Consent is not the last word in combating male sexual entitlement

editorialThe results of the SU’s sexual consent survey released at the end of last month showed that one in four female students had experienced a non-consensual sexual experience. In the current race for the position of welfare and equality officer, consent is seen as a key question. The possibility of compulsory consent workshops for students is a subject also being mentioned in relation to the presidential race. In both the SU’s survey and the sabbatical races, the issue of  consent is the point of focus of the conversation around sexual violence. When we choose to consent or not to consent to the sexual advances of another individual, whether these advances are physical, verbal, or more subtle, we are reacting to those advances. If we reciprocate the interest of another, then perhaps we might consent to these advances and a mutually-consented to encounter is initiated (on the other hand we might choose not to, for any number of reasons). If we don’t desire this interest or if we find the advances violent or sexually aggressive then we do not consent.

But what if one does consent in the latter instance? Out of fear perhaps? Or out of a belief that there is no other option? What if we consent because we don’t see anything wrong  with the advances? In our front page news story, the women at class rep training consented to give men in the audience lap dances for the entertainment of those in attendance. Does their consenting mean that there is no issue, or even an aspect of the situation, that is worth discussing? At the training, only the women were asked to give lap dances, while the men were not. When the volunteers were hypnotised, it was only with the women that sex was introduced as a  topic worth exploring by the hypnotist for the audience’s entertainment.

The decision that women should give lap dances while men should not is indicative of the male claim on female sexuality that pervades our society. The question then is does consent, by definition an affirmation of conduct, legitimise the behaviour that it is consenting to? If the women consented to give lap dances, does that put the behaviour of those who facilitated or decided that female class reps should give lap dances for entertainment beyond reproach? Is questioning their decision to consent equal to questioning their agency in general, and if so, whose business is it but their own?

What is deemed inappropriate behaviour can vary from one person to another. Take the ubiquitous example of the top lad in the club whose pursuing of women is built on a societal-endorsed sense of male sexual primacy and entitlement. He starts chatting up a woman who finds his advances (physical, verbal, etc.) repulsive. She does not consent to his advances and departs. He accepts her disinterest and he doesn’t pursue her in any way (i.e. doesn’t make comments, assault her, rape her.) He understands consent. He is not being that guy.He moves on to the next woman. He deploys the very same advances. All this woman’s friends have seen his previous carry-on and tell her he’s an asshole. However she likes him for whatever reason. She returns his interest and consents to his advances. They go on to have consensual sex and nothing non-consensual occurs.

On any one night he might go out and make advances on ten women, nine of whom find his behaviour chauvinistic. When he is made aware he moves on (because he is not that guy) and eventually someone might find his way of conducting himself charming and consent to his advances.  I’m not questioning or doubting a woman’s agency to consent to whatever she wants. My issue is that up to the point where consent comes into play (the point whereby the woman expresses that she is or is not interested), the man has essentially been using her as a sounding board for male entitlement, with consent being the measuring stick by which he can gauge whether or not he has been appropriate. Men need to know what is and is not appropriate sexual conduct outside of seeing what effect it has upon impact. Consent, by virtue of it being a reaction, is too late a point in proceedings to determine whether or not what has gone before has been appropriate or not.

Making consent the focus of the dialogue around male sexual entitlement shifts the focus from the man to the woman, from the potential aggressor to the potential victim. (Though one of the main points of consent campaigns is that men should recognise when women do or do not consent, it is still training men to react to a woman’s reaction to their behaviour, rather than tackling the man’s behaviour head on).

Consent is of course something that straight men (the usual perpetrators of sexual violence against women) need to know about but, as a point of focus, it is still in the realm of addressing the problem through the potential victim rather than the potential aggressor. The emphasis is on women to assert themselves in what may be, up to the point of consent, a horrendous situation, rather than addressing the man who has contrived this situation (through not knowing what is appropriate because this was prior to the point of consent).
We are moving away from a culture of victim blaming and we need continue in this vein and direct the discussion towards potential aggressors, potential in the sense that hopefully they become aware of the sexual entitlement that society breeds in men before that potential is realised in some form of sexually aggressive behaviour. Prevention being better than the cure, we should be directly engaging the straight male demographic on their sexual entitlement, rather than focusing on the issue of consent to their subsequent behaviour.

Consent, as a cause worth promoting and spreading information on, is an integral part of addressing the skewed culture around sexual dynamics among straight men and is hugely important in combating sexual violence. Sexual violence is the most identifiable and thus combatable aspect of male sexual entitlement. But men can fully understand and appreciate consent  and abhor sexual violence while still endorsing and contributing to a culture of male sexual entitlement.

By focusing solely on consent (not that any of the candidates are, rather they have made it a primary point of focus) we run the risk of failing to push forward and striking at the heart of received ideas of male sexual entitlement. It is the disregard for consent that defines sexual assault, thus consent is a very obvious and important rallying point in the discourse around sexual violence. But we must not, by  ignoring the fundamental causes of sexual violence (i.e. hegemonic male sexual entitlement), make consent a tokenistic chip that rallies people to a campaign while ignoring the cause.

As we see with the lap dance story, because the women consented to it, it was brushed off as being fine. Again, where consent is the last word, the agency of the individual woman vouches for what is a larger societal problem manifested in the individual man. Consent as the last word legitimises whatever is being consented to. It gives inappropriate behaviour a get out clause. Consent is not an end goal because it ultimately puts the focus on female agency rather than male agency. Men should know their behaviour is inappropriate without having to make a woman feel uncomfortable or unsafe to realise it.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.