Perusing various magazines and news sites in recent months, I’ve noticed a growing number of commentators who recommend we reexamine our society’s norms surrounding sexuality. Casual sexual encounters bring more misery than happiness, they say, and “consent” isn’t a high enough standard to bring about sexual fulfillment and freedom.
The Problem of Being Cool About Sex
Consider an article from Helen Lewis in the Atlantic last year, “The Problem with Being Cool about Sex.” Lewis claims that the new generation of feminists hasn’t reconciled “what we should want with what we do want.”
Pornography has saturated the lives of young people and colored an entire generation’s expectations of what sex should be. “If two or more adults consent to it, whatever it is, no one else is entitled to an opinion,” or so goes the commonsense thinking about sexual encounters. The problem, Lewis writes, is that the sexual revolution’s promises haven’t panned out.
“Our enlightened values—less stigma regarding unwed mothers, the acceptance of homosexuality, greater economic freedom for women, the availability of contraception, and the embrace of consent culture—haven’t translated into anything like a paradise of guilt-free fun.”
The sexual revolution isn’t working. The utopia promised by blowing up old moral strictures hasn’t arrived. What’s more, in some cases the situation seems worse.
“Our language still lacks the words to describe the many varieties of bad sex that do not rise to the criminal standard of rape or assault,” Lewis writes, and then mentions an Oxford professor surprised to find students riveted by arguments that claim porn debases and objectifies women. Even men say that porn makes it difficult to imagine sex as something loving and mutual rather than an act more inclined to domination and submission.
The cultural scripts we’ve inherited stir up conversations about sex that expose the confusion over its purpose, its meaning, its significance:
“Is sex most usefully thought of as a physical need, like breathing; as a human right, like freedom of speech; as a spiritual connection that takes on full meaning only if it’s part of a relationship; or even . . . like ‘bungee jumping, an adrenalizing physical feat’? Can rules made by believers in one of these frameworks be applied to those operating under another?”
Lewis’s response is to assume there’s no simple or sustainable answer to this question. We should adjust our expectations until we realize that the promised utopia of sexual freedom and fulfillment will not arrive:
“No, tomorrow sex will not be good again. As long as some people have more money, options, and power than others do; as long as reproductive labor falls more heavily on one half of the population; as long as cruelty, shame, and guilt are part of the human experience; as long as other people remain mysterious to us—and as long as our own desires remain mysterious too—sex will not be good, not all the time.”
She concludes with this killer line, which sums up a truth about fallen humanity that could be lifted straight from Augustine, Aquinas, or even the apostle Paul: “We will never simply want the things we should.”
Consent Is Not Enough
A more recent column, by Christine Emba, showed up in the Washington Post: “Consent is Not Enough. We Need a New Sexual Ethic.” The problem, Emba says, is that “young Americans are engaging in sexual encounters they don’t really want for reasons they don’t fully agree with.” Like Lewis, she attributes this “depressing state of affairs” to a culture “turbocharged by pornography, which has mainstreamed ever more extreme sexual acts,” as well as dating apps that lead one to expect new partners are readily available.
The outcome of the sexual revolution, in which getting consent is the only moral stipulation, freed from the bonds of marriage or commitment to a relationship, is “a world in which young people are both liberated and miserable.” The experience of sex, for many, is “sad, unsettling, even traumatic.” Emba writes:
“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.”
The answer to this malaise can’t be “consent” as the only rule.
“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?”
Emba even begins to question whether there are some “sexual practices” that “eroticize dehumanization and degradation.” Are these practices ethically valid, even if consent is obtained?
“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.”
In other words, maybe there is a right and wrong when it comes to sexual activity. What would a better sexual ethic look like? The responses Emba discovers come from words like “listening,” “care,” “mutual responsibility,” and “love.” That last word she defines by Thomas Aquinas as “willing the good of the other.”
A Better Way
As believers, we realize these articles still seem far from the Christian ethic that reserves sex for the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. But we can learn something from these complaints about the inadequacy of “consent” and from the world’s bemoaning of pornography’s effects. We can reach out with love and mercy toward our neighbors, many of whom have been hurt and disappointed by the outworking of a “consent is all that matters” sexual ethic. And perhaps we would do well to reflect on how the pornification of society has affected marriage relationships too, even in the church.
Neither Lewis nor Emba appear to be so radically rethinking sexual norms that they’d entertain the Christian sexual ethic. But these are baby steps, important ones, that indicate a sense of angst and anxiety underneath the commonsense cultural ethos surrounding sex. The church has an opportunity to offer a better way here, but only if our lives match our teaching.
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