Having just returned from living in Paris, I feel more convinced than ever that America gets many things wrong about sex. Right there near the top of the list is our attachment to the idea of consent.
In Paris, it seems as if the straight male attitude toward consent is that it doesn't exist. At clubs, bars, bistros, in the street or on the Metro, Parisian men lobby very aggressively for sex. At the clubs in the 8ème, off the Champs-Élysées, and all along Rue de Rivoli, it is fairly common to watch men literally grab and touch the girls who weave through the crowd. Men often draw a finger down an unknown girl's cheek or under her chin like a doting Uncle; they can be seen pinching girls' noses, throwing arms around shoulders and even stealing kisses. It's not for nothing that the French slang word for "kiss" or "make out" is choper, which literally means "to catch."
Parisian women deny or accept these advances with a decisiveness many American women lack. Naturally, some girls in Paris walk away and reject these strong come-ons. But one can observe many of them reacting with knowing laughter; these women understand the game. They often seem legitimately flattered by the attention and stick around for an introductory conversation. The men buy the women drinks. Sometimes they trade phone numbers or make out in a corner somewhere. And sometimes, of course, the whole exchange ends in sex. Whatever the result, women maneuver around male aggression to gain the upper hand. They are the ones deciding what to do with the onslaught of male desire. And though the men are leveraging these attacks as a pretense for familiarity (later on in the night or outside the club the ice has already been broken) it's the women who call the shots.
Parisian women seem to derive a feminist power from this chauvinism that makes them come across as strong, self-determining, and completely aware of themselves as permanent objects of desire. And drunk or sober, it seems Parisian women get exactly what they want while their men, if rejected, are left to hammer doggedly away at other targets. It's anybody's guess whether the Parisians are more sexually satisfied by this arrangement, but one thing seems sure: Parisian women seem empowered by it. They make the decisions.
In America, by contrast, the discourse on consent impresses upon us all, men and women alike, that sex is something more important than a decision. A lot more is involved in obtaining or denying consent than making a decision. For one thing, consent has ethical and legal overtones and implies the kind of complete and utter self-mastery that isn't always on offer while partying. Intoxicated people can, however, make decisions, and if they're in keeping with their interests and desires at a given time then they can even qualify as good decisions. Much more readily than American women, Parisian women acknowledge that sex can be about pleasure seeking. Now that's empowerment. One lesson from Paris is that sex shouldn't be an activity to which we need to consent if a decision will suffice.
A specific example from my time in France helps illustrate my point. I once fell madly in love with a woman named Madeleine. I thought she liked me too because she kept agreeing to see me and she once elegantly blew me a kiss as she descended into a Metro station. We were never intimate because the moment never seemed right to try to kiss her. Lovesick and unsure of what to do, I complained about Madeleine to a female French friend who said to me, "Have you tried getting her drunk?" Obviously my friend's recommendation was based on the assumption that after getting drunk Madeleine would be easier to seduce. This idea of plying a woman with alcohol (something that is applauded by American men in private) often enrages American women because they view it as an assault on their right to consent. Is this really a good thing?
Here in America, our use of the word "consent" complicates the way we view the relation between sex and pleasure. "Consent" is a weighty term otherwise reserved for elevated, formal, even sanitized contexts. Using the term in regards to sex inherently ties a sexual choice to ethical and legal ones (and our unshakable Puritanism once again rears its modest head). But we shouldn't forget how eminently capable we are of having conflicting or layered desires and of making contradictory decisions over time. Sometimes we act spontaneously and even surprise ourselves. Is there a greater expression of our autonomy than acting spontaneously? Thinking about sex as decision — and not an action requiring consent — may in this way be empowering. A decision is an action that can be neutral and value-independent in a way that offering consent simply cannot.
It would be asinine and anti-feminist to argue that consent doesn't exist, or that the complete disregard of consent has no repercussions (because it most certainly does). But our language reflects and enables our sexual repression, and that in turn causes us to do damaging, disempowering things (like perpetuate a double standard on promiscuity), and it may be inadvertently enforced by how we refer to sexual choices. I'm not suggesting that a woman have sex with someone she doesn't want to, but I'm hoping we can start having more guilt-free sex by any means necessary. If we turn the volume down on consent, perhaps we'll get closer to this kind of liberation.
Edward Pasteck is a writer now living in New York. He's looking for someone to publish the book about love he wrote while living in Paris and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update/Editor's Note: "Edward Pasteck" is a pseudonym under which the author wants to continue writing (elsewhere). His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the site. More on that here.