Towards a working definition of sexual consent – Amelia Horgan

Image via Emma Persky on flickr.

Amelia Horgan is a writer and activist from London currently studying for a PhD in philosophy.

Towards a working definition of sexual consent

“It’s really great that we’re having conversations about consent now. But let’s not forget that the culture we live in is inherently coercive and non-consensual.” — ‘Fucked’ zine


The overwhelming majority of representations of sexual consent, even within avowedly ‘feminist’ or ‘radical’ discourses or spaces, present consent as a moment of exchange between individualised, liberal subjects. It is a transactional, temporally specific moment of contract, made by people who know exactly what they want, and exactly when they want it.

This vision of consent, has basically nothing to do with external power relations, like those of gender, race, institutional hierarchy. It refers only to the internal mental state of those involved; a situation that doesn’t always chime with the realities of sex, sexuality, and abuse.

A recent example of this tendency was the moment when a UK based consent awareness campaign ‘Project Consent’ — otherwise only notable for their use of weird, cutesy graphics of disembodied genitals — declared that consent was not a specifically feminist issue. While they later retracted their claim, it seems pretty clear that the increased ‘awareness’ of consent as an issue is not necessarily an entirely positive thing, especially if it presents a reductive and misleading vision of what consent is. Take another example, police forces — not generally famed for their supportive attitude to survivors of sexual violence — have been claiming that sexual consent is an important issue. In all of these cases sexual consent is presented as ‘easy’ or ‘simple’.

Indeed, Project Consent liked this idea so much that they pasted it over their creepy images of anthropomorphic genitals:

Seeing consent as ‘simple’ means seeing it through a very legalistic lens. Consent becomes a proof — something extracted from one person (usually a woman) by another (usually a man). Within this framework we are all thoroughly individual and rational agents, and the moment in which consent is transacted is separate from the rest of our rational, orderly lives.

Under historic UK court rulings the state of mind of the survivor — i.e. whether they considered themselves to be consenting or not, was often irrelevant, what mattered is that the other person ‘reasonably’ believed that they had consented. We’ve managed (and not without decades of feminist campaigning!) to shift from using the grounds of reasonableness prescribed by the law, and expanding them to include non-verbal communication and non-immediate coercion. Despite this, we’re still hanging on to the idea of consent as a specific moment within any sexual activity.

Consent becomes based only on the internal state of those involved within that moment. It is sharply disconnected from any external factors, like those of abuse, structural oppression, or culturally constructed sexual scripts. Indeed, it ignores that there may well be ways in which external factors condition our internal states.

The idea of what constitutes sexual consent is directly linked to the idea of what sex is, by challenging or shifting ideas of the former we contest the conceptual boundaries of the latter and vice versa. The standards of reasonableness and idea of consent as used within the law are dependent on what hegemonic ideas of sex and sexuality are like — heteronormative, cissexist, and focused on penetration as the end point of sexual activity.

Instead of seeing consent as a transaction we should consider it a communicative process. A situation in which there is consent, is one where those involved have worked to remove any elements of coercion. Consent should not just be about establishing a level of proof, but about fostering critical communicative relations. Within this definition not only are acts of violence where one person has demonstrated that they do not want sex to happen non-consensual, so are those in which one person coerces or manipulates even if the other person does not say or demonstrate a ‘no’.

Of course, actually figuring out how we establish situations which are communicative and consensual in a world which is in many ways fundamentally coercive is really no small feat.

Challenging the ways in which these kinds of ‘awareness’ campaigns elide the realities of sexual violence is important. Indeed, if we take seriously the idea that establishing spaces free of coercion is essential to sexual consent then there is no reason not to apply fighting against coercion to every other aspect of our lives.


N.B. This essay previously appeared on Medium in June, 2016.

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