I saw this slogan on a car bumper the other day and it immediately gave me the ick. Here’s why.
In these enlightened times, our decision-making processes often resemble something like this:
- I respect her right to choose, but it’s not right for me
- She doesn’t want me to, but it’s my decision
- My body, my choice
In other words, consent (exercising a choice) is everything. The philosophical idea of consent is strongly associated with medical ethics (when we talk about patients’ consent to surgery) and government (one theory of government says political power only exists with the consent of the populace). However, in the last few years, the term has mostly been associated with sexual consent. Perhaps due to the escalation of reports of ‘rape on campus’, and recent police awareness campaigns involving tea analogies, sexual consent issues have really come to the fore in the mainstream media. Look at the Google usage stats concerning the phrase:
Funnily enough, while the last 30 years show a small increase in the use of ‘sexual consent’ (and beware this data only goes up to 2008), it also shows a larger decline in the use of ‘sexual morality’:
When someone hacked Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud account and leaked naked pictures to the media, we all cried foul. She’s been exploited, we said. She herself said it made her feel like a piece of meat being passed around.
I’ve no doubt there were people making use of those images that considered her no better than inanimate flesh to be used or consumed at will. That the photos were propagated without her consent is surely, by her admission, only half of the problem. That the leak enabled others to react to her image in a way that demeans her person is the other half – perhaps more than half.
J-Law also said that as it’s her body, it should be her choice (to release said photos) – of course. Thus we have plenty of other people posing naked and willingly disseminating the results to the public. The difference in how those photos came into the public eye is consent. Yet in that public eye that is happy to deliberately make use of those images (use = objectification) for its own gratification, I don’t know that there is really a difference. How are you less a piece of prime steak in the (rib-)eye of some beholders if you gave them the picture? While according to the consent brigade, the rightness or wrongness of an action can be flipped on the basis of someone’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it seems obvious that the perpetrators of objectification are not only (sometimes) violating someone’s consent, but also violating their human dignity. If I choose to release my own naked photos, am I not just playing into the notion that I can be objectified and that being used as a piece of meat is no bad thing in itself, provided I’m OK with it? This is why, I think, consent can’t be our only benchmark for defining acceptable behaviour, and why it will never be as powerful a principle as that of our human dignity.
It’s also clear that in the internet age, talking about being able to control the reception of one’s image is unrealistic. A picture can be propagated to millions in seconds, sliced, diced and photoshopped in almost any way. You don’t have control of how people use your image, or what their attitude towards you is; if you’re famous, you’ll never meet most of the people who see your image, meaning they’re probably not in a position to respond to you properly as a human being as opposed to a caricature or a Barbie doll.
Perhaps this is why the Old Testament God enjoined us to make no representations of Him nor any other living thing on the earth. He was probably well aware of how confused we might get, and how much convincing but not-quite-human images can desensitise us to the reality of each other (dare I mention the study I quoted in another post).
Saying yes to broadcasting your nude snaps, or to sex, is not a guarantee that you will be treated like a human being. For a person with no concept of what it means to do that, making their ultimate aim and criterion for correct behaviour simply the obtaining of that ‘yes’ will only legitimise their terrible behaviour. A ‘yes’ doesn’t oblige one to be civil to someone the morning after. Looking someone in the eye and seeing them as a human person deserving of your respect (and love, whatever form that takes in the context), does have that effect.
Consent and the changing will: ‘Yeah but no but yeah but no’
While I strongly believe the above to be true, my main problem with hinging potentially life-changing decisions on a binary yes/no is the assumption that consent will always be absolute, that we can all, at all times, be 100% certain of our own wills, and that our wills will never be conditioned by circumstance, cultural or emotional pressure, our own poor judgement, upbringing, or any number of other factors. When we talk about choice, we think we are talking about our will, when most often we are talking about our whim. To think only of whether we want something at any given moment, when we surely know that our wants vary one minute to the next, and to act solely in accordance with consent and in defiance of common sense, let alone any other principle, is quite simply ridiculous. How is a person who is desperate for an orgasm, or desperate to feel loved and affirmed (etc) any less ‘under the influence’ of a force that affects their decision-making capabilities than the person who’s been drinking? No one in this world goes through life without regrets. Do we simply accept the self-inflicted regrets as a byproduct of our rejection of a standard beyond ‘my choice’, or is there another way of doing things?
Returning to the other realms in which the notion of consent applies shows that consent is not an absolute principle there either. When parents do not consent to blood transfusions or operations for their children, we are quite happy to pursue and overrule them through the courts, in the name of the child’s best interests. So there is something called ‘best interests’, is there? There exists a principle that we will admit supersedes consent?
When I hear people say we must give children – or university students! – mandatory sexual consent lessons, I have to take a minute to go and vomit. Something is clearly seriously, seriously wrong if a child, or worse, an adult person is not aware that you cannot rightly have sex with someone who is asleep, drunk, or under duress. I do not think these people need sexual consent classes. They need to get a clue about right and wrong and about how other people should be treated. How dare anyone make that stupid ‘yes means yes’ slogan the goal and pinnacle of acceptability to be aspired to before proceeding to action. Consent is clearly vital, but it should be the absolute basest of minimum requirements.
Or, as my flatmate says, ‘the mirror before the signal and manoeuvre’.