ConsentFest is Not Sexy
Issue   |   Wed, 03/23/2016 - 00:50

Trigger Warning: Rape

Last year, a prospective student asked the professor of my women’s studies class if she could sit in and watch for the day. My professor said no due to the nature of the topic, saying “if it were another topic, I would let you sit in.” That day, we discussed rape — rape as a manifestation of male domination over women and a result of the culture of objectification and commodification of female bodies. The critical analysis of rape within the complex power structures of racism, heterosexism and patriarchy was difficult yet brave.

The next day, Amherst sponsored a festival on the quad in front of Val. The event promised fun games and activities, free food and an opportunity to win a beach towel if one visited six or more booths. An onlooker from afar would never be able to guess what the festival was about until spotting the banner labeling the event, “ConsentFest.”

I actually received an email advertising a booth that would be “talking about how sexy consent can be!” as if consent is a recommendation and “something everyone should try!” Throughout the festival, students were asked to hold signs on which they wrote what they consider consent to be:

“Consent is sexy!”
“Consent is super awesome!”
“Everybody should get consent!”

This “consent is sexy” approach leaves consent as a goal to be reached rather than a question to be asked, to which the answer is to be respected. When consent is sexy, the goal is not to ask a question and to respect the answer but instead to gain one answer: “yes.” Consent does not need to be anything other than what it is: mandatory in order to proceed to a sexual experience with someone. Sex without consent isn’t “not sexy,” it’s rape.

The festival also featured descriptions of “what consent looks like” — an enthusiastic, clear and sober “Yes.” While this response is accurate, the focus on teaching people how to “recognize” consent or the lack of consent reduces rape to an issue of miscommunication rather than an issue of power. It is also quite patronizing. The difficulty in distinguishing between “yes” and “no” or body language that implies either is minimal. The issue is not simply that perpetrators lack the ability to recognize “yes” and “no”; it is often that perpetrators do not even ask, ask too late or recognize “no” but continue anyway. Perpetrators will hold their partner down, twist their arm, choke them, cover their mouths and ignore their partner’s demands to stop because they know that this act is not consensual. They will coerce, and, if unsuccessful, they will force. Rape culture and porn culture teach them that women’s bodies are objects, and invading them is sexually desirable. Rape is not an accident, it is violence.

Throwing a festival with fun games and prizes is not the answer. While the Peer Advocates address the broad definition and gravity of rape on campus in more comprehensive workshops like those during orientation, ConsentFest silences the ugliness of rape. All it does is show that this campus does not take rape seriously. As a survivor, that scares me. Am I not sexy because I did not give consent? Was what happened to me my fault because I was not clear enough when saying “no?” The result of activism not taking the issue seriously is its audience not taking it seriously either.

These events were created because of Amherst’s reputation of mishandling rape cases. Yet, these events continue to mishandle one of the most violent issues that at least one in four women will experience during their time in college. They ignore the patriarchal root of rape and the seriousness of the issue in order to make their events fun, and this fun-faux-feminism makes it sound like not raping people is a recommendation and not a demand. Awareness is good, but we must raise awareness in a way that does not ignore pain. I am tired of the discourse about rape that focuses on making the issue light and fun rather than the serious issue that is the reality. Let’s encourage a discourse similar to that of Amherst Uprising, one that does not even try to make the issue palatable. The people who need the issue to be made palatable are the problem.

This year, ConsentFest returns, and I won’t be going. Our culture is one in which women’s bodies are objects to be taken rather than vessels that carry human life. I want people to recognize that consent is not sexy and fun but mandatory because I am willing to bet that if the man who raped me were to come to ConsentFest, he would win a free tank top.

This post was updated on Feb. 7, 2018 to remove potentially identifying information.

Student (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/23/2016 - 02:19

Thank you for this well written piece. You are very brave.

'16 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/23/2016 - 08:29

Yess! This is so good and so true. Consent isn't sexy, its mandatory.

I feel similarly about the "Its on Us" campaign. Though this didn't try to hide the horror of rape as much as 'consent is sexy', it certainly did put the onus of responsibility for sexual assault on all the students, whereas many of the problems on this campus are due to the ADMINISTRATIVE mishandling of sexual assault.

Basically, all activism and consciousness-raising on this campus around sexual assault is neoliberal psuedofeminist crap.

Sophie (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/23/2016 - 09:22

Thank you Yeva for being so honest about this and I'm totally with you on this criticism.
I stay out of these conversations in the first place because it seems ridiculous to me that we actually are explaining to people that you can't violate someone's rights and that doing hurtful things to people is in fact a crime.
If this is the level we are lowering ourselves to, then maybe we should have festivals about not stabbing people as well where everyone that refrains from stabbing in a role play wins a T-Shirt.
Why is it so hard to understand that having sex when the other person doesn't want to is rape, period.

Charlotte (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/23/2016 - 10:42

I totally respect your opinion, but I think the distinction between the work the PAs are doing and Consentfest is unfair. The PAs address the issue of consent and rape from many different angles - I believe as a means of combating the spectrum that is sexual assault. Part of that spectrum is rape that occurs in relationships where one or both parties don't realize what consent should look like. I know personally, in my own relationship, the conversations that take place around Consentfest, specifically talking about consent in an empowering and normalizing way, enabled me to start speaking up. Without Consentfest, I would be in a relationship in which I didn't realize the necessity of consent, or what it could look like for me - which means vocalizing my wants and needs in a fun and, yes, sexy way. I don't think the goal of Consentfest is to comment on the ugliness of rape, but it isn't silencing it either. It's addressing a different aspect of the bigger picture, in which the goal is to create a culture of consent.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/23/2016 - 16:58

Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 00:44

I could not agree more! Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Mon, 04/18/2016 - 15:53

I understand what you're saying, and I absolutely agree that consent is first and foremost mandatory and we can never stress that point enough, but I think the "consent is sexy" approach has merit. Namely, because one of the reasons that rape culture thrives and that rape is often not recognized for what it is, is that there's a deeply-embedded construct according to which ambiguity, silent understanding, tacit seduction, is the epitome of sexiness and romance. That construct is disastrous for consent, because clearly asking "do you want to have sex?" is often considered to kill the mood and defuse sexual tension. We can agree that it's stupid, but it's there.
In that context, saying "consent is sexy" I think is a smart move, because it is an attempt to replace that construct with another one within which sexiness does not come from ambiguity, but from clear verbal communication. Whereas saying "consent is mandatory", while it is obviously right, leaves room for reluctance. In other words, "consent is mandatory" makes people establish consent because they HAVE TO, and maybe they'd rather not have consent if they're sure that they won't be punished. "Consent is sexy" makes them WANT TO establish consent (though they should clearly understand that, even when they don't feel like it, consent is mandatory). And people tend to do things they want to more consistently than things they have to. Which might lead in turn to rapes less numerous and consent more enthusiastically asked and more clearly given.