Consent: controversial, to put it simply. The intricacies of sex and gender are constantly deconstructed and reconstructed in feminist debate, with the main hub of discourse around consent. Consent around sex itself, specific sex acts, sex-work and pornography.
I think we can, by now, put a very basic blanket rule on sex itself: that informed consent between two adults is vital. Each and every time sex is had. Obviously couples develop their own language within which they give consent, but this does not exclude the necessity of the blanket rule.
However, if consent is seen in more particular contexts pornography, specific acts/genres of sex, sex-work, things stop being simple.
There are a group of radical feminists, like Gail Dines who I have heard on the BBC podcast The Analysis (linked below) wax almost manic on pornography and how it informs sex. She holds the belief that pornography is exploitation, in its making, marketing and consumption. Dines believes pornography to be exploitative because she feels that porn caters solely to male pleasure i.e. it is gendered. She also holds that porn consumption shapes sexual engagement as it presents a single sided view of sex i.e. that it is for men. As a result, she believes (and supports this belief from reports she has had from other women) that men come to sex hoping to replicate what they have seen in porn and believing that a partner should be as willing as the actors in the porn video. Dines also suggests that porn consumption is threshold building – the more you consume the more you want to, with not only an increase in amount but in an ‘escalation’ from soft to hard-core pornography. Like a coffee newbie starting with a milked-down latte every few days and ending up a few years later downing triple shot espresso every few hours. She resoundingly rejects any research or literature that counters her beliefs and appears to draw solely on the experience of people she has communicated with. How does this tie in with consent? Well, for one thing, it implies that men are shaped by pornography, that they bring that shaping into the bedroom with their partners. Partners who may feel pressure to comply due to socially conditioned responses toward compliance some women have. Which leads to the question, is consent given in the framework of a conditioned response ‘true’ consent?
I have my own perspective on Dines’ arguments: that she implied anal sex was derogatory indicated a narrower view of sex between consenting adults than I might have. That completely poo-poo-ing any research (granted that it’s limited), on sex and pornography that refutes her ‘porn-as-a-threshold-building-substance’ theory further reinforces her as narrow, to my mind. I also hold that adult men should be able to distinguish between fiction (i.e. porn) and fact (sex with non-actors). And if they cannot make these distinctions, partners should help them make it, by setting clear boundaries around what they will and won’t consent to (more on how they might do that later).
However, that being said, Dines is not alone. There are a number of strongly anti-porn feminists. Many of these feminists also extend their dislike and rejection to genres of sex; such as BDSM, particularly the SM part of it. Like Andrea Dworkin. The argument this group make is that misogynistic conditioning over eons has conditioned female arousal to BDSM, and that without this conditioning women would a) not consent to it and b) not enjoy it. Based on this perspective, Dworkin and her ilk feel that consent to BDSM is not truly informed. Many of this school of thought present the same argument against prostitution, stating that a woman’s consent to prostitution is not valid as she may be situational-ly driven by economic need and is acting on the conditioned belief that the only thing of value a woman has to trade is her body. And that should that conditioning be removed, she wouldn’t consent to such a trade.
My opinion on this last bit? I find it a moot point: sure, without conditioning there are tons of things women would just not do, just not say yes to. What we now need to do is a) raise awareness of possible conditioned consent and b) counter it. But I digress.
Back to the feminists.
The other group is the ‘sex positive’ feminists, a kind of opposing party to the anti-porn/BDSM/sex-work group. Not that I feel the latter fall into a ‘sex negative’ category: it’s more complex than the simplified binary of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. The latter group (Dworkin, Dines et al) do not appear to be negative or exclusive about sex holistically, but target only certain aspects of it. Those are the aspects they seem to feel are a) denigrating to women and b) where ‘consent’ isn’t quite as black-and-white an issue as one would assume.
The ‘sex positive’ or ‘pro sex’ feminists such as Susie Bright and Nina Hartley feel that sexual expression and experience are key to gender equality and hold the belief that sex is a social construct, built around gender and politics. As a result they feel attempts to control it via legislature (such as censorship or bans) are an extension of control of a woman’s sexuality.
This groups’ key idea is that the extension of freedom of sexual expression to women is a means of bringing equilibrium into the otherwise unilateral (i.e. male dominated) field of sex. This approach to sexuality began as a break away from the religious control over sexuality. This religious control included a) the sex-morality association (thank you, Religion. Women are yet to recover from that whammy), b) the classification of sex into ‘good’ sex = missionary/penetrative and ‘bad’ sex= everything else and c) that sex is essentially a male drive (and again, thank you, Religion, for putting the final lock on the sex=bad for women) .
The goal of the sex-positive group seems to be getting a piece of the sex-pie for women, at least as equal as the slice the men have and also for women to enjoy that slice untrammeled by guilt. This group’s approach to consent appears to be slightly more clear; that consent must be informed, is specific to the present situation (i.e. it does not regard historical social conditioning) and is based on female choice only.
With regard to pornography, the belief most of this group seem to hold is that a) the perception of pornography is skewed and b) exaggerated in terms of the negative impact it has on women. And that pornography needs more women producing the content to meet the needs of female consumers. With regard to sex work, many of this group believe that sex-workers should be made safe via decriminalization and de-stigmatization.
The pro-sex group’s approach isn’t as individualistic as some approaches, though . Enter the even more complicated area of Choice feminists (yes, I’ve dived into the wormhole and I’m taking you with me). The Choice feminists have received a lot of on-line flack, so I’m going to try to be as neutral as possible. The title ‘Choice’ feminism is on the nose; it highlights what appears to be the mandate of this group: feminism is about choice, making choices available to women and then respecting the choices made. It has been seen as empowering by some; in that it suggests that a woman can and should take responsibility for her choices, from getting Brazilian waxes to having sex. Which breaks away from the more ‘victim-ish’ thinking that a woman’s choices are impacted by the patriarchy and that making a choice is not as simple as just saying ‘I’ll have that’. Whether ‘that’ is a bikini wax or oral sex. Conceptually it sounds like a great idea, but it does gloss over the challenges of making a free, clear and unconstrained choice and ignores factors that limit choice for women in what is still a patriarchy.
One person who may not identify as a Choice feminist but her writings seem to reflect it, is Bettina Arndt. Arndt expounded on choice and the complications of consent in her article (linked at the end) and implied (heavily) that choice is a factor in passive consent and that women can make an active choice to give passive consent. Any of that making sense? To break it down: she suggested and had it supported by other theorists that women make an active choice to be passive, to avoid the responsibility of active consent. She was talking about drunkenness, and implied that women actively chose to get drunk so they could avoid committing to active consent.
My take: whatever the context, a drunk persons ‘yes’ is not informed and therefore needs to be disregarded until they are sober again. Period.
Before going further into the rabbit-hole of consent and feminist theory, let’s break down the types of consent gathered so far. There is the ‘conditioned consent’ of the anti-porn/sex-work group where the value of the consent is undermined by the training i.e. patriarchal brainwashing. Then there is informed consent, where consent is based on the present situation and the woman’s information regarding it.
So which is the right one? If consent to BDSM, dominant-submissive sex, consumption of porn or sex-work is due to centuries of brain washing, and as a result the consent is nullified, when is it ‘true’ consent? Because there is no undoing the millennia of misogynistic conditioning, can ‘true’ consent around these issues actually ever occur?
My answer (or one I came through after much unpicking of the entangled issues) is that the pro-sex feminists are on the right track. Only when women have the equal opportunity to enjoy and engage with sex: in all it’s forms and contexts can they begin to train their own brains away from the guilt associated with it and also identify their own boundaries around it. And then reach a place of truly informed consent.
What does the best evidence tell us about the effects of pornography? Jo Fidgen presents.www.bbc.co.u