Most sex education programs approach sexual ethics like this: the goal is to reduce risky behavior and encourage young people to make autonomous, free choices. It takes about three minutes to explain sex to students, but two weeks to discuss how to avoid or reduce risk while still getting your kicks.
Pleasure and power through advocacy of sexual choices, prevention of consequences, and maximizing consent is discussed. However, it’s this final topic of “consent” that has become the buzz word around college campuses and dating sites. Our national conversation has devolved around this issue in terms of how consent may influence everything from clothing to flirting to rape. And you can see why.
The hook-up culture is alive and well. Unhappiness in sexual relations, as we have seen among those who practice promiscuous behavior, is on the rise. The hope for sex-ed programs is that consent and education will be a way to combat depression through clarifying willing sexual encounters.
For example, partners can now agree to a sexual encounter that is legally binding through either a phone app or some other means—just an agreement to have sex for sex’s sake. As long as there is clear communication and sex is not resisted by the other party, then it’s considered consensual. This seems logical and safe, so why does there continue to be an erosion of desire and happiness?
The word consent seems similar to the word tolerance. It seems that consent is part of the world of “safety” –a cheap cousin-once-removed from virtue. It’s not really a good, but it’s similar to what a professor of mine once said about tolerance…tolerance is the degradation of charity. It’s a way to talk about social contracts without any real sacrifice. It’s hedging your bets—like using a condom or assigning a designated driver. We want to think we are being responsible by lessening our footprint on the world, i.e. consequences, but we shirk from the messiness that our choices make. We avoid the hard questions of whether our choices are good for us.
Can you even have full consent even if you don’t know the person? And what does “consent” mean if one is in the dark about this person’s past and present choices? Dating sites now try to combat this. How one presents herself online is taking the place of getting to know one another through the difficult, time-consuming task of dating. Why take the time to get to know someone when a search engine can do the work for us?
A scene from the dystopian film, Gattaca, comes to mind. The protagonist asks for a print-out of the health of his potential date by running a DNA test with a government agency by using a piece of her hair. He knows everything before the first date. The future of dating is to have control over the facts by looking at the person like a commodity. By weighing pleasure to pain (as the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham suggested a century ago), we can avoid all the unknowns. And who wouldn’t want that?
But is DNA testing really knowing? Counting up the facts and health benefits of another human can’t really replace the eyes lighting up with excitement over good news, or a dark flicker crossing the brow when encountering something tragic. This kind of knowing, of course, takes time, experience, and bodily presence.
It’s this kind of knowing that is found fully in long-lasting, committed relationships and most statistically proven in marriage. It’s found in the language of the body of the love between a husband and wife, not only in conjugal love but in the sacrificial love of the whole of their married lives, when the couple echoes the words, “I take you to be my wedded husband/wife.”
The “conjugal consent” takes into account the wedded-ness of the spoken word ratified in sex. True knowing—in the Biblical sense of intimacy—comes from trust in the spouse, or the “second ‘I,’” as St. John Paul calls it. This ensures the other that he is as dear to one as oneself (TOB 12:1). Rare is the man or woman who files a lawsuit against the self. Of course, abuse can happen with marriage, but the language of the body of the “second I” more commonly ensures the safety net that sexual consent can secure itself to: the language of love.
Dayspring Brock, M. Hum, writes TOB curriculum for TOBET in Irving, Texas.