Age of no consent

This column appeared in The Gauntlet on March 22, 2012

You have never had consensual sex. The sex you have now is not consensual, nor will you ever have consensual sex so long as you continue to live as you do. Rape, sexual abuse and assault are merely the tip of a sexually violent iceberg. Given the direness of our present circumstances — the inherent barbarism of the social, economic, political, religious, academic and cultural corrals into which we are captured and contained — it is fair to claim that it is impossible for anyone to adequately consent to sexual activity in the present. And what’s most sinister is that we’ve been ‘educated’ to think that all is well. While it may seem harsh or absurd to think that a statement that echoes of the obscene charge that “all sex is rape” could be legitimate, to deny it suggests that one is suffering from a terrible case of false consciousness. We have become numb, no longer capable of feeling the flow of sinister authority that permeates the fabric of our lives. We are incapable of making autonomous and well-informed decisions, incapable of being in touch with ourselves and our own sexualities. We’ve been normalized to sexual violence and the vital force of our erotic passions has been drained, leaving the substance of genuine consent unobtainable.


The issues of consent cut a wide swath of possible discussions in all sorts of fields of interest, but none of them evokes as furious and emotionally infused reactions as the issue of sexual consent does. Clearly we are pressing on sensitive tissue. Dare I say that our nerves are so frayed perhaps because we, at heart, understand that something integral is lacking in our sexualities? That sexuality’s intimate core is missing, or has been stolen? Do we not sense that some grave and grievous injustice is being done in every porn film, night club, brothel, fatherly household or kangaroo rape trial? Yet we don’t face up to this reality, perhaps because we know that the rot exists not only on the periphery — in the porn flicks, whorehouses and violent rapes — but that its roots extend through the entirety of the whole, the bulk of matter, and into our very beds. Must I remind you that most sexual assaults and rapes are perpetrated by friends, family or acquaintances — and if we are finally being honest with ourselves and one another, even when we, men and women the same, tell ourselves that our sexual activity is mutually and genuinely consensual, we are refining our skills of disavowal. The behemoth that is our way of life is thoroughly infected. The laws, the language, the imagery — everything our senses can be imbued with, even one another, has been infused with patriarchy’s dominating, savage values. The same system that allows spliced and splayed ‘women’ to be devoured also liquidates our capacity to make well-informed judgements and to understand and appreciate our own sexualities. We live under the same roof, and eat the same stale, mouldy bread as the whore and rapist do.

We grudgingly accept the old cliche “sex sells,” not because we understand it as ‘truth,’ but because we aren’t allowed to believe anything else. Sex is pleasurable, erotic desire animates our lives; but that doesn’t justify the sort of logic that packages our passions into marketable, measurable and manageable hedons. Even if a seemingly innocuous phrase like “sex sells” contained a nugget of truth (although I don’t know how it would), it has been used against us, inoculating us from birth with a false sense that the hyper-sexualization of our world is an inevitable consequence of ‘human nature,’ of Homo economicus. Or worse, we tell ourselves that sexual violence is an exception, perpetrated by perverts. But we know better. We can do better. The bastions of patriarchy are far from being inevitable consequences of ‘the way things are.’ Walls do fall, whether through lack of upkeep, nature’s wrath or by our own hands. But rather than waiting for the situation to improve or placing our hopes on reform (which, lest we forget, only buries the problem deeper) we ought to take sexual and erotic freedom, and the revolutionary struggle necessary to achieve it, seriously. We must, as Wolfi Landstreicher told us, “ . . . truly allow the expansiveness of passionate intensity to flower and to pursue it where the twisting vine of desire takes it.”

No one wants to admit that their sex life is not and never has been consensual. But there is nothing fantastical and utopian about believing that it is possible to form new ways of life where we congregate with one another as autonomous equals, adequately informed and genuinely in touch with ourselves. Bringing to fruition the way we ought to live — where loving and erotic relationships of infinite variety are legitimately possible — requires overturning and annihilating the destructive order at hand, adopting struggle as a way of life, passionately and incessantly dreaming and doing. Accepting sex’s current non-consensual nature is a bitter pill to swallow, but perhaps it is just the right medicine to cure us of our sexual woes.

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4 thoughts on “Age of no consent

  1. HesitantWriter says:

    I am often amazed at your “free-thinking”, because not only is it free to survey the popular landscape of passive discontent (these, we are told, are the real evils, and so we read our newspapers loud and indignantly!), but also willing to survey the images of monsters that overtake our imaginations when we stare into dark corners. It is only in looking at these monsters that we can really see our own heavy eyes and minds darkening the world around us.

    It may sound like I’m being critical–I assure you I am not. For the recognitions in this article have been time and again given to my daily life. But I can not celebrate a sense of congregation of thought, for this community is not the kind that brings repose. And I guess that’s where I stop being able to see what you see: I ask myself, how can one accept this struggle?

    (I initially considered that my inability to understand might come out of the dogmatic view to “empathy” which has and continues to indoctrinate my every encounter. But I honestly don’t think this is where we differ. One needn’t be as embittered as Nietzsche to recognize the dichotomous relationship the concept of empathy has to itself. My lack of acceptance is not some deep-seated conformity.)

    And yet, coming from a surprisingly harmonic starting point as I take you to be — a desire to escape these structures of domination (yes, this is a shout-out to ‘Landstreicher’) — I find my resignation to this bitter pill one that leaves my heart ache for something beyond this inherent struggle. And so I find myself entering relationships with a great sense of sadness, social scenarios with a great sense of fearfulness, sexual encounters with an intense despair. (In fact, I literally laughed out loud when you mentioned that no one wants to admit a lack of consensus: I have often desired to be able to put aside these considerations and just engage in SOME type of sexual activity, just so that I CAN admit it). This is not the plight of someone not in touch with themselves, but someone who is in touch with how her actions will marginalize others and further subjugate myself and others into this system of domination and exploitation. And this is where I think Landstreicher falls short: his writing is marked by a severe individualization and independence that doesn’t lay a foundation in (or, in my opinion, even for) community. Where does individual realization truly become a meeting, an intimate acquaintance, with an other? All I see in this individualization is a great deal of personal projection onto the world and loving oneself desperately.

    I think the reason I really enjoy reading your articles is it takes these revelations as a freedom given to and yielded solely by thinking–what an incredible gift! I celebrate this because I know the same thinking has shown me only a world of chains. And so I can celebrate my own gift, knowing that reading provides me solitude in someone else’s thoughts, as opposed to the incredible burden of writing within my own.

    • Remi Watts says:

      Your points are fantastic! They are exactly the level of engagement that I constantly strive for.

      In regards to your point about the limits of Landstreicher’s individualization:
      I feel as though we must respect the integrity of one another’s conception of self. I can happily point out the structures that dominate us, keeping us from realizing our full potential, and talk about the importance of resistance and the struggle for freedom, but I want to retain the importance of autonomy and the dignity of the person as they would like to be seen. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, having one’s cake and eating it too, but I love the old situationist maxim, “be realistic: demand the impossible!”

      Anyhow, I don’t mean to burden you with pedantism. I’m extremely grateful that you appreciate my writing!

  2. HesitantWriter says:

    Definitely my pleasure; your writing deserves appreciation.

    Your maxim made me laugh–I like it. And it’s a good point because I wouldn’t say that a recognition of another’s autonomy necessarily contradicts by limiting their autonomy to its struggle and acquiescence with my own conception. This is more of a logical avoidance than anything: a recognition of the individuality within another will negate any inherent negation of the integrity of their self-conception by my own autonomy of my conception of myself and others, thus preserving the integrity of their self regardless of my own conceptions). I say “necessarily” because I think that there is a lot going on here and it seems that there might be difficulty coming to grasp a person as they want to be seen without delimiting that person to your own idealogical hierarchies or value judgements.

    So… Do you take requests? 😛
    I jest, but it would be really lovely to hear your thoughts on how one is able to be open to receiving another’s conception of self (and subsequent personal overcomings and infinite manifestations of individual possibility) without limiting this conception in submission to my own autonomy and delimiting what I am able to receive to those concepts already within my perspective. I think that the openness you describe finds this potential in the infinity of potentiality (i.e. infinite possibility manifest in particular actuality) of loving encounters, so would love to see your view developed further (ha! And by “your view”, I don’t mean ‘your view as it is encompassed within my current understandings’, though the inherent sublimation into the language of intersubjective acquiesance did seem ironic to me on the face of it).

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