What, basically, is consent? How to define this notion which is at the heart of contemporary discourse on sexual violence? This is the question asked by the philosopher Manon Garcia in The Conversation of the Sexes (Flammarion, “Climats”, 308 pages, 19 euros). Professor at Yale University (United States), author ofWe are not born submissive, we become it (Flammarion, 2018, Champs reissue, 2021, 9 euros) explores, in this book, the multiple facets of consent – and emphasizes the ambiguities of this concept.
Since the #metoo movement, consent, in public debate, has emerged as the key concept that defines the border between rape and “legitimate” sexuality. This idea, which seems obvious to us today, even natural, is it new?
Contrary to what we often think, this idea is recent. For centuries, rape, as historian Georges Vigarello has shown, has been viewed as a harm done not to women, but to men – the victim’s fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. What was reprehensible in the rape was not the violence inflicted on the woman, it was the attack on the honor of the family and the purity of the lineage.
It was for this reason that we could not imagine the rape of a prostitute: the risk of bastardization was absent, and violence against a woman did not count. It is also for this reason that rape between spouses was not penalized until 1990: the husband could impose, including by force, sexual relations on his wife without anyone taking offense.
The vocabulary of consent gradually imposed itself, from the XIXe century, in a liberal sense. It has become intrinsically linked to the idea of a certain equality between the sexes: because partners are equal, a sexual relationship cannot take place without their double agreement. Consent is one way of seeing women have a say in their sexuality – and it’s relatively new.
To think of consent, we often refer to the tradition of political liberalism, notably to the philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. You feel that their reflection cannot shed light on the question of sexual consent. Why ?
Liberal doctrine makes a very clear distinction between the public sphere, which is political, and the private sphere, which is natural. The reflection of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham concerns only the first: they consider that the consent is a manifestation of the individual freedom of the citizens evolving in the social sphere, but they do not evoke the family and conjugal relations which are woven in the private sphere.
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