Mainstream discourse around consent is leaving women and girls vulnerable

More men are agreeing that there’s a need for consent education and have shared success stories about how it’s improved their own understanding of male-female interactions and relationships. Which is good. It’s a start. But it’s not the solution, as mainstream discussion would have us believe, to male sexual violence against women and girls.

Forgive me if I’m more horrified than encouraged by the fact that men are just starting to have awareness of the issue now, and only because the problem has been dragged kicking and screaming into the daylight. How wonderful it must be to never have to think about a problem unless it affects you directly or someone forces you to pay attention. I have to wonder: these men who finally get it now and are so appreciative of women for enlightening them after repeating themselves over and over and over again – were they going around raping women before? Are we to understand that they were so ill-equipped to understand when they shouldn’t lay hands on someone that they needed guidance? Or is it that they were too callous to accept that responsibility for themselves and were waiting for women (those mystical nurturing creatures) to save them from a life of depravity? Or perhaps women have simply been so beaten down that their pain and indignation is too great to ignore.

Are we seriously supposed to give men the benefit of the doubt? Like, they didn’t have the capacity until right now to distinguish between right and wrong? Poor pets, they were victims, you see, unable to recognize when they were gratifying themselves at the expense of women and girls and exploiting their position. Patriarchal culture simultaneously makes gods of men while infantilizing them for the purpose of rationalizing their violence. We need to give them far more credit. Abusive men don’t lack agency; they’ve always been in a position to know what they’re doing and the fact that they need to be told that they don’t have a right to harm us is indicative of a much deeper problem.

When people supposedly start ‘caring’ because you’ve asked them to, that means they didn’t care before and they still don’t care now. People who truly value the dignity of others don’t have to be convinced to show it. All we’re doing is giving men a new script around which to model their language and behaviour in public. The appropriate time to begin cultivating self-awareness and empathy is in childhood, when human beings are forming their most basic ideas about themselves and their relationship to the world around them. Instead, we’re rearing boys into masculinity and teaching them that females are inferior.

Men haven’t been violating the boundaries and bodily integrity of women and girls because society wasn’t telling them that they needed to get permission first. They do so because they implicitly believe they’re entitled to take what they want and do as they wish, particularly where females are concerned because they view us as objects rather than human beings of equal value.

Even when a woman says she doesn’t want to have sex, rapists insist she does. They privilege their own thoughts and desires above hers. What is she, after all, but an inert vessel with no purpose or will of its own? This is what it means to be objectified. The porn men and boys consume is littered with degrading, dehumanizing language and acts, many of which identify that a specific place in the social hierarchy is reserved for racialized women. The problem isn’t a lack of consent; it’s a desire to possess and defile that which is beneath you. Sexual assault is about domination and power. Men who do these things are sadists: violation is the point. They don’t want us to consent. They want to break us.

When we talk about consent, what we’re really talking about is male violence against women and girls. Females as a group don’t need to be reminded not to violate the boundaries of their male peers who are generally physically stronger than them and dominate the social order. Most importantly, telling women and girls that they’ll be protected from sexual assault if men are simply better educated places them in danger because it ignores the fact that a core group of men hate women so much, they’ll hurt us anyway. Meanwhile, a critical mass of men who don’t themselves physically attack women aid them by downplaying and decontextualizing misogyny, letting rape jokes pass, or allowing sexist comments and behaviour to continue unchallenged.

Overt or violent misogynists lower the bar, making men who are chauvinists in their own right, but better at hiding it, look like decent men. They exploit this situation by demanding accolades from women, enjoying the space they can take up as women and girls curtail their behaviour to avoid the threat of male violence, and gaslighting women who dare to call them out. For every man who’s willing to take responsibility, there are more who either vocally protest any suggestion that they’re part of a social class that terrorizes women, or they disguise their resentment and disdain for women behind a mask of anti-feminism and libertarian free speech rhetoric.

If we want to address the root of the problem, we also have to recognize that consent can hardly be described as entirely self-determined and intact in a culture that grooms girls into submissive heterosexual relationships. It’s inaccurate, naive, and ultimately oppressive to say that girls are free to make their own choices when those choices are constrained by an intense pressure to behave within the strictures of femininity so that they’re deemed attractive to boys and acceptable to society at large. Girls need to know unequivocally that they have a right not only to consent, but to refuse.

And finally, when we talk about male violence and misogyny, that conversation should be devoted to supporting and healing women and girls, and ultimately abolishing gender. Not celebrating men, thanking them for not raping us, or spending a fraction of a second worrying about how the topic makes them feel. Are there good men? Honestly, it’s just not a feminist obligation to prove that men aren’t sexist. Given how pervasive sexism is spanning from mild/subtle misogyny to the extreme of violence, it’s implausible that all men don’t contribute to it in some form. I truly marvel at the arrogance of men who fancy themselves special enough to have avoided soaking up masculinity and misogyny. It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine what a man who’s internalized the idea that he’s superior might think of women.

You can’t expect or convince people to care when they have every reason not to. Women are going to have to fight for our humanity, like we always have.

5 thoughts on “Mainstream discourse around consent is leaving women and girls vulnerable

  1. Found this very thought-provoking. At the very least, men should be educated on the concept of consent. But that truly is the very least we- or rather our patriarchal society- can do, to teach men to *not* be criminals. I used to be less critical, the sort of fun-fem for whom sex positivity seemed sensible. But I’m coming around to the realization that consent is not enough, that the bar is set too low; as you point out:

    ‘Men haven’t been violating the boundaries and bodily integrity of women and girls because society wasn’t telling them that they needed to get permission first. They do so because they implicitly believe they’re entitled to take what they want and do as they wish.’

    Men my age (the generation for whom the sudden prevalence of internet porn coincided with reaching adulthood) and younger have a distorted view of sex and women. They are clueless as to the natural forms and functions of the female body. Women’s pleasure and satisfaction are peripheral at best. If consent is taught to be the foundation of healthy sex, the equation simply becomes one in which men get orgasms and women get…not raped. And like you said, men have not been raping women because they didn’t know better.

    Setting aside the men for a moment- and because that is part of a larger cultural/societal shift that is needed but impossible for women to handle on their own- would it help to educate girls and young women on what they should expect from sexual encounters? Would teaching about female pleasure and the mechanics of the female body be effective in counteracting the male entitlement narrative? Fun-feminism caught on in part because women my age rejected the lack of agency ascribed to them in what they saw as prudish lectures against hookup culture. (Of course, as I get older I see just how right second-wavers were…). Regardless, now that this faux “empowerment” is out there, it seems critical to acknowledge female desire, as it can factor into why women will take chances on what end up being problematic sexual encounters (resulting in a lack of satisfaction or worse, being used by men as an excuse for committing rape), while ensuring that desire isn’t co-opted in a pornified way that feeds into male entitlement.

  2. This is one of the reasons I hate shows like Westworld and Game of Thrones – is makes the violence and rape against women seem more acceptable. They portray it in a manner that is sexually exciting to a large number of men, and teenage boys are watching this thinking it is ok

  3. Awesome post. Yes to almost everything, especially your thoughts about consent between people on different levels of power. I once read a gorgeous post about consent as a rather juridical term, which transferred to sex means “giving access” to ones body. So the consent-rhetoric still being in the frame of the woman as goal of pleasure, and the demand of consent as a premise for sex just gives her the possibilty to control this access – but still it is not about her own desire. (The blogpost has unfortunately been taken down:, maybe it will reappear one day). The concept of enthusiastic consent breaks this up at least a bit. And I like to use it to emphasize the desire of women and also to confront pro-sexwork-people with it asking how they reconcile both.
    Also I like this notion of enthusiastic consent because I do not believe that the power structure determines every experience in a way that sexual pleasure between woman and man isn’t possible. I have experienced it and I also experienced men being focused on and enjoying my sexual pleasure – this mutual pleasure in the other ones pleasure for me is the essence of sex.

    I would like to add to your article that I see different kinds of rapists, those you describe and others who simply take the liberty to *use* a woman as they please because it’s convenient for them and they *can* (are enabled by cultural beliefs, training in entitlement and so on). Like for example in partherships, what is called “maintenance sex” (Meghan Murphy has good article on that).

    • Thanks for your comment. These are all great points. I think one limitation with the enthusiastic consent approach is that few people talk about what they’re going to do before they become intimate. So typically a woman doesn’t know what she’s getting into until she’s already into it. Men often lie to get what they want. It’s possible for an egalitarian sexual relationship to exist between a man and a woman – just uncommon – so for this reason I don’t think feminism should be sex-positive. Rather, it should be sex-neutral. I think we need to create space for women to seriously rethink whether we’re going to entertain men at all. A kind of cultural strike, if you will.

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