Until recently, the idea of consent was associated with acts that are voluntary, free of coercion or compulsion. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, consent is a ‘voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires’. It is ironic, therefore, that advocates of so-called consent workshops in universities want to make them, well, non-consensual. As one supporter of consent classes said: ‘It’s crucial they’re compulsory or the people who need to go won’t go.’
It seems those demanding that consent workshops be made compulsory have little understanding of the idea of consent. But then, these workshops aren’t really about the meaning of consent. Rather, they are informed by a desire to police intimacy and to moralise about student behaviour.
Take the UK National Union of Students’ ‘I Heart Consent’ guide for consent-workshop leaders. It says consent workshops should provide a ‘safer space where people feel comfortable to explore topics, definitions and myths’. But the discussion it advocates is anything but exploratory. The guide promotes a rigid party line and any view that deviates from this line is castigated as a myth or as a ‘problematic’ view that must be corrected. The guide insists that workshop leaders must ‘challenge myths and rectify problematic perspectives on consent’ as well as ‘encourage a healthy view of consent’. ‘Healthy’ here is not a medical term; it’s a moralistic one, referring to ‘healthy’ attitudes and ‘healthy’ sentiments.
Although those advocating consent classes use touchy-feely words like ‘openness’ and ‘exploration’, they are anything but open to exploring alternative or dissident views. From the perspective of the consent crusader, anyone who deviates from the prescribed script on consent is, by definition, ‘problematic’. The need to adopt a firm and inflexible line is justified on the grounds that the stakes are far too high to tolerate different views on consent. Why? Because the principal aim of consent workshops is to re-socialise the participants, to modify their behaviour, and overturn the social and moral norms that supposedly legitimate the oppression of others, especially women; hence the workshops target so-called lad culture.
Above all, consent workshops are designed to ‘raise awareness’ of bad behaviour. This is a moralising mission, the secular equivalent of the religious duty to help people ‘see the light’. As is the case with all moral enterprises, it assumes that the world is divided into two groups; the ‘aware’, and those who need to be made ‘aware’. And it is this missionary zeal that leads consent crusaders to embrace the oxymoron of compulsory consent classes. For those who are not aware are a threat — both to themselves and to others. They must therefore be forced to change their views and behaviour.
Whatever one thinks of the content of the quasi-religious doctrine promoted in these workshops, it is difficult not to feel uneasy at the breathtaking arrogance of their organisers. It is far from clear who gave them the authority to play God or on what grounds they can claim to be experts on consent. Their presumption that people need to be freed from the myths holding them in thrall echoes the outlook of the most dogmatic of religious movements. That universities are now complicit in the policing of the values and intimate thoughts of young people is an alarming development.
The devaluation of personhood
Critics of consent workshops often mistakenly assume that the main problem with consent classes is that they cast all men as potential rapists. Admittedly, consent classes do inflate the pervasiveness of male violence. But the doctrine informing them is far more insidious than simple anti-male prejudice: it devalues the moral autonomy of both men and women. Consent classes present individuals as incapable of conducting their intimate lives without expert guidance.
Consent classes assume that intimate relationships, especially if they involve sex, can’t be allowed to develop spontaneously. This belief marks a break with the post-Enlightenment idea that people possess the capacity for autonomy, for self-determination – that they can and should be free to make choices about matters that affect their lives. Since the advent of modernity, it was assumed that adults possessed the moral resources necessary for consenting to acts proposed to them by others. The phrase ‘between consenting adults’ indicates the extent to which it has long been accepted that autonomous individuals should be left to negotiate the terms of their intimate relationships.
Consent classes, and their underpinning ideas of affirmative consent, devalue personhood and individual autonomy. They assume that young men and women are incapable of conducting their sexual relationships in accordance with their own experiences and desires. As a result, those lobbying for consent classes see spontaneous relations between autonomous individuals as a problem to be managed from afar. The main solution they propose is the ‘formalisation of consent’, the transformation, that is, of consent into a mapped-out, scripted affair, consisting of rules of conduct and codes of behaviour.
The most striking example of the formalisation of consent is the idea of affirmative consent. Known in America as ‘yes means yes’ laws, affirmative consent demands that consent be explicitly expressed at every stage of a sexual encounter. From this perspective, the usual interactions associated with romantic and sexual encounters – eye contact, body language and other non-verbal signals – are no longer sufficient to signal consent. Instead, affirmative consent is arrived at through modes of engagement more typical of the business world than the bedroom.
Affirmative consent negates the very premise on which intimacy is founded. Through the displacement of spontaneous informality with formal rules, affirmative consent transforms a relationship into a transaction. A relationship now comes couched in the language of the market, of contracts and pledges.
Anyone who has actually attempted to practice affirmative consent will discover that what was once a relation of intimacy has been transformed into a scripted performance. This process of turning a relationship into a formal process disempowers people – it stops them from pursuing their affairs in accordance with their own temperament and inclinations.
Of course, the main purpose of affirmative consent is to make it easier to convict people for rape. And to do this means equating all forms of so-called non-consensual sex with rape. This criminalisation of relations newly classified as non-consensual plays an important part in creating both the impression that rape is an everyday occurrence and that, as a result, there is such a thing as rape culture.
Critics of affirmative consent often argue that proving whether or not the word ‘yes’ was uttered in the course of a sexual encounter is almost impossible. This, critics point out, places those accused of non-consensual sex in a very difficult position — they can’t prove that they obtained consent. But while it’s true that affirmative consent does undermine due process, what is more worrying is that it also limits the space for people to exercise their autonomy.
The codification of consent renders the choices people make about their lives invalid. Yet it’s precisely when people are free to make choices, including choosing to consent to sex, that they develop their autonomy. Telling people to follow rules, or to stick to the consent script, stymies people’s moral and intellectual development. As John Stuart Mill argued:
‘The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.’ (1)
Allowing people to make choices and to live with the consequences of their decisions is one of the defining features of a civilised society. The mistrust of people’s capacity for making choices about their lives draws on an unpleasant strain of misanthropy. After all, the policing of consent assumes that, in the main, people are not able to give consent. They’re not deemed up to it. For example, it is often argued that people can’t consent freely if they’ve consumed alcohol or taken drugs. Some go even further and claim that, in a predominantly heterosexual culture, women aren’t capable of giving consent: they’re pressured into having sex, bullied into acts against their will.
Of course, there is little doubt that people interact in circumstances not of their own making. And drinking alcohol does influence people’s decisions. But the claim that booze undermines our capacity to consent misunderstands the way in which we live, and the nature of our choice-making. If we, as a society, insisted that only sober men and women are able to consent to sex, sex wouldn’t happen very often. Many women and men actually choose to get drunk and have sex. Such behaviour may offend the puritanical advocates of affirmative consent, but most of us desire experiences that are free of the rules and limits imposed by today’s consent-obsessed moralists.
Sex and consent
Consent classes teach people to talk to one another about their feelings and emotions. That may work in the seminar room, or after people have had sex. But in the course of a sexual encounter, people tend not to talk about their desires. Rather, they express them physically, through touching, feeling and body language. In such circumstances, what people desire fluctuates and changes during the course of the interaction.
Research suggests that people entering into sexual relationships often experience ambivalent and mixed emotions. Individuals freely report that what they wanted is not always what they said, or consented to. As one woman said of a sexual encounter:
‘I was thinking, “I really shouldn’t be doing this”, but on the other hand, almost like the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, I was saying, “he is so cute and I really like him and he will probably think I was just leading him on if I don’t do it.”’ (2)
The interviewee’s ambivalence is typical of the fluid character of sexual encounters. Affirmative-consent advocates would probably perceive her as a victim of coercion and pressure.
Paradoxically, just as people can want non-consensual sex, so, in many cases, consensual sex may be unwanted. Studies indicate that a significant proportion of women and men reported consenting to unwanted sex. They may even initiate sex in order to reassure or please their partners. Avoiding tension in a relationship, promoting intimacy and not wanting to hurt a partner’s feelings were just some of the reasons cited for consenting to unwanted sex (3). Moreover, how people feel about their partners, the experience of sex and the trajectory of their relationship actually influences and sometimes alters how they define and recollect what happened in bed. The relations between consent, desire and behaviour are not ones that can be adequately understood or captured by rules or consent codes.
Unlike the very reasonable ‘no means no’ campaigns of the 1990s, the ‘yes means yes’ initiatives of today subject sex to the micromanagement of the aware, the enlightened and the expert. But the ultimate effect of this codification of affirmative consent is suspicion and mistrust. It increases and expands the number of acts that can be designated as non-consensual, and, as a consequence, makes a fantasy like ‘rape culture’ seem like a fact. Consent crusaders’ prurient obsession with spontaneous human relationships makes the old-fashioned puritanism look chilled-out in comparison.
(1) Cited in ‘Mill’s Principle of Liberty’, by GL Williams, in Modern Political Theory From Hobbes To Marx, edited by J Lively and A Reeve, Routledge, 1989, p256
(2) Cited in ‘Conceptualising the “Wantedness” of Women’s Consensual and Nonconsensual Sexual Experiences: Implications for How Women Label Their Experiences with Rape’, by Zoë D Peterson and Charlene L Muehlenhard, in The Journal of Sex Research, Vol 44, No1, February, 2007, p72
(3) Cited in ‘Conceptualising the “Wantedness” of Women’s Consensual and Nonconsensual Sexual Experiences: Implications for How Women Label Their Experiences with Rape’, by Zoë D Peterson and Charlene L Muehlenhard, in The Journal of Sex Research, Vol 44, No1, February, 2007, p73