Friday, 20 December 2013

Consent - the Moral and Psychological Issues

This is not, strictly speaking, a historical article. Nevertheless, consent is an intriguing concept and especially controversial in terms of current debates about sexuality, violence and assault seemingly ever present in the media today.

Oxford Dictionaries describes consent as:

"permission for something to happen or agreement to do something".

In criminal law in Britain the consent must be both positive and genuine in order to apply. Did the defendant honestly believe that the victim consented?

Philosophically speaking, it would be interesting to consider why people consent. In sexual matters, does a person consent because they love the other person and wish to participate in something intimate and loving? Does it signify an act of trust on their part? Of course, for many people, choosing, or consenting, to having sexual intercourse with someone else results from their placing trust in that person. They may have strong feelings and wish to act on them. They may be acting out of love.

Alternatively, does someone consent to sexual acts because they feel they have to? Historically speaking, in relation to female sexuality it has been noted that teenage girls, in particular, consent to sexual intercourse often because of social or cultural pressures, not because of biological compulsions. This can be especially damaging - why should people feel they have to consent to sex, in order to please someone? Paradoxically, you could say they are really being forced into sex, or pressured, as a means of retaining that person's interest. Of course, this can have profound psychological consequences, particularly at a youthful age.

In the early modern period, for example, it was believed that females, being carnal and licentious beings, were so desirous of sex that they wanted to be raped. This shocking view provided justification for men to rape them. Rape was punished, make no mistake about it, but it was punished as an offence against property, since women were viewed as belonging to their menfolk, whether husbands or fathers. Morally, women were viewed as to blame, even if they had not consented. But a belief in what is termed "interior consent" existed: even if women said they did not consent, they were believed to nonetheless have consented. If they said no to rape, in reality they were desirous of it. Perhaps this belief is still held by some today.

But consent affects men, too, in this sphere. Ally Fogg criticised existing perceptions of male sexuality so often seen as 'threatening', 'aggressive', 'dangerous', even 'frightening'. In fact, some have even argued that society does not view men as victims of sex crimes. Shockingly, sexual assault and male victims are often just not associated with one another. The controversy surrounding rapper Danny Brown this year exposes this point. Performing on stage, a female fan pushed her way on stage and performed sexual acts on Brown, in the middle of his performance, without obtaining his consent. This was, in effect, a sexual assault. Just because Brown is male does not mean that he cannot also be a victim. 

Male rape was only recognised by British law in 1994 - nineteen years ago. This demonstrates, perhaps, as nothing else can, how our society views the connections between consent, male sexuality, and assault. As Michael Amherst says, and he is quite right: "It is no longer acceptable to pretend, as some do, that rape and sexual assault are only committed by men against women". Because men are stereotyped as strong, masculine, hypersexualised, thinking of nothing but sex, male rape and sexual assault is often viewed ambiguously, even doubtfully. Yet 'both men and women can still be persecuted for not conforming to gender stereotypes'. 

Consent is often freely given, but it can be coerced, forced, misplaced. Consent is closely linked with control, manipulation, trust. How do you judge whether it's right to consent to something? Is it based on instinct, or experience? It may seem right to consent at the time but later experiences mean consenting to something can be viewed with regret. Whatever happens, however, consent should not be forced, but freely given.

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