We often start out our Consent Crew workshops with a brainstorming session where we ask participants to complete the phrase, “Consent is ______.” Almost without fail, someone in the crowd says, “sexy.” Sometimes, this person is trying to get a reaction out of the group. Usually, this is one of the most common phrases about consent that person’s heard and it’s stuck with them.
You might wonder why it IS so catchy. It likely has to do with a marketing method called emotional branding. This builds brands using statements that directly appeal to the target audience’s emotional state, desires, and needs. Many of us have a strong desire to feel attractive or sexy, so, “consent is sexy” kinda makes sense. How? Maybe if we’re not getting consent (or giving consent), we’re not being sexy and that possible lack of sexiness or attractiveness can touch our fear and desire to belong triggers.
And that part, that sexy bit, is where the potential problem happens. “But,” I hear you say, “people repeat it! People remember it! People fill in the “consent is ______” with it! We should keep using it because it’s working, right?”
Except, it might be sending the wrong message.
The intent here is well-meaning enough. It attempts to shift the conversation from “don’t get raped” to “don’t rape.” It tries to bring attention to consent in a slightly salacious way. But, using that “consent is sexy” message can imply a few rather unfortunate things:
- Sex without consent is, well, just unsexy sex.
Except, sex without consent isn’t unsexy, it’s sexual assault.
Conversely, sex with consent isn’t always going to be sexy, either. Let’s face it, sex can be awkward (“you want me to put what where?”) and less than satisfying or super-exciting at times.
- Saying “no” to sex offered with consent makes someone unsexy.
“Oh, he/she/they asked to have sex and I’ve heard consent is sexy, so if I say no…”
Remember that emotional marketing thing I mentioned above? Yeah, that’s it. That’s where use of “consent is sexy” gets a little wobbly and makes me personally uncomfortable. Sometimes, being asked for consent doesn’t feel mutual if we think that the asker is operating on an “I asked if you’d have sex. If you say, yes, you’re even sexier,” kind of attitude. Seems rather, um, coerced, right?
- Consent is only needed during sex or sexy times.
Consent isn’t just about those encounters. Sure, it can feel empowering and sensual, and be part of amazing moments of connection, and a hell of a turn-on in times of mutual invitations to intimacy. But, it’s not just about sex.
Consent is about all times, and all interactions. From a cupcake offered to a friend, to a cup of tea, to a hug, to sweet tender kisses on foreheads, to wanting to share someone’s space while they dance. Consent is integral in all of those interactions, but, “consent is sexy” doesn’t really work in any of those examples.
- All people are sexual or want to be sexual.
Not everyone wants to be sexual or have sex, or sees it as a positive thing. “Consent is sexy” can be a really isolating phrase for people who are asexual or have heavy sexual traumas.
So, how should we fill in that blank?
Let’s consider stepping outside of the “sexy” realm. Let’s seriously consider that consent is always important. Consent is respect for others and their autonomy. It’s about a respect that acknowledges we all know what is best for us and our own bodies, in all interactions, not just when we’re trying to obtain sexual intimacy.
I’m not saying we should stop using this phrase all together. Maybe, just maybe, my experience at a party was better because someone heard “consent is sexy” at some college orientation, and then they respected my space more or chose not to initiate unwanted sexual encounters. Maybe it does get through to some people…but…
I challenge us all to get more creative and inclusive!
Still want a catchy phrase for marketing? We’d suggest…
What’s your favourite way to fill in the “consent is ______” blank?
5 thoughts on “Should consent be sexy?”
I had this same thought recently, as a local organizer put out a ‘Consent is sexy’ t-shirt as part of a fundraiser, with the public commentary being universally positive. But it didn’t sit right as a catchphrase to me. Sure, nonconsensual acts can range from uncomfortable to heinous, but under no circumstance is “sexy” the opposite of heinous. Proper consent doesn’t care about our hormones – it’s just the default setting in any morally upstanding society, and gives us the freedom to be as sexy or unsexy as we happen to be in any given moment. I at first was going to offer up “imperative” or “non-negotiable” for your ask, but I’ve decided I like “paramount” best. It is always of prime concern, and it is what all our actions should stem from.
I am one of the people who’ve said “consent is sexy”, and me and my lovers have used it before, in a context where it is clear what is meant by it and that in no way do we want to encourage people to say yes just to be sexy. Often, it’s been used after the fact. We are also people to whom consent was already important and Consent is Sexy was just a sort of short-cut intensifier of our beliefs.
However, I was chatting with someone on OKCupid, and the chat was pretty flirty. They said something along the lines of checking under my kilt to see if I wore it “traditionally” (this didn’t come out of the blue) when they met me, and added “but only if you consented first”. I replied that they could feel free, and ended my reply with “consent is sexy!” The response was swift: “No. Consent is NOT sexy, it is a requirement.”
After that, I don’t think I’ve said it once. I knew what they meant and that I agreed without having to think too much about it. I felt a bit embarrassed by the sudden rebuke, but I’m thankful it happened. I am also thankful to you for further elucidating on the reasons this phrase can be damaging.
And for the record: I would wear the hell out of a “got consent?” T-shirt!
Sexual assault is sex. It is decidedly not sexy at all, if we take “sexy” to mean desirable and exciting.
I began giving very clear enthusiastic consent long before it was required. Several people told me that found that sexy. I really do think it’s that simple. Sitting down to some legalese will be just as unpopular as any other buzzkill. The point is that if your partner is interested, he/she will let you know, happily.
I see your point, but I disagree. In any case, it might be worth saying, “consent CAN BE sexy.”
I think the whole point of saying consent is sexy is making people feel ok asking for it. And finding ways to make asking for it sexy. That takes away the awkwardness and therefore the hesitation to seek consent.
But also, personally, I find it sexy when my partner asks. Even if it’s not done smoothly. Not everyone is smooth. But while I know I can say no, it’s that much sexier when the person I’m having sex with checks with me for a yes. Maybe that’s just me.
I agree here, Gilbert. Consent certainly CAN be sexy. Though I don’t specifically say that above, I certainly suggest it. My protest comes from using that phrase as a blanket for all situations, even non-sexual ones. We’re creative humans; I think we can do better in situations where consent isn’t applying to sexy times. Thanks for your comment!