Men’s Acts, not Women’s Choices: “Quantum Consent”

With the ongoing “scandal” with respect to the Secret Service agents who paid (or didn’t pay, as the case may be) for women in Colombia, and the complete inability of most armchair sociologists on news comment boards to understand what is wrong with prostitution, I decided it was time to introduce a new phrase:


Quantum Consent


The concept of “rape” is almost always discussed and analyzed in terms of the victim (not from the perspective of the victim, but in terms of the victim). Whether we’re talking about criminal laws, specific instances, or post-modern feminist theory, the ultimate question is usually one of consent. Did she consent?


And usually that consent is framed in terms of whether she “wanted” sex, or sex with that person, or sex on those terms, or what have you. In earlier years, some feminists attempted to attack acquaintance (“date”) rape with the catchy slogan “no means no.”  Nowadays, “sex positive feminism” has given us Yes Means Yes, based on the idea that we wouldn’t have rape if only men recognized that women can like sex, too.


Discussions on prostitution, pornography, and BDSM have suffered from this as well.  Even in some “feminist” spheres, where people should presumably want to analyze how these predominantly male-profiting and female-utilizing fields are functioning in and affecting society, the discussion usually focuses on the women’s “agency.” If the women “want” to do it, in sex-positive circles, we will not look at the man behind the curtain. Pointing out that the majority of women in prostitution have been sexually assaulted during childhood, or have been the victims of sex trafficking, is taken as an attack on the agency of the women who do make those choices. The idea, apparently, is that prostitution, pornography, and so forth are completely kosher so long as the particular woman or women involved are “consenting.”


The definition of consent, according to Random House, is “to permit, approve, or agree; comply or yield.” Consent is reactive, not proactive. To consent is to agree to something which has been proposed, not to make a proposal. The agreement doesn’t have to be enthusiastic or excited; consent just means there will be meaningful, voluntary compliance. So really, when we are saying that sex should be with the “consent” of both parties, it’s a pretty low bar.


The real problem with prostitution, pornography, BDSM, and – to be quite frank – all sexual acts involving at least one woman and at least one man, is the lack of concern men are taught to have about even the low bar of consent.


To take the example of prostitution, since that’s what prompted this post: everybody who has paid any attention over the last five years should be aware that sex trafficking, and prostitution of minors, is a serious problem. In the US alone, the FBI busts a sex trafficking ring every few months, and they typically make national news (albeit briefly). I suspect that most people vastly underestimate the problem (hey readers, hands up for everybody who knew that the average time between when a teenage girl becomes homeless and when she has been picked up by a pimp is measured in HOURS, not days). Still, every adult who is paying attention should know that sex trafficking in prostitution is a concern.


How can a prospective john tell if a woman has been coerced into prostitution?


He can’t ask and expect a real answer if she is being trafficked. Nor can he base it on how much she seems “into it” (women survive by being excellent actresses, even tricking ourselves if necessary). He can’t base it on what “kind” of prostituting she is doing, or the environment in which she is doing it, or how much he pays her. Sex traffickers provide “high class” call girls, women in legal brothels, and women operating out of their “own home” or “own business.”


A john really can’t know. He has no way to know.


You’ve heard of Schrodinger’s rapist? Well, this is quantum consent.


Her appearance of agreeableness may be legitimate. It may not be. It may be both. You have no way to tell.


So why are you fucking her?


The defense of prostitution by men is based on the idea that they should not be responsible for determining whether a female wants to have sex or not. It remains her responsibility to defend herself.


So if a man sexually engages with a woman, and considers her voluntary consent irrelevant, what is he doing? What act is he committing? Now, legally, the question of whether he has committed rape depends on whether the woman involved can prove she didn’t agree that he could do whatever he did, but if we were going to classify his actions, his level of knowledge or intent, what distinguishes him from a convicted rapist?


The idea of “quantum” consent is based on ideas in modern physics analyzing the movements and interactions of small particles. These particles are affected, to some extent, by the uncertainty principle. We might know a particle’s velocity, but not its location; or we might know location, but not velocity. You can’t ever completely determine what is going on with the particle. Its nature is in some way inherently unknowable. It is not completely quantifiable.


And neither is the consent of a prostitute. And neither is the consent of a woman whose image appears in pornography on your computer screen.


And neither is the consent of a woman who is underage, no matter how much she might “want” sex. And, for that matter, neither is the consent of somebody who is suffering from certain emotional difficulties, or who cannot effectively withhold consent for social, cultural, financial, or psychological reasons.


“Wait!” some more feminist-minded male readers might object. “That rules out almost all women! Almost all women are socially conditioned not to directly say no to men, or to depend on men financially/emotionally. Does this mean that almost all heterosexual sex may have a problem with quantum consent?”


Congratulations! You’re starting to figure it out. You can blame your forefathers and the patriarchy! It might be a bit of an inconvenience to you to not get to have sex with whatever woman you want while she painfully and laboriously tries to overcome her life-long psychological conditioning and begins to doubt every desire, fantasy, and self-identification she ever had, but I’m sure you’ll manage somehow.


Now, somebody out there is, at this point in the post, probably thinking of writing some oh-so-brilliant comment about how the problems with prostitution and pornography would fade away if there was no sex trafficking and women had equal opportunities to get (and retain) livable wages.


Except without sex trafficking, there would be no prostitution.


Yes, yes, I realize that it’s usually phrased the other way – that the demand for prostitution causes sex trafficking. It is a demand-driven “industry,” after all. But the reverse is also true.


If there was no sex trafficking, and women had equivalent financial status and power as men, then few women would engage in prostitution. Those women would be able to say no. No to clients, no to specific acts, no to locations, and no to the relatively few dollars that the typical man can spend on a few hours’ “entertainment” (since very few women who haven’t had a history of sexual abuse choose to go in to the sex trade). A woman who chose that job could at any point say, “You know,  you’re being a real dick – get out of here, and don’t come back,” without any repercussions whatsoever, and she could charge hefty fees.


And seriously, what would be the point of shelling out all the money to buy a prostitute if she could say no?


Men pay for prostitutes because they don’t want to bother finding a woman who will consent of her own desire. They use money as a stand-in for a woman’s genuine interest, or to try to cultivate faux-interest, because they don’t want to deal with the aggravation of trying to find a woman who is actually interested in consensual “sex” (or being beaten, or doing whatever other vile, idiotic thing has been entering into his head as of late). Men pay prostitutes because they want an actress, or at least a warm body, who will pretend to want him, or who won’t make demands, or who won’t be able to go to the police.


Men go to prostitutes because they don’t give enough of a crap about women to want to make sure there is actual, not quantum, consent. If women could not be forced into prostitution, or forced to keep their “rates” low by those who have been, or otherwise coerced financially, then prostitution would pretty much go away.


Now, by the end of the post, my many male subscribers – who likely have never been exposed to these concepts before, and have a vested interest in having a knee-jerk, defensive response – are probably thinking thus: EBF must be wrong, because it would be very inconvenient and uncomfortable for me if she is right. Do yourself a favor, and spend eight hours or so thinking about this post before bothering to write out a response; it usually takes about that long for people to digest something and get rid of their shit.


To other females: I think quantum consent helps identify why unquestioning focus on female “agency” is problematic. The issue isn’t just whether an individual woman (or women as a class) are expressing “intrinsic” “individual” desires (as opposed to culturally-imposed ones), but why men are willing to go along with it. There’s something particularly disturbing about men who are big supporters of third-wave, “post-modern,” “sex-positive” feminism. And this is it: they may echo all the right words about consent and agency, but they’re using the focus on females’ gatekeeper “responsibility” to continue their objectification and exploitation of women.

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8 Responses to Men’s Acts, not Women’s Choices: “Quantum Consent”

  1. Thank you for this post! It’s great to see you blogging again. The articles on the SS “scandal” have all been irritating the hell out of me (that’s putting it mildly), so I’m glad to see you started off this article with a mention of how rediculous they are.

    If people acknowledge that kids cannot “consent,” then why is it when a person, aka a female, whiches a certain age, she magically IS able to consent? And she can consent to abuse!

    Even in a court of law, you cannot just batter your partner with the excuse “she consented.” The consent *doesn’t matter.*

  2. Mary Sunshine says:

    Beautiful. This makes my morning. :-)

  3. thirdxlucky says:

    > “Wait!” some more feminist-minded male readers might object. “That rules out almost all
    > women! Almost all women are socially conditioned not to directly say no to men, or to depend
    > on men financially/emotionally. Does this mean that almost all heterosexual sex may have a
    > problem with quantum consent?”

    Yes! I love the idea of quantum consent and I love seeing that phrase used by someone else in the same way that it makes sense to me. :) It’s been a really valuable concept for me in terms of working through some of my own sexual trauma that came from (mostly, although not entirely, heterosexual) sexual situations that I regardless had believed myself to be “consenting” to at the time.

  4. Kate says:

    Just to clear things up, do you believe that women would not enjoy sex if they hadn’t been conditioned to?

    • An odd question.

      I think most women have a fraught relationship with sex, because of how strongly it’s framed as a play between a dominant, aggressive power and an acquiescent submissive whose barriers need to be breached. Many women, even if they have never been sexually assaulted, have PTSD or STSD because of the levels of sexual violence directed against women. Finally, because of the biological realities of reproduction, women are taught (somewhat correctly) that penis-in-vagina intercourse is dangerous to them, and without healthy and safe means of addressing that penis-in-vagina intercourse can be stressful, frightening, and traumatic (even if the woman desires the sex). Both women and men are taught to conceive of sex in a way that is focused around a penis or the sexual penetration of the woman, which has the result that other sex acts (which may be more enjoyable, depending on the woman) are alternately ignored or fetishized. And since penis-in-vagina intercourse is considered almost a “default” of heterosexual sexual expression, women might translate their discomfort with that onto all other, “alternative” forms of sexual interaction. Also, women are conditioned to think of ourselves as possessing value only insofar as we are sexually attractive to men.

      So while women still enjoy many different forms of sexual interaction, the “enjoyment” can be complicated by a whole host of factors which most women don’t have the time or energy to sit there and parse out. It can end up feeling like baggage.

      As a result of all those…I think that absent patriarchal conditioning of men and women, women would almost certainly enjoy sex more.

      Does that answer your question?

  5. Pingback: Excellent Post on Quantum Consent by Eve Bit First « Fighting Misogyny

  6. Witch says:

    YES. So true. Thank you so much for this post. I’m always criticing this “choice” “agency” “consent” thing, and I really think it backfires so much in a feminist context. The original idea is good – Only have sex if you consent, otherwise it’s rape and it’s horrible. But now it’s being used to defend horrible things like prostitution or pornography, under the guise of “consent”. Same thing as “choice” – The original idea came from abortion, it’s my body and my choice to carry this pregnancy or abort it. Now it means you can shave your legs, be feminine, wear heels and it’s all feminist because it’s your choice, and choice means feminism. BLARGH

    I needed to talk to someone about that. I knew a guy and he wanted to be next to me. I only knew him from the internet though. One day we were discussing about usefulness – My life philosophy prioritizes things with a clear and objective usefulness. He started talking on how his life was fucked up once, and those small “useless” things helped him recover. (Which is funny, because my life is constantly fucked up and I don’t need a man explaining to me how fucked up life can become, because my worst depression was triggered by misogyny.) To exemplify, he said he was so down the hole he used drugs and paid prostitutes.

    I got full of anger. My respect for him dropped instantly to zero. I mean, was he trying to make me pity him? “Oh, yes, he was so depressed he was self-destructive and used prostitutes. Poor guy”? My instant thought was “Oh my God, he used prostituted women. He added to her probable trauma. What an horrible human being he is” because in my country, Brazil, most prostitutes are poor women that need money to pay for drugs or to survive, and a lot of girls are prostituted by pimps. How would he knew if he used a woman that “consented”? And WHY was he telling me that to make me pity him and agree with him on how depressed he was, instead of getting angry at him and ending the conversation instantly?

    Sorry for the long post and for the possible derailing. It’s been haunting me. That guy is young – 19 at max – And he has such a warped sense of humanity. No one seems to care about what those prostituted women think or feel. Yeah, great, you were depressed, but what about that woman you used? Why don’t you care about her consent? Do you think she automatically consents just because she’s being paid? She isn’t an object. She’s a real being. Please think about her before you dismiss what you did as just another tuesday in your life.

    Such fucked up human beings.

  7. Herbs&Hags says:

    Brilliant. This article is brilliant. Thank you.

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