Updated: Jun 7
Consent culture, have you heard of it?
I’d be surprised if you hadn’t.
It is defined, quite aptly, here:
A culture in which the prevailing narrative of sex is centered on mutual consent. It is a culture that does not force anyone into anything, respects bodily autonomy and is based on the belief that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs. Consent to any activity is ongoing, freely given, informed and enthusiastic.
That seems obviously true right? Of course, people should consent before and during sexual activities.
But it isn’t enough.
I'm not the only one who thinks so, and if you’ll allow me to explain, I will.
First, I think even minute reflection on the idea that people are “always the best judge of their own wants and needs” will make it clear that that statement is far from the truth. We don’t take our medication, we overeat, we don’t exercise, we cut ourselves, we smoke, we do drugs and become addicted. We are often terrible judges of our own needs and what is good for us. We are also predisposed to different vulnerabilities depending on our genetic makeup, adverse childhood experiences, among other things.
Consent culture dictates that consent is a combination of verbal assent and the interpretation of enthusiastic behaviour and body language. However, a laundry list of qualifications are added like: intoxication, fear, vulnerability, etc. Questions that arise from this laundry list include, but are definitely not limited to: “how much can one drink and still freely consent? How do you know if someone is afraid? How do you know what their enthusiasm looks like?” and these questions can make it difficult for people to navigate the complex world of sexual relationships.
Most people will agree that one’s ability or capacity to “consent” to any number of things is attenuated or mitigated by their capacity and mental state. Alcohol is a common example. Alcohol obviously inhibits someone’s ability to fully understand what is going on and consent.
But we think there is far more to it than just the obvious.
Sexuality can be tied up with a myriad of things that make external (even enthusiastic) consent questionable. It can be tied up with wanting to be loved, finding community or communion with others, PTSD from past abuse, sexual or emotional wounds from childhood, addictions, hypersexuality as a symptom of a mental disorder etc. the list goes on. Many things that people don’t even recognize as issues in themselves.
You can’t have get that kind of information about people without knowing them intimately. And if a total stranger is sharing all of that information with you during a one-night stand, it might be another indication that something isn't right.
I think most would agree that sexual situations are very intimate and leave those participating in them extraordinarily vulnerable.
Ignoring another’s possible vulnerability (we’re all the walking wounded), declaring them “an adult who can make their own decisions”, foregoing all responsibility for their emotional and physical well-being and maybe hurting them further is not a sign of someone who is caring deeply for the other. It’s callous.
Specifically defining when an individual is in the right state of mind to allow them to ‘truly’ consent is actually a complicated business, one that is impossible if you don’t know them on an intimate level. It is so fraught; it might be best to use a higher standard to govern this interaction.
Another reason that consent is not enough, is that whether or not people want to believe it, sex has consequences. (Consequence here just means the result of a behaviour, not something inherently negative). People drastically underestimate the natural consequences of sex.
When you “consent” to a behaviour, you can’t consent or not consent to the natural consequences of that behaviour. They just happen. This is particularly true for biological phenomena. Much like eating massive amounts of donuts and twinkies and gaining weight, or drinking water and having to pee, the actions people choose to take have specific consequences.
Sometimes when you’re doing the only natural thing you can do to create another human being, that thing is successful and that human is created.
Obviously, babies happen when you have sex.
74% of women feel pressure to abort from their family or significant other, women who have abortions are more likely to be in a physically and emotionally abusive relationships. And the number of women we see who have been either physically or emotionally abandoned by their sexual partner (who say that's why they’re getting an abortion) is huge. Is that treating other people with love and care? Was their consent enough to abandon them to situation, with a nonchalant, “It’s your choice.”
Why not just send them a notarized letter letting them know that they’re officially on their own?
Even the most stalwart pro-choice people generally acknowledge that abortion can be a very difficult decision for a woman and that it can affect her emotionally afterwards. So can adoption or parenting. These mothers often feel like they’re in a no-win situation. A no-win situation that is almost completely avoidable.
This is something to consider, outside of mere consent.
And you know what else happens?
I know everyone’s answer to this is comprehensive sexual education. But let me just fetch a little stat for everyone:
At the Burning Man festival, over one quarter (28.5%) had been previously diagnosed with an STI, which is also about the average for people in Alberta who have an STI, ¼, (never mind the ongoing Albertan syphilis epidemic). Of the 69.8% who reported having oral, vaginal, or anal sex at Burning Man, almost half (43.5%) reported sex with new partners. Although most attendees (86.3%) noticed that condoms were available at the event, nearly one quarter (23.0%) of respondents with new partners had intercourse without a condom, of whom two thirds (64.9%) did not plan to test for STIs during the month after the event. And let’s not forget the herpes outbreak at Coachella.
Mostly college educated men and women who make lots of money (or whose parents do). Are they not aware of STI testing because no one told them about it in elementary school? Aren’t they one of the most likely demographics to support comprehensive sexual education? Or are “adults who make their own choices”, also potentially more likely to say other people are responsible for their own lives and if they get an STI, that’s their problem?
It seems obvious that you should gravely consider both your safety and care and that of the other person before participating in something that can have such intense consequences. These consequences are not usually what people are thinking of with realistic gravity when they’re consenting to sexual intercourse.
The last reason you should consider that someone’s consent may be insufficient, is that sex is bonding, and that breaking that bond is traumatic. Modern people often have an idea that sex is just mechanical, divorced from your emotional and spiritual self, and any hint of the underlying biological mechanisms is just biological determinism. But the truth is, as much as we are our minds and our experiences, we are also our bodies. Consent-focused perspective on casual sexual intercourse is one thing, the neurotransmitters that your brain has been evolutionarily wired to emit before, during, and after, are another. This incongruency has negative consequences and a lot of them happen specifically to women (but men too).
Every time someone has sex, they are making attachments, attachments they may not even realizing they are making.
Participating in casual sex is associated with drinking problems, drugs, depression, and lower emotional well-being among other things. Now I’m not making a causal claim, but I am saying that it’s all in the same bucket. And it’s probably a bucket you don’t want to be in.
It’s probably a bucket you don’t want someone you care about to be in.
Even if they want to be in it.
Ultimately, consent is a necessary but ultimately insufficient requirement for sexual activity.
Basically, consent is not enough.
To close, I am going to make a controversial, perhaps seemingly radical statement, and you’re welcome to disagree… but it’s actually never ok to treat another human like an object, including a sexual object…
Even if they want you to.
Even if they freely, ongoingly, informedly, and enthusiastically consent to it.