A Bunch of Bad Metaphors For Sexual Consent and a Few Better Ones
Metaphors can be a helpful way to talk about sexual consent, but they can also sometimes fall short. So here’s a close look at some of the ideas that metaphors convey successfully and some of the nuance they leave out.
“If you are still struggling with consent, just imagine instead of initiating sex you’re making them a cup of tea. You say, ‘hey would you like a cup of tea?’ And they go, ‘oh my God I would love a cup of tea, thank you!’ Then you know they want a cup of tea.”
This video is a nice introduction to some basic concepts around consent, but it misses the mark with the premise that consent is “simple.” The metaphor works by identifying a few specific places where initiating sex is similar to offering someone a cup of tea, but sexual consent in complicated in ways this metaphor can’t convey.
For example, encouraging someone who’s very drunk to have a warm, mildly caffeinated beverage is sometimes a kind and thoughtful thing to do, but encouraging someone who’s very drunk to have sex with you is just predatory.
“If you say, ‘Thanks, but I don’t think so’, and they convince you to change your mind, that’s also consent. It doesn’t matter how many times you said no. It doesn’t matter if your friend was being an obnoxious, guilt-tripping, sulky, passive-aggressive pest.”
Swapping out the cup of tea for a piece of cake, the author of this piece tries to extend the metaphor further. While she thinks she’s making a solid case for how sexual consent should work, she actually ends up with a fantastic, if advertent, demonstration of how metaphors can mislead us.
Sex and food just aren’t the same thing. So it’s okay if our rules for consent around them are different. It’s a bigger deal to pressure someone to have sex than to pressure them to eat cake. And while it’s usually nice to offer a ten-year-old a piece of cake, it’s never okay to offer them sex.
“Red, Signs You Should Stop — You or a partner are too intoxicated to gauge or give consent. Your partner is asleep or passed out…. Yellow, Signs You Should Pause and Talk — You are not sure what the other person wants. You feel like you are getting mixed signals…. Green, Keep Communicating — Partners come to a mutual decisions about how far they want to go.”
Scarleteen is a wonderful resource, this is a great article, and as it’s used here the traffic light concept is completely appropriate. If you take it too far, though, it’s pretty much the worst metaphor for sex imaginable. In my home state, as long as you’re in the intersection before the light turns red, it’s okay to finish going through. That is not a good model for sexual consent.
Watching a Movie, Borrowing a Car, Listening to a Song, Getting a Tattoo, Cooking Breakfast, Playing Cards, and Lifting Weights
“I brought the cards! Now I can teach you poker…. You can’t invite me other to play cards and then not want to play cards! I went to all this trouble for you, so you owe me and we’re playing.”
If these examples help people get their heads around consent, that’s great! As long as we remember that all these metaphors are tools for understanding, not comprehensive explanations of our underlying value systems.
There might be some other situations where backing out after someone has set everything up isn’t socially acceptable. But that doesn’t change the point that we should treat sexual consent more like the card game, where is it okay to change your mind.
When you make a business contract, you’re obligated to fulfil the terms of the agreement. And if you don’t, you can face severe consequences. But sometimes people say they are going to have sex and then decide not to, and they shouldn’t be forced to have sex or punished for that decision. Sex should not be treated like a business contract.
Business and sex are different domains of our lives, based on different systems of values. Business is built on a foundation of mutual obligation and exchange. Sex should be built on a foundation of mutual interest and pleasure.
Modeling and Photography
When your partner shares your nudes without your permission, that’s a violation of consent.
When you stay stop and your partner doesn’t, that’s a violation of consent.
When a photographer is hiring a model, the model typically signs agreements upfront about how the images will be used. And the model usually isn’t able to revoke consent for the use of those images after the shoot is done. If the model could do that, the photographer would lose the time, money, and energy spent on the shoot. Photographers depend on being able to secure irrevocable rights to use the photos they take.
And there’s no reason to extend that model of consent to sex.
Medical care relies on the idea of informed consent, that people should be told about their options and risks before making medical decisions. Informed consent looks a little different when we’re talking about sex, but it’s an important idea there too. If you lie about your STI status so get someone to have sex with you, that’s a violation of consent.
But people who are too young or impaired to give informed consent still need medical care, so providers rely on the assent of patients and the consent of their legal guardians. None of this is applicable to sexual consent, because no one should have sex unless they are able to consent.
“If you put a gun to my head to get me to give you $5, you still stole $5. Even if I physically handed you $5…. If you steal $5 and I can’t prove it in court, that does NOT mean you didn’t steal $5…. And to think a man said ‘Well she sat on his lap & went to his house.’ Okay, if I ask you to hold my purse, does that mean you can take $?”
This metaphor comments a little more directly on sexual assault and rape as crimes, which is a nice addition to the many comparisons that frame consent violations more in terms of obnoxious behavior.
“The truth is, the way we practice consent changes as we build relationships…. Consent is a tool to build strong intimate, sexual, and romantic relationships! When you start out practicing careful and explicit consent, you’re building a Consent Castle that you can both enjoy!”
This metaphor feels a little messy, but it also adds something totally different. Instead of talking about what counts as consent, this focuses on how we talk about and navigate consent with our partners.
Metaphors can help us think about these things, but they can’t do all thinking for us. Sometimes they sound good but don’t actually make a lot of sense. So we need to think carefully about what metaphors we’re using and how we’re applying their values to our lives.
Do you have another metaphor for consent you love or hate? Please share it in a response!