Consent underwear: it was a pretty amusing idea when it was a consciousness-raising prank perpetrated by arty feminist activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. The fake Victoria’s Secret website they created purported to hawk undies emblazoned with anti-rape slogans. Everyone on Facebook and Twitter thought it was real for a little while, and the outpouring of support was huge.
This prank was pretty nice, because the idea that a misogynormous corporate purveyor of rape culture like Victoria’s Secret should actually be on women’s side for a change, using its far-reaching brand recognition to (putatively) advance human rights instead of exclusively profiteering on women’s oppression, was nothing short of astonishing. FORCE’s prank parlayed the popularity of a traditionally antifeminist brand into a crap-ton of publicity for the feminist cause of consent awareness. Demand for the non-existent underwear — and conversations about consent — skyrocketed. Success!
Of course, as we are all now aware, Victoria’s Secret not only sells no such thing, the company continues to actively promote rape culture with both its porn-infused line of objectification-wear and its pukeceous, overhyped dude-fantasy TV “fashion show.” What a let-down, right? So, Amulya Sanagavarapu, a Canadian college student who believes that, to balance things out, the world needs actual real-life thongs printed with “NO MEANS NO,” has initiated a Kickstarter campaign to produce her own version of the hypothetical FORCE product.
[Just a little sidebar here: when did the female crotch turn into a sloganizable commodity? A hundred and forty-seven years ago, when I was someone whose undies were, with any frequency, in a position to be scrutinized by a second party, the days of the week scrawled in laundry marker were about the only words likely to be legible thereupon. Furthermore, the second party would likely have been too drunk to read'em.]
Meanwhile, from an article at Think Progress:
Sanagavarapu, whose Kickstarter project is called “Feminist Style,” is ultimately interested in a larger effort to subvert the mainstream messages in popular advertising. She points out that most companies rely on objectifying and sexualizing women in order to sell their products, and there’s a big opportunity for feminists to provide alternate options to challenge the status quo. In a video to promote her new effort, Sanagavarapu describes the idea as “leveraging the consumerist aspects of our society to create social change.”
Sanagavarapu’s Kickstarter page says that she will use the proceeds from the sale of the feminist panties (is it just me, or is “panties” a creepy word?) to buy “feminist advertising.” This, in turn, will generate more consent-panties sales, which will generate more consent-panties, then more advertising, then back to more panties, and so forth. It remains to be seen if, or for how long, consent-panties can support this cycle of feminist capitalism.
Feminist capitalism! Dear lord.
I don’t wish to be overly critical. There certainly are worse messages Sanagavarapu could be trying to sell. Besides, anytime a gal can scrape out a living in this world without actively slut-shaming anyone she totally gets a hell-yeah from Savage Death Island. As for the product’s potential to effect social change, I suppose it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that a “CONSENT IS BOOTYFUL” bikini could, given a sufficiently receptive audience, provoke a contemplative interlude at a traditionally non-contemplative moment, or at the very least, introduce a bit of political levity into an otherwise unremarkable PBR-fueled hookup. However, as a world-renowned expert on political lingerie, I posit that the chief value in donning a consent thong would be the garment’s modest potential to reinforce within the wearer a certain sense of don’t-fuck-with-me personal sovereignty.
On the other hand, it seems unlikely that a line of consent-themed underwear marketed for profit by an unknown college student could have quite the cachet of the FORCE prank. The beauty of the original prank was its Victoria’s Secret connection and the ensuing hilarious, improbable fantasy: what if this large, influential company suddenly decided to give up misogyny? But without the conceptual artsiness of the improbable corporate juxtaposition, the underwear itself becomes kind of secondary and banal, particularly when you consider that a lot of it looks to be the same old skimpy, lacy, thongy knickers specifically designed to emulate an enpornulated heteronormative aesthetic. “Leveraging consumerism” to market feminism as a Porn2K-compliant, girlie lifestyle accessory simply is, at its core, problematic. Not entirely the “feminist alternative” to Victoria’s Secret the designer seems to be going for.
What I’m trying to say, in my usual, dependent-clausical way, is this: on the Patriarch-O-Meter this consent underwear registers inoffensive-to-benign,* but shopping is not, and should not be mistaken for, feminist activism.Another sidebar: I don’t know what “real” feminist underwear would look like, so don’t even ask me. I have struggled for years with the concept of gender-, sex-, class-, and politically-neutral clothing, but it turns out that every garment ever invented either alludes to or connotes or evokes or specifies the wearer’s position on one or more of the aforementioned continua (continuums?). Flowing robes were a candidate for a while, but even those will elicit unintended reactions from people who mistake you for a New Age navel-gazing doofus or who are cheesed-off that you seem to be coopting some ancient tribal tradition or other for your own culturally tone-deaf honky ends. Just another little data point supporting the thesis that you cannot opt out of patriarchy. Participation is compulsory, and it starts with your knickers.
Oh, and remember: stopping rape requires men to stop raping, not women to wear slogans on their crotches.
* Assuming it isn’t made by indentured slave women in a Bangladeshi firetrap or similar; I was unable to determine the product’s sweatshop status from the website.
Consent underwear pic from Feminist Style Kickstarter page.
“I will cut you” boxers from the author’s private collection.