Critiquing the Discourse of Consent
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Critiquing the Discourse of Consent

As colleges and universities struggle with sexual violence on campus, many have turned to consent. “Affirmative consent,” also known as “yes means yes,” has become a key part of many institutional policies; it is also the law in the state of California. Affirmative consent has become a cornerstone of many awareness and advocacy campaigns, including the frequently heard “Consent is Sexy” or Columbia University’s “Consent is BAE” (Before Anything Else).1

In this brief piece, I offer an intersectional feminist critique of consent discourse. Importantly, what follows is a critique, not a criticism. Consent is clearly vital. However, as feminists, it is also essential to think through the larger and perhaps unthought implications of a discourse of consent, which intersect with issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality, as well as access to sexual pleasure.

Problem 1: Consent Assumes That We Are All Fully and Equally Able to Give Consent

As it is presented to our students, consent is equally and universally accessible. According to this logic, every individual is equally empowered to say either yes or no to sex; many YouTube videos and student role-playing activities have been dedicated to rehearsing this very situation. Of course, this assumption is founded on the assumption of an autonomous liberal subject—the very formulation of the subject that feminist theory has critiqued as impossibly flawed. I am not interested in repeating this critique here; I will simply say that any theory which depends upon the classical liberal subject is risky at best and dangerous at worst for bodies that are not straight, white, cisgender, masculine, nondisabled, and so on.

In addition to raising the question of who has access to the liberal subject assumed by a discourse of consent, I would like to amplify this critique by noting the function of discomfort. As Sara Ahmed notes in a discussion of sex work in Willful Subjects, “if being willing does not mean the absence of force, then we need to account for the social and political situations in which yes and no are given.”2 Often, these situations involve the use of discomfort, which Ahmed describes as “a polite strategy or technique of power (the capacity to carry out [End Page 175] will without resistance, or with the will of others).”3 This echoes what I hear repeatedly from my own students: the fear of creating discomfort exerts a coercive force on the idea of “freely and willingly given” consent.

Problem 2: Consent Discourse Is Easily Appropriated

The discourse of consent has been taken up and appropriated in a number of troubling ways. The incorporation of the language of affirmative consent into sexual misconduct policies and even law has led to an explosion of for-profit consent “resources,” “training programs,” and even mobile apps. In a remarkable display of the power of capitalism, We-Consent™, a self-described “affirmative consent app,” is sold in a bundle with What-About-No™ and I’ve-Been-Violated™; this would be comical, were it not so disturbing.4 It is easy to link such apps and programs to a broader feminist critique of capitalism, as well as to challenge the dubious use of institutional resources on such programs. As part of a feminist critique, however, I want to highlight the problematic ways in which perpetrators use these apps and programs—and the language of affirmative consent more broadly—to avoid sanctioning. If it’s on the app, it must have been consent. Related, and equally troubling, is the way in which consent discourse becomes repurposed as the language of sexual conquest. Students have complained about how Consent Is Sexy stickers are repurposed to decorate bedposts. The discourse of consent, especially in its market-friendly terms, is too easily collapsed into the kind of sexual gamesmanship it seeks to oppose.

Problem 3: Consent Is a Low Bar

Finally, consent sets too low of a bar. Is “consensual” all that is required of sex for it to be “good”? Feminist and queer theory teach us that pleasure is also a political issue. While consent is part of a conversation about healthy sexuality, focusing on consent over pleasure precludes...