“Consent” is one of the most frequently used terms in the feminist blogosphere, employed as a shorthand for a whole set of ideas around communication, bodily autonomy and the way we interact with each other. It’s enshrined in law, in the National Curriculum and has become part of our everyday vocabulary, through the phrase “consenting adults”. “Consent” is used in a range of different contexts across our lives, and draws on philosophical themes such as free will and epistemology. Tracing the connections across different spheres can clarify the principles on which consent depends, as well as pointing out where we’re using the same term for divergent ideas.
Recognizing the complexity of this term is also a necessary part of activism: many antifeminists are fond of asserting that it’s just too difficult to sort out what someone else is thinking, so a certain amount of rape is an inevitable part of human life. (Unbelievably, this argument was genuinely advanced by pieces published on the Good Men Project not long ago.) The links below offer some perspectives from feminist bloggers on “consent” and related terms like “enthusiastic consent” and “consent culture”. Though they differ in emphasis, they all share a concern to develop a strong notion of consent which can help make the world a safer and more just place. I’ve started with a few favourites, and I’ll be adding more resources as I come across them – please do leave suggestions in the comments below.
Cliff Pervocracy wrote about the notion of “consent culture” as the alternative to replace our current situation. In this piece it spreads beyond sex into a principle for all human interaction: “centered around mutual consent…with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.” Behind Cliff’s formulation is an assumption – made by many feminist writers – that we currently live in a “rape culture”. This is another shorthand term, for a situation in which media images and cultural narratives glamorise non-consensual sexual activity and where the most frequent images of “romance” and “good sex” are often indistinguishable from stalking, coercion and sexual assault. “Rape culture” also covers the excusing of sexual assault as somehow natural behaviour in men, and the blaming of victims when they come forward (“she shouldn’t have been drinking/ led him on/ been dressed like that…” etc). That article tries to suggest what an alternative might look like, and provides suggestions on how we might begin to build a consent culture.
The Pervocracy site also contains another thought-provoking piece about how we talk about relationships, sparked by a story Cliff’s brother-in-law told in which he apparently ignored his wife’s opinion about whether they should get a dog. Cliff’s interest was piqued by the fact that this turned out not to be true, and the piece asks why it’s such a dominant cultural narrative that romantic relationships are “passive-aggressive warfare” in which people try to beat each other – as well as how this might mask genuinely abusive marriages.
A question sent to Captain Awkward’s advice site provided the Captain with an opportunity to talk over the need for “enthusiastic consent” in sexual relationships. Proponents of “enthusiastic consent” want to shift the discussion away from simply getting someone to “let you do sex to them” and towards sex being seen as a mutual, and mutually pleasurable, activity. They are troubled by the fact that an emphasis on verbal consent risks imagining sex still in terms of something which women keep and have to be persuaded or cajoled to dole out to men – a transactional image which has been the basis for so much misogyny and oppression over the centuries. Along the same theme, Captain Awkward also discusses the way in which coercion within a relationship can be emotional as well as physical.
“Enthusiastic consent” – and the associated slogan “consent is sexy” – has its critics in online feminism. Some are concerned by the fact that “enthusiastic consent” seems to be legislating other people’s sex lives and imposing just as rigid an image of what good sex looks likes as Cosmo. Others are worried by the implications of instrumentalising people’s physical autonomy in “consent is sexy”, which might suggest that the value in not assaulting people lies in how much better noncoercive sex is. Cliff Pervocracy memorably suggested that unions never got round the table and declared “we need a fair wages policy that you can really, you know, FUCK.” Such critics feel that emphasizing that consent leads to better sex is misguided since it implies that men should refrain from raping people because they’ll enjoy it more, not because it is morally wrong. The divergence in emphasis is an important one, but clearly springs from the same concern to make women’s lives safer.
The articles I’ve cited so far have often assumed that discussion (and education) around consent is mostly needed to stop coercive sex taking place. However, a couple of pieces by Thomas Macaulay Miller over at Yes Means Yes suggest that the value of “consent culture” would be in clearing away the plausible deniability within which rapists operate. “Meet the Predators” discusses statistics which indicate that a very large proportion of sexual assaults are carried out by a very small number of repeat offenders, whilst “Mythcommunication” focuses on linguistic analysis of conversations around sexual consent which indicate that “it’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that they don’t like the answer”. In other words, our society treats discussion of sexual consent as a separate verbal category, bolstered by myths that women are irrational and countless magazine articles which offer the genders “Clues To What S/He Is REALLY Thinking”. Indications which would be instantly picked up in other contexts (“I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow”, “I’ve already got a ride home”) are treated as obscure and nebulous largely because it suits men who want coerced sex and can get it within the operating room which our society affords them.
These are just a few thought-provoking pieces I’ve stumbled across whilst roaming around the blogosphere. I would be very eager to hear about other people’s favourite articles blog posts on this topic, and I’ll add more links to the post as I find them.
 There is perhaps a parallel to recent discussion of “tolerance” and “diversity” in political philosophy, in which the former term still seems to imply a grudging acceptance of a minority group’s existence rather than a recognition of their rights as valid in themselves.
 Proponents of women as bishops in recent controversies (and of women as clergy in earlier debates) have had similar variations in emphasis, with some stressing the value which women could bring to the leadership of the church, and others insisting that it was a matter of right not of utility to men.