Commentary  A totally consensual society would have perverse consequences

Re: “There is an alternative” | Commentary | January 13

I was reminded in reading this article of a set piece in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. The U.S. government of the near future has erected signposts at all entrances and exits to and from the country that declare the reader is entering into a legal obligation by virtue of reading the sign: “By Reading This You Are Implying Consent.” Certainly it’s an absurd example, but in taking the logic of implied consent to its culmination, the ridiculous structure that underlies it is made evident. Implied consent is obviously a mechanism of state control/power, but it is also more and less than that, especially when considered in the romantic sphere, for instance.

Is a “consensual society” one in which people legalistically request sexual favours from their partners? Doesn’t the perceived need to verbalize desire speak to an original lack of understanding and intimacy (as in, if the lovers were truly close there would be no need to ask) or the weakness of the desire (if you really desired your lover, you would not hesitate by asking)? Another question: isn’t the verbalization itself simply the liberal-left inversion of the totalitarian logic of implied consent? Doesn’t such a declaration in essence say, “By hearing this request you are obliged to make a judgment about my sexual desirability?” One could of course argue that the request need not be made; one after all makes it out of choice, and the resulting judgment is one’s lot. But isn’t that exactly the kind of false choice this article derides?

Implied consent is not always a means of expressing power relations or state violence. When I assume my partner’s consent in kissing him or her, I assume that “no more need be said.” The action speaks for itself. Of course, excess is an inherent danger. I might make a mistake in my assumption of consent, either by assuming it where it isn’t, or by missing it where it is. The possibility of excess should not, however, lead us to dismiss one of the basic and fundamental structures of human relationships completely.

The move implied in the article, of one toward a society of consensual relationships, is severely misleading and obfuscatory, and could only result in a sort of pseudo-Lockean society in which love relationships (between parent and child, individual and community, lover and lover, et cetera) become no more than a “consensual” exchange of goods and services. The mother must “consent” to nurse her child, the individual must “consent” to taxation, et cetera. There are things one must do regardless of one’s consent, and there are things one may do regardless of others’ consent. Though it aims in the right direction, at the critique and limitation of state violence and power, the article ultimately takes part in the obscene obverse of what it criticizes.

Mathew Powes

U1 Arts

Letter received January 13