The campaign for [sexual] consent is a very important and helpful tool on the legal front. It’s also a good response for the male argument ‘she said no, but meant otherwise.’ But both as a nonliberal feminist and as a discourse analyst, I find it a problematic concept.
The starting point here, which is particularly importnat to make as a cis-hetro-man, is that there is no doubt that no one deserves to be harassed, or raped, for any reason. That’s pretty basic.
Still, human interaction is much more complex than what ‘consent’ has to offer.
Look at the poster to the right, for example. It states that Yes means yes, and No means no. This statement is tautological, and so always true, without needing any context. But, this also implies that verbal messages are simple to understand, as well as that ‘consent’ (or indeed any interaction) boils down to a binary yes or no. The poster also says that ‘clothing is not consent,’ which, again, without the necessary context is a weird thing to say, because, [tauto]logically clothing is clothing. Of course, we still understand the full message of this poster because we have the contextual (pragmatic) prior-knowledge that this is a response that confronts the rapist argument that ‘she said x but meant otherwise’ or ‘just look at what she was wearing,’ that tries to justify sexual predatory behavior or worse (excuses that are much more urgent to fight when they come from the police or courts). This is how we can also understand that this is about sex or sexual violence, although neither of these words are even mentioned! (Indeed, consent to what).
I bring this example to briefly demonstrate the complexity of communication. WITHOUT GIVING ANYONE LEGITIMACY TO, SAY, RAPE, from both a communication and a nonliberal and nonlegalist perspective, there are inaccuracies and risks to consider about reducing human behaviour and communication to concepts like consent:
- Communicative messages are more complex than simply what we say.
This is how irony and sarcasm are possible. So, you can say one thing and mean the exact opposite, and, as any pragmatics professor will tell you, communication, is rarely unambiguous. Everything is said in context, and is interpretive (and therefore bound to mistakes). This fact also allows us to make many more feminist arguments about subtext and lack of consent, e.g. that even a Yes can still mean something else. Intonation, nonverbal messages, body language, and other communication channels and prior knowledge help the addressee to decipher the message. (Much of the art of flirting relies on this ambiguity). And, yes, mistakes in interpretation happen; but this only means that we must be much more careful!
Advocating ‘consent’ risks simplifying communication and encouraging people to be less sensitive to each other. No wonder that some even opt for machines for consent, rather than rely on feelings. (Also, the linked app ignores the fact that consent can be withdrawn at any point). In fact, you can have sex or avoid it without any moral issues and without any verblisation. NONETHELESS – IT’S QUITE SIMPLE TO UNDERSTAND THAT, IF IN DOUBT, JUST COMMUNICATE MORE TO AVOID HARMING OTHERS. ESPECIALLY IF YOU LIKE THEM.
- Clothing actually IS a message.
Always. What you wear to class or work or dinner at any other time, carries a message about who you [think you] are, and what your expectations are of the interaction. It can even mean consenting to something (e.g. uniform), or rejecting it. And we also continuously interpret what others wear. To say that clothing is meaningless to a message (e.g. the poster above), is, I think, both counter-intuitive to the broader public, and generally wrong. Clothes are practice of meaning, and meaning is always fluid and depends on interpretion. Instead, we should clarify that clothing is insufficient and its message is highly sensitive to misinterpretations.
I find this statement better: Even if somebody is walking naked on the street, it still gives no one the right to harm or be offensive to them. period.
- Wants and messages can be more complex than the binary yes-or-no.
There are many shades of grey in human interactions and communications (see what I did there?…). HOWEVER, AGAIN, IF IN DOUBT, COMMUNICATE MORE TO AVOID HARMING OTHERS.
- While we are often able to simply say what we want, at other times we don’t even fully know what we want.
‘Consent’ is a burden that assumes that individuals are rational beings whom are necessarily able to know what they ‘want.’ This assumption goes against psychoanalyst approaches where we are ‘split’ in many ways inside our heads, or are on a spectrum, and are very dynamic, and so on. STILL, TO REMOVE DOUBT, COMMUNICATE MORE TO AVOID HARMING OTHERS, and remember that we can still change our mind.
- In fact, wanting is not simple either.
The genius feminist philosopher Sarah Ahmed has an entire book problematising will. A key point in the book can be simplified to this: Because we are subjects designed by social positions, discourse, time, place, etc., there is at least a doubt about our will being genuinely ours, and not what others will us to will. Are we sometimes having sex, or avoiding it, for reasons that are decisively shaped by society? AND, YET, AGAIN, THIS DOES NOT GIVE ANYONE THE RIGHT TO HARM.
- To make this even more controversial, interactions and relationship are almost by definition a constant compromise over wills. In sex too.
Moreover, sometimes, as the feminist patriarchal bargain theory argues, women rationally trade things they have (including sex) with men, and this is part of their agency and strategies within ‘the logic of practice.’ (Men can also have sex as compromise, although it’s not really the same). In a micro-scale, a woman can compromise her ‘will’ as part of her strategy to cope with her position. So, while women consent to sex, it is not so straightforward, because their consent is not independent but pressured by their position within power structures.
That said, the key to any relationship is respect: communicate clearly, avoid harming each other, and compromise rather than demand. SO, AGAIN, DON’T SEE THIS AS JUSTIFICATION FOR DEMANDING, PRESSING OR FORCING SOMEBODY TO DO SOMETHING THAT THEY MAY NOT WANT TO DO. PARTICULARLY WHEN THIS CONCERNS PENETRATING THEIR BODIES, AND EVEN MORE SO WITH THOSE WITH WHOM YOU HAVE PRIVILEGES OVER.
In conclusion, my point is that there is a series of issues with the reliance on the simplifying notion of ‘consent’ for feminist advocacy, which is also falling into the trap of legalism. While it has been immensely helpful in the short run, it might end up counterproductive for the sensitive society we want to build in the long run.
And, I’m not the only one thinking that.