I really like this post on consent, and it seems to have had a massive surge in popularity, and for good reason. As one of the later paragraphs concludes:
Do you think this is a stupid analogy? Yes, you all know this already – of course you wouldn’t force feed someone tea because they said yes to a cup last week. Of COURSE you wouldn’t pour tea down the throat of an unconcious person because they said yes to tea 5 minutes ago when they were conscious. But if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea, and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea, then how is so hard is it to understand when it comes to sex?
It’s a testament to the power of analogy (and logic, in fact) that something can seem blatantly obvious when presented one way, but obfuscated when a different but completely logically analogous situation is presented. Make no mistake, consent is one of those stupidly simple things that you should be able to wrap your head around with ease – as pointed out by the analogy to pouring hot tea down someone’s throat because “they asked for it”. But it does fly in the face of nearly everything we’re taught about sex from school, culture and society, and that’s why people might fail at it so readily.
What sort of things? In no particular order…
For consent to make sense as a concept, it must be capable of being withdrawn, or the option to say “no” must be present. Consent without that is literally meaningless. How, therefore, is this compatible with the idea that men must “always be up for” sex? Men having sex forced on them by women isn’t just used as a joke by wacky sex comedies, but often by otherwise-serious news sources – because they’re always wanting sex. The word “no” doesn’t exist in the sexual vocabulary of men, or so we’re told, so clearly they never have to make a decision around giving consent. It’s sad that people buy into that, but they do, and it erodes our understanding of consent from the start.
Campaigns about rape, even from sources ostensibly ran by women such as Cosmo magazine, focus on things like not walking alone at night, avoiding strangers, carrying rape alarms… as if this term “rape” referred to a very specific situation and build up to a specific type of assault, rather than “sexual activity without consent”. This extends into the cluster-derp caused when people talk about “honest rape” and “legitimate rape” and “rape rape” – it’s as if consent doesn’t play a part in this at all. If consent isn’t the first port of call in people’s definition of rape, then what does it say about their attitude towards consensual – or shall we say “not-rape” – sex? The “grey area” so many people talk about is something entirely of their own invention because “consent ∨ ¬consent” is a pretty strong bit of binary logic.
Sexual courtship as dictated by society has more than a creepy resemblance to a predator-prey relationship – further underpinned by sex education lessons that separate boys from girls and teach them about their own parts separately. For something that is about people, *ahem*, coming together, segregated sex education is potentially disastrous. This school-yard separation reinforces the Us vs Them nature that has developed, around heterosexual relationships especially, and become all-consuming in the “Standard Model” of the sexual relationship. Men go on the prowl, women wait to be selected. The women wait for the men to woo them, to convince them, to select them and then close the deal.
Above all, consent suggests people can enjoy things. No, really, they actually can. But sex education in school is largely centred around the *ahem* ins-and-outs of the mechanics of it, with abstract drawings of genitals painted in the platonic ideal to make sure no-one really knows what they will actually end up looking at in real life. The idea that you can enjoy, and therefore wilfully consent to, such mundane biological procreation makes no sense when presented with this. Sex education means you can know a variety of methods of putting a condom on a banana, but banana-all about how to figure out if the banana wants a condom put onto it in the first place. That’s a pretty tragic state of affairs.
That “Standard Model” of a sexual relationship is centred almost entirely around the idea that women won’t just say “yes” because they want to. It says women need to be somehow, regardless of whether the methods are ethically sound, coerced into saying “yes”. Consent attacks this model directly as it allows women, in particular, to agree to things and say “yes” without repeated prodding. Think about how many movies would retain their romantic sub-plots if consent actually played a part from the very start? Boy meets girl, boy asks girl out, girl says “yes”, the end… Boy meets girl, boy asks girl out, girl says “no”, the end… The predator-prey relationship, the need to pester women, and the implication that no one simply can want sex is prevalent across all our experiences of relationships before we experience one for ourselves. So little wonder few people can grasp “consent” despite its simplicity.
Sometimes, it seems like “consent” is a word that has just been invented recently. It’s the most trivially simplest thing, and seems so obvious when you think about it, but goes against all the preconceptions we’ve been taught. Consent, therefore, may well be a very difficult concept to wrap your head around when the whole sexual culture you’ve experienced ignores it, misrepresents it, and doesn’t believe it can or should exist.
Addressing those preconceptions would be difficult, but thankfully consent is a great thing to replace them with.