Yes, No, Maybe So: A Generation of Thinkers Grapples With Notions of Consent

It’s not just that these works explore consent’s “gray areas.” What they examine is how consent can act like a fig leaf, as Popova calls it, masking other power differentials in the relationship — because someone has already “said yes” — or offering cover for other violations. It’s the story of “My Dark Vanessa” and the FX series “A Teacher,” for example, with their predatory educators who elaborately ask for permission.

The chipper rhetoric of consent culture, with its injunction to know your body and speak your mind, tells us so little about such states of being. Self-knowledge is touted as a kind of armor — if you know what you like and what to ask for, you can’t be exploited. In “Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again,” Angel links this belief to what she calls confidence feminism, with its “lean in” ethos and horror of vulnerability. Beneath it, she argues, lies the old business of making women responsible for someone else’s violence.

Reading these books together is to feel a rushing, powerful confluence of ideas. “We have to complicate this conversation around sexual violence,” we need language for a “spectrum” of harm (Kaba); we need “in-between words” (Febos); we need to learn how to say, and hear, not just an enthusiastic “yes” or “no” but “maybe” (Angel). After all, sex ought not to be understood as “capitalist free exchange” (Srinivasan), not something we extract from someone else, but something “we make and experience together” (Nelson), a “conversation” (Angel).

These writers are responding not only to consent but to #MeToo and the sorts of knowledge it produced, its rhetoric around violence, its expectations of so-called survivors. Many of these works invoke the waves of op-eds and testimonials that flooded social media, wondering now who such stories served, what forms of real solidarity they created. In “I May Destroy You,” for example, Coel’s character, Arabella, becomes quickly disabused of the hope that she might find comfort by sharing her story online. A wariness of narrative unites many of these accounts — especially a wariness of what Kaba, in her book “We Do This ’Til We Free Us,” calls “compulsory confession”: the onus to share one’s story of trauma. Angel writes: “MeToo not only valorized women’s speech, but risked making it a duty to a mandatory display of one’s feminist powers of self-realization, one’s determination to refuse shame.”

In Kate Reed Petty’s novel “True Story,” Alice, a high school student who learns she was assaulted while drunk and unconscious, tries to write about her experience in her college admissions essay. In draft after agonizing draft, annotated by her teacher’s comments (“Let’s explore your P.O.V. on sexism a bit more”), we witness her strange, pained awareness that she is expected to perform a knowing comprehension on the page even though she is bewildered by what has happened. Later, she is hounded by a documentary filmmaker friend who insists on “sharing” her story.

But of course Alice does share her story — her way. She writes, just like Coel’s Arabella, like the protagonist in “My Dark Vanessa,” like Springora, who envisioned her memoir as a trap for her abuser, a way to “ambush him within the pages of a book.”

Out of a frustration with a word, calls for more words, better words. From a suspicion of narratives, a profusion. To consent — to feel together; perhaps the root holds true. And in these works, an argument is being advanced about how to proceed in the spirit of exploration and uncertainty.

I think of a few lines of an Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick poem that Nelson quotes. They are lines about speech, but they could be about touch. They are full of wonder, both audacious and permission-seeking: “In every language the loveliest question / is, You can say that?”

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