Everyone is familiar by now with the basic propositions of “consent politics”: “You have agency. You own your body. You own your story.” That’s a quote from Stanford’s Director of Positive Sexuality, but the sentiment is ubiquitous. To have agency means to have signed off on the deed to your own body and to exercise your inalienable right to declare opinions. Others may trespass on your body and in your personal narrative only to the extent that you let them. Consent, freely and affirmatively given, should be at the heart of any interpersonal interaction — sexual or otherwise.
Rape and sexual assault are the bad dreams of this notion of agency. They present problems it can never really address, no matter how hard it tries to camouflage that fact. If I own my body, how is it that it remembers the alien impact of trauma long after the traumatic event has passed? If I own my story, how is it that I have so little control over the circumstances in which it takes place?
When consent is violated, two responses prevail. The first is to capture the perpetrator and put him under the thumb of the law, however unsatisfying this may be. He has trespassed on another’s body, so he loses the right to his own. The second is to establish communal storytelling rites, which can give a kind of satisfaction: the queasy pleasure of airing wounds in public. Couching past trauma in narrative terms, the story goes, proves we have mastered it. In the process of listening, we learn everyone’s unique version of what’s “real and true.” Each version is equally (exchangeably) valid and is thus to be “respected” (not necessarily believed).
Both of these responses leave the “your body, your story” idea of agency intact. They fail to answer the questions posed above, questions unavoidable for any survivor of assault. This is why, appearances to the contrary, consent politics is based not on “radical openness” but on occlusion. It systematically obscures the real conditions that make it impossible for us to own our bodies, by shutting down attempts to inquire into those conditions and become partisans for change.
To see how this works in the realm of communal storytelling, let’s take the example of “Beyond Sex Ed,” an ongoing project at Stanford. Here, students take a course on constructing brief narratives about their sexual experiences, ranging from pedestrian to tragic. Last September, they presented these stories at MemAud, their individual tales sandwiched by commentary from the SARA office’s Director of Positive Sexuality. In her words, the purpose of the event was to reveal our traumas by “turning ourselves inside out,” thus discovering “what’s real and true for you.” In this circuit of “empathy” and “respect,” we feel “what it’s like to be human.”
Let’s take these propositions point by point, starting with the title “Director of Positive Sexuality.” The criterion of “positivity” implies not just that some kinds of sex are more pleasurable than others, but that some kinds of sex are worth more than others. All sex can be indexed to an already-existing metric. But whose metric? Who, or what, assigns sex its value?
We will return to this question in a moment. But first, let us be clear that any attempt to describe sex in the last instance as positive or negative is doomed to failure. There will always be a dimension of sex that escapes evaluation, that cannot be described as good or bad, weird or normal. Sex takes place, finally, as a break in fantasy, a glitch between imagination and embodiment. To say sex is essentially, interchangeably valuable is to conflate an abstraction with the whole of material reality.
Nevertheless, that is the illusion to which the Director carefully attends when she speaks of “human flourishing”: According to a Harvard study she cited in her opening remarks, youthful experiences of “warmth, intimacy, empathic capacity” predict success on the index of “human flourishing” well into later life. The human flourishing index, you may be glad to hear, accounts for income — the ultimate measure of positivity. Enough human flourishing points and you’ll be a 100 percent positive human, one presumes.
So how can you earn human flourishing credits? If you are unlucky enough to have been marred by an absence of warmth and intimacy, but still want to “feel what it’s like to be human,” you should turn yourself “inside out” (by telling your story). It’s jarring, to say the least, to hear a representative of the SARA office command, “Expose yourselves!” But on the market of sex, everything must become legible, communicable. Once a story can be told, you own it, and once you own it, you can sell it.
In fact, you must sell it. Because we are not really the ones this process is supposed to heal. It is, rather, the imaginary body of the “Stanford community” or “campus discourse” — something which has never existed except as semblance (what we think others are thinking). We must sacrifice ourselves to the body of this civilization to make it whole again. The painful, rupturing, fundamentally meaningless real of trauma must be forced to mean something. And what it means is always determined in advance: “everything’s okay, I’m right here.”
All this is in no way to condemn the brave, difficult and necessary labor survivors do to discuss and understand and mourn their experiences. It is, however, to say that storytelling is not inherently political, radical or even helpful. Rather, it occupies an ambiguous position between healing and theatrical reentrenchment of a dangerous and hypocritical ethos. We must move not just “beyond sex ed,” but beyond consent as the foundation of our sexual politics.
I do not consent. I am disconsented.
I disconsent to the circulation of femininity on the mass market. I disconsent to registering my displeasure with the Office of Positive Sexuality. I disconsent to an ideal of the human that relies on commonsensical fellow-feeling, a humanity that “runs in my blood.”
What makes me human is not my innate ability to feel pain, to empathize, to have “normal” and “good” sex. It bears repeating: The glorification of “nature,” human or otherwise, has nothing to offer us! I was not born into my humanity, just as I was not born into ownership of my body, as though it were an inherited legacy. To be human is a laborious process requiring constant modification of what we thought possible, a process belonging to no one in particular.
It belongs, that is, to my fellow disconsented. We are the glitch in the fantasy and we cannot be evaluated. Arm yourselves, xenofeminists: only inhuman modification of our cosmic bodies will shield us from the consent towards which we are (t)ruthlessly pressed.
The reader is encouraged to view the article online and follow its hyperlinks.
Abigail Schott-Rosenfield posts on Chi Phi, an international platform for rationalist feminism. It recently spawned a workshop, “If Nature Is Unjust, Change Nature!”, held at Ng House. Contact Chi Phi at chiphidelity ‘at’ gmail.com.
Contact Abigail Schott-Rosenfield at aschott ‘at’ stanford.edu.