The Horizon of Desire

Laurie Penny wants a new conversation about women, men, consent, desire, and autonomy.

Laurie Penny | Longreads | September 2017 | 15 minutes (4,185 words)

“Man fucks woman. Man: subject. Woman: object.”

 —The Fall, Episode 3, “Insolence and Wine”

The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.

We need to talk about what consent really means, and why it matters more, not less, at a time when women’s fundamental rights to bodily autonomy are under attack across the planet, and the Hog-Emperor of Rape Culture is squatting in the White House making your neighborhood pervert look placid. We still get consent all wrong, and we have to try to get it a bit less wrong, for all our sakes.

To explain all this, I’m going to have to tell you some stories. They’re true stories, and some of them are rude stories, and I’m telling you now because the rest of this ride might get uncomfortable and I want you to have something to look forward to.

* * *

So, I’ve got this friend with a shady past. He’s a clever and conscientious person who grew up in the patriarchy, and he knows that he’s done things which may not have been criminal but have hurt people, and by people he means women. My friend has hurt women, and he doesn’t know what to do about that now, and from time to time we talk about it. That’s how it happened that, a few weeks ago, halfway through an effervescent confession in a coffee shop, the following words came out of his mouth: “Technically, I don’t think I’ve raped anyone.”

Technically. Technically, my friend doesn’t think he is a rapist. That technically haunted me for days. Not because I don’t believe it, but because I do. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it, or something like it, from otherwise well-meaning male friends who are frantically reassessing their sexual history in the light of the awkward fact that shame is no longer enough to stop women from naming abusers. It’s so far from the first time I’ve heard it, in fact, that I ought to add a caveat, for a few select readers: If you haven’t given me permission to share your story, this isn’t you I’m talking about.

“Technically, I haven’t raped anyone.” What did he mean, technically? My friend went on to describe how, over years of drinking and shagging around before he got sober, he considers it a matter of luck rather than pride that he has never, to his knowledge, committed serious sexual assault. The fact is that, like any number of men growing up in the last decade, his concept of consent could have been written in crayon. Sex was something you persuaded women to let you do to them, and if they weren’t passed out, saying no, or actively trying to throw you off, you were probably fine.

All the way home from the coffee shop, I thought about consent, and why the very concept is so fearful to anyone invested in not looking under the carpet of modern morality. I thought about the number of situations I’ve encountered where no, technically, nobody committed a crime, and yes, technically, what happened was consensual. Maybe someone pushed a boundary to its breaking point. Maybe someone simply lay there and let something be done to them because they didn’t feel able, for whatever reason, to say no.

That technically, of course, is not just something one hears from men. You hear that same technically, in a different key, from girls and grown women who don’t want to think of the things that happened to them that way, even though the fact that those things happened to them, with or without their say-so, is the whole problem. We learn, just as men do, that our instincts about what we feel and experience are not to be trusted. We learn that our desire is dangerous and so we tamp it down until we no longer recognize the difference between wanting and being wanted. We learn that our sexuality is contemptible and so we crush it; we become alienated from our own bodies. I’ve told myself before that technically, this or that person committed no crime, so technically, I’ve got no reason to feel used like a human spittoon, and technically I did invite him back to my house, so technically, I should have expected nothing less, and technically, there’s no reason to be angry and upset, because really, what is female sexuality but a set of technicalities to be overcome?

The problem is that technically isn’t good enough. “At least I didn’t actively assault anyone” is not a gold standard for sexual morality, and it never was. Of course, we have to start somewhere, and “try not to rape anyone” is as good a place as any, but it can’t end there. Our standards for decent sexual and social behavior should not be defined purely by what is likely to get us publicly shamed or put in prison, because we are not toddlers, and we can do better.

This is what consent culture means. It means expecting more — demanding more. It means treating one another as complex human beings with agency and desire, not just once, but continually. It means adjusting our ideas of dating and sexuality beyond the process of prying a grudging “yes” out of another human being. Ideally you want them to say it again, and again, and mean it every time. Not just because it’s hotter that way, although it absolutely is; consent doesn’t have to be sexy to be centrally important. But because when you get down to it, sexuality should not be about arguing over what you can get away with and still call consensual.

When you put it that way, it sounds simple. Easy to understand. But there are a great many simple ideas that we are taught not to understand and a great many more that we choose not to understand when our self-image as decent human beings is at stake, and that’s where a lot of men and boys I know are at right now. Bewildered. Uncomfortable. Wrestling with the specter of their own wrongdoing. Frightened, most of all, about how the ground rules for being a worthwhile person are changing so fast.

* * *

So let’s talk about getting away with it. Let’s talk about what happens in a society where women’s bodies are contested commodities for men to fight over. Let’s talk about rape culture.

The naming and shaming of rape culture has been one of the most important feminist interventions of recent years, and one of the most controversial and misunderstood. “Rape culture” does not imply a society in which rape is routine, although it remains unconscionably common. Rape culture describes the process whereby rape and sexual assault are normalized and excused, the process whereby women’s sexual agency is continuously denied and women and girls are expected to be afraid of rape and to guard against it, the process whereby men are assumed to have the erotic self-control of a gibbon with a sweetie jar of Viagra, creatures who ought to be applauded for not flinging turds everywhere rather than encouraged to apply critical thinking.

(I have never understood why more men aren’t offended by this assumption, why more of them aren’t arguing that possession of a penis does not automatically cripple a person’s moral capacity, but then again, that might mean that behaving with basic decency wouldn’t get you a gold star every time. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where all it takes to be considered an upstanding guy is lack of actively violent misogyny? Oh, that’s right — women.)

You do not have to be a victim of rape to be affected by rape culture. You do not have to be a convicted rapist to perpetuate rape culture. You don’t have to be an active, committed misogynist to benefit from rape culture. I sincerely believe that a staggering proportion of straight and bisexual men are working with some ingrained assumptions about sex and sexuality that they have not fully analyzed. Assumptions about the way women are, what they do, and what they have the capacity to want. Assumptions like: men want sex, and women are sex. Men take, and women need to be persuaded to give. Men fuck women; women allow themselves to be fucked. Women are responsible for drawing up those boundaries, and if men overstep them, that’s not their fault: boys will be boys.

What is confusing to a great many men, including otherwise accomplished, successful, and sensitive men, is that women can and should be trusted to make their own choice at all. Right now, one of the fundamental operating principles of rape culture, rarely articulated but routinely defended, is this: men’s right to sexual intercourse is as important or more important than women’s basic bodily autonomy. Therefore, while it’s women’s job to police the boundaries of sexuality, to control themselves where men are not required to, they cannot and should not be trusted with any choice that might affect men’s ability to stick it wherever they like and still think of themselves as decent people, even retrospectively. Women’s agency, choices, and desires may matter, but they matter much less, and they always will.

The thing is, if you accept the idea a woman has the absolute right to sexual choice, you must also wrestle with the prospect that she might not make the choice you want. If she’s really free to say no, even if she’s said yes before, even if she’s naked in your bed, even if you’ve been married for twenty years, well then — you might not get to fuck her. And that’s the hill that far too many dudes mistake for the moral high ground as they prepare to die on it.

Quite a few people, most of them men, are truly confused as to why the ladies are so upset that they keep getting hit on by potential investors and having to chase creeps out of their apartments when they thought they were having a business meeting. After all, few of the allegations in question involve violent penetration by a stranger. That’s what rape looks like in films, where the villain may be identified by his suspicious facial hair and the creepy theme music that follows him around, and is nothing like you or your friends, because you’re all the heroes of your own story, and heroes don’t rape.

In the real world, as the sex-pest scandals roll over America’s earthquake zones, almost nobody is being directly threatened with jail for sex crimes. The complaints are about the everyday sleaze and scumbaggery that have been tolerated for decades in male-dominated industries: grabbing, lewd comments, bosses hassling you for sex, the ubiquitous, unspoken understanding that women are first and foremost objects of desire, not individuals with desires — sexual, professional — of their own.

We are surrounded by so many images of sexuality that it’s easy to think of ourselves as liberated. But liberation, by definition, involves everyone. Instead, the messages that bombard us from marketing and pop culture to mainstream pornography insist that acceptable desire goes only in one direction: from men to women. It’s a homogenous, dehumanizing vision of straight sex, a simple story where only men have agency, and women are passive points on a spectrum of fuckability. This is sexual license, not liberation. Today’s sexual freedom is rather like today’s market freedom, in that what it practically entails is freedom for people with power to dictate terms and freedom for everyone else to shut up and smile. We have come to accept, as in so many areas of life, a vision of freedom whereby the illusion of choice is a modesty slip for unspeakable everyday violence.

* * *

Consent culture, first named by activist and sex-critical feminist Kitty Stryker, is the alternative to all this. Resisting a culture of rape and abuse must involve more than insisting on the individual right to say no — although that’s both a decent starting place and a difficult concept for some people to wrap their RedTube-rotted brains around. There’s a reason for that. The reason that the notion of real, continuous, enthusiastic sexual consent is so outrageous is that the concept of female sexual agency — let alone active desire — is still a fearful one. Our culture still has very little room for the idea that women and queer people, given the chance, want and enjoy sex just as much as men do.

Well before they are old enough to start thinking about having it, girls are still trained to imagine sex as something that will be done to them, rather than something they might like to do for its own sake. We grow up with warnings that sexuality in general and heterosexuality in particular is a fearful, violent thing; sex is something we must avoid, rather than something we have. If we’re able to recognize that we want it of our own accord, we learn that we are deviant, dirty, and wicked. The legion of one-handed-typers on misogynist subreddits, wondering why on earth it’s so hard for them to get laid, wondering why women don’t make approaches, why we use sex as a social bargaining strategy, would do well to remember that straight women didn’t come up with those rules. Most of us are proficient at suffocating our own desires, because withholding sexuality is the only social power we are permitted — even if that permission is given grudgingly and unreliably by a culture that calls us sluts and bitches and whores when we don’t say no but can’t be relied on to believe us when we do. This, too, is rape culture. Rape culture is not about demonizing men. It is about controlling female sexuality. It is anti-sex and anti-pleasure. It teaches us to deny our own desire as an adaptive strategy for surviving a sexist world.


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There are all sorts of things nice girls aren’t supposed to do. Nice girls are sexy, but not sexual. Nice girls talk about victimhood, if they must, but not desire. Nice girls know that their sexual consent is a commodity, and that we must not be too free with our favors lest we devalue the collective currency by which our social worth is measured. If we give the impression that we might like a fuck, or even that we’d prefer to decide for ourselves who and how and when we fuck, we’re disgusting whores who deserve every bit of violence that’s done to us.

That, at least, is what certain men on the internet tell me every day, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not have this conversation on their terms. I do not wish to waste any more of my one precious life than is strictly necessary debunking crypto-Darwinian psycho-bollocks about how all women really want is to be held down and humped thoroughly until they stop lying about the pay gap and start making Christian babies. It’s the sort of disingenuous discursive slime-mould that only grows the more oxygen you feed it, and that’s why the terms of engagement have to shift. That’s why we need to talk— more than ever — about agency, about consent, and yes, about desire.

Here’s the second rude story I promised. A few weeks ago, I was in bed with a friend, and after events had progressed and concluded, he articulated some lazy delight about how much I seemed to have enjoyed the whole thing. “You really like this, for its own sake,” he said. “You actually enjoy it.” He was surprised. I was surprised that he was surprised, though again, I’ve heard it before.

That delight is often seasoned with disgust — after all, we still learn that women who want to fuck are somehow dirty, worthless, less valuable. It’s certainly what I learned.

My own experience is that the men who are most surprised about your sexual enthusiasm are the first to find it distasteful, to ghost when someone reveals herself as a woman who has managed to hang on to her own sexuality enough to express it. Most of the men who expressed surprise at my desire quickly found their own interest waning. If they didn’t have to chase me, if I didn’t play a little reluctant, if I got bored with the game of keeping them hanging to the third date because I’m horny and busy and dates are weird and I’d rather just go to bed and see if our bodies like each other… well. That’s when I’ve been handed an all-access pass to the friendzone, usually with a short speech about how cool I am, how different from the other girls.

 

Of course, that’s what consent means, too. Nobody has to continue any love affair they don’t want to, for any reason. In fact, no reason is required: “I don’t want to” is enough. Nor am I knocking the friendzone; it’s an exciting place to visit, nobody expects you to wear special underwear, and all the rides are free. It just happens that my particular experience is studded with men who called time-out as soon as they realized that this was not to be a traditional predator/prey relationship. As soon as I made it clear that I wanted them, too. Stating clearly what I wanted, whether or not I got it, has been intimidating, as if I’d suddenly put on a clown mask or produced a whip and a hopeful expression. I happen to be embarrassingly vanilla, but even I know that consent is not a kink. What do we do about consent when active female desire is a turn-off?

The idea that a woman might actually want and enjoy heterosexual sex is still taking a while to (ahem) penetrate. Women, too, grow up learning that our own desire is dirty and dangerous. We squash it down and stamp it out, even in the moment. We learn that to be respected, even on an intimate, one-on-one level, we sometimes have to feign reluctance, let ourselves be chased and coerced, and this, of course, further complicates an already complicated situation. If you’ve been told that attractive women often act like they don’t want to fuck you, how are you meant to respect the wishes of those who really, actively don’t want to fuck you? If you have eroticized female sexual hesitancy, how are you meant to suddenly switch to a culture of real consent, where the appropriate thing to do when someone is pulling away is to let them go?

I’m asking rhetorically, because of course you’re meant to err on the side of consent like a goddamned decent human being, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t confusing. The disaster of a modern heterosexuality that still teaches us that openness and honesty are boner-killers, that “things are better with a bit of mystery,” leaves not a few of us so overtaken by our own complexes and hangups that we cannot name abuse for what it is, much less consent.

And that’s why any active display of female desire still has the power to shock on a political level and startle on a personal one. I don’t mean to suggest that all young men expect all women to act like felled deer in bed. In my experience, many of them anticipate a certain performance of pleasure, but they do expect it to be performance. Female orgasm is now acknowledged, even expected, but in its proper place, produced for the benefit and glory of our partners, not for us — hence the anxiety about whether or not women can achieve it, the pressure to fake it rather than offend anyone’s pride. When it comes to male satisfaction, even the other person’s pleasure is too often assumed to be simply part of the service.

* * *

Given what’s going on in the world beyond our bedrooms, it might seem like the wrong time to be talking about desire, about, frankly, the fact that fucking is fun. A lot of us might be tempted to settle for not being forced to give birth against our will because we couldn’t get our father’s permission to end a pregnancy. It might seem like asking too much to want to be treated as human beings with complete and equal agency when we’re suddenly facing the real possibility of getting fired by the puritan who writes our paychecks because we wanted to sterilize our sinholes with the travesty of contraceptive choice.

It’s hard to think about the outer horizons of lust when your entire lower half is aching from the IUD you just had inserted, hoping it will outlast neo-fascism even if your sanity doesn’t. It’s tempting to hush up about desire and pleasure and female sexual continence, beset as we already are by swivel-eyed partiarchs and parsimonious old men who see it as their right by birth and breeding to grab the whole world by the pussy. But unless we talk about desire, about agency, about consent, then we’ll only ever be fighting this culture war in retreat. It’s a real war, one that impacts our bodily autonomy and our economic and political power. The battle for female desire and agency goes way beyond the bedroom, and it’s a battle that right now everyone is losing.

It’s impossible to “win” sex. The fascist erotics of today’s frustrated man-children imagine sexuality as a battle fought over women’s bodies, as an act of dominance and conquest in which they will one day emerge as kings. But just as consent is not a thing, sexuality itself is not the kind of war anyone can win or lose. The idea of a battle of the sexes, played out in bedrooms and kitchens and across restaurant tables around the world, belies the truth that either everyone wins, or nobody does. If we want to turn this battle around, we must rethink our understanding of consent. We must get to grips with the idea of consent as ongoing and negotiable, rather than consent as an object, a one-time contract that can be fudged or debated in court. If men and women are going to stand a chance of living in this weird new world together without destroying one another, consent is going to have to be more than that.

Our collective cultural memory is still spotted with the suspicious stains of recent sexual mores, and some of them are hard to get out of the sheets we lie down in to dream. We often hear that it was legal within living memory to rape one’s wife; by marrying him, she had already consented to anything and everything he might do to her short of maiming and murder. She had the right to say yes, once, and that yes was good for the rest of her life. Most of us have moved beyond that analysis to the idea that you can, in fact, say no, even if you’ve said yes in the past. But consent is more than the absence of no. It is the possibility of a real yes. It is the presence of human agency. It is the horizon of desire.

It feels as if we are teetering, as a society, on the edge of a powerful transformation — but we could just as easily collapse into the petty, violent certainties of the past. We could stop talking about ending ritual sexual violence on and off campus. We could stop insisting on the importance of consent as a baseline for pleasure and desire. We could stop calling out rapists and abusers. We could stop talking about gendered harassment as an operational mode in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood, in political organizations, in the media, in our homes and schools and communities. We could bully and pressure and isolate survivors until it’s just too much pressure to speak out, until once again the effect of a rape accusation on a man’s life is considered more important than the effect of rape on a woman’s.

Or we could take a step into the unknown. We could try something new. We could try being better than we’ve been before. We could do better than simply trying not to get into trouble, trying not to actively commit rape and assault. We could start to talk about desire, and consent, as if they matter.

It is important to make rapists afraid again, but that’s no place to end the conversation. For the sake of all of us — and for our bodies and our livelihoods and our relationships — we have to do better, we must do better, than “technically.”

* * *

Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. 

Editor: Michelle Weber