Unrigging the Game: An Ode to Moving Beyond Binary Consent and the Notion of ‘Bad Sex’

Phd  law student, Chiara, explores the post #metoo world and its implications for the outdated notion of  binary consent. Do you want to have sex? You sure?

As the viral campaign surrounding #MeToo reaches its anniversary, it’s worth remembering that the origin of the phrase goes back to 2006 when activistTarana Burke founded the Me Too Movement as a way to help women of colour who were survivors of sexual violence. But what has actually changed?  In the tag’s anniversary week, the ranks of men who have re-entered and/or remained in the powerful and privileged echelons of society, despite women having come forward with stories of abuse at their hands, include: Louis C.Kwho is performing stand-up again after a quick hiatus since he admitted to sexual misconduct after accusations from five women; prominent news anchor and the man who had a secret button under his desk that allowed him to lock his office door from the inside, Matt Lauer, apparently determinedlytold fans he will be “back on television” after being accused of sexual harassment and subsequently fired from NBC in 2017; celebrity chef Mario Batali, who finds himself “eyeing a second act” and “examining whether there is a way for [him] to step back into his career after taking a leave of absence and apologising for accusations which surfaced describing his inappropriate and abusive behaviour towards women; and finally, the decades old stories told and trauma relived by black women detailing sexual misconduct by singer R-Kelly which  have for the most part been ignored, allowing him immunity from any backlash and permitting him to continue his career performing at concerts around the world.

These men sit amongst and are propped up by the President of the United states who remains the President despite at least 22 women coming forward accusing him of sexual misconduct between 1970 and 2013 (this only one of a plethora of things which should disqualifying him for office). Unsurprisingly, Trump has also endorsed the-GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore.

But the anniversary week of #MeToo culminated in one of the most salient moments yet — the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. On completion of an emotionally gruelling testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr Christine Blasey Ford explained how at a high school party she believed Brett Kavanaugh was going to rape her after he and a friend forced her into a bedroom alone. Kavanaugh proceeded to grope her and tried to take off her clothes. A week later, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the highest possible judicial post, after frothing at the mouth in front of the committee in an effort to defend himself against the allegations. The message is clear: ladies, you will suffer re-victimisation through the re-telling of abuse while your assaulter rises the ranks unscathed. I anticipate hearing more about the ease with which women can accuse a man of sexual misconduct, how allegations can bring men down in one fell swoop, destroying their careers and in Trump’s words,  “ruin(ing) men’s lives”.

Sadly, it is almost expected that society and will continue to make excuses for boys and men despite all of this. Brett Kavanaugh was “just” a teenage boy and we all know that “boys will be boys”. Donald Trump succumbed to that infamous and shudder-inducing “locker-room talk” on the Access Hollywood tape. Let’s not forget Stanford swimmer, Brock Turner, who engaged in “twenty minutes of action” when, during a college party, he sexually assaulted a woman behind a dumpster. The himpathy is rife, it knows no bounds and is prevalent beyond these examples. It seeps so deep that these men and their behaviours are the standard.  In so many male spaces, sex is about conquest, their own self-interest and entitlement. Men can assert their masculinity and perform for other men through sex with women. They’ve banged ,smashed, torn up and destroyed so much, that as Peggy Orenstein, author of Don’t Call Me Prioncess, notes, it sounds more like they’ve “returned from a construction site than had sex.

Another feminist author, Rebecca Traister observes, the game is rigged. In this hazy world, women are told that consent to sex is an individual, autonomous process, one in which we can easily say yes or no.  Consent is something that men get from women. Men set the terms, their needs are the priority and they are positively entitled to a climax, just look at the orgasm gap.

Women? Women are the gatekeepers of that yes or no to sex and the onus is squarely on women to communicate their decision clearly. Whether their consent or refusal to sex is respected is another matter. But, as a result of this binary framing of consent, we are left with a dichotomy between sexual assault or sex positivity; and there seems to be no in-between. What about all those foggy memories of sloppy sexual encounters which we did not want, but gave in to? The ones which were covertly coercive that we questioned the next day? Rationalising: assuring ourselves it wasn’t rape. But what was it? A phenomenon that has no name. Perhaps these experiences are similar to the ones that over half of American undergraduate students note – women more so than men – when they were found to have consented to unwanted sex at some point. The reality is that women in heterosexual relationships are, quite honestly, oftentimes having sex which encompasses a grey area between maleboorishness and sexual assault. This sex is so normalised and so common that it has come to be accepted as just bad sex. It’s almost a rite of passage—wade through the bad sex to (hopefully)  get to the good stuff.

How do we unrig the game? Should consensual sex be the standard? Of course, consent is important, but there is another dimension that we need to consider. We need to make  a more nuanced analysis of the inequalities of hetero sex. If we are to think about consent, what it means and what it looks like, we need to understand and acknowledge that consent cannot always be negotiated meaningfully and equally. Consent doesn’t exist in a vacuum, uninfluenced by external factors like cultural and societal norms. What’s more, women cannot simply be thought of as agentic beings, grabbing their opportunity to give an enthusiastic, yelling-from-the-rooftops yes to sex without hesitation. Given that women are so often encouraged to respond enthusiastically in all kinds of contexts despite their feelings, it just isn’t that simple. Figuring out how to recognise the erotic potential of heterosexual interactions and advocating for a sexual integrity that focuses on the negotiation of an individual’s pleasures and desires is thus imperative. Young men need to be spoken to early on about this. About pleasure, gender dynamics and healthy relationships. A multi-dimensional, inclusive sexual politics of this kind will offer a shift from the binary understanding of consent and the heavy reliance on men’s wants and needs when it comes to sex. And in return, gendered power relations, cultural and societal structures and the ways in which they impact the ability of individuals to meaningfully negotiate consent and sex in positive environments will be acknowledged.  

Listening to women is essential, but if the #MeToo movement is going to make real, monumental change, and if we are to learn anything from its stories, we need to shake everything up and start again. Platitudes and  endless hashtags have quite truthfully come to a nausea-inducing point. We need to challenge our culture, its outpouring of sympathy with powerful men and its aptitude for encouraging women to perform their pain only to turn on its heels and say: but maybe she is confused about what happened. Men and boys need to be taught that women’s bodies are not sites to perform and enact their male entitlement. No more propping up men, excusing their behaviour and blaming it on the ‘boys will be boys’ trope. Rather than boasting about your conquests, measuring us, rating and scoring us, how about considering whether or not you actually made us feel good? That would be a sexual standard that I could get behind.


Chiara is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh School of Law. Informed by the theoretical framework of heterosexual scripts and using symbolic interactionism as a method of inquiry, Chiara’s socio-legal research explores how fraternity brothers in the United States conceptualise and negotiate sexual consent in a time where sexual misconduct policies are ever shifting on college campuses. She is currently a J-1 Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin and received her MSc in Inequalities and Social Science from the London School of Economics.

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