Clotilde Leguil, psychoanalyst: ‘Giving in is not consenting’

The French writer analyzes the ambiguities of consent, from the intimate aspect to the political one

Clotilde Leguil
Clotilde Leguil photographed in the French capital on October 10.Samuel Aranda

Clotilde Leguil (Paris, 55) strolls down the Boulevard du Montparnasse one October afternoon. On one corner, stands La Closerie des Lilas, the legendary brasserie, and in the background, the Luxembourg gardens. Samuel Aranda captures her amid the silent comings and goings of anonymous Parisians — each with their own secret lives, their own troubles. Leguil, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, has developed an eye for what lies beneath, the underlying humor of our times. In L’ère du toxique (which translates as The toxic era in English), her recently published book in French, she boldly uses such an omnipresent word — ‘toxic.’ This is a dissection of another modern-day issue: consent and its limits. Leguil was inspired by some demonstrative collages painted on the city’s street walls that conveyed a “fair and profound” message, she said during the interview, prior to the walk along Montparnasse: “Giving in is not consenting.”

Question. And what is the difference between consenting and giving in?

Answer. Consent implies a part of ambiguity. It doesn’t stand on a preliminary knowledge and, finally, it always leads to a kind of leap, a detachment from oneself in favor of the encounter. However, we must differentiate between the ambiguity of consent, which can lead the subject to a kind of enigma about their desire, and the traumatic experience of what Lacan called “giving in to the situation” in 1963. In this case, the subject undergoes a process of actual forcing that makes them unable to respond to what is happening to them. Distinguishing between the two experiences, that of consenting and that of giving in, brings clinical, ethical and political issues into play.

Q. Politics?

A. Yes, because the question of consent has been posed, since the Age of Enlightenment, as a question that lies at the foundation of authority. The sovereign’s authority is not based on nature, nor on God nor on tradition, but, from that moment on, on the consent of those subject to the social pact. Yet here, there can also be a forcing of consent. Camus in The Rebel, written in 1951, showed us that totalitarian ideology is based on the annihilation of consent. Orwell demonstrates this very well in 1984 as well. At the same time, it’s a matter of forcing the consent of the subjects by extracting a “yes” from them and, thereby, annihilating this consent.

Q. A consent that, you stress, is ambiguous.

A. In the sphere of intimacy, but also in the political context, consent isn’t reduced to pure contract. Instead, it’s a verbal pact, based on trust, and an experience that brings desire into play. When I consent to someone else or to a discourse, I don’t necessarily know where it will lead, but I consent because I agree with the newness of the encounter. It’s a risk that you take and not a calculation of interests. At the same time, I think it’s essential to define the moment when something turns into a forcing experience. It’s crucial not to confuse what is ambiguous about consent with the traumatic encounter.

Q. In Spain, the so-called ‘only yes is yes’ law was passed last year. But could a ‘yes’ respond to a forced giving in and not to a consent, according to the distinction you make?

A. I like this formula, because ‘yes’ is beautiful, it is an opening towards the other. ‘Yes’ is truly ‘yes’ to the other.

Q. Could there be ‘yeses’ that become ‘noes’?

A. Indeed, ‘only yes is yes’ doesn’t fully resolve the question of the experience of consent. In the case of Vanessa Springora [the author of Consent, a book about her relationship, when she was 14 years old, with the writer Gabriel Matzneff, who was 50], although she was a minor, there was a ‘yes’ on her part, a genuine consent. But was it a ‘yes’ to what happened to her afterward? Basically, when you consent to an encounter, whether you are a minor or an adult, you say ‘yes’ on the basis of a certain trust towards the other. But you may have said ‘yes’ to an encounter and find yourself in a situation of betrayal, of forced consent, because what you said ‘yes’ to isn’t what you ended up finding. Vanessa Springora said ‘yes’ based on a belief in love and gave in to a situation that wasn’t love, but which made her a pure object of another’s enjoyment.

Q. How would you analyze the public kiss this summer, after Spain’s victory in the football World Cup, from the then president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation to the winning player Jenni Hermoso?

A. Control over another’s body in public is a demonstration of power. Through this action, which didn’t take into account Jenni Hermoso’s consent or non-consent, something was asserted that relates to the monopoly of enjoyment that is enforced as legitimate from a position of power. And even more so knowing that the scene was unfolding before everyone’s eyes.

Q. In your new book in French, you study the word ‘toxic.’ Why has its use become so widespread?

A. Because it designates a new form of malaise in civilization, to quote Freud. Today, the word ‘toxic’ is used as a metaphor for what poisons us in our relationships with others. If the term has gained traction, it’s also in the post-MeToo political context, which has introduced a new kind of sensitivity towards rape, and in a post-pandemic historical context, which has confronted us with the vulnerability of being alive. What is toxic is both what forces something of our desire and what endangers what is alive. It’s a way of putting a name to an experience that suffocates us, a new discomfort in pleasure, a misdirection of the impulse. It involves a strange poison. We could say that the toxic experience can procure a form of pleasure that also produces an addiction, and only in retrospect does it appear as something harmful and dangerous for human life.

Q. How can you detoxify?

A. If we believe what is toxic to be an effect of discourse, of the word of another, we can only resort to the pharmakon [the remedy], which is also the word, but a word that instead of suffocating us will allow us to breathe and explore what has intoxicated us, and it will guide us towards the recognition of our desire.

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