For people who are really sex positive, at least more sex positive than conservative Christians claim to be, what determines the morality of a sex act is not whether the people involved are married to each other, but whether each one has consented to the act.
Since the bare minimum of consent can be given grudgingly, there are those who go further and insist on enthusiastic consent as the standard for judging the morality of sexual relations. The ideal of enthusiastic consent is immensely appealing on the surface, just the thing for a hyper-idealist like me to stand up and clutch and wave like a flag. It seems so respectful and right. And yet, within the past year I’ve encountered a couple of asexual bloggers who question this notion. Reading their critiques I have to start questioning it too. Here are some of my thoughts in that direction.
One of the first things that comes to my mind is that this ideal of enthusiastic consent is so rational. I’ve seen the analogy given of offering someone a cup of tea. If they say “yes, I’d love a cup of tea” you give them the tea, otherwise you don’t.
It had me going, until I thought: waitwaitwait, this is sex we’re talking about here! As if dealing with sexual desire were as neutral, clean and untroubled as offering light refreshments! It never pays to forget that when you’re dealing with sex, you’re not dealing with something neutral, clean or untroubled. I think of a Paglia quote:
If middle-class feminists think they conduct their love lives perfectly rationally, without any instinctual influences from biology, they are imbeciles. (“No Law in the Arena,” Vamps and Tramps, 35)
Consent is also complicated in long-term relationships, where the partners become familiar with each other. I want to direct some thought to this:
We can say: you have the right to decide who to allow to touch you and how. But it’s rare for people to make such a big deal about, say, clapping a hand on your shoulder without you wanting them to, as they would about* touching your butt or grabbing at your genitals. Is it worth it, and does it make sense to claim that an unwanted arm or shoulder touch is sexual assault?
[*Edited after Coyote caught a regrettable error]
And let’s do consider the cases of children forced to give hugs or kisses when they don’t want. Or, babies demanding milk, sucking from their mothers’ breasts with their innocent and urgent hunger. There’s no reasoning or mutual accord here: the baby is here, needs milk, and though we trust the mother’s dedication and hormones to supply enough affection and desire to produce constant consent, we would have to be stupid to assert that every mother is always enthusiastic about offering this very intimate bodily contact with her infant every time.
So, what makes “sex” – that is to say, fucking and its ancillary functions and surrogates – different from these is, what, it’s special-ness? There is a certain “sovereign dread” associated with genitals and erogenous zones. (This can make it disconcerting when our toddler children come and bury their faces in our crotches, as they often do!)
When we’re young and our sexuality is still developing, it’s still volatile and vulnerable. It means something very different for a boyfriend to grab a breast at age 16 than for a husband to do so at age 40. So, when we are just awakening sexually, and have no history of a long-term committed relationship, erotic encounters are powerfully arousing. A big part of this is the novelty. There’s a certain feeling, a thrill of something dangerous and sublime and new, that is one of the most exciting feelings we’ve ever felt.
When we’re married, it’s inevitable for that to fade. The genius of marriage, I think, is to erode the novelty of sex, and thus to dull that awful sublime power of arousal that is connected to our genitals and erogenous zones.
And so, I think it’s unavoidable that the longer the committed relationship lasts, the less “special” sex tends to get. This has implications for consent. Whereas when we were 22, and it was going to be a bad precedent for us to let ourselves be coerced into sharing our bodies intimately with someone; when we’re 40 and have been with the same person for 15 years, we have a history and a familiarity that we couldn’t have imagined when we were younger. We have touched each other’s certain body parts so many times, in so many ways, and – like it or not – our marriage commitment, carrying the only license available for such activities or encounters, has unavoidably created a certain expectation. So when it’s Friday night and the kids are in bed and the 45-year-old husband lets his hand wander, that’s a very different scenario than the 22-year-old boyfriend letting his hand wander on the 3rd, 5th or even the 14th date. It’s a very different scenario than the engaged couple making out and feeling the jet turbine rush of their hormones. The violence of complex emotional and physiological reactions that come to young people, childless and inexperienced with each other, simply cannot be of the same character between two people who have shared life for a number of years.
So when a 45-year-old wife consents to her husband’s advances with less than “oh yes, fuck me now!” enthusiasm, I don’t accept that this should be seen necessarily as a harmful capitulation – certainly not in the same degree as in a younger relationship. In a 16-year-old girlfriend, I would definitely see it as a harmful self-degradation to just let him have his way. I would see it as harmful in a 20-something-year old single person too. In a newlywed? That’s when it gets complicated. In an absolute idealistic sense, I can accept that for the bride who’s been married three weeks, letting her husband fuck her when she really doesn’t want to is tantamount to being violated.
I am not talking about a scenario where she clearly says “no” and he forces her. I’m talking about the common scenario where she agrees with some measure of reluctance, but gives clear consent nonetheless – clear, just not enthusiastic.
I can accept that as a form of violation, though I’m not willing to go all the way in calling it rape. Because to assert such a high moral standard, in my book you had also damn well be ready to assert that any unkind treatment of your child, even in the throes of frustration or exhaustion, is abuse. You’d better be ready to assert the abusive character of compulsory “public” education. And what are you going to do about it?
And where is the authority to reinforce this? Where is the authority to reinforce the 22-year-old newlywed bride’s refusal of her husband’s importuning? I think that she’s far more likely to encounter advice of “just do it” for the sake of compassion and service. Quite likely she’ll get 1 Corinthians 1:7 waved in her face.
What should be acknowledged is that in situations like these, the wife has assumed a maternal role: assuming the care of a male who comes to her in the attitude of having crotch-centered needs to be attended to. Seeing it in this light, we could propose ideas like this:
Maybe it’s useful for new wives to put aside their own wishes and indulge their husbands’ requests for sex, because it’s good practice for motherhood, especially for sons. If they can get used to taking care of this big body’s demands in a way that gets slime inside their own bodies, then they will be well-prepared for taking care of a tiny body with oral and anal needs in a way that usually only carries the risk of getting their hands a bit dirty.
Maybe husbands ought to reflect at length on the implications of them assuming the office of infant son when they come to their wives with requests for sex. Maybe they ought to ask themselves: how do they feel about this regression to infancy? How willing are they to assert their sexual “needs” then, and how often?