If you've ever suffered the humiliation of a sexual assault, however innocuous by society's standards---and realised that it wasn't actually your fault---consent as a concept is probably important to you. The ability to choose who you have sex with, even if your parameters are based on totally random measurements, is a fundamental part of autonomy. Your body, and you get to choose who touches it.
The relationship between assault and consent
The basis of the definition of 'assault' is 'unwanted [physical] contact'. Someone who touches you without asking is assaulting you. The way to show someone their contact is wanted is to explicitly say so.
Sounds obvious, right?
(Of course, but it isn't the fault of the victim if they don't feel empowered enough to state it outright. Whose fault is it? Society has much to answer for.)
Assault of any kind can damage a person in profound ways that they may not even be aware of for years to come. However they react to the assault at the time, it is still assault unless they explicitly agreed to the contact. Explicitly and willingly, without coercion or persuasion.
The principle applies to partners who don't bother to wake up the other person before initiating sexual contact; it applies to hopefuls who hassle their target for hours or even days before 'getting their way', and those who fill their victim with drugs or alcohol to make them pliant.
It applies throughout all forms of relationships and not just to sexual contact.
Assault can be physical, psychic, mental, emotional and medical, and doubtless there are more arenas in which it can be inflicted.
Why is explicit consent important?
As the latest #MeToo campaign took hold in 2017, it became clear that many men who were revealed to have inflicted sexual assault on others were apparently under the impression that the contact was 'consensual'. (Yeah, right. The collective eyeroll of a billion victims of sexual assault may yet provide wind-powered electricity for decades to come.) This, despite the lack of explicit consent. Where 'no means yes', 'she didn't complain', 'she didn't say anything'.
Explicit consent is where one person makes clear their intentions and the other says clearly whether or not they want that.
Implicit consent is a social lie; it doesn't exist. What is taken as implicit consent is in fact a failure of communication, where someone means no, but they don't feel empowered enough to say it outright. They don't want to seem 'mean', or 'rude' (both considered by society to be inherently unfeminine, unattractive traits), or they worry that an outright, emphatic 'NO' would be met with disgusted denial, where they are treated as though the proposition was never on the cards. Yet it's treated as a nuanced area, as though it really means 'not in the next five minutes, but maybe in half an hour, if I'm drunk enough to go through with it'. This kind of interpretation makes for a social environment whereby 'signals' can be deliberately misread without guilt; vulnerable people who are not so good at navigating hints or doublespeak are at a greater disadvantage; and where the dynamics are weighted in the favour of the most powerful person in the liaison.
This is why explicit consent should always be the milestone by which we live. Without it, the most powerful in every relationship, however brief, should assume there is no consent. Men who complain that they are 'confused' (and are therefore less powerful than the gorgeous person they are spending time with) because their partner isn't being 'clear' about what they want, should dispense with their fears of powerlessness: their administrations aren't wanted at this time. In an ideal world, standard social behaviour should always empower the vulnerable, not the already powerful.
Unfortunately, it doesn't. Even the usually laudable 'innocent until proven guilty' rule in law effectively puts the burden of proof on victims of sexual assault. Tricky if said victim was out for the count, drugged or boozed up, or has a reputation for being a lush due to serial encounters of this type. Only this week, a man accused of raping a teenager was acquitted in Dublin after the prosecution told the jury they should consider the fact that the teen was wearing 'a lacy thong' to show that she was looking for sex.
Why write about consent in a novel?
Look, there's nothing that I can say that hasn't been said before. But that doesn't mean I should stay quiet and not say it some more. Society has so ingrained the idea that sexual assault and harassment is as much the victim's fault ('but look at what she was wearing', 'it's a compliment, you stuck up little cow', 'she was sexually promiscuous', 'she led him on') that online and in real life you see women blaming the victims, never mind defensive men claiming that they 'didn't know'.
It's clear that if it needs saying once, it needs saying a million times. Drum the point home. Society, as a male-operated world, just doesn't get it. With every girl who is sent home from school for wearing a short skirt or strappy top, the message is being given to kids that men can't withhold their urges; that the responsibility lies with the vulnerable.
Those kids are the future of society. The messages need to change now. Now.
My novel, A Bagful of Dragon includes a character who is effectively an incel, those solitary 'involuntary celibate' women haters, a man who is so embittered by his twisted view of women nutured since childhood that he believes consent is a flexible concept, one which should be treated with contempt.
It colours his every move, his every choice as an adult, and the result of those decisions has served to increase his hatred, as they have been met with continued resistance, regardless of the culture in which he has operated. When I wrote the first draft of the novel in 2017, I hadn't yet heard of 'incels' as a group. Yet it was a concept of maleness that I was somehow still fully aware of. Social media is currently getting the blame for the propagation of incel culture, but as someone who went to university in the 1990s, I can assure you it has always been around. It may not have been quite so well-defined, admittedly, but as a part of the Patriarchy's culture, it is well-established.
Consent as a theme in a novel is as valid today as it's ever been.