When Consent Is Impossible

CN: This post contains reference to sexual assault and consent. If this is a triggering topic for you, please proceed with care.

One of the more extreme beliefs of radical feminists™ is that all sex between men and women is rape, due to the oppressive nature of patriarchy. (Because radfems are pretty anti-trans, they’re referring to penetrative sex between cis men and cis women.) To everyone who isn’t a radfem, this sounds pretty absurd, and the logic that supports it is pretty shaky – they basically believe that because men hold all the institutional power in a patriarchal society, women are unable to consent to sex, because they are powerless. In this world view, sex between men and women is a central form of oppression. Obviously, this simplistic view of sex and power relations is bullshit. But can we really say that there are no places in our culture where consent gets shaky – if not downright impossible – simply due to the nature of patriarchal oppression?

Okay, okay, I know you’re probably worrying about where this is going right now. Rest assured, I’m certainly not about to advocate the universal victimhood of all people with vaginas, or claim that every person with a penis is automatically a rapist, because that is patently false. Even oppressed people do have some semblance of agency in many circumstances, and to declare that all sex=rape denies even the possibility of any oppressed person ever making an independent decision. However, there are many circumstances where we have created and recreated a culture* that makes it very difficult for non-men to consent, or, more accurately, to deny consent. And it’s this blurry grey area that I want to talk about.

How many of us have talked about sex with our friends? I bet that’s most of us – and contrary to stereotypes, I find that women and feminine people tend to go into waaaaaaaaay more detail than any of the men or masculine people I’ve met.

Like, so much detail. We have no secrets.

Have you ever noticed the existence of what I’ve always thought of as “obligation sex”? I bet most of us immediately understand what I mean by that. You’re in a relationship, and you haven’t had sex for a while. Your partner’s** getting antsy, but you don’t really want to do anything. So what do you do? Eventually you give in, because it’s easier than putting up with your partner whining at you. And on the surface it seems like consent. You didn’t really want to have sex, but you chose to do it because it was easier than dealing with the consequences. That’s a choice, right? Right?

Weeeelllllll….

The form of consent that is now favoured by legislators and feminists alike is “continuing and enthusiastic consent”. Does obligation sex – sex you have because you feel guilty, or because your partner won’t stop whining – sound “continuing and enthusiastic”? Yeah, no. Because it isn’t. But does that mean that you’re being sexually assaulted every time you have obligation sex?

Sadly, this is where things get blurry.

Some people who are having obligation sex, and who believe they’re giving a form of consent, ARE being sexually assaulted. These are people who fear the consequences of not doing it, consequences that could include violence, deprivation of freedom or money, emotional and psychological manipulation, verbal abuse, and so on. Any of these consequences make it impossible to give free and enthusiastic consent, because you’re faced with a choice between sex you don’t want and something pretty freaking awful. And these people often don’t realise that what’s happening to them is assault and/or abuse until they’re out of the relationship. Our cultural ideals around sex and relationships are so messed up, they actually believe they’re in the wrong for not wanting sex in the first place.

But there are other people who aren’t facing these serious consequences, who still feel obliged to have sex for a variety of reasons. They might know their partner gets upset when they don’t have sex, even if their partner doesn’t abuse them. They might feel guilty for “withholding” sex from their partner, because they’ve absorbed the ridiculous cultural narrative that sex is a compulsory part of a healthy relationship (Hint: it’s not), and they believe they’re depriving their partner and their relationship of something vital.

It’s this last cultural belief that blurs the line of consent in so many circumstances, and especially in long term, heterosexual, monogamous relationships. There are several beliefs that feed into this problem, namely:

  1. Sex is absolutely vital for a healthy relationship
  2. All physical contact within a relationship will inevitably lead to sex, and if it doesn’t, it’s teasing and therefore ‘unfair’
  3. All men want sex all the time, and need sex regularly to be happy
  4. All people are inherently sexual, and asexuality/demisexuality etc are problems and things that need to be treated by medical/psychological therapy
  5. Penetrative sex is the only valid kind of sex
  6. Women regularly withhold sex from their male partners as a form of manipulation
  7. It’s okay to get upset with your partner if they won’t have sex with you
  8. Denial of sex is a form of abuse
  9. You don’t have the right to withhold sex in a long term relationship
  10. All people desire and need a romantic and sexual relationship in order to feel whole and happy

All of these beliefs are built in to the very structure of our ideals around romantic relationships, our ideals about what counts as ‘real’ love, ‘real’ passion, ‘real’ intimacy. All of these beliefs are false. And all of these beliefs make it very difficult for people in long term relationships to navigate the blurry areas of consent.

But surely, you say, these are problems for men as well. And yes, you’d be right. There are men who suffer from these beliefs, who are having ‘obligation sex’, and who are struggling with this blurred consent. But because of the way masculinity and femininity are constructed in our culture, women form the vast majority of people whose right to consent is, at best, restricted, and worse, often completely removed.

So how can we change this? There are several ways, and since I’ve already started down the road to hell with a listicle, I’m going to continue.

  1. Destroy the idea that sex = masculinity. There is nothing inherently masculine about a high sex drive. There are asexual and demisexual men. There are men who are sexual but don’t want that much sex. There a women who like lots of sex. Sex drive is not a gendered thing.
  2. Destroy the idea that wanting sex and not getting it is a tragedy. Not getting sex when you want it can be frustrating, sure, but it won’t actually cause you harm. Someone denying you sex isn’t ‘selfish’ – in fact, it’s selfish of you to expect sex – from anyone – just because you want it. If you can’t cope with being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t want sex as much as you do, you shouldn’t be in that relationship. But them not having sex with you doesn’t cause mental harm and it doesn’t cause physical harm. It’s just frustrating. Get over it and go masturbate. That’s a thing.
  3. Normalise communication about sex. This would be way less of a problem if people didn’t simply assume that sex was always on the table in romantic relationships, and if they discussed it early in a budding relationship. If two people are on completely different pages with regard to sex, they shouldn’t be getting involved, and if they know this early on, they can avoid a whole lotta heart ache and grief.
  4. Stop assuming that sex in romantic relationships is necessary. Sex is not an integral part of a healthy relationship. Sex is just one of about a million valid, wonderful ways to feel close to someone – and sex is only going to be truly intimate if both of you are 100% into it. If you don’t think that’s true, then you’re a shitty partner and you need to get your act together.
  5. Destroy the idea that everyone wants sex and romance. This is bullshit. The end.
  6. Someone not wanting to have sex with you is not a personal insult. They just don’t want to have sex with you. It’s not something they’re doing on purpose. Get over it.
  7. Acknowledge that obligation sex is not sex to which someone has freely consented. It’s not a good thing. Why would you want to be having sex with someone who doesn’t want to have it with you? You can’t force someone to want to have sex with you – not by guilt, not by bribery, not by threats – it cannot be done. Stop acting like obligation sex is as valid as sex to which everyone has enthusiastically consented, because it’s not and never has been and never will be.

So get out there, peeps, and change the world one refusal or one enthusiastic consent at a time. You are always entitled to say no to sex you don’t want, no matter how long it’s been since you had it, no matter who you’re with, no matter what gender you are. There is nothing wrong with you if you find you’re not interested in sex, whether it’s for a short while or forever. Say no to obligation sex, because a world in which all sex is enthusiastic and completely wanted is a happier, healthier world for all of us.

Misandrist witch out!

*As usual, I’m talking about Anglo-European (white af) Australia and similar cultures. These patterns may appear in other cultures as well, particularly cultures that have suffered the effects of colonial imperialism, but I can only speak to my knowledge of Anglo-European Western culture
**In this article I’m specifically addressing patterns in heterosexual relationships. Although they may occur in queer relationships, the power relationships are often different and will therefore have different dynamics.

Image and text: All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017

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