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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 Mon 30-Sep-13 20:55:14

Would agreement be at least a start instead of consent? It seems more like the parties start on an equal footing.

badguider Mon 30-Sep-13 21:15:03

I must admit I was completely lost on this thread until the poster made the comparison with medical consent and that struck me as completely relevant. I do not "consent" to dh doing sex to me. Not at all. It's an activity we do together when we both feel like it, a state that is communicated through actions and body language in a type of personal code refined throughout our marriage. This type of intimate personal code does not exist in casual encounters and new couplings or in relationships where communication has broken down or was always poor and I think this does make "consent" or whatever you want to call it more problematic in those situations.

FloraFox Mon 30-Sep-13 21:18:40

Rosabud your teenager analogy really works for me.

The issue of consent as acquiescence / letting something happen is at the heart of patriarchal culture. Women as the subjugated sex class. It pervades our culture from princesses wanting to be rescued to the notion of women having rape / BDSM fantasies. I very much agree with grennie that choices are made within a cultural context. (One of the reasons I don't place much value on "choice" as a desired outcome of feminism.)

In this context, women and men eroticise women's submissive role. I don't mean that men and women are acting out 50 shades type crap every time they have sex. However the idea of woman as passive, waiting for her man is still prevalent in our culture although perhaps not to the same extent it was 40 years ago.

I can see some seeds here for "sex positive" thinking as a way to liberate women from this culture of submission, to be actors rather than consenters. However, I don't believe that behaviours which derive from the culture of subjugation and objectification (e.g. stripping, pornography, prostitution, etc) can be "reclaimed" in a meaningful feminist way. It's no coincidence that "consent" is always used to defend or uphold these activities. I agree with beach re consent to medical procedures - something that you would prefer not to have happen to you.

MiniTheMinx Mon 30-Sep-13 21:42:48

You are on a roll Beachcomber smile

Thinking not academically but from personal experience now, (too tired to think coherently, first day at uni today [sleepy emotion]) where there is domestic violence can there ever be meaningful consent? I'm not talking about rape but where a women actively or even enthusiastically engages in sex with a partner who she is afraid of. Of course there could be times when she is in actual fear and has some anxiety about provoking attack but there might be no immediate fear. I'm not certain I can get my head around it, partly because a very good friend was a victim of DV and she was besotted with her abuser. How could this be?

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-Sep-13 22:08:16

Great thread.

Good point re the medical comparison. Personally I am jolly grateful to the medical professionals who have looked after me... but consenting to a medical procedure involves passivity, lying there and keeping still while unpleasant things are done to you (albeit for your own good). Also, there is an unequal power balance. In no way is the experience comparable to mutually enthusiastic and loving sex.

In the DV case, Mini, I don't think it's meaningful consent if the woman doesn't feel she can say no. There is a wider issue of course about traumatic bonding too... it's a well-established phenomenon.

CailinDana Mon 30-Sep-13 22:43:53

Having a weird moment where it feels like someone's downloaded my rambly thoughts and written them out in a brilliantly coherent way.

Will write more tomorrow when my brain is functioning again.

Beachcomber Mon 30-Sep-13 23:07:53

I'm so glad this is speaking to people. Really glad.

It's a bit late so am going to read posts and hopefully we'll continue this discussion tomorrow.

YoniBottsBumgina Tue 01-Oct-13 00:24:36

I was talking about a past DV (EA) relationship of mine the other day. In the early days I wanted sex, but as it went on it became another control mechanism and I stopped wanting it. I still consented, sometimes I even enjoyed it once it got started, but I barely ever wanted it.

If that makes sense I think that is probably the crux of it. It's totally possible to consent to something that you don't want, but sex should be something that's wanted on both sides. I don't think that you can not-consent to something you want really can you?

I do think the PIV argument is hugely relevant here as well. Hugely. Because you can want (and, evidently, consent to) say, cuddling, or kissing or touching or oral and yet not want PIV. But because of the cuddling and kissing and/or oral you are assumed to have consented to PIV. With a man who respects sexual boundaries then sure, you can stop things and say "Actually no I just want to do X right now" and he will stop, but it would be considered strange to do this more often than some of the time. Some men would certainly feel hard done by. And then there's a kind of guilt about getting him worked up (anyone else felt this?) and a sense of "Oh, well it's gone this far, might as well finish it" but mostly, it's that feeling that once you've consented to one thing it means you consent to everything, as long as it falls under a "vanilla" kind of umbrella or even under the umbrella of "things you have wanted to do before".

And there are times when you get caught up in the moment and genuinely do change your mind about what you want, but I'm not talking about that, I'm talking about the times when you don't really want to continue onto PIV and you're faced with that choice of whether to ask him to stop or just go along with it.

MatildaWhispers Tue 01-Oct-13 00:50:48

I have been reading, but I am no good at the theoretical side only personal experience.

Having been in a sexually abusive relationship, there were certainly still times when I thought I had 'properly' consented and sometimes even initiated sex. But it was always in a period when my partner was being seemingly nice to me and I was in total denial about how shit it could be at other times. I am not sure that I wanted sex exactly at these times, there was an underlying expectation, but I did often enjoy it when it once it was happening.

However, at other times consent was undeniably meaningless. If I said no, he would pester and pester, repeating the same request for sex, until it drove me nuts and the easiest thing was to give in and say 'ok' - as at least if I 'consented' I would get to go to sleep afterwards rather than be kept awake by his constant demands. But that wasn't really consenting in the true sense, obviously. Also, if I tried to complain at all, or gave any indication afterwards that I was angry or upset because I had not in fact wanted sex, it would be thrown back at me that I had agreed to sex so I could not complain about it.

And then in the end there were other times when I was pestered for sex and afraid of him, and I knew that he was going to do it anyway regardless of what I said or did, so the easiest thing in that situation was to 'consent'. That was easiest all round, because then we both knew that he would not end up forcing himself on me and it would not feel afterwards as if he had raped me.

It is so completely fucked up really, and I am very glad I am no longer in such a mess of a relationship.

HerrenaHarridan Tue 01-Oct-13 01:18:37

Marking my place with a wee anecdote.

Years ago when asked by a young lad who was just embarking on his first sexual relationship for some advice, I told him this

"Never enter her early on, hold off and hold off, tease and touch and caress in every way you can until her nails are digging so hard into your arse to pull you into her that your in danger of having new holes in your bum."

They are still together 10 years later and have two kids now so I think she appreciated my advice


DadWasHere Tue 01-Oct-13 02:09:49

Yoni I once knew a woman who had a generalised fear of intimacy. It became for her a 'russian doll' (the dolls that stack within one another) problem that locked her out of intimate experience sometimes at all levels, unless she were able to get 'caught up in the moment' and so managed to give herself permission to pass to a deeper level of intimacy. Sometimes she could not even enjoy holding hands because she wondered if it would lead to an embrace, which might lead to a kiss, which might lead to being fondled, which might lead to being undressed, which might lead to oral sex, which might lead to intercourse.

It was about what she wanted for herself. While she could recognise on an intellectual level that 'sometimes a kiss is just a kiss' she could not give herself permission to enjoy it because of the possibility of other dynamics being in it, her own dynamics more than mine I think. You say 'there are times when you get caught up in the moment and genuinely do change your mind about what you want'. She was locked into simultaneously hoping yet fearing she might (or might not) get caught up in that moment. She said she had not suffered any specific abuse (although she could have concealed that from me) but had arrived in her paralysing situation because she had 'consented' too often to PIV sex she did not want to have. I begged her to seek counselling but unfortunately she would not.

ModeratelyObvious Tue 01-Oct-13 07:19:43

Dad, I don't think that woman is unique.

Conjugal rights and so on are a bit of a cliche and it's by no means "all men", of course, but it's baked into our culture that only PIV sex is real sex and men prefer PIV sex and think something is missing without it. See, for example, the joke in Friends about how kissing is like the comedian warming the crowd up before the rock concert for men - "you like the comedian but he's not why you bought the ticket."

Even Herrena's anecdote, which sounds like good advice, is acknowledging that PIV is the ultimate "goal".

ithaka Tue 01-Oct-13 07:32:11

I don't like Herrena's anecdote, because it assumes all women want the same kind of sex, when they don't.

The fact someone is married for 10 years with 2 kids does not mean that they are having great sex - or that they ever did have.

So many massive assumptions in that post.

YoniBottsBumgina Tue 01-Oct-13 08:01:45

I agree Moderately. I think this is horrendously common, actually. It might not be "specific abuse" but it is certainly a sexually abusive and entitled attitude from a previous partner which has brought this fear upon her.

There is a thread about once a week or more on relationships where the poster admits (if not straight away, at some point) she does not even want to kiss her DH for fear that he will take it as a green light for sex.

It is very sad. In my experience as well the disconnect from sex never truly leaves you once you get into the pattern of dissociating from it.

Plus this whole scenario then feeds back into the "men like/need sex more than women" or even "women don't really like sex but they do it to please their man" myths. Aaargh!

Beachcomber Tue 01-Oct-13 08:33:03

So sorry to hear of those who have been in abusive relationships, thanks for sharing. That sort of ongoing situation is such a good example of the sort of thing we are talking about - the woman 'consents' and the sex is had, but she didn't want it. And, yes, it is assumed that the sex will be PIV.

And, yes to this Flora;

The issue of consent as acquiescence / letting something happen is at the heart of patriarchal culture. Women as the subjugated sex class. It pervades our culture from princesses wanting to be rescued to the notion of women having rape / BDSM fantasies. I very much agree with grennie that choices are made within a cultural context. (One of the reasons I don't place much value on "choice" as a desired outcome of feminism.)

Yes, I see the goal of feminism as 'liberation'; not choice. Real choice (if it even exists within human society) can only come with liberation.

WRT to 'sex positivism' (a concept which for me has a whole bunch of problems, but I won't go into that just now), I can't take it very seriously as there is so very little analysis of what sex is for women. Of what the female perspective is. I also think it is an exclusionary movement as 'sex positivism' is an utter nonsense to so many women, it just isn't on their radar. How are trafficked women, pimped prostitutes, girls and women in unwanted arranged marriages, women with no access to contraception, women with no access to abortion, etc. supposed to feel about such a movement? Or even just us women who simply do not want to be defined by sex as it is the thing via which we are oppressed.

Mini, this is exactly what MacKinnon is getting at when she says; 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. (Good luck with uni!)

And Mooncup's point is a good one too when you say; I don't think it's meaningful consent if the woman doesn't feel she can say no. MacKinnon also talks about that in her lecture. She asks where is the agency or how valid is the 'choice/consent' if the women does not feel that she can say no or is in circumstances that cut off the opportunity for her to say no because she does not have real alternatives.

Also, so true what you say Yoni about how consenting to (or wanting) a cuddle or other forms of touching very often being taken as implied consent for PIV.

This brings me back to what Dworkin says here;

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.

And it was why I disagreed with DasWasHere when he said that he thought this notion was old. Women all over the world today are living this experience of it being assumed and expected that our bodily integrity can be encroached upon and that that is normal because 'it is sex'. It is just sex. And women are expected to have sex and of course what we mean by that is PIV.

Like what Matilda says about pestering. Pestering is an expectation that women exist to be possessed by others. It is nagging at a woman to stop withholding something the man feels is his right - her body.

Lots to think about here. Thanks for all the great posts, especially those generous enough to share personal stuff. I'm sorry if this is raking up painful memories for anyone.

ModeratelyObvious Tue 01-Oct-13 08:50:41

But yoni, I don't think a woman has to have been with a previously abusive partner to have internalised messages about PIV being the goal, don't be a cock tease, men give love to get sex whilst women give sex to get love, if you loved me you would, blue balls, Judy Blume's Forever - "once you've done it, you can't go back to holding hands"- with my body I thee worship, a marriage can be annulled if it's not consummated and so on and so on ad infinitum.

All cultural messages are, if you go to bed and don't have PIV, it's like taking your partner's plate away halfway through dinner. Whereas perhaps it should be more like a buffet, sometimes you pick this and sometimes that.

Grennie Tue 01-Oct-13 08:55:02

I have come across a few women on the net, who have male partners, have a sexual relationship, but don't have PIV. One has never had PIV. I and others, were very surprised that such relationships existed. And that says it all really. PIV is an expected part of the package of sex. When it should just be part of a menu of choices.

I read somewhere about a survey that showed women self reporting that they were far more likely to orgasm through other kinds of sex than PIV. If there was to be a female sexuality, these other kinds of sex would make more sense as the "goal" than PIV.

Beachcomber Tue 01-Oct-13 08:58:31

And another thing! I seem to have lots to say today...

The idea that there is something wrong with a woman who doesn't want 'sex' AKA PIV.

I remember going through a sustained period of not wanting sex after my first child was born. All the usual stuff, I was knackered, sleep deprived, breastfeeding, learning how to look after a baby, fairly isolated and felt totally 'touched out' by the constant physical contact with my baby. I had also just spent nine months being pregnant and had given birth - with all that entails WRT to hormones, pain, tiredness, etc, plus all the being touched by other people that happens to a woman during pregnancy and childbirth.

At first I expected to feel like this but then as the months went on I began to wonder if there was something 'wrong' with me. I was quite happy without sex so why was I asking myself if there was something 'wrong'?

There was nothing wrong, my feelings were completely normal. It lasted for about a year I think and then gradually (especially after I stopped breastfeeding) desire came back.

And this is where I get cross with contraception sometimes and I think it is very much part of this debate. Yes contraception protects women from unwanted pregnancies and that is a good thing. However, contraception also exposes women to unwanted sex.

It is normal for a woman who has a small baby to not want PIV because she doesn't want to get pregnant again. My body was telling me that and I was listening to it - however contraception falsifies this situation because it is possible to prevent a pregnancy.

I hate that effing 6 week check up thing where someone checks out the woman's undercarriage and gives her the green light to 'get back to normal relations'.


Your fanjo has just about repaired itself so you can (should) get back to some good old PIV action.

This is what I mean about the male perspective being dominant in sexuality. (Yes I know there are some women who want to have intercourse at this point if not before.)

Grennie Tue 01-Oct-13 09:03:11

I have a friend who was treated for vaginimus i.e. the vagina closing up and preventing PIV. The assumption of everyone, including herself, was that she needed treatment so she could have PIV. Nobody ever suggested that she obviously didn't want PIV, so didn't have to have it.

Bunnylion Tue 01-Oct-13 09:07:05

Yoni the myth you mentioned that women don't like sex and do it to please their man is, I'm sure, responsible for a lot of very unhealthy "consensual" sex within relationships.

A very good friend of mine always worried her boyfriend would leave her and had very low self esteem. He was the only person she'd slept with and was with him for 7 years.

She once told me she feels very low and emotional after sex and asked if I did too, she opened up and it turns out her man was obsessesed with porn and would make her watch it, tie her up, cover her face and humiliate her - acting out his dark fantasies every time they did it - since she was 15 years old. She went along with this to please him, as she felt that's what all women do and that he'd leave her if she didn't do what was expected. I was heartbroken and furious but eventually helped her LTB.

She always seemed insecure and unsure of her self but I would never have guessed she was going through this every day. I wonder how many other women are going through similar. Consent is totally meaningless when society has convinced you that your body is not your own.

ModeratelyObvious Tue 01-Oct-13 09:18:40

Good point about contraception, Beach.

PIV is the goal because it's how you make a baby. But I guess around 80% of the PIV that happened in developed countries last night was nothing to do with making babies (insert your own % guess above, but I'm sure it's more than 50%)

So, men and women know this, on a conscious level. PIV is just one of the ways to reach orgasm and show physical love.

In the "bases" mentioned above, I'm sure most teenagers involved in getting to fourth base would rather not conceive either.

So why is it so often the goal?

Grennie Tue 01-Oct-13 09:24:01

Why is it so often the goal?

Because it is the kind of sex men enjoy?
Because it involves men dominating women?

YoniBottsBumgina Tue 01-Oct-13 09:42:18

I know I've always been told by men that there's a scale, going from wank < hand job < blow job < PIV (with anal coming either above or below PIV or sometimes below oral depending on the man's preference)

Just because of the physical feeling, apparently this is the scale of how nice it is. With a penis being less complex than female sex organs it seems to make sense. Although how much is this socialised as well? With the idea that for women their preferences vary wildly with what they prefer as the "best" thing but men apparently all like the same things?

Also YY, funny when you think about it, that the "ultimate goal" is the same as the "top sexual act for men" hmm

badguider Tue 01-Oct-13 10:02:58

This is where I get confused. Surely PIV isn't socialised into us, surely it's a base evolutionary instinct?
The enjoyment if it, when sex is really "good" is (I think) in surrendering to your primitive instinct without "thinking" or social norms, particularly for men who run no risk of conception themselves.

Avoiding PIV for contraceptive reasons is "being sensible" which is never as freeing as just letting go.

YoniBottsBumgina Tue 01-Oct-13 10:08:20

I don't see why it can't be both? I can see the argument that the base instinct leans towards PIV as a goal.

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