What is consent, anyway? A quick (academic) explainer and review of literature.

The Australian legal definition of consent is “the free and voluntary agreement to participate in sexual activity” (Fileborn, 2011) However this legal definition does not recognise the complexities of coercion and the influence of cultural understandings such as sexual scripts (Simon & Gagnon, 1973; French & Neville, 2016). Affirmative models of consent are better, but less than perfect models which rely on a single sexual initiator and does not consider sex where multiple parties are involved (Beres & MacDonald, 2015). The affirmative model relies on traditional ideas of a sexual aggressor and passive recipient, an idea which has historically been gendered and does not consider coerced sex. 

Consent to me, should never be taken for granted and can be given or taken away at any time. Asking for consent should be an essential and pleasurable experience. The BDSM community utilise an approach to consent that is seemingly ideal to ensure ethical sex. Consent is treated as an ongoing conversation, explicit and vocal similar to communicative consent models (Pinaeu, 1989, 1999). This is ideal rather than simply an “I’ll know it when I see it” method that relies on ambiguous non-verbal cues (Beres, 2007:94). The BDSM approach to consent means that preferences and limits are discussed prior to engaging in sexual activity and signals or a course of action are chosen in case a partner wishes to exit a sexual scene (Beres, & MacDonald, 2015). It is acceptable to stop or change at any time and all parties have a role in shaping the sexual script to follow before any activity takes place. Coercion is still possible in these situations but the positioning of consent as explicit and essential in the BDSM community likely diminishes occurrences of interpersonal and social coercion as it challenges normative sexual scripts that allow gender ideals and thus coercion to thrive (Gavey, 1997).

Beres and MacDonald (2015) identify ‘flow’ as the key aspect of BDSM consent that is most applicable to heterosex. ‘Flow’ refers to the reading of body language throughout sex as a way of continually checking in with a partner. The construction of consent as an explicit conversation including continual checking in is in my opinion, the most ideal form of consent and most consistent with a sexual ethics approach as it emphasises pleasurable and non-exploitative sex which Moira Carmody (2004:53) terms “an erotics of consent”. However, participants so far report a lack of verbal discussion around consent and in most cases an absent of consent altogether. This is clearly problematic and indicative of the importance of sexual education that emphasises sexual ethics and the practice of consent as a conversation.

What do you think? Is verbal consent necessary or can there be universal non-verbal signifiers of consent? How would this be communicated?

Stay tuned for updates on this topic for a more general audience as these ideas develop in my thesis.


This post is adapted from a presentation given at “Engaging with a shift to the empirical in feminist scholarship: A symposium”, University of Sydney.


Image: https://www.themix.org.uk/sex-and-relationships/single-life-and-dating/sexual-consent-15356.html

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