The Semiotics of Consent and the American Law Institute’s Reform of the Model Penal Code’s Sexual Assault Provisions




Criminal Law, Consent, American Law Institute, Model Penal Code, Sexual Offenses, feminism, sexual assault, communication, sociology of law, text interpretation


The concept of consent is  ubiquitous in the West.  It is the foundation of its construction of meaning for sovereignty (and political legitimacy), and for personal autonomy (and human dignity). Ubiquity, however, has come with a price.  The making of a transposable meaning for consent that bridges political community and interpersonal relations  has drawn sharply into focus  the malleability of the concept, and its utility for masking a power of politics behind an orthodoxy of meaning that is both politically correct, and at the same time its own inversion. This short essay on the semiotics of “consent” considers the manifestation of the concept as object, as symbol, and as a cluster of political interpretation that itself contains within it the Janus faced morality of political correctness. It takes as its starting and end point the idea that free consent is the product of a process of management that reduces consent to the sum of status and authority over the thing assented.  The exploration is framed around the recent arguments in the American Law institute’s Model Penal Code Project around the meaning of consent in sexual relations.  The essay first situates the problematique of consent—as action and object that incarnates power relations and the boundaries of the taboo. It then  illustrates the way that semiotic meaning making produces a political correctness that produces paradox by critically chronicling the meaning of consent  respecting sexual intimacy in criminal law. It enhances sexual liberation by placing it within a cage of limitations that  ultimately transfers the power over consent form the individual to the state. That meaning making suggests the way that consent as an act, and as a state of being, is transposed to the broader context of political economic relations.


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