Review: Sarah Gilberton consent

The Least Bad Standard

In the wake of #MeToo, in the sleep-depriving despair that so many Australian women I know felt after Brittany Higgins detailed her rape in Parliament House, and the lurid allegations (strenuously denied) against then-Attorney-General Christian Porter, much attention has been lavished on the notion of consent. In New South Wales, we are awaiting amendments to the criminal law that will replace plain old ‘consent’ with ‘affirmative consent’ – meaning an accused man will have to show not only that his alleged victim did or said something to make him believe she was consenting, but that he did or said something to make sure that, in fact, she was. Meanwhile, the NSW Department of Education is coming up with a new sex-ed curriculum that deals more fully with consent, and the need to establish ‘enthusiastic consent’ between partners. The move came in response to a petition launched by Chanel Contos, the young woman who compiled hundreds of testimonies from Sydney’s schoolgirls detailing their experiences of sexual assault and harassment by their male peers.

A number of recent feminist books examine the concept of consent, some of them mining a rich feminist canon, from Beauvoir to Butler, via Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Angela Davis, and Andrea Dworkin, to grapple with contemporary versions of very old problems. As one author, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes, they ‘reach back to an older feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon, as something squarely within the bounds of social critique.’

Tomorrow, Sex Will be Good Again by Katherine Angel takes its title from Michel Foucault’s sardonic remark about the high hopes the 1960s and 70s counter-culture placed on sexual liberation. Angel likens those hopes to the prevailing faith in consent as the key to both ending (or at least diminishing) the scourge of sexual assault, and heralding a happy sexual future. She’s skeptical of the way consent discourse places a heavy burden on the individual woman to set the boundaries for good, consensual sex, averting its gaze from the social and cultural context that limits her freedom.

The concept of ‘consent’ does seem, at first glance, quite unsuitable if what you want is to even the sexual playing field. Implicitly, it’s the woman’s consent that is at issue here, and the word places her immediately on the back foot, constructing sex as something men do and to which women acquiesce, or not: ‘yes, I consent to you doing that thing to me.’ Angel’s first essay, ‘On Consent,’ tackles this problem, making the important, if obvious, point that what women do and say when they offer or withhold consent cannot be isolated from the broader social context in which a woman’s ‘yes’ sounds slutty and her ‘no’ sounds either implausible (come on, you know you want it) or irrelevant (who cares if you want it or not? Besides, you’re passed out). More interestingly, Angel wants to show that ‘affirmative consent,’ in presupposing ‘a woman who can simply set aside the imbalances of power and pleasure in the world, accessing and voicing her desire with confidence,’ cannot begin to address the problem, and in fact may lead us down a number of dead ends.

Affirmative consent is, Angel grants, ‘the least bad standard for sexual assault law, compared to force, resistance or non-consent standards.’ But she doubts the capacity for consent, including ‘enthusiastic consent,’ to work as a durable or reliable guarantor of good sex. After all, ‘bad sex emerges from gender norms in which women cannot be equal agents of sexual pursuit, and in which men are entitled to gratification at all costs.’ Asking women to ‘man up’ in the bedroom risks holding any sexual uncertainty or hesitation against them. ‘Consent rhetoric takes the fact of women’s vulnerability to violence – the prevalence of violence against women – and tries to make them invulnerable in response… It reveals a horror of vulnerability.’ What’s more, it’s asking women to know their desire before they have had a chance to explore its limits.

In this sense, Angel thinks consent rhetoric has something in common with the pro-sex side of the sex wars fought half a century ago. For some feminists (and plenty of men) the mere idea of verbally engaging your sexual partner about what she may or may not want to do was scoffed at as an instant buzzkill, and the idea of a man checking in on his female partner reduced her to an ingenue: ‘vulnerable, wide-eyed and timorous.’ Well, Angel is here to stick up for the timorous and to defend vulnerability as both a sexual virtue and a deep well of potential pleasure. In her first book, Unmastered: A book on desire, most difficult to tell (2012), Angel attested, at some length and in great detail, to her own taste for the languorous delights of submission. With her essays, she does something different but related, and the book makes a rich companion piece to the memoir.

Its central two chapters, ‘On Desire’ and ‘On Arousal’, offer a very interesting tour through the history of sexology, from Freud to the latest influential findings by Rosemary Basson (a clinical sex therapist at the Centre for Sexual Medicine at the University of British Columbia), via Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. Angel lays out the long-standing obsession of scientists and psychologists with unlocking the key to female desire, investing it with all manner of hopes and expectations; in doing so she highlights the difficulty of pinning desire down. A scholar of the history of psychology and sexuality, Angel gives little credence to much of the so-called knowledge such research has amassed, inseparable as it is from both the less-than-lifelike lab conditions and the straitjacket of patriarchal heterosexuality. Even Basson’s research, which takes full account of that straitjacket, has its shortcomings.

That great sex doesn’t always come naturally is a useful insight, but it is overwhelmingly women who are expected to spend time and resources on this kind of work – the work, many have argued, of heterosexual love.

In Angel’s fourth and final essay, ‘On Vulnerability,’ she argues that there is an excess of ‘wishful thinking at work in insisting that we have a sexuality that can be discovered separately from interaction with others,’ and points out the uncertainty at the heart of what’s obvious: that ‘there is a first time for everything sexually.’

Letting go in sex – letting oneself go to places of intensity, to the hairsbreadth space between knowing and not knowing what you want, between controlling the action and letting the action take over – being spat out of the flume into this coursing water taking you God-knows-where – involves placing an immense burden of trust on the other, trusting them to renounce their liberty to abuse. I trust you, we want to be able to say, not to hurt me. I trust you not to abuse your power. This is, of course, immensely difficult – wishful, perhaps. We’re lucky if we have even fleeting moments like this.

She means for this vision of transcendent, hyper-vulnerable sex to appeal to men and women equally, and quotes the American queer theorist Leo Bersani, for whom ‘phallocentrism is not “primarily the denial of power to women”, though it is that too; it is “above all the denial of the value of powerlessness in both men and women.”’

I think Angel is right to identify this rejection of vulnerability – which is to say, a ‘disidentification with the feminine’ – as that which lies at the heart of heterosexual malaise. Yet she spends very little time thinking about how men might be persuaded to abandon their ‘fantasy of sovereignty.’ Angel, too, is in danger of expecting women to do the work of heterosexual love. Her book is not explicitly addressed to women, but she spends very little time examining male desire, and so much critiquing the topos of the enthusiastically consenting woman – ‘an idealised, gutsy woman who knows what she wants and can shout it from the rooftop’ – that it feels like she is asking women to embrace a vulnerability that too many of us fear will be used against us. Angel asks, ‘why should we not expect men to proceed, with us, in exploration?’ Sure, we should expect it. But can we? She asks ‘whether the burden of sexual ethics should be placed on consent, rather than, say, conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty,’ while acknowledging in the same breath that these are ‘all things, as it happens, that are stigmatized within traditional masculinity.’

The American poet and essayist Maggie Nelson explores similar territory in her new collection, On Freedom. Like Angel, Nelson is also the author of a very open and vulnerable sexual memoir, The Argonauts (2015), and believes that owning up to one’s own sexual proclivities is the price of entry to any discussion that subjects desire to philosophical or feminist scrutiny. She shares Angel’s wariness of ‘sexual moralism in all its forms – including its feminist forms’ and is suspicious of ‘any ideology that purports to know what ethical sex is, what falls outside its limits, and how its outliers should be punished.’ In ‘The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,’ the second of the collection’s four essays, Nelson sounds a series of warnings: of imagining that sex will be good only when all power relations are magically erased; of anyone holding out hope of getting through sexual life and all its psychodrama unscathed; and of ‘the difficulties in blithely telling women that they need to get clearer about knowing and expressing what they want.’

Each sexual exchange – particularly ones performed with partners you haven’t repeatedly had sex with, but even then – is going to resemble a certain wandering into the woods, because of the fundamental unknowability of ourselves and each other, and the open question of what any new interaction might summon. This inchoateness is not just a by-product of sexual experience. It is part of what makes it worthwhile.

Nelson’s is an optimistic essay, and perhaps more soberly so than Angel’s. She acknowledges the bind that stymies women in a culture that still renders female desire ‘imperceptible, irrelevant, or impugning.’ But she gives equally short shrift to a feminism that wags its finger at ‘a different kind of freedom drive – one that longs to be self-forgetful, incautious, overwhelmed.’ Sexual openness isn’t weakness, and it might not even be properly characterised as submissive. Feminism still hasn’t found a way to talk about such desires without ‘worrying that something politically wicked is afoot,’ but women’s desire cannot and should not be made to take the blame. Rather, Nelson argues, it is patriarchy’s insistence that women place the erotics of yielding and surrender ‘at the centre of their sexuality in a compulsory fashion’ that is the problem.

Nelson has some advice for straight people – women and men – trying to escape the tiresome and damaging ‘doxa [that] holds that sex exalts men and degrades women.’ Her own experience of queer life – its activism, its lovemaking and its theorising – informs her argument throughout the essay, and Nelson thinks queer wisdom can teach straight people how to navigate the moral and physical perils of sexuality without giving up their desires. Building a queer community in the face of the AIDS crisis, Reaganism and homophobia taught Nelson that ‘if you want a reality in which it’s the “narrow-minded idiots” who seem like the outliers and intruders, you can find it and live it.’ Her own experience of ‘floating between’ queer and hetero realms has shown her ‘that most sexual lessons are eminently transferable; the concept of benign sexual variation does not apply to queers only (even “queerness” may not apply to queers only).’

At the same time, she tells us – particularly against the horrifying backdrop of a constant stream of victim-survivor testimony and grim news of yet another footballer on trial for rape – that we need to find a way of talking about our vulnerability to and in sex in a way ‘that doesn’t demand the building of walls or living in a constant state of crisis.’ She is insistent that power imbalances will always be part of sex – one half of the couple might be richer, cleverer, less in love or less wounded – and that we need to think of those imbalances in a way that doesn’t render consent terminally corrupt or dead-on-arrival. A feminism that focuses too relentlessly on violation and trauma disempowers women, and further alienates us from our own desires. Nelson would like us to think of sex as ‘a scene of learning,’ and one whose lessons might sometimes be painful or awkward. ‘Without scenes of learning,’ she writes, ‘we have no chance of figuring out what we want (or what we might want to get away from).’

Where Angel and Nelson shrink from a political critique of individual, particular desire, the 36-year-old Oxford don, Amia Srinivasan, is unafraid to venture forth. Her first book, The Right to Sex, includes her much-discussed essay of the same name, published in the London Review of Books in 2018. Srinivasan is not interested in the feminist wholesomeness of particular kinks or preferences, but she is interested in the just distribution of sexual pleasure – not just between men and women, but among all human and sexual variants. What, she asks, if our sexual preferences leave many people outside the bounds of acceptable hotness? What would a sexual ethics beyond the limits of consent have to say about that?

While agreeing that to condemn people’s desires is to fall too easily into ‘authoritarian moralism,’ she refuses to let the fear of same prevent us, individually and collectively, from subjecting our sexual preferences to critique. She wants her readers to think about the ways desire is shaped by external forces – prejudice, capitalism, porn – and the ways in which what we want can harm and exclude others, impoverishing the sexual landscape.

When we see consent as the sole constraint on ethically OK sex, we are pushed towards a naturalisation of sexual preference in which the rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact. But not only the rape fantasy. Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies.

Personal preferences, she writes ‘are rarely just personal.’ The multinational companies that own the world’s largest online porn sites don’t simply reflect, but help shape sexual tastes, their algorithms drawing users into a sexual conformity that labours all the expected cliches. And besides, sexual desire is always mingled with other desires – particularly the desire for status. Self-declared incels like the murderous Elliot Rodger don’t feel deprived of sex with women in general, but of sex with women at the top of the sexual hierarchy: those hot blondes. Far from scorning feminism, Srinivasan argues, Rodger might have embraced it as ‘the primary force resisting the very system that made him feel – as a short, clumsy, effeminate, interracial boy – inadequate.’

Other desires come in for Srinivasan’s scrutiny: the desire to ‘believe women’ and to exact punitive justice on rapists, the desire to end the exploitation at the heart of so much porn and sex work, the desire to enact public moral accountability via the social media pile-on. These impulses, particularly when set in motion by the carceral state, will often ‘disproportionately target people who are already marginalised’ – the poor, people of colour and sexual minorities. Srinivasan questions whether any such measures will ever really change anything, and doubts that ‘affirmative consent’ can offer an end to the injustice women face in the courtroom when seeking accountability for rape. She cites Catharine MacKinnon, who pointed out that where once a woman needed to prove she said no, a man now just has to show he got her to say yes.

How do we formulate a regulation that prohibits the sort of sex that is produced by patriarchy? Could the reason that this question is so hard to answer be that the law is simply the wrong tool for the job?

And if not the law, then what? Education? Srinivasan has her doubts there, too. As we await the new sex-ed curriculum, both the national and NSW models, it’s hard to envisage one that talks openly about desire and pleasure, invites students to examine what they want and why they want it, asks what porn might be saying or not saying about female desire, presents heterosexuality as one choice among many (just imagine the conniptions Mark Latham might suffer), and helps students analyse patriarchal constructions of sex. As Srinivasan asks: ‘which state is going to pay for that?’ (I recently attended a webinar for parents on consent education, hosted by the NSW Department: the patriarchy did not come in for a mention.)

Perhaps Srinivasan’s book represents the kind of education that teachers of sex-ed, their students and even many self-avowed feminists might find useful. Its critique of carceral feminism is particularly relevant to us here in Australia, where black and Indigenous feminists have pointed out the ways in which new laws to address coercive control, pushed for by many women’s advocates, risk further harm to women of colour and their communities. Srinivasan’s writing is at its most interesting when it marries theory with direct experience – like the conversations she has with her students about porn – and she pays close attention to black, Dalit and trans experience. Her research is as good as her analysis, and her grasp of feminist history might be particularly useful to readers who are relatively new to its ideas.

The same can be said of Jane Ward’s book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. Ward is an American gender theorist who, like Srinivasan, turns with fresh eyes to an earlier, more radical feminism and finds value there, especially in ‘the reasonable suggestion that women stand to gain more than they lose by extracting themselves from heterosexual culture and cultivating queerness.’ For Ward, straight relationships are ‘rigged from the start’ and ‘coercive and male-centric straight sex is normalized because heterosexual love is already constructed as a sacrifice for women.’

To prove her point, she makes a close study of the ‘heterosexual repair industry’ and its close relative, the male seduction industry. Her history of the marriage manual – from Marie Stopes’ 1918 Married Love to the 1990s bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – and its place in the evolution of modern marriage is both fascinating and grimly hilarious. Her analysis exposes the far-from-‘natural’ nature of heterosexual companionship, and the ways in which capitalist modernity has exerted itself in its service:

self-help writers have told the millions of straight people who have bought their books [that] heterosexuality works best when men and women learn to say and do things that they don’t actually want to say or do, for the sake of heterosexuality.

I challenge any straight person, no matter how reconstructed, to read this book without suffering at least one wince of self-recognition.

Ward’s ethnographic study of the seduction-coaching scene is not as depressing as it might be. The industry sprang from the feral pick-up artist phenomenon, and while it clings to many a sexist trope (and evidences the ongoing male obsession with ‘young white girls’), it can – sometimes – encourage empathy, with role-reversal exercises that ask men to put themselves in women’s shoes, encouraging them to think ‘beyond consent to consider the quality of women’s sexual experiences.’ Indeed, some of the groups Ward studied showed that ‘today’s game is about exuding a more reserved and sophisticated masculinity, an irresistible merging of male strength with a worldly, near-feminist respect for women.’

And yet, it’s this ongoing investment in an essential masculinity that Ward and her queer friends find so depressing, stupid and tedious in straights. Her book is an often-funny queer-theorist’s-eye for the straight guy-or-gal. One of its chapters, ‘A Sick and Boring Life: Queer People Diagnose the Tragedy,’ contains a litany of queer commentary that stands in horror and disbelief at what straight people inflict on themselves and one another.

Yet she knows that most straight people are committed to straightness, and while she hopes men see that feminist sympathies might improve their chances on the dating circuit and enrich their relationships, she doesn’t want them to become feminists out of self-interest.

I want men to be feminists because they value women’s humanity, because they identify with women… [S]traight women, for their part, must be bold enough to expect this from men, to demand so much more of straight men’s ostensible love of women. Men who say they love women need to show women the receipts.

But one wonders how many men will ever read Ward’s book, or, indeed, any of the books discussed here. Yet another recent feminist tome, The Authority Gap by British journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Seighart, draws on research the author commissioned that shows men overwhelmingly refuse to so much as read novels written by women, let alone feminist polemics. It’s as though they feel they stand to lose something by identifying with us.

Amia Srinivasan asks, ‘What does it really take to alter the mind of patriarchy?’ The answer seems to be, unsurprisingly, that it’s men who need to change. It must be acknowledged that they have had ample time and opportunity to do so. There is much talk of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the ways in which patriarchy poisons men’s inner lives and relationships. There are signs of modest hope: the enormous heterosexual appeal of Harry Styles, undimmed by his new penchant for tutus; Ted Lasso. Yet mostly when we look around us – at a government that has so far refused to legislate on the recommendations it commissioned to keep women safe from assault and harassment in the very Parliament; at mouth-foamers in high-viz, shouting misogynistic slogans, denouncing vaccination and chanting, somewhat incoherently, ‘Lest We Forget’ – it’s difficult not to despair. Do men want what feminism and true sexual liberation are offering them? Do they want it more than the psychic pleasures and privilege of staying on top? And if the answer is no, what should feminists do with ourselves? Keep writing books they won’t read?