On placing ‘consent’ in scare quotes

I don’t read Jezebel very often, so only have vague notions about the bloggery contained therein: feminist site, some good articles, some lousy articles, maybe actually making somebody some money (or at least a damn living).  But apparently if you are singularly stupid and literate, you can get published there.  I assure you they will be receiving my resume on the morrow.

A quick perusal of the comments on Jezebel will bring you up to speed on all the basic failings of this particular piece of writing: heteronormativity, male writer assuming it would totally be the fucking bees knees to be constantly harassed/groped at bars, consent as a bad thing, the assertion that men always want to bone, women only do sometimes, women therefore have the ‘real’ power because they get to deny men sex by not immediately jumping into bed after having their asses pinched.  We have heard this story before, and there is plenty of commentary elsewhere.

My contribution to this growing pile of criticism will simply be to point out that – Jezebel’s editor-in-chief’s remarks that the piece exhibited a certain ‘degree of thought and articulation’ notwithstanding – there is no argument here.  I’m starting to wonder if we all (myself included) wouldn’t be better off with a bit more formal logic in our schooling when we start thinking of this type of writing as offering up some sort of coherent argument.  While the pseudonymous Edward Pasteck does in fact write in a series of complete sentences about a single subject, using multiple paragraphs, descriptive language (dialogue! bonus points!), while incorporating examples from his own experiences, he does not actually produce an argument for why he ought to be able to fuck people without their consent.  What he says is that, in the context of awesome party-times, a ‘decision’ should suffice, while ‘consent’ presents an undue burden for folks looking to bone.

What the hell that is supposed to mean is certainly beyond me.  While ‘consent’ and ‘decision’ are in fact common words with definitions we all know, what Pasteck imagines the difference between the two to be when it comes to fucking is very important.  So, for example, try saying the following three sentences aloud:

  • I decided to have sex with [partner, crush, celebrity, proprieter of HF+GD, whatever]
  • I consented to having sex with [same]
  • I chose to have sex with [same]

So, two questions: 1) how freaked out are your fellow patrons at the coffee-shop or wherever it is you go for wifi, and 2) do any of those sentences feel like they are describing a non-consensual encounter?  In my case, I answer 1) so freaked out, and 2) no.  What does it mean for someone to ‘decide’ to have sex without ‘consenting’ to it?  Besides suggesting it has something to do with being hella crunk, Mr. Pasteck leaves it to your imagination.  I suspect it has something to do with getting a drunk woman back to your apartment and badgering her about sex for an hour until she says ‘ok’ because she really wants to go to sleep.

I am putting words into the author’s mouth, of course, but he never does clarify what ‘decisions’ without consent would look like. Mostly, he lodges complaints about the connotations of the word ‘consent:’

In America, by contrast, the discourse on consent impresses upon us all, men and women alike, that sex is something more important than a decision. A lot more is involved in obtaining or denying consent than making a decision. For one thing, consent has ethical and legal overtones and implies the kind of complete and utter self-mastery that isn’t always on offer while partying.

and,

Here in America, our use of the word “consent” complicates the way we view the relation between sex and pleasure. “Consent” is a weighty term otherwise reserved for elevated, formal, even sanitized contexts.

Essentially, consent is a bummer dude.  None of these criticisms are leveled at the substance of consent as an idea; there is nothing about what it means to consent.  What we get is the vague sense that when Pasteck thinks ‘consent,’ he thinks about contracts, courtrooms, end-of-life decisions, etc, and that shit is not sexy.  There’s reason to believe your man is facing enough obstacles in the gettin’ laid department (see: anecdote about woman in Paris he never got with), the idea that he has to consider – in addition to figuring out how to get women into his bed – whether or not such an act might be ethical or legal is just way too much.

Of course, issues of ethics and the law are not always all that complex, and indeed, we face them on a day to day basis.  Do you stop your car at red lights?  Do you drive under the speed limit?  These are choices (or…decisions) you make quite regularly that have legal and potentially ethical implications.  And while consent can be a complex subject, consenting to sex can (should) actually be quite simple.  Observe:

Informed, Competent, Adult Human A: Hey, do you wanna have sex with me tonight?

Informed, Competent, Adult Human B: Oh wow – totally!

Human A: Awesome! High five!

[Adults A and B exchange high fives and then go bone like crazy]

See?  No legalese, no contracts, no notaries.  Simple questions with simple answers.  The problem, one is forced to assume, is that it is very easy for Human B to answer ‘No’ in a completely unambiguous way. 

He carries on like this for a bit, repeating the truism about how Americans are prudish about sex because we’re all descended from Puritans, hoping you won’t notice how completely irrelevant this familiar chorus is; peppering his final paragraph with feminist buzzwords to make it seem like he’s on your side, even when talking nonsense (‘It would be asinine and anti-feminist to argue that consent doesn’t exist, or that the complete disregard of consent has no repercussions [because it most certainly does].’ Really? There are repercussions to people doing whatever the hell they want to other people’s bodies without getting permission?).  But there’s nothing there.  I first heard this discussion in middle school at an assembly where they explained concepts like abusive relationships and rape.  There always seem to be boys asking how many drinks she has to have before you might get in trouble for having sex with her.

The simple right to sovereignty over one’s own body is quite simply not an unjust barrier to enjoying lots of ‘guilt-free’ sex.  If that’s what you’re looking for, Edward, you should probably be looking at how consent can help you in your quest.  But more on that later.

[When I made the exceptionally important decision to bring my unsolicited opinions to these here internets, I thought that I would like to avoid all the easy ‘Look at how stupid this is’ writing you seen on various polito-blaghs.  Already I seem to be breaking this rule.  As penance and in order to contribute something beyond a post pointing out that a stupid idea is stupid, I’ll take this as a starting point for a series on consent.  Please, do try to contain your excitement.]

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