Opinion: "If we are serious about addressing the issues of consent then we require more than cheap gimmicks and harsh rules"

A recent incident where a student in an Irish university proposed a consent app as a remedy for our current predicament drew the ire of its populace. Yet is this proposed app much different from the consent contracts often touted as the future of consensual sexual relations? However, consent is not something that we can address in these ways, but only through proper education and a radical refocus on what binds a society together, its shared social norms and ethics.

We all recognise that sexuality is an informal social interaction that involves trust and intimacy. Different genders all take part in an elaborate interplay that involves intricate subtleties and niceties. Therefore, female emancipation is something inherently galling for Conservatives of all kinds, across the religious and political spectrum, from the prude who dictates what women should wear to the bigot who designates those females as "promiscuous".

The success of 20th century feminism was its popularisation of the idea that respect for women must also involve them having the latitude to engage in "promiscuity" in the same way as men i.e. without censure. Yet the realisation of these dreams are looking increasingly unlikely in our societies, both due to the actions of men and the drive to counter this by codifying desire into contracts of consent.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, a discussion on consent with former Irish football international and TV pundit Richie Sadlier, who is now a psychotherapist teaching sexual health and issues like consent to teenagers

Manipulations and misunderstandings undoubtedly contaminate every organic intimacy, but this seems unfortunately inherent to the whole awkward process. However, in our ostensibly permissive world, perhaps the best portrayal of the capitalist nightmare we occupy is the contract Ana Steele and Christian Grey sign in Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel and movie franchise that critics touted as a progressive advance for women.

Neo-liberalism and brutality become bedfellows here, with neoliberalism reducing love to an ugly transaction that inevitably necessitates horse-trading about what activities are exchangeable, and at what price. The paradox of PC culture is that its zenith is these degrading agreements. Here we can see the insanity of capitalist logic, where the dated idea of parties being "of the one mind" about their obligations sees abject degradation become total liberation. In this ill-fated liaison between de Sade and Kant, sexual deviance becomes moral imperative. Although this seems an odd analogy, it illustrates the messages our cultural forms dictate.

What a consent app or contract seeks to achieve is to prevent the manipulation or abuse of people without their consent by drafting agreements beforehand. Each party defines the terms of engagement, as well as any particulars that they might care to mention.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke show, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's Noeline Blackwell on sexual consent classes

Yet despite the positive goal of these, several flaws are present from the moment each party conceives them. The current definition of consent entitles either partner to disengage spontaneously, and although this is an essential guarantee, it creates situations where a person can mercilessly ridicule and degrade another with impunity at their most emotionally vulnerable. The only avoidance of such situations is through human empathy and politeness, which are social, rather than legal phenomenon. It is difficult to prevent consensual issues with consent apps, as when you do so you turn what is essentially a socially motivated interaction into a crass and base exercise in commerce.

Will such an app have the force of law? Without it, no deterrent exists for those whom it should protect against, who can negate it by merely playing along and then exceeding its mandate. If it was given official legitimacy, the courts would probably be inundated with innumerable claims. Here it is crucial to iterate that popular feminist activism was not, as many believe, 'too radical' in this regard in outing those who have been acting improperly, but merely in the way that some quarters have perceived the problem itself.

These groups have irreparably mystified, in their oversimplification of the social complexity of intimacy, the gulf that separates despicable behaviour from crime. It similarly obfuscates the difficult to notice, but powerfully traumatic abuse that occurs behind closed doors, which people inflict in an outwardly respectable and imperceptible manner.

Social norms do not have legal consequences for their breach, as those around you demand a basic level of conduct

However, there is a takeaway that we all must grasp in this regard. Although emotions can often inspire and guide us, they can equally steer us in the wrong direction on occasion. The proposed consent app is a case in point here. It is clearly a product of fear, but also of hegemonic ideology, where those in power are more concerned with their good name than the plight of victims.

Cracks are beginning to emerge in this ideology: in a total misogynistic hegemony, such an app would not have raised an eyebrow. In that previous world, women would not even perceive their situation as being disadvantageous, they would see themselves as already 'equal', and would merely perceive their oppression as unchangeable. However,, we cannot return to that point in the past. Things have changed, the illusion is broken and people are now beginning to see thing the world the way it truly is.

This hegemonic order was not only bad for women, but it was also bad for men. Remember the often-recited line of Arthur Koestler: "If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways." The way to escape our unfortunate predicament is to listen to the fear that men have, whilst looking for some common ground that unites masculine trepidation, as well as the feminine quest for true equality. This can occur in surprising contexts, since most of the masculine prejudice directed against feminine gains today are irrational attempts to recapture an already castrated dominance, making it imperative to the progress of equality that we illustrate how true feminine freedom will actually make masculine subsistence far better.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, the Law Reform Commission's Tom O'Malley on their call for submissions relating to consent laws

A consent app is not only dubious in its substance, but also in the way its style distracts from its inherent nature. It is something that is designed for hook-ups involving people that are not really intimate in the true sense of the word, but merely seek to prevent their actions from being "misconstrued".

Consider however, those intimacies that are more permanent, and how we infect them with manipulations. We cannot turn to technology or legal statutes when the answer lies in ethics. But should we not resign these debates to the philosophy class? What role is there for these topics today? Well, ethics are fundamental, it constitutes the air we breathe, and divorces culture from savagery.

Today, in our time of open political obscenity, it is worth taking stock of how we reached this point. In the past, such displays were characteristic of the effervescent counterculture that predated Reagan and Thatcher. There, an egalitarian sentiment sought to identify with "ordinary people". Nowadays, we have an alt-right and its opposite, which wishes to stand for ethical and honourable speech. Yet behaving in a virtuous way does not entail compulsion or sanction. Social norms do not have legal consequences for their breach, as those around you demand a basic level of conduct. PC culture and consent apps cannot therefore assist us in this regard, as what is needed is moral action.

READ: A question of consent

READ: Why consent needs to be an everyday conversation

READ: 'Our approach to sex education is obsolete and inadequate'

Ultimately, it is ironic that the proposal for such a consent app should emanate from within the student populace of an educational institution. If we are serious about addressing the issues of consent on our campuses then we require more than cheap gimmicks and harsh rules. Education is a start, but it is also worth asking if we are placing enough stock in ethics and our shared social norms. Rudeness has now become commonplace and monsters can be born in such a situation.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ