Bob never got consent.

It’s hardly an overstatement to say that sexuality is a subject of great concern for many feminists.  Women, so the argument goes, have often been coerced into relationships or sexual acts that leave them feeling unsatisfied at best and, at worst, traumatized.  The solution is to teach people, especially men, to behave in a way that respects the sexual autonomy and dignity of their partners.  To this end, many feminists have promoted the concept of enthusiastic consent, which has been defined as follows:

… Enthusiastic consent is a principle that says that “no means no” is crucial – if a sexual partner says no, you have to stop – but it’s not enough. In order to ensure consent and prevent sexual violence, everyone, regardless of gender, has to make sure that their partner is enthusiastic about what’s going on.
Enthusiastic consent is an ongoing state, not a yes/no lightswitch.  It requires sexual partners to be in ongoing communication with each other. It does not mean that you have to get a signed contract to touch my right breast. It does mean that you have to pay attention to whether or not I’m into it as you move your hand toward my right breast, and that if you can’t tell, you have to ask.

–  Jaclyn Friedman, The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent, Jan. 3, 2011

Now, enthusiastic consent sounds like an elegant solution to the problem of sexual coercion.  Make sure your partner is into what’s going on, and when in doubt ask.  Easy, right?  The problem is, this oversimplified sexual ethic tends to ignore the sexual dynamics that exist in real life between young men and women, especially within a first sexual encounter:

Thinking he was a weirdo, I was freaking out in the dark.  He turned on the light.
Then he said, “Okay, I’m ready, ready to see you.”
“Right here.”  I waved.  “I’m right here.”
Then he began to undress me.
“What are you doing, Bob?”  I said.
“I need to see you,” he replied.
“No need,” I said.  “Just dive in.”
“I need to see what you look like,” he said.
“But you’ve seen a red leather couch before,” I said.
Bob continued.  He would not stop.  I wanted to throw up and die.
“This is awfully intimate,” I said.  “Can’t you just dive in?”
“No,” he said.  “It’s who you are.  I need to look.”

–   Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues, The V-Day Edition, p. 56.

I was freaking out.  Bob continued.  He would not stop.  I wanted to throw up and die. Bob, of course, is a hero.  Eve Ensler’s example of a “good man.”  Yet Bob is also a man willing to push his partner to engage in a sexual act without asking whether it’s okay, even after she’s made it clear what he’s doing is making her uncomfortable.

It’s relevant here that most heterosexual men understand “What are you doing?” as a code phrase for “Stop!”  How many feminists think it’s acceptable for a man to respond to “What are you doing?” by saying “I need”?  The fact that Bob expressed his preferences as something that he needed indicates that he was being more than a little pushy here.  That’s sexual entitlement.  And it works.  Why?

It worked for Bob because he did what heterosexual men are expected to do if they want to be successful within the gladiatorial sexual arena.  He played a game of chicken.  He is Eve Ensler’s hero because he played Russian roulette and, fortunately for him, the chamber wasn’t loaded.  Bob entered into a sexual encounter with a sense of entitlement, pressured his partner to do something that initially made her uncomfortable, and was able to pull it off because he was confident and sexually experienced.  Does it ever occur to Eve Ensler that Bob was able to pull off his hungry, beautiful beast shtick because he’d gained sexual experience from dozens of previous sexual encounters, some of which probably didn’t go so well?  The fact is, if Bob had responded to his partner’s “What are you doing?” by anxiously asking if it was okay, the story probably wouldn’t have ended with sex.

The vignette about “Bob” has bothered me for a long time, but I’ve only recently been able to articulate why.  If meaningful “consent” implies two people “feeling together,” then Bob never got consent.  According to the sexual ethics of Jaclyn Friedman, Hugo Schwyzer, and many other feminists, what Bob did was coercive and unethical.  Yet Bob is forgiven because he was able to sexually arouse his partner.  Bob stuck to his guns in the face of his partner’s obvious discomfort with what he was doing, and yet his pushiness and sexual entitlement goes unnoticed and unmentioned in the breathless prose of the vignette because he successfully pulled it off.

Am I saying that Bob was a wolf in sheep’s clothing?  A snake who only pretended to care about his sexual partners?  No, not at all.  It’s quite possible that Bob was a caring and compassionate lover.  But let’s be honest here.  He was sexually entitled.  He was performing the masculine role to the hilt.

*                        *                        *

A couple of commenters, marle and Cessen, have pointed out that they haven’t read or seen “The Vagina Monologues,” and I imagine that’s true for a number of readers.  The story I’m talking about is entitled “Because he liked to look at it.”  Some performances of this skit are here:

Eve Ensler:

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15 Responses to Bob never got consent.

  1. marle says:

    I’ve never seen/read the Vagina Monologues, but that story sounds terrible. Bob sounds like an asshole. I don’t know how she went from “wanted to throw up and die” to apparently enjoying the encounter, though that’s better than being raped. Doesn’t make him a hero though, by a long shot.

  2. Danny says:

    I have what other people would probably call a simple question.

    What’s the difference between what Bob did there and what some (not all so don’t try to use this as opening to attack PUAs and the SC) of what people talk about among PUAs and the Seduction Community?

  3. Cessen says:

    Yeah, I agree with Marle here. I don’t think it was okay for Bob to keep pushing.

    But it is interesting that he’s viewed as the good guy. I haven’t read or seen The Vagina Monologues, however, so I don’t have much context. But I agree that there are plenty of problematic masculinities that are reinforced and encouraged by women, not just men.

  4. Tamen says:

    Interesting and different critique of the Vagina Monologues, most go for the easy target (although that’s been edited out in later revision) of the quote “If it was rape it was a good rape.” about a 24 year old woman seducing (including serving alcohol) to a 13 year old girl (in later revision the girl’s age is changed to 16).

  5. humbition says:

    I’m on Eve Ensler’s side — which is to say, I think the post makes very good points, but I’m not willing to go where the commentary is going.

    First, context is important, and demeanor. If the woman was comfortable with him overall, then why should I not be? And Eve Ensler was comfortable with him. And Bob and his partner were, definitely, communicating.

    Second, Bob was a bit…bold…for a first sexual experience, but I don’t feel that we should be policing sexuality at that level. If college students are being taught formulas for “safety” that desexualize the sexual encounter, then that is the problem. The formulaic aspect of sexual “rules,” for an enterprise that is not really that amenable to that kind of logic.

    I sometimes see a kind of compartmentalization in discussions of consent. Many which seem very restrictive seem quite appropriate in the context of encounters which go wrong — if it is a near-rape that is your mental example of the moment, you develop a rule which might head this off. Meanwhile, in the context of encounters which don’t go wrong, you don’t really think about the rules. But I think this latter is a good thing. I don’t think sex is where we should all be good little boys and good little girls.

    And most encounters don’t go wrong, in the sense I mean.

    If it’s Friedman and Schwyzer against Ensler, I’m for Ensler. If it’s the rule book or the gladiatorial arena, I’m for the arena. If it’s what women (or humans generally) want versus what they “logically” or according to the rules say they ought to want…I’m for the messy and illogical primates, not for the philosophical exactitudes of prescriptivisms.

    Re Danny, well, yes. I should be philosophically against the SC, and in some ways I am…but it seems that many young men in particular are pragmatically benefiting from something like the SC precisely because it corrects for the ways that they are misinterpreting what they have been taught. It loosens the tourniquet of rules, as overapplied by the underexperienced. It allows for the process of learning, for people not being plaster saints.

  6. johnedens says:

    Bob stuck to his guns in the face of his partner’s obvious discomfort with what he was doing, and yet his pushiness and sexual entitlement goes unnoticed and unmentioned in the breathless prose of the vignette because he successfully pulled it off.

    Well, so much the better for Bob, then.

    Nothing succeeds like success…

  7. April says:

    First, context is important, and demeanor. If the woman was comfortable with him overall, then why should I not be? And Eve Ensler was comfortable with him. And Bob and his partner were, definitely, communicating.

    Agreed.

    So much of what makes up “enthusiastic consent” is very common-sense and great. But, ultimately, while one can believe in the philosophy, sexual experiences rarely happen in such a strict sort of way, and I’m happy for that, mostly.

  8. April says:

    I’ve actually read the Vagina Monologues. Maybe I would have liked it more years ago, when I was into that sort of self-indulgent, poetic thing, but I really found it dull and even annoying. I don’t think it lacks value, though, that’s for sure. It just wasn’t something I was particularly interested in.

  9. humbition says:

    For me, it’s not quite a matter of, “nothing succeeds like success.”

    My sentiment is more like, “not all things whose verbal descriptions are similar, are actually all that similar in real life.”

    Interesting how this comes from a play. Directors make a difference, and can turn around the human meaning of any particular scene.

    When we are not respectful of this quality of human life, but think we can capture everything about a human situation in the language of prescription and proscription, we become one-dimensional and lose the human quality. And this is something I really see in present day life.

    I see an element of human encounter in this story that goes beyond the application of what in some contexts are perfectly sound ethical guidelines.

  10. Lynet says:

    In fairness, guys who like vaginas are kinda awesome.

    The context is important here. Trying to look at someone when they are asking you to “just dive in” is a lot better than “just diving in” when you have only been asked to look. It is a little dangerous to assume that consenting to vaginal intercourse is a stronger thing than consenting to be looked at, and that therefore someone who consents to the former must consent to the latter. However, if it makes you happy, go ahead and allow yourself that much leeway.

  11. f;ash91 says:

    “It’s relevant here that most heterosexual men understand “What are you doing?” as a code phrase for “Stop!””

    I stopped reading there. Code phrases aren’t meant to be understood.

  12. Brett K says:

    I agree with Marle – Bob sounds like an asshole. Sexually experienced or not, sexually attractive or not, it isn’t okay to ignore your partner’s concerns. Good for Eve Ensler if she ended up enjoying it, I guess, but if I’d been in the same situation, I probably would have grabbed my clothes and run away.

    I can see the point you’re making, but honestly? All of the good sex I’ve had has been with people who would, in fact, have responded to “What are you doing?” by asking me if everything was okay. The sex was good not because they were entitled or masculine (not all of them were men!) or even because they were sexually experienced (again, some weren’t), but because they made sure sex was a mutually enjoyable experience. Enthusiastic consent isn’t the only factor in good sex, but it’s a baseline, and a damn important one.

  13. elementary_watson says:

    Haven’t read or seen the Vagina Monologues, but from what I heard, Bob is pretty much the only “good” man in that play, that sex the only positive heterosexual sexual encounter. Eve Ensler, IIRC, didn’t experience the stuff from the Monologues, but interviewed women about their Vagina experiences; didn’t she find any women who had good sex with men who “made sure sex was a mutually enjoyable experience” and put *that* as an example of good heterosexual encounter in her play, instead of consent-ignoring Bob?

    Really, with the infamous “if it was rape, it was good rape” and this episode, one could think that Ensler thought non-consent could be made meaningless by enjoyment, in the end. Thus – Upholding Rape Culture?

  14. Cessen says:

    First, context is important, and demeanor. If the woman was comfortable with him overall, then why should I not be? And Eve Ensler was comfortable with him.

    I don’t feel like, “I was freaking out,” or especially, “I wanted to throw up and die,” are phrases that indicate any sort of comfort on her part. I get the impression that she was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with him and his actions as he continued.

    But, having said that, I agree that context is important. And I certainly lack the context for the interaction.

  15. Ari says:

    …A lot of points that I could pick up from previous commentors, but I think I’ll just go with this.

    There is a whole world, a universe, of difference between the following:
    — A breathless and limp, surprised whisper, after a particularly pleasurable swirling of fingers in god knows what way, “What… did you.. just, do…?”
    — An increasing tone of panic with stiffening limbs, if not pulling away, then at least limiting further progress, “What are you doing?”

    …But the words are almost identical.

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