Love, sex, money.
Want, listen, help.
The narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winning novel “The Friend” once took a job typing up transcripts of couples-therapy sessions. “The same words would come up all the time,” she notes. “I would type the words and I would listen to the couple talk, and I could tell that the same word meant this to him and that to her.”
Few words might be as open to misinterpretation as “consent,” from the Latin consentire — literally, and almost perversely, “to feel together.”
Upon this word contemporary sexual ethics seem to turn. “Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic; it is instead merely wanted or unwanted,” Amia Srinivasan writes in her forthcoming study “The Right to Sex.” Critics across the spectrum allow that the word is vital as “the least-bad standard” in sexual assault law, as the scholar Joseph Fischel puts it, but it is so conceptually narrow that it can frame any form of less-than-enthusiastic sex as assault, while doing nothing to address the painful, unsatisfying sex that many people, mostly women, experience.
I come not to bury the word, not today, but to observe its travels and its odd, nagging magnetism — the new hive of capacious thinking it has provoked.
Consent has been a notoriously provisional notion. For generations, the right to consent (to sex, to medical treatment) was denied to Black people in America. Marital rape was legal in some states until 1993 — and loopholes still exist.
Recent novels, philosophical inquiries, young adult and romance fiction, films and television shows join a robust literature from the fields of feminist and disability studies to ask who and what the term “consent” excludes today. They pluck at and complicate the idea, pull up its credit score, refine it. Vanessa Springora’s memoir “Consent,” Michaela Coel’s HBO series “I May Destroy You,” novels like Kate Reed Petty’s “True Story” and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s “My Dark Vanessa,” essay collections by Srinivasan, Fischel, Katherine Angel, Mariame Kaba, Melissa Febos, Maggie Nelson — questions about consent run through them all. How is this word being used, and by whom, and what does it conceal? Is there a better standard? What are the conditions that allow us to choose freely?
This richer, developing notion of consent doesn’t seek to discard the term, but to wonder about its primacy and assumptions. What if it were acknowledged not just as a private transaction between individuals, but, as Milena Popova suggests in her study of the term, “Sexual Consent,” as something ever-present in our enmeshment with the world? Where is our consent in the water we drink or the air we breathe?
It’s upon this shifting terrain that these new works are set. “I May Destroy You” is based on Coel’s experience of sexual assault, around which orbit other stories of ambiguous sexual encounters — “thefts of consent,” she calls them. The most stirring moments of the show unspool in silence, across the faces of the characters framed in wordless confusion, searching for what attitude to take, what word to apply to the event or to themselves. Annabel Lyon’s prizewinning novel “Consent” follows, in part, a woman disturbed to learn that her intellectually disabled sister wants to marry — is she capable of consent? In Shatara Michelle Ford’s film “Test Pattern,” the question of consent hinges not just on a woman’s assault by a stranger but on the putatively protective behavior of her partner afterward. The acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux took 60 years to piece together her latest memoir, “A Girl’s Story,” about the trauma of her first sexual experience, “because it was so complex.” “Had it been a rape, I might have been able to talk about it earlier, but I never thought about it that way,” she has said. “I gave in, so to speak, out of ignorance. I don’t even remember saying, ‘No.’”
So many writers tell this story — of losing possession of their bodies, worn down since childhood by touching, teasing, male aggression. “I was very confused for a long time about who my body belonged to,” Febos writes in “Girlhood.” “If someone wanted my body, I tended to give it to them.” Springora, who had a relationship in her teens with a notorious older writer: “I felt like a doll lacking all desire who had no idea how her own body worked, who had learned only one thing: how to be an instrument for other people’s games.”
It’s not just that these works explore consent’s “gray areas.” What they examine is how consent can act like a fig leaf, as Popova calls it, masking other power differentials in the relationship — because someone has already “said yes” — or offering cover for other violations. It’s the story of “My Dark Vanessa” and the FX series “A Teacher,” for example, with their predatory educators who elaborately ask for permission.
The chipper rhetoric of consent culture, with its injunction to know your body and speak your mind, tells us so little about such states of being. Self-knowledge is touted as a kind of armor — if you know what you like and what to ask for, you can’t be exploited. In “Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again,” Angel links this belief to what she calls confidence feminism, with its “lean in” ethos and horror of vulnerability. Beneath it, she argues, lies the old business of making women responsible for someone else’s violence.
Reading these books together is to feel a rushing, powerful confluence of ideas. “We have to complicate this conversation around sexual violence,” we need language for a “spectrum” of harm (Kaba); we need “in-between words” (Febos); we need to learn how to say, and hear, not just an enthusiastic “yes” or “no” but “maybe” (Angel). After all, sex ought not to be understood as “capitalist free exchange” (Srinivasan), not something we extract from someone else, but something “we make and experience together” (Nelson), a “conversation” (Angel).
These writers are responding not only to consent but to #MeToo and the sorts of knowledge it produced, its rhetoric around violence, its expectations of so-called survivors. Many of these works invoke the waves of op-eds and testimonials that flooded social media, wondering now who such stories served, what forms of real solidarity they created. In “I May Destroy You,” for example, Coel’s character, Arabella, becomes quickly disabused of the hope that she might find comfort by sharing her story online. A wariness of narrative unites many of these accounts — especially a wariness of what Kaba, in her book “We Do This ’Til We Free Us,” calls “compulsory confession”: the onus to share one’s story of trauma. Angel writes: “MeToo not only valorized women’s speech, but risked making it a duty to a mandatory display of one’s feminist powers of self-realization, one’s determination to refuse shame.”
In Kate Reed Petty’s novel “True Story,” Alice, a high school student who learns she was assaulted while drunk and unconscious, tries to write about her experience in her college admissions essay. In draft after agonizing draft, annotated by her teacher’s comments (“Let’s explore your P.O.V. on sexism a bit more”), we witness her strange, pained awareness that she is expected to perform a knowing comprehension on the page even though she is bewildered by what has happened. Later, she is hounded by a documentary filmmaker friend who insists on “sharing” her story.
But of course Alice does share her story — her way. She writes, just like Coel’s Arabella, like the protagonist in “My Dark Vanessa,” like Springora, who envisioned her memoir as a trap for her abuser, a way to “ambush him within the pages of a book.”
Out of a frustration with a word, calls for more words, better words. From a suspicion of narratives, a profusion. To consent — to feel together; perhaps the root holds true. And in these works, an argument is being advanced about how to proceed in the spirit of exploration and uncertainty.
I think of a few lines of an Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick poem that Nelson quotes. They are lines about speech, but they could be about touch. They are full of wonder, both audacious and permission-seeking: “In every language the loveliest question / is, You can say that?”