CW/TW: Sexual Assault, Rape Culture
by Deb Kozak
Recently, a sex toy company in Argentina got our attention for creating a new condom to promote safe sex and consent. Our interest quickly turned into disappointment when we learned the product is based on many assumptions that do more to undermine consent culture than to advance it.
The package can only be opened by two people using both of their hands simultaneously. Sounds like a big leap forward for establishing consent before sexual activity happens, right? Perhaps in theory, but here’s what the product and the campaign is missing.
By solely focusing on two person, PIV (penis-in-vagina) penetrative sex, the designers and marketers have ignored the many ways people of all genders express themselves sexually. Equally concerning is that they have completely erased the sexual experiences and needs of people with disabilities.
The design of the so-called “consent condom” is based on the mistaken assumption that consent needs to only happen once before sexual activity begins.
But that’s not how consent works.
Consent to one activity isn’t consent for all activities that might happen in a sexual encounter. Nor is it automatic consent for future encounters, with that same partner or with others. Consent needs to be ongoing throughout a sexual encounter. Consent can be withdrawn by any partner at any time. Suggesting that a single gesture — the mutual opening of a condom package — sends the damaging message that consent really is a one-time event. And that does more to support rape culture and victim-blaming than it does consent culture.
Not being able to open a condom package isn’t going to prevent sexual assault from happening. Most perpetrators of sexual assault don’t use condoms when they choose to rape or assault someone.
An open package actually doesn’t establish that consent was given. In reality, people are often verbally or physically coerced into having sex and may also be coerced into opening the product.
In these post #MeToo times, people who don’t understand the nuances of consent – or the power dynamics at play in sexual assault – are increasingly looking for concrete evidence that consent was given at one point. We can’t help but wonder whether the product was designed more to protect men from sexual assault accusations (“Look! Evidence of consent!”), than to protect women – and transgender and non-binary people with vaginas – from being sexually assaulted.
For now, the consent condom is only available in limited edition in Buenos Aires, with plans to make it available online later this year. While we may be a long way from finding this product on shelves in Canadian stores, we know that advertising is a powerful force in shaping people’s attitudes and actions. It’s problematic that neither the product nor its marketing campaign get to the real issues behind sexual assault. They also have the potential to harm by perpetuating false ideas about what consensual sex really looks like.
This awareness campaign, however well-intended, reminds us that when it comes to creating a culture that supports sexual consent, we still have a long way to go.
Deb Kozak is a Communications and Policy specialist at Women’s Health Clinic.