Consent is Sexy? No, Consent is Mandatory.
The anti-violence campaign “Consent is Sexy” has been circulating around feminist circles for years. Buttons, t-shirts, and entire non-profit organizations have centered on this slogan. The official “Consent is Sexy” campaign is targeted toward high-school and college students, promoting the “awareness and practise of respect, consent and open discussion”. Through educational workshops and campaign materials, they spread these ideals through the catchy, and according to them “realistic”, notion of “Consent is Sexy.” It is “realistic” because they believe their target age group will be more receptive to the message than other, harsher campaigns. In other words, they believe this age group will buy into the campaign because it will eventually lead to ‘sexiness’ – which I guess is less ‘harsh’ than a campaign leading to a life free of violence.
“Consent is Sexy” implies that consent is desirable, and will lead to a better sexual experience for everyone involved. We may agree that communicating about what you want in a sexual encounter may lead to a better time, but this is not consent. Communicating about sex is not the same as consent. Consent is not negotiable. It is the baseline, absolute necessity of any sexual encounter. Not having consent isn’t ‘un-sexy’, it is sexual assault. The catchy slogan, ‘realistic’ expectations, and slick campaign images mean nothing when the central idea behind it negates the very premise of what consent is: A freely given and enthusiastic ‘yes’ to every sexual encounter. In reality, the campaign asks people to get consent for the sole purpose of being sexy, not for the purpose of fulfilling the most basic requirement of sex, nor for respecting the dignity and choice of their partner(s).
“Consent is Sexy” measures the seriousness of violence and sexual assault in relation to sexual appeal – and these ideas of ‘sexual appeal’ are tightly entwined with eurocentric able-bodied white fatphobic hetero cis-ness. If we flip the message around, it tells people not to rape because it’s not sexy. I was under the assumption that people shouldn’t rape because it’s the most disgusting violent misogynist bullshit thing that you can do, and because it demeans a person’s inherent right to a life of dignity and a life free of violence, and because it’s a crime, and because of ALL OF THE OTHER REASONS that shouldn’t have to be said. We need to refocus the conversation – shift it away from ‘selling’ consent, to teaching meaningfully about its necessity.
Sexualizing consent into an accessible and trendy campaign actually works against the goal of anti-violence activists. It makes consent a decision based on ‘sexiness’ - which, again, is often equated with dominant and oppressive discourses of beauty – instead of making it a basic requirement for sex. It shifts the focus of consent from something that needs to happen to a choice not unlike a sexy outfit. It treats consent like a pick-up line, in yet another faulty sexualization in an already hyper-sexualized world.
This isn’t to say we need to stop talking about sex, or that we need to devalue ‘sexiness’. There are radical and revolutionary was of being sexy, and reclaiming sexiness from dominant society. For many of us, we desperatelyneed sexiness and sex to reclaimed in a way that values us, our bodies, our genders, our sexual practices. Many of us who are struggling to reclaim sexuality in this way have faced violence, and we center consent in the process of reclamation. Violence has seeped into too much - too many areas of our lives - and consent is foundational to building a radical understanding of sexuality. This does not mean bargaining over the ‘sexiness’ of consent. It means reclaiming sexuality from the colonial violence that it is steeped in. It means making consent to be foundational in our relationships, communities and ways of being.
Making consent mandatory and foundational is a practice that must be embedded in more than just our understandings of sexuality and sex. As Andrea Smith has articulately written, sexual violence against Indigenous women was (and is) systematically used as a tool of colonial genocide. This sexual violence continues on today - we need only look to the hundreds of Missing and Murdered women to see the reality of this sorrow. As Smith argues, this ongoing violence against Indigenous women goes hand in hand with the stealing, occupying, and degradation of Indigenous land. Indigenous lands have been, and continue to be, exploited without consent for the treacherous extraction of resources (read: tar sands), which lead to the collapse of a myriad of environmental life-sustaining resources for Indigenous Peoples who reside there. As you can see, getting free, prior, and informed consent must be taken to heart not only on an individual level, but at a community level. We must make consent foundational - not because it is ‘sexy’ - but because it is our responsibility to do so, as members of our communities, and as people living on this land.
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