Between my own research and my puttering around on the internet, I’m still fascinated by the idea of how we conceive of sex and consent as tangible things (or not). However, it’s easy for this rhetoric to take a misogynist turn.
Sex worker activist Maggie McNeill writes in her blog post Consenting To Be Paid for Sex Is Still Consenting!:
Sex is a resource, just like money and groceries. One can be traded to get the others, just like any other possessable resource on Earth.
These days, this concept is under fresh rhetorical assault by yet another army of control freaks: young people who think socialism is the cure to what ails us all. Young “socialist” men on Twitter seem to imagine that once they seize the means of production from capitalists and redistribute everything “equally,” women will be “free” to open their legs (to them) for, well, free. Or perhaps these men think of women as yet another resource to be divided like all the others.
This, of course, brings to mind the whole “enforced monogamy” debacle from Jordan Peterson that I criticized in a blog post declaring that this idea (and others) make Peterson’s work so misogynist I’m just not interested in what he has to say. If a man – whether a public figure like Peterson or an incel on the internet – believes that women are resources to be bartered among men, resources who control access to sex but don’t actually deserve control over their own bodies, then we have a problem.
Because, as McNeill points out in her blog post, “sex is an exchange, whether you like it or not.” It’s just that when the relationship is coded as intimate, monogamous, mutually affectionate, and non-transactional, there seems to be no cost to either party (despite the bartering around chores and such that obviously happens between some long-term monogamous couples). But thinking of sex in these terms does not negate the importance of consent. Despite the fact that it’s taken many U.S. states an embarrassingly long time to criminalize marital rape, we need to acknowledge that while sex is often handled as a resource, consent remains key in determining whether it’s sex or whether it’s rape. And we need to broaden how we think of consent and who can give it, in order to not demonize non-heterosexual or non-monogamous relationships, and to not throw sex workers under the bus.
As I’ve argued in the past, commodifying intimacy (as when we pay therapists for emotional labor) is not an inherently bad thing. But at the same time, we have to be careful not to turn sex into a commodity in heterosexual pursuit patterns, because turning one party (usually men) into the pursuer and the other party (usually women) into the gatekeeper can lead to some pretty unhealthy expectations.
Our ideas about consent are fairly recent, too. I just finished reading Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank. The word “heterosexual” itself only dates back to the 1860s, and our ideas around it have been in flux ever since. And yet, as Blank points out, the word and concept both have changed in response to changing social conditions:
When “heterosexual” was coined in the mid-nineteenth century, women were still at a marked disadvantage to men in marriage and in society in general. They might have had more say about whom they would or wouldn’t marry, and their feelings about their marriages and their husbands might have been more influential, but a woman’s identity and her agency were still ordinarily subsumed by that of her father or her husband. Legal personhood changed this, making both expectations and experiences of heterosexuality more egalitarian, a dynamic in which both partners’ desires and responses were crucial to the success of the enterprise (81).
All of this is to say that the playing field between genders (not that gender’s an uncomplicated binary!) is not an even one when it comes to power, and has not been for some time, though hopefully it’s creeping in that direction. This makes consent a complex thing, and it also makes it important to keep an intersectional feminist lens firmly in place when we look at who can give consent and under which conditions.
To return to McNeill’s post:
As my friend and fellow sex worker Mistress Matisse has pointed out, an individual or group that is unwilling to respect a woman’s “yes”—regardless of the price she puts on it—is also unwilling to respect her “no.”
And a person or society that cannot respect an individual’s right to set the conditions of access to her time, attention, or person is one that believes said individual is owned not by herself but by the state.
In short, if you firmly, utterly believe that women are capable of giving consent in intimate relationships but not in sex work, then you need to reexamine your assumptions about what it’s like to live and work under capitalism. If you believe that women “owe” men sex, and that sex is thus a resource that the government can step in to redistribute through “enforced monogamy” or whatever nonsense of the day is being spouted, then you need to examine your internalized misogyny. People can and do give consent under conditions that are not always of their choosing – but hey, welcome to life, welcome to social justice movements where we try to improve those conditions for everyone, especially those already experiencing the most oppression and marginalization.
If thinking of sex as a resource works for you, great. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s also fine, but don’t police others who view it in that way. The main thing is to not view people – and particularly women – as resources, as commodities to buy or sell. That’d be like your boss at your day job (I’m assuming your non-sex-work job) deciding that they own you as a person, rather than them contracting you to provide a specific labor under specific conditions.
Consent is not a contract. People are not things. Yes, there will always be complexity and nuance galore to people’s lived experiences, but I wish we could agree on these basics.