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Feministing Reads: Ask

When you really start thinking about consent and power, you go through a mental wormhole where your brain short-circuits over questions like: What is the meaning of consent when the world is so unequal? Is there such a thing as a relationship that is free of coercion? I didn’t consent to being born into capitalism so how can I be made to get out of bed for work?

These are the kinds of deeper-level issues that writers explore in Ask, a forthcoming anthology about consent culture edited by sex-critical consent provocateur Kitty Stryker. (It also has an afterward by Carol Queen, one of our “Fucking with Feministing” buddies at the Center for Sex and Culture.) Ask is a good and definitely past-due read extending the idea of consent beyond the “yes means yes” framework, with pieces exploring, in various ways, what it means to create consent cultures in a world that is overwhelmingly coercive.

For me, the collection raised another, deeper question about the consent framework in general. Specifically, it made me wonder how the consent framework may replicate a specifically Western notion of the individual. In contemporary (capitalist) American society, we risk thinking about the body in terms of property we own, and consent as a simple contract between two unfettered individuals. Instead, we should understand consent, and the right to bodily autonomy more broadly, in a way that emphasizes values like community, collectivity, and care.

Feminists — including (*gasp!* *self-promotion!* *hello world!*) yours truly — have struggled with this question and more for years, and there are no easy answers. Ask thus has a broad scope, beginning with consent in the bedroom then expanding to labor, education, the criminal justice system, and the family, to name just a few.

As Laurie Penny writes in the forward, especially in the face of a political regime which groped its way to power, “Both in and out of the bedroom, we’re a lot less free than we’d like to think.” Grappling with the many implications, nuances, and ambivalences of this unfreedom may thus actually be the most productive thing we can do at this political moment. 

One such grappling is Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux’s essay on family, “Consent Culture Begins at Home,” in which they explore the tension between consent and care. On one hand, consent means that relationships should be freely chosen. On the other, creating caring bonds with others means having mutual obligations. And as the writers acknowledge in their essay, family and human relationships in general are highly culturally-specific. This cultural specificity extends to our very notions of body, personhood, and community, and thus to the consent framework itself.

A consent framework presupposes that an individual’s decisions about their body are more important than the community’s decisions about their body. This is why, for example, even if a community thinks a husband has the right to have sex with his wife, we would condemn such sex without consent as marital rape. This is a revolutionary notion: that our lives needn’t be dictated by our social roles. But we should ask: does the way we think about the rights of the individual—often using a Western, modern notion of individual autonomy—come with baggage?

Being involved in discussions around consent on a very diverse university campus in India, I’ve seen first-hand the way in which consent as a framework depends on a notion of the individual that doesn’t always translate across caste, class, and even linguistic contexts. I’ve entered conversations with people about consent only to come out of them radically questioning my own notions of the body, love, sexuality, and individuality. Which makes sense, of course – why should the same framework that might work on an American college campus be applicable to contexts with very different gender, material, and social arrangements? The challenge, thus, becomes promoting the right of every person to bodily autonomy while being self-critical about our very notions of “body” and “autonomy.”

That self-criticality means advocating for consent while questioning Western individualism’s reliance on the language of capitalism. For example, in Richard M. Wright’s essay on teaching consent through playtime, Wright explains sexual consent using the example of a friend wanting to borrow a book – if your friend says no or expresses hesitation, the author writes, you shouldn’t borrow their book. While the example itself is useful, upon closer examination it troubled me: I want to be able to make an argument for our rights over our bodies without necessarily relying on the idea of property ownership.

How do we imagine a standard of bodily autonomy which doesn’t reduce us to a libertarian vision of atomized individuals trading consent on a free market, but instead emphasizes our codependence?

Part of this imagination requires understanding how the language of social obligation is often used to justify exploitation: The supposed “duty” of wives to serve husbands, the poor to serve the rich, or the oppressed to comply with racial hierarchy. On the other hand, we must also recognize how the language of autonomy, absent an analysis of social power and mutual human obligation, can naturalize exploitation – for example, in the “personal responsibility” language of the Republican party.

In these structures of exploitation, our job as feminists is to make an argument for consent and the right to bodily autonomy, not as a reinforcement of values of private ownership, but as part of a move toward collectivity, care, and community.

I don’t have the answer. But I’m very glad we’re thinking, as a broad feminist community, and in a detailed public way, about these complex questions. Ask contributes to this ongoing community negotiation (see what I did there?), reminding us that with an administration that’s made violating women and the oppressed its job, deepening our nuanced political commitment to building a utopian world – not backing off of it – is our best bet.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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