Consent is the legal structure for appraising sex but it’s often contested in discussions of sex. It should be an easy enough concept. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Consent refers to the provision of approval or assent, particularly and especially after thoughtful consideration." What’s so difficult about this? Once consent has been negotiated, are all bets off? And as we spend all this time trying to clarify and reinforce consent, are we actually avoiding talking about sex? We consulted the News Therapist — and she told us that when it comes to sex, once consent has been verified, we need to start asking questions that don’t require Yes/No answers.
We all had to get out of the house recently because we had no floor in
the kitchen. The builder overheard me asking my daughter who else would
be at the sleepover she was going to attend to escape the renos. "Have
you told her all boys are animals yet," he asked. "Animals. All of them. Believe me, I know. They’ll say anything to get the desired result. You need to tell her."
But what to tell her? That men are animals? What could I say then? Never indicate interest unless you’re prepared to mate?
We are not seasonally sexual animals, and No means No whenever we say it and for whatever reason. Any other interpretation of consent makes room for condoned assault. Still, I wonder whether somewhere in the rush to define consent in the area of sex, have we lost touch with our humanity?
We use language drawn from the animal world particularly to describe those incidents of sexual assault that involve groups of men and a single woman. Women who are assaulted or have consensual sex with footballers are "strays" while the men are described as "packing up". We like to maintain the fiction that we can protect ourselves, our friends and our children by not doing what the "strays" do.
These gestures also help us to maintain the myth that sexual assault is rare, rather than the common experience it currently is for women. It’s probably worth noting that the moniker "stray" has no meaning to an animal, only to a human. A stray is merely an animal who is not a pet and is therefore not under ownership or protection. For a stray, consent is a continuously re-assessed choice based on interest rather than coercion. Have you ever tried to pat a stray cat?
Warnings to women about sex read like beachfront signs in shark-infested waters: "Swim at your own risk". The implication being that the shark will attack if it’s interested, and the woman will have made her decision to risk attack by being in the water. This is old news, and leads us smartly away from personal responsibility into the realm of simple rules and regulations: the land of yes or no. In the water? Yes. On the sand? No.
When the answer to a question about having sex can only be Yes or No, then we are being treated as an object, as property — or we are treating others that way. Why? Because a question that can only be answered by Yes or No is a closed question. The asker is holding the power to determine the scope of the answer and is asking only for their own needs for information to be met. Do you want to or not?
Any situation in which the questions asked of you are all closed is one where you are not holding power. If we need to resort to rules about sex, then surely it is no longer sex we are talking about but violence.
This focus on the rules of consent, while necessary to separate sex that is mutual from acts of violence, can too easily lead us to ignore our own felt understanding about what is happening for us and for the other in any intimate encounter.
There are countless inducements for us to ignore our own felt sense of what feels good and is right for our bodies. We’re meant to eat on schedule, to "put things in" our bodies, as if they are passive vessels for nutrients, and we’re meant to "do things to each other" sexually. There is also much encouragement to actively ignore our own lack of interest in sex in order to please a partner, from sex therapy and education that is based on who does what to whom, to Bettina Arndt’s appeal (pdf) to women to have sex with their male partners even when they don’t feel like it.
When it’s not always as clear as Yes or No, we need to listen and we need to keep listening — with all of our bodies. When we are thinking in simple terms of consent we are in the land of surrender and of allowing things to happen to us. We have left sex and moved to masturbation with another person as our tool. When we are using someone else’s consent as our defence, we are admitting that we have already purposefully or accidentally lost touch with them.
In real life sex, the "rules" about consent don’t serve us beyond the most basic of sexual negotiations. We need to be connecting to our own bodies and learning to listen to the bodies of those close to us. What are we hearing, feeling, seeing? What can we feel happening for the other? When we lose this connection to our own or to another’s body, we have entered into an object-based relationship. When we simply seek submission of another’s body to our own we go further; we see ourselves as the only subjects, and all others as things for us to use or to discard. Even in the realm of the much-maligned practices of sado-masochism and bondage and discipline, a good top is extremely conscious of exactly what her bottom is looking for.
There is a heartbreaking lack of acknowledgement and apology around the issue of sexual assault. In the case of children and sexual assault, we know (pdf) that it’s crucial to their recovery for us to hear, to believe and to respond protectively to a child who has been sexually assaulted. When we do not, children then blame themselves for the abuse, and will often believe that they were deserving of it, sometimes for a lifetime. In the case of sexual assault between adults, when those accused argue that there was consent, or more frequently, that there was a lack of obvious dissent, this becomes a further assault.
Someone I work with was taking part in the recent Take Back the Night march in Melbourne. He felt a sense of frustration at the idea that making the world at night safer for women was even possible in our current society. He said that really, the banners should read "There’s something wrong with NORMAL", since power-based violence is part of the very fabric of our society, not just a decorative border. The problem with using the lens of consent to explore the issue of sexual choice is that we move the responsibility for the assault to the victim and we individualise a problem that is systemic. This is of course extremely isolating and disempowering.
We retreat to the rules when we are afraid, when we are guilty, when we want to avoid taking responsibility and when we want to take the short cut to getting it right the next time. Just think of those times in your life when you’ve asked "Hey, what are the rules here?" Usually this question means we have skipped a step in our own process of response. Often, this missed step is the acknowledgement that we have suffered or caused pain.
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