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Consent - is it a meaningful concept?

(324 Posts)
Beachcomber Sun 29-Sep-13 12:32:58

On the recent ‘Invisible Men’ thread, the concept of consent came up and was discussed. I posted referring to the following quote from Catharine MacKinnon in which she questions whether consent in male female sexual relations, within the context of a patriarchal society which is founded on dominance /submission is a meaningful concept; and she concludes that it is not. Which is quite a statement.

Quite a few posters expressed an interest in having a thread on the subject of consent and MacKinnon’s analysis of it. I have been meaning to start the thread for a while, so here it is.

Here is the quote from MacKinnon. It is from her book “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State”, specifically from the chapter ‘Rape: On Coercion and Consent’ which you can read Rape: On Coercion and Consent here (It does help to read the whole chapter which is a searing piece of feminist analysis from an utterly brilliant woman. )

"The deeper problem is that women are socialized to passive receptivity; may have or perceive no alternative to acquiescence; may prefer it to the escalated risk of injury and the humiliation of a lost fight; submit to survive. Also, force and desire are not mutually exclusive under male supremacy. So long as dominance is eroticized, they never will be. Some women eroticize dominance and submission; it beats feeling forced. Sexual intercourse may be deeply unwanted, the women would never have initiated it, yet no force may be present. So much force may have been used that the woman never risked saying no. Force may be used, yet the woman prefer the sex - to avoid more force or because she, too, eroticizes dominance. Women and men know this. Considering rape as violence not sex evades, at the moment it most seems to confront, the issue of who controls women's sexuality and the dominance/submission dynamic that has defined it. When sex is violent, women may have lost control over what is done to them, but absence of force does not ensure the presence of that control. Nor, under conditions of male dominance, does the presence of force make an interaction nonsexual. If sex is normally something men do to women, the issue is less whether there was force than whether consent is a meaningful concept."

Another text which was brought up in the discussion was the section on sexual intelligence by Andrea Dworkin in the chapter “The Politics of Intelligence” from her book “Right-Wing Women”.

Here is a link to a pdf of the book, I’m afraid the quality isn’t great. The relevant section starts on page 50 of the pdf (page 54 of the book).

I can’t select the text due to the format so have typed up a section from my copy of the book – please forgive any mistakes! The entire chapter and book is brilliant feminist analysis so I urge women to read it – it is one lightbulb moment after another and wonderfully written, Dworkin’s pace is incredible and her clarity of thought exceptional. (I have added some paragraphs in order to make it easier to read.)

“Sexual intelligence asserts itself through sexual integrity, a dimension of values and actions forbidden to women. Sexual intelligence would have to be rooted first and foremost in the honest possession of one’s own body, and women exist to be possessed by others, namely men. The possession of one’s own body would have to be absolute and entirely realised for the intelligence to thrive in the world of action. Sexual intelligence, like moral intelligence would have to confront the great issues of cruelty and tenderness; but where moral intelligence must tangle with questions of right and wrong, sexual intelligence would have to tangle with questions of dominance and submission.

One preordained to be fucked has no need to exercise sexual intelligence, no opportunity to exercise it, no argument that justifies exercising it. To keep the woman sexually acquiescent, the capacity for sexual intelligence must be prohibited to her; and it is. Her clitoris is denied; her capacity for pleasure is distorted and defamed; her erotic values are slandered and insulted; her desire to value her body as her own is paralyzed and maimed. She is turned into an occasion for male pleasure, an object of male desire, a thing to be used; and any wilful expression of her sexuality in the world unmediated by men or male values is punished. She is used as a slut or a lady; but sexual intelligence cannot manifest in a human being whose predestined purpose is to be exploited through sex.

Sexual intelligence constructs its own use: it begins with the whole body, not one that has already been cut into parts and fetishized; it begins with a self-respecting body, not one that is characterized by class as dirty, wanton and slavish; it acts in the world, a world it enters on its own, with freedom as well as with passion. Sexual intelligence cannot live behind locked doors, any more than any other kind of intelligence can. Sexual intelligence cannot exist defensively, keeping out rape. Sexual intelligence cannot be decorative or pretty or coy or timid, nor can it live on a diet of contempt and abuse and hatred of its human form. Sexual intelligence is not animal, it is human; it has values; it sets limits that are meaningful to the whole person and personality, which must live in history and in the world.

Women have found the development and exercise of sexual intelligence more difficult than any other kind: women have learned to read; women have acquired intellect; women have had so much creative intelligence that even despisal and isolation and punishment have not been able to squeeze it out of them; women have struggled for a moral intelligence that by its very existence repudiates moralism; but sexual intelligence is cut off at its roots, because the women’s body is not her own.

Okay. The OP is pretty huge so I will leave it at that and post my own thoughts in subsequent posts. This one is just meant to provide the material for discussion. I suppose this thread should really be in the feminist theory section of MN but I don’t really agree with the existence of that section so here it is in the regular feminist hang out!

ModeratelyObvious Sun 29-Sep-13 13:50:48

Thanks for starting the thread Beach.

WhentheRed Sun 29-Sep-13 16:07:44

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

YoniTime Sun 29-Sep-13 16:17:21

Thank you for starting this Beachcomber.
It was the Invisible men thread that really made me understand that "consent" is a pretty meaningless concept when it comes to sex. It's something that I have suspected before because of how it's used in rape trials. It's also the only real defence that men who use and abuse women via porn and prostitution have - "but she consented!"

CaptChaos Sun 29-Sep-13 16:19:14

Thanks for starting this Beachcomber, I'll read and digest while other, better minds than mine, discuss.

Beachcomber Sun 29-Sep-13 16:35:24

Oh good there are people here already. Excellent and thanks for posting. Was a bit concerned might be total tumbleweed thread due to earnest OP grin

I have put the texts in the OP in case anyone wants to read them. Please don't feel you have to in order to discuss consent as a concept from a female perspective though. I felt uncomfortable with consent for a long time because as YoniTime said, it mostly seemed to be used in order to justify porn, prostitution, pestering of women to have sex they would rather not, etc.

It seemed to me to be used as a 'get out of jail free' card and to invisibilze the actions of men in order to put the focus/responsibility for men's actions onto women.

I struggled for a while trying to get my head around my objections to the concept and then a great MNer (hi Proles) posted the MacKinnon quote on a thread and I had a lightbulb moment.

I know both texts are quite wordy and challenging (well I think they are anyway) so read and comment on them if you like or just post away on consent with reference to other stuff (such as lived experience) if you like. Whatever suits you. I think we women instinctively know about this stuff because we experience it. Reading books and texts helps to get your head around it but they are simply observations of female experience. The personal is the political and all that...

YoniTime Sun 29-Sep-13 16:36:14

And yes the quote about Sexual Intelligence is brilliant btw. I want to read the whole book now. The pdf was quite unreadable.

ReviewsOffers Sun 29-Sep-13 18:16:57

So in a female dominated society, men could consider us as objects to bused etc, but it wouldn't matter as much as we wouldn't be internalising that view.

TY Beach for this loads to think about

ReviewsOffers Sun 29-Sep-13 18:18:16

I'm just mulling ... what I am getting at is that there are two aspects to this. The view, and the imposition of that view.

Beachcomber Sun 29-Sep-13 18:22:35

Yes, I'm sorry for the quality of the pdf. A friend of mine printed it and apparently the quality was fine printed (lots of pages though!).

My copy is second hand and kind of dog eared. It is a phenomenal book and it is absolutely crazy that it is out of print. It should be on the book list for Women's Studies students (do they exist anymore or is it all gender studies nowadays?) and considered a classic iconic piece of political analysis. It is ground-breaking and absolutely blinding feminist analysis and yet most people haven't even heard of it. Dworkin has been successfully sidelined as an extremest because she homes right in on all manner of truths that are very inconvenient.

Even just the concept of 'sexual intelligence' is pretty revolutionary.

Beachcomber Sun 29-Sep-13 18:25:04

Hi ReviewsOffers. I'm not too sure what you are getting at - do you feel like expanding? Your posts are quite cryptic!

Beachcomber Sun 29-Sep-13 18:34:47

I love Dworkin being put in the same league as Orwell in this article.

It is so ironic and awful that she was a living example of her own arguments - women's intelligence is buried, hidden, marginalised, witch-hunted and exploited. Women's' intelligence is lost so much of the time in patriarchy. Purposefully.

MiniTheMinx Sun 29-Sep-13 19:26:24

Thank you Beach off to have a read. I have to print it off, I find it easier to read in paper format!

My first response to Dworkin's concept of sexual intelligence, or at least my understanding of it is, is that women are not able to have integrity or control over sex because they are subordinated not just in terms of having sex (with men) but in every situation.

I have puzzled over this for a long time. Women are seen as the gatekeepers of sex, the implication being that we are not sexual human beings in our own right. Women are socialised to be "good girls" which means that to want or enjoy sex we have to split with this socialised consciousness and adopt another. We are socialised to accept this split in our psyche, deeply rooted (probably from childhood) that sex is something men and only "bad girls" want or enjoy.

This leads me to what MacKinnon says here "force and desire are not mutually exclusive under male supremacy. So long as dominance is eroticized, they never will be. Some women eroticize dominance and submission" Women are denied agency through threat of rape, violence, subordination in all respects of daily life, silencing etc,... and we are socialised to accept that we shouldn't seek agency over our bodies (except to deny men access) either to pursue sex or to deny it. It's a double bind which leaves women having to deny it then relent and acquiesce whether they want sex or not. Of course men are socialised to think in a similar way, so that they hive women into two camps, good and bad and even to think of a woman in a way that denies her integrity. This leaves men thinking that rape rarely happens, that his coercion doesn't constitute rape and that because he got what he wanted she wasn't one of the "good girls" anyway.

Beachcomber Sun 29-Sep-13 19:46:02

Yes. Our agency is reduced to saying 'no' - and maybe being heard if we are lucky. And this is considered to be pretty glittery amazing for women.

And, it is (horribly) a big advance on what we had before and an advance on what many women have in the world today.

MiniTheMinx Sun 29-Sep-13 19:54:28

Yes I think our agency is reduced to saying no but then men are free to interpret this as yes or no. Complicating this whole thing is the fact that we are expected to say no even when we mean yes, which means men can always claim that no means yes because it suits their agenda.

JoTheHot Sun 29-Sep-13 20:01:42

That consent becomes meaningless, and all PIV is thus de facto rape is a banal extrapolation from the opening premiss of a patriarchal society founded on dominance /submission. Life in western Europe bears at most only a fleeting resemblance to such a society, so what is the point of this Gedankenexperiment?

grimbletart Sun 29-Sep-13 20:05:11

Great threat. Ta Beachcomber.

Two things occur to me.

a) what is different about those women who never internalise this destructive attitude? Their childhood, the way they were brought up, their self-confidence, self esteem..or just luck?

b) how misogynistic men manage to exclude themselves from the good/bad concept i.e. they divide women into the girls you fuck and the girls you marry yet don't seem to be able to divide themselves into the boys you fuck and the boys you marry. The classic double standard.

MiniTheMinx Sun 29-Sep-13 20:22:15

JoTheHot How exactly can women have equality when saying no might result in being raped, saying yes results in slut shaming and "saying no really means yes" is assumed by men to be all part of the transaction. If women are not equal in every respect then consent is a meaningless concept. If something is assumed to have no value then anything arising from it is also assumed to have no value. Would you accept the word of a liar? no because the liar has been found to be discredited and his word of no value. If you dehumanise someone do they still have value, do their words have any value? If someone isn't your equal, can you not just speak for them? think for them? If women are not deemed to be equal to men then how can their words have the same meanings and value to those spoken by men?

CaptChaos Sun 29-Sep-13 20:59:51

The PDF version of Right-Wing Women I've downloaded from here is very clear, if that helps anyone?

I'm reading it now, so, once again, will get back to it!

YoniBottsBumgina Sun 29-Sep-13 21:22:07

The concept of consent is problematic when men only seek consent - in healthy sexual relationships where open communication is key and men seek enthusiastic participation, and are ready to stop the minute they suspect this enthusiasm is lacking, it isn't a problem at all.

But we're not talking about healthy relationships here - are we? That isn't the point of the discussion. I think it's really important to separate these out. Remember the proportion of women who have experienced sexual assault, and I think it is, sadly, incredibly rare for women to experience only the kind of sexual relationship I described in my first paragraph from virginity to death. Most of us experience the kind of sexual relationship or encounter where consent comes into it at some point or other.

Bunnylion Sun 29-Sep-13 23:03:07

Thanks Beach. smile

Along with the problem if a dehumanised persons word having little value, is that concent is defined by the rapist, not the victim. Whether she wanted sex or not isn't relevant, it's whether he thought she did. So a man existing within a patriarchal society, where dominance is eroticised, is the person who's understanding of the situation defines the reality.

FloraFox Sun 29-Sep-13 23:22:16

Thanks for starting this thread Beach, I'm really looking forward to it.

I find the extracts you've included in the OP to be enlightening. I too can't believe this work is out of print and not mandatory reading for every women's studies class (not post modern enough, I guess).

I have a tendency to jump right into thinking about what the law should be to address this or how does this thinking fit into the current legal structure. I don't want to do this (yet) because I want to think more deeply about the broader meaning of these ideas.

Yoni I'm not sure we are only talking about unhealthy relationships here. Or perhaps it is a challenge to our thinking about what is healthy and what is not, especially given the huge increase in porn culture.

I'm really intrigued by the phrase "whether consent is a meaningful concept". I need to read the whole chapter to see if I can get my head around that. Does anyone have a view on what MacKinnon means by this?

Grennie Mon 30-Sep-13 00:00:12

I have always seen this phrase as meaning in a patriarchial culture, all women are taught that to have sex with a man, means having penetrative sex. So if we want sex with a man, penetrative sex is part of the "deal". So how can we meaningfully consent, when we do not even think we have a choice to say we want a sexual relationship, without penetrative sex?

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 00:20:45

Yeah, even more people. Fab. You're welcome for the thread, thank you for being here. Now let's stop thanking each other!

MiniTheMinx - yes, I think we are in 'women as gatekeepers of sex' territory with your comment; an extension of the consent concept.

grimbletart - interesting questions. Do you think any women escape the internalization of 'this destructive attitude' ? Perhaps some lesbian women. I doubt there are many of us who are able to withstand our socialization. Your post has really got me thinking.

CaptChaos - good work on better quality copy. Thanks.

YoniBottsBumgina - I think healthy relationships are not excluded as it is so hard to know what is genuine desire and sexuality and what is prescribed/socialization. And that is the headfuck. I think of it more in terms of 'interactions' than 'relationships'.

Bunnylion - yes, in a nutshell. With the perpetrator of a crime/boundary crossing, being the one who gets to decide if another's boundary has been crossed or not depending on his perspective of events. Which is outrageous when you think about it.

"Madam were you raped?"
"Yes, I feel I was, but you better check with my attacker and he will let you know whether he thinks I was or not"

FloraFox - MacKinnon is asking whether the concept of consent has any real human merit or if it is an artefact of patriarchal society. Consent is often presented as being an infallible 'thing' that exists and that we all accept. MacKinnon is saying 'woah hold on a minute, who decided that this concept is of worth and under what circumstances'. She then suggests that the answers to these questions show the concept of consent to not be meaningful (other than perhaps as a patriarchal social construct). A bit like gender.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 00:22:57

Grennie, Yes, that too, I think what you say is an intrinsic part of what MacKinnon is touching on.

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