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Remedial Lessons in Consent

December 5, 2008

I’m reading Subject to Debate by Katha Pollitt, which is an old collection of her columns from the 90s. It’s an interesting history lesson on what was going on in progressive politics back when I was too young to care. I love Katha. But in one column (Precious Bodily Fluids) about a guy who accused his girlfriend of lying to him about using birth control and becoming pregnant by “intentionally acquiring and misusing his semen,” she made a really disturbing comment.

In Slate, Scott Shuger opined, “A woman’s promise to take charge of birth control and then not do so remains the only form of monetary fraud . . . that is not only not punished but in fact regularly rewarded.” If this is fraud, then should we call a man’s insincere promise to “put it in for just a minute” assault?

Let’s be very clear: this is no “if, then” situation here. The answer is “yes,” plain and simple.

And this should be obvious.

Any person has the right to revoke consent, and also to place conditions on their consent. For example, consenting to oral sex is not the same as consenting to vaginal intercourse — if you consent to one, and your partner forces you to do the other, it is rape regardless of your previous and differing consent. This is unclear to some people, but really should be clear to everyone. If you tell your partner to stop during intercourse (or any other type of sexual activity) and they do not, that is rape, regardless of your previous consent.

And if you say “just a couple of seconds” and your partner knowingly and intentionally goes on for significantly longer than that? Yes! That is assault!

But the placement of Polllitt’s words seems to me to be a clear indication that the idea is laughable. Particularly considering that the column is used to call the guy filing the lawsuit a jackass, the question answers itself with “of course not — see, this idea is preposterous, just like the previous notion put forth by Shuger.”

Except the idea is not preposterous. You might have a lot of difficulty getting an attempted prosecution on the matter, let alone a successful one, but since when has that been the feminist measure of sexual assault? And what’s going on when even feminists are in need of this kind of remedial lesson in consent?

cross-posted at The Curvature

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 5, 2008 5:21 pm

    This is one of those areas where I think an older, narrower conception of sex is at work: sex as intercourse and intercourse alone, with all other sexual activities lesser and preliminary to; intercourse until male orgasm. If folks proceed from this model, then consent is to the unitary event, not parts thereof.

    A more nuanced notion of sex takes in the idea that “sex” can be composed of a lot of different sexual activities; that what we want to do with one partner or at one time isn’t what we want to do with all partners or at all times; that we consent to what we consent to, and no more.

    I get the feeling Me, Lee and Stacey may begin to sound like broken records on this, but if everybody thought a little like BDSMers, even if they don’t do what BDSMers do, they would realize that sexual play is an a la carte menu, and each part is a selection made between the parties, not an inevitable progression to a conclusion.

    See, when I do what I do, I need to know that my partner understands that I have limits, and that starting to do one thing and just continuing to do that thing might get too intense for me, physically or mentally, and I’ll have to stop. (psst! That doesn’t even mean it’s a bad experience — just that I’m at my limit!) And I need to know that what they tell me they intend to do is what they really intend; and if they do something different, it may not work for me. I’m up for only what I say I’m up for. If I don’t say, my partner doesn’t know, and I may not know myself.

    And no matter how cis-het-vanilla-missionary the sex is, both of those things are still true. Folks have limits, even to what they want to do, and folks only know for sure they want to do what they’ve considered and decided they want to do.

    Consent is a state, not an act. It is, as we lawyers say, a “continuing obligation.”

    (Now, whether it’s “non-delegable” could be a much-disputed question in this crowd.)

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