Apparently, clubs now need to hire consent guardians – clearly we've misunderstood human sexuality

‘Consenticorns’ are there to protect people, but they are creating spaces that fail to acknowledge the nuances of intimacy and pleasure

Slavoj Zizek
Monday 31 December 2018 16:02
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The majority of us still prefer intimate sexual interplay, while the House of Yes practices something more akin to group sex
The majority of us still prefer intimate sexual interplay, while the House of Yes practices something more akin to group sex

The conservative right often attributes the excesses of political correctness to the destructive influence of cultural Marxism which tries to undermine the moral foundations of the Western way of life.

But if we take a closer look at these “excesses,” we can see that they are, in fact, signs of the unbridled reign of what, decades ago, political theorist Fredric Jameson called cultural capitalism: a new stage of capitalism in which culture no longer functions as a domain of ideological superstructure elevated above economy but becomes a key ingredient of the ever-expanding reproduction of capital.

One of the clearest imaginable examples of cultural capitalism is surely the commodification of our intimate life. This is a permanent feature of a capitalist society, but in the last decades it’s reached a new level. Just think about how our search for sexual partners and for good sexual performance rely on dating agencies or websites, medical and psychological help, and so on.

House of Yes, in Brooklyn, New York, adds a new twist to this game: the intricate problem of how to verify consent in a sexual interplay is resolved by the presence of a hired controlling agent. The club is a hedonistic playground where “anything goes”. Time Out voted it as the second best thing to do in the world and The Sun described as “the wildest night club on the planet”.

One of its most popular features is the introduction of “consenticorns”, people whose job it is to monitor the goings on and ensure no one’s consent is being violated. In the House of Yes, customers can do anything from naked hot tubs to drag wrestling, but they have to adhere to a strict consent policy, which is ultimately enforced by “consenticorns,” the “consent guardians” who wear light-up unicorn horns.

They observe interactions and look for signs that someone might feel unsafe. In most cases, making eye contact is enough to prevent trouble. Sometimes, a more direct intervention is needed: the consenticorn dances up to the couple and inquires if there are any problems. If it is necessary, the person responsible for the trouble is asked to leave.

The ideal that motivates the House of Yes was formulated by the nightlife impresario Anya Sapozhnikova, who celebrated there her 32nd birthday with a massive party. In a short speech, she asserted that the true goal of the House of Yes is to make consenticorns obsolete: “Imagine a world where sexuality is celebrated. Pretend that equality and inclusivity are mainstream. Envision a place where people dance together instead of ripping each other apart…” This seems to have gone down well in liberal circles. Arwa Mahdawi even wrote in The Guardian that: “House of Yes’s success is an important reminder that the stricter we are about consent, the more fun everyone can have.”

I must confess that I don’t want even to imagine such a place. Remember we are talking about having (intimate, sexualised) fun, and the implication of Mahdawi’s claim is that, in today’s society, the consent required for pure fun can only be enforced through tight control – the stricter the control over us is, the more fun everyone can have.

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The majority of us still prefer intimate sexual interplay, while the House of Yes practices something more akin to group sex. So, to let ourselves go to an evil imagination, will somebody propose also a consenticorn to observe and control a single couple’s sexual interactions?

Perhaps the partisans of the House of Yes imagine a future state where consenticorns will no longer be needed since individuals will leave behind their egotist aggressivity. However, if we learned anything from psychoanalysis it is that masochism and sadism, pleasure and pain in all its diverse forms, is an irreducible ingredient of our sexual lives, not just a secondary effect of social domination perturbing pure consensual joy. We would thus need consenticorns able to distinguish consensual sadomasochism from the exploitative one – an impossible task.

But there is an even greater complication that emerges here. The lesson of psychoanalysis is that in exhibitionism – a third witness – can be a condition of one’s pleasure. So what if one needs a consenticorn to fully enjoy a sexual experience? And what if one wants to involve a consenticorn into the erotic interplay with a partner, either as a witness who scolds or as another active participant? The basic point of psychoanalysis is that a controlling agent who exerts control and oppression can become itself a source of pleasure. In short, the entire vision of the House of Yes is based on the total ignorance of what we learned from Freud.

The idea of consenticorns is problematic for two interconnected reasons. First, it offers to resolve the problem of non-consensual sex by way of delegating the responsibility to an external hired controller: I can remain the way I am, the consenticorn will take care of me if I go too far. And if I do behave properly, it is because I fear of being caught by the controlling eye. Second, the idea of a consenticorn totally ignores the perverse implications of its practice, the unpredictable way the figure of consenticorn itself may get eroticised.

But, maybe, this is our perverse future. Maybe, our wish to the readers for the New Year should be: enjoy happy free sex with consenticorns.

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