Review of Sex, Consent and Justice: A New Feminist Framework by Tina Sikka. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021. 264 pages
Review by Polina Zelmanova, University of Warwick
In her new book Sex, Consent and Justice: A New Feminist Framework, Tina Sikka builds upon her engagement with feminism and social justice in a timely contribution to the study of the #MeToo movement. The book’s central argument responds to the important issue that our current legal framework does not serve women ethically or juridically in the context of gender-based violence (2). In response, Sikka develops a new framework based on “anti-codification wherein justice is achieved through restorative and reparative alternatives” (66). This framework takes into consideration issues of power, looks at sex beyond a discrete act and instead as something that traverses boundaries, whilst acknowledging women’s oppression in everyday life. She calls this approach the “pleasure and care-centred ethic of embodied and relational sexual Otherness” (vii) which she proposes as an ideal to serve cases of sexual violence in a more ethical and restorative way, whilst accounting for the complexities of both sex and consent.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is Sikka’s thorough effort to contextualise her framework within concepts such as feminism, consent, discourses around sex and identity, and justice, which are the focus of Chapters 1 to 4. In taking the time to frame and historicise these concepts, Sikka offers an insightful and accessible summary and discussion around the various points of contention arising during #MeToo which serve as the impetus for her intervention. Sikka’s discussion of the various movements and moments as interconnected, such as the way postfeminism, queer theory and intersectionality all bleed into fourth wave feminism (19), reveals important sites of tension and controversy which are reflected in the present discourse about the movement.
In theorising the “pleasure and care-centred ethic of embodied and relational sexual Otherness” Sikka convincingly challenges consent as the key to sexual permissibility. Her framework simultaneously expands consent to be seen as verbal, non-verbal and embodied, drawing on Fischel’s model of sexual autonomy (2019). She also prioritises relationality in the form of issues of power and history in the face of social and judicial unwillingness to acknowledge conditions of inequality (65). Crucially, Sikka draws on BDSM and queer theory to expand definitions of both pleasure and care to include consensual danger and nonheteronormative acts. This leaves space for queer sex but also for non-pleasurable but consented sex like sex-work, which have not been sufficiently accounted for within the current consent structures under #MeToo.
Following on from this established ideal of sexual relations, Sikka makes a strong case for restorative justice as an alternative to carceral criminal justice when it comes to the #MeToo movement. She defines restorative justice as “an umbrella term meant to cover a host of alternatives to traditional, state-led forms of justice that involve the police, courts, judges, juries and, potentially, the incarcerated” (80). Drawing on recent criticism of carceral feminism (Fischel 2019; Mack & Mcann 2018) she argues that #MeToo’s social justice objectives are anachronistic with their solution of punitive incarceration, particularly in light of the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement which advocates for decarceration and police and prison abolition (78).
Sikka uses the rest of her book to constructively criticise the current punitive system whilst hypothesising how her own framework of restorative justice through the ‘pleasure and care-centred’ can be applied. She does this through five descriptive case studies extracted from the #MeToo popular discourse, including Harvey Weinstein (through which she lays out her methods), Louis C.K, Jian Ghomeshi, Professor Avital Ronell and Aziz Ansari. The cases are chosen as representative of acquaintance assaults which are Sikka’s focus, as well as for their high-profile nature and large amount of media coverage which speaks to their social importance (100). Sikka acknowledges the celebrity focus of her case studies, leaving room for further exploration of non-celebrity examples. The inclusion of the Ronell case offers an interesting detour from the more commonly analysed cases, focusing within academia itself as a space of unequal power. The case further offers an insightful complication to the heterosexual male perpetrator narrative when looking at the assault of a queer man by a queer woman, exploring gendered codifications of sex and assault in a different light.
These chapters begin with narrative, interpretive analysis and critical discourse analysis which looks at media responses to the case with a focus on the construction of consent. Sikka then applies her own framework as an alternative ideal and explores the potential of restorative justice as an alternative intervention. Despite the repetitive format of the case studies, the varying nuances of each case chosen, particularly as they relate to power, race, gender and sexuality, enables a well-rounded view of the ways in which her proposed framework interacts with varying social ambiguities and tensions.
The biggest strength of Sikka’s proposed framework is the way in which it not only offers an alternative process for dealing with acquaintance assault, but simultaneously allows a reconsideration of the limits of permissibility and consent whilst not only restoring justice but creating social change by addressing “the larger context of inequality in which the crime occurred” (114). The various examples and interrogations of both the current system and Sikka’s new framework confirm her statement that “Restorative justice has the potential to function as a pedagogical and transformational process of healing that works in ways traditional criminal approaches have not” (116). The book is an excellent contribution to current writing about #MeToo (such as Wilz 2020; Wypikewski 2020; Fileborn & Loney-Howes 2019; Boyle 2019; Bartlett 2019) and crosses multiple disciplines by drawing on legal definitions, media coverage, pop culture moments, academic and theoretical frameworks, provoking the need to further address the ‘grey’ areas in the #MeToo discourse.
Polina Zelmanova (she/her) is a future M4C-funded PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, due to start her research in October 2022. Her thesis is titled ‘Sex in Contemporary Film and TV: Power and Pleasure after #MeToo’. She is interested in the representation and politics of sex and sexuality in popular culture as well as broader frameworks of queer and feminist screen studies. More broadly, she is attracted to work on the politics of the body and desire on screen, lesbian studies and feminist film festival practices. Her PhD is fully funded by the AHRC-funded Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership under the supervision of Professor Rachel Moseley and Professor Catherine Constable.
Bartlett, Alison et al, Flirting in the era of #MeToo: negotiating intimacy (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)
Boyle, Karen, #MeToo, Weinstein and feminism, (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)
Fileborn, Bianca and Rachel Loney-Howes, #MeToo and the politics of social change (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)
Wilz, Kelly, Resisting rape culture through pop culture: sex after #MeToo (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2020)
Wypijewski, JoAnn, What we don’t talk about when we talk about #metoo: essays on sex, authority & the mess of life (London: Verso, 2020)