How the Four-Hand Condom Got Consent Wrong - Rolling Stone
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How the Four-Hand Condom Got Consent Wrong

It’s hard to sell a product that encourages sexual consent if you don’t understand consent to begin with

Earlier this week, the Argentine condom and sex toy company Tulipan came out with an ad for a “consent” condom pack. In order to use the condom, the condom package must be pressed on all four sides simultaneously, which means that it requires four hands to open.

Tulipan marketed the campaign with the hashtag, #PlacerConsentido, or “permitted pleasure.” It clearly wanted to make a creative and powerful statement about how the enthusiasm of both parties is necessary to create a positive sexual experience. It also clearly thought, as most companies do when they create such socially conscious campaigns, that it would be lauded for promoting this message. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Instead of being applauded for promoting the importance of consent, the Tulipan condom ad was excoriated on social media, for a fairly wide range of reasons. Some argued it was ableist, as it discounted the experience of amputees who would be unable to open the condom; others argued that it was discriminatory against polyamorous people, on the grounds that it assumed that only two people would be having sex. Some people even expressed concern that such condoms would be used as “evidence,” potentially in sexual assault cases, to protect those accused of sexual assault rather than the accusers, as a way to demonstrate that consent had been provided when it in fact had not.

Ultimately, these arguments were somewhat moot, as the Tulipan condom was never meant to actually be sold in stores, says Joaquin Campinas, executive creative director. “It was never intended for sale. It is a limited edition designed only to raise awareness about… consent and for that reason it can’t have commercial purposes,” Campinas said in an email to Rolling Stone.

But one argument that was legitimate — and that underlined a bigger issue with ad agencies and their recent approach to consent issues in general — was that the Tulipan ad fundamentally misunderstood the concept of consent. As one woman wrote, “putting on a condom does not equal automatic consent of all sexual activity.” The ad basically glosses over the fact that consent can be revoked midway through the act — if one partner does something that the other is uncomfortable with, for instance, or simply if one partner changes their mind for whatever reason. Agreeing to use a condom is a step in the ongoing process of obtaining sexual consent, but it is by no means the final one, and some argued that the campaign minimized the need for an ongoing and open dialogue about consent during and after sex, not just beforehand.

To be fair, Tulipan is far from the first company to hone in on the growing conversation around consent and use it as a brand marketing tactic. Last year, Ogilvy Sao Paolo created an ad for a “smart dress” for the brand Schweppes, which registered how often women were groped at a club. The ad showed men who had previously expressed misogynistic views watching the video with horror, apparently blown away by the hard data illustrating what women have been trying to tell them all along: that harassment is a problem, and that it is rampant.

There is also a growing industry of well-intentioned tech entrepreneurs inventing wearables to prevent sexual assault, thus treating it like just another sector of the market to be disrupted. In 2017, for instance, an MIT graduate invented a Bluetooth-enabled sticker that was designed to call five emergency contacts automatically if it was taken off by force, unless the wearer indicated that the disrobing was consensual. (The fact that the video for the sticker featured it being put on a bra made it all the more creepy.) Consent apps designed to be used by both parties before sexual encounters have also been criticized by sexual assault prevention for failing to recognize, as was the case with the Tulipan ad, that consent is an ongoing dialogue, and the boundaries for what is and isn’t OK in bed can and should be continuously discussed and renegotiated. “It’s not a contract between two individuals,” Reina Gattuso wrote for Feministing. “It’s a collective process of creating more egalitarian social norms which operates from our bedrooms to our classrooms to our movements.”

And this, ultimately, is the central problem with ad agencies treating consent as a commodity like any other on the marketplace, something that can be sold to consumers via slick, millennial-pink-hued marketing tactics: this can only be effective if both the buyer and the seller understand the product to begin with. And even in 2019, when it comes to consent, that is woefully not the case: studies have shown, time and again, that many people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes sexual misconduct and what does not.

According to one horrifying 2017 survey, only 64% of respondents said that “watching someone in a private act without their knowledge and permission” counted as a violation of sexual consent, and only 67% of men said they thought that “sexual intercourse where one of the partners is pressured to give their consent” counted as sexual assault. If nearly one-third of men don’t understand one of the most fundamental tenets of consensual sex — i.e., that both partners must provide it, willingly and without being under duress — then it’s going to take a lot more than a clever ad for a condom to course-correct here. 

For its part, Tulipán seems happy with the brutal response to the ad, simply by virtue of the fact that it started a conversation in the first place. “At BBDO we are very happy with everything that was generated around this initiative,” Campinas said when asked about the harsh criticism of the ad, attributing the campaign’s shortcomings to the fact that “Tulipán is a local brand, which does not have big budgets.”

“The aim of this campaign is to raise awareness and promote the debate in society about consent when having sex,” he says. “The fact that all these new edges of the debate arise (for example, that consent can be revoked), feed the campaign and help putting the issue on the table.” But the real question is, why should there be any debate around sexual consent at all?  

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