Social media and news outlets are chatting up the new hotline that sends automated bell hooks quotes to aggressive men demanding women’s phone numbers. Though this line is receiving rave reviews, I am slightly perturbed by it given the dominant framings of consent and feminism these days.
To be clear, I am not judging those who created this phone service or those who would turn to this phone service, amongst a myriad of strategies, to stay safe. That the phone line was shared far beyond its creators’ expectations says more about us collectively — as the cultural arbiters of what constitutes feminist advances. There is a troubling trend in current mainstream feminism that has de-emphasized consent and rape culture from structural gendered violence.
For example, one of the most ubiquitous myths of rape culture is that sexual assault is perpetuated by shady strangers, distinguishing between “good men in our lives” and “bad men out there in the world.” This myth is implicit in the phone line. As feminist poet Cynthia Dewi Oka notes, “Will women be more safe because we find more ways around saying ‘No, I don’t want to give you my number’? The vast majority of women are assaulted and violated by men already in their lives.”
And do women really need yet one more — albeit, witty and sassy — means of guarding-up? On top of figuring out a buddy system, choosing a route to walk home, and protecting our drinks, do we now need to memorize a phone number to fend off unwanted sexual advances?
Why are we, yet again, placing the onus on women to stay safe, rather than focusing on ending date harassment, male entitlement and rape culture? How do we eliminate the social and gendered dynamics that make it so difficult to reject unwanted sexual advances in the first place?
As Lauren Chief Elk, cofounder of the Save Wiyabi Project, told me, “I have so many issues with reinforcing the message that ‘because we’re raised to know it’s safer to give a fake phone number than to directly reject an aggressive guy.’ People need to make decisions on what feels safe in uncomfortable situations, but teaching and encouraging ‘just give a fake number’ is still putting the onus on victims to modify behaviour, when all of this energy should be focused on teaching to respect boundaries.”
Are popular feminist interventions teaching these boundaries and nurturing a culture of consent in ways that would make fake phone numbers obsolete? Below I explore two of the most prevalent efforts: the “Consent is Sexy” campaign and the “Real Men Don’t” campaign. They inform the broader social media context of feminist consent culture within which the bell hooks phone line operates.
Sexualization of consent
The “Consent is Sexy” campaign is a well-intentioned, yet arguably counter-productive effort to address violence against women. The framework is effective for many reasons: it is catchy and appealing to its target audience of teenagers, it subverts the dominant misogynist notion of coercion as sexy, and it lays the ground for seeking consent as a desirable part of sex.
However, does “Consent is Sexy” teach us that consent is actually a necessary and non-negotiable part of negotiating our intimacies and sexual experiences? Does it challenge male entitlement to their partners’ bodies even if their partner does not give consent? As Spencer Wharton aptly points out, “By making it about what’s ‘sexy,’ the slogan promotes eroticism as a way of determining the worth of an act…By this tack, in any sexual circumstance, the most important thing, even more important than consent itself, is that the situation stay steamy.”
Must we always make feminism “sexy”? What additional pressures do such messages place on young women who already report feeling “unsexy” when refusing to be sexually available? We should be teaching that consent is mandatory, whether sexy or not, especially considering that what is considered sexy is already inextricable from gendered notions of beauty that cut across race, gender identity, class and body size.
Furthermore, given the disproportionate magnitude of sexual violence against those who are deemed inherently “undesirable” and hence “rape-able” — Indigenous women, migrant women, Black women, trans women, poor women, sex workers, women with disabilities — it is potentially disastrous to sexualize consent and link it to desirability.
For example, the systemic ideology that upholds the colonial entitlement to and pillage of Indigenous lands without consent is furthered by the colonial construction of Indigenous women as sexually available regardless of consent. This legacy of colonial gendered violence has normalized the horror of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Turtle Island. As a Manitoba judge stated during the inquiry into the death of 19-year-old Helen Betty Osborne: “the men who abducted Osborne believed that young aboriginal women were objects with no human value beyond sexual gratification.”
Genocide against Indigenous women, incarceration of Black women, forced sterilization of poor women, and exploitation of migrant women means that we endure sexual violence not only at higher rates, but we also experience it qualitatively differently (so not #yesallwomen!), including through discourses of hypersexualization and dehumanization. Because structures of racism, capitalism and colonialism are built on the violences of lack of free, prior and informed consent, fostering a culture of consent must be inclusive to and centre the diverse intersectional experiences of racialized and poor women.
The flipside of “Consent is Sexy” campaigns is the surge in “Real Men” feminist campaigns. We’ve all seen the meme of Justin Timberlake holding up a “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” sign. Inherent to such (transphobic) “man-up” messages is the assumption that men can rape but shouldn’t; that men ultimately have the power to determine the culture of consent; and that some men are “good” and others are “bad.”
No one would disagree that there is a critical role for men in ending violence against women, but that role should be to dismantle patriarchy, not simply to redefine and authenticate the social construction of manhood. In Men, Masculinity and Love, bell hooks distinguishes between maleness and masculinity, arguing that “loving maleness” is distinct from “sexist-defined notions of male identity.”
As J.A. McCarroll writes on Real Men campaigns, “Male privilege is re-defined, but not negated, in a way that leaves masculinity unchallenged and still dominant… one where they are praised for simply not being terrible and their much-vaunted power remains intact. Moreover, the bar for male allies has been set tremendously low… Males in the movement should (and can) be challenged and encouraged to act not like a virtuous ‘real man,’ but like humans.”
Rather than blurring the boundaries of consent culture by constantly appealing to masculinity, or linking consent to sexualized discourses, or placing the burden on women to avoid sexual assault through strategies including false phone numbers, we need to unequivocally link consent to the war on women’s lives, lands and labour. Practicing consent is a model of accountability that affirms dignity and is most meaningful when it centres the intersections of oppression and colonialism. This is an essential part of feminism, one that all genders need to be embrace and embody; smashing heteropatriarchy is critical to collective liberation.
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. Her column, “Exception to the Rule,” is about challenging norms, carving space and centring the dispossessed. You can find her online here.
Photo: Krystian Olszanski/flickr