The yearlong #MeToo movement has uncovered the ironies of our 50+ year experiment in sexual ethics. We’ve made sex into a personal pursuit, an appetite for pleasure that one satisfies however one must, whether by calling up a partner or a friend, pulling up a webpage, or swiping right on a profile. It’s a dose of fun and pleasure, a natural human activity without any deeper meaning. And yet sex is at the same time so meaningful and important that it’s the key to happiness, lack of it is an intolerable condition, and we pay billions for drugs that let us have it long past the point our bodies are unwilling. And then, unwanted sex, far from being a meaningless act of human impulse, is the worst possible violation a man can commit. #MeToo has reminded us how devastating sexual misuse can be, especially in a society that otherwise celebrates sex. How can society handle the realities of a sex that is casual and yet vital, emotionless and yet meaningful, innocent and yet dangerous? By elevating the importance of individual choice, particularly the woman’s, which we call consent.
Sex has always been a greater potential danger for women. Why? One simple reason is because men have always wanted sex and have often been in a position to take it. In that sense, it’s no different from other things men (and women) have wanted and taken, like money, like violence. It’s worse only to the extent that we believe values like privacy and dignity are more important than dollars, the extent to which we believe bodies are more than matter, and the extent to which we believe sex to be something more than physical contact, all of which are true. What makes it even more dangerous is that sex is a good thing which women want too in the right circumstances. Try telling a thief you only want to be mugged by the right person or a bully that you aren’t in the mood. A robber and a tyrant have the luxury of always knowing they are wrong, but even a good man can sometimes misunderstand.
The concept of consent is an attempt to even this power gap by making sex more dangerous for men. Violence and coercion are understood to be wrong and under legal protection, but consent is a weapon that can be wielded against pressure and discomfort, in casual encounters, in response to any untoward or unwanted behavior. It’s a subjective weapon which no man can know for sure except by being told (and even then it might change), and any woman who uses it will be accepted and praised for doing so. Play by the woman’s rules or get punished. That’s a powerful weapon. It’s a nuclear deterrent with enough force to blow up someone’s life. Sad to say, women have often needed it. We’ve come this far in response to a real problem. But is the way we want to handle our relationships by increasing the factors of danger and uncertainty and suspicion? Should sex be an arms race, a war balanced on the collision of power, controlled only by the fear of mutually assured destruction?
The difficulty for our current, sex-positive society which actively promotes promiscuity is one of hypocrisy. I can’t argue sexual licentiousness in a culture causes sexual abuse, or that abuse is any more common today than, say, Victorian England. Likely, it isn’t. But the inability to articulate any meaningful limits on individual sexual activity makes any rules seem arbitrary, so we are left with only the expression of power. Sex, especially casual sex, is empowering, liberating, even transcendent, we are told. Except when it isn’t. How do you know? When I say it isn’t. When both sides don’t agree. That is, when one side exerts power over the other. But that works for both sides of the equation. So then, it is not sex which is empowering, actually, but power which is empowering, a woman’s power to control the situation. Sex is the means, with a pleasurable side effect. Again, this was in many ways a necessary response to the previous state of affairs—if men have cultural or institutional or legal power over women in their relationships, that’s an injustice that needs reckoning—but by obsessing with power we are hurting our ability to create a genuine sexual ethic that is mutually beneficial for men and women rather than adversarial.
Casual sex is about preserving power, about getting what you want without giving anything of yourself away. It’s masturbation with a human object. Intimacy, including and especially sex, is about vulnerability. It’s the act of giving someone else power over you. Your thoughts, your emotions, your body. You expose yourself, naked, in front of someone else and hope for some measure of acceptance, but there is always the risk of rejection, of pain. We are all flawed and weak and ugly in ways we wouldn’t want anyone else to see. It’s why we hide from most people, under clothes, under masks and false smiles and simple answers. You can’t just throw your trust around. Give people power over you and many will abuse it, share your secrets, ridicule you, force you to compromise yourself, or just not care. But when you find someone you can trust completely, intimately, it brings the height of pleasure and relief to give over all your power, to stand naked and unashamed before them. Of course, this does not make you weak and powerless. You get power back. There is an equal exchange. If not, the whole thing falls apart. It often does.
In this context, consent is an unnecessary distinction. You should not have sex—indeed, you cannot have real, intimate sex—unless you are in a position where you have given up your power of consent (of course, you can still walk away, though not without pain). I don’t imagine this will only be in “marriage”, nor even that it would be in every marriage, but it has the benefit of clarifying all of the ridiculous scenarios we hear about nowadays. It would be obviously wrong to expose yourself to random people or sleep with a drunken partier or pressure an employee into anything, rather than the fuzzy questions of who wanted what and who suggested what and who had what power. Because something is obviously wrong is no assurance that it will be less common any more than having an ideal guarantees it will be realized. Abuse can happen in committed relationships, and men with power often do not follow the rules, but belief in an equal relationship ideal is the only way out of the murky mess where we can’t even agree on what defines sexual assault, where sex is a danger we aren’t willing to avoid, where everything we want comes at the price of another person. From this position we will have the clarity and authority to recognize harmful acts, hold accountable those who abuse it, and demand better behavior from all those we encounter. Only within the natural limits of a relationship can we enjoy permissiveness and pleasure, vulnerability and trust, the liberation and power we’ve long sought for ourselves but forgotten how to share.