Principia Seductio

This article first appeared (modified) in the Gauntlet on Feb. 13, 2014.

If you’re out to spot a feminist or radical leftist the watchword is consent. The word traces the outlines of today’s sexual/political discussion to the point that no discourse is complete without it.

Consent as a sexual/political category — as a tool of personal and social interaction and decision making — is the product of laborious and courageous efforts from feminists and radicals (and let’s be serious, mostly through the efforts of female comrades). Its effectiveness in reducing harm to the disenfranchised and shaping sexual discourse cannot be denied. But consent has reached an impasse. Consent cannot be our only tool for establishing sexual dignity and autonomy.

Consent is a mainstay of the privileged: access to requisite knowledge and the will required for consensual decision making is fundamentally in the hands of a select slice of society. While consent has enabled many disenfranchised individuals to have dignity and autonomy in their lives, full access to the empowerment of consent comes with the trump card of privilege.

As the TerrorINC collective put it, consent has become a “tool for defending consensus reality.” Many feminists and radicals want to tell us that the language of consent hasn’t made its way into the larger social discussion. But the problem is actually the complete inverse: the language of consent has been incorporated into larger discussions, and has thus been compromised by its ensuing compartmentalization — stripped of its liberatory core. Consent has been integrated in such a way that we will never be able to ‘consent’ our way out of sexist, racist and classist domination. The gentrification of consent should suggest to us that, instead of connecting us to a radical emancipatory kernel, acceptance of consent ends up replicating oppressive conditions through our complicity.

We must reintroduce and reorganize a notion of seduction into our sexual/political discourse. Seduction as a sexual/political mechanism still retains a radical emancipatory core that other concepts do not.
Admittedly, the concept carries baggage. One’s mind immediately jumps to ideas of deception and manipulation when a word like seduction comes to the table. After all seduction was, as Jean Baudrillard reminds us, the “strategy of the devil, whether in the guise of witchcraft or love,” as well as the primary preoccupation of pre-industrial aristocracy. But this fear of seduction is profoundly misplaced. Yet if anything, the unsavory, risque heritage of traditional seduction would give it an edge should it re-enter social discourse, unlike our softer friend consent.

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Illustration by Bridgitte Badowich

Seduction cannot be divorced from desire. The two are inextricably entwined. Desire is the slippery, irreducible element that introduces the ecstatic “yes!” into our sexual and political decisions. Of course consent and desire can go hand-in-hand. But the two are not serious bedfellows. Consent can be mundane. Consent can be bureaucratic. If our goal is to create a society composed of autonomous people who live with dignity and make the most of their various capabilities, then that enthusiastic “yes!” is absolutely necessary for our discourse. It then follows that if desire is a necessary component in a better world, then the most effective route is to make the most of desire’s coupling with seduction. Thus our task is, as mentioned above, to reintroduce and reorganize seduction.

Our reappropriated notion of seduction contains many of the structural features that any traditional notion of seduction contained. An act of seduction is still a risk — a one-off shot at convincing another person of the value of your proposed sexual and political sphere of desire. An act of seduction may still fail — rejected at the outset as undesirable with a stalwart “No.” But what’s crucial to our reappropriation of seduction is that it bypasses the realm of the conventional forms of decision making. Additionally, our reappropriation refuses to see seducers as manipulators and those who are seduced as victims of manipulation. Instead, our robust notion of seduction sees seducers as people who are seeking to share a particular desire that is inaccessible given present boundaries. Our notion of seduction sees those who are seduced as people who have chosen to connect to a new and rewarding sphere of desire that had previously been beyond their boundaries of possibility.

Seduction gives us access to a realm of decision making that consent cannot. One may be seduced into a particular sexual or political decision which they may have never consented to at the outset, and discover a sphere of desire previously denied to them. In one’s day-to-day life chances are that one may not feel the impulse to engage in a strange or new sexual activity or political experiment. But, critically, they can be seduced into it. And once seduced, they have, by extension, consented. If the right partner comes along in the right context, one may be seduced into trying sexual bondage, whereas your rational mind would never consent to it. And the same applies politically. Since consent limits our political discussion, we are unable to consent our way beyond the politics of domination. We must be seduced beyond.

Our friends in the TerrorINC collective give us the most parsimonious account of how seduction can work in the service of liberatory discourse:

“How does seduction work? We hypothesize that seduction unfolds via three processes: transformation, invitation, and contagion. We transform circumstances, creating space for new possibilities and thus new desires to flourish; we invite others to participate in these new situations, to experiment with different modes of action and desire; and we infect others with curiosity, an insatiable desire for freedom, and the means to experiment towards it.”

We must come to see seduction as way to consent ourselves into new spheres of experiences that have previously been off-limits but are, deep down, desirable. We must come to see seduction as a mechanism that enables our deepest dreams and passions to become livable experiments in radical sexual and political emancipation. And don’t forget, if a seduction presents you with a set of desires that are truly beyond your limits, just say “No!”

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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.