January 28, 2016

Informed Consent and the Politics of Desire

Content note: racism, cissexism, child sexual abuse

As a queer person of colour living at the intersections of racism and heterosexism, I often find myself thinking about the politics of desire – the ways in which how we love and lay, and with whom we love and lay are shaped by power. After all, I’ve heard all my life that queer sexuality is an abomination at best, and that the blackness of my body is too undeserving even for that – the deviance of queer sex. These politics form part of the background noise of my life, the weird jumble of things that are always going through my head whenever I encounter something new.

So when I watched a video that detailed the development of consent law in Canada “Consent: HIV Non-Disclosure and Sexual Assault”, I became intrigued by the concept of ‘informed consent’, which is the idea that consent can only truly be given if we have all the relevant facts necessary to make that decision. The video goes on to explain that withholding this information is a form of deception that gives the withholder access to sex, that would otherwise not have been consented to, had the other participant known. In other words, this understanding of consent holds that we are entitled to information about another person if it would affect our decision to have or not have sex with them.

There are ways I can see this understanding of consent being important in challenging power in sex.

I think about the fetishization of people of colour, and the ways that our bodies too easily become objects for the white gaze, and I think that maybe… if I know that some dude is only interested in me to fulfill his fantasy as an exotic other, that what I would be consenting to is not sex, but rather him enacting racialized violence against me – that maybe, and quite likely, I would not consent to sex with him. Here I see informed consent as crucial to protecting the autonomy of marginalized communities.

I see other instances of this as well. I think it’s important to acknowledge that informed consent is not limited to information about another person, but also extends to the meaning of a sexual experience. It is not uncommon for people to lie about their intentions to get into bed with someone. They very intentionally trick their sexual partner(s) into thinking that the sex they are going to have is part of a larger relationship, when in truth they are only interested in a one night stand. While the legal definition of consent doesn’t extend to transparency about what comes after a sexual experience, being a good sexual citizen requires being honest about intentions, and not lying in order to get laid, it means being accountable to others’ emotions.

Even in situations where people don’t outright lie about their intentions, power plays a huge role in determining who gets to use this subterfuge of omission. Folks who are white, thin, male, cis, able-bodied or otherwise privileged more often have the social capital to ask that question if desired, while folks who experiencing marginalization, particularly women and femme folks are often labeled as desperate, emotionally clingy, or needy when expressing the desire to have this information before consenting. Widening the definition of consent challenges the imbalance in who gets to ask, and creates a culture of open and honest communication about intention. So it is clear that informed consent is necessary in troubling power in the ways we relate to each other.

What I wonder is… what happens when this challenging of power is turned on its head? What happens when power is reified through informed consent? What happens when the politics of desire are at play?

The oldest example of this I can think of is the historical and ongoing male entitlement to women and non-binary folks’ bodies through the social construct of “virginity”. This construct also extends to folks of all genders with hymens, but disproportionately affects women and non-binary folks whether they have a hymen or not. Many men feel entitled to know whether or not their sexual partner(s) have had sex before. Many men feel that this aspect of another person’s identity is important to their consideration of whether or not to have sex with them.

Is it socially just for us to legitimize this entitlement under a fulsome definition of consent which includes an understanding that we have the right to knowledge that can inform our decision to consent? And is it unjust for someone to withhold this information? Is it unjust for them to lie if asked?

The way society values “virginity” is shaped by a patriarchal politics of desire – politics that glorify male sexuality and shame female/gender-non confirming sexuality. How do we reconcile this with an acknowledgement that a person has the ultimate right to determine what they will and will not do with their body?

‘Virginity’ is only the start of that list. A society dependent on relations of exploitation and power creates a politics of desire that enables folks to feel entitled to knowledge of another person’s assigned sex at birth, religion, financial status, HIV status, dis/abilities, ethnic background, sexual orientation and social class to name a few. What does this mean when many of these invisible(ized) identities need to be kept secret in order to keep us safe from violence?

Does my partner need to know that I was assigned male at birth before they have sex with me? What is my responsibility to my trans* family as a cis person if asked that question? Do they need to know if I am poor or queer or know my exact ethnic background?

The video certainly left me with more questions than answers. What I do know for sure is that is we can and should be the only ones to decide what is important for us to make choices about our bodies. But I also know for sure that power complicates this, and we need to hold ourselves as well as those in our communities accountable to these complexities.

As Jamal Lewis writes, “Whom we decide to (and, not to) lay with (and, love) is political… It informs whom we save, whom we fight for, whom we deem worthy…”

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