Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Is Consent After All?

This came from an assignment where I was supposed to say two pages worth of something interesting about a Foucault interview ("Politics and Ethics: An Interview" for those really interested). I don't know much about Hannah Arendt, but the interviewer asked Foucault about her theory of power compared to his. That part isn't all that interesting, just the very last part of his answer when, concerning power relations, he says “perhaps one must not be for consensuality, but one must be against nonconsensuality.” This is a response to Arendt's concept of consensual power, but I believe there are many questions that can be mined from it. How do we define consent? Is consent the presence of a “yes” or the absence of a “no”? This is a foundational question regarding the definition of consent that I believe is immediately difficult to answer.

If we take this question and turn to a topic Foucault was fond of, sex, we can complicate things even further. In the realm of sexual relations, how is consent obtained? Do the conditions under which it is obtained affect the nature of consent, or even whether consent exists at all? Does the presence of a “yes” with an understanding of a quid pro quo in some way diminish the “yes”?

“Honey I'd like to do x tonight.”
“Eww, I hate x.”
“Well if you let me do x tonight I'll let you do y tomorrow night.”
“OK that's fine.” 
From quid pro quo it is not a big jump to coercion. Is the absence of a “no” when obtained under coercion consent? “I don't know how much longer I can hold out baby.” Do threats, even if implicit, of leaving a relationship if sex is not consented to diminish the “amount” of consent when it is given? And from coercion it is not a large jump at all to exploitation. Can a 14 year old Greek boy truly give consent to a 28 year old man? Can a young girl in rural France consent to a “harmless” game of curdled milk? At what point does coercion become exploitation?

These are all questions that I believe would have been fascinating to hear Foucault address in the course of this interview. I believe they continue to be important today – possibly even more so. Given the amount of questionably consensual sex on college campuses, these questions are not merely exercises in theory – they are materially important. I think it is important, however, that in trying to answer them we do not lose sight of the specific in attempting to provide broad rules of conduct.

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