mean for both partners.

    This is the deeper or more profound meaning of ‘consent is sexy’.

    • Lisa says:

      Again, I agree with you that a genuine, far-reaching, well-informed feminist practice of consensuality is essential in sex, and that’s the kind of practice I’m fighting for. It should be the normal practice. It should be what everyone does. Every time someone doesn’t do it, that’s horrific. Because not doing it is standard, horror is standard. That doesn’t mean that doing it is sexy. Doing it is just something that needs to be sorted out so that sexy can happen.

      I do understand what you’re trying to do. You want to criticise with the culture of eroticising non-consent (I agree with fighting this, it’s evil) and to replace it with a culture of eroticising consent. But I want to fight the culture of eroticising, and the standards that say that for something to be desirable, it must be erotic, and that if something is not erotic, it is not desirable.

      Sex sells and “consent is sexy” sells consent. But I want us to stop using sex to sell. I want people to want to practice consensuality because they don’t want to be an awful human being, not as a sex aide.

      Sadly, I think you’ll get further with your approach than I will with mine. But I wonder where we’ll be as a society if you get there, and if we’ll be cursing ourselves for having solved the problem in a way which only shores up a greater issue.

      • John Walsh says:

        I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree, Lisa.

        I don’t see the message consent is sexy as some “sad” strategy to “sell” consent.
        I see it as a statement of fact.

        Consensual sex – by definition – is sex enthusiastically and mutually desired by both partners.
        If mutual consent is the first condition for good or ‘sexy’ sex … is it unreasonable to say ‘consent is sexy’ ?
        Is it the only reason to practice consent ? No. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

        I’m not sure how ‘consent is sexy’ is eroticizing consent, as you suggest.
        Isn’t the asking/giving of sexual consent already erotic ? We are talking about sex, after all.
        And because we’re talking about sex, isn’t the use of ‘sexy’ entirely appropriate ?
        ‘Sexy’ is not something stuck onto sexual consent to make it more titillating – it’s intrinsic and inseparable from sexual consent.
        Is ‘sexy’ even a possibility without consent ?

        You wonder that if our approach works, we might “be cursing ourselves for solving a problem (sexual assault and rape) in a way which only shores up a greater issue.”
        So, as the result of ‘consent is sexy’ … another problem will emerge that is greater than the problem of sexual assault and rape ?

        I just can’t imagine what that might be.

      • Lisa says:

        John, I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of you walking away from this conversation without even understanding the risk of your approach. I think that you think that my objection is semantic.

        another problem will emerge that is greater than the problem of sexual assault and rape ? I just can’t imagine what that might be.

        First, you’ve misunderstood or misrepresented what I said. I don’t believe that “consent is sexy” will end sexual assault and rape. If I did, I’d endorse it in a heartbeat. I believe that, to the extent that “consent is sexy” is successful, men will shift their tactics of sexual assault and rape to accommodate it. It’s like pushing a bubble around under plastic. Sooner or later you have to lance it.

        The shift which I and other feminists anticipate – and not just anticipate, observe – is that the sex object of the “non-consenting woman” (who is eroticised in this society) is replaced with the sex object of the “consenting woman”. Women know that our survival in a patriarchy is tied to being what the men want us to be. The difference between being a non-consenting woman, and men assaulting us, and feeling forced to be a “consenting” woman, and men assaulting us, is that in the latter case they demand that we smile while they do it. In other words, they also want our soul. And when they’re challenged, they have the perfect defence: “She said [male dominance made her say] yes.”

        We’ve already seen this starting to happen. Of course, all the old attitudes like “take her regardless” are still there. But when feminists said, “no means no”, we started to see men playing the game of, “whatever you do, don’t give her a chance to say ‘no'”. And when we said, “yes means yes”, men started playing the game of “getting the yes”. Getting. The PUA (so-called pick-up artist) culture is a great example of this, because they have a huge array of tactics in their arsenal for doing things like what they call “overcoming last-minute resistance”, how to get a ‘yes’ after twenty ‘no’s.

        All of these perversions of consent practice are possible because of power. I’m talking here about systematic male power, but there are other forms, and where those other forms are in play we also see abuse. When are we going to tackle the problem, which is the power?

        The alternative to “consent is sexy” is that we start, as a society, to work on how erotic feelings can even arise in a situation of extreme power imbalance. Is power imbalance innately erotic? Or is that something which has been socially constructed by millennia of male dominance and white supremacy? Radical lesbian feminists say the latter.

        Why is power imbalance not innately unerotic? How come our society recognises that a legal contract can’t be formed under duress, but the duress of male dominance doesn’t impact on the way we should think about consent? Radical feminists say that it is because our patriarchal culture does not recognise abuse to women as abuse but as everyday use of women.

        A genuine, comprehensive, deep practice of consent can help to construct a condition of profound equality in which non-hierarchical sexual desire can arise. But we mustn’t fetishise the process of consent because we don’t need more fetish objects. The consent is not sexy. The woman consenting is not sexy. The man who practices consent is not sexy, though if he doesn’t, he is a monster.

        It’s possible that you are mixing up conditions of equal power as a state and consent as a practice. Under conditions of unequal power, consent is a messy fix for the presence of that power. It purports to say, “I will subordinate my excess power to your word” but the extent of that excess power is usually unacknowledged (I would say: deliberately so), such as its ability to coerce a “yes”. A better fix is to dismantle the situation of unequal power.

        If we ever begin to make inroads on eroticisiation of power imbalance, I hope that the practice of consent can be dismantled like a scaffolding no longer needed when the building is repaired. Let’s remember that the building is ruined, we are living in ruins, the sky is open, we are drowning and dying and that we need the scaffolding but it is not sexy it is simply necessary.

  7. Lisa says:

    If we’re still not making progress after this, maybe I can just refer you to work by Sheila Jeffreys such as The Lesbian Heresy and/or Anticlimax. I can’t recommend every part of both books, in particular she doesn’t speak for transsexual people and I reject her speech about us. But on the function of the sexual revolution and its “consent is sexy” flavour to increase access to women, I think Jeffreys puts it most directly. There’s also my work on consent, part one of which is referenced in the above article with part two available here, and also work on the words “prude”, “sex-negative” and the situation of radical feminism and sex-positive feminism with regard to moralism and compulsory sexuality.

    • Lisa says:

      And finally, because it’s good to end on a note of agreement, I do like a fair bit of the content of the posters on your site. I’m glad to see porn being questioned (though I’d be much more critical) and I think you’re approaching consent from several important angles.

      I think that mostly I agree with the messages to the extent that they’re more complex than / different to “consent is sexy”, which is why I’m uncomfortable with that as an umbrella for all the messages and as something picked out above the others.

      But lots of it is good, imo.

      • John Walsh says:

        Lisa, thank you for your response.

        Re: “walking away without understanding the risk of your approach.” I understand that when we need to communicate with our audience we need to work with what prevails, what is understood, and to be realistic about what we can achieve. The slogan ‘Consent is Sexy’ grabs our audience’s attention and quickly conveys a simple, positive message. As you have observed, the slogan does not exist in isolation, but sits in a context of more complex, nuanced messages. Our campaign is continually tested with students and consistently achieves high approval ratings, in a wide range of student communities: from colleges in the provinces of Mozambique (in Portuguese); to urban colleges in the United States.

        Re: your hope that “the practice of consent can be dismantled like a scaffolding” once equality has been achieved: the practice of consent, whether spoken or sensitively intuited, can never be transcended and dropped, regardless of the level of equality achieved. Because equality in relationship is a dynamic process – never settled or static – the act of seeking consent is never finished with. In a respectful relationship, consent will always play a vital role – whether it’s about sex or anything else of mutual concern.

        I would only add that we have never claimed that the Consent is Sexy campaign will END sexual assault and rape. That would be naive. But we do claim that the incidence of date rape on college campuses – which is the focus of this campaign – will not be reduced unless a culture of consent is encouraged, popularized and practiced. We need to continue to seek clarity on the issue of sexual consent (not always easy because we are all subject to our own social conditioning); and we need to look at the role of men in the larger cycle of abuse; but also at the role of women. This larger cycle of abuse is co-created by all of us – and if we are to reach equality the responsibility for change needs to be shared by all of us.

      • johnadlib says:

        Hi Lisa, you’ve indicated above that you would be ‘much more critical’ of the Consent is Sexy campaign’s approach to porn. We’re interested in what exactly would be your message to students? We’re always open to improving the content of the campaign. You can find the poster at http://www.consentissexy.net/poster-13/?gktab=3 Thanks for your interest.

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