Alon Lischinsky's research and teaching


Representations of consent in erotic writing

Conference paper: Gupta, K. & Lischinsky, A. (2018, June 22). 'No means no' is not enough: representations of consent in erotic writing [Paper presentation]. Corpora and Discourse International Conference 2018, Lancaster, UK

Recent public debates about the ‘epidemic of sexual harassment’ in politics, the entertainment industry and the workplace more generally have drawn considerable attention to the role of pornography in shaping cultural ideas about sexuality and gender relations. Critical voices have argued that porn fosters the misogynistic belief that ‘the stealing and buying and selling of women are not acts of force or abuse because women want to be raped and prostituted because that is the nature of women and the nature of women sexuality’ (Dworkin 1993, 240); the stories of insatiable female desire hidden behind a token resistance that (are claimed to) characterise porn encourage men to adopt an aggressive stance in the negotiation of sexual encounters, and to coerce prospective partners into sex rather than seeking their consent.

The notion of consent seems, however, more complex than these debates tend to acknowledge. Radical feminist criticism typically takes as their starting point a totalising and monolithic view of patriarchal structures, in which the possibilities for female agency are entirely occluded (Paasonen 2011, 54). Under such conditions consent would be ex hypothesi impossible: having been thoroughly socialised into the belief that their bodies are meant for male pleasure, women lack the freedom necessary to meaningfully communicate their own desires and their limits. Conversely, psychological and legal approaches examine the practices involved in the negotiation of sexual encounters from the assumption that all participants are on equal terms, and consequently ‘[fail] to account for wider social inequalities, […] external pressures or power structures’ that may shape such choices (Popova 2017)— such as the stigma attached to female promiscuity, or the frequent belief that female refusals are a face-saving token of resistance rather than a genuine expression of dissent.

Crucially, both of these views derive their understanding of consent from a pre-existing and more abstract theory of social relations, rather than constructing it bottom-up from an examination of the actual discursive practices that participants use to negotiate and make sense of sexual encounters. Analyses taking this latter approach have yielded a much more nuanced view of culturally-normative sexual scripts, showing that both males and females have a sophisticated understanding of the acceptable ways of performing refusal, yet are able to strategically use claims of misunderstanding as ‘self-interested justifications for coercive sexual behaviour’ (O'Bryne et al 2006, 135). Examination of such scripts can therefore provide insights into cultural notions of consent that avoid both the Scylla of total structure and the Charybdis of unconstrained agency.

Knowledge of such scripts —the repertoire of rules and expectations governing the expression, interpretation and performance of sexual activity— is not solely or even primarily acquired through direct experience (Laumann and Gagnon 1995). Sexuality is one of many domains of social life where first-hand knowledge is limited because of the privacy, stigma and taboo that surrounds it, and individuals rarely have the opportunity to witness a sufficient range of encounters to form a clear idea of the range of allowable behaviours. In such cases, it is almost impossible to disentangle the object itself from the skein of cultural narratives and imaginings that preform it: sex is not only experienced first but also more frequently and with greater variety through fiction than in real life (author, in press), and pornography is the primary source of such experiences. Even though porn audiences show a clear awareness of the distinction between pornographic fantasy and real-life sexual interaction (McKee 2010), this distinction is not always reflected in sense-making, and beliefs and attitudes derived from fictional media can blend with non-fictional ones in their general knowledge (Marsh et al. 2003). This suggests that the typical scripts depicted in porn may exert considerable influence in shaping audiences' expectations for sexual encounters, including their negotiation (Popova 2015), especially as alternate sources of information —for example in sex education materials— are often lacking or inadequate (Albury 2014).

Feminist porn auteurs such as Tristan Taormino have explicitly embraced this educational function (Voss 2014), giving communication and consent a salient role in their works, and the implications of such alternative pornographies have been extensively debated (cf. Taormino et al. 2013). However, examinations of notion of consent conveyed (largely in an inexplicit manner) in more mainstream pornographic materials remain rare. This project seeks to fill this gap by examining the representations of sexual negotiation, refusal and coercion in a large body of amateur-authored erotic narratives drawn from, one of the oldest and largest erotic fiction repositories online. Drawing on the seminal work of Popova (2015, 2017) as well as the conversation-analytic literature on sexual refusals (Kitzinger & Frith 1999; O'Byrne et al. 2006), we seek to: first, identify the range of textual signals associated with the requesting, granting, refusing or withdrawing of consent, including characters' explicit statements, nonverbal cues such as gesture or facial expression, and indirect cues provided by narrative structure, focalisation and mind style (Semino 2007); and second, examine their prevalence across the corpus and their role in the stories' overall narrative structure.

consent, refusal, agency, gender studies, erotica, pornography, online fiction, porn studies, corpus linguistics, corpus stylistics, corpus-assisted discourse analysis