The significance of sex — can it be recovered through consent alone?

The significance of sex — can it be recovered through consent alone?

By Emma Wood

Responding adequately to the sad news of the Kambala sexual assault petition — the latest spotlight on the sexual assault epidemic — is a sobering challenge for us all. Leading educators in our secondary schools, depressed by the recent revelations and struggling to find solutions, are themselves revisiting calls for better “consent training” for students. But, as others have argued, “consent training” is bound to be an inadequate response on its own.

Why is “consent training” not enough to combat the toxicity of what we are seeing in relations between the sexes? Why have so many young women been hurt, and why are so many young men insensitive to the seriousness of sexual assault? The answer to these questions will require some preparedness to challenge a number of deeply held and culturally popular assumptions about the nature of sex itself.

Moral intuitions and sex

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Suppose you’re at the house of an acquaintance for the afternoon — let’s call him Jack. Jack is in a playful mood. He wants to have a water fight with you, but you don’t want to. But Jack pressures you, cajoles you, persists, and keeps asking. You make it clear that you’re not keen on the idea, and you keep saying no. Time passes, and it looks like Jack has dropped the issue. But then — splash! While you weren’t looking, Jack has hit you with a water-bomb, and is now standing there with a grin on his face, hoping you’ll retaliate. Looks like you’re having that water fight after all.

Did Jack do anything wrong by initiating the unwanted water fight? Perhaps. At the very least, what he did was annoying; at the worst, an inconvenience.

But supposing that what Jack did was wrong, how wrong was it? Was it seriously wrong? Would you be justified in claiming that Jack violated you, and that what he did was so bad that he deserves jail time for it? Probably not. The worst we could say is that Jack ruined your afternoon. What Jack did was a bit wrong. Maybe moderately wrong. But not seriously or grievously wrong. Why not? Because it was just a water fight. Jack pressured you into a trivial recreational activity that you (and most people) normally don’t mind that much anyway. So the fact that he disregarded your wishes can’t be that big a deal.

Now, substitute “water fight” for “sex”, and we might begin to see why it seems unintelligible to so many young men today that sexual assault is a big deal. Young men have grown up in a culture that tells them that sex is a recreational activity with no deeper significance. Unsurprisingly, then, young men have come to internalise the idea that initiating unwanted sex is on par with initiating an unwanted water fight. It is just a bit of fun, and nothing that any reasonable person should get too upset about.

Let’s unpack this in a little more detail. For most of Western history, sex was not viewed as a recreational activity. Until the sexual revolution, sex was viewed as a profound union of persons, suitable only for mutually loving, mutually committed relationships. Sexual activity was governed by rich courtship norms which embodied and reinforced the belief that sex is supposed to be a special, significant, or sacred act.

This is not an exclusively religious idea. The philosopher Anne Barnhill, for example, has argued that sex is like “body language”. While most bodily actions (such as moving a table, or scratching an itch) are not expressive of anything, other bodily actions (waving, smiling, or hugging) send a message by default. Sex, Barnhill claims, is the same, and the ethical implication of this is that having sex with someone while attempting to separate it from love or commitment is an unfitting use of our bodies — a form of lying. It’s like giving someone a fake smile, or a “cold” hug, but much worse. Sex — an act that is so involved and intimate at a bodily level — should be reserved for a relationship that is as involved and intimate at every other level. Let’s call this paradigm I have just described, the significance view of sex.

The more dominant philosophy about sex that we have inherited from the sexual revolution — stemming from the work of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, and Alfred Kinsey — teaches us an opposite view: that sex has no inherent meaning. Having sex is like scratching an itch. Far from being a mode of body language, the outer display of which must be consonant with an inner message, sex is a trivial recreational activity. Sex is for the relieving of a bodily urge, and other people are the outlets. Accordingly, it does not matter what kind of relationship sex takes place within or who it is done with. The norms that govern sexual activity under this revolutionary paradigm are very thin: consent, apparently, is really the only norm that matters. Let’s call this paradigm the recreational view of sex.

Another philosopher, David Benatar, points to a tension within the “recreational view”. The phenomenon of sexual assault, he argues, presents us with a dilemma. Assuming the “significance view” of sex is the right paradigm, it makes sense to think of sexual assault as a heinous thing — not a minor or moderate wrong, but a most serious violation. If sex is supposed to mean something, if it is supposed to signify deep love, if it is meant to be a profound union of persons at all levels, then it really matters that people are able to consent or decline. If the act of letting another person into our most intimate sphere is supposed to be a precious experience to be carefully guarded, then it makes sense to see sexual assault — the wilful imposition on this intimate sphere — as an ugly distortion of what sex is meant to be.

If, on the other hand, sex is a mere recreational activity with no deeper significance, it becomes difficult to explain why coercing someone into sex is much worse than, say, coercing someone into a water fight. This perhaps explains the typically callous responses to sexual assault from young men who have internalised the recreational view: “What’s the big deal?” “It’s only sex!” “It was just a bit of fun.” “Can’t she take a joke?”

According to Benatar’s dilemma, our intuition that sexual assault is a serious violation implicitly assumes the “significance view” of sex. We can believe that sexual assault is a particularly grievous wrong or we can believe that sex is a trivial recreational activity, but we cannot consistently believe both. And this, I submit, explains the trouble we’re currently having. If our condemnation of sexual assault is inconsistent with a broader cultural idea that we are tolerating, we should not be surprised that the message about sexual assault is not getting through.

Other commentators on the Kambala petition have cited pornography as the primary cause of the insensitivity of young men to sexual assault, and they are right to do so. Pornography is the most extreme embodiment of the recreational view of sex. Pornography, more powerfully than anything else, destroys the potential young men have to develop the intuition that sex is anything special or profound.

If educators are serious about the flourishing of young people, and serious about addressing sexual assault, they will have to do far more than take a litigious, politically correct, “consent-based” approach to the sexual education of their students. They will need to re-inculcate in students a sense of the significance and profundity of sex and — dare I say it? — reintroduce students to the concepts of courtship and romance. Religious schools ought to be stepping up to this challenge with particular vigour, as their faith traditions contain some of the most beautiful articulations of the “significance view” (the biblical description of the sexual union as two becoming “one flesh”, and John Paul II’s intricate Theology of the Body come to mind).

In any case, educators in all schools must be brave enough to go beyond preaching the anaemic norm of consent alone. Because, as Benatar’s dilemma shows, if consent is the only sexual norm that matters, it eventually becomes hard to understand why it should matter very much.

Possible objections

No doubt, some will think of objections to the arguments I’ve put forward. Defenders of the recreational view might appeal to pregnancy risk to counter Benatar’s dilemma. Sex does not have to be viewed as “precious” in order to account for why sexual assault is a grievous wrong, they may argue — the fact that sexual assault victims can get pregnant is all the explanation you need.

But a little reflection should show us that this “pregnancy risk” explanation for the seriousness of sexual assault just won’t do. No one would view the rape of an infertile woman as a lesser violation than the rape of a fertile woman. Nor will it do to appeal to the fact that sexual assault is often violent or physically painful. Most women I know would rather have a leg broken than be raped, even if the rape involves less physical pain.

The real explanation for the seriousness of sexual assault is that it is an intrusion into an intimate personal sphere, the sharing of which is supposed to be a precious thing.

The confidence to say “no”

If a pornified, sexually permissive culture dominated by the recreational view has desensitised young men to the seriousness of sexual assault, what has it done to young women? As many of the recent testimonies demonstrate, it has robbed young women of the ability and confidence to say “no” to sex under duress, creating a culture in which the lines between consensual and non-consensual sex become blurry. Our culture’s embrace of the “recreational view” has deprived young women of the ability to say “no” mainly, perhaps, because it has deprived them of the rationale for saying “no”. In order to see why this is the case, let’s return to our analogies with other recreational activities.

Suppose people frequently offer you the opportunity to play tennis, and suppose you frequently decline this offer from a wide variety of people. What does this say about you? It probably says that you just aren’t that into tennis. If you are into tennis, you’ll agree to playing it often, and it won’t really matter who you play it with. If, on the other hand, you say “no” to tennis a lot, you’re a bit “anti-tennis”.

Herein lies a problem for young women. For most young women are interested in sex, and don’t want to think of themselves as “anti-sex”. The sexualising logic of the recreational view tells them that the extent to which they say “yes” to sex indicates the degree to which they are “pro-sex”, and the extent to which they say “no” to sex indicates the degree to which they are “anti-sex”. Not knowing quite what to do with this powerful, but false, dichotomy, young women end up caving in to persistent pressure for sexual activity. Young women give in, moreover, even as deeper instincts rightly warn them not to.

Over the last two decades, a great deal of work has been done on dire emotional effects of casual sex and hook-up culture on young women, in particular. We now know that the brain chemistry of females stubbornly resists the notion that sex means nothing (thank you, oxytocin).

A culture-wide re-inculcation of the “significance view” of sex might give young women a much-needed confidence-boost in those deeper instincts that speak in their best interests. According to the “significance view”, saying “no” to sex with a wide variety of people, far from being incompatible with an interest in sex, indicates a high reverence for it. If our culture was to refamiliarise itself with this idea, it might bolster the resolve of young women. (It would be even better, of course, if it obviated the need for such resolve in the first place.)

The uptake of “consent training” for students, without the inculcation of deeper principles, presents further dangers for young women. Absent a revival of the “significance view” of sex, “consent education” may merely train young men to use women with a greater sense of impunity. This is unlikely to alleviate the true source of violation and regret felt by too many young women after having been sexually used.

Emma Wood has a PhD in moral philosophy and is a Research Fellow with Women’s Forum Australia

 

Originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics

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