Hooking up in a modern world: ‘Is a smile enough’ to convey consent?

Consent, pornography, #MeToo, asexuality – the sexual landscape has changed significantly

Does anyone have the right to sex? That's the question Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan asked in a controversial essay for the London Review of Books, published in 2018. Three years later, that essay has grown into a book, a collection of essays called The Right to Sex (Bloomsbury), which critiques the politics and ethics of 21st century sex.

When we think of Oxford dons, we might think of ageing white men with bald heads tufted with turrets of hair. Srinivasan could not be further from that dusty stereotype. At just 36 years old, she is the youngest person ever to hold the prestigious Chichele professorship at All Souls College, Oxford, and she is also the first woman and first person of colour to do so.

Her fans range from writer and podcaster Pandora Sykes to professors of Ivy League universities and she can riff on Love Island as fluently as she can on academic theory.

She asks questions that casually pull the safety pin on conversational grenades, splitting the hairs of the sexual issues of our era. #MeToo, #IBelieveHer and consent all get a grilling in her book and she leaves the reader grappling with Solomon-esque ethical riddles. And, spoiler alert, there are no easy answers.


Srinivasan's exploration of sexual politics began with the case of Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old college dropout who became the world's most famous "incel" (that's short for "involuntary celibate") in 2014, when he killed six people and wounded 14 others in California. It's a phenomenon that came to the fore again in the past week, following the mass shooting in Plymouth by Jake Davison, whose online videos contained references to the incel movement.

Why did that moment in 2014 prompt Srinivasan to write her essay about sexual entitlement? “No one was picking up on Rodger’s own purported justification for what he had done,” she says. “He claimed he had been marginalised socially because of his race – part-Asian, part-white – and because of the fact that he didn’t satisfy the norms of hetero-masculinity. He was shy, he was bad at sports, he played video games, he was nerdy. Obviously, that’s not a justification for murder and I don’t even think that’s what was going on in Rodger’s case. The reason women stayed away from him is he was very obviously deeply misogynistic and sexually entitled. But we have these two things in tension: on one hand there’s no right to sex, Rodger had no reason to be angry with the women who, in his view, denied him sex, and he certainly had no justification for perpetrating violence.

“But on the other hand it is true that some people are marginalised in the sexual and romantic sphere by virtue of their racial membership, class membership, the kind of body they have, disabilities they might have and so on. And so that just points to this interesting tension, how do we on one hand affirm – as generations of feminists and queer activists have taught us to affirm – that everyone is entitled to have the sex they want with consenting adults and no one is required to have any sex if they don’t want to, and on the other hand, we have the undeniable fact that what’s worst about our politics – ableism, racism, classism – shapes who is and isn’t desired? How do we find a way through, how do we hold these two thoughts together?”

'Love Island isn't about love, Love Island is about social hierarchy'

It’s this kind of thorny question Srinivasan delights in untangling in her book.

She points to the reality television show, Love Island, as a good example. “The drama of sexual racism directed at black women has become this accidental but major theme of Love Island in this series. Fundamentally, sex and dating and romance is still very much inflected by the norms of the market. Love Island isn’t about love, Love Island is about social hierarchy, so I’m not saying there’s no love there ever, but a lot of the time people are thinking how people will see their market value based on who they can attract or be with.”

She says this mirrors incel ideology.

“The complaints of incels very rarely have to do with not being able to find love or romance or that there’s no one that’s interested in them, rather an aggrieved entitlement to a certain high-status woman. The incel forums are filled with racism. They’ll say things like, ‘where have all the chaste, young, skinny, white, able-bodied girls gone?’ because I’m not going to date anybody other than that because that’s the only thing that confers status.”

The other essays in Srinivasan’s book take on defining topics of 21st-century sex, from porn to rape to carceralism and capitalism, and she gives over a full essay to the topic of consent.

Why has consent become so central to modern sex?

“So I think the reason we end up fixating on consent is because it is a criterion that is relatively easy to apply in a court of law because you have to adjudicate cases. And so, something like someone’s internal state or whether there was a power imbalance, all of these things are quite hard to adjudicate and, relatively speaking, the question of whether someone said yes or no is easy.

“Of course, in practice, it’s often quite difficult. Now that’s fine when it comes to the law, but what we end up doing is taking this legally important notion and importing it into our sexual ethics and putting all of the weight of sexual ethics on this thing that can’t bear it because it seems fairly obvious to me that there are all these cases of consensual sex that are nonetheless morally problematic or at least politically problematic.”

In the book she takes the example of a young woman consenting to sex with her college professor. The woman can clearly consent to sex but there might still be something problematic about a professor who sleeps with his students. “I’m not the first feminist to say this but we are entrapped in a legalistic frame which does make sense in the legal sphere, but we can draw on a much richer vocabulary when we’re thinking about sexual ethics outside of the law.”

So what about Ireland?

Are we grappling with the same complexities and changes that Srinivasan describes in her book? Dr Pádraig Mac Neela is a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology in NUI Galway and co-lead of the Active Consent programme at the university, which carries out quantitative and qualitative research and offers free workshops and professional development modules for students and those working with young people.

“Back in 2013 we started doing research with college students and very little had been done on it back then. We surveyed thousands and thousands of students. People endorse the ideas of positive active consent but that can co-exist with someone being embarrassed or shy, or the same person might endorse rape myths like a woman is asking for something depending on how she dresses, or a guy got carried away.

'In a hook-up scenario, it's thin ice what people will assume to be active consent'

“People can hold incompatible beliefs about consent. It’s hard to find a young person who wouldn’t agree you have the right to say no to something. The contradiction is when you present someone with a scenario they get into traditional gender stereotypes and scripts. I was really surprised how these very traditional gender stereotypes were still very much embedded in what we call the personal script – what your expectations are if you go home with someone, it’s like making an informal social contract – and it’s still there now, and we see it in the school population as well.”

Mac Neela and his colleagues take the qualitative responses they find in their research and translate them into workshops for young people, presenting them with complex scenarios that challenge their assumptions about consent.

“A particular story we use is of a heterosexual couple and a girl smiles at the end and the discussion is, is a smile enough [to convey consent]? We’re trying to disturb people enough to say what would it take to nudge people into having a conversation about it. Fifty per-cent would say a smile is enough. People were coming up with counterfactual reasoning, like, if she didn’t want to do it, she wouldn’t have smiled, or she would have said no, or she would have left the room. In a hook-up scenario, it’s thin ice what people will assume to be active consent. What would it take to just move it on a bit?”

What are the factors inhibiting people from having those conversations about consent? Mac Neela says confidence is a big issue. “I think confidence is a huge topic, and one of the reasons why people don’t follow through on good intentions with consent. One of the negative assumptions is that giving consent is like a contract, but it doesn’t have to be a buzzkill or a mood killer or formal.” Their workshops present students with a list of ways they can ask for, refuse or give consent, including phrases like “I’m not into that”, “Can we try it this way instead?”, “Yeah, but could we stop if I don’t like it”, all the way along the spectrum to “Hell yeah!”

“They like the stories where there’s role reversal, where there is pressure on guys to perform, and the guy wants to leave the room and he’s being cajoled, and his friends are downstairs. There’s so much pressure to perform. There is much less sympathy for those male characters.”

Perhaps that has something to do with the amount of students who claimed to have experienced sexual violence in the Active Consent sexual experiences survey 2020, where 29 per cent of women students, 10 per cent of men, and 28 per cent of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force, or threat of force during their time in college. “It was very high levels, and that was repeated again this year, so I don’t think what we found was a blip,” says Mac Neela.

'One way or another, a lot of them feel dissatisfied by the role that porn plays in their sex lives'

In their 2020 report Talking About Sex and Sexual Behaviour of Young People in Ireland, the ESRI investigated sexual behaviours in young people at the age of 13 and 17. A third of those young people surveyed at the age of 17 reported they had already had sex. "One thing that was really shocking but not surprising given discussions around consent was young women were much more likely to regret the timing [of their first time having sex]," says Anne Nolan, ESRI associate research professor, who co-authored the report alongside ESRI research professor Emer Smyth. "One third of the girls who had had sex regretted it and 16 per cent of the boys did."

It’s difficult to talk about modern sexuality without talking about pornography. As a university professor who teaches feminist theory, Srinivasan discusses porn in the classroom. “I get a lot of information from just talking to my own students about their experiences about coming of age sexually in the internet world. So, one way or another, a lot of them feel dissatisfied by the role that porn plays in their sex lives. Either that role is just really direct, it was their first sexual experiences and they continue to watch a lot of porn, or it’s more indirect, they realise that the sexual partners they have, their ideas of how sex should be and their normative view of sex is shaped by pornography.

“I think for some students what they feel is that what mainstream porn gives them is what turns them on and they just feel uncomfortable about that fact because mainstream porn – the free stuff that kids access – reinscribes various problematic sexual norms of male domination and female submission.

“So I think for some of my students their sexual desires aren’t matched by pornography and so they nonetheless feel they have to live up to the pornographic script. My other students feel pornography does match their desires but only because pornography shaped those desires. And I think both sets of students want a larger sphere of sexual agency and sexual freedom and at times they find it hard to imagine what that would look like. I have one student I quote in the book who said in a class ‘but how would we know how to have sex without porn?’ and it was the first time I felt really old teaching.”

Eithne Bacuzzi is a relationship and psychosexual therapist based in Dublin and sees the varying influences porn can have on young people in her practice. "A big influencer is the availability of porn. I don't think there's anything wrong with it if it's watched by people who are not coerced into it. It influences people into a type of sex that has no intimate ingredient, it's quite cold. The template is for perfection, perfect orgasms, women think they have to be a certain way. Men feel pressure too. I have a lot of late-20s males who tell me that if you go out with someone you have to perform by the third date, and if you don't you will be talked about. The pressure causes an enormous amount of erectile issues. I have great respect and empathy for men.

“Women talk amongst themselves and work things out for the themselves, but the macho pressure to have an erection causes young men huge problems. When a guy comes in about erectile stuff he says it’s very difficult, you’re not going to go for a pint with a pal and say by the way, I have this. That exacerbates it when you think you’re the only one in the world who has it. It’s such a problem because sex by its nature is very complex, it’s the ultimate giving of yourself, it’s about vulnerability, trust, deserving.”

Mac Neela says, “People feel porn to be a destabilising aspect. Parents may feel they don’t know what to do and it’s an outside force. It isn’t hugely liberating. The same gender roles are rooted in the very traditional conservative roots of Irish culture.”

One very current factor that has affected change in people’s sex lives is Covid-19. “Covid changed everything,” says Eithne Bacuzzi. “Young people have had an awful time because they couldn’t get out to meet people, but more so the couples because they have become stuck in at home, working from home, maybe they have kids, there was no external excitement, no going out socially, no injection of energy and enthusiasm into the relationship.

“They became quite mundane and drained of energy and excitement and on that basis sex… it went underground in my experience, a lot. They haven’t been out for a year. It’s a huge influencer because you have to be happy within yourself before you can connect with someone in that way. It’s lost its gloss. I have had an awful lot of people [looking for help] since Covid. I am inundated.”

Culturally, our ideas and expectations around sex have been in a state of flux, but have attitudes changed in Ireland?

“We had a really sexually repressed society for many years,” says Bacuzzi, “and now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Even though we are at ease, a lot of the old stuff is still around. There are a lot of 30-somethings who are still very repressed, there’s a lack of being comfortable with their bodies, they feel they don’t deserve it, or their partner watches porn and look at the women in that… It’s hard to go from that to a close intimate relationship.”

On the positive side, Bacuzzi says, people are aware that they can reach out and get help now. “I think people are so brave. Twenty years ago you’d keep it to yourself. You wouldn’t have discussed your sexual relationship. Before you had a GP and now people have therapists.”

While we have progressed in our attitudes to sex, historical ideas and norms still have some influence, whether that is conscious or not

Nolan of the ESRI agrees that “there are long-standing cultural and gender roles coming through in the wider roles of women and men in society.” Nolan’s co-author Emer Smyth says, “Concerns emerged about a group who weren’t getting school sex education at 13 and weren’t discussing it with their parents. There did seem to be a discomfort between fathers and sons. Sixty per-cent of young men found it difficult to talk to their fathers. With the ages of the parents involved you would have expected a bit more comfort in discussing issues with their children.”

While old ideas may die hard, Mac Neela says attitudes have definitely changed. “Attitudes to topics like premarital sex, you would have had 50 per cent thinking it was immoral in the 1970s, and things like abortion, being gay, would have been supported by a minority 25 years ago and now it must be 80 per cent [that] find it acceptable.”

Another positive change Mac Neela has seen in his research with students is a shift in how people identify. “I’m always surprised at the diversity with which people identify. Seventy to 75 per cent identify as heterosexual, and 10 per cent as bisexual. One thing that is interesting is just how many people aren’t having sex. The group that gets overlooked an awful lot are people who are asexual, people who really don’t want intimacy, people who want a relationship with no sex. We’ve seen that group increase to two or three per cent. To put that in context, the number of respondents identifying as gay or lesbian is two or three per cent. There is a huge community out there and younger people are finding groups of like-minded people online and older people are discovering late that they identify as asexual. They have been able to establish an identity.”

Perhaps then it is fair to say, that while we have progressed in our attitudes to sex, historical ideas and norms still have some influence, whether that is conscious or not. One thing Srinivasan discovered in her research was how relevant and applicable historical second-wave feminist theories were to modern-day sexual politics. “So much of my insistence on engaging with that second-wave position comes from my students’ reaction, which is that, even when they don’t agree with it, they often find it very resonant and relevant to their own personal experiences. In many ways, we live in not that different of a world.”

The Right To Sex by Amia Srinivasan is published by Bloomsbury

To access the NUIG/USI eLearning resource visit activeconsent.usi.ie.

Edel Coffey

Edel Coffey

Edel Coffey, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and broadcaster. Her first novel, Breaking Point, is published by Sphere