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Issue In Focus: Challenging Neo-liberal ‘Equality’ in Consent

A brown woman in a blue top standing amongst a crowd raises a placard that reads in black on a white background, "Keep sex sexy - consent."

In an ideal world, this article would read at Tweet-length: “Enthusiastic sexual consent is sexy, and necessary for negotiating unequal power dynamics among partners.” Bas. No explanation needed. (Actually, in an ideal world, there would be no unequal power dynamics to negotiate, but I digress.) Consent is intimately connected with power; because we have unequal power dynamics in society, we must also negotiate them within sexual encounters in order to have mutually supportive experiences. Instead of widespread agreement on the importance of affirmative consent, prioritizing all partners’ pleasure once consent is established, and the need to restructure societal barriers that make it easier for some to consent than others (to sex, and otherwise), what we often see is pushback against the very feminisms that catalyzed the discussion on rape culture in the first place.[1]

We should expect this backlash to the extent that attempting to establish more equal ground for sexual consent troubles patriarchal power that is deeply discomfited by women’s sexual autonomy. Feminists are the most prominent agents of this troubling. Yet it is disheartening to see some of this resistance coming from young women, who have decided feminism is too outdated or ‘militant’ for them. These critiques do not refer to the kind of universalist white Western upper-class feminism popularized in the second wave, which we need to call out for its historical erasure of marginalized subjectivities.[2] Instead, they claim feminism cannot represent them because it posits women as inherently weak and oppressed: always the victim.

The 2012 gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh Pandey inspired much of the current debate on rape culture. Last year, Sneha Krishnan published research she conducted with young, mostly middle-class women in Chennai charting their reactions to the Delhi rape case.[3] Some of her subjects are self-proclaimed feminists, but their understanding of feminism hinges on empowerment as equivalent to “self-sufficiency,” requiring “responsibility” and self-regulation in public spaces to avoid harassment and assault. Krishnan concludes that these women have internalized a sense of global modernity contingent on neo-liberal capitalist ideals of the enterprising, responsible self, leading them to believe they have bypassed a feminism that promotes women’s victimhood in the face of rape. They fail to realize that by endorsing the capitalist myth of individual responsibility = safety and success, they support ideals that perpetuate victim-blaming of women.  This new kind of victim-blaming is gaining ground in both the U.S. and post-1990s India, nations heavily influenced by neo-liberal values.[4] As it flies under the radar as calls for humanism or gender equality, it presents a tacit danger. The rejection of feminism also casts nuanced discussions of power and access to the wayside.

It is crucial to examine the zeitgeist of consent in terms of broader perceptions of  “feminism” outside of academic and activist spaces, as well as what conditions might drive these understandings.[5]  Aside from trending middle-class neo-liberal subjectivities, another part of the answer might lie with the history of feminist jurisprudence on sexual assault and earlier activism on violence against women. In order to gain initial traction and draw attention to the fact that rape is actually a crime, activists in both India and the U.S. relied on the trope of women as victimized and rarely able to consent. Feminist legal scholars like Catharine MacKinnon termed this “dominance feminism,” claiming that in the context of patriarchy, women are always subordinate and all sex is a violation because they lack the capacity to consent in this state of oppression. Courts accepted this logic but put the burden on women to prove they’d been “violated,” language that persists to this day and shores up the idea that rape is only criminal as theft of women’s “purity,” seen as equivalent to their very selfhood.[6] While there is some progress, sexual assault cases mostly result in reinforcing these standards through state surveillance via heterosexual marriage and upholding caste norms, as laws are misused to punish couples that elope against their families’ wishes especially in relationships between upper-caste women and lower-caste men.[7] New laws passed in 2013 after Pandey’s death notably do not include marital rape as a crime, claiming that doing so is against “Indian culture” and would crumble the entire institution of marriage and family.

While successful in bringing attention to issues of consent and rape culture, the unintended consequences of a dominance feminist position make it untenable and unpalatable to the upcoming generation. The other oft-referenced feminist position is sex-positivity, supporting total sexual freedom and encouraging women’s enthusiastic participation in sexual activity. At the other end of the spectrum, sex-positivity acknowledges women as agents capable of making sexual choices, but brings its own set of problems. Responding to the Mumbai police raids and public shaming of unmarried couples in hotels this past August, blogger Aindrila Chaudhuri suggests Indian feminists promote a sex-positive approach, supported by proper sex-education and ongoing dialogue on consent in order to dislodge the paternalistic tendency to shame women for engaging in sex of their own accord. She notes, however, that sex-positivity often fails to be inclusive, alienating survivors of sexual abuse and violence, to which I would add those with asexual orientation or those who for whatever reason feel ambivalent towards sex.[8]

There is a class aspect to sex-positivity too. Theoretically, better access to education and other resources would mean women with higher socioeconomic status could more easily make ‘choices’ that are sex-positive. But since middle-class women are considered the most ‘desirable’ and ‘marketable’ subjects by a neo-liberal state, surveillance on their actions may be more stringent, meaning sexual restraint is the only available option. At any rate, as Indian feminist advocates well know, it is still very difficult to have open conversations about the need for sex education and consent. The Delhi University Student’s Union and the Delhi Police clearly illustrated this earlier in October when they harassed and detained journalists from The Quint for hours just for daring to ask (adult, willing) students to discuss sexual consent in general as part of their #MakeOutInIndia campaign.

The issue of power with regard to consent doesn’t stop with attempts to equalize power relations in sexual encounters; the question of who has authority to speak about rape culture is also important. Mainstream media, for one, has done an excellent job of distracting from the real issues by emphasizing “feminist sex wars” over consent, making it appear that militant (loud) feminists are causing fuss over a non-issue. Misperceptions and backlash indicate an urgent need for feminisms to clarify positions beyond the binary of dominance and sex-positivity, and better influence the direction of discourse going forward. This will require striking a balance between academic feminism, not well understood outside of the ivory tower, and de-radicalized “popular” feminism that misses the point, to an alternate framework accessible to a broad audience but that does not divest from central feminist political goals.

Among these goals is the fact that though consent is essential, in isolation it will not lead to equality and should not be the pinnacle of feminist activism to the exclusion of other aims such as feeling empowered to communicate to partners on how to make consensual sex pleasurable sex, an aspect Maya Dusenbery points out is often ignored. I suggest an ‘enthusiastic consent’ feminist framework, a renegotiation of sex-positivity that centers pleasure as equally important with consent, but recognizes that for some the right to say “no” to particular sex acts or to sex in general may also be desirable, and even politically potent.[9] Enthusiastic consent feminisms would ensure that education (about our rights, our bodies, and how power acts on us) and realigning of power dynamics remain at the forefront of the discussion.



[1] One ongoing example of this in the U.S. that in part inspired this article is the vehement response to new “affirmative” or “enthusiastic” consent policies being adopted on college campuses. These require students involved in sexual encounters to keep up a continuous dialogue (verbal or non-verbal) indicating their desire to participate in the acts taking place; once given, consent can be revoked at any time. These policies are a paradigm shift. The burden is no longer on women to prove they did not say “no,” but on the alleged rapist to prove their partner said “yes,” to everything. However, these policies are critiqued as ‘paternalistic’ because they assume parties cannot consent if intoxicated. The policies are also said to be overly complicated, with feminists targeted for ‘sucking all the fun out of sex’, and as potentially dangerous, with some claiming that now women who later regret sex for any reason will abuse these policies to get “revenge” and save their own reputation. Broader social conditions making young women feel they might feel the need to save their “reputation” in this manner are not, for detractors, a matter of concern.

[2] Arpita Ghosh in The Problem With Popular Feminism That’s Making Many People Shy Away From The Word.

[3] Sneha Krishnan, “Responding to Rape: Feminism and Young Middle-Class Women in India,” in Gender, Development, and Social Change: Women, Political Struggles, and Gender Equality in South Asia, edited by Margaret Alston (2014: 19-32).

[4] Wendy Brown articulates that neo-liberalism makes tackling problems of global capitalism extremely difficult, since this ideology converts everything – including people and social customs – to having a “market” value. Subjects are given moral autonomy to the degree that they exhibit “human capital” operationalized as entrepreneurial spirit and self-care (Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy, 2003).

[5] See Kavita Krishnan’s call for global solidarity on sexual consent and rape culture, especially in context of controversy over the documentary India’s Daughter. It is crucial to study how sexual violence is misinterpreted as a ‘developing world’ or “Indian problem,” when it is endemic throughout all parts of the world affected by patriarchy and global capitalism.

[6] See Nivedita Menon (Recovering Subversion, 2004) for why feminists need to work against the language of rape as violation, toward developing commonsense understandings of rape that do not reinforce patriarchal, neo-liberal ideas about purity and pollution with regard to women’s bodies.

[7] Srimati Basu, “Sexual Property: Staging Rape and Marriage in Indian Law and Feminist Theory,” 2011; Pratiksha Baxi, “Justice is a Secret: Compromise in Rape Trials,” 2011.

[8] See also The Guardian on sex-positivity and ambivalence to sex.

[9] bell hooks suggested last year that celibacy could actually be a “liberatory” form of sexuality for black women, often stereotyped as hypersexual.

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