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“Consent Is Sexy” Is Useful But Also Kind Of Sketchy

I’m at the University of Chicago’s Sex Week, where I’ve seen a bunch of great talks, including one by Cliff Pervocracy! So I have sex on my mind (well, as usual).

I often write about very well-intentioned principles or campaigns that have blind spots and negative implications. Here’s another example.

“Consent is sexy” is one of those cliches one hears a lot in the course of working in sexual health promotion and assault prevention. There are some great things about this idea. For instance, it pushes back strongly against the idea that coercion and domination are hot. I’ll be writing about the eroticization of rape in romance novels soon, so you’ll see what I mean, and I won’t belabor that point now.

“Consent is sexy” also reaches even those people who don’t really care to think through larger issues like gender roles, violence, oppression, and how all of this affects your sex life. Tell them that asking for consent leads to better sex and they just might do it.

But there are also a lot of things that are sketchy or simply wrong about “consent is sexy.”

First of all, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the answer is “no,” and the person who withholds consent can’t always (nor should they) refuse in a sexy way. Sometimes you ask “Is this okay?” and they tell you that it’s not because last time they did that it was rape. Sometimes they say they’re not sure how they feel about it and need to talk it out with you. What does it mean for you to do this act with them? How will you help them make sure they don’t feel degraded by it? What steps will you take to make sure it’s safe?

And often these conversations won’t happen during or right before sex. Sometimes you’ll be on the phone or chatting online. Sometimes you’ll be cooking breakfast or putting on makeup. Sometimes, even though you’re talking about sex, actually doing it will be the furthest thing from your mind.

So repeating “consent is sexy” over and over promotes a false image of what negotiating consent is actually like and puts pressure on people to make these negotiations “sexy” even when they don’t feel like it. Yes, sometimes it really is like, “Can I do this?” “Oh yes please!” But sometimes it’s not and you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about consent just because it might not be “sexy.”

Encouraging people to think of consent as “sexy” also implies that you should ask for consent because it’s sexy. Yes, I realize that nobody who promotes this message actually thinks that, which is why I said “implies.” But nevertheless, the constant stream of “Always ask for consent! Consent is sexy!” coming from sexual health advocates (including myself) sometimes sends the message that it’s the sexiness of consent that makes it such a vital part of healthy sexuality. After all, when you tell people to do something and follow it up with a positive feature of that thing–i.e. “Wear condoms! They help prevent STIs and pregnancy!” or “Visit New York City! It’s huge and beautiful and has lots of museums and friendly progressive folks and delicious Russian food!”–you give the impression that these positive features are the reason why you should do this thing.

I’ll state the obvious: you shouldn’t get consent because it’s sexy. You should get consent because it’s the only way to be certain that you’re not assaulting someone, and not assaulting someone is the only way to be a minimally decent human being. If getting consent is also a huge turn-on, that’s great, but it’s just the icing on the wonderful cake that is not assaulting people.

The word “sexy” is a loaded word because, as much as we may try to reclaim it and redefine it to suit our own needs, it still has a very narrow traditional meaning. “Sexy” screams at you from a magazine cover. “Sexy” is the girl who’s asked for consent and always says yes. “Sexy” is being enthusiastic about everything you do in bed rather than occasionally choosing to do something you’re not that enthusiastic about because you’d like to give your partner that experience. “Sexy” is having an orgasm easily and every time. “Sexy” is constantly thinking of exciting and creative new positions and techniques to try rather than just sticking with the ones you and your partner love.

I want to divorce this view of “sexy” from sexuality in general. Sexuality doesn’t have to be “sexy” all the time. Neither does consent, which is an integral aspect of sexuality.

“Consent is sexy” is a great place to start. It’s the 101 level. But once we’ve shouted about that from the rooftops for a bit, it’s time to move on and remember that not every minute of negotiating and having sex has to be “sexy.”

Edit: After having finished and titled this post, I discovered that Ozy Frantz has already written something very similar and titled it something very similar. I’ve even read it. DERP. Not intentional! I’m retitling my post slightly so that it doesn’t look like blatant plagiarism. :)

Comments

  1. Ichthyic says

    Sometimes you ask “Is this okay?” and they tell you that it’s not because last time they did that it was rape. Sometimes they say they’re not sure how they feel about it and need to talk it out with you. What does it mean for you to do this act with them? How will you help them make sure they don’t feel degraded by it? What steps will you take to make sure it’s safe?

    no, this is all still detailing consent through conversation, and it still applies. I’ve HAD conversations just like this, and indeed they tend to just ramp up the engagement levels. Speaking openly and honestly about what you and your partner want in a sexual relationship is indeed something that engenders trust, and that trust just makes it all the better.

    Moreover, I think you’re implying way more to the original soundbite than is warranted.

    The word “sexy” is a loaded word because, as much as we may try to reclaim it and redefine it to suit our own needs, it still has a very narrow traditional meaning.

    I think there lies your problem. Think about what you are saying here. Is this really supported by anything, or is it a projection of your own making?

    OTOH, maybe redefining the word IS what is needed. have you considered that?

  2. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    I can also see how this would be used exactly opposite the original intent, that is, expecting that the person asked should consent, because that is, er, sexy.

    The point on divorcing sexy from sexuality is a good one, especially since they are mostly separated anyway. Sexy is used to describe all manner of things completely remote from sexuality. (Disclaimer: I’ve always found it to be a rather stupid word anyway, so I’m perhaps biased.)

  3. says

    Perhaps the issue is that the slogan is a little too abbreviated. “Consent is sexy” doesn’t mean the same thing as “it’s sexy to consent.” At all. And so if it’s misunderstood that way or, worse, if the requesting partner argues that way then yeah, that’s not good at all.

    Based on my observation when the slogan emerged the intended message is something closer to “consenting sex is sexy, sex without consent is assault.”

    tfl

    • says

      Yeah, the variant I like is, “Consent is hot, assault is not.” That serves as a reminder of what consent is being contrasted with–assault, not “no, I’d rather not do that” and then stopping.

      However, the fact is that a lot of sexual health educators often fall into the trap of thinking that sex ed has to always be happy fun sexy exciting yay! So mentioning assault doesn’t really fit into that picture. But there should be a happy medium somewhere between focusing too much on the negative and focusing too much on the positive. (Take Back the Night is one thing that, in my opinion, strikes that balance pretty well.)

  4. Lofty says

    Many times in my life I’ve read/heard “sexy” as a synonym for “most attractive” when applied to ideas and objects, where sex obviously doesn’t come into it. The double entendre adds to the emphasis. That is the way I feel it is being used. Make consent the most attractive option so that the alternaitve is very unattractive. I’m sure there are better words out there but this one resonates.”Consent is absolutely 100% mandatory” doesn’t fit a tee shirt nearly as well although that is indeed the message.

    • says

      Well, I don’t think the point is that sexy has nothing to do with sex. I think the point is that sex is used to sell everything (both literally sell, as in advertising, and figuratively sell as in promoting certain messages or viewpoints).

  5. says

    Other equally valid slogans:

    1. Not cheating is a fun way to play game!
    2. Refraining from stealing and lying is a productive way to pass time at work!
    3. Not beating them to a pulp is an enjoyable way to be social with your friends!

  6. Benjamin E. says

    I think the way I’ve always thought about it is as a push-back to the form of a consent conversation (in which consent is indeed given) that people tend to imagine in a hyperbolically unsexy way. In other words, people who think consent isn’t sexy imagine that it requires a conversation of the sort: “I am interested in doing X right now. Is that something you’d be willing to sign off on?” “Yes, I would be agreeable to such a suggestion and am willing to give my formal consent. Let us proceed to perform the act.”

    In other words, the point is more that *if* the answer is yes, the consent conversation doesn’t have to be something stiff and formal and something that takes you out of the mood. Obviously if there’s a lack of consent that’s not sexy, but I feel like that’s not as much of the key point here. But I could be wrong – just my current thoughts.

    • says

      In other words, people who think consent isn’t sexy imagine that it requires a conversation of the sort: “I am interested in doing X right now. Is that something you’d be willing to sign off on?” “Yes, I would be agreeable to such a suggestion and am willing to give my formal consent. Let us proceed to perform the act.”

      Great point; I’d forgotten about this issue entirely. The whole “signed consent forms in triplicate” thing. The more we can send the message that real-life consensual sex has absolutely nothing to do with this strawman, the better.

      • says

        This… This is exactly the joke I used to use on stage back in the 90′s when Antioch college made news for having an explicit sexual consent policy. It is a straw man, an easy straw man to dismantle, but a funny one nonetheless.

        • says

          Well, it’s also really harmful. Since we don’t talk much about sexual communication in our culture, it leaves people with no alternate image of what asking for consent is actually like. So they think it’s going to be super awkward and formal and basically like something from Big Bang Theory. If everyone were “in on the joke” and knew that this isn’t what it’s actually like at all, it’d be much funnier to me.

          • Benjamin E. says

            I think I pretty much agree – and I always thought that was the point of the “Consent is sexy” phrase. In fact, although I can see how else it *could* be interpreted, I can’t actually figure out another explanation of where the phrase came from other than pushing back against this strawman that consent is fundamentally dry and awkward and mood-ruining – which I think is why that’s always how I interpreted it and why I never saw any problem with it.

  7. says

    I actually really liked this post, in part because of the fact that it touches on the need to sometimes divorce sex and sexiness.

    I completely agree with that idea. Sometimes the best sex isn’t the sexiest.
    For example: something funny happens and you break into giggles. Does that make it bad sex? Hell no? But most people don’t consider sex that has silly elements or moments to be sexy. Or what about lazy, I have to get up early in the morning, but we’re both horny and won’t be able to sleep until we get off so lets cuddle and have lazy sex sex?

    Another reason why that concept is important is because of the impact that it has on people with disabilities. Like me. Sometimes sex takes planning to accommodate pain, limited mobility, etc. Most people’s idea of sex appeal, doesn’t include discussions of where best to put the pillow to elevate someone, without hurting their back/leg. A lot of people assume that sex that involves that level of preparation cannot be good because it is not spontaneous and therefore not sexy. This in turn might stop people from volunteering information that is necessary to their enjoyment. “Just a moment there love. Do you think we can stop for a second and maybe change positions? You keep pushing my leg above my head and while it was fun for the first 5 minutes, now my hip is about to dislocate”

    A lot of people with disabilities find that it is more difficult to find lovers after their disability comes into play, because there is that assumption that someone with a disability cannot be sexy. I think that this ties into the idea that they can’t be spontaneous and there can’t be sexiness without spontaneity.

    Redifine the term? Sure, but that will take time. And the first step is admitting there is a problem. Thanks for this post.

  8. Francisco Bacopa says

    How about just revising this to say: “For morally decent people consent is sexier than the alternative. But there’s no guarantee that every instance of showing concern for consent or demanding respect for your consent will lead immediately to teh hawt secks”.

  9. jose says

    I’ve asked on some forums why we don’t ditch consent and adopt desire as the measure of sexual relationships. All the advantages, none of the problems.

    Abusive partners can guilt-trip women into consent, but I don’t see how they can make them want to get fucked if they didn’t want to. Prostituted women are consenting adults but every survey shows the overwhelming majority don’t want to be doing it, which under the consent paradigm doesn’t matter. I watched a talk by Catharine Mackinnon the other day and she made a distinction between consent and capitulation. While I understand the distinction, I think capitulation can be a cause of consent: Perfectly compatible terms. I had rather focus on whether she wants to or not.

    There’s a conceptual dimension underneath. If we want to view sex as something people do together (partners are agents), rather than something one does to another under her consent (one agent, one recipient), then consent isn’t the right thing to look for, desire is. Additionally, this asserts the agency of women without resorting to calling themselves “proud sluts”. Yup, I’m sorry, but I hate slut walk. And the sight of bros who I know are up to no good wearing t-shirts that say “I love sluts!” cheering the walks pretty much settles it for me.

    Some can criticize this by saying desire is difficult to spot and we can’t read minds, how is this useful at all, etc. But consent receives this same criticism and the answer is the same for both: communication, campaigns against the predators, lobbying for the enforcement of the laws against sexual violence and all the other things that are already being done.

    Some others may bring up a case where she wants to but doesn’t consent: let’s say a married woman who’s got the hots for a coworker but doesn’t want to ruin her family. Or a college teacher with the handsome 20 years old student. So that’s desire without consent, right? Not really. When she says “omg I’d love to, but I can’t, trust me I’m sorry”, what she’s really saying is she wants him, but she wants to keep her family/job more. So all in all, she doesn’t want to. Very straightforward.

    Your thoughts?

  10. smrnda says

    On the word sexy, I just end up not using it at all. To me, ‘sexy’ is an adjective that means ‘this goes in a commercial or on a magazine cover’ and it seems more and more disconnected from actual sex and sexuality. ‘Sexy’ seems to apply to actual sex as much as Pirates of the Caribbean depicts actual piracy. Society requires me to recognize images and narratives or behaviors as ‘sexy’ whether or not they do anything to me. I’m sure it started as a word meaning ‘what you find sexually appealing’ but, to me, it seems to just mean ‘what you are supposed to find appealing.’

    Which is why I can agree that ‘consent is sexy’ is problematic since people have a preconception of what is sexy in their heads already, and they might find that consent doesn’t fit there, but I think, overall, the motto will be effective on a kind of basic, 101 level. It’ll address the objections that having to negotiate consent ‘kills the mood’ (kills the mood for whom exactly? ) This could be the absence of actual scripts people have in their heads for negotiating consent. I actually wonder if some kind of educational materials would help, depictions of people actually negotiating consent just to show that it’s something normal people do and that it’s not ridiculous or awkward, though I don’t think we’re anywhere close to having sex education like this.

    I’d also agree with Jose above that consent can be coerced and cease to be meaningful consent; people get guilt-tripped into having sex to say the least, so it’s really just a beginning.

  11. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    *sigh* That was supposed to be a nested reply to DearAnia at #8.

    But what the heck, for the OP, too.

  12. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    I think this is why many people in comments sections which I like to read qualify this as “enthusiastic consent”. Both desire and consent are covered.

    The desire factor, I think, faces a similar problem on its own: One may absolutely desire some sexual engagement, but perhaps other factors may incline one to abstain none the less. And manipulating someone with much desire and near-consent to abandon their judgement is a not-unheard of game which should also be avoided. (Or am I picking nits, where this is already covered?)

    — @ Francisco Bacopa, #9, if this doesn’t nest.

  13. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    ugh, wrong again. Jose @ 10.

    And now I’ll stop spamming my comment failure all over the place. Many apologies.

  14. says

    Jose@#11

    “I’ve asked on some forums why we don’t ditch consent and adopt desire as the measure of sexual relationships. All the advantages, none of the problems”

    While I agree that it is a good idea, it ignores several important ideas:

    1. Sometimes in a relationship, you may not be really in the mood, but you are not opposed to having sex. Since your partner is, you go for it. It is not a forceful encounter, but you aren’t exactly swimming in desire either. (This is not to be confused with the times a partner forces you to have sex when you are not in the mood)

    2. This brings in some disturbing ideas when one considers that someone might have a physiological response during a forceful sexual encounter. This article that someone posted on fb recently addresses that: http://badmenproject.com/posts/201302/wtf-abuse-enabling-alain-de-botton-erotic-satisfying-meaning-involuntary-erections

    Ultimately my objection to this concept is that is leads to the argument: (tw) “Her mouth was saying no but her body was saying yes”
    Like someone else mentioned on here, a combination of the two concepts: desire and consent are probably the best option.

    PS. @ F [nucular nyandrothol] Awww Thank you. :)

  15. demonhellfish says

    Jose@11,

    That just sounds like a terrible idea. DearAnia explains in more detail, but fundamentally, for a lot of people “desire” means *one* side of the decision that a person makes, “consent” is the actual decision.

  16. antialiasis says

    Yes; this has kind of bugged me about the phrase for a long time, much as I appreciate its intention.

    I’ve been bothered similarly by “Yes means yes”: what it wants to convey compared to “No means no” is lovely and important, but when I see the phrase it just stares me in the face that it implies coerced consent is valid consent (if you say yes, it means yes!). My first relationship was psychologically abusive, though I didn’t realize it at the time, and several times my boyfriend persuaded me into doing things I was not even vaguely comfortable with by applying pressure and guilt-tripping until I agreed to it. People like me shouldn’t feel like it was their fault because they were weak enough to give in – in a healthy relationship their partner should have respected their initial refusal or discomfort and backed off, not just pressed on until they got a yes.

  17. jose says

    demonhellfish,
    already covered in the last paragraph. “Want” is the entire package, not only a part. Also, comment 19 illustrates why consent isn’t enough. Also, this.

  18. Dylan says

    The belief that asking for consent is not sexy didn’t spring out of thin air. In an established relationship there would be no issues but in a short term situation or initial courting, ‘asking for it’ would feel demeaning for many women if they asked a man, and on the male side, would come across as begging, and the answer would probably be a default no, not based on wishes, but the reaction to ‘asking for it’.

  19. Da5id says

    Excepting smrnda(12), who has a nonstandard definition of the word, isn’t not having sex a basic definition of “not sexy?” Reading it to say “Only people who are consenting is sexy” is innaccurrate, like my spelling of that word just there.

    On the other hand, perhaps it’s a popular phallusy? Have you talked to many people who, without understanding what the phrase is trying to say, took it to mean your interpretation? If so then criticizing it is perfectly valid.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Talking about sexual assault and safe sex on Valentine’s Day may seem singularly unromantic.  But lack of genuine consent, whether due to misinformation by a partner or refusing to take no for an answer or not waiting for yes, well, that is truly unromantic.  I won’t go so far as to echo the new saying that “consent is sexy”, as that is a loaded claim. […]