Consent. In theory, such a simple idea. Something which should surely underpin our working, emotional and sensual interactions; a shining lodestar, improving business, families, friendships and sex. But it’s not so straightforward, as Lord Byron hinted in his 1824 poem Don Juan: “A little still she strove, and much repented, / And whispering “I will ne’er consent” – consented.”

In the wake of recent scandals concerning Russell Brand and fund manager Crispin Odey, not to mention the long shadow of Jimmy Savile, the question again arises: how do we get consent so wrong? If only we could embrace it better, would it not be transformative to most every part of life?

“The #MeToo movement has been good at getting people to see that there are really big problems with consent,” says counselling psychologist Dr Vanessa Ruspoli. But, on pretty much all fronts, we’ve a long way to go.

The numbers on non-consensual sex remain shocking. The Student Room and Revolt Sexual Assault found that 62 per cent of all students and recent graduates surveyed had experienced sexual violence. According to Everyday Sexism activist Laura Bates, one rape a day is being reported in UK schools, and almost a third of schoolgirls say they’ve been sexually assaulted.

This isn’t for want of trying. Pro-consent campaigns have done their best, says author and psychoanalyst Darian Leader, who doffs his cap in particular to the activism of the 1980s, in particular by sex positive activist Carol Queen. Notable campaigns include “No means No” – which (with concern that silence, lack of protest or resistance surely didn’t warrant consent) was countered with “Yes means Yes” (where an ongoing affirmation is needed). But, says Leader, such affirmation is clunky and, though the early TV episodes of Normal People illustrate “how a consent can be part of arousal”, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

One problem suggested by Elinor Mason, author of Feminist Philosophy: An Introduction, is that campuses are approaching the issue with gender neutrality; to her, this is fake. In the majority, she says, “it is men asking for consent: the reality is that men have the power and women don’t in sexual relationships.” The way our society is structured tarnishes the whole notion of asking for or giving heterosexual consent.
“As a woman, you want to think, ‘I have agency, I make my own choices.’ But every single thing you do as a woman has been shaped by a world telling you you have to be nice, pretty, slim, and polite. It is very difficult to say no politely.”

She shrugs. “These forces distort pretty much everything.”

The BDSM community, whose watchwords are “consensual, sane and safe” has much to teach us

Leader, author of Is It Ever Just Sex? agrees, explaining that you can’t remove consent from the inequalities of society. But, at the same time, arguably “the essence of erotic practice is power inequality”.

As well as the instances of abuse and assault, there’s a grey area which Mason calls “bad sex”: sex that a person consents to in some sense, but does not want. It’s a factor that resonates – viz the viral popularity of the New Yorker’s 2017 short story Cat Person – and it is something Ruspoli sees a good deal in clinic: patients – of all genders and orientations – realising later that the sex was not fully consensual.

Ruspoli suggests it is less about men vs women per se, and more a matter of power imbalance. “If one person is in a position of power, can the other person ever really consent?” This relational imbalance could be seniority at work, including more advanced age or earning power: if we see Madonna with a 23-year-old backing singer, it can feel uncomfortable, while public disquiet over Philip Schofield’s affair with a much younger colleague on This Morning effectively ended his career.

She also points out that central to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (which looks at five main motivations for human behaviours), are “the needs to fit in and to belong. There’s a strong chance you’ll end up doing things that you’re not necessarily totally consenting to, to have these needs met. Not just in terms of sex. It could be with your boss. Or teenagers going with the group or being cool: how often do people do things just because they think they have to, to be part of their tribe?”

To stand against the tide, or stand up to power, you need a voice.

It’s uncomfortably ironic that, in a sexual sense, the ability to speak out may literally be blocked by choking – a sexual practice on the rise at US and UK universities – or, in the case of Brand, with his hands round the throat of his much younger accuser, “Alice”. Those who do speak out, even from a position of profile and privilege, struggle to be heard: take Emily Hunt, the government rape advisor who so lost her faith in the legal system after her own ordeal that she has left her job and the country; Taylor Swift, who’s spoken publicly of how hard she had to fight to prove that Radio DJ David Mueller put his hand up her skirt, despite all her might and money, photographic evidence and seven witnesses; and Jenni Hermoso, the champion footballer who battled to exert the non-consensual nature of being kissed on the lips – no permission asked or granted – in front of an audience of millions.

Here the BDSM community – whose watchwords are consensual, sane and safe – has much to teach the rest of us. Many exchanges begin with a verbal or written contract laying out interests and boundaries, agreed before either party has got higher than a kite on the endorphins that course through your body in a well-played scene, distorting your ability to judge any actions your sane and sober self might not have greenlit.

Such a contract will also unpack what a willing submissive might be letting themselves in for; you wouldn’t sign up for “electricity play” without knowing what it is. There is a parallel in medicine, where consent cannot be given unless the patient is informed (“informed consent”).

These examples stand in positive contrast to that other arena where we might think of consent: website cookies. How readily we might consent to these for the promise of free train wifi or a better deal: how much of our data are mined without our really recognising it, over time feeding the algorithms that might lead us to behaviours (shopping, dating, voting) we never consciously anticipated: a sort of contemporary Faustian pact. “On the one hand, associating the idea of consent to cookies trivialises the whole notion,” adds Leader. But on the other, perhaps cookies are another form of violation?

Even the most informed consent can and must evolve. Says Rory Platt, writer at The School of Life, “Consent is never ‘binding’; it cannot be considered to continue indefinitely. Awkward as it might seem, it is incumbent on both parties to seek regular and explicit affirmations of consent to ensure no one’s autonomy is violated.” (Notably, BDSM uses “safewords” that override the contract should you wish to stop things at any time).

A forward-looking model now being used in colleges, campuses and business is the Wheel of Consent. “To act with integrity,” explains Wheel of Consent educator Adam Wilder, “you need to know what you want, know how to ask for it, and be ready to receive a yes or a no.”  To act within the wheel/circle of consent, he adds: “You also must be clear who an action is for.” So if I’m giving you a massage, but the pleasure is mainly for me, I need to be sure that you’re a willing recipient of my ‘gift’.”

Easy, right?

“The first problem,” continues Wilder, “is we don’t know what to ask for. Often, we’ve had experience of feeling shamed or rejected; this can mean we start suppressing our desires and make unclear requests (to shield the vulnerable parts of ourselves, so we aren’t hurt again).”
Wilder gives an example of his Hungarian mother wanting to feed him cakes while he sat and listened to stories about her ailing friends. “I became a hostage to her pleasure, knowing that if I said anything she would be upset.”

Eventually he found the words to ask if they could share their time in a different way. “And she said, ‘OK’. It was almost a mystical experience because it felt like at that moment our relationship changed forever.”

“Making a clear request is a skill for life,” he continues. “When we don’t, we become resentful or martyred, we end up feeling small or falling into people-pleasing. But first, we must actually know what we want.”

A simple exercise Wilder teaches is called Waking Up The Hands: hold an object like a spoon or a pencil, close your eyes and feel the sensation; after a while your muscles relax, your breath deepens, and your brain goes wow, this feels really nice. “We call this a direct route to pleasure.” It can be blocked by many things, perhaps religious or cultural: the idea that it is selfish to have pleasure.

“Once you learn to trust this feeling, and to value it, then you can communicate it.” He says it is especially important to teach this to boys – particularly in a world wary of the assault statistics. “We tend to have messy conversations with boys, where we shame their impulses and shut them down,” which he relates to a rise in confused or toxic masculinity. “Boys also need to understand their desires, and learn then how to act with integrity.”

“It is also important to teach children to notice if a situation feels wrong,” says Ruspoli, “and give them agency to address it; they shouldn’t be told just to suck it up.” This lays a foundation, so that “when they’re older they will make good choices.  Many of my clients have spent their life overriding their intuition and have lost touch with how they really feel. They need to relearn that if something makes them feel anxious or awkward, they have the right to say no.”

“‘No’ is an amazing word,” continues Wilder. “Being able to say it cultivates your personal agency and builds authenticity and trust.” In an example that may resonate, he demonstrates how he says no to his girlfriend – with the kind of active listening and validating of her needs that’s popular now in parenting manuals. “I know you really want me to come on holiday with your friends. But I’m not going to do that.”

Consent comes from the Latin word consentire: to feel together. Surely, knowing our own feelings and articulating them, and listening to both no and to yes must be the best path forward – even a route that can help us climb beyond the wider gender, or life dynamic. After all, adds Wilder, “being able to say ‘no’ also assures the other party you really mean the ‘yes’: having given consent for the gift, we can deeply enjoy it.”

Rebecca Newman is a contributing editor to the Financial Times HTSI magazine and writes for the Spectator and Sunday Times. A former GQ “erotic affairs” editor, she’s also a passionate kitesurfer

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Cover Story, Main Features, November 2023

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