Performing Sexual Consent

Aesthetics of consent practices in contemporary participatory performances and queer-feminist, sexpositive workshops

Inherent in intimate encounters is the risk of encroachment. Whether in sex, sports, play, care work, or other areas: bodily proximity or exposure to potentially overwhelming content can result in physical or psychological discomfort or even harm – like the violation of self-determination and agency. In order to prevent this, negotiating mutual consent is currently considered a promising safety measure: participants request permission from each other to interact, and they commit to accepting refusals with respect for each other´s boundaries. Morally and legally such concepts are intended to distinguish between abuse on the one hand and affirmative actions on the other.

However, consent concepts are by no means uniform, self-explanatory or stable. Depending on the disciplinary background or pragmatic context, the validity of a consent given is attached to different conditions. These, however, are accompanied by inherent complexities, limits and pitfalls that have been increasingly pointed out to by feminist, poststructuralist, traumatherapeutic, and phenomenological analyses. Oftentimes they discuss this exemplarily on the basis of sexual ethics – and currently the state of research calls for a critical reformulation of the parameters defining good manners, moving beyond simplified understandings of consent as ‚giving permission‘. The demand is to formulate more nuanced concepts that reflect on power relations, encompass the ambiguities of desire, as well as the situational, somatic, and intersubjective waywardness of intimate interactions.

My dissertation project is based on this query for more sophisticated sexual etiquettes by focusing on the heterotopias of alternative experiential and educational spaces in the tradition of the feminist consciousness-raising movement. They can be found in queer, activist, BDSM- or otherwise sex-positive scenes, but also in the performative and participatory arts or in playful improvisational formats such as Live Action Role Playing. They all need to apply a certain consent design in order to enable potentially risky, transgressive, but also pleasurable and meaningful experiences. In the event’s accompanying workshops consent practices become tangible, tried out, and further developed via collective, embodied, experimental activities. Examples of these decidedly crafted and arranged measures can be used to investigate what is usually left out in theoretical consent discourses: the fundamental question of how consent negotiations are actually done. By means of which speech acts, gestures, involuntary movements, codes, or media is consent articulated? How does it become effective? And what possibilities as well as limits or stumbling blocks are revealed in each case?

This research gap is addressed by looking at the specific formats of teaching consent, like exercises or manuals, originating from the aforementioned emancipatory grassroots movements. Their idiosyncratic details are analyzed using the methods of close looking in cultural studies aesthetics, and making them comprehensible by embedding them in cultural theory and history. How do the workshops and their artefacts render consent practices performable, reflectable and criticizable? How do those formats, based on living and embodied knowledge as well as on trial-and-error, inform consent theories and support a more contemporary, viable and feasible re-imagination of our moral obligations in intimate interaction?