The limits of “consent culture”

Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again argues popular feminism’s focus on consent is dangerously inadequate. 

 

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In December 2012, a website appeared seemingly advertising a new line of lingerie in the Victoria’s Secret “Pink” collection. The site, pinklovesconsent.com, showed images of brightly coloured underwear emblazoned with slogans such as “No Means No”, “Ask First” and “Consent is Sexy”. “Victoria’s Secret is using its nationally recognised image to lead the country in the next sexual revolution: CONSENT,” a press release about the website declared.

Victoria’s Secret had produced no such underwear. The site was created by Force, “a collective dedicated to constructing a culture of consent”, which objected to the brand’s very real thongs embellished with the phrase “Sure Thing”. Lawyers representing Victoria’s Secret had the fake website swiftly removed. But a few years later, as brands began to capitalise on popular feminist messaging to sell products, the idea of pro-consent lingerie seemed far from outlandish. In 2015 the New York Times ran a feature on “feminist underwear”. At Paris Fashion Week in February 2020, Dior models walked beneath three giant neon signs reading “CONSENT”.

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The phrase “consent culture” is usually used by activists as a shorthand for an abstract ideal, an alternative to the rape culture that feminists widely agree dominates society today. It’s also used pejoratively by right-wing reactionaries who believe that the #MeToo movement is part of a culture war against spontaneity, romance and flirtation that ends with all men having to secure a contract signed in blood from any woman they so much as pay a compliment to. But in her new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel sees consent culture as both real and dangerously limiting, describing it as “the widespread rhetoric claiming that consent is the locus for transforming the ills of our sexual culture”.

It’s true that feminism and the wider popular culture have, in recent years, focused increasingly on the importance of consent in sexual dynamics – a bar so low you couldn’t slide a blood-stained contract underneath it. Consent has become meme-ified. Scrolling through popular Instagram accounts, I see jubilant posts declaring, “It’s a wonderful day to communicate your desires”, “My c***, my rules”, “Let’s get consensual”, and, yes, “Consent is sexy”. (That last slogan, according to Angel, “may well have emerged from critiques mocking [consent] as a buzz-kill”.) Glossed this way, consent becomes a kind of magic word – a performative utterance that neutralises the threat of sexual violence. As long as a woman articulates clearly what she does and does not want, and a man respects those desires, the problems of heterosexual sex can be resolved.

For Angel, this is all too neat, too reductive and too optimistic: a meagre goal that promises too much simultaneously. She questions the idea that women can liberate themselves through sex, citing Michel Foucault: “We must not think that by saying yes to sex one says no to power.” Foucault is sceptical of the language of sexual empowerment. Angel agrees, and her book’s title borrows his eye-rolling summary of such discourse. That our sexual relations should be consensual is, of course, the bare minimum, but Angel argues that consent is “asked to bear too great a burden, to address problems it is not equipped to resolve”, and – perhaps most provocatively – that the rigid framework of consent as we currently understand it is unable to accommodate the uncertainty and discovery involved in erotic exchange.

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Consent cannot account for the fact that many women agree to sex they have no real interest in for a number of reasons; or that women are far more likely to experience and tolerate pain during sex than men. Viewing structural problems through the lens of consent places the problem of pleasure, sexual relations and sexual violence on women – who must know what they want, and be prepared to openly state it, in a culture that often punishes them for their sexuality. “Consent rhetoric doesn’t allow for ambivalence, and it risks making impermissible – indeed dangerous – not simply a difficulty in expressing desire, but the experience of not knowing what we want in the first place,” Angel writes. “A sexual ethics that is worth its name has to allow for obscurity, for opacity, and for not-knowing. We need to start from this very premise – this risky, complex premise: that we shouldn’t have to know ourselves in order to be safe from violence.”

At just over 100 pages without notes, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is a brisk work that sits somewhere between polemic and criticism, citing a mix of academic and cultural sources. Angel makes her case through a number of familiar examples, such as the 2016 quashing of the Welsh footballer Ched Evans’s rape conviction; the 2014 killings committed in California by Elliot Rodger, a misogynist and incel; the sexual abuse allegations against the singer R Kelly; and, of course, the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. She explores depictions of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey, the recent TV series I May Destroy You and idiosyncratic films such as Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir and Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal.

While she bookends the work with opinionated considerations of sexual dynamics, in the two middle sections – “On Desire” and “On Arousal” – Angel refutes scholarly research, dismantling misleading pseudo-scientific conclusions about female sexuality. She examines the ways in which women’s desires (or lack of desire) have been scrutinised, pathologised and misunderstood – from Freudian psychoanalysis and the sexology of Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, to the findings of modern researchers such as the clinical sex therapist Rosemary Basson.

Angel’s accounts of historic research – for example, Masters and Johnson’s 1950s and 1960s observations of “artificial coition” using “a glass dildo (hilariously named Ulysses)” with a built-in camera and light – are voyeuristically fascinating. And her explanation of Basson’s theory that women are more likely to experience “responsive desire” – desire that is triggered by stimuli rather than totally spontaneous – is insightful (even if the concept makes her “nervous”).

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But Angel ultimately concludes that the “fantasy, articulated in breathless accounts of sex research over the years, of getting beyond the deceptive clutter of the mind to the essential truth of the body” is just that: a fantasy. When it comes to understanding our sexual desires, it’s “the subjective – what people say they feel, rather than what their bodies display – that matters most”, Angel writes. And it’s also the more subjective sections of her own book that are the most compelling.

In the final section, “On Vulnerability”, Angel dares to suggest that consent is not sexy. Instead of focusing on “yes” and “no”, we should be aiming for something more complex: “I trust you, we want to be able to say, not to hurt me. I trust you not to abuse your power.” Asserting one’s boundaries can be important, but Angel argues these boundaries must not be allowed to “settle and harden, when one of the pleasures of sex is precisely its changeability, its ability to unfold in ways unpredictable to us”. We do not always know what we want. Perhaps the best sex allows us the joy of finding out.

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent
Katherine Angel
Verso, 160pp, £10.99

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks

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