How Do We Understand Sexual Pleasure in This Age of ‘Consent’

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Societies tell us a lot about themselves by how they struggle over sex. Different places and generations have distinct sexual battlegrounds. From anti-miscegenation laws to criminal prohibitions of same-sex intimacy and sex work, these contests address with whom we can have sex, when, and under what conditions. At present, debates about the kind of sex that we should be having are focused on the issue of individual choice and sexual autonomy. We are living, it seems, in the age of consent.

The idea that consent to sexual activity should be the benchmark for deciding what constitutes legally permissible and socially desirable sex is far from obvious. This is in part because sex means very different things in different moments. Paid sex might indeed be conducive to transactional, negotiated terms in which the parties bargain and consent to specific acts for a set price. But not all sex can be – or should be – reduced to an atomistic meeting of the minds of two individuals. Sometimes what we want is not fully known to us in advance. The details of desire and satisfaction are often discovered, and produced, in the sexual moment. Rather than a question of individual will, sexual autonomy can be expressed through the interaction of two (or more) partners. Sex can be a uniquely utopian experience, in that the act of sexually relating creates novel ways of being together socially.