Have you ever wondered whether a person you had sex with actually agreed to having sex with you?
It seems like a weird question, but whether the standards we create to govern sexual interactions are right, or even desirable, has been the subject of much public discussion over the past year. Consent—the idea that you must agree by choice and have the capacity to engage sexually with someone—has underpinned our recent understanding of sex in the western world. Over the last five years or so, with a reported rise of sexual assault and rape, a huge emphasis has been placed on consent, and rightly so.
In the UK, the National Union of Students back in 2014 worked with student unions across 20 different universities, piloting ‘consent workshops’ in order to create a ‘positive consent culture’ on campuses . It wasn’t until recently that a friend mentioned to me the spread of consent apps such as Good2Go, Legal Fling, and Sasie, mainly in the US, where users are encouraged to record each other’s agreement to sexual intercourse. Although its success has been limited, with an obvious danger that once an app has signified that consent has occurred this doesn’t necessarily prevent abuse taking place, such moves have been seen as part of the wider movement to protect individuals in our pursuit of sexual freedom.
When consent is breached, people are abused, and sex has therefore almost developed into a contract. Two isolated individuals come to a place where they negotiate an agreement regarding their bodies. Sex is reduced to a transaction and consent is the means by which that transaction takes place. Even if we put aside how weird that sounds, given that we understand sex to be a predominantly pleasurable experience, there are some who would advocate for the clarity and safety these apps afford. Yet there are clearly limitations to a consent-based approach.
While consent protects us legally from the risks of abuse and rape, this is where the protection probably stops. It doesn’t protect us where we may consent to have sexual encounters, and where subsequently we are hit with the pain and disillusionment when we find that the sexual encounter that took place was a result of us being lied to, manipulated, or betrayed. It also doesn’t provide us with safety from experiencing shame or rejection. You might as an individual fully consent to a sexual encounter, but then find that within the activity itself—where you are most exposed and vulnerable—what follows is not enjoyment, but a sense of regret or humiliation.
History provides us with many lessons of how not to do things and where things should change. But there are ways in which we have progressed and ways in which we haven’t. It is sometimes helpful to learn from the past and examine other ways of conducting our relationships with one another. For example, in Biblical times, sex was always linked to the idea of covenant—a chosen relationship in which two parties made binding promises to each other . This idea, along with the picture of marriage, was supposed to point to the ultimate covenant love we find in the universe: the love that God has for individuals, demonstrated through Jesus Christ. Obviously, while this idea hasn’t gone away, especially the idea that at the very least long-term commitment to people is a positive thing, it’s no longer central in how we engage sexually today.
Whereas the approach of consent is largely short term and transactional, covenants offered permanence and safety. Here, people did not simply offer to sexually interact perhaps for one night, free of abuse and on terms agreeable to the other party but promised to care for and protect well into the future. The vulnerabilities and inadequacies that are often exposed following a sexual encounter are never usually accounted for under consent. But a covenantal promise sought to care and attend to these emotional factors we so easily forget.
Of course, it would be naive to think that historically the individuals who engaged in these types of relationships were never abused or manipulated, but the cultural emphasis was different. Sex wasn’t seen as solely an individual pursuit of recreation and pleasure, and if the consequences were to be negative it wouldn’t just affect the individuals involved. Instead sex held such an important role in society that its effects were felt not only on a relational level but socially and politically too. And we can see how this is the case today.
When pleasure is the ultimate goal, the wellbeing of people becomes a secondary concern; people (usually women) are used and abused, eventually to be discarded. Infidelity becomes rife in the life of many relationships, especially when the initial rush of pleasure which drove a union is gone. On a broader scale we have all seen how the demand for sexual satisfaction has been commoditised, with the exponential rise in pornography and sex trafficking.
On a less extreme level, the impact can still be felt in our ordinary everyday lives. Individuals do not trust each other, or are emotionally broken, harbouring feelings of confusion and regret after participating in sexual activity for which they technically gave consent, but only when pressured. It would be naive to think that this doesn’t have wider implications on society: in both romantic and non-romantic relationships this deeply impacts how we trust each other. When sex simply becomes a tool for pleasure and is detached from the individuals involved, chaos ensues.
As a society there needs to be a way in which we govern our sexual relations at a base level, and where those who force or coerce others face the consequences of their actions. Consent provides a much needed and necessary (low) bar for us to work with. But ultimately, we need to move beyond the law and ask ourselves bigger questions regarding our perceptions and actions around sex.
Do we simply facilitate our own pleasure, viewing sex as a sort of transaction between two isolated individuals? Or do we consider an approach of covenantal love through the wisdom of Biblical writers of centuries past? Where there is a promise to care for and protect, not only tonight, but for tomorrow?