You can buy t-shirts that say “consent is sexy.”
And you can buy t-shirts that have the word “sexy” crossed out & replaced to read “consent is
I dislike this slogan, and the word “mandatory” doesn’t fix it for me. Yes, it’s true that respecting people’s bodily autonomy is mandatory, that it’s not just some extra added spice that makes an evening better.
But the specific wording bothers me. Because “consent” means agreement. Consent means saying yes.
According to the dictionary definitions of the words, the phrase “consent is sexy” means a sexy person would say yes.
Now, you might protest. “Nobody is going to interpret the phrase that way!”
And, sure. The intent of the phrase is to convey that “asking first is sexy,” that “respecting another person’s right to say ‘no’ is sexy,” that “cherishing your partners’ autonomy is sexy.” The word “consent” here is just a shorthand, standing in for the full script of seeking consent, & waiting to proceed until you’re certain that you have your partners’ consent, & checking in often, & being willing to stop if anyone involved doesn’t consent to what’s going on.
But using the word “consent” to mean all that is pretty ambiguous. And the whole function of the phrase – of the practice of affirmative consent – is to protect people from harms that can emerge from ambiguity.
I’ve discussed some of this previously – that, for example, different interpretations of common words & phrases can cause people to mistakenly believe that everyone involved has agreed to a proposal. If I think the phrase “make out” means kissing, and you think that “make out” means having sex, and you’d asked if I wanted to make out, then we might run into problems even after I enthusiastically consent.
I’d be approaching the situation thinking that we’ve agreed to kiss. You’d be under the belief that we’re about to have sex. That the kissing is just the first phase of what we’ll soon be tumbling through.
And, sure, I could speak up later. To say “no,” to stop things from progressing past what I thought we had agreed to. But it can feel pretty overwhelming to extricate oneself from unwanted physical intimacy after it’s already happening.
At issue, generally, is whether we respect the right of others to be the protagonists of their own stories. Whether we see the world around us as a backdrop for our own glories, or whether we’re willing to recognize that we are no more important than anyone else.
Unfortunately, modern technological developments often nudge us in the opposite direction. Away from empathy, toward self-importance. Facebook, Google, Spotify – their predictive algorithms lend the illusion that our desires reshape reality. If we like a certain sort of music, that’s what we encounter. If we hold a certain set of beliefs, then all the news we’re shown seem to agree!
Cultivating these private spheres of individual experience can make us less empathetic. We might not mean to, but our relationships with technology cause us to inadvertently deprioritize the thoughts and feelings of those around us.
In Sex Robots and Vegan Meat, Jenny Kleeman writes that:
So many of the arguments against sex robots focus on their impact on women, but the rise of the sex robot is going to affect us all. It’s not just about the objectification of women – although the robots do objectify women. It’s not only about men being given an opportunity to act out rape fantasies and misogynistic violence – although a small number may well want a sex robot for that reason.
It’s about how humanity will change when we can have relationships with robots.
When it becomes possible to own a partner who exists purely to please his or her owner, a constantly available partner without in-laws or menstrual cycles or bathroom habits or emotional baggage or independent ambitions, when it’s possible to have an ideal sexual relationship without ever having to compromise, where the pleasure of only one half of the partnership matters, surely our capacity to have mutual relationships with other people will be diminished.
When empathy is no longer a requirement of social interaction … we will all be a little less human.
The world isn’t ours to command. The world isn’t something owned. The world around us is a gift that we are permitted temporarily to borrow.
But modern technologies often inculcate a false belief in our mastery of the world around us. That our surroundings should be here to please us. A fantasy land where we fully expect our desires to be consented to – hey siri, what’s the average rainfall in Australia? Your phone isn’t too busy to look that up right now. Your phone has been patiently waiting, listening in, just hoping you’d ask for something like this!
If everything else is easy, shouldn’t sex be easy too? Why should it take so much work just to build a relationship with another human being?
For affirmative consent culture to work, everyone’s autonomy must be respected.
But women’s authority over their own selves is often discounted.
In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel discusses experiments in which cis-gendered women were shown a variety of pornographic video clips. Many of these women said that they disliked the violent scenes.
“But wait!” the researchers exclaimed. “The women’s bodies responded with physiological signs of arousal! Clearly, these women are lying!”
Angel writes that:
Women experience genital responses to all manner of stimuli, including, yes, bonobos, and including sexual threat stimuli – whether images or fantasies of rape, or actual experiences of assault. Hastily inferring from measurements of genital arousal to the truth of what women are aroused by, and even further to the truth of what they desire, is spurious.
If we care about pleasure, and if we care about consent as well as enthusiasm, then the subjective is precisely, vitally, what we should attend to. We should prioritize what women say, in all its complexity, rather than fetishizing what their bodies do in the name of a spurious scientism.
It’s an extreme form of objectification, that we might trust a physiological responses measured from a woman’s body instead of the actual words articulated by her brain.
And it’s in stark contrast to the way we typically treat disagreements between men’s brains & bodies.
Many cis-gendered men have claimed to be aroused even when their bodies’ physiological response clearly indicated that they weren’t. If somebody with a penis doesn’t have an erection, the message from their body is every bit as loud & clear – if not more – as vaginal lubrication measured in a laboratory.
But with cis-men, we trust what they say.
Angel writes that:
His subjective sense of interest in sex, despite his impotence, is taken as the truth. It is he, not his body, that speaks the truth – and we believe him.
Personhood, and its relationship to the body, is different in men and women: men are authorities on themselves, while women are not.
In a recent New York Times editorial – “You Were Duped into Saying Yes. Is That Still Consent?” – Roseanna Sommers explores the way harm can be conveyed backward through time, almost like the way quantum entanglement causes information to leap into the past.
Sommers proposes a situation with limited physical danger: a man claiming to be romantically available in order to have sex with a woman who’d say “no” if she knew that he was monogamously attached.
And it’s a nebulous situation – the New York Times received many aggrieved letters to the editor after printing this column – because the shared touch seemed desirable, and only became unwanted later (or perhaps never) when more information was unveiled.
Two people had sex, perhaps enjoyed it, and went their separate ways. If the woman never heard another word about her partner, she might remember the experience fondly. But if she learned that he was married at the time, she’d feel betrayed. The remembrance shifts. Now, upon recollecting an event that happened fully in the past, she might feel violated.
Mental harm is real, and it matters. But perhaps these issues of trust seem simpler when it comes to STI status – in that case, lying before sex is also a physical threat. A physical assault.
Whether the risk is borne by a person’s mind or body, though, the underlying issue is the same – do we respect our potential partners as autonomous individuals, or not?
Affirmative consent requires mutual trust. A space where an invitation can be earnestly extended without threat of reprisal, and where an answer can be freely given & respected.
But I had never considered what we, as loving, sexual people, might lose in a world where the only way to feel safe from unwanted touch is to unambiguously state our desires in advance.
In Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown questions, “Is it possible for the world to be as sexy if there’s consent and permission and openness about our deepest desires, if we truly bring our nakedness into the light?”
“I don’t know. I still love touching into the forbidden places – partially because they are forbidden. I know for sure that part of this is conditioning, being raised in a culture of repression, sex shaming, patriarchy, and danger. But it’s also how my desire is wired, even after decades of therapy and somatics.”
In an essay on unwanted touch, Melissa Febos describes her experiences at a “cuddle party.” The rules for this event, articulated forcefully in advance, were that “If you’re a yes, say YES. If you’re a no, say NO. If you’re a maybe, say NO.”
But “maybe” is an important psychological space. As the protagonists of our own stories, we will grow and change. What we want may not be a static thing. Part of the pleasure of being alive is that we tentatively approach our own selves – our knowledge of ourselves – throughout our journeys.
“Maybe” is a way of being, and of learning, that we risk excluding people from if we prioritize an aggressive or sexually-dominant partner’s need to hear an unambiguous “no” in order to refrain from causing harm.
In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel explains this deftly:
It’s tempting to insist that women are themselves the authority on their desires; that they categorically know what they want. But is anyone an authority on themselves, whether on their sexuality or anything else?
I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that insisting so gets us very far. Women are not the authority on themselves – not because they, unlike men, have difficulty detecting their ‘true’ desires, but because no one, perhaps especially when it comes to sex, is an authority on themselves.
And why should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?
The negotiation of imbalances in power between men and women, between all of us, occurs minute by minute, second by second. And there is no realm, whether sexual or otherwise, in which that act of negotiation is no longer necessary.
Whatever we do, in sex and elsewhere, we calibrate our desires with those of the other, and try to understand what it is that we want.
But we don’t simply work out what we want and then act on that knowledge. Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over.
The joy may lie in it never being done.
header image by Cynthia Zhang for The Daily Northwestern