Consent doesn’t have to be enthusiastic

The concept of consent has been in the news recently with the Assange case, Galloway and Akin comments.  In the West, most rape is perpetrated under conditions of pre-existing relationships, and most issues over the justification for a rape being perpetrated tend to come from the conditions under which a woman consents to sexual intercourse.

McKinnon famously stated that

“In a patriarchial society, all heterosexual intercourse is rape because women as a group are not strong enough to give meaningful consent”

Catherine McKinnon, Professing Feminism

In an earlier blogpost, I looked at some of the social narratives which reduce women’s ability to withhold consent for sexual intercourse.  Rape culture, legal structures and the all-seeing eye of patriarchy conspire to place women in situations in which the refusal to give sexual consent when requested is undermined.   Under certain conditions the request for sexual engagement can rely on those structures to obtain consent where none would have been given had the choice been a free one.

Most sexual encounters don’t involve explicit verbal agreement.  Thats not to say that they shouldn’t but in practice, most don’t. This is especially true in the context of an established sexual relationship, where you have a degree of familiarity with the boundaries and non-verbal responses of your partner.   It is in response to this that the concept of enthusiastic consent has been developed to to explore at what point consent becomes valid.  Lisa Millbank discusses consent both from the position of no, and the position of yes while there is an  guide to consent over on ScarletTeen, which talks both about verbal and non-verbal consent, but the assumption made in the Scarleteen post is that sexual interaction is about desire

Sex that people really want and fully participate in does not tend to be a whatever or something we need to be dragged into. When we have strong sexual feelings and want and feel ready to put those feelings into action in some way, we experience that as a strong desire, much like we can feel when we’re hungry and smell our favorite meal cooking.

But sexual consent isn’t exclusively about sexual desire.  Thats the simplest form of consent, and the easiest to give.  The boundaries are defined by what each partner actively desires, and fortuitously the other person(s) desires complimentary activities.   But just because enthusiastic consent is a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate other forms of consent.  In many cases  there is a mismatch between the sexual desires of each participant, there is no enthusiasm on behalf of one party for the desired behaviour of the other.  Consent is a rational decision, not based on pure desire, but on the interaction of sexual desire with mindful decision making. Desire alone is insufficient.

What then does non-enthusiastic consent look like and can it be valid.

Bodily trauma, such as childbirth, surgery, severe injury and violence, both sexual and physical can lead to a nervousness around corporal engagement.  The anticipation of pain or discomfort both physical and emotional puts enthusiasm in terms of “really wanting and fully participating in” beyond reach. External factors beyond the limits of the individual encounter makes the participation limited and the wanting conditional.  In such a case the consent can hardly be described as enthusiastic, but regardless a rational decision to engage has been made and to deny the validity of the consent in such an instance is to deny the rational aspect of decision making.

In other situations, where there are no such external factors which pre-limit sexual desire, the absence of desire again need not negate consent.  Within relationships, romantic or social, sexual favours may be requested and granted through altruism.  This is not to confuse such altruism with social pressure to grant such requests, but an appreciation that a lack of sexual desire does not necessarily equate to a lack of consent.  Within the asexual community in particular, the implications of enthusiastic consent risk infantalising those who experience no desire, but choose regardless to engage in sexual activity.

Wrapping consent together with enthusiasm is the flip side of social pressure brought to bear on wo/men to engage in sexual activity on request.  It is demanding that sexual intercourse can only take place for reasons of desire, rather than rationality, and by implication that sexual desire is sufficient for consent. Consent is separate from desire, and just as there may be desire without consent, there may be consent without desire.

Rather than enthusiastic consent, what we should be aiming for is meaningful consent.  Consent which is aware of power structures which strip women of their ability to withold it, yet which is freely sought and obtained, regardless of the desire or otherwise. Consent which is meaningful is not contingent on the enthusiasm or otherwise of the parties involved, because it is only rationality which can see through the power structures which would deny women’s lack of ability to consent, and it is only rationality that can strengthen their power to challenge it.

 

 

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11 comments
domfox
domfox

I like the turn here to rational autonomy, but I'm a bit troubled by the way you talk about altruism - I find I want to distinguish between altruistic and self-negating behaviour. Something like this: altruism means serving someone else's interests without requiring that my own interests are also served; self-negation means acting against my own interests in the interest of another. Having sex you don't want because someone else wants it seems at best borderline self-negating. Sexism reckons the cost of women's sacrificing their own interests in sex to be low, because it doesn't recognise those interests as having any intrinsic value. Men's interests are afforded a much higher status: it would generally be seen as insulting to suggest to a man that he should "put out" when he didn't feel like it in order to keep someone else happy. (A male friend of mine was once berated by someone in a pick-up joint for politely refusing to have sex with a much older man for money - why not, if it'll make him happy and get you some cash? You think you're too good for him or something? Don't be selfish and uptight! The story stays in my mind because it's such a vivid reversal of the usual script, although the age-difference - my friend would have been in his late teens - perhaps stands in for the usual gendered power-differential). I think some people find it easier than others to think of "sexual favours" as potentially neutral acts, such that one might perform them for another person without one's sense of one's own bodily well-being being significantly at stake. If you feel that way, you perhaps won't need "enthusiasm" to tip the scales, and might be more comfortable about "using" sex in pursuit of other interests (whether selfishly or altruistically). A lot of arguments on the left about things like sex work seem to be arguments between people who do feel that way, or can imagine feeling that way, and people who really, really don't and can't.

domfox
domfox

I like the turn here to rational autonomy, but I'm a bit troubled by the way you talk about altruism - I find I want to distinguish between altruistic and self-negating behaviour. Something like this: altruism means serving someone else's interests without requiring that my own interests are also served; self-negation means acting against my own interests in the interest of another. Having sex you don't want because someone else wants it seems at best borderline self-negating. Sexism reckons the cost of women's sacrificing their own interests in sex to be low, because it doesn't recognise those interests as having any intrinsic value. Men's interests are afforded a much higher status: it would generally be seen as insulting to suggest to a man that he should "put out" when he didn't feel like it in order to keep someone else happy. (A male friend of mine was once berated by someone in a pick-up joint for politely refusing to have sex with a much older man for money - why not, if it'll make him happy and get you some cash? You think you're too good for him or something? Don't be selfish and uptight! The story stays in my mind because it's such a vivid reversal of the usual script, although the age-difference - my friend would have been in his late teens - perhaps stands in for the usual gendered power-differential). I think some people find it easier than others to think of "sexual favours" as potentially neutral acts, such that one might perform them for another person without one's sense of one's own bodily well-being being significantly at stake. If you feel that way, you perhaps won't need "enthusiasm" to tip the scales, and might be more comfortable about "using" sex in pursuit of other interests (whether selfishly or altruistically). A lot of arguments on the left about things like sex work seem to be arguments between people who do feel that way, or can imagine feeling that way, and people who really, really don't and can't.

Heather Downs
Heather Downs

Ah, the left and rape For some months, I have been engaged in this (and related) debate on the letters page of the Weekly Worker. This exchange has included a participant disclosing that he had been accused of rape. He described his accuser as 'a feminist'. Another writer defended Raoul Moat. The Assange related content has been predictably horrendous. Rebecca Mott describes punters leaving their socialist papers and leaflets. I conclude from this that many left wing men have a direct personal interest in resisting any progress on this issue. I really want to believe I'm wrong.

NickD
NickD

Interesting writing. I hadn't read this when I posted yesterday on the dangers of an approach to consent based purely on a kind of legalistic transaction. Obviously, discourse around this has been developed to a much more serious degree in feminist thought, but it's depressing how little it seems to have crossed over to the left as represented by the likes of SU. I wonder how much of this is the responsibility of feminists though from closing themselves off from certain channels of discourse and retreating to academic or private circles. Perhaps that is a cliched suggestion - or perhaps I'm plain wrong - but my impression has been, when I've encountered feminist thought / gender theory among circles of friends and acquaintances, or when I've stumbled on blogs like this, how far advanced the discourse is in these circles compared to more public forums. These issues should be being debated on Cif.

admin
admin

I think its down to how people use the term "enthusiastic consent". Its almost always framed in the context of sexual desire, but consent need not take place in that context. Consider for example the medical rape of women seeking abortions in Texas. There are women who meaningfully consent to being penetrated while pregnant for medical reasons, in that having made a rational choice, they choose to be penetrated, but it cant be described as "enthusiastic" under the common meaning of the tem. Contrast this with women who are pressurised into consenting to penetration because they are told that they cannot obtain nessecary medical intervention without consenting to that penetration. Neither are enthusiastic, one is meaningful, the other is not.

Keith Fyans
Keith Fyans

I feel that we have different understanding on what is meant by "enthusiastic consent". To me it is simply the idea that there is more to consent than simply "no means no", and that while these different exchanges will have different ways in which to re/act (like any interaction), they all have the common feature of saying that one party does not want to undertake a certain activity at that time and this request should be respected. Enthusiastic consent as I understand it also makes no comment upon a person's reason to consent beyond it being their choice, that the person is not subject to any unreasonable pressures to give this consent, and that consent was ascertained to have been given. With this as my outlook I am exceptionally wary of "non-enthusiastic consent" as a term. Without enthusiastic consent how can the other person know that consent has been given? For me enthusiastic consent *is* the meaningful consent you are talking about.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@domfox  I think both altruism and self-negation can come into play, the line between them is blurry and you are right, sexism complicates the interaction.   In the example you give there is no prior relationship, nor assumed ongoing one, however within a pre-existing relationship, consent to sexual activity in the context of a lack of desire can be granted through a desire for other features, such as generalised intimacy which is enhanced.

The generalised pressure on women to consent - which the whole "consent is sexy" narrative can be damaging.  It suggests that a woman who withholds consent is not "sexy", yet an appreciation that consent can be granted out of rational agency rather than merely physical desire, and its converse that even in the case where there is physical desire, consent can still be denied promotes women as rational agents with bodily autonomy, particularly - as you talk of - in the area of financially compensated consent and leads us to a more nuanced approach to the sex industry, rather than imposing a narrative that if "consent is sexy", women who consent must by definition have sexual desire, in many cases that is simply untrue, but does not negate the decision that they have made.


mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

domfox  I think both altruism and self-negation can come into play, the line between them is blurry and you are right, sexism complicates the interaction.   In the example you give there is no prior relationship, nor assumed ongoing one, however within a pre-existing relationship, consent to sexual activity in the context of a lack of desire can be granted through a desire for other features, such as generalised intimacy which is enhanced. The generalised pressure on women to consent - which the whole "consent is sexy" narrative can be damaging.  It suggests that a woman who withholds consent is not "sexy", yet an appreciation that consent can be granted out of rational agency rather than merely physical desire, and its converse that even in the case where there is physical desire, consent can still be denied promotes women as rational agents with bodily autonomy, particularly - as you talk of - in the area of financially compensated consent and leads us to a more nuanced approach to the sex industry, rather than imposing a narrative that if "consent is sexy", women who consent must by definition have sexual desire, in many cases that is simply untrue, but does not negate the decision that they have made.

admin
admin

"the responsibility of feminists though from closing themselves off from certain channels of discourse and retreating to academic or private circles" Funny you should mention SU. Socialist Unity have banned me because they want to protect their creepy rapey commentators. Its not the feminists close themselves off, its that men on the left exclude them, either by outright bans, intimidation or even on occasion threats, including sexual threats. http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/09/07/socialist-unity-cesspit-of-the-left/

NickD
NickD

SU banning you would be incomprehensible were this kind of behaviour not so depressingly common on the left. However, the narrative of men excluding or intimidating feminists as the only cause of discourse about these issues taking place outside the public sphere strikes me, if you'll pardon my bluntness, as a bit glib. I don't doubt that what you say is one of the main causes of these issues being marginalised. But from my exposure to contemporary feminism it sometimes seems that there's a reluctance to dirty up the ideology by exposing it to critique. I see similarities in this respect to the way you were shut down by people crying "imperialist" at you, but from the other angle. In the last ten years I've tended to dip in and out of radical left politics and wondered why certain ideas have not permeated the mainstream when other, equally forthright messages (often the obnoxious ones; often voiced by men), have. I'm not convinced that the ghettoisation of certain ideas is purely the product of external forces or patriarchy, or that those kinds of explanation are sufficient. Have you submitted an article to Cif on consent? The points you make should be heard and discussed in a mainstream space.

admin
admin

Maybe...but actually critique is good. There is academic feminism, which is good, but not all that accessible, and there is the feminist blogsphere, which is remarkably healthy, but in terms of "popular" feminism, newspapers tend to go for the less challenging stuff - and there are also "celebrity feminists" who dominate mainstream discourse. Have emailed CiF - will see what they say.

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