“Got Consent?” “Consent is sexy!” “Consent: Get some.”
Recognize these phrases? These are some of the slogans of many consent campaigns currently sweeping the nation, all of which place the idea of consent at the forefront of antirape activism. Knox activism has often followed suit, with the Title IX campaign and “It’s On Us” campaign centering consent as the answer to the pervasive problem of rape culture.
All of this talk of consent, however, has not actually solved the problem of rape. The Knox Student ran an article last year that said Knox College saw an increase in (reported) forcible sex offenses in 2015, and NPR recently noted that this trend is occurring in other campuses, as well. Even if this increase is simply because survivors are feeling more comfortable reporting sex crimes, as both TKS and NPR posited that this may be the case, the rise in numbers proves at least one thing: No matter how much we preach consent, rape culture has continued unabated. Most of us students have completed the bystander and consent training “Haven,” and probably all of us have read the consent posters put up around our school. Yet most of us can also point to rapists in our own classrooms, residence halls and cafeteria. Why has nothing changed?
Blogger Freya Brown gives one possible answer in her article “Let’s Talk About Consent.” First, Brown states, if a person comes forward alleging rape against someone else, our use of “consent” as the sole basis for deciding whether sexual violence actually occurred places the onus on the victim to prove it happened. This means that in order to “prove” their assaults, victims must be able to show cold, hard, evidence that their consent was breached, despite the fact that most victims do not have such evidence (eyewitnesses, recordings, etc.). The focus is on victims to prove their own victimization, rather than on alleged rapists to prove that they actually did obtain consent (though this is changing in some places).
Second, Brown continues, the idea of consent carries the implicit notion that if someone says “yes” to sex, whatever happens afterward is shielded from scrutiny. For example, if someone agrees to sex but is triggered during the act and is too afraid to tell their partner, consent theory would hold that this situation is perfectly acceptable. After all, they gave consent, so does it matter what happens next? Another example is that many women report experiencing substantial pain during sex at least on a semi-regular basis but are too embarrassed to tell their partners for fear of rejection or dismissal. Again, consent theory falls short here: If women are agreeing to sex, does it matter that they are not experiencing sexual satisfaction?
In short, consent theory provides a reductive view that agreement to sex is all that actually matters in sex. Whether or not a person feels uncomfortable or in pain, or whether there is an unaddressed power differential between the persons having sex, does not actually fall under the purview of consent. Because of this, many forms of unsatisfactory or even downright harmful sex remain undiscussed in feminist and activist circles.
So if the consent model of sex is not enough, what is the alternative? It turns out that some feminist thinkers have already pushed for different models of sexual behavior. Thomas Macaulay Millar, for instance, theorizes about a “performance model of sex,” in which gender hierarchies are addressed, discomforts are accounted for, and implicit ideas about gender and sexuality are confronted head on. This model asks partners in sex to consider their sexual behaviors and attitudes and how it affects one another, before, during and after sex. This means that while consent is still critical, partners in the performance model also consider the implications of their sexual attitudes, their partner’s attitudes and what is truly healthy for both (or all) of them.
Writer Rachel Kramer Bussel concurs, stating that “real” consent does not only manifest as an agreement between people to have sex. She writes,“The kind of consent I’m talking about isn’t concerned just with whether your partner wants to have sex, but what kind of sex, and why … Besides, consent should be a baseline, the rock-bottom standard for sexual activity, and shouldn’t necessarily have to be sold as ‘sexy’ to count as something vital and important.”
I believe that Bussel, Millar, and other forward-thinking antirape feminists are hitting the nail on the head: If we view consent as the only important ingredient to a healthy sexual relationship, we are excluding a myriad of other factors that may be contributing to an unhealthy sexual framework between ourselves and our partners. Not only that, but framing consent as the only tool we have to fight rape culture means that when we educate others on healthy sexuality, we are basically telling them that all you have to do to have “good sex” is to get others to agree to have sex with you.
This simplistic thinking is never going to be the sole way to end America’s rape epidemic. We feminists and activists are shooting ourselves in the foot if we believe that consent is really the only powerful mechanism we have to combat sexual violence. Moving forward as activists, feminists and advocates, I hope we consider other factors that contribute to a truly healthy model of sex.