Originally published: 10.08.13
I want to start this post by clarifying that I obviously accept that consent is an important legal requirement for a variety of things, including surgical procedures and sexual activity. I also understand why it is politically expedient to endorse a ‘black and white’ view of consent with a view to challenging rape culture, and I do not dispute the fact that rape is not a ‘grey area’. My post here is not concerned with the issue of nonconsent, which mainstream feminism largely does a good job of addressing. Rather, my concerns are pointed in the opposite direction: the inadequacy of consent.
I was first made aware of Consensual Spin The Bottle about two months ago by a friend of mine, who seemed to find it as noble as she did exciting. The premise of the game is simple: you spin the bottle while sitting in a circle, and instead of being obliged to kiss the person it points to upon its rest, you must instead obtain consent for whatever act you want the person to perform (and I use the word perform very mindfully indeed here) with you. If they consent, you both do whatever you requested. If they refuse, then you don’t. If they suggest an alternative, you can consent to this, or decline. So far, so middle school. I wasn’t overly interested, mostly because what are you like 13? Spin the bottle? Give me a fucking break. Better yet: give me a pizza, a joint, Blue Planet in HD and leave me at home alone if that’s what your parties are like. Anyway, I digress.
Consensual Spin The Bottle came up again for me recently, this time in the film The East (which was OK). It was a nice demonstration of everything wrong with consent. I want you to watch what happens, and note whether or not you think Brit Marling actually wants to kiss Ellen Page, and juxtapose this with what she actually does. Then I want you to look at what Alexander Skarsgard does, and note any differences. Finally, I want you to ask: whose boundaries were successfully protected in this game, and why? (ETA: My video has been blocked again because, even though it meets the criteria for fair use, YouTube are happy for copyright bots to indiscriminately block content at the behest of irredeemable parasites. Copyright laws are bullshit)
Hopefully you noticed that Marling wasn’t at all eager to kiss Page, yet she did it anyway and pulled away early in order that she wouldn’t have to endure it for too long. In contrast, Skarsgard is unambiguous about his boundaries, and only participates in a capacity with which he is comfortable by suggesting a hug instead of a kiss. Why is this? They both had access to the same rules of the game, after all.
Without seeing the rest of the film, you probably have limited theories. Most obviously, Skarsgard is a man, which means he has been conditioned with the belief that his personal comfort is of paramount importance and he has responsibility for it. Marling is a woman, which means that she has been conditioned with the belief that her comfort is secondary to others, and she must cater to them in order to ensure this. Both of these positions will have been reinforced with respective lifetimes of interactions, largely operating along these dynamics. In this particular scenario, Skarsgard is also the leader of the anarchist group to whom all the other members defer, and also owns the land this group lives on. Marling is a lone newcomer, who is trying to gain favour with the group, make friends and prove her loyalty to their lifestyle. (The fact that she kisses another woman in this particular case is orthogonal to the point I want to make here, though I should note that it’s not an unusual occurrence for heterosexual women to feign/perform lesbian activity in order to ultimately service the male gaze, whether under their own steam or because they’ve been commissioned to do so by others who wish to profit; cf. drunk/insecure heterosexual women at nightclubs/parties, ‘queer’ women in heterosexual marriages, “lesbian” pornography, mud-wrestling, etc).
If you hadn’t noticed by now, I’m using Consensual Spin The Bottle as a metaphor for sexual dynamics in the world at large. The headline point I’m making here is this: material power differentials do not go away just because you’re explicitly talking about consent. People aren’t afforded any more agency if they simply verbalise the dynamics of what occurs with “consent”. If anything, the less powerful participants are now under pressure to voluntarily cooperate with the game, even to their own detriment. Imagine a round of Consensual Spin The Bottle where nobody actually felt like it, and simply declined every proposal; they’re kind of wrecking the point of the game, aren’t they? Seems to me that even if all else were equal, there’s a low ceiling to how many times one can decline an offer in this game without just ruining everything. Same goes if everyone consents grudgingly and hides their displeasure as poorly as Marling did. It may have been nicer for everyone if she had performed more convincingly, but her lot still would not have been improved.
Not only that, but who got to decide that this is even the game we’re going to play? Like Marling, we didn’t even necessarily sign up for this stupid fucking game. Nevertheless, we find ourselves in the HetSex Game by default, and simply have to navigate within its parameters as best we can. If we’re lucky we’ll get to pull away early or get it over with quickly. Just in case I need to clobber you over the head with this: I’m talking about compulsory sexuality. And here lies the biggest problem with this excellent feminist/queer innovation called consent that will supposedly solve all of our problems: the pronouncement, and the well-known fact, that Consent Is Sexy. Consent Is Sexy. Acquiescence with sexual proposals is sexy. The idea with this slogan is to popularise consent. But the corollary to this message is, of course, that nonconsent is definitely not sexy. Why is this a problem? Because the societal context that determines who we are; the same context that built the differences between Skarsgard and Marling; the context in which all of this is happening; is that if women aren’t sexy, then they aren’t worth shit.
In the old authoritarian version of Spin The Bottle, you were obliged to kiss the person the bottle pointed to. Indeed, part of the grotesque ‘fun’ of the game was sometimes having to kiss people you didn’t want to (boys risked “being gay” by playing, girls risked kissing the ugly boys, etc). This old version was nothing if not honest about what was required of the participants. The ‘Consensual’ version of Spin The Bottle, on the other hand, requires that you do largely the same things you did before, but provides you with a get-out-clause that certain people can’t actually make any meaningful use of. The fact that it is there means the only person culpable for what you are involved in, is yourself. The wealth of other factors determining your behaviour are thus smokescreened by this fluffy layer of ‘consent’. The event is atomised and individualised.
I’d like to draw an illustrative parallel with this video where, at 01min 40sec, Slavoj Zizek is talking about a symptom of late capitalism; the liberal phenomena of ‘tolerance’, ‘choice’ and reinterpreting the inevitable as voluntary. WordPress wouldn’t let me embed the time-jump link, but I trust that you can do an extra click for yourself:
He uses the metaphor of a child being instructed by his strict, authoritarian father to visit Grandma. The child doesn’t want to, but he also knows that this is irrelevant; he must do as he is told or suffer the consequences. In another world, a tolerant liberal father emotionally manipulates his child into visiting Grandma by saying “You know that your Grandma loves you and it would mean a lot to her, but you should only visit if you want to”. The child is not an idiot, and still knows he has no choice. He is additionally now obliged to want it for himself or it means there’s something wrong with him as a person. In order to meet his father’s new requirements, he must also be convincing about his desire to visit Grandma. Not even some notion of ‘enthusiastic consent’, then, can help clarify things here. Quite the mindfuck, isn’t it.
In this same way, it appears that “Lie Back And Think Of England” (the old version of Spin The Bottle) has been replaced with “Consent Is Sexy” (Consensual Spin The Bottle). If you are a woman who has ever had any heterosexual encounters, you have probably consented to many things that you did not particularly want to do. Women rationalise to themselves why they do this; I used to say things like I didn’t need to orgasm to enjoy sex or that vicarious enjoyment through servicing boyfriends was enough in itself. The fact was, I just plain wasn’t going to orgasm from the sex I was having, and the only enjoyment it was even possible for me to get was vicarious. Often I was very uncomfortable, sometimes even in pain. Nevertheless, I consented to a variety of things in service of the male orgasm that I neither enjoyed nor felt an independent inclination to do. I believed that those boyfriends probably would have left me if I were to refuse. I was young and lacked the good sense not to care if they did. Thus, my ‘consent’ was simply a rationalisation of what was in fact inevitable for me, given that set of conditions. I’d wager that none of these boyfriends had any idea about this, of course. The whole point of faking an orgasm is feigned enjoyment. In other words, I feigned enthusiastic consent. In similar scenarios everywhere, women ‘consent’ to things they don’t want all the goddamn time.
This same pattern of reinterpreting the inevitable is true in almost all political arenas where sexual dynamics are relevant. The rhetoric surrounding the sex industry is now of women’s agency and empowerment (despite this being ademonstrable lie). Women don’t wear makeup to look good for men, they just want to look good for themselves (despite never wearing it when they’re home alone). Some women really like staying at home and looking after kids (despite many of those women not having a financially viable alternative). Women enjoy being sexually degraded by their boyfriends (despite being physically uncomfortable, or in pain, or never orgasming, or never having thought of such acts themselves before researching with porn). And so on and so forth.
These rhetorical shifts don’t indicate any material improvements. They obscure the factors that contribute toevery one of our ‘consensual’ decisions. These are factors that we need to be able to examine if we hope to make any substantial changes that enable any meaningful agency. Not only are women still eating more or less the same shit sandwich they’ve always been served, but now we have to enthusiastically pat our bellies too. And that, friends, is some bullshit indeed.