The cruel optimism of sexual consent

Abstract

This article intervenes in a critical debate about the use of consent to distinguish sex from rape. Drawing from critical contract theories, it argues that sexual consent is a cruel optimism that often operates to facilitate, rather than alleviate, sexual violence. Sexual consent as a cruel optimism promises to simplify rape allegations in the popular cultural imagination, confounds the distinction between victims and agents of sexual violence, and establishes certainty for potential victimizers who rely on it to convince themselves and others that their partners implicitly or explicitly agreed to sex. In each of these cases, the power of consent rests in its tendency to obscure sexual violence in a set of questions around victimhood and agency, rather than to clarify whether or when it has occurred. Following in the critical contract tradition, this article argues that the optimistic attachment to the clarifying power of consent helps to explain the persistent commitment to better sexual consent as a ‘solution’ to the problems of rape and sexual violence, and that this ‘solution’ is insufficient to the task.

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Acknowledgements

Although many friends and colleagues have contributed to my thinking on this piece, I want to extend special thanks to the colleagues who gave very particular and detailed feedback on drafts of this article: Vicki Hsueh, Shirin Deylami, Michaele Ferguson, Paul Apostolidis, Farhana Loonat, Jamie Mayerfeld, Gregg Miller, Jeanne Morefield, Mara Marin, Heather Pincock, Joel Schlosser, Tiffany MacBain, and Alison Tracy Hale. I also extend gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers and the editors of CPT who offered such careful and generative recommendations for revision.

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Correspondence to Alisa Kessel.

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Kessel, A. The cruel optimism of sexual consent. Contemp Polit Theory 19, 359–380 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-019-00362-8

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Keywords

  • sexual violence
  • rape
  • consent
  • cruel optimism