The Folly of Starting with Consent
Every so often I will see blog or Facebook post explaining to men how consent works. One that pops into my head is a video from a while back that compares consent in sexual matters to having tea. This video suggested that just as you would not force someone to have tea, so too you would require consent before having sex. If someone wanted tea on Thursday would you would not assume that they would want it on Friday. If your previous three guests wanted tea you shouldn’t assume your next guest does.
This is all well and good, but it has certain problems. First off, men happen to have a very strong desire for sex that that they don’t have for tea. In addition, studies have shown that he part of the brain responsible for decision making is not fully formed until about 25, while the reward part of the brain is on overdrive. This means that for young people sex is especially attractive in a way that tea is not. In addition, many of these men look at pornography; much of pornography often falsely portrays women as desiring rape and abuse. All of these go a long way to explaining why a man, especially a young man, might not treat sex like tea and would ignore consent. The video ignores universal truths regarding human behavior
But there is another reason, one that seems to me to be very important-in fact, the most important. One that tells me that comparing sex to tea shows that the person making the argument has a flawed vision of what it means to be human. Let’s look at some stories from history.
Let’s start “in the beginning.” In Genesis 2, after God has made man he says “It is not good for man to be alone- I will make a suitable helper for him.” So God makes all of the animals, to each of which Adam gives a name. But none is a suitable partner. At this point God does not say “You know Adam, I was wrong. What you really need is a good cup of tea.” No, instead God puts Adam into a state of deep sleep and makes Eve out of one of his ribs. And Adam exclaims “this one at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.”
In the Illiad, we don’t read of how Paris of Troy fell in love with the tea of King Agamennon and took it with him back to Troy, and how the Greeks, enraged by this contemptable behavior, launched an armada of a 1000 ships to get the tea back. Instead Paris became enamored of a woman, Helen, Agamennon’s wife, and the most beautiful woman in the world. He took her back to Troy, and it was over her that the Greeks started a war with Troy.
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo did not commit suicide over some spilled tea. He committed suicide because he believed Juliet, the woman whom he loved, was dead.
And if we continue we will find that all of literature, from Homer to Shakespeare to Austen and through today, is filled with stories of men doing stupid things over woman. Meanwhile we will find incredibly little about men doing stupid things for tea. Why is this the case? In a practical sense it goes back to what we said in the first paragraph. We could say how the man’s biology predisposes him to chase women in a way it does not predispose him to chase tea. But that’s not the whole story. Because men do chase other things- drugs, money and power are obvious ones. But there’s something else there. If you at my examples closely, you might be inclined to argue with me, because the video compared tea to sex, but I have not yet talked about sex. I have talked about women. And that is where all the difference in the world resides. Because even though a man might chase sex like he chases drugs or money or power, he can never chase a woman in that way.
C.S. Lewis once noted that it’s not accurate to say that a man who is looking for a prostitute is looking for a woman, because he’s actually looking for something else- the pleasure which he will take from the woman. Her enjoyment and her fulfillment are not required. This man is treating sex like tea. While both men and women can do this, men seem much more pre-disposed to treat sex like tea, whereas woman have a stronger tendency to desire the person. Tea and coffee and chocolate, as well as drugs and money and power are things outside a human being. Supposing a person were to reject an offer of tea. He is not rejecting the man offering the tea, just an object in his possession. Supposing he were to take the tea against the owner's will. He is stealing, but it’s not taking the person’s dignity. And supposing a person were dying of thirst, then someone with tea could be forced to give him some to the dying man so that he might live- that is the person dying of thirst could have the right to a stranger’s tea.
But no one could be forced to give sex to another person, because sex is not an object like tea, but an encounter with a person, an encounter at a very deep level. When we say “to have tea with a person” what we mean is to drink tea while we encounter each other in converstation. When we say “have sex with a person” we mean the actual encounter with the person. Supposing a person dislikes tea, he might still consent to drink it for the sake of the other person. But the same is not true of sex-or at least, should not be true! There are far too many a times a woman consents to have sex not because she wants to, but to keep a man happy who does not value her. In fact, whenever a person mentally separates the act of sex from the person then they treat the other person as an object.
This applies not merely to sex, though. I’ve danced with a few women who merely consented to dance with me. They followed well enough- sometimes extremely well- but they were not really into it. Their body was there but their mind was somewhere else entirely. And it was a terrible experience. I would much rather dance with a woman who was unskilled but trying hard than one who was awesome but was only consenting to dance. And if she looks as if she is not having fun dancing with me, then I start trying to figure out what is wrong. It could be with me. It could be with her. It could be with both. But I don’t ever want to settle for consent. I want a full heart-ed cooperation.
And this is the problem with all relationship based only on consent. Consent just a single rung above slavery, a single rung above rape. When the sex is based on consent, and it’s about getting something rather than giving to someone, when it’s about taking rather than giving, it’s ridiculously easy for it to drop into the realm of rape. In fact, in learning the Theology of the Body, a truth I discovered is that economic relationships that are built on consent are of a fallen nature. They too are just a step above slavery. We may live with an economic relationship based only on consent, but we actually want is one based on full heart-ed cooperation- one in which our work, in the spirit of the Catholic Social Teaching, is the expression of who we are. Our work was meant from the beginning to be a source of dignity for us the expression of who we are, an encounter with our person.
Love desires to bring the other person to joy. Thus, love, whether in work, dance or sex, is constantly looking at the other person, to see if they are truly happy, truly expressing who they are. In work we might live with consent for a long period and only yearn for full heart-ed cooperation. In dance we will live with consent once in a great while, but our regular experience is one of full heart-ed cooperation. But in sex, mere consent will never do. It must always be full heart-ed cooperation. The moment it drops to mere consent is not the time to start having sex. Rather it’s the time to stop it and figure out what is wrong.