“Consent is sexy.”
I hear the anti-sexual violence maxim all the time, whether it be on campus, in an article or on a billboard. Indeed, “consent is sexy” is somewhat of a rallying cry among advocates of preventing sexual violence, and with good reason: It carries the noble intent of shifting the public discourse from “don’t get raped” to “don’t rape.” In that respect, I have nothing short of appreciation for the slogan and the advertising campaign that follows, and given that the intended audience is limited to impressionable high school and college students, I might even suggest that the agenda is somewhat effective.
Unfortunately, even with its commendable purpose and acceptable execution, “consent is sexy” offers a veritable itinerary of problems that preserve troubling thought patterns in the minds of the general public.
Perhaps the most prominent issue with the movement is in its holding of consent to the precarious standard of “sexy,” an exercise in unhealthy idealism. Indeed, consent is often anything but sexy, and that’s completely OK. Let me elaborate.
Healthy relationships flourish with similarly healthy communication, and the same thing can be said for healthy sex. An amicable sexual tryst or relationship will involve consistent and appropriate communication between all parties involved, and for better or worse, that communication isn’t always going to feel like a little blue pill christened vitamin V.
Sometimes, that consent may be prefaced with a “I think we need to talk about this because I’m not quite sure how I really feel.” Other times, you might discuss consent in a future-tense, in environments or situations that are wholly unromantic; sometimes, consent may be a decidedly dull “I guess we have time to kill,” and sometimes still consent won’t be given at all for reasons that don’t need elucidating. All of the above can be said to be normatively unsexy instances of communication, and that’s not just OK, that’s expected.
The implication behind “consent is sexy” is that consent should be sexy, or that if it’s “unsexy,” it’s not consent. Both notions are disturbingly false. Consent isn’t inherently erotic and it needn’t be, and sex without consent isn’t “unsexy,” it’s rape.
Lastly, there’s the perturbing issue that society went as far as to sexualize something as innocuous, normative and requisite as consent. Here’s the issue: “Sexy” as a social construction inherently involves the idea of “more than what is regular,” so to present “consent” — something inherently regular — as sexy is self-defeatist, irresponsible and counterproductive to the otherwise respectable intent of the actual campaign.
Similarly, you can’t reasonably claim “sexy is subjective, and I can define it any way I want” because, like it or not, words have meanings and prescriptions, and “consent” and “sexy” have ones as distinct as heaven and hell.
Many might consider my criticisms unfair, overly critical or exercises in “nitpicking,” and I’ll admit I’m not exactly doing my part to quell the stereotype of feminists as prone to marginal criticism. However, framing these criticisms as “complaints” or “nitpicks” is grossly unfair, and here’s why:
Consider the field of medicinal science as a direct analogue to feminism and its material application. When researchers pursue cures for ALS, non-symptomatic solutions to breast cancer or effective means of managing addiction, do we ever frame the process as complaining about the medicine and technology we already have? Hardly. We frame the pursuit in terms of love, hope, knowledge and compassion, an enduring struggle for the livelihood of our posterity and an attempt at social advancement that alters the very way we define our humanity.
Feminism is no different; it’s equal parts love, hope, knowledge and compassion; an enduring struggle for the livelihood of marginalized persons and a genuine attempt at social advancement that materially defines our humanity as egalitarian.
Conclusively, consent isn’t sexy; it’s unequivocally, inextricably and unforgivingly mandatory, and acknowledging the failings of the “consent is sexy” movement isn’t an exercise in “nitpicking,” but rather it’s an honest attempt at bettering society through a more appropriate dialogue.