“Is it okay if I touch you?” Half an hour after I’d started chatting with this guy on Grindr he was in my bedroom, beginning a series of questions meant to lead from touching to any number of other acts. I suppose he expected, or hoped for, an enthusiastic “yes!”, signalling what the orientation-day workshops on college campuses call “affirmative consent”. But it didn’t occur to me to answer with the eagerness of a child agreeing to dessert. Instead I tried, with a soft laugh and what I hoped was a seductive “ok”, to seem as if I needed my reticence knocked out of me.
What I got were more questions. “Is this ok? And this?” Soon I began to wonder: “Is it ok?” I’d thought it was when I’d told him to come over. But it’s one thing to want someone in an unspecified way, quite another to start itemising what it is you actually want from them. With my own desire in doubt, I started to feel the very thing this line of interrogation had been meant to avoid. Instead of making consent as simple as saying “yes”, these questions had plunged me into a deeply unsexy uncertainty.
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In reading me his sexual questionnaire, my partner was showing me that he’d internalised the ethic of “consent”, which over the past decade has emerged as the dominant liberal framework for distinguishing between moral and immoral sex. At the core of this ethic is explicitness. The purpose is to make sex — and all of its constituent acts — something one can and should directly say “yes” or “no” to, a contract negotiated between individuals.
This model of consent has been roundly criticised for deflating erotic tension, leading to sometimes-cringeworthy campaigns to insist that “consent is sexy” (“If asking for consent ruins sex you’re what? A rapist who sucks at talking dirty?”, reads one viral Tumblr post). But the deeper problem with this model is that it produces, or rather reveals, exactly what it is meant to avoid, which is the ineradicable ambivalence at the heart of sex. In other words, while we can and should maintain a distinction between consensual and non-consensual acts, there is an important sense in which we are never able to say “yes” to sex. Indeed, enjoying sex seems to involve a certain suspension of our usual relationship to ourselves, one in which we are overtaken not so much by the other person as by sex itself.
The original sexual relation — prior to the one we have with any particular person — is our relation to sex itself. This relation is not consensual but something we experience as a given. We are born, we mature, and at some point in this process we discover that we our prisoners of our sexuality. Sex, after all, makes us uncomfortable. It can conjure feelings of disgust and embarrassment. It can be a distraction, an excruciating deprivation, even a source of catastrophic humiliation. We notice how attractive the “wrong” person is — a boyfriend’s brother, an ex, a colleague, a student — and feel violated by our own urges. Sex with a partner works, when and to the extent that it does, in part by letting us suspend our inhibitions and want things without having to admit to ourselves that we want them.
There are several ways in which we try to ignore the non-consensual core of sex. One is to separate “good” sex from “bad” sex, a strategy familiar to both conservatives and progressives. Growing up in an evangelical community in the American South during the Clinton and Bush years, I was often told by teachers and pastors that sex is a wonderful, beautiful experience — for married straight couples. They’d quote the Song of Solomon or, worse, talk about how great sex with their spouses was. It was more effective pro-abstinence education than all the videos of STDs and abortions they showed us. They’d warn us, however, that sex outside of marriage is degrading. Once after chapel, they organised a skit in which a girl held a rose. Its petals were plucked off one by one by a line of boys, leaving her with a bare stem. The lesson: that’s what will happen to your soul, and possibly your genitals, if you don’t wait until marriage.
Progressives in their churches — universities — also believe in a magical boundary that transforms the degrading into the delightful. For them, this boundary is consent. But consent is a more difficult concept than it seems. Already in 1981, feminist legal theorist Catherine Mackinnon argued that any sex after which a woman feels “violated” is rape, whether she consented to it or not. She extended this point in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, where she claimed that women, as a group, lack “power” relative to men and thus cannot ever consent. Here, the search to give consent a solid foundation, to divide good sex from bad sex, tips over into a totalising conflation of sex with rape.
Taking up this conflation another way, more ostentatiously radical thinkers have agreed with Mackinnon that sex is inherently abject and violating. Unlike Mackinnon, however, they take this to be a good thing. Sex shatters our egos, and the acts that are most revealing of this fundamental truth are the most apparently degrading ones. Kinky, violent, and otherwise non-normative sex is, according to this view, not only more theoretically interesting than, but in some sense morally superior to, the merely “vanilla”.
This is the position taken by a strain of American queer theory. Grasping the truth that sex is messy, ambiguous, and difficult to “consent” to, these thinkers ironically make it into a falsehood by eliminating that very ambivalence with their strident declarations.
The disturbing pinnacle of this kind of thinking is the work of Andrea Long Chu, who in such writings as her 2019 pamphlet Females affirms that sex makes us pathetic, debased, and powerless, or as she puts it, “female”. Perhaps Chu, a transgender woman, has changed her gender in order to affirm grotesque “truths” about women’s condition that she would not have been allowed to state otherwise. Indeed, Chu’s work invokes the range of contemporary fetishes — such as sissy hypnosis, bimbofication, and cuckolding — by which men and women eroticise powerlessness. We do so perhaps because we are uncomfortable with the actual, but never total, powerlessness that is inherent in all sex. But the truth is that we cannot simply lie back and wallow in domination or debasement, since we can never fully escape the self. This is as much a misguided fantasy as the idea that we can be completely in control.
What would a decent approach to sexuality look like — one that acknowledges that sex undermines our attempts to maintain pristine egos without tipping over into a celebration of the grotesque? There may be a clue in Hatred of Sex, a recent book by Tim Dean and Oliver Davis. Looking at widespread paranoia about bad sex, from #MeToo to QAnon’s conspiracy theories about child sex-trafficking, Dean and Davis argue these cultural phenomena, like our efforts to sanitise sex through consent or marriage, show how intolerable we find the combination of freedom and unfreedom inherent in any sexual experience. Afraid to acknowledge our own conflicted yearnings, we hunt for villains — men, in the case of #MeToo; global elites like Hillary Clinton in the case of QAnon — who we blame for ruining what would otherwise be a safe and pleasurable experience.
We can escape the constitutive tension of sex, Dean and Davis warn, neither by trying to cordon off good sex — that is, sex within contractually defined relationships — from the bad and dangerous outside, nor by trying to affirm and reclaim the aspects of sex that we cannot help but experience as degrading, disgusting, or disappointing. What we can perhaps do is ease some of the pressure off of sex by refusing to allow such an inherently contradictory thing become the platform for so many political, ethical, and identitarian projects.
Absent such a reprivatisation of sex, Dean and Davis argue, we will continue to allow emerging “sex bureaucracies” to regulate previously intimate aspects of our lives. These bureaucracies, which in the United States include university Title IX offices and corporate human resources departments, acquire power by framing an ever-increasing array of sexual acts and speech as “harmful”. They insist sexual relationships need to be based on the model of the contract, with swift punishment for anyone who violates the contract’s terms.
To resist this encroachment, we must accept that there is a wide domain of what Dean and Davis call “benign sexual inappropriateness”. This is behaviour, such as unwanted flirtation or mildly obscene display, that violates politically correct or conservative propriety but does not merit formal sanction. To deal with such behaviour, they argue, we must abandon our urge to go running to the manager and instead begin to recover the informal tactics of “discretion and dissent”. No bureaucracy can save us from the inherent ambivalence of sex, but we can, perhaps, still save sex from bureaucracy.