Enthusiastic Consent and Prostitution are Incompatible

One could write a book on the contradictions inherent in the pro-prostitution stance — Janice Raymond did just that — but there may be no single greater inconsistency than the dual love liberals have for both paid sex and the notion of “enthusiastic consent.”

A lot has been written lately about the concept, much of it with an unbearably apolitical tone. But to sum it up simply, this article from Dr. Nerdlove (I have no idea what this site is, so please don’t take a link as an endorsement) will do:

The idea of enthusiastic consent is all about making sure that your partner is genuinely into having sex… that you are getting clear and unambiguous signals that he or she wants to fuck. … Similarly, a partner who is simply not resisting but otherwise not saying anything is not giving enthusiastic consent. It’s about more than just needing to get off — because that’s easy enough to do on your own — but having an experience with your partner. It makes sex about the two (or more…) of you rather than one person using the other as a sex toy that can occasionally help move boxes and dust the window sills.

Somewhat pornified language aside, I hope most would agree that this is a necessary standard. Sexual encounters should be given the go-ahead with more than just a nod of agreement or shrug of the shoulders, and given that many women are subjected to sex despite offering even less than that, the responsibility to ensure equal interest and excitement falls specifically with the men who have traditionally ignored it.

How odd it is, then, to see this admirable focus on coercion-free, desire-driven sexual interaction so often championed by those who defend in the same breath a view of prostitution as free and consensual. Websites like Feministing, Jezebel, and others are strong proponents of both, as were the men and women of the queer community in which I spent my late teenage years. I would wager that most advocates of the “sex work is work” perspective would, if asked, praise the model of enthusiastic consent — even though, of course, the two positions are completely incompatible.

This contradiction is easily demonstrated by transposing the conditions of prostitution elsewhere. The following examples were taken from The Invisible Men, a collection of quotes from sex buyers as they review prostituted women like different brands of dish soap:

Rolled over and tried to kiss her but she wouldn’t French kiss. She started to give me oral but positioned herself so I couldn’t touch her. When I tried to move closer she moved away.

Whilst she was on top it was pretty clear from the expression on her face it was just a job to her.

Tried to touch her breast but she responded, “don’t touch me” I said why not and she responded “because I don’t want you to” After a quick minute of oral she stood up and said “sex” I looked at her and said you haven’t even started oral yet.

She just lay there motionless on her back while I pounded away til I came.

How many of these reviews — four out of hundreds — could be claimed to depict affirmative consent? Imagine these exact exchanges instead took place between two college students in a dorm room; how many of those who endorse “consensual sex work” would go to bat for them as free and mutually satisfactory encounters? Yet, either through cognitive dissonance or straight callousness, they have no qualms claiming to hold such a strict standard of consent while simultaneously supporting an industry that would not survive its application.

If a man’s behavior would be unacceptable in a bedroom, it ought to be equally unacceptable in a brothel. Intoxication, desperation, and simple disinterest are reason enough for a man to back away from any sexual encounter, even one that ends with a wad of bills being thrown on the table. We can’t limit the jurisdiction of enthusiastic consent solely to the sex lives of white millennials without gutting the concept as a whole.

Were a man to see a mother of two desperately counting change in the baby food aisle, how would we feel if he offered up a case of mashed carrots in exchange for the right to penetrate her any way he saw fit? Even if we were to avoid branding this man a rapist and predator — two titles that I see fitting him well — we could certainly settle for lesser accusations like heartless, exploitative, misogynistic, and cruel.

Should the mother agree, whatever consent could be claimed to exist would certainly not be “enthusiastic.” Yet the very same folks who would brand that man a creep and an abuser apparently see no issue with him offering an equally desperate woman a wad of bills in exchange for that very same right — even if he knew the money will go to the exact same supplies. Then, such a trade is not simply permissible; according to men like Kenneth Roth, it’s something close to an act of charity.

There seems to be a massive shift taking place here, where swapping necessities for sex is exploiting the desperate while swapping the money needed to buy those necessities is not. Exactly how this buffer step suddenly ameliorates the power relationship between the two is unclear. But what is clear is that, were the standards to be applied fairly, there wouldn’t be a brothel left standing.

The explanation for this wild divergence rests, like most contradictions, with the blindness of privilege. Discussions of affirmative, enthusiastic consent revolve around the sex that young, middle-class white people have, and the gulf between intimacy and violence is reserved for them and them alone. Other women — like, say, the millions who languish in prostitution without the luck of whiteness, wealth, or youth — aren’t so lucky.

For consent to have any meaning whatsoever, it must be enthusiastic. That such a tautology is needed at all reflects the low value masculine eroticism places on female comfort and safety, much less pleasure. But certainly the “enthusiasm” we aim for should come from anticipation, affection, and a sense of security and warmth — not simply the promise of relief from hunger and homelessness, purchased at the price of the body.