Thoughts on consent and sexual caretaking

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?

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on consent and sexual caretaking

  1. This usage of my post is a nightmare. It’s exactly the kind of thing that dissuades people from talking about the problems with the enthusiastic consent model.

    You were already telegraphing where this was going when you kept using examples where women respond to male initiators, so I shouldn’t be surprised at how you concluded 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, or touching your butt or grabbing at your genitals.”

    I don’t know about you, but those last two sound like a big deal to me. Anyway, it’s true that unwanted nonsexual touch (like the hand on shoulder) is something it’s rare for people to make a big deal about. That doesn’t mean they’d be *wrong* to object to it. I figure it’s just the natural avoidance of conflict, since they can expect their “don’t do that, actually” to get a negative response worse than the initial touch itself. Incidentally, this dynamic helps enable abuse.

    “Is it worth it, and does it make sense to claim that an unwanted arm or shoulder touch is sexual assault?”

    Whether it’s worth it, in terms of reporting it or describing it that way, depends on the person and the context. Unwanted “nonsexual” touch can still be creepy. I’m not going to give a no to your rhetorical question here.

    “And let’s do consider the cases of children forced to give hugs or kisses when they don’t want.”

    Yes, let’s consider it. It’s bad. Parents shouldn’t do that to their kids.

    “Or, babies demanding milk, sucking from their mothers’ breasts with their innocent and urgent hunger.”

    This has nothing to do with everything else you’ve been talking about. It’s a baby. It’s just acting on survival needs. If it doesn’t get fed, it will die.

    “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.”

    Does it?

    “So, when we are just awakening sexually,”

    You keep saying we. Who’s “we”? Not everyone’s sexuality follows the same timeline.

    “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”

    Are you really saying that the morality of an act purely depends on what numerical age someone is?

    Also — what do you mean, “bad precedent”? Feeling coerced is bad because it’s bad, not just because it might lead to other things later.

    “In a 16-year-old girlfriend, I would definitely see it as a harmful self-degradation to just let him have his way.”

    But if a man is married to her and has been with her longer, then he has, what, a right to coerce her? What the heck?

    “I can accept that as a form of violation, though I’m not willing to go all the way in calling it rape.”

    Depends on if she calls it rape. If you can see it as sex that was violating, why not grant her the choice?

    “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.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “unkind treatment,” but, sure. Don’t be unkind to your child.

    “You’d better be ready to assert the abusive character of compulsory ‘public’ education.”

    Uh, yes. Public education, at least in America, is a mess. I’d readily agree to that.

    “And what are you going to do about it?”

    Argue with those who think those opinions are unthinkable, for starters.

    “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?”

    If your point is that she’s in a position of vulnerability with no one to back her up, then… yes. That’s bad. That shouldn’t be the case. Sometimes it is that way and that’s not okay.

    “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.”

    Being a wife isn’t a maternal role. It’s — supposed to be — a peer role.

    Also, wanting sex is not a need.

    “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”

    You’re literally comparing grown men to babies. Why are men allowed to be in charge of anything then?

    Also what do you mean “especially for sons”?? And why are you talking like all wives will have children? Haven’t you noticed by now that some don’t?

    This view of marriage as “men who have been with a woman long enough are allowed to override their autonomy because those women practically belong to them” is a horrible view of marriage, may it burn in hell.

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  2. Hi Coyote,

    First off, thanks for catching the error in my seventh paragraph. I’m mortified that that slipped through. I was specifically trying to contrast all the socially acceptable forms of “common touch” with the intimate kinds of touch that would be, for lack of a better word, indictable or prosecut-able as sexual assault or harassment. And when I talk about indictment and prosecution I’m not talking only about the law, but about culture too.

    I’ll say this: I have some ideals that I’m aware are seen as radical, i.e. society at large gives less than a shit for my hypersensitivity. My idea of a right society *is* one where all touch, even as innocent as a handshake, is done with full consent. But from my nearly 40 years of experience in this wrong world I’ve concluded that:

    1. Even the best-intentions can’t guarantee virtue because this world is really that fallen (that is to say, I am guilty of losing my temper with my children and raising my voice, and I’m guilty of other things that John Holt – and apparently you – would judge as transgressions, such as holding my toddler for a few seconds longer when said toddler wants to get down, simply because I find my child cute and want to give affection in the form of hugs. Say what you will about this, but you can’t deny that there is practically no authority present to effectively indict that latter transgression in our society. Hell, so many parents still think they’re doing great if they don’t spank too hard.

    2. There are generalities broad enough to be pragmatically useful, and one of those I hold to be that people are less traumatized by an unwanted shoulder tap than an unwanted touch on the more intimate parts of the body. Now I hold this view, but I also hold it open to question, and I hope it’s clear that my naming it as a pragmatically useful generality leaves plenty of room for exceptions. Your refusal to answer “no” to my rhetorical question makes a good point, and I see I ought to address it in more detail. Maybe in another post: again, this blog is written from a Mormon standpoint, religiously and culturally, and there’s a lot to be said for how the culture erodes the respect for sovereign souls (including bodily autonomy) that I believe in.

    You’ve touched on something I’ve seen in some of my other online discussions: I often find myself misunderstood. Unfortunately, my ardent idealism has made me loath to adopt too many conventions of rhetoric that I regard as trendy, and my reading habits have given me a taste for prickliness and sarcasm. So if you want to charge me with unclear writing, go ahead. I’m a writer, which means I’m always seeking to improve my craft. So here I go hoping to make the purpose and meaning of my post more clear.

    I’ll address the baby question: going back to folks like John Holt, Alice Miller and Maria Montessori, I’m converting to an ideology that children of all ages deserve respect. Yes, this looks very different for infants than it does for other ages, but I think you’ve failed to acknowledge my point: infants’ survival needs are an invasion on the parents’ personal space, time and freedom. Reading Alice Miller and others, I’ve been horrified to confront the ways that all sorts of child abuse has been normalized through history precisely because adults have resented the vampiric role they have seen babies take. But after all, I have two children of my own, and although I love them, I’m not going to lie and say I always enthusiastically consent to all that they demand of me. It goes beyond the infant’s need for milk. There’s genuine need for touch, fluctuating but continuing for years, and there is urgent need going on for years of *time, time, time*.

    I’m surprised that someone as thoughtful as you should accuse me of “saying that the morality of an act purely depends on what numerical age someone is.” Maybe I’ve gravely misunderstood your thought process from your posts, your exasperation at the facile definitions that people use. I do not say the morality of an act purely depends on numerical age. If I really believed that a thoughtful reader not infected with just a little bit of Internet-spite must conclude that I said that, I might have to despair of my abilities as a writer. Look: I’m talking about long-term relationships, the kind that last for years and years. (I’ve been married almost 15.) Your history with a person, your familiarity with a person *change how you think and feel about what you do with them*.

    I’m well aware that sexualities develop on different timetables. When I say “we” on this blog, I think it safe to assume that I’m casting a generalization of Mormon experience. In this post, I’m casting a generality of Mormon heterosexual experience.

    I’m also disappointed that someone as thoughtful as you sailed over an entire clarifying paragraph for the sake of indulging in more Internet-spite: “But if a man is married to her and has been with her longer, then he has, what, a right to coerce her? What the heck?” I must not have been clear enough: I have problems with precisely this attitude. I see it preached constantly by Christian sex therapists who claim that “sex is a need.” I do not accept that sex is a need, and I’m sorry that the satirical, sarcastic nature of my last two paragraphs (particularly the penultimate) escaped you so that you felt you needed to preach to the choir in reminding me that wanting sex is not a need.

    I don’t accept sexual desire as a need, ok? But, you must understand, that for heterosexuals, there are these strong undercurrents. When I write about the maternal role of a heterosexual wife, about how heterosexual desire tends to make men regress to a certain kind of infantile state, I’m speaking from experience. This is precisely my point: sexual attraction and desire are not allies in our quest for peer roles, mutual respect, rational behavior, democracy, civilization . . . they are irrational instincts.

    How many of my other posts have you read? I welcome your comments and participation, especially if you can get where I’m coming from.

    Like

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