“Consent” Is Harming Us: What You Need to Know

The term consent is dangerous. Rachel Moran shares her expertise and offers hope in correct language that protects sexual autonomy.

This episode is Part 1 of Anne’s interview with Rachel Moran.
Part 1: “Consent” Is Harming Us – Here’s What You Need to Know (this episode)
Part 2: Male Entitlement to Women’s Bodies: The Ugly Truth

What if the term consent has been harming women all along?

Rachel Moran, author of Paid For, My Journey Through Prostitution, shares her incredible insights and offers correct language that affirms sexual autonomy. Tune in to The BTR.ORG Podcast and read the full transcript below or more.

Here’s How the Term “Consent” is Harming Women

“The concept of consent is the biggest part of the problem. People say to themselves, oh, well, she consentedAnd as long as those women are consenting, well, then no harm, no foul. But the term consent and the concept of consent is misplaced – not only in prostitution, but in conversations about every kind of sexual exchange. Because sex is supposed to be about mutuality, not consent. The term consent is far better suited for commercial exchanges or other kinds of exchanges that are not human, deeply human in their interactions.

As soon as we start talking about consent, we remove the intimacy. We remove what it is that actually passes between two people in a sexual exchange and it’s not supposed to involve money or any kind of coercion.

Rachel Moran

Let’s Use “Sexual Mutuality” Instead of Consent

“The thing is that there is a daily tsunami of abuse and violation that’s not only covered up, concealed, but actually condoned through the use of the word consent. At this point, I think it’s a frankly dangerous word. In prostitution, it’s a sexual one-way street. He’s getting the sex that he wants. She’s getting the money that she needs. And there is no mutuality whatsoever, which is exactly why the term consent is misapplied.

Let’s talk about mutuality, sexual mutuality, because what you’re talking about there is a sexual two-way street. And I really do think mutuality is that word.”

Rachel Moran 

BTR.ORG Is Here For You

At BTR.ORG, we understand the pain of processing sexual coercion in an intimate relationship. Please don’t bear this trauma alone. Consider attending a BTR.ORG Group Session today.

Full Transcript:

Anne (00:01): Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne.

Rachel founded an international organization formed to give voice to women who have survived the abusive reality of prostitution. She’s also the author of the best-selling book Paid For, My Journey Through Prostitution. Legal scholar Katherine McKinnon regards this book as the best work ever on prostitution.

(02:16): We are so excited to have you on. Thank you so much for your time, Rachel.

Rachel (02:21): Thank you so much for having me.

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Prostitution, Sex Trafficking, And Consent

Anne (02:23): We’re going to talk today about prostitution and sex trafficking. We appreciate all that you’ve done to help women survivors all over the world. So let’s start with the fundamental issue of men having this sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.

Rachel (02:43): It’s existed across time, but it’s changed shape. If you know what I’m saying, and intensity also across time. I think in the last 20, 25 years or so since we’ve had the Internet, social media, all these different mechanisms through which that message bombards men every day. Especially when you’re talking about, you know, 20-something young guys today, they never lived in a world without the Internet.

They cannot conceive of it. I’ll be eternally grateful that I was born in the mid-1970s and I’ll always be able to see the Internet as something that came along at one particular point in time and wasn’t always there. And I actually feel sorry for anybody who can’t hold that memory. That has been an enormous contributor in male concepts of entitlement to female bodies.

Technology Has Really Pushed Porn Hard Into The Mainstream

Anne (03:47): And is that due, in your opinion, because of their access to pornography online? I mean, that would be my assumption, but is that what you’re thinking?

Rachel (03:56): In very large part, but more than that, I think it’s more insidious than that. If you think about what life was like back in the 1980s. When MTV burst onto the scene, it suddenly introduced content that was considered very risque back then. All of that now, it’s something that we look back on and it appears almost charming, a relic of the past. Things that would have been so scandalous that they were actually banned 35, 40 years ago, now you just wouldn’t turn a hair in your head.

So we have this progression, is what I’m saying. Technology has sped everything up, really pushing porn hard into the mainstream. So that things that would have been considered pornography two generations ago, they’re not even on the porn radar anymore.

Men look At Me In Astonishment When I Tell Them I Simply Do Not Want Their Attention

Anne (04:55): With more access to men being able to view women’s bodies via the internet, can you talk about the correlation between the ability to view it whenever they want and their feelings that they’re entitled to it?

Rachel (05:15): Well, you know, there’s a line from a movie that’s just popped into my head, which is we cover what we see every day. When men see highly sexualized, normalized representations of women, they combine those two perceptions. I’ve had men look at me in absolute astonishment when I told them that I simply did not want their attention.

I remember being in an American city a few years before the pandemic came along. I’m not even sure. I can’t even remember where we were. It might have been New York, but I was over there with a few of the women and we were doing our thing, you know, working towards abolishing all of this. A man approached me in the street and was genuinely astounded when I told him that I didn’t appreciate you know, his lewd and vulgar comments.

Women Now Grow Up In A Culture Where Sexual Harassment is Normal

(06:14): And I can tell you one thing about that guy is that the astonishment was real. It was genuine. My heart goes out to young women today. I can tell you that women are growing up in a culture where sexual harassment is normalized. I mean, at this point, sexual harassment has to get physical. It has to turn into sexual assault before people have any concept of where the boundaries are, if they even do at that point.

Anne (06:48): So it’s your assertion that due to the prevalence or the men seeing it so often, they think it’s more normal than they thought it was in the past.

Pornography Is A Toxic Influence In Human Relationships And In Society

Rachel (07:02): Definitely. And female capitulation is also a part of that. I mean, there are women and no shortage of them who either turn a blind eye to their partners watching pornography, they like give the nod to their partners watching pornography, they agree to it, or they actively participate in watching pornography with them. Often unwillingly, sometimes willingly. I’ve had more conversations than I could possibly count with women in these kind of circumstances.

You know, I’ve been watching pornography all the time, I’ve done for more than a decade now. And they often tell me their personal stories and want to initiate conversations about that. So I’ve heard a lot of this stuff and from everything I’ve seen, pornography is a toxic influence in human relationships and in society more broadly.

Men Feel Like Women Owe Them Sex

Anne (07:56): Absolutely. Yeah, all of the women who listen to this podcast have been abused through their husband’s use of pornography in many, many ways. Sexual coercion, sometimes rape, which is sexual coercion. And so my audience is really familiar with the harms of pornography. This entitlement has grown so much from women’s bodies, but also women’s labor.

It’s interesting to me that as we’ve had so much progress in some ways, like women in business or women being in more leadership roles, that the entitlement to women’s bodies has not reduced. It’s increased that they feel like women owe them sex or that sex is some type of need. That if they don’t have it met, a lot of these abusive men, there will be some consequences. Their wife isn’t meeting her wifely duties.

Male Entitlement Fuels Prostitution And Sex Trafficking

(08:54): It’s really alarming and harmful to women. For my audience, knowing a really difficult part of Rachel’s story, Miss Moran was prostituted for seven years in Dublin and across Ireland beginning when she was fifteen years old. So she really has a personal story about this and shares her story in her books.

I want to talk to you about this entitlement and how it fuels prostitution and sex trafficking. And also maybe help women understand the women in this situation. Because so many of the women who listen to this podcast, their husband has perhaps solicited a prostitute, for example. So they have a hard time sometimes wrapping their head around that he not only abused his wife because he gaslit her and lied to her and psychologically abused her, but he also abused the woman that he exploited.

Prostitution Couldn’t Exist Without Male Sexual Entitlement – It Simply Couldn’t”

Rachel (09:59): Prostitution couldn’t exist without male sexual entitlement. It just simply couldn’t. I don’t think that any man in the history of the world has ever paid to put his hands on a woman in any circumstances that I can imagine except by deciding himself entitled to do so. You know, I spent a decade writing my memoir, paid for. I don’t think that I covered all of the angles because there’s far too many of them. But I gave it a good shot and we published 110,000 words in the end.

So, you know, that’s not a brief segment of writing. So I thought a lot and I’ve talked a lot, too. I’ve been giving public presentations for a long time now. Well, more than a decade. And it’s still hard to explain in a snapshot moment.

Sex Is Supposed To Be About Mutuality – Not Consent

(11:04): You know, like you’re not gonna get this across in a few minutes. I think the concept of consent is the biggest part of the problem when you’re trying to explain to people who know nothing about prostitution what the heart and soul of prostitution truly is. Because people say to themselves, oh, well, she consented. Oh, well, they consented.

Consent is A Misplaced Term

And as long as those women are consenting, well, then no harm, no foul. You know? But the term consent itself and the concept of consent is misplaced not only in prostitution, but in conversations about every kind of sexual exchange. Because sex is supposed to be about mutuality, not consent. Like the term consent is far better suit with two commercial exchanges or other kinds of exchanges that are not human, deeply human in their interactions.

We Remove The Intimacy When We Use The Word Consent

(12:07): As soon as we start talking about consent, we remove the intimacy. We remove what it is that actually passes between two people in a sexual exchange and it’s not supposed to involve money or any kind of coercion. And that’s another thing that people miss is that the cash is the coercion in prostitution. Because if you were to remove the cash from the equation, there would be simply no sex happening unless we were talking about forcible rape.

The Cash Is The Coercion

Anne (12:39): That is absolutely true. The cash is the coercion. Their situation is so desperate that men are able to coerce them due to their circumstance. Is that what you’re saying?

Rachel (12:49): Exactly. And this is why I don’t find the term trafficking very useful. It’s certainly useful for our political opponents because it allows them to make a distinction between women who are prostituted or as they would say, sex workers and women who are trafficked.

So the idea of trafficking is that it refers to women in situations of force, fraud, and coercion.

But every woman in the history of prostitution was in a situation of coercion. If you consider the cash to coercion, as I have done from my very first job when I was 15 years of age up to the present moment. I’m a lot closer to 50 now than I am to 15, you know, I’ve understood what this is for a very long time, and the truth of the matter is that most men do too.

The Majority Of Men Are Well Aware Of The Circumstances

(13:46): You will never see a man move as quickly in your life as you will if you threaten to tell his wife that he was there and you’re having the conversation in the brothel.

Anne (13:56):
Do you mean that they know very well that women who are not doing it because they enjoy it, they’re doing it because folks are paying them, and they know that they would not be doing this unless someone was paying them?

The Great Equalizer

Rachel (14:14): Yes, the majority of men are well aware of the circumstances. I have been saying for years that the moment where the veil would fall off everybody’s eyes who condones this in whatever way that they do because people tell themselves all sorts of stories, women as well as men, but I don’t believe that any of these pro-legalization voices, whether they’re, you know, in academia as they so often are, or in the media world, or whether they’re just ordinary housewives living their lives, if any individual were to walk into a room and open the door and see their own daughter sitting there on a brothel’s bed for sale, that’s the great equalizer, I think.

This Tells Us All We Need To Know About The Sex Trade

When you imagine the body of someone you love being used in that way, because, you know, what men buy in prostitution, it’s not her time, you know.

They’re not buying an hour with a sex worker, they’re buying sexual access, they’re buying the right to use that woman’s body, they’re literally buying their way inside her, and when we think about the people we love, people have used their bodies in such ways that are inconceivable to us, so that should tell us all we need to know about what the sex trade truly is.

They’re Thinking “I Just Have To Get That Yes”

Anne (15:40): It’s so heartbreaking to know that they are well aware that this is not something you would be doing, the unexploited woman would be doing, if she weren’t desperate for the money.

I like how you talked about this isn’t about consent, because the general feeling of consent is, from an abuser’s point of view, what can I do or say that will get her to have sex with me. Rather than the perspective of is she genuinely interested in having a intimate experience?

Just Getting The “Yes”

Is she actually wholeheartedly wanting a physical experience, because she feels loved and cared about and seen? They’re thinking, well, I just have to get that yes. I feel like the world sort of sees consent, I’m going to put that in quotes, as just getting the yes.

(16:33): As long as she’ll sign right here on the dotted line, good, I’ve got her. She gave her consent. I don’t know what the problem is. Rather than asking, what did she really want or need in that moment? In the case of prostitution, the likely answer is, she wants and needs money in that moment. She needed to pay the bills. She needed to be able to eat. Is that kind of what you mean that you didn’t like the word consent, because, hey, I can lie to her.

As long as she signs on that dotted line, I’m good to go, rather than actually having an interest in the person and caring about what their hopes and dreams are.

Anything That’s Used To Conceal Harm Has Got To Be Dangerous – And That’s Where I Am With The Word Consent

Rachel (17:11): The thing is that there is a daily tsunami of abuse and violation that folks not only cover up, conceal, but actually condone through the use of the word consent. At this point, I think it’s a frankly dangerous word. There was a time when I thought it was a useless word, but I’ve evolved my thinking at this stage to really believe that it’s a dangerous word. Anything that folks regularly use to conceal harm has got to be dangerous, and that’s where I’m at with the word consent. I just don’t use it anymore unless I’m explaining why I don’t use it.

Anne (18:00): So how would you define consent in the sense that a woman is genuinely interested in a sexual experience?

Use The Word “Mutuality” Instead Of “Consent”

Rachel (19:28): I talk about mutuality, sexual mutuality, because what you’re talking about there is a sexual two-way street. In prostitution, it’s a sexual one-way street. He’s getting the sex that he wants. She’s getting the money that she needs. And there is no mutuality whatsoever, which is exactly why we misapply the term consent. You talked earlier on about the way abusers just need that yes.

That’s only some of them, of course. But there’s a very deep kind of pool of thinking around all of that. And it’s not the kind of thing that you can get through in 30 minutes. But I believe that we really need to force a shift away from the use of the term consent for all the reasons I’ve described. But of course we have to, like as you alluded to, replace that with something else.

(20:26): And I really do think that mutuality is that word.

To Abusers, Consent Is A Transaction

Anne (20:30): So many organizations these days are trying to teach people about consent. And in part of that they’re saying it’s an enthusiastic yes. A lot of the abusers interpreting that as, okay, how do I groom her to think that I’m interested in her? How do I lie to her or what do I have to say to get the yes?

And I think what you’re saying is they’re seeing a consent as some sort of transaction. I’m going to give you this. You’re going to give me that.

And it’s this exchange of goods or services, essentially. That is not what a sexual experience should be about. If I’m hearing you right, you’re saying that’s why you don’t like the word consent because the way that we teach it and the way we talk about it about these days, it’s so transactional and it’s not at all relational.

(21:24): Is that what I’m hearing?

It Starts With The Language, It Moves Into The Politics, It Ends Up In Legislation

Rachel (21:25): Yeah. I mean, I believe that consent was never the right word to begin with just from a linguistic point of view. And so for that reason, I think it’s little wonder that it’s been so misused. I’ve talked a lot about this elsewhere, about language around this whole issue and the way that if you make one single misstep at the outset, every other step you take linguistically can only lead you in the wrong direction.

And you make a misstep with the language and inevitably you make a misstep with the politics and so on.

It’s a really dangerous misstep to make because it starts with the language, it moves into the politics, then it ends up in legislation. So we have to be really, really clear about the language, especially the language that we’re using when we’re initially framing ideas and concepts.

Unpacking OnlyFans

(22:17): Where society has brought us to today is something that’s we’ve just got to unpack. Looking at what all of this has given rise to. One of the dangerous things is the way that it keeps on getting more hidden. What happens is we end up with things that we see now, like OnlyFans. That’s the best kind of example that I can think of right now. OnlyFans is something that they have so expertly concealed in its nature and intentions, the way that it operates.

For a lot of us, a lot of women actually believe that this is the breakthrough that women needed to be fully autonomous in this soft core kind of version of the sex trade. We are being served up these examples of women who make fantastical amounts of money, tens and tens of millions.

“She consented” 

(23:22): The reality is for almost all women, they set up an OnlyFans account, they make a couple of hundred dollars a month. Their images will exist online forever and harm them, to their career prospects, to their reputations, to their sense of personal dignity and integrity, all for the price of what boils down to maybe a couple of cups of Starbucks coffee a day if they’re lucky. And this is the reality of what’s really going on.

Using “Consent” To Excuse Harm

But back again to that term consent, people will simply look at it and say, oh, she consented? So what’s the harm? Or, oh, she consented, so she has nobody to blame but herself?

And that’s another really dangerous aspect of the term consent, the way folks use it to excuse. So it’s society uses it in all sorts of harmful ways, and that’s one of them.

Anne (24:22): Really, these are just more and more complex ways of blaming the victim. Rachel and I are going to pause the conversation here, and we are going to continue next week, so stay tuned.

1 Comment

  1. AMY

    Maybe mutual ‘sexual’ consent. Also ’emotional’ safety to more narrowly define “safety ” because abusers, partners, clergy, and bystanders, etc. only consider abuse to be physical


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