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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

“Consent Is Sexy” Mantra Well-Meaning But Misguided

Credit: Schuh
Credit: Schuh

(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.

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  • S

    Spencer WhartonMar 27, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    Thamsanqa Phiri-

    I’m sorry it took so long to get back to you.

    My first tip would be to look to other campaigns that have been successful. Most notably, British Columbia’s “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign has been associated with a 10% reduction in reported sexual assaults. You can read more about it at http://is.gd/fuYM6D .

    The idea is to prevent rape by keeping people from being rapists, rather than assuming rapists will exist and telling people to avoid them. The campaign does that in a couple of ways. First, it tells men what is unacceptable–what counts as rape. Second, by saying “don’t be that guy,” it works on a social level. Being “that guy” who takes advantage of a drunk girl or ignores a partner’s “no” is reframed not as something admirable or cool, but something ugly.

    So I’d say if you’re interested in a campaign, those three points are a good place to start. Keep people from becoming rapists, tell them what rape is, and make it very clear that rape is unacceptable and not cool.

    Good luck!


  • T

    Thamsanqa PhiriFeb 10, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    I liked the article and I would love to be helped as me and my fellow group members we are planning a campaign agaisnt rape.
    This artlice gave me some ideas on how to tackle and fight this pandemic rape issue in South Africa.

    Your help, tips and advive will be highly appreciated.

  • S

    Spencer WhartonFeb 6, 2013 at 6:17 pm


    Thanks for your response. You clearly thought this one through in order to comment, and I really appreciate it.

    There is so much complexity to this issue that to deal justice to every facet in 600 words is near impossible. I think some of what you’re taking away from my writing is not what I intended to say. Obviously, the fault is on me for not writing clearer, but I hope I can clear some things up and address some of your points.

    I used the Steubenville case because it’s big news and on many people’s radars at the moment, but I’m quite aware that many–even most–incidents of sexual assault don’t look like that. I recognize completely that sexual assault is very often not as black and white as the Steubenville case. But I’d still maintain that in the “gray area” rape cases, such as sexual assault that occurs when someone is intoxicated, it still boils down to a sense of entitlement and protection.

    “Entitlement” could be a lot of things. It could be the aggressive, power-driven sense of dominance over another’s body. It could also be the sense that after certain strings of events, sex is a natural expectation. It could be the idea that having sex and “scoring” is more important than the fact that one’s partner is intoxicated. All of these forms share something: either because it’s assumed or not seen as necessary, consent isn’t sought out.

    I’m not arguing against confirming consent in any way. I think consent needs to be the central feature of any of our discussions about sex. But my point in the article was that we need to fix some bigger issues first. You don’t need a “not murdering is sexy” campaign to keep people from taking each other’s lives, even when intoxicated–that’s a fundamental part of our moral upbringing that most of us don’t dare cross. I want to see obtaining consent for sex, no matter what the circumstances, in the same category.

    That said, I do recognize what you’ve said about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I was probably a bit too harsh with the “consent is sexy” campaign, because clearly, it’s a good message. More than anything, I think it deserves recognition for inserting consent into the discussion of sex, and making people who might not think about it otherwise consider it. I still wouldn’t strongly endorse it as a be-all-end-all anti-sexual-violence campaign, but I think as an awareness-raising campaign, it certainly serves a worthy purpose.

    I think consent can be sexy, far sexier than a lot of people will give it credit for. And I actually agree with you; I’d like to see a world where consent was at the heart of our erotic ideals. Perhaps “consent is sexy” is a way to work toward that.

    If I could amend my column, I would take your criticisms to heart, and give “consent is sexy” a little more credit. I think there’s room and need for both: a lighthearted campaign designed to raise awareness as well as a careful consideration of the values we’re teaching as a culture.

    Thank you again for your response and your careful criticism. You’ve kept me thinking and questioning myself, which I appreciate.


  • M

    Michael PutnamFeb 6, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    I really do appreciate the sentiment motivating this article, and I think it’s really important to continue to think critically about the ways that we talk about sexual assault. But after reflecting a little bit about this article, I think there are some really fundamental issues that should be raised in relation to the author’s criticism.

    I think that this article perpetuates the mistaken assumption that rape is always the violent activity of a “bad guy” who has malicious intentions or unethical views. This kind of attitude completely ignores some more complicated cases of rape.

    I’ll point your attention to this line: “the 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.” I take issue with this. I don’t think it’s true. I think that many rapists do not even realize that what they are doing is wrong, not because they believe they are entitled to someone’s body, but because they simply did not realize that the other person was on the same page as them. I think there are many cases in which the rapist had no intention of raping the victim, but did so simply because he (sic, mostly) failed to ask for consent.

    I am surprised that the author uses “date rape” as the paradigmatic “less violent, less dramatic” case of rape. Less, maybe… but certainly still violent. But what about other cases that we might term “less violent”, like when a dormmate unthinkingly rapes an inebriated friend whom they mistakenly thought was coming on to them. Sadly, I think that sometimes in such cases, the rapist really does rape because “consent isn’t sexy enough”.

    It seems like the position of this article toward such cases is: “But look at this more ‘violent’, more ‘dramatic’ case of rape!” To which I want to say: not all rape prevention campaigns are meant to address all cases. Of course “Consent is Sexy” does not address the horrible incident the author discusses. But it does address more subtle cases of rape, which I believe are actually cases of rape. I want to dub this the “bigger fish to fry” fallacy.

    To get a little more into the meat of the article: I agree with what the author has to say about changing the moral culture – work to change the fundamental attitudes that underlie our moral culture is always important. What strikes me is that the author is spending the entire article criticizing one way of changing the moral culture. Erotic culture is part of moral culture. All of our erotic encounters, I think, are necessarily going to be performances attempting to approximate our culture’s erotic ideal. We can take charge of that erotic culture, insisting that consent can be sexy – i.e. an intrinsic part of our erotic performances – or we can just rely on the old tactic of saying “Well, if we just change people’s fundamental assumptions about how to treat people, all the messy stuff about sex will just sort itself out”. But this might not be true. Unfortunately, someone might really believe that access to another person’s body is a privilege and not a right – and they might still commit rape anyways, maybe after they or the victim or both have been drinking, by attempting to perform the erotic ideal they’ve been taught since childhood.

    In summary, I think the author should have framed this article as “this campaign is good, and we should still pursue it, as long as it’s not at the expense of other programs” rather than as “this is a well-intentioned campaign, but look at how it doesn’t address this really violent case, therefore we should drop it”. There’s a kind of criticism which is constructive, moving us towards more and more effective ways of combating sexual assault. Then there’s a kind of criticism which blocks any attempt at making progress by relentlessly pointing out the inevitable shortcomings of all our efforts. I think that the author has slipped into the latter mode. Of course we want to find ways of combating the really violent, black-and-white cases of rape, which do happen at Whitman. But we also need to find ways of preventing the subtle cases, and I’m not convinced that “Consent is Sexy” is necessarily going to be completely hopeless in this regard.