A heated conversation on Facebook the other day got me thinking about sexual ethics. It seems to me that there’s been growing concern with the topic. I am specifically referring to such things as slut shaming, consent and the definition of rape. The problem, I think, is that the prevailing wisdom is misguided, and dangerously so, due to the unqualified reliance on consent as the foundation for sexual ethics. This is compounded by the emphasis on personal choice in sexual relationships so that there is no model of what one should strive for.
In the online discussions, consent is heralded as the champion of modern sexual ethics. It has a lot to commend to itself. It eliminates all the bad sex that people want to fence out while leaving all the freedoms that people want to keep in. It’s a simple and easy ethic and best of all it is exactly congruent with Postmodernism’s concern for individual choice and its scepticism with institutionally mandated ethics. Although it is a simple idea, we’re still in the midst of figuring out details about what is meant by consent. For example, it was recently announced that in Californian universities, consent no longer is entailed by “no means no” but rather the much stricter “yes means yes”. All in all, there seems to be an optimism about the project’s success and these little changes represent the final touches before its completion. Although I once would have been unable to find fault with the idea I now think it’s rather like a builder touching up the paint on the foundation when the reality is that it is about to be crushed under the weight of the building.
I should state that I am in complete agreement with the necessity of consent. It is the sine qua non of healthy sexual relationships. However, it is nowhere near robust enough to protect people from damaging sexual relationships. This should be obvious from the simple fact that people regularly consent to all sorts of damaging behaviours. People consent to try crystal meth for the first time, some consent to gamble away the rent check, others consent to eat cheeseburgers until their heart gives out, some risk their jobs checking facebook at work, many text and drive and some consent to play video games all night instead of studying for the big exam. Most people make bad personal choices on a regular basis, or at least I do. It should be incontestable that many are going to consent to sex when it is definitely not in their best interests.
Granted freedom is important and an entailment of freedom is the freedom to choose badly. The difference with sex is that there are two people involved. While I would defend a friend’s right, for example, to abuse alcohol I would feel morally culpable if I were to offer that alcoholic friend beer or invite them down to the pub for drinks. If I thought it would help, I would go so far as to intervene in their life trying to prevent them from consenting to actions that I know to be harmful. Should one not take some thought towards whether their partner’s best interests are met by having sex, even if they consent to it?
I strongly believe that in addition to consent, all healthy sexual relationships require that one has the interests of the partner at an equal to or higher priority as one’s own. On the one hand this seems like it should be uncontroversial, but on the other it opens a whole host of difficulties, chief of them being that the agency of choice no longer remains entirely with the individual. If you have a moral obligation to disregard your partner’s consent and refrain from sex if you think that it would not be in her best interests, then you have effectively usurped her ability to make her own decision. This is inconsistent with the ethic of consent.
The problem is that consent fails to deal with some important questions. If a partner consents to sex but you know that she uses sex as a means of validation can you in good conscience sleep with her? If he consents to sex in the moment but you know that he will regret it in the morning can you sleep with him without guilt? If a partner consents to sex but you know that sleeping with him or her is not in their best interests, can you claim that their consent gave you moral license to do so? There are all kinds of bad reasons that motivate people to have sex, to deal with self-worth issues, due to peer pressure, loneliness or out of depression. In these cases there is consent but sex will likely only serve to compound the issue that motivated sex in the first place.
It is easy enough to think of a situation where the conditions of consent are met but engaging in sex would not be appropriate. Here’s an example: Two people are in a relationship. He is deeply in love but she is not. She knows this but likes his company and is currently content. He suggests sex thinking it will be a meaningful way of taking their relationship to a deeper level. She agrees to it, for somewhat baser motivations, fully aware that she has no long term plans with him and also aware that the pain of the breakup for him will be considerably more severe after having sex than before. She tells herself that he is capable of making his own decisions and living with the consequences. Perhaps she feels it would be patronizing to question his consent.
The easy reply is that they should have had an honest discussion about expectations. Had they done so he would have realized that he shouldn’t sleep with her and made a better decision to withhold consent. One might want to say that healthy sexual relationships entail good communication and especially discussions about expectations. I’d agree that’s true but that conclusion cannot be reached using the standard of consent. To get to that conclusion requires a previously held ideal of sexuality. Our definition of healthy sexuality is that it is consensual, which is the case in this instance. If consent is the only criterion, the woman has no guilt for sleeping with him even knowing the consequences her actions would cause when she walked out his door in the morning, never to return.
I would think that most people would fault the woman for her actions. I am certain her partner would. But we cannot fault her unless we also provide some justification for why. Herein is the problem. Consensual sex is the definition for healthy sex. We are told we should only consent to healthy sex but healthy sex is defined as anything that is consensual, an unhelpfully circular logic. Our culture’s only message concerning healthy sex is that it’s the individual’s choice to decide what works for them. The obvious result is that each person is sentenced to their own individual trial and error process. Maybe the man will learn from the experience to seek out better communication in future relationships. Or maybe he will mistakenly chalk things up to his poor sexual performance and he will seek out ways to improve his technique so one day a woman will be willing to commit herself to him. Or maybe his self-esteem won’t recover and he won’t date again. He’s on his own; we can wish him luck but we can’t tell him where he went wrong.
I have to believe that people consent to bad sex all the time out of ignorance. Let’s use polyamory as an example. I recently read an article advocating its merits but there was an interesting quotation. The woman in the relationship told her partner, the author, that she’d rather he sleep with five women one time than one woman five times. That doesn’t sound like a glowing testimonial of polyamory, it sounds like a testimonial of monogamy but with a low view of the intimacy of sex.
What is needed is an honest assessment of where sexual satisfaction is best met. This is entirely my opinion, but too many people consent to sex when their view of sex is almost solely based upon media portrayals of sex, or worse yet from pornography, which are misleading at best. For prudent decisions, wisdom is required and the courage to denounce certain practices as harmful. To continue with the polyamory example, I have read accounts of people proclaiming the happiness and satisfaction that they have found having multiple partners. Even if that is the case, and I’m doubtful, is that actually a reasonable endorsement for the practice? Finding a 98 year old pack a day smoker doesn’t disprove the danger of cigarettes.
Promiscuity is another timely example. Anyone who criticizes it runs the strong risk of being accused of slut-shaming because people should be allowed to do what they want with their own bodies. Be that as it may but it’s probably worth investigating to see what sort of long-term satisfaction promiscuity tends to bring. Just like cigarette manufacturers need to market the dangers so that consumers don’t unknowingly consent to risks, the associated emotional risks of various practices ought to be taught, not just the physical risks. It’s not a matter of restricting freedom, but rather of offering people the freedom to make informed decisions. Furthermore, I think we have to recognize that by only teaching consent as the determining factor of sexual ethics we are teaching a dishonest, harmful and selfish ethic. One must have their potential partner’s interests in mind but that is meaningless and indeed impossible if consent is our only guide.
To return to the smoking analogy, one could, in good conscience I feel, either ban smoking completely while leaving the education of smoking's dangers unstated or one could permit smoking while providing excellent education about the associated risks. However, it would be the height of irresponsibility to permit and even encourage smoking while denying anyone the right to offer warnings of possible harms. In a remarkable example of unfortunate timing, enormous freedom is given at the same time that guides are being silenced. Because our culture is championing personal freedom of choice, dissenting voices are criticized. “What is right for you might not be right for other people.” The responsibility of making wise choices is left up to the individual at precisely the same time that the relevant information is withheld. By moving towards consent based sexual ethics we have effectively divorced commitment and love from sex. It should be no surprise when the result is casual and loveless sex.
Or maybe I’m wrong and most people are in fact employing their freedom to good effect, managing to find, without guidance and with minimal missteps and emotional harm, the sorts of fulfilling sexual relationships that provide deep satisfaction. Maybe we can just trust that our partner’s consent is unquestionably the best personal decision for them and we shouldn’t insult them by taking anymore thought on the matter. In any case, feel free to ignore my opinion if you don’t like it. We’re all entitled to live our own lives!
But personally, I continually grow fonder of Mr. Chesterton’s perspective on the matter.
I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed, like Endymion, to make love to the moon and then to complain that Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on fairy tales like Endymion's) a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears in mere absence of mind.
And from his masterful A Defense of Rash Vows:
The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words — ‘free-love’ — as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.
It is exactly this backdoor, this sense of having a retreat behind us, that is, to our minds, the sterilizing spirit in modern pleasure. Everywhere there is the persistent and insane attempt to obtain pleasure without paying for it. Thus, in politics the modern Jingoes practically say, ‘Let us have the pleasure of conquerors without the pains of soldiers: let us sit on sofas and be a hardy race.’ Thus, in religion and morals, the decadent mystics say: ‘Let us have the fragrance of sacred purity without the sorrows of self-restraint; let us sing hymns alternately to the Virgin and Priapus.’ Thus in love the free-lovers say: ‘Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one cannot commit suicide an unlimited number of times.’
Emphatically it will not work. There are thrilling moments, doubtless, for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete; but there is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the aesthetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. It must have satisfied even the giant hunger of the soul of a lover or a poet to know that in consequence of some one instant of decision that strange chain would hang for centuries in the Alps among the silences of stars and snows. All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in back ways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.