Consent Isn’t Sexy, It’s Mandatory

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If you’ve been on a college campus recently you’ve probably seen fliers, posters, or have heard the phrase “consent is sexy”. The catch phrase is part of a national campaign in the United States titled, you guessed it, Consent Is Sexy, that works to promote consensual sex and conversations around healthy sexual relationships.

The campaign draws on tenants of sex positive feminism, attempting to frame conversations around sexual assault as conversations about empowerment and autonomy over one’s body and sex life. According to the website, the campaign “doesn’t encourage anyone not to have sex. And it doesn’t encourage anyone to have sex. It only encourages those who want to have sex to be sure they have their partner’s consent”.

Compared to older campaigns such as Take Back The Night which focus on victims of sexual assault and the experiences of pain they’ve gone through, Consent Is Sexy is a lot more positive in general, not in just the sense of being a “sex positive” campaign.

Although they mention victim statistics, Consent Is Sexy campaigns usually focus on education and prevention of assault, and showing students what consent looks and feels like. It’s true that conversations about consent should be affirmative with regards to everyone’s personal decisions about their body.

But a lot of students and critics have recently spoken out about Consent Is Sext campaigns.

Take Back The Night of Boston University has written that one of the main problems with consent is sexy isn’t its sex positive focus or it’s different approach to discussing conversations surrounding campus rape, but the fact is that sometimes consent actually isn’t sexy.

In their words, “Sometimes the answer is “no,” and the person who withholds consent can’t always (nor should they) refuse in a sexy way.” The reality is that having sex can be a complicated, confusing thing. Conversations about boundaries aren’t always fun and don’t always occur in the context of dirty talk where both partners are willing to happily proceed.

Sometimes they involve difficult conversations about previous trauma, about fears and anxiety, and or may simply involve saying “no” in a firm and authoritative way. Vocalizing sexual needs and desires in addition to boundaries can be really difficult for some people.

Sometimes we feel silly, embarrassed, or scared to talk about our desires or our boundaries, and in those cases consent, as Boston University’s Take Back The Night indicated, isn’t sexy at all. It can be awkward, painful, frightening, or difficult just as easily as it can be “fun” “sexy” and “exciting”.

Promoting the idea of consent as sexy also, in some ways, conveys it as something fun and exciting that can be added to your sex life to make hotter, but in doing so it may unwittingly sell consent as something that is optional, rather than required for any sexual engagement.

And therein may lie the biggest problem with Consent Is Sexy. Despite its proliferation on college campuses and the important work it does to educate students about consent, its message of consent being a “sexy” thing, ends up feeling like a marketing campaign for a product that you may or may not buy into.

As opposed to an education initiative that conveys consent as mandatory prerequisite for sexual activity.

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