vassar college women's center

Consent: Mandatory – Not Sexy.

Many well-intentioned campaigns against sexual assault are adopting the slogan, “Consent is sexy!” I have some thoughts about this. (Trigger warning for a discussion pertaining to sexual assault and rape.)


(image from this tumblr)

Consent is never optional. Ever.

My first thought is that using a qualifier like “sexy” implies that consent can be optional. Like, gee, if I ask for consent, this sex will be so much sexier!  But consent is NEVER optional. You don’t get to decide which steps to ask about and which steps to make assumptions about. This practice makes consent a guessing game and reinforces the idea that consent is a default position. Consent is not the default – it is not the absence of a “no.” The ‘Consent is Sexy’ campaign, while trying to normalize consent (good!), is also undermining the seriousness of violation when consent is not present (bad).

The ‘Consent is Sexy’ campaign leads people to ask to the question, “How can I make consent sexy? How can I ask for consent without being awkward?”

Consent is never awkward.  If you’re more worried about “ruining the mood” than about assaulting someone, you should reevaluate your priorities. End of story.

The answer is not always sexy.

Finally, I dislike the ‘Consent is Sexy’ campaign because (unintentionally or not) it attaches negative stigma to the answer “no.” Asking for consent is sexy, saying “yes” is sexy, but where does that leave saying “no”? The campaign ignores the fact that there are already power structures in place that create pressure to say “yes” – expectations about sexual activity, pressure to please partners, systems of oppression (including sexism, racism, ableism, and all the other -isms), etc.  ‘Consent is Sexy’ then inadvertently adds to these pressures in attaching “sexy” to “yes” – when a partner asks for consent, the respondent may now feel pressure to fulfill “sexy” and therefore answer with “yes.”

In this system, “no” takes on an undesirable connotation. One who responds with “no” is the opposite of sexy – a prude, ice queen, bitch. (Note the gendered language.) Consequences of saying “no”  may be abandonment, slander, and other social repercussions. But in this system, a “yes” is coerced, and it therefore does not constitute consent.

To ensure consent is informed, active, verbal, and sober, we much also ensure that there is room to say “no.” As my favorite blogger (http://radtransfem.wordpress.com/) writes, “‘No means no’ is an non-negotiable line; no feminist theory allows an undermining of ‘no means no,'” and simultaneously, “‘Yes’ should be understood as a statement meaning, ‘I choose to say yes, understanding the consequences of saying ‘no.'”

For further reading on the nature of consent, I recommend these articles:

Under Duress: Agency, Power, and Consent, Part 1: “No”

Under Duress: Agency, Power, and Consent, Part 2: “Yes”

~Erin

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