Consent as submission: are we coming at this all wrong?

Ms Nadia David1

1Rmit, Melbourne, Australia

The practice of bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM), considered ‘deviant’ or ‘extreme’ by many, places consent squarely in the centre of all sexual encounters. To BDSM practitioners, consent is the literal difference between pleasurable sex and assault – a distinction more cautiously made by the criminal law. But there are obvious issues with the negotiation of consent and the binary notion of consensual versus non-consensual sex, particularly when the parties are effectively unequal.

Wendy Brown (1995) asserts that “consent…functions as a sign of legitimate subordination,” and sees sexual consent as  the acceptance of a proposed act or arrangement. She considers the focus on women’s consent as an acceptance of the dominant societal discourse that men initiate sex and women acquiesce to it.

Brown supports the arguably more equitable approach of contracting our sexual encounters, which assumes equality of the parties, rather than a more dominant ‘proposer’ of sex and a more submissive ‘consenter’. Have feminists, in their eagerness to ensure women are able to refuse or withdraw consent to sex at any time and any place, lost sight of the subordinate nature of consent? In talking of consent are we buying into the patriarchal concept that sexual desire is the domain of men, and women may only choose to consent or not consent to the expression of that sexual desire towards them?

This presentation will examine the ways consent is described in the criminal law (and more broadly, within socio-legal theories), with particular focus on ‘affirmative consent’ approaches. Are we looking at this all wrong? Where is the pleasure and desire part of sexual encounters? And what can BDSM teach mainstream society about sexual contracting as a more effective model of establishing the consensuality of a sexual encounter?


Nadia is originally from Tasmania and grew up in Launceston. After finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy she joined the New South Wales Police Force and was duly sent to Redfern. During her 6-year career in the police, Nadia completed her Master of Criminology while working as a Police Prosecutor, specializing in family violence. She went on to complete a Juris Doctor while working in the Australian Public Service. Nadia now lives in beautiful Beechworth, Victoria, with her husband and two kids on their horse stud. She is an Associate Lecturer at RMIT while undertaking her PhD at Monash University, looking at feminism, the criminal law and consent through the lens of sadomasochistic sexual practice.

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