A talk on pleasure, consent, and nationalism given at St. Stephen’s College and published at Feministing.
There are some scary things happening in the world. In the United States, Donald Trump continues to spew fascist garbage, while simultaneously snatching up states like kids getting candy at an Easter egg hunt. Here in India, where I’m living, the right-wing government has recently escalated state action against activists and dissenters of all types, imprisoning student activists for supposed “anti-national” activities.
What is our role as feminists in all this? And as a theorist of consent, I’ve got to ask: What is the role of sex?
I’m starting with these political issues not only because these are deeply, deeply important in and of themselves, but because as people who study gender, as feminists, as people who care about gender justice and not only gender justice but the way gender justice intersects with everything — with class injustice, with caste injustice, with justice for queer people, with imperialism, with militarism — we ask a lot of questions that challenge the established order of things, that challenge power, that should challenge power — questions that those in power do not always want us to ask.
And we should be asking these questions and we need to be asking these questions of political, social, and moral regimes that are based on hierarchy and on oppression.
There are a lot of people who don’t want us to talk about this topic: Sexual consent and sexual pleasure. Not only consent and pleasure, but sexual consent and sexual pleasure and their relationship to social justice.
Because we are, as intellectuals, as feminists, as activists and thinkers, and yeah, as young people who think critically about sex, as women who think critically about sex, as women who maybe even have sex and like sex, as women who want to decide when and with whom we have sex — we are up against people who find us threatening.
Our assertion of our right to consent — or not consent — to sex, our assertion of our right to enjoy sex — our assertion of our right to a life not only free of egregious violence like rape, but a life of profound equity — this goes exactly against the right-wing ideologies whose conception of nation depends on specific, oppressive conceptualizations of gender.
That depend on the idea of Woman, capital-W Woman, and not women — the real, breathing, glorious, questioning, protesting, farting people sitting reading this piece.
So I want to build toward the idea of female sexual agency and pleasure as ends in and of themselves, but also as tools in broad-based movements against oppression.
We can start by walking through some critiques of the limits of consent-based frameworks a number ofFeministing writers have undertaken recently, and then we can expand to the question of how pleasure contributes to movements.
Expanding Consent in the Contemporary American Anti-Sexual Assault Movement
The American anti-sexual assault student movement has included not only pushing for more campus and legal remedies for sexual assault survivors, and for cultural change and education, but also for a reconceptualization of how we think about consent.
This comes in the form of affirmative consent, or the “yes-means-yes” framework, which has been around for a long time but has really been promoted in the recent string of activism.
So, first let’s talk, for the zillionth time, about sexual consent. Consent is the radical idea that sex ought to be chosen. Not prescribed, not forced, not coerced, not persuaded, not mandated because of someone’s social position, but chosen.
Consent also comes with a whole set of propositions about power and sex, and the ethics of sex. Most radical among these is the idea that sex is not something that one must simply accept or decline based on who one is — just because one is a woman doesn’t mean that one must be sexually available to men, or just because one is a woman does not mean that one must not be sexually available to men.
This is really important, but I don’t think it goes far enough.
Because first, we need to think about consent as something that is structural. We need to understand sexual consent not as a simple yes/no answer — even an enthusiastic yes — but as a power relation structured by other power relations in society.
We need to understand that power is complicated; that one must look at an entire social system to understand coercion; that women often have limited choices within diverse patriarchies and that we also need to look at social pressures that coerce.
At the same time, we can’t deny people dignity. So we can understand, for example, a married woman having sex even if she doesn’t want to with a husband she financially depends on not as “oh that poor woman it must necessarily be rape” and not as “well it’s okay because she said yes to it” but as a complex and above all else structural power relation that is produced by a fundamental unfreedom that permeates society on a number of different levels.
We also need to wonder if it’s enough for the goals of our sexual politics to be that we are not-raped.
Because the goal of social justice struggles shouldn’t just be that people don’t live lives of violence. The goal should be that people live lives of dignity, that people have access to the resources, cultural, material, political, to live rich lives.
As Maya said, “I don’t want us to ever lose sight of the fact that consent is not the goal. Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”
We can’t just talk about sexual consent, we also need to also talk about pleasure.
People often ignore the question of pleasure. On one hand, the right finds the question of pleasure threatening. On the other hand, the left often finds the question of pleasure frivolous. People are dying in the streets, they say, and you’re worried about getting off?
But we need to seriously consider the role of pleasure, not only because we need to have a sexual politics more ambitious than simply not being raped, not only because we want to be having sex that is free of small violences, unfulfillments boredoms and inadequacies —but also because I think pleasure can lead us to questions of relationality, questions of love, questions of solidarity and comradeship and in general what it means to be in struggle together, what it means to devote oneself to other human beings.
Why are pleasure and consent threatening to power?
A number of right-wing ideologies the world over — in different but conceptually related ways in contemporary India and the United States as well–depend on the idea of this nonexistent capital-W Woman as docile, as “pure” (according to whose standard of purity I don’t know) as receptacle and figurehead, whose sexuality can be controlled, regulated by marriage and by males.
This is true in India, in a country where, for example, once you get married you apparently give up your right to consent. Or in the United states, where right-wing legislators have made it virtually impossible for women, and particularly poor women, and particularly poor women in rural areas, to access abortion.
The notion of consent is dangerous to these regimes.
Consent is threatening to these social orders because when we demand our right to consent or not consent to sex, we threaten to disrupt a social order that depends on our complicity, our docility, as mothers, daughters, wives, and servants of the state.
We could choose to not have babies, and then what would happen to the future of our nations? Or we could have intercaste, interclass, interreligious, interracial babies that would challenge racist notions of purity.
For the same reason, pleasure is threatening.
Female pleasure is threatening to conservative regimes because it is non-reproductive, because it is not fundamental to reproducing the nation or the race or whatever category of purity thrust upon us.
Female pleasure also threatens with its uniqueness, its individuality, its unpredictability and lack of regimentation — all expressions of human joy that fascisms of various kinds, fundamentalisms of various kinds, find threatening.
So what we’re up against are right-wings that find the idea of women refusing sex, women choosing sex with the “wrong” people, or women enjoying sex as dangerous.
A friend of mine, Kamayani Sharma, an art writer and researcher, summed up this threat pretty well in a Facebook post following the 2014 Kiss of Love protests, in which young people kissed in the city streets to protest against right-wing gender strictures:
“Love’s dangerous, mysterious force lies in its quiet redistribution of power,” she wrote. “Our appetitive lust for freedom and friendship threatens to swallow the State whole.”
The co-optation of sexual pleasure and consent by neoliberalism
But it’s not enough to merely say that expressing of our sexual agency is radical and threatening to power. We need to understand exactly how female sexual pleasure is considered threatening in specific contexts.
And we need to be very, very critical in understanding how feminist discourses to reclaim female sexual pleasure can actually be co-opted by neoliberal regimes. How, if we’re not careful, the forces of capitalism will commodify our pleasure, turning pleasure into another object of the elite and disrupting the radical potential of pleasure — if conceptualized and implemented inclusively — to, as my friend Kamayani said, “redistribute power.”
How can we can prevent the cooptation of our pleasure in capitalism, and how can we weaponize our pleasure as a tool for social justice not just for ourselves, but for all of the struggles to which we must be connected?
I’ve told you about some of the ways in which the American right wing finds female sexual agency threatening. But since the second wave feminist movement in the United States, we’ve also seen a cooptation of feminist discourse by capitalist forces to commodify sexual pleasure, thereby diverting its radical potential into the neoliberal market economy — and diverting us from connecting sexual pleasure to broader struggles against racism, gender and sexual oppression, and capitalism.
We’ve seen, for example, in the past thirty or so years in the United States, with the rise of third wave sex-positive feminism, the commodification of female sexual liberation in ways that reiterate female oppression and male dominance, and in ways that reiterate racial and socioeconomic injustice.
To understand how this might work, we can take the very simplistic example of the production of sex toys — which is a literal commodification of the means of sexual pleasure.
There are a lot of radical producers of sex toys who are committed to economic justice, but there are also a lot of producers who don’t give a shit. If you’re a person with some disposable income, you can go to the store and buy a fancy vibrator and give yourself orgasms all the livelong day and feel sexually liberated.
And meanwhile, you’re
not necessarily thinking: Who made this vibrator? Who sold me this vibrator? What are the markets through which this is all operating? Who is my desire for orgasms potentially hurting?
We can see this mobilization of female sexual pleasure in the marketing of everything from magazines to mascara. We can also see it mobilized in an excuse to ignore female consent and agency — by men who pressure women to have sex, for example, by saying, come on, aren’t you so hip and chill?
We can see this in the contemporary American queer movement as well, which in the past fifteen or so years has become startlingly corporate.
If you walk down the street at New York City Pride, you know what signs are among the biggest? Home decorating stores. Home decorating stores have a field day during Pride. They are all about the homosexuals. They are just shouting their love for queers as loud as they possibly can.
Because, to be crass about it: Rich gays tend to like interior decorating.
Is that liberation for queers? I don’t know. It’s normalization, it’s mainstream-i-zation.
But for the underpaid queer kid working unforgiving hours for minimum wage in that very same furniture store? That pride sign is not necessarily liberating.
The Indian context is complicated and much different from the American context, because here you do still have Section 377, you do still have sexual cultures that penalize women for sexual self-expression in a form and to an extent we don’t see in the contemporary United States.
But I want to make one suggestion. Did anyone see that ad that came out on the Indian Internet this past summer, the long pretty video of the two pretty femme lesbians about to meet the one’s parents? Everyone was really excited about it.
It was exciting. It was a lovely ad. Representation is really exciting, and it was a sensitive and realistic representation of a kind of experience that is so often misrepresented, so often marginalized.
But also, clothing companies don’t exist to liberate queer people- they exist to sell clothes. The ad was trying to sell us clothes. Who made those clothes? Who profits from them?
Toward a radical politics of pleasure
Okay — so how do we fight this? How do we not surrender pleasure to either the right wing or to the market forces? How do we maintain that the richness of human experience is in and of itself significant? How do we insist upon the validity of feeling in the face of patriarchal logic that would dismiss female pleasure as unimportant?
We have been hearing gender and sexuality, gender and sex, sex and pleasure thrown around a lot lately in the debates on JNU. We’ve heard that JNU students dance naked in the evenings. If this is happening, I am miffed that I am not being invited.
We have heard from conservative political leaders that, supposedly in a day, JNU students go through 3,000 condoms. If people are using this many condoms, I wonder why I am not getting any action.
Why these allegations? Why does it seem, to this conservative logic, that anti-nationalism and sexual liberation, sexual “excess” go together? Why the equivalency between dissent and sexual liberation?
I think we can look to the rhetorics of love, the rhetorics of desire and pleasure, that we’ve seen surface around nationalism: The idea, for example, that the country can be personified as someone you should love.
The real danger that sexual pleasure can pose to conservative regimes is that if we are busy loving each other — if we are busy directing our passion and our energy and our pleasure toward our comrades, toward those we are in political solidarity with, toward people we don’t even know — if we are busy loving the basic human dignity of those we are supposed to be oppressing — then we can’t direct our energy toward loving abstract value systems, like nationalism, or racial supremacy, or class supremacy.
The JNU protests have been amazing not only in their fight for the freedom to dissent and their broader reclamation of student activism for the marginalized against the fascism of the elite — but they’ve also revealed to me the power of radical togetherness.
Stepping onto JNU’s campus for the first time two years ago felt like falling in love. In late August all the flowers are blooming and the light bends through the jungle at four, five in the afternoon. The feeling of being in comradeship with other people, in solidarity with other people, swells like the heat: Talking about cinema all afternoon, sipping chai and talking about politics all afternoon, making dinner, making love.
What I felt then and what I feel now, increasingly over the past few weeks of protest, is a feeling of friendship, a feeling of solidarity, a feeling of pleasure that transcends national boundaries.
As Umar Khalid, one of the sedition-accused JNU student activists, said in a speech last week: “Anti-nationals
of the world unite. Our love for the people knows no boundaries, knows no borders.”
Consent and pleasure are about sex, and sex is important in and of itself. But consent and pleasure are also about friendship. They are also more broadly about how women asserting our right to love and queer people asserting our right to love can rearrange our political commitments.
This is why people opposed to religious, racial, caste, socioeconomic equality get so nervous when people from different backgrounds love each other — because once you love someone who you are in a power relationship of oppression or privilege with due to some social structure, you begin to throw your own lot in with people besides yourself. That’s threatening to power structures that like to divide-and-conquer people into little groups.
Relationships are hard, friendship is hard, solidarity is hard, and the project of loving across power positions is very fraught.
But we need to retain our hope that our pleasure in each other’s sex, our pleasure in each other’s love, our pleasure in each others’ company, can be chosen.
And it can be chosen in ways that are not dictated by our social positions or by the logics of capitalism.
When I think of the radical potential of pleasure I think most of all of sipping tea in the afternoon with friends, and how that pleasure in each other’s company, each other’s conversation, each other’s love, is itself an act of identification that perhaps has the power to re-align our governments.
The cover photo is a movie poster from Mother India, a 1957 film about a woman whose virtuous struggle against poverty is often equated with the ideal Indian women. “Mother India” itself is a rhetorical image of the nation as a woman. It’s an image and a kind of rhetoric that those in the student movement have been using a lot to protest, among other things, the equation of national identity and “correct” female behavior.