Consent, desire and the horror of persuasion

Unexpected advances are not on a continuum with sexual abuse. People are sometimes open to persuasion. And genuine consent is not necessarily explicit.

Recent allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, numerous British MPs – and assorted others including even little-known left-wing journalists – have brought the issue of sexual assault and misconduct into focus. As many commentators have pointed out, there has been an alarming conflation of accusations of rape with complaints about lewd or embarrassing comments and text messages, even knee-touching. But there is more to the issue than either an epidemic of abuse or a simple witch hunt.

Often, there is a further conflation of non-violent but deliberately obnoxious behaviour that is meant to belittle or discomfit women, and sincere, even if unwelcome, expressions of sexual interest. Everything is said to be on a continuum of abuse: a stray hand is always a disgusting grope, never a tentative gesture that might even lead to a relationship. On one level, this is a typical media feeding frenzy, with trivial accusations suddenly rendered newsworthy by the wider story, but when the wilder social media-driven silliness dies down, we will be left with some tougher questions underlying the controversy, particularly around the issues of consent and indeed desire.

Whether or not Weinstein turns out to be guilty of rape, there is little doubt that he and men like him have for a long time been guilty of sexual misconduct that falls short of rape. Much is made of the power they wield to make or break careers, but there is an important difference between professional or financial pressure and coercion through violence or the threat of violence.

Actress and writer Brit Marling writes how she was able to walk away from an carefully engineered encounter with Weinstein when she realised what he was up to. She felt able partly because she had already achieved a measure of success, but she is also sympathetic to the women who did not walk away, who chose not to because of what she calls ‘the economics of consent’: the fact that their careers may have been on the line. Of course, gatekeepers like Weinstein only hold power over women to the extent that these women aspire to advance in the industry, but that aspiration is not so capricious or vain that we should deny the reality of the gatekeepers’ power. Many of these women will already have invested considerable time and effort on their careers. Not walking away is a decision, but not one that absolves the abuser of blame.

In any case, no doubt some men are particularly skilled in manipulating such situations to nudge women into doing what they want, above all perhaps by making it seem normal. In That Existential Leap: a crime story, DCI Alexander’s ‘occult crimes unit’ is faced with a series of alleged rape cases that seem to fall short of the legal definition. The ‘victims’ have no memory of consenting to have sex with a man who approached them in the street, but nor is there any evidence of coercion. He holds no social or professional power over them; he just seems to have mesmerised them somehow, earning the tabloid nickname of Svengali, which is why the case comes to the occult unit.

Alexander is convinced Svengali is guilty, but struggles to articulate how exactly in terms of criminal law. His psychological profiler DI Knox feels the same: ‘Knox was convinced that [the suspect] considered himself guilty but untouchable, and she feared he was right. Whatever part the women had had in what happened, he had set out to “have” them, and not in a nice way. He was laughing at them. Knox shrugged. She knew that Alexander wanted to charge the man, but neither believed they could make the case. “There’s no law against being a shit,” Knox said.’

Not everyone shares even their moral indignation, however. Maybe the so-called rapes were really just cases of regretted seduction. Alexander is accused by one observer of having ‘a horror of persuasion’. After all, consent is a formal, binary way of describing something that can be quite fluid. Campaigners quite rightly insist that it can be withdrawn at any time. But the opposite is also true. People change their minds; people have their minds changed, and not always by Mr Right. And such changes of mind are not necessarily expressed verbally. Being immersed in the occult, Alexander thinks of vampire lore.

‘Vampires needed an invitation to enter someone’s home, precisely the formal, explicit declaration of consent that the rapist had done without, that millions of non-rapists do without every day. Indeed, it seemed to Alexander that the whole notion of consent was better suited to the fictional world of vampires than the real world of human affairs, where ‘consent’ is hardly sufficient anyway (‘And you’re just going to lie there?’). If vampires were real, they’d be up in court every day while lawyers debated the legal status of disputed invitations. The law was only good for the minority of cases in real life where there was unequivocal violence or the clear threat of it, making the absence of consent explicit. This left the great bulk of human affairs untouched.’

We tend to talk about consent as if it were always a state of mind that is settled and stable. A person either wants to do something or does not. This notion has a simplicity that in some ways is quite appealing. It appeals not only to a certain type of feminist, but also to a certain type of young man. One who blunders up to a girl he likes, awkwardly asks her out, and having received a polite ‘no’, toodles happily off on his skateboard, content in the knowledge that at least he asked, and it just wasn’t to be. At some point later, though, perhaps he will learn the awful truth: that it isn’t always as simple as that.

maxresdefaultStill from Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Sometimes it’s true that a ‘no’ was always going to have been a ‘no’. But in another case, perhaps if he’d made a little more effort, turned on the charm – remembered to smile at least! – the answer might have been a tentative ‘yes’. It matters how you ask, that you ask. The ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is not an objective fact waiting to be discovered, but a response to his particular approach.

Armed with this knowledge, the young man might go on to become a successful womaniser. Or he might turn bitterly resentful, like another rapist who tells DCI Alexander that women are fickle like animals and don’t deserve a gentleman like him. Or he might figure out that it’s up to him to take a degree of responsibility for the impression he makes on women, and men for that matter.

It’s possible that some of the incidents surfacing as part of the current kerfuffle are the result of sheer cluelessness on the part of the men involved. If a much older, married man propositions a young colleague, he is effectively saying, ‘I’m not really interested in you as a person with a life of her own to think about, but you seem like the kind of woman who might be sufficiently awed by my status to agree to be my bit on the side in return for the vague promise of professional advance.’ Maybe she is, but if not, she would not have to be some kind of Victorian prude to feel insulted. And if she discounts the possibility that he actually believed she might be interested – it might seem incredible to her – his proposition will seem a calculated insult.

Indeed, in other cases, it seems that the men accused were under no illusion that their advances would be welcome. Some men seem to get a kick out of sexually embarrassing women. Sexual comments can be calculated to make someone feel uncomfortable, while unwanted touching often seems to be an assertion of power, an attempt to humiliate, rather than a genuine sexual overture. In fact, it is not nearly as widely acknowledged as it ought to be that men who commit rape and sexual assault deprive themselves of one of the things everyone else values most about sex: the feeling of being wanted. And even consent, bought or bargained for, is no substitute for desire.

This underpins the moral distinction between abusing someone sexually and trying to seduce them, however clumsily or annoyingly. Sex, as most of us understand it, is not something that can be taken by force. Whatever thrill someone gets from slobbering over an unwilling victim is not properly sexual at all, because he is not engaging with her as another person with desires of her own, except to violate them. By contrast, even the most promiscuous Casanova wants his ‘conquests’ to be more than physical. He wants them to like him, even if only superficially. And most of us want to be liked for who we really are.

So we should recognise that there is something fundamentally weird about men who sexually abuse women. They are not just further along a continuum from other men who ogle women’s bodies, flirt recklessly or try it on after a few drinks. All of those things can be embarrassing, insulting, plain wrong, but within reasonable limits they are of a species with the innocent, joyful human interactions that make the world go round.

That Existential Leap does in fact feature a relationship that begins with eyes meeting across a crowded room, but even that takes quite a lot of ironing out as the story progresses. Most relationships do not begin with two people equally enamoured of the other, hurtling in complete concord into bed and beyond. (Many that do start that way do not last the distance.) More often there is a degree of unspoken negotiation as the two parties size one another up. Perhaps even a pursuit, as one tries to impress the other, who then enjoys, allows or tolerates the dance, while deciding what she or he thinks and feels. This can happen in minutes or over years. People are strange.

What should be clear is that the legal notion of consent does not correspond precisely with desire. The rapey cliché, ‘You know you want it,’ is actually irrelevant. Even if a victim is attracted to an attacker, physically aroused, it is their deliberately willed refusal of consent that makes the attack rape. Conversely, someone who consents to sex while unsure deep down exactly how they feel about the other person consents nonetheless. (Unless of course they are underage – the statutory rape law recognises the vulnerability of children and implicitly affirms the responsibility of adults.)

Of course, romantic pursuit can be taken too far, and can be experienced as harassment by the person on the receiving end. But I suspect truly nasty harassment begins when the perpetrator has given up on winning someone (or anyone) round, on being liked. It expresses resentment and spite rather than lust. Feminists often make the point that sexual abuse is not about sex but about power. But it sometimes seems this has become an empty cliché. What does it actually mean? Harassing someone does not give you power you didn’t already have, so power does not replace sexual gratification as a motive. Instead, abusers get some kind of gratification from exercising power, from subjecting others to themselves. This is recognisable human behaviour, but it is not such natural and unremarkable behaviour that it can be taken for granted like sexual desire. It is recognisable as cruelty.

In the absence of cruelty, an unwanted sexual advance, however ill-judged or even reprehensible, is fundamentally different from sexual abuse. Sadly, the conflation of potentially unwanted advances with abusive behaviour in Hollywood and Westminster seems even more pronounced in the discussion about an alleged ‘rape culture’ at universities. Indeed, even successful sexual advances are now called into question. Calls for consent lessons seem to rest on an assumption that young people are raping one another unwittingly, out of ordinary lust rather than spite. They are apparently committing rape without even noticing that the other party – who may be participating rapturously – is not in fact consenting. People have to be taught a new sexual etiquette in which such distinctions replace what used to be common sense.

Some have suggested we are seeing a new puritanism, but that’s not quite right. Nobody is arguing for a return to traditional sexual mores. According to the new etiquette, there is nothing wrong with promiscuous sex, while preferences and kinks of all kinds are absolutely fine. If anything, suggesting otherwise is taboo. But the new libertinism is charged with a moralism of procedure rather than conduct. Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, deliberately and without shame.

Indeed, the new libertinism implicitly rules out one traditional reason for withholding consent regardless of burning desire, namely a concern for reputation or propriety. And probably this is where much of the negotiation or pursuit actually takes place. Flirtation can be about establishing trustworthiness as much as desirability, putting someone at ease with the escalation of intimacy. It is about dispelling natural wariness and making both parties feel good about taking the next step. Svengali seems somehow to have cruelly short-circuited this process, which is why his victims felt violated afterwards.

The conflation of pursuit with harassment also recasts tentative submission as victimisation. But in reality people often yield to someone’s advances somewhat passively – or in Sartre’s famous example, a woman might pretend not to notice her date has taken her hand in his – perhaps because they haven’t made up their mind, perhaps because they rather enjoy being pursued without having to state loudly and clearly that they hereby enthusiastically consent to whatever happens next. Sartre called it bad faith, but nobody can be an existential hero all the time.

In That Existential Leap, DCI Alexander also has to contend with an NGO that seizes on the Svengali case to further its campaign for a new kind of sex education in schools, aimed at transforming what they see as a toxic sexual culture. ‘For too long we have allowed our schools to serve as training camps for sex offenders, institutionalising the notion that sex is about conquest and submission,’ they write, clearly favouring the ‘enthusiastic consent’ model of transparent and supercharged equilibrium of desire. But this is a caricature of human sexuality, or at least just one part of a rich spectrum, neither end of which has anything to do with rape.

Romantic pursuit happens in the space between consent and desire – respecting the former while appealing to the latter – and for as long as the person being pursued goes along with it, it gives them space and time to clarify and evolve their own feelings. True, it often involves literal and metaphorical lunges that can be badly misjudged and cause discomfort and awkwardness, but it is a valuable, even essential part of human culture.

Sexual harassment and abuse is something else. It isn’t about overactive sex drives. It isn’t a misjudged attempt at seduction. It is a kind of cruelty. So it is right that we challenge it, and especially that we have protocols to prevent people from abusing positions of authority to inflict themselves on those who can’t easily walk away.

But we cannot and should not try to protect people from the embarrassment that comes from unwanted but sincere sexual advances, even from people who should know better. Nor should we see anything sinister in the idea of sexual pursuit and seduction. It is part of what makes us human, precisely because it has so little to do with animal impulses or vampire-like predation.

Buy That Existential Leap: a crime story.