Feminist philosopher Manon Garcia argues that consent is not only a highly imperfect legal threshold but also an underappreciated complement of good sex.
Author - Editorial Staff
Date - 21 November 2023
Time to read - 7 min
A conversation with Manon Garcia, adapted from an interview with the Converging Dialogues podcast.
How do the French and American views of sex influence your work?
I grew up in France, but my work in the United States has shaped my way of doing philosophy. It’s in this divided persona—between my French personality and my American way of life—that sexual consent became so interesting to me. It is a very specific point on which French and Americans don’t understand each other.
French people think Americans are annoying with their focus on sexual consent. They see it as proof that Americans are just bad at sex. Americans think the French should be more concerned about sexual consent. They may admire the French art of love, but they’re also concerned about the French way of having affairs or talking about sex all the time.
What is consent and, more specifically, sexual consent?
Sexual policies on American campuses influence the way we understand consent in the U.S., giving us two ways to think about it: There’s “no means no,” which means if you say “no” to someone who wants to have sex with you, you don’t want to have sex with them. There’s also a new-ish approach—around since the 1980s—called “affirmative consent,” in which only “yes” means yes. That means we consider sexual consent as being okay with having sex with someone who wants to have sex with you. But what does “being okay with having sex with someone” really mean? It also assumes that consent is something that matters mostly in heterosexual relationships and needs to be given by women.
We have this hypothesis that men always want sex, and women must stop them. And so we think about sexual consent as how to stop the guy. But it’s so much more complicated than that. It doesn’t lead to good sex, and it fails to prevent sexual violence. It can even create scenarios encouraging sexual violence.
To help us think about the issue, we can consider other ways we offer consent in our lives. A basic form of consent happens when we use our computer or phone. Every time we visit a website, we are asked if we consent to its cookies. If you configure a new iPhone, you must consent to Apple's policy. So, we keep consenting, and we think consent is a contract. But if we start comparing sexual consent to ticking the Apple policy box, we’re completely wrong about what's going on.
We need to stop thinking about sexual consent only in legal terms and approach it as a moral problem. How do we have sex with each other? How do we agree to have sex with each other? So that’s the first thing. Then, even if we were to have a legal perspective, we don’t consider it an actual contract. We don’t tell someone we want to have sex with, “Okay, I’m going to give you sex, and in exchange, you're going to give me something else,” or “I promise I’m going to give you sex every Friday.”
This is what a contract is, right? A contract is writing down a promise. You can’t tell someone, “Well, you told me three days ago you would be game, and now you don’t want to have sex anymore.” When we think about sexual consent and law, we’re focused on crime, not contracts. How do we determine if a crime took place? It really has nothing to do with a contract; it has to do with whether someone was violated.
It might be the case that someday we’ll live in a world in which having sex with someone is exactly like going to a restaurant or a hike with a person. But for the time being, we live in a world in which sex is given a very specific meaning about intimacy, vulnerability, and our intrinsic value. And so consenting to have sex with someone puts us in a completely different place than consenting to lend our bike to someone. It might go really wrong, or it might go life-changingly well. And so, how do we think about this experience that can give us a lot of joy and pleasure but also really destroy us?
How do you look at this distinction between legal and moral consent and sexual relations between two people?
The way I see it, all legal rules come from moral considerations. We’re defining what is legal and illegal based on what we think is right and wrong. There is always a moral background to our legal categories, but what is interesting about our legal considerations of sexual consent is that we think about consent as the thing that says if it’s good sex or if it’s rape. And so we have this binary, simplistic view that there are two categories of sex: rape and sex, period. Many people define rape by saying it’s sex minus consent. But this is such a terrible way of defining sex.
I think the problem is that, of course, we want the law to be able to decide who goes to prison and who doesn’t, right? But it leads us to think that sex is either consented to, and in that case it’s great, or it's not consented to, and in that case, it’s rape. This is such a flattening of our thinking about what constitutes good sex and about what kind of sex lives we want to have. And it tells us, well, if you’re okay with the sex you’re having, then there’s nothing to say about it. But we all know that we can agree to sex, and it can really suck. And so, the question is, how do we have a better, more subtle moral evaluation that is not flattened by this illegal apprehension of sexual consent?
In our society, there are always other people in the room when two people are having sex, including the power relations that have nothing to do with those two specific people. For instance, if you’re a black guy in the U.S. and you’re about to hook up with a white woman, you should be very careful because if she says you didn't respect her consent, you will likely go straight to jail. And so there are all these vulnerabilities, all these power relations that are happening in the bedroom (assuming sex is being had in the bedroom), and our way of thinking about sex with this legal prospect completely misses the power dynamics.
How do we have better sex?
I think the biggest issue with sex is the problem of literacy. We don't know how to talk about sex. We’re not taught how to talk about it or how to think about what we want sexually. It’s very striking, especially for young people who may never have a conversation with parents or grownups who tell them, well, sex is complicated; sex is messy, but there are many reasons why you may want or not want to have sex.
The reality is that sex is a part of who we are. It’s a part of how we interact with others. It’s how we know our body and what we want in life. And only by having sex do we understand what we want from sex—what we like and don’t like. Talking to the people we’re having sex with—and ourselves—about what we think is going on helps us get better at sex. We hear what others want from sex and know what we want from sex ourselves.
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