“Consent Is Sexy” Mantra Well-Meaning But Misguided
(Content warning: This column discusses rape, rape culture and sexual assault.)
“Consent is sexy.”
It was one of the many taglines branded across the “Pink Loves Consent” site, a webpage that appeared to be promoting a new line of Victoria’s Secret underwear. A hoax by Baltimore feminist group Force, it went viral in early December of last year.
“Consent is sexy” is a common mantra among those trying to fight the prevalence of sexual assault. Before freshman Whitties were trained to be “Green Dots,” the “consent is sexy” line was taught at orientation. And all things considered, it’s a well-intentioned, decent campaign, focused appropriately on how not to rape rather than how to prevent being raped. That said, for all the good the campaign represents, its message is focused on the wrong thing. If we’re serious about stopping sexual assault, there are bigger fish to fry than making consent sexy.
The slogan is absolutely right in promoting consent, but unfortunately, it sells it in the wrong way. When you ask for consent, it shouldn’t be because it’s a turn-on. Consent should be about fundamentally recognizing another person’s right to his or her own body, about respecting that person’s dignity and autonomy, and about being able to take a “no.” By making it about what’s “sexy,” the slogan promotes eroticism as a way of determining the worth of an act. Argumentum ad Eros. By this tack, in any sexual circumstance, the most important thing, even more important than consent itself, is that the situation stay steamy. Anything else is only secondary to maintaining the mood.
“Consent is sexy,” it says. But what if it isn’t? What if you’re nervous and sweaty, you’re so eager that your voice shakes, or you just can’t find a seductive way to ask, “Is it okay if I bite you?” What then? Do you give up on consent if you can’t make it a turn-on? Obviously, no. Obtaining enthusiastic, affirmative consent is crucial anytime you’re in a sexual situation, regardless of how smoothly you can (or can’t) do it. But as long as we fall back on the “consent is sexy” line to fight sexual assault, we’re using “sexy” as a shortcut and avoiding the actual issue.
Rapists don’t rape because consent isn’t sexy enough; they rape because they feel entitled and protected. A rapist believes they are entitled to another person’s body, regardless of that person’s wishes, and that whatever they do, they can get away with it. The recent case in Steubenville, Ohio provides a particularly dramatic example: Two high school football players repeatedly raped an unconscious girl, going so far as to videotape the incident—and while this was happening, not one of the other players nearby stopped them. In the wake of the crime, the community, including the rapists’ football coach, have rallied to defend the two boys. But even in less violent, dramatic incidents, such as date rape, rapists still operate under the assumptions of entitlement and protection. That’s the nature of rape. This problem has nothing to do with how “sexy” consent is.
Teaching the importance of consent should be a natural outcome of teaching other fundamental moral principles. If you teach someone that access to another person’s body is always a privilege, never a right, then it makes sense that they would naturally seek consent in sexual settings. If you teach someone that sex is an experience to be shared rather than an an achievement to be checked off, then it makes sense that they would aim for mutual satisfaction, and never celebrate or encourage nonconsensual sex. If we want to dismantle a culture that makes and harbors rapists, the key isn’t rebranding consent—it’s creating a new moral atmosphere.