“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” ─ 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
A few days ago The Washington Post published a remarkable essay calling for the development a “new sexual ethic.” As the author, Christine Emba, argues, instead of the modern sexual ethic that judges sexual encounters based upon “consent” alone, what we need is a new ethic that will advocate such things as sex within a context of “listening,” “care,” and “mutual responsibility.”
Emba’s essay reminded me of a story that G.K. Chesterton recounts in the introduction to his brilliant defense of Christianity, Orthodoxy.
Chesterton’s imaginative story is about an adventurer who sets out from the shores of England in the hope of discovering new lands. However, while sailing he gets hopelessly lost. Eventually he spies the coast of England, but mistakenly believes he is looking at an undiscovered island in the South Seas. Ultimately, this bold adventurer lands on the coast and plants a flag, claiming what he thinks is a new island – but which is actually England – for England.
Chesterton tells this story as an allegory for his own relationship with Christianity. As a young agnostic he rejected his Christian upbringing and set out to develop a bold new philosophy that would provide answers to his biggest questions. In the end, however, he realized that he had simply rediscovered Christianity. As he put it in a famous line, “I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”
Though she might not know it, Emba is on a journey like that of Chesterton’s. She believes that she is a bold adventurer, throwing out the accepted orthodoxy of the current age that bases sexual ethics purely on a shallow notion of “consent” and advocating for something radical and subversive based upon mutual self-giving.
But of course, this radical new thing is simply what Christian civilization has taught for over 2,000 years.
Sex Based on ‘Consent’ is a Recipe for Disaster
What Emba’s essay makes abundantly clear, however, is just how urgently our culture needs to rediscover this old sexual ethic. Her descriptions of the modern “dating” scene are bleak beyond words. My heart breaks for the young men and women she describes who have never known anything better.
Emba describes the experiences of one twenty-five-year-old girl, “Rachel.” Although Rachel tells Emba that she has never been forced into doing anything that she didn’t want to do, she nevertheless “reeled off a list of unhappy encounters with would-be romantic partners: sex consented to out of a misguided sense of politeness, extreme acts requested and occasionally allowed, degrading insults as things unfolded — and regrets later.”
Rachel is not an unusual case. Despite having had the concept of “consent” hammered into their heads ever since they were children, many of the young people Emba spoke to admit that they have had troubling sexual encounters that have, at best, left them feeling empty, and at worst, seriously degraded or frightened.
One 30-year-old woman, Kaitlin, told Emba she has been dating a man that she likes. “But,” she added, “he chokes me during sex.” Kaitlin then asks Emba, “I mean, what do you think? Is that okay?”
There is just so much wrong with that last sentence that it’s hard to know where to begin. As Emba rightly points out, here is a case where “consent” has gone horribly awry. Technically, this woman has “consented” to her boyfriend’s violent behavior. At least, she hasn’t spoken up against it. And yet, there is no doubt that Kaitlin is being abused. However, she has been so conditioned by the “consent” culture, that she can’t even formulate why she feels uncomfortable, or why she desires something more from a sexual encounter.
“Consent” Culture Allows Rise in Violent Sex
Tragically, Kaitlin’s story is far from rare. In 2019, The Atlantic published a story with the nauseating headline, “The Startling Rise of Choking During Sex.” The subheadline notes that “a quarter of women in the U.S. reporting feeling scared during sex.” In one study involving 347 participants, 23 said that their partners have tried to choke them “unexpectedly” during sex. Women are also reporting a rise in a variety of other violent sexual behaviors – many of which are too disturbing and graphic to describe here.
These behaviors have been mainstreamed and normalized due to the meteoric rise of graphic and often-violent pornography. Statistics show that an overwhelming majority of men (and a growing percentage of women) are watching huge amounts of pornography, which routinely depicts choking and other violent acts as desirable. The predictable result is that some of these viewers are being conditioned to desire these things for themselves, and are re-enacting these behaviors in real life.
The most disturbing result, however, is that those who don’t want to do these things, and are simply looking for love and romance, nevertheless feel pressured to “consent,” because, after all, “everybody’s doing it,” and “it’s no big deal.” As Emba writes: “the pressure to say ‘yes’ feels more like a pressure not to say ‘no’ — to live up to the ‘callous womanizer’ stereotype that the low bar of consent culture still seemed to allow.”
As Emba notes, some people, recognizing the problems the ethic of “consent” has produced, have argued that consent alone isn’t enough. Predators will always pressure and push the boundary, obtaining a half-hearted “consent” that is enough to protect them from legal consequences. What is needed is “enthusiastic” consent. Furthermore, getting consent at the beginning of a sexual encounter isn’t enough. People should obtain consent every step of the way.
But this is no more than a case of moving deckchairs on the Titanic. It doesn’t address the fundamental problem. It ignores the fact that “causal sex” is a contradiction in terms. No matter how hard we try to rewrite the meaning of sex, the sexual act nevertheless has certain meanings built into it that cannot be eradicated. It is a profoundly intimate act – an act that is proper and exclusive to spouses (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2360). In conjugal love, spouses say to one another, “I give myself to you, unreservedly, totally.” It is a giving and a receiving, always and ultimately ordered to procreation and the union of spouses.
Turning sex into a hobby, a plaything, in which the participants get away with whatever they can obtain “consent” to, is to make a mockery of it. And it is, as so many are learning, to invite disillusionment, heartache, pain, and abuse. As Emba puts it, “an overreliance on consent as the sole solution might actually worsen the malaise that so many people feel: If you’re playing by the rules and everything still feels awful, what are you supposed to conclude?”
Emba describes how at one point she came across Thomas Aquinas’ definition of love: “willing the good of the other.”
“Willing the good,” she explains, “means caring enough about another person to consider how your actions (and their consequences) might affect them — and then choosing not to act if the outcome would be negative. It’s mutual concern — thinking about someone other than yourself and then working so their experience is as good as you hope yours to be.”
What if, she imagines wistfully, we built a new sexual ethic on this idea of love?
Perhaps the saddest thing about Emba’s essay is that the idea of building a sexual ethic like this seems like a radical idea to her. As her essay makes clear, Western culture’s attempt to redefine sex, marriage, and family has left a trail of devastation, of confusion and heartbreak. It has left a whole generation of people with such an impoverished idea of sex and love that they can’t even imagine a dating culture in which people are actually interested in looking out for one another’s welfare – choosing instead to act chastely, directing one’s sexual faculties in a correct, rational way, respecting the dignity of the human person.
A majority within Western culture are not only desensitized to an authentic understanding of love and the nature of marriage, but also deaf to truth when it is spoken. For most, love is defined as happiness. And happiness is defined as “that which makes one feel good.” Instant gratification is golden.
The younger generations have been taught their whole lives that they have the “freedom” to have sex with whomever they want, whenever they want. No longer are they “shackled” by the old moral rules. A sexual act is no longer some special thing that we save for marriage. It is a plaything that we can use to obtain pleasure and happiness according to our own standards.
Except, they now are learning, the minute you “unleash” sex from the old moral rules, is the minute that sex becomes ravening beast that turns on you. As the Catechism states, “Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes” (no. 2351).
When Emba cries out for a “new” approach to sex, what she is really calling out for – though she doesn’t know it – is a restoration of the Christian ideal of marriage. Sexual pleasure belongs inside a permanent, lifelong union between a man and woman, in which each partner is willing to meet and embrace the emotional and physical consequences of sex, including new human life. Only in such a relationship can the woman feel safe and valued for who she is. Only in such a union is a man challenged to channel his sexual desires in a way that respects his wife (and himself), and makes him a better man. Only in such a union does the sexual act become life-giving and love-nurturing.
The sexual act should not be a mere meeting of bodies, in which the owners of those bodies derive as much pleasure as they can using whatever means are necessary, so long as they obtain “consent.” It should be an encounter between a man and woman (an act proper and exclusive to spouses), who instead of focused on taking, are bent on giving. Who are expressing the kind of love described by St. Paul in The First Letter to the Corinthians. A love that is patient, and kind, and generous. A love that protects, and trusts, and hopes, and perseveres.
This is what Emba and the other women she interviewed are looking for. This is why their hearts feel empty, and why they feel used.
So much heartache and pain has been visited upon the younger generations because they bought into the diabolical lie of the sexual revolution: of “sex without consequences.” Let us hope that Emba’s essay starts a new and honest conversation about love and sexuality, fostering a radical return to an old wisdom.