Obsession: Why Consent is More Than a One-Liner

Reading Chris Thorburn’s “Crimes Against Sex” in a recent Woroni which proposed getting over our “obsession with consent” made me feel physically ill.

Am I too sensitive? Is my hairy-legged, Fenner School brand of feminism getting in the way of a good time? Should I, in fact, just get over it? Let’s make a list and see.

1. The assumption that “by focusing on consent the complexity of sexual experience, both good and bad, is lost” is, I would argue, pretty far off the mark.

Consent is a constant throughout any sexual encounter, be it ill-advisedly drunkenly hooking up with a friend or sleeping with your beau. Consent can be given in a number of ways at any time: a smile, them moving your hand somewhere, spoken language. Equally, consent can be withdrawn in a number of ways and at any time. Consent is not a one-liner: “Yes let’s have sex” being the only agreement doesn’t cut the mustard. You have to keep updating your consent, making sure that you’re both liking what’s happening. Thorburn’s article wildly states that “The point is that obsessing about consent distracts people from thinking about what they do, or more importantly don’t, want to gain from any particular sexual experience.”

Um, no?

“Mmm, sex sounds good darling, but I’ve got my period so let’s be super gentle.”

“I just feel like kissing tonight, but if you’re good I’ll let you in my pants at a later date.”

 “Ohh, your clit feels good, can I give her a kiss?”

“I’m a bit tired, let’s just touch each other softly.”

“Oh, fuck yes!”

“Actually, this isn’t working; let’s try something else.”

“How would you feel about me sucking you for a bit then riding your cock till I come?”

The above are examples of people drawing lines, giving consent, asking for consent or telling their partner(s) how they feel. Would these people be ‘distracted from thinking about what they do or don’t want’ because they are “obsessing about consent”? I would argue that no, the opposite is true.

2. Duty of care is already inherent in sex, or you’re doing it wrong. I can’t really add much more to this, except to agree that yes, duty of care legally does imply an unequal power arrangement so let’s call this an equal duty of care, creating a new legal concept. If two people (or more, if that’s how you play it) want to get sexually involved then they have to look after each other.

On this, Thorburn says, “Emphasis would shift from the prevention of harm to the promotion of care.”Okay, perhaps legally it’s about prevention of harm, but a) that still requires “obsession with consent” (see above), and b) good luck to you if your approach is “Hey babe, why don’t we go back to mine and I can ‘not harm’ you.”

I can’t believe we are actually having this discussion.

3. Thorburn asks, “So how should the law regulate sexual behaviour, and to what extent? Who should it protect and what should it promote?”

The law has to draw the line somewhere, and consent seems like a pretty good place to do it. Disclaimer: I am not a law student, I am not a lawyer or etc. but prima facie the stupidly high rates of assault in Australia (mostly against women, but men are also assaulted in this way) don’t result in charges, a trial or conviction in the majority of cases because of the way society, and as an extension of that our good friends in the police and the judicial system, talk about these issues.

A young woman goes to a house party for New Year’s, has some beers and is wearing a short black skirt. She dances with a friend of a friend, kissing him, and they hang out for an hour or two, enjoying the party. He suggests, “Come over to my car with me”, but she doesn’t want to go further than kissing so says no. It gets to around 2am and the girl is tired so she starts looking for her friends to go home. The guy follows her and kisses her in the shadows up against a big ute. It’s nice, but then she wants him to stop and says so but instead he pins her against it and puts one hand up her skirt; she pulls her head back. By this time she’s screaming and crying, but manages to struggle out of his grip and run to her friends. They can see what happened and the two guys there laugh. One says, “It’s your fault for being a slut.”

Short skirt, drinking, kissing the guy, walking in a dark place with him? She was probably asking for it, right?

No. Really, really, no.

Consent is The Line. There can be no ‘sort of’ with consent, no grey areas. Nichts, nada, niets. The argument that they said yes to one thing means that they are saying yes to all things is deeply flawed but unfortunately it seems to be the way that society discusses these things. Forgive me my obsession, dear reader.

I would suggest (remembering my previous disclaimer re: not especially legally down with it) that the police/judiciary are followers and not leaders here. Yes, they can probably pick up their Acts around sexual crimes, but if we as a society really want it we have to fight for it. Social change doesn’t come about because someone changes the wording of the Crimes Act of a given jurisdiction, it happens because people demand that it does and don’t stop demanding until actual change has occurred, not just a promise or a reconfiguring of section whatever.

4. Lastly, the repeated phrase “obsession with consent”: Hemsworth says that to achieve sexual liberty we have to move beyond consent.

An alternative view: The battle for universal sexual liberty is one of the social issues that will define our generation, along with things like climate change and online citizenship. As feminists (or not), we need to build on the language of consent until it is widely understood and used with the depth and complexity that we want our sex lives to have. Sexual liberty is the house that generations of feminist women and men before us have built and to keep it growing we need to use consent as the underlying foundation of our sexual encounters. It’s an ongoing, evolving thing, so if you’re treating consent as a one-liner you’re probably doing it wrong.

So, basically: No, I shouldn’t just get over it, and nor should you.

If you want to have good, fulfilling and lovely sex, be it a one night stand or in a committed relationship, consent cannot be a one-liner and baby, let it be your obsession.