Firstly- a quick apology for not being able to get this up sooner. We’ve had some wiring problems with the electricity that have stopped me from internetting until today.
Last time I covered why sex is risky and complicated, why there are excellent reasons to justify men saying no, and why arousal isn’t the same as enthusiasm/consent. Remembering from my simpler post that consent is about active participation or communication, let’s head forward into discussing the nature of consent in relationships and the gatekeeper model of marriage, incidental consent within relationships and saying no with a small justification or without one altogether, and consent between same-sex partners.
Let’s start with the gatekeeper model of marriage. It starts by being a little sexist against men, and then gets a lot more sexist against women. The core assumption here is that women are gatekeepers of sex- that is, they decide when sex happens and when it doesn’t. The implication here of course is that men want sex all the time and we’re available to be used as such, but such is the result of such a simplistic theory. It then moves on to imply that marriage is an institution that exists to legitimise sex between the husband and wife, and that it entails the idea of implicit consent. This in turn informs attitudes about rape in marriage- people who buy into this gatekeeper model feel it’s impossible, because by being married a woman has somehow consented to sex whenever and wherever. That’s a pretty powerful assumption.
Now, I won’t deny that most relationships are founded with the assumption that there will be some sex going on, and that marriage reinforces that assumption. But to say that this assumption amounts to “consent”, and that it can never be withdrawn, doesn’t describe a relationship. It describes sexual slavery, where women are viewed as the sexual property of their husbands. Fortunately, however, we live in a society where some of us think that you cannot sell yourself into slavery1. Enough of us recognise the principle of freedom to enshrine it in laws like the Bill of Rights- that you may do to others anything that they let you, assuming you can justifyably say that they agreed freely and explicitely with sound mind. We may not have perfect recognition of this principle in New Zealand, (there are too many examples to give) but we’ve started.
If we take the principle of individual freedom for granted, we have to buy into the notion that we don’t need a reason to withhold consent, and that trying to socially pressure people into thinking so is unacceptable. While most of this social pressure originates from men2, it doesn’t just aim to force women into compliance. It also aims to force other men into perpetuating the same beliefs, whether they support them or not, that consent is not a concept that applies to men.
And they don’t know why, but this concept of men as not being enslaved to sexual domination of women, of being able to say no and of accepting her saying no without question, but there are people that just don’t understand it, and seem to be actively afraid of it. It’s just not how men and women are, they say. (we’ll get back to this when I discuss gender essentialism) They’ve bought into the hegemonistic norms surrounding sex between men and women so much that any other view seems like it threatens complete reconstruction of society to them. That’s even leaving alone the issue of homosexuality.
Firstly, does homosexual sex have the same issues of consent as straight sex? Well, there is definitely such a thing as queer rape, as queer pedophiles sadly demonstrate, so there are some issues to be covered. But raping children is very different to blurring the line of consent between adults, because it often involves sexualising someone who doesn’t view themselves as sexual and exploiting naivity. But between consenting adults, queer relationships have a much larger chance to be free of the stigmas that straight couples have, due to already stigmatised for being queer. An open-minded gay or lesbian couple will be very likely to construct their relationship from the ground up, rather than go in with hidden assumptions that are never communicated.
That said, not all couples will be so open-minded, and queer couples have their own challenges. For example, that within the lesbian community there are women who might be described as asexual, but have had abusive relationships with men in the past, leading for them to look for people they identify with and understand more easily for companionship. (having a very low sexual drive, they are probably not really explicitly looking for sex with anyone) Consent in those situations is fraught and difficult because one partner is unlikely to really be engaged in the same way as the other. There are perfectly analogous situations for straight couples of course, (recurring “headaches”, for instance, may be a symptom) but the added stigma of not really conforming to stereotypes and not entirely belonging among those people that you most strongly identify with make the situation even more complicated.
As for consent between gay men, rather than just to do with homosexuality in general, I have a feeling I’ll have to come back to that topic later- no strong issues come to mind to explore, but that could just be because my mind has started to wander from the topic already!
1John Stuart Mill informs a lot of my personal philosophy, thus you’re likely to hear significant echoes of his work in my own writing. If you ever have the desire to read On Liberty, his best-known work, there’s an excellent online version at the University of Adelaide library. Mill is one of the earliest and most famous male writers influenced by feminist thought, and he openly acknowledged how much the influence of his second wife, women’s rights activist Harriet Taylor, contributed to On Liberty.
2Not necessarily deliberately, however. A lot of it is just assumptions people haven’t tried to or are unwilling to reconsider.