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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!

DadWasHere Mon 30-Sep-13 06:48:57

FloraFox: "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?"

You have a choice unless it is taken from you (rape) or you choose to compromise your sexual/personal integrity by allowing 'consent' to a particular sexual activity you would prefer not happen. The 'why' of giving that consent can vary wildly, that’s the problem- necessity, convenience, money, fear, trade-off, maturity, intellectual capacity. The why of it defines the moral (and legal) validity of the 'consent'. 'Consent' means little IMO, enthusiasm and eagerness work better.

However even 'enthusiasm' for sex does not allow for instances of the very young, the abused or diminished capacity individuals who while they may be quite eager to give consent, may also not in be in a fair position to have that choice be positive for them.

The 'women exist to be possessed by others' stance... women as eternally submissive creatures... its rather old and tired IMO. Certainly some women, the insecure, the damaged- they defer who they are to others for control and reward but that need not be about sex or gender- like the daughter who bends over backward for her mother to her own detriment, becoming the weak incompetent her mother needs her to be.

Some confident women like a submissive role in sex by their own concious choice, and they are quite capable of flicking that switch off when they want, they don’t carry that submission into the wider world. Not every woman is a tigress who prefers to ride her man and orgasm in under 60 seconds but neither is a woman who enjoys being on the bottom or taken from behind somehow devaluing her sexuality simply through choice of position, as long as its her choice accompanied with enthusiasm.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 08:51:50

I think MacKinnon's analysis and questioning of consent goes deeper than that. She is questioning whether it is possible for a woman's consent (or even enthusiastic participation) to be meaningful when it occurs within a context of sexual inequality (sex based oppression if you prefer). In a context in which female sexuality is defined within a power dynamic and a political hierarchy. In which female sexuality is defined by men and in which female sexuality is considered to be an intrinsic element of a woman's worth.

It isn't only about allowing things that maybe you would prefer not to happen. It is about having never even thought freely about what you want to happen.

The 'women exist to be possessed by others' stance... women as eternally submissive creatures... its rather old and tired IMO.

Really? Why?

There hasn't been a feminist revolution since Dworkin wrote that. She is writing about women as a class. As long as women as a class are subjected to porn, prostitution, femininity, marriage, rape culture, rape myths, mandatory PIV, objectification of women and girls, sexual harassment, street abuse, domestic violence, a fight for reproductive rights, contraception as normalized, wifework, the feminization of poverty, the institution of motherhood, compulsory heterosexuality, etc; Dworkin's statement will remain true.

BDSM/submissive practices fetishize the domination/submission dynamic upon which patriarchy is founded. That some women enthusiastically participate in such practices does not change this. Who knows where the choice of any individual woman to participate comes from. No woman is an island however so I suspect patriarchal socialization and lived experience as the subjugated sex class.

Grennie Mon 30-Sep-13 09:00:39

Of course lots of women like sex. Although the standard definition of sex is penetrative sex. The reality is that sex encompasses a wide range of activity.

But the idea that "choice" is devoid of cultural influences is a false one. Consider what we eat. In theory any adult with money has a choice over what they eat. In practice, what most people eat varies widely country by country. Of course there are exceptions, but our environment and culture has a massive influence on what we eat.

Similarly with sex. We are taught what sex is i.e. penetration. We are taught normal sex involves the woman being more submissive. We are taught that couples have sex about 2 or 3 times a week. All of thsi has a massive influence on our sex lives. And that is not even considering the influence of pornography.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 10:11:50

Excellent lecture by Catharine MacKinnon on prostitution, trafficking and the constructs of 'consent' and 'agency' within them.

DadWasHere Mon 30-Sep-13 13:00:09

Yes, Beachcomber, MacKinnons view certainly goes deeper, it goes as deep as effectively questioning the morality and legitimacy of an individual woman choosing and enjoying sexual intercourse with a man while women as a group remain collectively bound within constructs of male patriarchy. Why do I find it 'old and tired'? Because it was, IMO, such arrogant presumptions and intrusions about the personal sexualities of women, recast in a wider social context, that began the feminist porn wars.

As to BDSM its something I know virtually northing about so I cant comment on your observations. I am personally repulsed by it and therefore prejudiced to imagine the head-space of people who practice it, presumably of their own free will. I once knew someone who was into the BDSM scene and they said it was an ultimate commitment to trust bordering on love, but I cannot relate to that view.

As to the 'standard definition' of sex being penetration, Grennie, certainly that seems to be the case at least to me, but given its responsible for reproducing the human race I don’t think that will ever change. First-second-third base.. intercourse will always be the 'home run'. Only 25% of women achieve orgasm during intercourse (the vast bulk doing so in the female superior position) Men supposedly think their female partner reached orgasm but are wrong almost half the time. Quite woeful, I hope things improve for women.

But who in this day and age are telling women (at least in western society) that sex involves women being more 'submissive'? Sure, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that young men are being conditioned by porn to think that women commonly like to be ejaculated on as part of sex (sorry, don’t know how to put it delicately) but at the same time its clear that those same young men don’t want a 'submissive' woman, they clearly want one confident enough to take a more dominate role during intercourse.

As to a woman exploring her sexuality I think the days of having to hide her sex toys for fear of the male ego being bruised have now passed. If a man is going to be freaked out by a vibrator or the size of a boiled cucumber- if he cant be an enthusiastic participant in his partners sexuality- honestly I think in this day and age a woman should be telling the fool to flick off because there are plenty more fish in the sea.

DadWasHere Mon 30-Sep-13 13:14:28

Ahh sorry, got the names confused, it was Dworkins views from the PDF book I was talking about, not MacKinnon.

Thanks for interesting thread
(marking place)

YoniBottsBumgina Mon 30-Sep-13 13:41:49

OK, am struggling a bit with the theoretical/academic slant here. Think I will lurk rather than posting smile

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 13:59:25

Don't be put off by the academic stuff please!!!

Although lurking is fine too. smile

DadWasHere - don't you believe that human sexuality is socialized then?

Saying that it is, is not 'arrogant presumptions and intrusions' - it is just statement of fact.

It doesn't mean that feminists think women don't know their own minds or cannot make their own decisions. It means that we are pointing out that choices and decisions are not made within a vacuum.

For instance in MacKinnon's lecture - at one point she talks about choice. She observes that humans do not choose the colour of their skin, the socio-economic class they are born into, etc and we also do not choose the sex we are born into. And within capitalist white supremacist patriarchal society, all of those factors affect our degree of agency; with women as a class having less sexual agency than men.

And that doesn't make women ninnies/submissive creatures/people who don't know their own minds. It makes women oppressed.

Women's choices are already not completely their own simply by the fact of them being women, and living in a society which accords status according to sex, with women being awarded lower status than men.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 14:12:37

it goes as deep as effectively questioning the morality and legitimacy of an individual woman choosing and enjoying sexual intercourse with a man while women as a group remain collectively bound within constructs of male patriarchy.

This is neither MacKinnon's nor Dworkin's view.

This is your interpretation.

Both of them are talking about women as a class, not judging individual women - and they are most definitely not moralising. Neither are they questioning the morals or the legitimacy of individual women's sexual choices. They are questioning the politico-socio context within which those choices are made and how that context affects agency and freedom - they are questioning the legitimacy of the context, not the legitimacy of individual women's behaviour.

They are doing class analysis not slut shaming.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 14:23:01

And I think you may be missing an aspect of how radical feminists use the word 'submissive' in political analysis.

It is meant to encompass women as 'subordinate'.

sub·or·di·nate (s-bôrdn-t)
1. Belonging to a lower or inferior class or rank; secondary.
2. Subject to the authority or control of another.
One that is subordinate.
tr.v. (s-bôrdn-t) sub·or·di·nat·ed, sub·or·di·nat·ing, sub·or·di·nates
1. To put in a lower or inferior rank or class.
2. To make subservient; subdue.
[Middle English subordinat, from Medieval Latin subrdintus, past participle of subrdinre, to put in a lower rank : Latin sub-, sub- + Latin rdinre, to set in order (from rd, rdin-, order; see ar- in Indo-European roots).]

YoniBottsBumgina Mon 30-Sep-13 14:30:13

I'm just finding it hard to follow and comment, it is interesting though, I am reading.

I am much more of a "how does this translate into actual real life interactions" kind of person I think. I struggle with how some of the stuff discussed here does actually translate. Like DadIsHere says, it feels so far removed from Western society.

However I don't think it is as simplistic as it just being wrong. I can see that this kind of thing plays a part and perhaps is underlying everything, but I find it really hard to layer it onto, for example, the relationship I have with my own DH. It's easier to layer it onto "sexual interactions I have had with men in general" because they tend to fit the pattern more, and perhaps this is me trying to make it all about me(!) but what I like about feminism is that so often it does reflect my own experience or the experience of others who I have interacted with at some point, or I can see that although it isn't within my realms of experience, for example, issues about prostitution or which happen in other countries, it makes sense based on my knowledge and experience of people in general. That's what makes it relevant to me.

I find it hard to conflate that with concepts such as "All PIV is fetishised rape" for example.

But, if I have learned anything from the feminist section it's that just because I find it removed it doesn't mean somebody's just made it up, it comes from somewhere and if you follow it long enough it ends up making sense (and I might agree or not, but I need to understand the point first). So I think I will keep reading until that understanding comes. I also kind of wanted to offer/explain this both for those who might look at the premise and think "But that's bonkers and not based in reality at all - feminism is crazy" and for those who are much more familiar with this kind of narrative but forget how far removed it seems when you first come across it.

Surely we're bound to think of how it applies in our own life and relationships too Yoni - sex is a very personal thing after all?
I think the idea that consent isn't really enough and ongoing enthusiastic participation throughout is a more helpful thing to look for/expect is something I hope to share with both dd and ds (currently teenagers/pre-teens)

YoniBottsBumgina Mon 30-Sep-13 14:43:59

YY I definitely agree smile I'm already teaching DS that a game isn't fun unless everyone is enjoying it and encouraging him to look for signs in the other person's body language, facial expressions etc that they are having fun. He is four. It's never too early IMO.

Thanks Yoni, I think practical feminism is important too !

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 15:16:08

But, if I have learned anything from the feminist section it's that just because I find it removed it doesn't mean somebody's just made it up, it comes from somewhere and if you follow it long enough it ends up making sense (and I might agree or not, but I need to understand the point first). So I think I will keep reading until that understanding comes. I also kind of wanted to offer/explain this both for those who might look at the premise and think "But that's bonkers and not based in reality at all - feminism is crazy" and for those who are much more familiar with this kind of narrative but forget how far removed it seems when you first come across it.

I totally get you on this. A lot of feminist analysis/observation, especially if it is radical, challenges things we have grown up to consider as normal/natural/just the way things are/inevitable/true/etc; and feminist thought challenges them as not being the whole truth.

Often feminism is pointing out that those things are only the truth of the current status quo not universal truths or realities of a free humnaity - we are allowed to question the 'truths' of the status quo and find them wanting, we are allowed to point out their flaws; generally the inadequacies are because they are 'truths' dominated by male perspective and which neglect the female perspective.

And often when we first encounter this, it does sound like a bit bonkers because it is questioning things we have been socialized to accept as unquestionable.

Such as PIV. I have never heard or read a feminist say "All PIV is fetishised rape", but I have heard feminists question PIV and its place within human sexuality. When you first hear this it sounds a bit odd but then when you hear feminist arguments about PIV being risky behaviour for women in a way it is not for men, suddenly the feminist stance on PIV makes a whole lot of sense and seems obvious.

I'm not keen on the expression, but a lot of feminist thought is 'thinking outside the box'.

ModeratelyObvious Mon 30-Sep-13 15:20:56

The person who is underneath is not necessarily the person who is submissive (or subordinate which is a better way of putting it as Beach said), DadWasHere

Grennie Mon 30-Sep-13 16:00:06

One of the real life applications is to recognise that to meaningfully consent to any form of sex, you have to be able to say no. So I have had penetrative sex in the pastbecause I wanted sex, and that was just part of it. IfI had not aagreed to penetrative sex, would my paryner have left me? And if he would have, am I really meaningfully consenting?

FloraFox Mon 30-Sep-13 16:37:31

grennie, beach thanks for your responses.

The point about consent having no human merit makes sense to me. It's a useful stepping off point to think about the dynamics of consent. The word itself implies another person making a request. Although the word is often used as if it is an active choice which should be "empowered", the reality is that consent more akin to acquiescence and passivity. An acceptance of an action carried out by someone else.

rosabud Mon 30-Sep-13 19:12:07

I have been lurking and find this subject fascinating but, like Yoni, think what I have to say may not be academicenough. However, ploughing gamely on, one thing that this thread has made me think of is how the concept of consent being meaningless helps to explain another unequal stereotype - the idea that women are emotional and intuitive and men are unemtional decision-makers. If you remove the concept of consent, then you also remove the concept of women as gatekeepers of sex because then the responisibility of emotional understanding is placed on men as well as on women. Men are more than capable of reading an emotional situation correctly (eg, they know, when their teenage child sulkily agrees to do their homework in exchange for being allowed to go out at the weekned, that this is not "meaningful consent" ie they realise their teenager still does not want to do the homework and that, in fact, some kind of bargain has been struck which results in "consent") but, when it comes to sex (and many other decisions that are made within a relationship) men are allowed to ignore the emotional signals of reluctance and are to content themselves with consent.

So, in that sense, the shimera of consent, is shoring up the inequality that exists when women are often socialised to be more emotionally aware than men.

Hope that makes sense.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 19:51:47

Rosabud, I love it. That makes such sense. You are so right that the questioning can be extended to other situations. Your teenager analogy is very perceptive.

As a general comment, there is no not academic enough for feminism. Because feminism belongs to all women.

There are texts and women like MacKinnon who is a pretty formidable - let's face it (I'm glad she's batting for the sisters. Same goes for Dworkin); but they are so not meant to be inaccessible. They are just trying to make their point in a watertight way. And in a way that makes change happen, so they needed to be tight with the language.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 19:57:01

the reality is that consent more akin to acquiescence and passivity. An acceptance of an action carried out by someone else.

Yes to this. And with consent there is an underlying implication of 'letting something be done to one'.

For example we use consent WRT medical interventions.

You consent to a medical intervention. That the same word should be used for sexual interaction, is surely fucked up? Let's face it, when you consent to a medical intervention, it is generally because you have few avenues left to you. So you let something happen that you would probably otherwise prefer not to experience. Non?

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 20:03:33

And MacKinnon is a very accessible woman.

She just happens to be brilliant and have an astounding legal mind too. Like I say, glad she bats for the team I want to support.

Grennie Mon 30-Sep-13 20:17:50

It is routine to see women in long term relationships, who have lost sexual interest in their partner, advised to go ahead and have sex anyway, for the sake of the marriage. This is very like Rosabud's analogy of the teenager.

YoniBottsBumgina Mon 30-Sep-13 20:54:43

YY when you think about the word consent and its meaning in other situations it doesn't mean something that you want to do at all.

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