CE27 - Culture, création, patrimoine

Consent, sexual ethics and erotic sensibilities – ConSent

Submission summary

Sexual consent is at the heart of contemporary public debate and the subject of numerous public controversies: about sexual violence, with the #MeToo movement or the non-consent of minors, about conjugal sexuality, sex education, interpretation of sexual violence in fictions, etc. This research project proposes a new approach of sexual consent framed by an interdisciplinary study of erotic sensibilities, using Humanities (philosophy, linguistics, history, literary studies), Social Sciences and Law. Rather than a theoretical political-legal study of normative principles, it will develop a theory of normativity starting from the practices, through a historicized analysis of the different forms of expression and evaluation that social agents produce about sexual interactions. This methodological shift is grounded in three conceptual frames: speech acts theory, the history of the incarnate Self in Western individualistic societies, and gender and feminist studies. This approach seems to us the only method allowing to determine the actual place of consent among the criteria of acceptable and unacceptable sexual acts. In this way, we aim to transform the focus of contemporary controversies on sexual consent and to produce an expertise that can be used by civil and criminal law, education and pedagogy.
The hypothesis we will test is that sexual consent belongs to a form of normativity that cannot be adequately expressed in the terms, and through the concepts, of modern contractualism. This hypothesis implies three major methodological shifts: (1) It is necessary to get rid of a primarily normative ambition and to restrain from frontal criticism of contractualism, which has already been largely developed ; rather one must favor a primarily descriptive perspective: how is the expectation, or even the requirement, of consent expressed in erotic interactions and in ordinary evaluations of actions, conducts or practices, since this expression is not codified in explicit procedures ? (2) The question of sexual consent, and the sexual ethics it belongs to, has to be reinscribed in long-time history, before the emergence of contractualist political theories, in order to highlight its specificities. (3) Normative issues have then to be investigated on these new grounds: we will precisely try to understand the problems arising when we formalize the requirement of consent in statements defining abstract criteria with universal value, whereas sexual ethics is embodied in social practices and therefore always contextual. The conclusions we will reach will have practical implications for applied ethics, education, and civil and criminal justice.
The project is therefore structured in three main research areas.
I. The language of sexual consent: this part aims at determining the role and the functions of consent in erotic interactions and ordinary ethical requirements with the tools of ordinary language analysis.
II. The history of sexual consent: through an historical inquiry about erotic consent in the long time of European cultures and societies, we will aim at laying the groundwork for a new understanding of consent, focusing on the history of “erotic agreement of partners” seen as a moral value establishing sexual norms. The main question is: how did the agreement of partners become the nodal point of the moral relations one entertains with the sexual uses of one’s body ? And how was consent made its necessary condition?
III. The rules of sexual consent: the formulation of the rules of use of the unformulated sexual rules is required to regulate failures of “sexual accommodation”, especially sexual violence. But the shift from the level of informal agreement to the level of formalization of criteria of consent raises several problems. With the tools of Sociology, Philosophy and Law, we will clearly identify the various reasons of these difficulties, in order to propose ways of resolution in Ethics, Education and Law.

Project coordination

Julie Mazaleigue-Labaste (Institut des sciences juridique et philosophique de la Sorbonne)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


ISJPS Institut des sciences juridique et philosophique de la Sorbonne

Help of the ANR 358,064 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2021 - 48 Months

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