The concept of consent has a long and complex history in philosophy, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. In general, consent has been understood as a voluntary agreement or approval to something, often related to a moral or legal obligation. The idea of consent has been applied to various aspects of human life, including sexual relations, political power, medical treatment, and contractual obligations, among others.
However, the traditional notion of consent in philosophy has been challenged by feminist thinkers who have pointed out its limitations and shortcomings, particularly in the context of sexual relations. Feminist critiques of consent have highlighted the ways in which traditional understandings of consent have often failed to adequately account for power imbalances, social norms, and the experiences of marginalized groups, particularly women.
One of the key challenges to traditional notions of consent in philosophy came from feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who argued that consent in the context of sexual relations is inherently problematic because it presupposes a level playing field between the parties involved. MacKinnon argued that in reality, women are often subjected to various forms of coercion, pressure, and manipulation that can make their supposed consent to sexual activity non-voluntary or even coerced. For MacKinnon, the problem with consent is not that it is insufficiently enthusiastic or explicit, but rather that it is often obtained through the use of power and social structures that make it impossible for women to freely choose their sexual partners and experiences.
Another important feminist critique of consent came from philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault, who argued that the notion of consent is part of a broader system of power relations that operate at multiple levels of social life. According to Foucault, power is not just something that is possessed by individuals or institutions, but rather something that is diffused throughout social relations and interactions. In this view, the idea of consent is not an absolute and neutral principle, but rather a social construct that is shaped by various historical, cultural, and institutional factors.
One of the key ways in which power operates in relation to consent, according to Foucault, is through the creation and enforcement of social norms and expectations. For example, social norms around gender and sexuality can create certain expectations about what kinds of sexual activities are considered normal or acceptable, and can pressure individuals to conform to these expectations even if they do not truly want to engage in these activities. In this way, the idea of consent can serve to reinforce social norms and power structures, rather than challenge or subvert them.
Feminist critiques of consent have also emphasized the importance of recognizing the role of emotions and affective experiences in shaping our understanding of consent. Philosopher and feminist theorist Sara Ahmed, for example, has argued that consent is not just a matter of rational decision-making, but also involves a range of affective responses and bodily sensations. According to Ahmed, our sense of what is and is not consensual is shaped by our experiences of pleasure, desire, and discomfort, as well as by the social and cultural meanings that are attached to different kinds of sexual activities.
This emphasis on the affective dimensions of consent is particularly important in the context of sexual violence and abuse, where survivors often report feeling confused, overwhelmed, and powerless in the face of their experiences. Feminist critiques of consent have pointed out that the traditional focus on verbal and explicit consent can be particularly problematic in these cases, as survivors may not be able to articulate their lack of consent in the moment, or may feel pressure to go along with sexual activity despite their discomfort or fear.
In response to these critiques, feminist thinkers have proposed a range of alternative models of consent that seek to account for the complexities and nuances of sexual relations.
Affirmative consent, as I was saying, emphasizes the importance of actively seeking and obtaining explicit and enthusiastic agreement from one’s partner before engaging in sexual activity. This model recognizes that consent is an ongoing and dynamic process that requires ongoing communication and negotiation between partners, rather than a one-time, binary decision. Proponents of affirmative consent argue that this model can help to reduce the incidence of sexual violence and abuse by promoting a culture of clear communication and mutual respect in sexual relations.
Another alternative model of consent is based on the idea of “enthusiastic consent,” which emphasizes the importance of not just obtaining consent, but also ensuring that one’s partner is genuinely interested and enthusiastic about engaging in sexual activity. This model recognizes that simply obtaining verbal or even explicit consent is not sufficient if one’s partner is not truly interested or engaged in the sexual encounter. Proponents of enthusiastic consent argue that this model can help to promote more positive and fulfilling sexual experiences, while also reducing the incidence of sexual violence and abuse.
In conclusion, feminist critiques of the concept of consent have challenged traditional notions of consent in philosophy by highlighting the ways in which these notions have often failed to account for power imbalances, social norms, and the affective dimensions of sexual relations. By proposing alternative models of consent such as affirmative and enthusiastic consent, feminists have sought to promote a culture of clear communication, mutual respect, and genuine enthusiasm in sexual relations, while also addressing the problem of sexual violence and abuse. These critiques have helped to shape contemporary debates around consent and have raised important questions about the nature and limits of individual autonomy, power relations, and social norms in human interactions.