March 25, 2022

In the decades since the sexual revolution which unmoored our sexual ethics from any resemblance of Biblical teaching, the results are now clear: Consent is not enough!  This observation made by Christine Emba in the Washington Post provides an insightful place from which to consider where we go from now.  Not appealing directly to the Biblical teaching, Emba nevertheless uses a definition of LOVE that requires the life-long commitment to the well-being of the other.

Emba states, in part:

“Even when it goes well, sex is complicated. It involves our bodies, minds and emotions, our connections to each other and our deepest selves. Despite the (many, and popular) arguments that it’s only a physical act, it is clear to almost anyone who has had it that sex has vast consequences, some of which can last long after an encounter ends. Over the past several decades, our society has come to believe that consent — as a legal standard and a moral requirement — could somehow make our most unruly activity more manageable. But it was never going to be that easy….”

“The problem with all this is that consent is a legal criterion, not an ethical one. It doesn’t tell us how we should treat each other as an interaction continues. It doesn’t provide a good road map should something go off the rails. And it suggests that individual actions — “ask for consent,” “speak your mind,” “be more forceful in saying yes or no” — are enough to preempt the misunderstandings and hurt that can come with physical intimacy.

Too often, they’re just not. And setting consent as the highest bar for any encounter effectively takes a pass on the harder questions: whether that consent was fairly obtained; whether it can ever fully convey what our partners really, ultimately want; whether we should be doing what we’ve gotten consent to do.

More clarifications of consent — or ever-more-technical breakdowns of its different forms — won’t rebalance power differentials, explain intimacy or teach us how to care. Making the standard of consent our sole criterion for good sex punts on the question of how to conduct a relationship that affirms our fundamental personhood and human dignity.

And an overreliance on consent as the sole solution might actually worsen the malaise that so many people feel: If you’re playing by the rules and everything still feels awful, what are you supposed to conclude?…”

“And when we do object to a particular act or practice, there isn’t language to do so. Since we have made it effectively impossible for anything apart from nonconsent to be wrong, we end up framing issues in that prevailing standard — the consent given wasn’t the right kind, we say: It wasn’t verbally affirmative or visibly enthusiastic. There’s no clear way to talk about the underlying problems of sexual acts agreed to in order to “be polite,” to please a pushy partner or to avoid something worse.

This is the problem with consent: It leaves so much out. Nonconsensual sex is always wrong, full stop. But that doesn’t mean consensual sex is always right. Even sex that is agreed to can be harmful to an individual, their partner or to society at large.

As a society, we tend to shy away from declaring certain behaviors intrinsically wrong, or right, or uncomfortably in between. The focus on consent has — perhaps inadvertently — allowed us to dodge difficult questions about morality, autonomy and what our sexual culture ought to look like.

But that low-bar formulation doesn’t begin to cover the complications that arise in modern-day dating and mating. And the gap between what young people want the sexual landscape to look like and what the consent paradigm offers is turning many off of sex entirely, as evidenced by falling rates of sexual activity, partnership and marriage — some have dubbed this the “sex recession” — that recently hit a 30-year low. One woman told me that at the age of 34 she had “just stopped thinking a relationship is even possible.” Rather than expanding our happiness, liberation seems to have shrunk it.…”

“I asked many of these people what a better sexual world might look like. “Listening,” I heard. “Care,” they said. “Mutual responsibility,” some suggested. Or, as one woman plaintively put it: “Can we not just love each other for a single day?”

That question points to what looks to me like a good answer. The word “love” tends to conjure ideas of flowers, chocolate, declarations of undying devotion. But the term has a longer, more helpful history. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian, defined love as “willing the good of the other.” He borrowed that definition from Aristotle, who talked about love as an intention to bear goodwill toward another for the sake of that person and not oneself.

Willing the good means caring enough about another person to consider how your actions (and their consequences) might affect them — and then choosing not to act if the outcome would be negative. It’s mutual concern — thinking about someone other than yourself and then working so their experience is as good as you hope yours to be. It’s taking responsibility for navigating interactions that might seem ambiguous, rather than using that ambiguity to excuse self-serving “misunderstandings.”

In practice, this would mean that we have to think about the differentials in power that come with age, gender, experience, intoxication level and expectations of commitment, especially when clothes come off. This new ethic would also acknowledge that sex is likely to be something different and more substantial than we want or expect it to be. This makes it our responsibility to make a good-faith bet on what the good actually is — and what just might be a bad idea.”

To read the entire article click here.