Understanding Consent: why sex isn’t something you ‘do’ to a woman

Why it’s important not to paint women as sexually passive

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I completely understand the hetero-male paranoia on this (sorry if that appears insensitive, I’ll explain myself). They have been part of a cultural wave of propaganda and hysteria that paints it as incredibly likely that a scheming, maniacal sociopath will say you forced yourself on her. You aren’t: statistically speaking, you’re more likely to die of a stomach ulcer than to be prosecuted for sexual assault or rape. Rape also, as you no doubt know, has one of the lowest prosecution rates of any crime.

But I get it: the headlines are scary. I am similarly terrified of snakes, despite there being an incredibly low risk of me, a young woman in ultra-urban London, ever encountering one. Humans are very bad at weighing up risks. It’s annoying and probably part of a wider conversation on believing women, but I understand the anxiety. Anyway. Now we’ve discussed that binfire, let’s move on.

Ultimately, the dynamic is interesting to me for two reasons:

1. Why are men asking women to sign the consent form, rather than the other way around?

2. What does that say about how we view women in a consensual sexual (I know, I know, all sex is consensual) interaction?

I’ll explain why this bothers me. When I’ve signed a consent form (admittedly not so far for sex) it’s because I’m agreeing for another party to do something to me. Whether that’s messing about with my teeth, fixing a ski injury or smearing overpriced white clay on my face, I’ve never participated in a consent requirement where I’ve been anything other than passive. A consent form, in that respect, functions culturally and legally for my dermatologist, dentist or sadistic masseur to let them perform an action on me.

And that’s a bit grim if you translate that into sex.

If being totally passive and pretending to be a wilting flower with all the autonomy of a rose bush is your thing, good on you sister, but most sex isn’t you lying flat on your back and thinking of God, the King, and England. Sex is a mutual activity, and something that should be considered, I hope, an act of mutual pleasure. It is not done to you, it is an act you participate in. The whole language of ‘I consent to you having sex with me’ harbors linguistically, or at least semantically, back to a time where women were expected to begrudgingly endure being unceremoniously body slammed in what was considered humiliating, degrading and something no lady of standing would want to engage in.

I’d like to think, post 1970, that we didn’t think sex was something to grit your teeth through for two minutes when your husband leapt on you on after a drinking match down the pub. I’d like to think that we understood not only that women had sexual wants and desires, but that it was totally okay and normal for them to have them. That it was okay for a woman to want sex. That it was okay for her to be a willing and enthusiastic participant, who knew what she wanted. That women were not ‘sluts’ or ‘depraved’ for wanting a one night stand, a quick fling or a slightly kinky afternoon with a lot of latex. In the light of that, the whole idea of providing written consent to a man performing sexual acts on you just seems bizarre.

If it puts your mind at ease that you have a slip of paper saying that yes, your lady friend is game and isn’t in the mood to call the cops on you, then fine, I suppose. But for me, it completely and objectively recategorizes sex as something men want, and women oblige them with. It effectively slut-shames women into entirely passive participants in sex.

It also, more worryingly perhaps, could diminish male consent in that same act, through the presumed consent of the man.

If you’ve asked a woman to sign a document to say she’s okay to have you ‘perform’ intercourse with her, are you not also giving her evidence that you consent to whatever she decides to perform on you, sex act wise? By falsely assuming that the female is the totally passive partner in sex, you could be providing evidence in her defence that you consented to whatever sexually violent, degrading or nonconsensual act she then decided to initiate on you. After all, you did actively give her a document that clearly stated your desire to engage with her in a sexual manner. As much as she is vulnerable to whatever decisions are, post contract, performed on her, so are you, if not more so in the nature that you actively ‘requested’ sex.

So yeah, consent forms for sex are a pretty strange, and potentially dodgy, idea. Women aren’t passive, and as much as society would love to paint us as universally submissive and shy creatures who want sex far less than men, that’s just not a biological or social reality. We urgently need a sex positive conversation on how to create a shift in society where it’s okay for women to enjoy sex, where they don’t risk being seen as freakish for enjoying casual or temporary encounters, and where we radically move away from this idea that sex is degrading, humiliating or one person enacting their desires on another.

Without that conversation, we can’t really expect a fair social understanding of consent. Consent should be enthusiastic. Every time you have sex, you should be able to clearly read your partner’s expectations, excitement and pleasure. If not, I feel very sorry for anyone you’ve gone to bed with. Like any intimate interaction, sex requires empathy, kindness and communication.

And for me, that starts with seeing your partner as autonomous, capable of their own sexual desires and interests, and definitely not completely passive to your needs.

Anthropologist with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk

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