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The Blurred Lines of Consent in Relationships

[TW: this entire article references consent, SA and r*pe.]

**Disclaimer: Please note that it is never the responsibility of the survivor to educate their partner about consent. This burden must lie with broader society, the Government, the education system and the media. However, it is more than apparent that these avenues have failed us. If you have the energy, conversations about consent with your partner can be incredibly beneficial.

Consent in the context of relationships is rarely addressed in the zeitgeist as it’s a complex issue. There’s an implication that active and enthusiastic consent is unnecessary where there’s an established pattern of sex. Adequate consent can often feel like an unrealistic ideal at the best of times due to the gendered way in which we are all socialised.

Recent Government reforms to consent education have discarded sex-related terms in favour of confusing and evasive metaphors of milkshakes, tacos and sharks, further highlighting how incapable society is at talking about sex. Young people need to be armed with tools of communication so that communication during sex is normalised and commonplace. This education may help counteract the ways in which we are socialised.

Men, particularly cis men, are conditioned to be active participants in sex and are seen ‘to do’ sex, whereas women are conditioned to be passive participants and to have sex ‘done to them’. We’re taught that it’s sexy to enact these gender roles. Therefore, men are expected to initiate sex whilst women are reduced to objects and trophies: mere second-class citizens to their own sexual experiences. A dynamic has been created where men ‘chase’ and women are ‘chased’. This is inherently incompatible with consent.

Women have to participate in sex but only within the confines of what satisfies the male gaze. This means that women must be interested in men (but not too interested) and they must be satisfying sexual partners (but not as a result of extensive experience) all whilst enacting an inauthentic but nonetheless seductive porn-like performance in response to (most likely) completely unpleasurable sex. The incongruence of these messages further deepens the culture of shame and taboo around sex which perpetuates the idea that sex is not for women.

It’s no coincidence that men are accepted to be biologically and naturally ‘sex-crazed’ while women are framed as ‘boy-crazed’ and are denigrated for their perceived frivolity. Portrayals of men centre around sex while portrayals of women centre around men. Hegemonic masculinity dictates that men possess the most social capital when they align themselves with heterosexuality by having sex with women. Whereas women possess the most social capital when they are desired by men. Consequently, a dynamic exists where men pursue women for sex and as a means to reinforce their masculinity, and women are, or are expected to be, flattered and validated by this dehumanising pursuance.

There also remains a presumption of sex in relationships, where sex is deemed to be a partner’s duty or obligation to provide. There is so much allosexual rhetoric that a relationship cannot be healthy without regular sex. However, consent should never be presumed. A history of consensual sex is no indication that sexual experiences that follow are also consensual. Sex and relationships are not intrinsic. No partner ever owes the other access to their body.

This cultural understanding is a by-product of our history. After all, marital rape was only criminalised in Victoria in 1985 and even though these laws now exist, they are nevertheless almost impossible to prove. This is because sexual assault is somewhat unique in that, what makes it illegal, is not the act of sex itself, but rather the absence of what is often a private communication of consent between the claimant and the accused. Additionally, criminal procedure requires stringent evidentiary standards to be met in order to protect the rights of the accused. While this is an important cornerstone of our criminal justice system, these standards can cause survivors immeasurable trauma and disadvantage. The secondary victimisation caused by reporting and public testimony is well-discussed and the difficulty of obtaining evidence when the offence is committed in private is immense. These difficulties are compounded in situations where you have a history of consensual sex with the perpetrator.

Additionally, men’s egos are often entangled with their sexual prowess. This means that, for men, communication during sex becomes a site for increased vulnerability due to the potential for perceived criticism. As women are socialised to pander to and please men, they are reluctant to speak openly and honestly about their experience of sex for fear of wounding a partner’s ego. This tension stifles communication during sex with men neglecting to ask whether their partner is consenting and enjoying themselves for fear that their partner may say ‘no’. Thus, men often prioritise their own comfort within an experience over ensuring that that experience is consensual.

It is imperative that communication be fostered in a relationship to combat the ways in which we have all been socialised. Communication of consent can come in a multitude of forms. This could be through reciprocated and enthusiastic behaviour, audible cues or through verbal and clear affirmative consent. This is why it is so important to have conversations with your partner about consent so as to establish what cues of consent work for you. It’s also important to note that a ‘no’ to sex is just that; an expressed non-desire to have sex at that moment. That ‘no’ is not always laden with unspoken feelings of anger, retribution or non-attraction. People do not want to have sex for a myriad of reasons and only some of those relate to their partner. Hormones, energy levels, emotions, medication and a number of other factors can impact an individual’s libido. Most importantly, regardless of the reason behind the ‘no’, it must be respected. To do anything but respect a ‘no’ is rape.

Image: Mamamia


Madeline Kelly is a fifth year Law/Arts student majoring in Sociology. She is excited to be a part of the LSS Women’s Subcommittee this year and is fascinated by the intersection between Law and Sociology. She is particularly interested in the gendered power dynamics at play in sexual relationships.

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