The Brood: In the midst of the ongoing deluge of sexual assault accusations, something fundamental seems to be changing in America. Not all at once, and certainly not universally, but the modern conception of consent is radically reshaping our social contract in a way that is more in-line with America’s aspirational creeds.
When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Independence, he included a riff off of John Locke’s ideas about consent:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
For a long time, these philosophically liberal enlightenment ideas were thought of in relationship to government alone. Social issues seemed a topic apart. After all, the man who wrote the passage above did not own his slaves through their consent, nor did he fully obtain the consent of his slave Sally Hemmings, who he raped and thus fathered children with. The children themselves unwillingly became slaves the moment they were born. Some did not obtain freedom until their father gave it to them in his will.
What’s happening now, just shy of 250 years later, is the logical extension of a revolution started by deeply flawed people like Jefferson — we’re extending “consent of the governed” into the realm of the social. Ironically, it’s a vision of the world Jefferson & Co. might not have approved of, but one truer to the words they put to paper.
Whereas before women were coerced by a social system which treated their bodies like property, they are now demanding a say in the design of that social system. It doesn’t matter if you’re Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Al Franken, Jeffrey Tambor, Russell Simmons, or any man — including myself. Until there are new, agreed-upon social rules that includes the consent of the men and women governed by them, this reckoning will continue. (Please read this article by Laurie Penny, who puts this into words far better than I could ever hope to.)
What is remarkable about this moment in American history is that many of our social and political problems have consent at the core of them. A working definition of consent would be that it is given voluntarily (with no coercion or deceit), given by an individual who has capacity, and given by an individual who has been fully informed about the issue.
Black men and women have not had a consensual relationship with this country’s justice system for a long time, and are now peaceably organizing against a system which is destructive of their natural rights. It is their right to alter it, and to institute new system which, unlike before, would include their consent. As Ferguson reminded us, it is nearly impossible to have consent under the coercive boot of white supremacy.
Blue collar Americans have long felt that American industrial and trade policy has been deeply flawed for nearly 40 years. Neoliberal, technocratic politicians decided that “progress” meant throwing millions of blue collar workers under the bus. But voters could not express their preferences because corporate money, gerrymandering made their votes less meaningful. That is, they undermined the capacity for them to consent to policy.
More than that, as I have harped on in not one article, but two articles, our media system has undermined consent. Radicalization of voters driven by both systematic disinformation and social media algorithms, both of which seek to make money off our biases, have left us less than fully informed about important public issues, and thus unable to meaningfully consent to many public decisions.
If you are able to draw a straight-line between these different examples of “consent“, it should tell you something that it took until 1993 to fully outlaw marital rape. American society and American democracy has deeply non-consensual aspects to it that demand our attention. Consent is the basis of democracy. What is a “vote” but a ritualized symbol of consent? If we, as men, and as a larger society, haven’t taken sexual consent seriously, then how can we truly call ourselves “democratic”?
We’re living in the middle of a revolution that’s challenging old notions about identity, about culture, and re-invigorating them with a democratizing concern for consent, and our fellow human beings. There comes with that a reckoning. Part of that is a come down. For the men accused of sexual assault, and all men beginning to grapple with their complicity, there will be consequences. So, too, will there be consequences for other violations of consent. We’re only beginning to talk about what those consequences should look like.