Classes in sexual consent, where students are taught that they need to hear an enthusiastic and preferably sober “Yes!” before proceeding to have sex with someone, have become a routine feature of induction week at many universities. Students learn that obtaining consent is as easy as asking someone if they would like a cup of tea; that eliciting consent is sexy; and that “Yes!” differentiates an enjoyable sexual encounter from rape.
In Screw Consent, Joseph Fischel challenges each of these new orthodoxies. He argues that “it is simply untrue that…any consent – is necessary for a sexual experience to be enjoyable”. The mantra that “consent is sexy”, he claims, “makes little sense”. Not only is it “hard to discern how the fact of agreement to sex is the top candidate for sexiness”, but “‘ask her first’ is usually and decidedly unsexy”.
Such statements fly in the face of campus “I heart consent” campaigns, school sex and relationships classes and public health initiatives. Fischel’s message is controversial but unambiguous: “The more we equate consent with desire, pleasure, enthusiasm, the more students will feel themselves as sexually assaulted when sex does not go well”.
Outrageous though his views will seem to many, Fischel is neither libertarian nor puritan. He’s no more advocating abusive relationships than he is premarital abstinence. Screw Consent draws upon feminist and queer theory, Foucault and the work of student activists against sexual violence not to reject consent entirely but to release its “capture of our imagination”. The book claims that consent talk “perverts our sexual justice politics” and “as a metric for women’s freedom of choice, is incapable of targeting the inequality that forces the choice”. Fischel manages to out-feminist today’s feminist-inspired sex educators – and this just might permit his critique a fair hearing.
He does not reject legal standards of consent and states that “an ‘affirmative consent’ standard is the least-bad standard available for sexual assault law”. Rather, he highlights the insufficiency of consent. This takes us into an at times eye-watering intellectual romp through the moral intricacies and sexual dilemmas of BDSM relationships; sex with and between children, people with physical disabilities, mental impairments and family members – and all the way to sex with horses and corpses.
Screw Consent is a provocative and undoubtedly controversial read. But Fischel’s own moral lines are clearly drawn: “Consent on its own should not morally or legally green-light any eroticised activity whatsoever, however injurious or impeding.” Consent should not legitimise most “vertical relationships”, particularly when power differentials are involved. The book welcomes the #MeToo movement for exposing the fact that consent alone does not protect people from abuse and extends this logic to American football, a sport that can “impair people’s capabilities to be and do in the world” and therefore should “probably be prohibited”.
Fischel’s lines around consent and relationships are not the same as mine. Ultimately, he argues for a “more democratically hedonic sexual culture” to be achieved through education. I would prefer to keep counsellors, educators and campaigners out of the bedroom altogether. But this misses the point. Fischel’s success is to get readers questioning consent and problematising that which we are all too often told is beyond contestation.
Joanna Williams is head of education at Policy Exchange and was previously a lecturer at the University of Kent.
Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Sexual Justice
By Joseph J. Fischel
University of California Press
272pp, £66.00 and £27.00
ISBN 9780520295407 and 9780520295414
Published 22 January 2019