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Phd law student, Chiara, explores the post #metoo world and its implications for the outdated notion of binary consent.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 year anniversary – the origins of the phrase itself which should be traced back to 2006 when activist Tarana Burke founded the Me Too Movement as a way to help women of colour who were survivors of sexual violence - Brett Kavanaugh has “ploughed through” and concluded his first week on the Supreme Court of the United States. Joining Kavanaugh in the ranks of men who have re-entered and/or remained in powerful and privileged echelons of society, despite women having come forward recalling stories of abuse at their hands, are: Louis C.K who is performing stand-up again after a quick hiatus since he admitted to sexual misconduct after accusations from five women; prominent news anchor and man who had a secret button under his desk that allowed him to lock his office door from the inside, Matt Lauer, apparently determinedly told 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 have for the most part been ignored, allowing him immunity from any backlash and permitting him the ability to continue a career performing at concerts around the world.

These men sit amongst and are propped up by the President of the United states who is, well, still the President despite at least 22 women coming forward accusing him of sexual misconduct between 1970 and 2013 (among a plethora of others things which are make him disqualifying for office). Unsurprisingly, Trump has also endorsed then-GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore and admitted to grabbing women by the pussy (a clear admission of sexual assault) on tape. But the year of the #MeToo has culminated to 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 said committee in an effort to defend his himself against the allegations. After all this, the message today is clear: ladies, you will suffer re-victimisation through the re-telling of your abuse while your assaulter rises the ranks unscathed. I am still waiting hear more about the ease at which women can accuse a man of sexual misconduct, how the utterance of said allegations can bring men down in one fail swoop, destroying their careers in tow and “ruin men’s lives” in the words of Trump.

Sadly, it is almost expected that society and culture more widely will continue to make excuses for boys and men despite all of this. Brett Kavanaugh was “just” a teenage boy and we know that “boys will be boys”. Donald Trump also happened to succumb 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 and far 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 so as Peggy Orenstein notes, it sounds more like they’ve “returned from a construction site” than had sex.

As Rebecca Traister so rightly 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 to sex. Consent, is something that men get from women. Men set the terms, their needs are 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 in order to avoid any miscommunication. 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 so obviously 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 male boorishness and sexual assault, through no fault of our own. This sex is so normalised, 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 get to the good stuff as we must.

How do we unrig the game then? Should consensual sex be the standard here? Of course, consent is important (obviously), but there is another dimension that we need to consider. We need to begin to have 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 always 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 the actuality of 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 pleasures and desires of individuals 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 the 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 for 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 have real, monumental change, and if we are to learn anything from stories divulged, we need to shake everything up and start again. Platitudes, endless hashtags and even shiny new conference rooms have quite truthfully come to a nausea-inducing point. We need to challenge our culture, its outpouring of sympathy with powerful men and it’s aptitude for women to perform their pain only to turn around on its heels and ask: but maybe she is confused about what happened? Men and boys need to be taught that our bodies are not sites to perform and enact their male entitlement. No more propping up men, excusing their behaviour and blaming it on the same ‘boys will be boys’ trope. Rather than boasting about your conquests, measuring us, rating and scoring us, how about you 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 sociolegal 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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