Beyond Consent: Towards an Affirmative Sexual Ethic of Care

I’ve always wanted to open a Sunday School or other Church lesson on Chastity by playing the Salt-N-Pepa anthem “Let’s Talk About Sex” and was going to use that to open this post when I started planning it months ago, but that seemed to trivialize the moment at hand (so I got the best of both worlds and opened with the anecdote of wanting to open with it instead). I may be an unlikely candidate to weigh in on a new sexual ethic as a married ace man, but I have some thoughts that feel slightly underrepresented in the discourse surrounding this much needed cultural reckoning of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and a generally negative/harmful/damaging/destructive sexual culture. So, here we go.

(Note: what follows will be pretty heteronormative because that seems to be the nature of the vast majority of the relationships that are being reported and the narratives/stories that we tell are typically heterosexual ones AND while some of these dynamics are portable to various LGBTQ+ relationships, those strike me as having different dynamics that I am not as well-versed in and another, better person should write about them. Ok, back to business.)

What is in front of us is far more complex and challenging than simply enforcing rules and norms that are believed and understood. We need to utterly redefine appropriate and healthy sexual relationships (and probably all relationships). We need to teach consent, yes, but healthy expressions of sexuality involve far more than simple consent. We need “Yes Means Yes” and No Means No” laws, but we can’t stop there.

Consent is NOT a hurdle that needs to be overcome, but is an essential piece of a sexual relationship. I say that because if consent is absent, you don’t have a sexual relationship—you may have engaged in sexual activities, but without consent you have objectified and dehumanized the other person into a masturbatory tool. Talking about consent as if it is some hurdle to leap over or box to check still creates the feeling that people (typically men) are entitled to sex once they accomplish certain things. Sex is still an object, a goal, a prize that is being obtained by one party or the other.

We must move beyond consent. Yes, consent is essential and is a baseline that needs to be taught and established, but it is only the beginning. Sex must be a collaborative, creative, mutually beneficial endeavor. Sex must come from a place of care for the other person. Together those involved must be in tune with each other, aware of responses and feelings, and respectful of any and all requests from their partner(s). Sex must consider more than the pleasure that you or I or anyone is seeking. It must think about the other. It must be rooted in caring. Caring for ourselves. Caring for our partner(s). Caring for our relationship. What this looks like or means will vary from individual to individual and relationship to relationship. But it will never use other people or their bodies for sexual gratification without thought for their well-being.

The culture we currently have has damaging narratives about romantic relationships that we need to rewrite. The narrative over and over again is one of men desiring and women being desired. Men pursuing and women being pursued. Men acting and women being acted upon. Men persuading and women being persuaded. A narrative that strips women of agency. Of desire. Of choice. A narrative that blurs the lines between persuasion and coercion. A narrative that builds in harassment and actions dangerously approaching assault as normal and expected and necessary.

In this narrative, men are expected to convince women to have sex with them, to want them. There’s little to no place for women to act, to be the initiators without being framed negatively with any number of epithets. Women are painted as having no innate sexual desire, but that sexual desire needs to be awoken in them by a man. The story of romance that we sell is a story of the chase. Men chase and women are chased. There’s a thrill to the chase. A thrill that can be felt by both parties. The story argues that women should find value in being chased, in being pursued, that they are worth something because a man (or multiple men) want them. They can play hard to get, a strategy encouraged by this story, a strategy that further blurs the lines of persuasion and coercion, that muddies the waters of consent.

On top of all this, women are socialized to be polite, gentle, kind, thoughtful, considerate of other’s feelings (all good things that more of us should be invested in developing). This leads to soft refusals—something rightfully praised in most social spheres, but something that has proven dangerous in sexual relationships. Men read these soft refusals as invitations to persuade because that’s what The Story has taught them. They don’t see the difference (or willfully ignore it) between a soft refusal that’s an invitation to flirtation and a soft refusal that’s rooted in politeness.

None of this excuses the behavior of predators, assaulters, or harassers. Men can and must do better. Better to err on the side of caution—if you can’t read the signals, back off, don’t push forward. Yes, you may miss out on a sexual experience you were hoping for, but you’ll save yourself from harassing or assaulting or otherwise harming women. I believe that we all must do better to create the culture of care that we need. I need to do better. I need to speak up when friends share stories or jokes that perpetuate damaging ideas about women and relationships. I need to advocate for more than consent, to be aware of my actions and to approach all with a sense of care.

I think this still allows for less committal forms of sexual experiences. But requires awareness of and respect for the concerns and needs of the other individual(s) involved. You probably can have NCMO or one night stand or something that is caring—it may be less likely and more complicated, but I don’t think that care necessarily requires commitment, at least not commitment to the romantic relationship. Physical touch and sharing that can be a very healing, necessary experience that could be done with absolute care, but may also be done in a way that’s hurtful to those involved.

All of this is to say that we must go beyond consent to a sexual ethic of care. We need to be aware of our partners and to treat them like living, breathing humans with feelings and needs. We’ve got to love each other. We’ve got to care for one another. That’s what lies ahead. New stories. New norms. New sexual ethics. New, better, consensual, caring sex.

 

 

POSTSCRIPT:

Important conversations need to be had about consent in relation to age differences, adolescents, power dynamics, etc. I don’t really weigh in on that here, though I think a sexual ethic of care implicitly includes proper handling of such relationships (though it is undoubtedly worth the energy to more explicitly spell that out). Discussions of how to healthily and with care develop and explore and come to terms with our own sexuality need to happen (especially for conservative and religious communities. I may write some more about that in regard to Mormonism in the future). This is only the beginning. Many more conversations need to be had and many more voices need to be heard.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Consent: Towards an Affirmative Sexual Ethic of Care

  1. This is excellent. Really. Consent is a difficult standard. I have generally felt that a gradual movement from layer to layer of intimacy, with occasional questions when “upping the ante,” can help a lot. But even then, it’s easy to become selfish.

    And on your postscript. “Discussions of how to healthily and with care develop and explore and come to terms with our own sexuality need to happen (especially for conservative and religious communities. I may write some more about that in regard to Mormonism in the future).” — Please do. 🙂

    Like

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