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Book Review - The Joy of Consent
 

A review of 'The Joy of Consent - A Philosophy of Good Sex' by Manon Garcia (Harvard University Press, 2023), reflecting on its claim to 'upend the debate' about consent, and considering its ideas in relation to each of the four main realms of consent discourse.

February 2024, Rupert James Alison

 

 

Book Review - The Joy of Consent

 

 

 

Manon Garcia is a French philosopher based in Berlin who has taught at the Universities of Chicago and Yale.  She specialises in political, feminist and moral philosophy.  This is her first book about consent, its full title being ‘The Joy of Consent – A Philosophy of Good Sex.’

 

The book’s main perspective and conclusions can be summarised by selecting a few key quotes from the text:

 

  • ‘Consent is increasingly understood as conditioned by social situations steeped in gender norms and power relations.’

  • ‘Consent needs to be grounded in a conversation between, if not equals, then people who aspire to be equals.’

  • ‘The moral question of what is positively good sex tends to go missing from debates about consent, which overwhelmingly focus on preventing bad sex.’

  • ‘We need a language to describe what feels good and what doesn’t so that we can achieve knowledge of ourselves and others as sexual people.’

 

I agree deeply with all these propositions, and feel they are very much in line with what other, more 'hands on', consent educators are saying.  However, this also left me wondering whether a lengthy, rather densely written philosophical book was required to arrive at these conclusions?

 

But that’s probably unfair.  Taking a rigorous, philosophical approach to an important issue is well worth doing, even if - and perhaps especially if - the conclusions it reaches are in agreement with ideas arising from more practical, 'hands-on' approaches.  And Manon Garcia reflects insightfullly on how consent unrelated to sex continues to evolve, and how that also impacts our understanding of sexual consent. 

 

For example, she describes two different kinds of state intervention, which prevent particular kinds of activities between otherwise consenting individuals.  The first kind is oppressive, such as criminalising consensual queer relations, or preventing same-sex marriages.  The second kind, by contrast, is intended to prevent oppression, for example by instigating a minimum wage, where an employer can't pay a worker less than a minimum amount, even if in practice some individual workers would consent to working for that lower amount. 

 

This raises important questions about how much real choice a worker has if they 'consent' to work for very low wages.  The book then reflects on how much choice many women (and people of other genders) around the world have, when they 'consent' to have sex with men who have more power than them - socially, physically or both.  This theme has been explored in feminist discourse around consent for several decades.

Related to this, the book addresses the contentious question of whether some consensual BDSM activities should be criminalised, particularly if they cause more than superficial physical harm.  Is the state being oppressive if it intervenes in an otherwise consensual interaction?  Or is it preventing the oppression of some individuals who may not always be able to withdraw their consent?

 

Similar considerations relate to end-of-life choices and assisted suicide.  Should individuals who are terminally ill or facing long-term pain be allowed to consent to ending their own life?  Or does allowing that possibility open the door to non-consensual coercion which only looks on the surface like consent?  In short, how can everyone be sure that authentic consent has happened? 

 

This has clear parallels with sexual consent, where there are many factors potentially affecting consent, including imbalances of power or privilege, peer pressure, gender and social conditioning, intoxication, personal trauma and lack of good education about consent.

My main criticism of Manon Garcia's book is that further research into the work of current consent educators could have usefully informed it.  Consider for example her comment, “We need a language to describe what feels good and what doesn’t so that we can achieve knowledge of ourselves and others as sexual people.” 

 

She's absolutely right to say this, but what she's calling for sounds very much like the Wheel of Consent, a consent model which has been taught to tens of thousands of people around the world for over a decade.  Yet she makes no reference to it - and is presumably unaware of it.   It’s as though she feels her job ends with identifying in principle what’s needed, without researching whether such a thing already exists in practice. 

 

 

Four Realms of Consent Discourse

 

This reflects a broader pattern in which I would argue there are four main realms of consent discourse.  Many contributors in each realm seem unaware of some of the conversations taking place in the other three realms.  To my mind, the four are:

 

  1. Feminist perspectives on consent

  2. Queer/non-binary perspectives on consent

  3. Consent as an embodied practice

  4. Consent education in universities and schools

 

Some consent writers and educators do cover more than one of these perspectives (especially those coming from a queer perspective), but a surprising number do not.  This feels to me like a missed opportunity.

 

So Manon Garcia, writing from a feminist perspective, seems unaware of the Wheel of Consent, which is an embodied practice.  Similarly, other feminist authors on consent (for example, Kathryn Angel in ‘Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again’) are very focused on cisgender, heterosexual (cis-het) sex, to the exclusion of consent explorations taking place amongst the rich multiplicity of other genders and sexualities.

 

Although it’s of course essential to address the dominant ongoing and unfolding sexual dynamics between cis-het men and women, much is lost if no attention is paid to the many queer consent educators approaching sexual consent outside this paradigm, who are creating powerful new languages and understandings of consent (I particularly recommend the writings of Meg-John Barker).

 

Similarly, many consent classes for university students are mainly focused on punishing perpetrators, with patchy support for those who have been harmed.  Disappointingly few resources are put into preventing harm happening in the first place, beyond presenting a fairly basic ‘enthusiastic consent’ model.  Whilst this is of course better than nothing, it misses out on all of the following:

  • An in-depth analysis of how power imbalance, privilege and gender conditioning impacts consent - as addressed by feminist educators

  • Consent beyond the cis-het paradigm - as developed by queer educators

  • Consent as an embodied practice which can be developed using experiential exercises - such as the Wheel of Consent

By contrast, student consent classes often cover practical issues around consent rarely discussed within the other realms - such as intoxication, spiking, stealthing and bystander intervention.

Meanwhile, age-appropriate consent and boundaries education in schools is improving, but is also riven with disagreements about how much say parents should have about what's included in the syllabus, particularly around sexual consent.  This can lead to a disappointingly limited approach to the topic.

In practice of course, defining just these four categories is a simplification.  I'm aware for example of several people of colour writing about consent from a social justice perspective (e.g. adrienne maree brown), and men teaching consent specifically to teenage boys and young men (e.g. Beyond Equality).  I'm sure there are more perspectives which I'm unaware of!  However, I feel the key point stands - i.e. that consent discourse is happening in a number of different realms, which aren't always in communication with each other.

Where Do We Come In?

The Art of Consent offers student consent workshops which draw material from all four realms of consent discourse.  Our intention is to provide students with intelligent, engaging, practical, broad, inclusive and optimistic approaches to learning about consent and boundaries. 

We also include material from the other consent realms when offering our embodied Wheel of Consent workshops to the general public. 

 

A further project in 2024 is to begin dialogue with the consent writers we admire, who may not yet be aware of all these realms.

student

consent

workshops

 

 

Resources

 

1. Feminist perspectives on consent

 

 

 

2. Queer / non-binary perspectives on consent

 

 

 

3. Consent as an embodied practice

 

 

 

4. Consent education in universities and schools

 

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