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Is Chanel Contos’s Consent Laid Bare part of a trend back to radical feminism — with a twist?

Alecia Simmonds Books 6 November 2023 1812 words

Smart and inspirational: Chanel Contos, founder of Teach Us Consent and chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership’s Youth Advisory Committee at the National Press Club last week. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Consent activist Chanel Contos’s book, Consent Laid Bare, arrived on my desk around the same time as I taught a class on sexual violence to law students. The readings I had selected included some classic hits, starting with Catharine MacKinnon’s radical feminist critique (that consent is impossible in a patriarchal society where force and desire are not mutually exclusive, where men feel entitled to women’s bodies, where sex is transactional and aimed at male pleasure, and where inequality is eroticised) followed by Nicola Lacey’s postmodernist argument against MacKinnon (are men really all “sexual athletes” wielding dangerous “phalluses”; can women truly not distinguish sex from rape; and why do radical feminists construct femininity as passive and victimised?). I concluded with the intersectional analysis of Rebecca Sheehan (for women of colour the origins of rape are found in racial as much as sexual domination, making sovereignty — over land, bodies and stories — a more useful concept than patriarchy).

I’ve always found this class fascinating for the intergenerational transfer of ideas it affords, and as a means of tracking changes in students’ approaches to sex and gender. When I began teaching it more than ten years ago, everybody thought that MacKinnon “denied women agency” and nobody identified as a radical feminist, or a feminist at all for that matter, except for the clever girl in Birkenstocks, cargo pants and a women’s collective T-shirt down the front.

By around 2017, after Beyoncé declared herself a feminist and #MeToo swept across the globe, all my students became feminists. Men wrote essays on sexual assault that began with an asterisk next to their name linking to an admission that, yes, they were cis, white, straight, bourgeois men but they had attempted to amplify the voices of the marginalised to compensate for their privileges. MacKinnon was still on the out because this cohort thought women could be empowered by sex work, pornography or kink, and because nobody liked being a victim.

But this year, like last year, I have noticed a distinct change. My students appear to have returned to 1970s radical feminism. It’s not the postmodernist celebration of agency that speaks to this generation but the anger and the structural critiques of patriarchy found in Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Brownmiller and Andrea Dworkin.

Chanel Contos is part of this apparent radical feminist revival, and she has written a book that is erudite, powerful and urgent. I confess I was surprised to enjoy Consent Laid Bare as much as I did: the type is overly large (a friend called it idiot font), it’s aimed at teenagers, and twenty-five-year-old Chanel looks more like a student than a feminist critic.

I was expecting the kind of book we’ve become accustomed to from mainstream feminism: homespun wisdom gleaned from a few popular Netflix series, a few zingers and a rousing call to arms. Instead, Contos’s book is well researched and superbly argued, drawing on radical and postcolonial feminism to widen our understanding of what constitutes sexual violence and to contribute new solutions to a global problem with epidemic proportions.

Contos also extends radical feminism in clever ways. Where MacKinnon and Dworkin in the 1980s called on the state to prohibit pornography (and soon found queer erotica banned) and where #MeToo activists often have a carceral logic to their campaigns (the ideal end point is a lawsuit, then prison), Contos’s solutions are pedagogical and therapeutic. Thinking only in terms of law, she argues, ignores the fact that many survivors don’t want their attackers to go to prison; many simply want validation and an apology.

Where radical feminists critiqued the contractual origins of consent, Contos expands its meaning into the realm of emotion. The etymology of consent, she reminds us, is con, a bringing together, and sentio, to perceive with the senses. Sexual violence occurs when a man’s sense of entitlement overrides his empathy. To this extent, legal consent is a bare minimum. What we need is sex as a form of empathic communication: don’t treat someone how you want to be treated, treat someone how they want to be treated.

Contos’s journey as a consent activist began with her shock as a high school student when a sex-ed speaker came to her school and described a series of commonplace sexual scenarios but labelled them as sexual assault. It wasn’t just that Contos and most of her female friends could identify with these scenarios; their male friends were often the ones responsible.

In 2021, troubled by the pervasiveness of the problem, Contos decided to obtain solid empirical data by asking people online to share their stories of sexual assault during their school years. Seven thousand people sent in testimonies describing behaviour that would fit legal definitions of rape, also mentioning the good jobs their attackers held in order to show both a lack of accountability and the fact that “normal and functioning” people were typical rapists, not strangers in the park.

Contos then built a website called Teach Us Consent that included a web petition signed by nearly 50,000 Australians demanding mandatory consent education in schools. A year later, state education ministers met and agreed to her demands.

These nationwide changes to our education system have happened around the same time as shifts in consent’s legal definition towards active and ongoing consent. The question is no longer whether the person said no, but whether they said yes. Intoxication now completely vitiates consent.

Consent Laid Bare is divided into ten chapters, each of which is aimed at expanding our narratives of sexual assault, whether they concern what a rapist looks like; what causes rape (specifically how rape culture normalises sexual violence); how women respond to rape; how digital technologies and pornography have created new forms of violence; and how we need to go beyond legal solutions when trying to hold men accountable, and to end sexual violence.

Contos’s arguments about the causes of sexual violence will be familiar to anyone versed in radical feminist literature. Because rape is construed as an expression of masculine power and domination — an act that keeps all women in a state of fear and hypervigilance — education about consent is necessary but not sufficient. The problem is wider and deeper.

Girls are raised to accommodate the desires of others, to evacuate the self, to feel shame around their own sexuality and to feel like they don’t have a right to demand pleasure. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to not take no for an answer, particularly if they’re the entitled private school boys that Contos grew up with. They’ve absorbed the view that their sexuality is biologically irrepressible, hydraulic and ungovernable, and that they can offend without consequence. Where girls receive social rewards for their passivity and self-abnegation, boys are rewarded for acts of physical intimidation or ability, wealth and sexual conquests.

This socialisation is part of what Contos, and the radical feminists before her, term “rape culture.” This is a world where sexual assault is normalised by gendered expectations of men and women, where girls are told that wearing a short skirt is distracting for the boys in the class (who simply won’t be able to contain their sexual urges) or where a victim of sexual assault is immediately disbelieved and socially shamed, while the boy walks off scot-free. This wider context helps us to understand not simply why some men feel entitled to rape, but also why women often put up with sex that is uncomfortable, unwelcome or coercive.

Any person over the age of twenty will likely read sections of Contos’s book in a state of fascinated horror: the chapters on sex and the online world and pornography make for particularly grim reading. I was quite unaware that strangulation had become a normal part of sex, which boys assumed girls enjoyed so much that consent was unnecessary. Given that 84 per cent of men aged between fifteen and twenty-nine watch porn at least once a week, there’s no prizes for guessing where these new sexual scripts might be coming from. I was also shocked to find that a girl might now be sitting on a bus or train and a man could send an unsolicited dick pic by airdrop on to her phone.

In Contos’s experience, girls begin being asked to send nudes to boys around the age of twelve (yes, twelve!) while a 2022 Australian study found that 86 per cent of students aged fourteen to eighteen had received sexual messages or images, and 71 per cent had sent them. By the time Contos, as a consent educator, speaks to high school students aged fourteen and older, she says that many say that they’re “over” the sexting stage. In a digital extension of the centuries-old tradition of slut-shaming, a girl whose nudes get “leaked” faces embarrassment and shame, while the boy doing the leaking usually rises up the social hierarchy, congratulated by his male friends on a new conquest.

In this context, it is entirely understandable that generation Z might be rejecting what Contos calls “modern feminism” and returning to the clear, unambiguous critiques of sexual violence offered by radical feminists. Why are all the things popular feminists celebrate women “choosing” to do — from watching porn, to shaving legs, to wearing high heels, to engaging in sex work — exactly what patriarchy and capitalism want them to do?

“Modern feminism has framed sex work as sexually liberating and put pornography and sex work in the category of strictly Do Not Debate,” Contos argues. Far from being a “righteous reversal of the gender hierarchy,” sex work is not only the most dangerous job in the world, but it also goes hand in hand with capitalism. Unlike radical feminists before her, however, Contos doesn’t argue for state regulation, simply for a more open debate and for an end to the popular, uncritical equation of sex with empowerment.

I suspect that the predominance of psychological discourse among gen-Zers — their tendency to describe their identities through languages of trauma, fragility or pathology — also makes them less concerned about the elements of radical feminism that see women as victims. This is a generation who accept their vulnerability and woundedness, and for whom the most important question is not how they have agency but how to end sexual violence and gender oppression.

In short, this is a book that you should thrust into the hands of the teenage boys and girls in your life. But you should also read it yourself first, both as a fascinating document that signals what might be a historic shift in discourse away from poststructuralism towards radical feminism, and also because Chanel Contos, with her well-researched, well-reasoned and well-written arguments, is smart and inspirational. •

Consent Laid Bare: Sex, Entitlement & the Distortion of Desire
By Chanel Contos | Macmillan Australia | $36.99 | 368 pages