This might sound weird, but I’m actually pretty sick of talking about consent. As a fan of sex, what I really want to talk about is desire. Want. Lust. Need. Craving. But I can’t talk about all those cool things without also having to explain the basics of consent. Because some pricks still cannot drag themselves over this, the lowest possible bar. Consent! Fuck my life! It’s the most boring sexual basic! Consent is vital, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also dull. Like that bit at the start of a cupcake recipe where they tell you what temperature you should set your oven to – it’s not the most interesting part of the recipe, but without it you can’t make cakes.
So let’s talk about consent. Let’s talk about a very basic, very simple, easy-to-understand-unless-you’re-deliberately-trying-to-wind-me-up principle of consent: consent is revocable. That means if you’re initially up for shag, but five minutes into the shag you decide you want us to stop, we stop. If you ask me to stop, I am obliged to stop. Morally and legally. If we start having sex and I decide I want it to stop, you are obliged to stop. Morally and legally.
Consent is also revocable in a whole bunch of other situations, too. You ask to borrow my car for the weekend, and I agree. Two days before you’re due to borrow it, I realise I have an urgent appointment somewhere in the arse-end of nowhere and I need my car for my own purposes? I can revoke my consent. You can be annoyed or frustrated, but you can’t force me to lend you my car. You can’t just take my car either: that’s stealing (or technically ‘taking without owner’s consent‘).
Let’s say I ask your permission to take a naked picture of you and post it to Twitter because you’re looking awesome today and I want to show off how hot my mates are. You say yes, but after seeing the photo decide it doesn’t fit your personal brand. Guess what? You can revoke your consent! I might be sad that I don’t get to show my mates how awesome you looked and how great my photography skills are, but I cannot – legally or morally – make you agree to me posting the photo.
This is basic stuff.
Let’s meet Donna Rotunno.
Donna Rotunno’s views on consent
Note: Donna Rotunno is Harvey Weinstein’s defence lawyer, and the rest of this post will be talking about sexual assault.
If you’ve not already heard it, tune in to the jaw-dropping NY Times interview between the brilliant journalist Megan Twohey and Harvey Weinstein’s defence lawyer Donna Rotunno. Seriously, have a listen. What you’re hearing is the sound of a woman gently holding Rape Culture by the hand and introducing it to all your mates, as if it is a friend. As if it is a misunderstood, sad and lost little boy, who just wanted all the girls to love him and has been hurt by the fact that women all turn out to be prickteasing bitches who won’t take responsibility for their actions. It’s gobsmacking.
I am not having a go at Rotunno for being Weinstein’s defence lawyer. It’s a disgusting job but someone absolutely does have to do it. I’m not frustrated with her for defending him, I am just genuinely shocked that she could have (or perform – we’ll get to this in a second) such an ignorant view of where the responsibility for rape and assault lies, as well as what ‘consent’ actually looks like.
“If I was a man in today’s world, before I was engaging in sexual behavior with any woman today, I would ask them to sign a consent form.”
Let’s unpack this.
What does consent look like?
Consent does not look like a signature on a dotted line. For the simple reason that a signature on a dotted line is a binary thing: you either have signed, or you haven’t.
In real life, consent during sex is something much more fluid. You might decide you fancy having a tumble with person X, but you only want to do oral, no penetration. Sure, you could write your consent form to specify that, but what if you change your mind later? Decide ‘actually, I think I’m OK with going a bit further, so I shall tell my partner I’m up for it if they are’? What if you decide you are up for penetration, but partway through the shag you realise that you’ve changed your mind, and actually you just want to swap hand-jobs then play scrabble?
Consent is revocable. A consent agreement does not in any way reflect this: you cannot unsign, once you’ve already put pen to paper.
Consent agreements, far from being a neat solution to rape and sexual assault, are in fact just a handy tool to ensure more people get raped and sexually assaulted. Once a rapist has got their partner to sign a document, they now have free rein to do whatever they like, because ‘hey! You signed the paper! I have written proof that you were up for this!’
Hands up anyone who’s ever been on a date which only started to go wrong after you took off your clothes?
Consent is revocable
If you want people to sign agreements before you shag them, you do not understand consent. You do not understand that consent is time-specific, act-specific, mood-specific, and a whole-bunch-of-other-stuff specific. The only possible way to make sure that you are having consensual sex is to communicate with your partner – check in, listening to their words and their body language. Ask them what they want.
And I don’t want a bunch of angry dudes dropping into the comments to tell me that doesn’t sound particularly sexy, and they’d feel ridiculous asking every time they escalate from kisses to gropes to fingers to fucking. Remember what I said at the start? I’m sick of talking about consent: I want to talk about desire. Lust. Craving. Those are the things you should be seeking when you’re taking someone to bed. Consent is the bare minimum. Although shoutout to Netflix’s Sex Education which has done some absolutely glorious, adorable, beautiful work weaving consent into some of the scenes in this latest series. But it’s successful because these teens aren’t actually looking for consent: they’re looking for desire and need and want.
When I have sex – good sex, enjoyable sex, filthy sex, fun sex – I do not ask my partner if he consents to it. I ask him ‘how do you want me?’ and ‘does that feel good?’ and ‘tell me where you want to stick your cock.’ He says ‘I really want to fuck you bent over the sofa’ with a dirty grin and the raised eyebrow that accompanies a question – because that is exactly what it is: a question. Or a suggestion. Or a request. Unspoken, here, is the clear and distinct knowledge that if I don’t want to bend over the sofa right now, then he does not want to fuck me. His desire, his craving, his lust, is conditional on my reciprocal desire. My lust for him, likewise, only exists if he responds with an eager ‘fuck yeah.’
Who are these people who genuinely are not sure, when they tumble into bed, if the person they’re sleeping with really wants to fuck them? What are they doing? Are they asking, once, ‘shall we fuck?’ and then turning off all communication from then on? Do they genuinely believe that once someone’s said ‘yes’ to sex they can never – will never – change their minds? Do they genuinely believe that sex is something they are extracting from another person, like a great deal on a refurbished iPhone? Or do they – like the gentleman who took issue with me on Twitter yesterday – truly believe that sex is akin to an invasive and dangerous medical procedure like surgery, and therefore it’s important to get a signature to show that this person has walked willingly to their nervewracking fate?
Beware: uncomfortable Weinstein thought experiment
It’s bullshit. No one genuinely believes consent works like this – that sex is something you agree to and must stick to, no take-backs allowed. If you believe that you might genuinely think this, please indulge me in a little thought experiment:
You’re having drinks with Harvey Weinstein. Harvey invites you up to his hotel room, where he says he has a lovely bottle of scotch. You’re just going up to have a laugh, and some drinks, but when you say ‘yes’ Harvey pulls out a consent form for you to sign. He asks you to write your name on a dotted line under the words “I am consensually going to Harvey’s hotel room in order to drink scotch and have fun.”
Do you sign it? Of course you fucking don’t.
No one – no one – thinks consent works like this. No one thinks a form will be helpful to anyone who genuinely cares about their partner’s
desire lust craving want consent.
But it’s helpful – vital – for abusers and those who defend them to muddy the waters around consent. To make it sound like the problem is ‘women who changed their minds’ instead of ‘men who raped.’ If we’re going to maintain the existing status quo, where responsibility for sexual assault is dumped onto the victim rather than the perpetrator, it’s absolutely vital that we buy into the idea that consent is a simple tickbox. You agreed. You signed. You consented: job done.
If we do this, not only will perpetrators, their allies, and a whole bunch of misguided devil’s advocates who are ‘just asking questions’ continue to throw terrible idea after terrible idea at us – consent forms, apps, bLoCkChAiN! – but they will then (as they so often do) turn round and say ‘god, you women are so unreasonable! What, you want me to sign a consent form before I have sex now?!’
No. We don’t. We have never asked for that. Because no one who knows anything about rape and sexual assault believes for a single second that consent forms will do anything to stop people raping. If anything, they’ll be helpful tools for people who push boundaries, violate consent and – yes – rape, to do so after you’ve signed on the dotted line. And who among us would be able, the morning after, to haul ourselves to a police station and report someone who raped us, when we know that the perpetrator could just swagger into the station with our signed consent form tucked snugly in their pocket?
We cannot let this idea enter our discourse, because it’s such obvious and demonstrable bullshit. Even the people selling you this idea don’t actually believe consent works this way.
Consent is revocable. You cannot lock it down. If you do not understand this, you should not be having sex.