Why Conceptualizing Sex as Commodity Dooms Consent

Why Conceptualizing Sex as Commodity Dooms Consent December 26, 2017

I doubt anyone actually means to make sex out to be an object, which men must try to wrest from women, but the resulting implication basically erases consent.

Photo in public domain by Kira auf der Heide. From Unsplash.
Photo in public domain by Kira auf der Heide. From Unsplash.

What is sex? What is consent? Feminists, sex educators, sex positive scholars, and others have been grappling with these questions for decades now. Sometimes we’re motivated by the shadow of consent, its absence, and other times by striving for a better world wherein consent is a given of every interaction.

I’ve noticed that many of the ways we talk about sex model it as a commodity: an object, a thing, a prize to be won, an item in the middle of a tug-of-war. Sex educator Al Vernacchio’s brilliant TED talk on how sex needs a new metaphor touches on this, among others.

I’ve written about this over at my sex ed blog, calling it the puzzle box model of sex. The gist is that women are puzzle boxes, just waiting to have the right button pushed or level pulled so that a tasty sex treat will fall out of her, into the hands of whichever man has been so fortunate and persistent:

This means that if a man plays the game right – he’s polite to a woman on a date, he opens doors, he’s appropriately flattering, whatever – then his proper reward is sex. The two big problems with this view, as the author points out, are that it dehumanizes women, and that it conceptualizes sex as an item or prize rather than a consensual, collaborative activity.

It’s obviously a heterocentric model, the way it’s been written about thus far, but it could refer to any entitled form of courtship. And the model is problematic for a number of reasons (ick factor being high among them)

Because here’s the thing: if sex is something that can be given, an item, then when someone “withdraws” it that can feel shitty. What kind of crummy human being gives you something, and then takes it back?

Like, if I loaned you an umbrella and asked for it back, that’d be one thing. But if I gave you the umbrella and then demanded it back – say, on a rainy day when you’d been planning on using it – that would be annoying and inconvenient, or it could even ruin your day (if you had your laptop with you in a flimsy bag, and you were relying on the umbrella to protect it).

If sex is a gift, a thing that the Woman-as-Gatekeeper-of-Sex releases only when the Man-as-Pursuer-of-Sex has done enough to woo her into it, then revoking said gift is a cruel thing to do, whether motivated by mean-spiritedness or ambivalent selfishness (“No! You can’t have this tasty sex treat; on second thought I’ve decided to keep it for myself!”).

(related: I was amused to find that Snopes has a page on blue balls, and even then, after acknowledging that there might be some physical discomfort the writers remind readers that “the solution to this condition can be found in the sufferer’s own hand,” heh)

Further, abstinence-only sex ed erases consent in very similar ways, but with more explicit religious messaging. As I wrote about this paradigm:

consent is obscured, because if everyone’s acting the way they “should,” with women being demure and unobtrusive, and men gallantly waiting for the right partner to wed, then there shouldn’t be consent violations, ever.

The expectation that sex only happens in certain contexts (e.g. abstinence-only teachings that sex is a sacred act and should only happen in marriage) skews our ability to center consent, because that way of framing sex within the “right” context as good/wanted/desirable automatically makes sex outside those lines the opposite. This application of evangelical Christian teachings to sex education thus helps erase consent.

These points are pillars that help create and uphold rape culture. Expectations of owed sex make it easier to ignore consent cues and prioritize your pleasure over your partner’s. Having the backing of religious teachings only worsens the problem.

In short, anything that makes consent out to be a given, concrete thing is going to be a problem. And in fact, if you assume consent is a given, YOU are a problem. Nobody owes you sex. The cultural and religious messages commoditizing sex need to be replaced with healthier and more accurate messages reinforcing that sex is a mutual pleasure-seeking process, which always has consent at the heart of the interaction.

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