The edge of consent
When Stormy Daniels sat down with American 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper to discuss her alleged affair with Donald Trump, a compelling dynamic emerged.
Daniels shared near-satirical details of the encounter, such as spanking the future president with a magazine featuring his own face, but she also admitted that she hadn’t especially wanted to have sex with Trump, and that she wondered if maybe she’d “had it coming” for going back to his hotel room. In the same breath, the porn actor rejected any notion that hers was a story of sexual misconduct.
“This is not a MeToo. I was not a victim,” she told Cooper. “I’ve never said I was a victim. I think trying to use me to further someone else’s agenda does horrible damage to people who are true victims.”
Her assertion reminded me of the reaction to another recent tell-all. In January, a young photographer, “Grace”, told online journal Babe that comedian Aziz Ansari had ignored “non-verbal cues” during their date and coerced her into consenting to sex.
In a statement, Ansari – who wrote a book about the landscape of contemporary dating, called Modern Romance – expressed regret. “We ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual,” he wrote. “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.”
Daniels’ revelations and Ansari’s shock are, in a way, two sides of the same coin: they both speak to the contemporary morass of sexual consent, and what we do about those experiences that complicate the binary of “rape” and “not rape”. Grace was not what Daniels might call a “true victim”, to use the actor’s charged term, and yet her experience was clearly shattering – and extremely common.
There’s a moment in Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity that speaks to this. Rob Gordon looks up his high-school girlfriend, Penny Hardwick, looking for closure. As Rob remembers it, she was “tight” and wouldn’t sleep with him, eventually sleeping with his friend instead. Penny is shocked. “… when that little shitbag asked me out and I was too tired to fight him off,” Penny says, “it wasn’t rape, because I said, ‘Okay’, but it wasn’t far off. You know I couldn’t have sex until after college because I hated it so much?”
Rob cares less about Penny’s revelation of lasting trauma than he does being reminded that he had dumped her, a moment that weighs heavy on many viewers’ minds. Most women, and many men, will recall at least one sexual experience that was theoretically consensual but in which the unbalanced dynamics still had a lasting effect on their emotional wellbeing.
One doesn’t need to be a scholar in the collected works of Pepé Le Pew to know that centuries of art and media have popularised the notion that even when women say no, they are often implied to really mean yes. The man who conquers the reluctant woman is a hero of romantic literature; women who actively pursue sexual pleasure are characterised as forward, slutty or masculine.
In her essay “The Horizon of Desire”, author and activist Laurie Penny sees the waters of consent as having been muddied by years of socialisation that paints active female desire as a turnoff. “If you have eroticised female sexual hesitancy, how are you meant to suddenly switch to a culture of real consent, where the appropriate thing to do when someone is pulling away is to let them go?”
The complexities of our current debate about consent include, but are not limited to, the idea that a person can be coerced into giving consent – that is, while consent is technically given, certain power dynamics may have forced their hand and rendered that consent incomplete – and, further, that consent may be withdrawn even after sex has consensually commenced or been completed.
Perhaps one partner was older, or in a position of power: a senior co-worker, or someone in a supervisory role, such as in academia. Perhaps alcohol or drugs were involved, or maybe one partner liked the other so much that they consented to acts that, deep down, they had no real desire to engage in but felt it was the right or kind thing to do.
The notion that sexual consent is fluid and negotiable, not set in stone, is troubling to some. It was troubling enough to the lawmakers of North Carolina that in the 1979 case State v. Way, it was decreed that consent could not be withdrawn after intercourse began: “if the actual penetration is accomplished with the woman’s consent, the accused is not guilty of rape”.
Most of us agree now, for example, that a husband is very well capable of raping his wife, even though spousal rape was only enshrined in law in the mid to late 20th century. Ask, however, whether a person can withdraw consent during sex and brows furrow. Suggest that consent may even be able to be withdrawn retroactively and tempers fray.
For all our apparent enlightenment, it appears the limits of the sexual revolution’s effect on mores was reached decades ago. If consent is murky or coercive then the repercussions can still be devastating, whether or not a court declares certain sexual activity to be assault or rape, but taking the legal system as any sort of moral compass in sexual matters is bound to disappoint.
Discussions raged in the aftermath of the allegations against Ansari: surely, what had happened to Grace was just an awkward sexual encounter or a bad date, not sexual assault. “If that’s sexual assault,” a common response ran, “then I’ve been assaulted 50 times.”
Similarly, Daniels’ shrugging off the power dynamics present in Trump’s hotel room – “I realised exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ ” – may well be familiar to many who have laughed off the questionably consensual nature of certain sexual experiences with flinty gags. “It’s all good material.”
The jokes we make to navigate a post-MeToo era are cruel ironies, for they mask the real questions: Was our consent coerced that one time? Were experiences we enjoyed actually, in retrospect, less enjoyable or even upsetting for our partner? Have we ever actually engaged in “enthusiastic consent”?
And how can we ensure that generations both present and future are well equipped to understand and employ consent?
Certain voices at the fringes of feminism have posited a Lysistratan state of total abstinence as the only way to destroy rape culture. Others declare that dismantling heteropatriarchal monogamy and having more sex is the answer. Neither is especially helpful.
For my money, the answer in fact lies in better sex education. But given the state of sex ed in most schools, this may well be an even more hopelessly utopian vision than either of the former suggestions.
Some years ago, I was commissioned to write a feature about the withdrawal method for a fashion magazine. What stuck with me was something University of New South Wales sexual health researcher Professor Juliet Richters told me about the problem educators and parents have with so-called natural family planning: unlike the rational pre-intercourse condom conversation, “discussing withdrawal involves a discussion of sexual practice”.
I am almost certain there is a similar issue present when it comes to educating young people about consent. It’s one thing for teachers in charge of sex ed classes to weave a tale of two potential partners calmly discussing the sexual contract they are entering into, preferably while still fully clothed. It is quite another to discuss what might happen when, say, a woman has consented to give a man a blow job, but decides that she does not want to have penetrative intercourse that night.
This sort of discussion, in sexual consent educator Jaclyn Friedman’s words, “shifts the acceptable moral standard for sex”. People educated in the dynamics of consent are better equipped to recognise if consent is coerced or violated, in their own lives and those of others, and may also be less likely to find themselves in a coercive situation.
Discussion of engaged or enthusiastic consent among students is one thing; among adults the conversation can be even more reductive. Jokes about needing written contracts abound, as though active consent is tantamount to bureaucratic red tape. Men complain they can’t talk to women anymore – as if consent is so confusing to them that they can’t start
a conversation without accidentally raping someone.
This reductive interaction needn’t be the case. As sex educator Georgia Maxine wrote in feminist pleasure journal Salty, “enthusiastic consent” is a dry, academic term for a bedroom dialogue we’ve been familiar with for decades. “Stimulating the mind via dirty talk – and using consent as the guiding force,” she writes, “gives you and your partner a language founded on mutual pleasure, experimentation and accountability.”
Framing engaged consent as a hallmark of good and enjoyable sex is also key to dissolving the notion that contemporary feminism’s ideal sexual landscape is one of puritanical approaches to sex and compulsory female victimhood. The latter point was a frustrating cornerstone of the reaction to the Ansari story: the suggestion that the woman involved was unable to reassess the nature of her experience without erasing her own sexual agency.
Through all this, the notion that consent may be withdrawn retroactively looms large as the debate’s most dangerous idea. Beyond the fringes of radical feminism and the nightmares of “men’s rights” activism, however, the concept is less about women deciding, wilfully, to repaint past experiences as rape, and more about empowering people to appreciate the moments in their lives where consent may not have been freely given.
As we navigate our way towards a new era of sexual ethics, it is worth examining our own reactions to emerging ideas of engaged consent. If our immediate response is one of anger or concern, it is perhaps less about our horror at an imagined feminist hellscape where consent is retroactively withdrawn decades after the act and more about the implications for our own sexual histories.
The fact that we have, for years, lacked the tools and language to discuss consent with any nuance – locked instead in a binary where there are only either “true victims” or “awkward dates” – means we need a language to describe a variety of experiences that exist along a spectrum of sexual misconduct. Perhaps there can be a future where the Penny Hardwicks of the world will be able to describe those “wasn’t far off” experiences not as sex or rape, but something in between. And perhaps even the “shitbags” will know what that means.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "The edge of consent".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.