The persistent nature of sexual violence and harm has become one of the great preoccupations of the past twenty years. For all this public attention, however, there is a remarkable level of equanimity about potential solutions. Regardless of the precise manifestation of harm, we turn to consent, which is frequently characterised as ‘everything’ when it comes to sex. Sexual coercion is thus presented as a problem which is simultaneously intractable and already solved. Here, I suggest that this may prevent us from thinking more deeply about the problem of sexual violence. If we look to prominent cultural representations of consent, we can see that it relies on a simplified model of sexual relations which is undone by actual lived experiences. Instead, I argue, we need to think about the structural barriers that limit sexual autonomy, and pleasure, for us all, and especially for women in heterosexual encounters.
Consent, Tea and the Simplification of Social Interactions
In 2015, Thames Valley Police in the UK released a video as part of their ‘Consent is Everything’ public awareness campaign. The video, ‘Consent: It’s as Simple as Tea’, quickly went viral and is emblematic of the ways in which consent is represented in public messaging by police and other public bodies, including schools and universities. The video claims to educate viewers in consent through the metaphor of tea: ‘If you’re still struggling with consent just imagine instead of initiating sex you’re making them a cup of tea’. Two stick figures act out different scenarios around tea, moving from a simple refusal to one stick figure attempting to pour tea down the throat of the other while they are unconscious. Overall, the video presents consent as a simple yet profound means to eliminate the problem of sexual coercion.
Historically, however, consent is a specific concept that relies on a particular model of social interaction. Legally, consent is considered to perform a ‘moral magic’, which transforms an unacceptably harmful act through the agreement of a consenting legal subject. In this way, for example, rugby tackle is turned from a potential assault is turned into leisure on the sporting field. Within the ‘sexual contract’, consent performs a similar moral magic, turning potential assault into intimacy. Within a heterosexual framework, this has historically meant in effect that women granted men permission to have sex based on a presumption that sex is inherently undesirable and risky for women.
More contemporary framings of consent, like the tea video, attempt to construct a more equal vision where the roles of consent-seeker and consent-giver may be swapped. This is achieved through insisting on a liberal fantasy where two abstract individuals, or ‘stick figures’, encounter each other unencumbered by social hierarchies or conventions, with sexual decision-making based on individual assessments of costs and benefits. This model, however, is not incompatible with the older vision of sex as a form of masculine goal or conquest, as seen in the growing market of consent apps, marketed primarily to heterosexual men so that they can ‘prove’ retrospectively that a sexual encounter was consensual. But while producing a recording of someone agreeing to have sex may be enough to create a legal loophole, it does nothing to demonstrate that the sexual activity that occurred after was mutually wanted or agreed. Instead, this logic suggests that women may be cajoled, induced, or intimidated so long as some technical form of consent is obtained.
As critics of liberalism have long argued, we are not abstract individuals but subjects located within power structures which constrain our ability to make completely unencumbered decisions. Saying we have a free choice whether or not to work, for instance, neglects the fact that most people need to earn a wage in order to clothe, feed, and house themselves. It is for this reason that sociologists tend to talk about our decision-making, especially in key areas, as forms of ‘constrained agency’. We do not make choices in total isolation and freedom. Instead, our decisions are always contextualised and constrained by wider social factors. These include more subtle social conventions, including those which surround the social ritual of tea drinking. An offer of tea and the response to it is generally about far more than the desire for a caffeinated beverage at a specific point in time. Socially, the question can communicate a gesture of comfort or the offer of conversational intimacy. In professional contexts, it can be a way to break the ice or to communicate respect or deference. Given this, answers will generally be framed in response to this wider context and the expectations it engenders. A refusal might be perceived as rude, creating hurt feelings, or, in a professional context, potentially costing career promotion. The social conventions at work will depend on the context and on the social hierarchies in play.
Sex is also a social encounter, surrounded by rituals, conventions, and marked by hierarchies. So, like tea, communication around sex are often about far more than immediate desire. Women particularly have often lacked the social power and authority to make their desires and wishes around sex heard, either in the moment or subsequently, in, for example, rape trials. There are contexts, like marriage, where women have historically been unable to refuse sex and many other situations where women feel pressured to oblige. They may worry that failure to do so will lead to anger or violence, and they will also be aware that engaging or not engaging in particular sexual acts can have reputational consequences. The pressures at work can also be more complicated, in that women may feel that they should have sex because it seems the most appropriate thing given the circumstances, or they may feel that changing their mind about sex is unfair to a sexual partner. And none of these decisions can be disconnected from the wider social contexts that give them meaning or the power relations that shape social possibilities in any given encounter.
Gray Rape? The Problem with Over-Simplification
Ironically, presenting consent as a simple solution to sexual harm can in itself produce confusion about the persistence of sexual violence and its causes. There has, for instance, been much debate in recent decades about the phenomenon of ‘gray rape’, a term popularised by Cosmopolitan magazine in 2007 to describe what they call a ‘new kind of date rape’ and a ‘confusing form of sexual assault’. The article begins with Alicia (a fake name) who had an unwanted sexual experience which she is reluctant to describe as rape, because she doesn’t believe that she was ‘forceful enough in saying no’ and because she thinks of herself as a ‘strong and sexually independent woman, not a victim’. This is what the article labels ‘gray rape’: ‘sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial and is more confusing than date rape because often both parties are unsure of who wanted what’.
According to Cosmopolitan, ‘gray rape’ is ‘a consequence of today’s hookup culture, with lots of partying and flirting, plenty of alcohol, and, ironically, the idea that women can be just as bold and adventurous about sex as men are.’ A generation ago, it was ‘easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape, because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were to be looking for relationships, not casual sex.’ But now, many women feel it’s fine to be ‘the aggressor, which may turn out fine for them — unless the signals get mixed or misread’. The article concludes that women need to acknowledge their vulnerability to violence and avoid getting too drunk, being overly flirtatious, or going home with men. In other words, to return to the sexual norms, the magazine imagines as existing a generation ago, sex as something done by men to reluctant women.
However, despite the claims of the magazine, its description of ‘gray rape’ is not significantly different from understandings of ‘date rape’ in the 1980s. In fact, the first publication devoted to date rape was the book, I Never Called it Rape, with the title referencing women facing the same problems reported by Cosmopolitan: difficulties with defining the precise boundary of consent, worries about their responsibility for what happened, and a reluctance to identify as a victim. The vision of an era where the boundaries of rape were clearly legally and socially agreed upon is a fantasy. Women have been blamed by others, and themselves, for ending up in in sexually risky situations for decades, if not centuries, before the advent of ‘hook up culture’.
What is noteworthy is the extent to which, despite shifts in social norms around sex and dating, consent remains a problem for women. Much of consent education, like the tea video, imagines itself speaking to the active, masculine partner about ensuring that they ‘get’ consent. However, young girls and women, like the ones interviewed in Cosmopolitan consistently report to empirical researchers that they engage in unwanted sex for a variety of reasonsand that they don’t find the model of consent that useful in preventing it. Sometimes this is direct pressure exerted by a sexual partner, but it is often their own sense of what they should do to be a particular kind of sexual subject. Therefore, women speak about not wanting to have fights over sex, not wanting to be seen as asexual or boring, and not wanting to be in a relationship where sex is infrequent or non-existent.
Perhaps what is most tragic in the reports of young women in these articles is the sense that they have somehow failed to live up to the model of idealised sexual subjects and able to choose freely and communicate their desires unconstrained by social hierarchies and conventions. They see themselves as failing to live up to the expectations of a consent model rather than this signalling a need to think differently about how we understand the dangers of sex. Insisting that sex is and should be a simple encounter between abstract individuals unencumbered by social relations leaves us all unable to deal with the reality of sex as a messy encounter between people who come to any sexual encounter through a framework of social conventions, unequal power relations and constrained agency.
The critical theorist Lauren Berlant coined the phrase ‘cruel optimism’ to describe an attachment to something that ‘is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’, even or especially after it has shown itself to not be or do what you have hoped for. For Berlant, this relationship characterises much of contemporary life, both individually and collectively. It is both a coping mechanism that allows us to live with the widespread harm and violence that characterises contemporary capitalism, but it also limits our ability to confront this harm. Here, I want to suggest that, when it comes to sexual violence and harm, consent may operate this way. In this sense, constantly altering our definitions of consent, or attempting to improve it, may simply be a way of evading the realisation that it is not adequate to the weighty task that we have set for it.
The problem of sexual harm is so intractable, because it exists within a framework of social conventions, heterosexual imperatives, and gendered hierarchies. The question is about how we confront and unpick these hierarchies and social conventions in ways that maximise the potential for sexual autonomy. We must insist on a more social understanding of sexual ethics and harm, one that recognises that we are never simply two stick figures contemplating whether in this particular moment we would like a cup of tea. We come to sex, as to our other interactions, with the full weight of our social context and the conventions surrounding us, and it is with these we must work with, and, at times, against if we wish to produce a true sexual ethics capable both of delivering justice in the face of sexual harm and of seeking to minimise and prevent the occurrence of that harm.