Affirmative consent, in which permission is to be ascertained for every step of sexual intimacy – either verbally or through non-verbal cues – became the standard on American campuses during Barack Obama’s presidency. Although “yes means yes” has been criticized by some as “unsexy” or infantilizing, Katherine Angel considers it an improvement on the previous rallying cry of “no means no”, promoted on campuses from the 1990s. While it was an important step in debunking the idea that persistence in the face of resistance is part of seduction, “no means no” still “framed women’s role in sex primarily as one of refusal”. But as Angel argues in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent has come to carry too heavy a load. An agreement to sex is only what makes it legal; it “should not be conflated with sexual desire, enjoyment or enthusiasm”.
As in her previous book, Daddy Issues (2019), Angel uses snippets of contemporary culture to illustrate her arguments. The book begins with her comments on a videoed discussion between the porn star James Deen and Girl X, a fan who won a contest for the opportunity to shoot a scene with him. Watching Girl X hesitate on camera (will she? won’t she?), Angel narrates the questions that often go through women’s heads in a first encounter, among which are “Will I be pursued, haunted by my own actions?” and “Has saying yes precluded my ability to say no?” Indications of desire are still used against women, Angel emphasizes – brought up in rape trials, for example – so it is “no wonder Girl X has mixed feelings, is paralysed by uncertainty”.
From here Angel considers “confidence culture” (which suggests that with enough confidence and self-assertion women can achieve anything) and its knock-on effects on consent. “In this era of post-feminism, the utterly reasonable claim that women should be afforded sexual freedom – that they should be able to declare their desire loudly, to be perverse and lustful and up-for-it – slid into the more dubious insistence that women are and must be so.” The problem with an over-emphasis on consent, she points out, is that it shifts the responsibility for societal imbalances of power onto individuals. Consent only works as a standard if one feels one has the right to refuse…
Read the full article online at the TLS