Consent is an insufficient ethic for sex

I am not a victim of sexual abuse. Nor, as a man, have I found sexual harassment to be part of my daily reality of being an adult. I’ve never had to think too hard about sexual misconduct in my own life.

Over the past few months, I have been horrified by non-stop revelations about sex abuse by men. It’s not just the grim details — it’s the underlying truth that each new story drives home: that this is normal, and especially normal wherever men have power.

Much of these stories have shocked me in a way that they haven’t shocked women. I was particularly disappointed by allegations about comedian Asiz Ansari, whose relationship comedy Master of None — I had thought — seemed to portray a positive, sympathetic picture of 21st Century dating.

Thanks to the #MeToo movement on social media, I’ve been reading more by women about their experience of assault situations, and their perspectives on consent. Their testimony has given me pause to challenge some of my past behaviours—and helped me reflect on how I learned to have a sexual relationship. This has also come at a time in my life when I have very recently come to faith as a Christian — as well as getting married last year.

In short, all of my attitudes on sex and relationships have shifted in the last 12 months.

If you had been asked me last year what my sexual ethics were — this is what I would likely have said. “So long as both adults are willing, who cares.” I don’t think I would have been alone. The Western world seems to have decided that “consent” is the only ethic we must comply with when it comes to sex. It is precisely this ethic that abusers like Harvey Weinstein violate — and much of the debate in the press around later allegations has been about trying to “draw the line” so that we can keep consent as the sole, golden rule that separates abuse from harmless casual sex.

Consent is not ambiguous, in the way some commentators try to make out. Now, there is certainly a problem when people — and it’s usually men — take a too simplistic understanding of what consent means. I’m not describing the putrid idea of “blurred lines” that so often creeps into sexist culture and music. I’m talking about situations in which people — and it’s mostly women — feel obliged, guilt-tripped or pressured into shitty, one-sided sex (great article on that here). Sex must always be an unambiguously two-way street, and the idea of “enthusiastic consent” is a good short hand for that.

But is even a full understanding of consent all that we should hope for in our sexual ethics? It seems such a pitifully low bar.

In the same way that “tolerance” of ethnic minorities suggests a begrudging attitude, allowing the heart of xenophobia to persist — I wonder if the idea of “consent”, on its own, speaks to a transactional attitude, seeing each other as less than human.

When we have sex with someone, we are not just agreeing a fair exchange of goods.

When we have sex, we are sharing the most intimate experience we can have as independent minds who inhabit fleshy bodies. We expose all sorts of vulnerabilities, at great risk: including our physiology, our sense of self-worth, and our ravenous need to be loved. We unleash some of our strongest desires into the world, desires that, if we are not careful, can be diminishing of our humanity, or the humanity of our partner.

Because of this — intentions, as well as permissions, are important in understanding the ethics we have to consider in sex. But the problem is that intentions change over time — and people’s intentions are much harder to discern than their permissions.

When we do not know our partner well, we find our understanding of how someone sees us shifting before, during and after a sexual encounter. We can take a guess at someone’s intentions towards us — i.e. whether they value us as a human being, not just a sexual object. But these judgment calls change in real time, over the course of a single date, minute by minute.

Most devastatingly of all, our understanding of people’s intentions can change after the fact.

This is why consent can so quickly feel like it was falsely given; why even partners who do not cross a line of consent can still be abusive; and why a sexual relationship that is fully and even enthusiastically consensual can still be, ultimately, demeaning and harmful to ourselves or others.

Many of us find, too late, that sex is not what we were looking for after all — that, actually, we were seeking validation, or just friendship, an end to a temporary loneliness, or something more. Understanding this is just as important to knowing whether or not sex is degrading or harmful.

In short, we play a risky game, entrusting so much of ourselves into the wills of other people as we do when we have sex. It confers an awesome responsibility. And I believe that everyone knows this, deep down.

Yet we seem wedded to the idea that sex between two willing adults, in and of itself, carries no moral consequence. It is just sex. I can understand why people prefer to think like this. It has come as a result of a culture change that has helped to de-stigmatise people and break down the oppressive shaming that has policed sexual relations for centuries.

But perhaps it has also allowed us to set the bar too low when it comes to our sexual ethics. I have increasingly come to suspect that coercion and harassment are but one side of a culture that sets out all the wrong expectations for how sex should be.

With consent alone as a check on our behaviour, single people have to navigate a lonely hook-up culture that, in all sorts of implicit ways, treats relationships as a game of eliciting a ‘yes’ from someone. This conditions us into learning behaviour that elicits consent, rather than a set of values of which mutual consent is just one.

How many stories do we need to be told of women who saw attractive qualities in their date, only to see them snatched away, like mere stage props, once it is clear they have ‘failed’ to elicit consent? Even within the commitment of a long term relationship, consent-seeking behaviour can make us just as much of a sex pest, or a victim of it.

We ought to know that it is the whole of a person that we seek in sex — not just permission to their body.

A better ethic than just “consent” — even enthusiastic consent — might be to say that sex must always be accompanied by a loving duty of care. That we must never have sex with someone unless we also commit to their best interests — before, during and after we have sex with them. On that note, I’m drawn to David Brook’s idea of “covenant relationships” — a beautiful idea that does not require any religious belief to make perfect sense. I’m convinced that all sexual relationships must be treated as covenantal.

Perhaps that is asking too much of people in a world that struggles to even get consent right. But if so, then this is precisely the ground upon which your run-of-the-mill sex abuser is as guilty as the most respectfully ‘good’ man out there. And that is a sobering thought.

I am incredibly grateful to a range of women who have helped me think through these issues. Particularly my wife.

This article on the Aziz Ansari situation is very good and also says almost all of what I’m trying to express here.

I have also found this sermon by Timothy Keller particularly instructive on the Christian view of sex.

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David Reed

David Reed

Set up @GenChange, now work for my local church. Interested in how #SocialPurpose can re-shape society and our lives.