The 21st century take on consent is that it exists in a vacuum – anyone making a decision, regardless of the circumstances (sexual or no), is free of pressure of any kind. So that would make rape not about sex, but rather about taking the choice to choose away from someone, or disregarding the answer they gave even if you posed the question. Rape is about power.
With this in mind, it makes it difficult to observe scenes from Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark, and be comfortable with the outcome. The situation that people think of in relation to the prior comments would be Eli and Keira’s sexual involvement. Does Keira agree to have sex with Eli? Yes, she states, “I know part of the reason I want you is that I’m . . . dying. But it is you I want. Not just a warm body” (Butler 560). She tells him she wants him. Bingo: consent.
So what’s the problem? Keira gave consent. Eli respected her ability to give consent to him. They had sex after. However, as much as we perhaps like to think that consent exists in a vacuum, it most likely doesn’t. This stems from the fact that there are power hierarchies – that Keira doesn’t quite understand yet – that she is engaging in. Additionally, Eli is her captor – can you give consent free of duress to your captor? Perhaps, but the case would be hard to make. Keira probably believes that she did. But for audiences today, there’s a source of discomfort for us that we can’t quite pinpoint – maybe it’s the difference in age (a teenager and a man who surpasses the age of 30), or maybe it’s the question of what would happen, in a negative context, if she told Eli no.
Another source of discomfort for readers engaging in this scene might stem from Keira’s reasoning. Arguably, that might be a source of duress – she’s “dying” of leukemia. But perhaps because it’s beyond an animalistic “I want you” scenario that can crop up in modern literature, her reasoning is somewhat acceptable.
What essentially becomes clear to the readers is that this becomes somewhat of an ethical issue because of the ambiguity, and the lack of clarification for how we are supposed to interpret and justify this scene – and if it can even be justified. It’s an ethical issue in that we, as readers, are asked to engage in a scene where the lines between what is morally acceptable, right and wrong, are unclear. The new issue is, does this ethically compromise us as readers? That would seem to be the case – the ambiguity doesn’t allow us to determine how we should read this scene. What to do? You can’t not read the scene – it’s part of the book. Not reading it isn’t going to prevent the scene from occurring in the plot line. It illustrates to us the development of both Keira and Eli alike. Do we distance ourselves from it, in an emotional context, and then damn it? Perhaps. It might be the best option considering all the reasons for which the readers become uncomfortable when reading this.
Dr. McCoy, to paraphrase her, seems to be fond of saying something along the lines of, “consent is the best mechanism we’ve got right now” – but it’s only the best as long as people understand and choose to enter into a social contract to pose the questions necessary to request consent, and more importantly, respect whatever the answer is, whether positive or negative, that is given. That said, is this passage ever reconcilable in Butler’s fiction and the ethical issue it poses to readers, or is it something to damn because of the ambiguity?