Consent as a cup of tea?The Complexities of Consent

Inès Saada is a French Tunisian Masters student in International Affairs specialising in European and Globalisation studies at Sciences Po Lyon in France, and was previously at King’s for her study abroad year.

‘We must not insist on a sexual desire that is fixed and known in advance in order to be safe’ writes Katherine Angel in her thought-provoking book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, where she discusses the vital progress embodied by consent culture to defuse sexual violence as well as its limits on female desire and sexuality in the age of MeToo. Consent was notoriously evoked through campaigns such as the ‘Tea and Consent’ video, created by feminist blogger Emmeline May for the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK. This affirmative consent model defined as ‘affirmative, enthusiastic, communicated verbally, and continuous’ shouldn’t overshadow the process of interrogating its legal, political and social meanings as well as the gap between lived experience and theoretical frameworks. Katherine Angel’s brilliant book reminds us of the importance of exploring one’s personal and political relationship with consent culture at school, in practical everyday life and through various cultural representations across the world. It enables us to ponder over ideas and original suggestions to drive young people’s sex education towards a more complex, informed and inclusive conversation. Ultimately, Angel’s book does the crucial job of shining light upon the affirmative consent model as the result of a long development of consent culture and sexual consent policies, assessing its limits and omissions, echoing the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s warning in The Will to Power: ‘we must not think that by saying yes to sex one says no to power’.

The affirmative consent model was the result of a long development of consent culture culminating in the 1990s sex-positive ‘post-feminism’ and notoriously embodied by the UK girls’ band, the Spice Girls. Affirmative Consent culture first originated in US colleges and university campuses- in particular in a small US liberal arts college, Antioch College- through anti-discrimination legislation, with the intent to ‘transform the ills of our sexual culture’. First implemented with ‘Antioch College Sexual Offense Policy’, affirmative consent appeared to be punitive as it was created by the students’ council in reaction to the college administration’s failure to remove a male student from a dorm after having committed a date rape. The campus community was ridiculed for legally obtaining a demand of verbal consent for all levels of sexual activity and according to Daphne Merkin in the New York Times in 2018, for ‘legislating kisses and stripping sex of eros’. However, Antioch College’s sexual policy nonetheless managed to shift the definition of consent from the ‘No means No’ slogan of 1970s anti-rape campaigns, to an assertive and confident ‘enthusiastic’ consent that sought to raise the bar of sexual culture. If initially the definition of consent laid emphasis on the absence of refusal to sex, it henceforth widened and reframed the conversation by acknowledging ‘the right to refuse, to desire, to say yes and indeed to ask enthusiastically for sex’; in other words, consent refers to an explicit, resounding ‘yes’, instead of just an absence of a ‘no’. Soon enough, consent was widely deemed as conditional to safe sex; this was exactly the argument put forward by Katherine Angel and Joseph Fischel in his book Screw Consent, where they both define consent as ‘a bare minimum and the least bad standard for sexual assault law, compared to force, resistance or non-consent standards’. However, one should be careful not to strain the notion of consent under the weight of overly excessive significance, as it tends to ‘place the burden of good sexual interaction on women’s behaviour’, just as was deciphered from the analysis of a 2012 victim-blaming consent campaign in the UK.  

Hence, the pure affirmation consent model, where ‘Yes Means Yes’ and both partners agree voluntarily and consciously to participate in any type of sexual act, represents vital progress for diffusing the potential for sexual violence. Indeed, successful consent campaigns such as the 2015 ‘Tea and Consent’ video promoted by the Crown Prosecution Service, Thames Valley Police, Rape Crisis in the UK, cleverly extends the metaphor for sexual intercourse to explore more ambiguous conducts such as being unconscious, asleep or drunk. This campaign has been widely circulated in universities and schools, in particular in the U.S with the benefits of tackling rape myths such as ‘assuming consent if it has been obtained previously’ or that ‘a lack of physical or vocal rejection is quite common in rape and sexual assault’. Although consent is heavily context-dependent, there exists efficient ways to teach consensual sex in simplistic terms which at least are easily accessible for young people. For instance, an effective and straightforward process to changing norms and attitudes about sex education and consent is peer-led education. Student-led charities such as Sexpression in the UK trains young people to lead workshops about sexual health and relationships, equality, sexting and pornography, fostering a candid, judgment free environment that enables groups of 14-to-16 years old not only to feel comfortable among youngsters as they relate through common experiences, but also to help them protect better from bad decision-making in their relationships. On the bright side, there does exist robust proof to demonstrate that compulsory, good-quality RSE stands as a concrete solution to deal with society’s deeply ingrained and insidious sexual violence. A 2015 study conducted by the World Health Organisation on intimate partner violence in ten countries concluded that one of the most consistent factors between victims and abusive partners is a low level of sexual education. This data suggests that indeed, the sex education given in schools needs to be reassessed to prevent more vulnerable people from being exposed to risks of sexual assault throughout their lives.

One shouldn’t overestimate the possibilities of consent as an end-all solution to eradicate the roots of gender-based violence in our sexual culture, and it is worthwhile to consider the limits and omissions of this affirmative consent model. Indeed, it often presupposes women’s self-knowledge and pre-emptive confidence of their desire as a condition to be protected from violence and tends to exclude power imbalances. Reflecting upon the various omissions of the ‘Tea and Consent’ video helps us explore further what Katherine Angel describes in her book as the consequences of ‘the language of consent asked to stand for so much, it begins to strain under the weight of its significance’. According to her, a certain strand of ‘confidence culture’ feminism embodied by Sheryl Sandberg- author of the book Lean In- has been criticized for implying women could solve the gender-based imbalance of power in the workplace by being more self-assertive and committed to their ambitions. Not only do these beliefs turns a blind eye to the structural unequal conditions of sex under a patriarchal system: this pervasive idea to shift the burden on women by stressing that it is their responsibility to avoid being raped is very similar to the victim blaming 2012 UK Consent campaign that depicted a woman lying on the ground with the warning: ‘Don’t leave yourself more vulnerable to regretful sex or even rape. Drink sensibly and get home safely’. Similar to the failure observed in the vast majority of French secular, catholic, public or private secondary schools to effectively protect young people from specific forms of violence in pornography, the refusal to contextualise and provide education on the subject captures the modus operandi of patriarchy. It shifts responsibility by voluntarily ignoring or resisting the need for an education and blaming those left in ignorance, thus leaving them much more exposed to the risks of violence, through porn or sexual interaction, rather than dealing with the roots of violence in the first place. Hence, in 2019, the trial of three middle school students who committed gang rape had their lawyer pleading they were brainwashed by pornography, justifying his case based on an influential study that found that about 90% of the most commonly viewed heterosexual porn scenes contained aggression and violence towards women and girls. This is a dramatic case-in-point that should stand as a call for an enhanced Comprehensive Sex Education and ‘pro-porn’ programmes running in schools so as to empower all young people.  

Consent culture and campaigns should include intersectional and intercultural perspectives so as to ensure people of diverse genders, religions and ethnic backgrounds are able to engage with the concept of affirmative consent in a way that is personally meaningful. Systemic racism and intergenerational trauma are burning issues that have to be tackled in order to create a fairer and safer Relationship and Sexual Education. Indeed, Indigenous women are three times more likely to experience sexual assault than non-Indigenous women according to the Canadian Department of Justice and over 18% of African American women will be assaulted in their lifetime. We should view sex as social rituals embedded in larger cultural narratives of power, class, race and gender. This corresponds to the meaning of ‘intersectionality’ coined in 1989 as a legal concept by Kimberlé Crenshaw against racial and sex discrimination in hiring practices and mainstreamed as an analytical framework to identify interlocking systems of power and oppression. Through those lenses and the notion theorized in 1975 by English filmmaker and feminist Laura Mulvey of the ‘male gaze’ in pop culture and in the cinema, we should discuss the links between the portrayal of women as ‘seductive sex objects, decorative elements or weak victims’ and the fact that 90% of the most successful films in 2019 at the US box office were directed by men. Highly consumed by teenagers, young people are therefore confronted to the choices of camera angles that normalize heteronormative sexual scripts and force viewers to see women onscreen through this particular male gaze. Thus, it appears all the more paramount to question the sexual politics of visual media and allow young people to critically distance themselves with the tools of sex education. 

Last but not least, we should tackle the question of how early an age-appropriate RSE should be provided throughout one’s education. Jessica Ringrose, Professor of sociology at University College London and an expert on gender, sexuality and education found that without necessarily mentioning sex, early, age-appropriate education about consensual contact can set children up for better self-esteem, relationships and understanding of boundaries, and encourage them to treat people with dignity and respect. According to Jenny Barksfield, the deputy chief executive of the ‘Personal, Social, Health and Economic’ (PSHE) Association, it is impossible to teach consent effectively if someone is 14 or 15 and have never learned about boundaries and asking permission before touching someone. For this purpose, it seems more than timely to follow the 23 years-old student Chanel Contos’ push for schools in Australia to make consent education mandatory in the national curriculum, currently undergoing a review. Her newly founded organization, ‘Teach Us Consent’, advocates that children learn about consent, not in a sexual context, as soon as they start school, enabling them to address topics such as sexual coercion and digital harassment by the time they reach high school. 

To put it in a nutshell, gender and power dynamics crucially need to be thread through relationships and sex education not only to prevent sexual assaults and violence, but also to fulfil Michel Foucault’s 1976 teasing promise that ‘tomorrow sex will be good again’. In this sense, Katherine Angel’s book brilliantly seeks to acknowledge the structurally unequal conditions under which sex occurs by navigating consent culture and investigating the sexual politics of accessing satisfying and respectful sexual experiences for all.  

Bibliography

Angel, Katherine. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. Verso, 2021.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge. Export ed, Penguin Books Ltd, 2021.

Topping, Alexandra. “How to Teach Young People about Sex and Relationships – by the Experts.” The Guardian, 20 Mar. 2021, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/20/how-to-teach-young-people-about-sex-and-relationships-by-the-experts.

Rosman, Katherine. “The Reinvention of Consent.” The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/24/style/antioch-college-sexual-offense-prevention-policy.html.

Young-Powell, Abby. “Can Peer-Led Teaching Help Improve Sex Education in Schools?” The Guardian, 12 May 2017, www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/may/12/can-peer-led-teaching-help-improve-sex-education-in-schools.

“Why We Must Interrogate the Limits of ‘Consent Culture.’” Huck Magazine, 27 Apr. 2021, www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/why-we-must-interrogate-the-limits-of-consent-culture.

Miller, Laura. “Sometimes ‘Yes’ Isn’t Enough.” Slate Magazine, 4 Mar. 2021, slate.com/culture/2021/03/katherine-angel-consent-tomorrow-sex-will-be-good-again.html.

Coaston, Jane. “Intersectionality, Explained: Meet Kimberlé Crenshaw, Who Coined the Term.” Vox, 28 May 2019, www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination.

Thames Valley Police. “Tea and Consent.” YouTube, uploaded by Thames Valley Police, 16 Nov. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ

Pegg, Samantha. “Sexual Consent Really Isn’t like a Cup of Tea – but at Least We’re Talking about It.” The Conversation, 20 Nov. 2015, www.google.fr/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/sexual-consent-really-isnt-like-a-cup-of-tea-but-at-least-were-talking-about-it-50638.

Kristen N. Jozkowski (2015) “Yes Means Yes”? Sexual Consent Policy and College Students, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 47:2, 16-23. 

Victimization of Indigenous Women and Girls – JustFacts https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/jf-pf/2017/july05.html

WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women: initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women’s responses’, 2012, WHO.

Dillon, Sally. “Teaching Consent to Children: ‘The Joke Is Where It Starts and Rape Is Where It Ends.’” The Guardian, 21 Mar. 2021, www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/21/teaching-consent-to-children-the-joke-is-where-it-starts-and-is-where-it-ends.

[Feature image sourced from MELMAGAZINE https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/tomorrow-sex-will-be-good-again-katherine-angel-interview%5D

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