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  • Sun, 25, Feb, 2018 - 5:00:AM

Consent should not be that complicated

If you based your knowledge of sexual consent on popular movies, books, and songs, you would probably be a rapist. So why is Western pop culture so problematic when it comes to sex?

I enjoy listening to the song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is an excellent novel. The film Call Me By Your Name is beautiful. Liar was hard to look away from despite its confronting nature. But all of these popular cultural items have something in common; they make sexual consent seem complicated. In doing so, they suggest that the word “no” is not to be taken at face value.

Sexual relationships can be complicated, yes. But consent is not difficult to figure out. No one is asked to decode a series of mixed signals. If you’re confused, the solution is as simple as asking a question: do you want to do this? Yes means yes. No means no. Anything in between needs clarification. But that’s it.

The view of consent in pop culture is created by heterosexual men. It recycles a tired romantic pursuit narrative that is used in virtually every rom-com. The man persists, the woman gives in, they fall in love. Only relatively recently have the obvious problems with that narrative been criticised in the public sphere. And yet we see to this plotline again and again, in all forms of creative expression, despite those issues.

The romantic pursuit narrative suggests that any heterosexual woman’s free will can be overcome by a man’s actions. It reduces female characters to placeholders. In that kind of plot line, it doesn’t matter who the woman is attracted to or whether she’s attracted to anyone at all. Her consent or lack of consent is made up of a series of conflicting signals rather than a simple yes or no.

It would be wrong to suggest that these examples of pop culture have a causal effect on rape culture, but they do have some impact. Women who watched rom-coms with a romantic pursuit plotline were more likely to start doubting victims than those who watched crime movies, one study found.

Given the recent #MeToo movement and the widespread impact of their work, creative professionals should be trying to do better in their portrayals of consent. Rather than presenting consent as an unclear issue that can be debated, they should show examples of enthusiastic consent. They should show examples of men respecting women’s boundaries instead of ignoring them.

Consent is not complicated. Your partner is a person, not a hypothetical enigma. If you don’t know what they want, you can ask them. Please don’t take your lessons on consent from the stories in pop culture. It’s not difficult to know whether your partner is saying yes or no. 


  • Consent /
  • Sex /
  • Media /
  • Pop Culture /
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