This essay concerns one emblematic feature of a college’s orientation programming on sexual policy – the consent workshop.
Consent represents the necessary agreement that must be obtained prior to sexual activity. It is generally characterized by three crucial components: it is ongoing, unambiguous, and uncoerced; and, most typically, it is required to be a verbal agreement.
For instance, a popular sexual awareness program among colleges and military audiences that incorporates improvisation and humor in its education model features a skit in which one actor asks another for a drink. The second actor holds her water bottle toward the first. Is this consent? The audience is taught to respond, “No!” The actors replay the sequence; this time the second actor not only holds the water bottle toward the first but also says, “Yes.” Is this consent? The knowledgeable audience now shouts their affirmation. So too must sex begin. It is further expected that before an additional pull is taken, the thirsty actor must petition for further consent. And just so does sex itself continue to the next level.
Now, to be clear: in all cases sex requires consent. Period. But, beyond providing the most rudimentary of parameters, consent is simply an inadequate sexual ethic.
Some of this can be more clearly teased out if we remember that consent always occurs in a particular context. Ethical reasoning best begins by first having as accurate an articulation of the relevant normative principles as possible – that is, we start with understanding the way things ought to be. Set within the context of a healthy, biblically conceived marriage, sexual consent is expressed across a range of mediums including not just words but touch, position, breath, murmur, moan, and gesture too. Such expressions convey meaning through the common history enjoyed between a man and woman who have drawn together, each with the confidence of already being a coherent self independent of the love of the other, to savor in confidence a shared love, expressed in the security of a promise sworn in the presence of the divine and pledging fidelity to one another come what may. The enjoyment of one another’s bodies, nested in covenant, is an expression of this nuptial love encapsulated in a deeply unitive, other-centered act of mutual self-donation. In this ideal good, consent properly functions as a part of the whole. This is the ideal.
Naturally, marriage involves people; therefore the good of any given marriage is only ever going to be an approximation of the ideal. But it’s important to know the ideal.
When consent within the context of the hookup culture is juxtaposed against this ideal the inadequacies of consent as a means to sexual welfare on campus are put in sharp relief.
To begin with, the hookup culture does not have intimacy as its goal. In a stark description of the current scene, Tom Wolfe, author of I am Charlotte Simmons, which chronicles a freshman girl’s devastating first-year experience, compares today’s campus with that of a bygone era. Only yesterday, he writes, kissing was described as getting to first base, second base involved a bit of groping, third base was oral sex, and home plate was going all the way. Today, first base is kissing and groping, second base is oral sex, and third base is going all the way. Home plate is learning each other’s names. The point is this: while a hookup can involve any or all of Wolfe’s bases the common denominator is an inversion of conventions typically surrounding the sexual activity such that sex is dislodged from the familiar moorings of dating, courtship, or getting to know one another. Because not everyone is necessarily invested in the hookup in just the same way, confusion often abounds as to what precisely each party is consenting.
I know of too many young people, mostly women, who hoped the hookup might be the start of something rather than the end. Or maybe they thought they were consenting not just to sex but also to the possibility of remaining interested in each other when they got their clothes back on, or maybe just a follow up phone call or thank you text, or to at least being acknowledged the next time they passed on the quad.
While the stress on consent has helped assert what ought to have been obvious – that “no means no” – and while some evidence suggests that this “no means no” locution has changed attitudes on rape for the better, the stress occludes as well as clarifies.
The emphasis on consent as the end-all-be-all doesn’t allow for the complexities of human communication. It doesn’t allow that things other than the word itself clearly convey “no” even when a “yes” has been offered. Neither does it express without remainder everything that is meant by “yes”; nor, crucially, does it take into account that communication, always implying relationship, does not always imply communicants who share an equal power dynamic – “yes” can mean “I don’t know how to say no to you.” This danger of inequitable freedom is especially problematic when vulnerable and predatory young people encounter one another in a context where the hookup is the status quo and the freedom to consent to sex has mutated into the social expectation to consent.
If a consent workshop helps prevent even a single assault it has yielded a significant good. But absent a context that attempts at least an approximation of the ideal, consent cannot address the underlying problems. The hookup culture encourages the decreasing ability to see sexual union as union, as an expression of selves coming together for the giving and receiving of shared pleasure. In its place, sex abandons the unitive and becomes instead an act of self-centered other-donation. Whether a simple snog session or full tilt intercourse, hooking up is really little more than masturbation with the body of another.
The hookup culture believes itself to have three great nemeses: disease, pregnancy, and rape. Prophylactics underwritten with antibiotics and abortion-on-demand have been deployed to address the first two. The principle of consent is being used to combat the third. But when one looks at the devastation the hookup culture has laid on the emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual health of young people, one is made mindful that the location of the real trauma has been missed and that consent, cast as the holy grail of sexual ethics, has betrayed itself. As it has been said, there is no condom for a broken heart.
So much of freedom depends on making the right choices early on. Choices, piled one upon the other over time, habituate us toward actions that enhance or diminish us – that move us nearer toward or further from becoming the kind of being God called us into being to be. The kind of life we start living now helps point us toward the kind of life we will live in five years, ten, or fifty – to say nothing of eternity. This is crucial. Human flourishing depends on our understanding that real freedom means the ability to become that which we were made to become. Liberty must have limits not to diminish freedom but to allow it. The physical laws of the universe – such as concerning gravity, thermodynamics, or electromagnetism – place limits on human activity. But these same limitations, understood and worked within, allow tremendous opportunities unknown to those who cannot abide or do not know the laws.
The reason consent as an ethic for the hookup culture is so inadequate is because the hookup culture is, itself, inadequate. It diminishes the good. This is what adultery really means. To adulterate is to render something in poorer quality by adding inferior substances. When selfishness, disregard for the other, coercion, fear of abandonment, and other tropes of casually anonymous hookups enter the realm of human sexuality, the Divine aim of sexuality is adulterated; and the liberty of being able to relish a grand component of human flourishing is abandoned. Left in its place is a vision so paltry – with all due respect to orientation week presentations – that it is simply not worthy of our consent.