Creating the illusion of enthusiastic consent

Wouldn’t it be nice if men – by which I mean “proper” men, of the red-blooded, heterosexual variety – had a safe space in which to lust over women who weren’t so busy being  human? If you could supply, on tap, women who weren’t so hung up on social interaction and expressing their own likes, dislikes, disgusts and passions? If you could have a place where your rather mundane sexual fantasies seemed to gain universal endorsement and approval? Men (“proper” men, that is), I have found such a place! It is called your imagination.

The imagination is an amazing thing – and, when it suits you, really bloody filthy. I’m not going to share all the highly offensive/ridiculous scenarios mine’s come up with. I promise you, it’s an acquired taste. Suffice it to say that mine never lets me down (apart from at those frustrating moments when an unwelcome voice butts in with  “hang on! I seriously think the laws of physics would prevent him/her/it from holding that position for that long”).

Now and then the imagination benefits from the odd accessory. Unfortunately, when it comes to sex and filth, those we have at our disposal tend to be a bit rubbish. Or perhaps I need to explore a bit further? As far as I can tell, when it comes to films, the nice things are boring (as you’re constantly thinking “well, I wouldn’t have put that there”) and the nasty ones feature too many close-ups of arses that no longer look like arses because the close-up is too close. As for live action, it seems to me that the demands on the imagination are more taxing than they would be minus the human props. You have to believe that someone who may not want to be near you is exposing themselves not for money, but just for your benefit. Surely you’d really struggle with this – the illusion of enthusiastic consent – unless it’s something you’re conjuring up regularly in everyday life.

Which brings me to Susannah Breslin’s defence of strip clubs, which appeared on the Guardian Comment is Free site  today. I’m not in favour of extreme regulation – which affects everyone, whatever their predilections – but I am bothered by people being dishonest about what a strip club is and does. And when Breslin describes a club  as follows, I can’t help feeling that’s what she’s doing:

It’s a place where they can step outside the anxiety-fraught dating scene and talk to a woman who, as long as he keeps tipping, will give him the time of day. It’s a world where women parade around nude or nearly so in which doing so doesn’t get anybody arrested or elicit gasps. It’s a private room wherein a lap dance is on the table and a man expressing his sexuality isn’t going to be met with a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Admittedly I’ve not done the “research” Breslin has (asking men who visit strip clubs for their views on what they do – amazingly, of a sample of 31 not one appears to have said things which will make him look bad. Funny, that). But I have to say, for much of this I’m not sure a strip club’s really necessary. Women have long had the right to “parade around nude or nearly so” in any private space (I mean, I assume so – I do it at home every day). And there are many, many situations in which “a man expressing his sexuality isn’t going to be met with a sexual harassment lawsuit”. Any situation, in fact, which does not involve sexual harassment or violence. The problem Breslin really touches on is consent and communication. And yes, I could claim that without a culture which seeks to objectify and dehumanize women this would all go swimmingly. It wouldn’t; connecting with other human beings is horribly, embarrassingly hard. It’s amazing anyone gets together, ever. But let’s not kid ourselves that a strip club makes this easier. It brings temporary arousal, but unhindered “sexual expression” it isn’t.

Breslin argues that for some young men “watching nude women dance is a rite of passage as common as a first kiss”. We all have rites of passage, yet not all may be described using such cold yet simultaneously twee  terms. Consumer culture can’t compensate for the pain and disappointment that some rites of passage bring. On the contrary, there are ways in which it can add to it. For some girls a rite of passage is being rejected for not being shaved to an inch of her life, for not acting as though her desire doesn’t matter, for not getting down on her knees at every available opportunity. And for some boys a rite of passage is discovering that women who aren’t being paid to perform refuse to play along. These things can hurt, but don’t usually leave scars. It’s when you can’t let go of the illusion of consent that the greatest harm is done. Even if the nude women are dancing right in front of you, it’s worth remembering that the objects  in your head aren’t real.


One thought on “Creating the illusion of enthusiastic consent

  1. Yes, quite. Plus the obvious – and rather bizarre – fact that in answering her own question, Breslin framed the “good thing” judgment entirely in terms of what’s nice for men. She didn’t consider what might be good/bad for women (the incidence of sexual assault is reportedly much higher in the vicinity of strip clubs), for society as a whole, or indeed what’s “good” (rather than simply enjoyable) for men – the kind of thing you examine properly here. Frankly I was angry to see that piece published at all: facile, wilfully ignorant crap masquerading as liberation, it adds nothing to the general discourse about sex work. No wait, that’s not true; it adds another voice, if not one with anything new to say, to the hardly underrepresented “it’s all good fun” camp, making it even harder for the “actually maybe not?” arguments to be taken seriously.

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