Sometimes we see the wisdom of a law by looking at what can happen when it is broken, or not enforced. For instance, traffic accidents occur because the boundaries we call laws are ignored. Shattered automobiles and shattered lives bear grim testimony to the wisdom of stop signs and red lights.
My wife and I are “regulars” at a pizza place in the small town where we live. Behind the bar, in full view above the cash register, is a sign that reads, “Buying her a beer doesn’t mean that you have bought her body.” Below the sign are posted explicit instructions concerning what constitutes sexual consent, and, importantly, what does not.
Do an internet search on “consent,” and you’ll get far more than you bargained for. The number of signs, articles, and websites devoted to the subject of consent are legion. Here are several tips I picked up in roughly 30 minutes online, from a variety of websites.
Concerning frequency of sex, consent has to be granted verbally each time, whether or not you already know the person, whether or not you have been intimate with that person, and before each specific act. Consent can never be coerced, so if either party is uncomfortable about anything—an act one of them is being asked to perform, for instance—then the other must stop pressuring for it.
There is instruction concerning how to indicate one is uncomfortable with sex. I also found suggestions of white lies to use to get one out of an uncomfortable situation, such as a woman telling a date she needs to be home early in order to avoid expectations of sex when she is not interested. On the other hand, there is also verbatim instruction concerning what to say in particular situations when one wants to proceed.
Of course, there is the instruction to the one more interested in sex to stop if he or she suspects that the other does not want to go further. Perhaps laying ground rules explicitly ahead of time would be the best thing to do. I even found a website called “The Good Men Project,” which proposes that a man interested in sex with an intoxicated woman ask her, as a precaution, “Do you feel clear enough to be making decisions about sex?” And there is a pledge to sign:
I commit to making sure all my sexual encounters are fully consensual. I commit to getting a clear verbal or non-verbal “yes” from my sexual partner(s) before and during sex. I commit to not pressuring her to say “yes,” to stop if she says “no,” and to ask if I’m unsure. I commit to stopping if—in my most honest assessment—I don’t believe that she is sober enough to give full consent.
This pledge is entirely consistent with the culture of consent, which reduces sex to a momentary act. It is also, frankly, ridiculous. At best, it is an attempt to justify using a woman sexually by making sure of her willingness in the moment. In other words, at least a man can reassure himself that a woman he intends to use wants to be used. At worst, it is grandstanding, as if only limiting oneself to willing partners makes one a good man.
As a man, I don’t believe for a moment that a man who is accustomed to using women sexually can be relied upon to follow his “most honest assessment,” particularly if he too has been drinking. Men accustomed to taking pleasure in women’s bodies without genuine concern for the women themselves can hardly be expected to be paragons of self-control in the moment. Besides, how will he know that his “most honest assessment” is an accurate one? Does he even know her well enough to make an assessment? What if she later regrets having been with him, wishing she hadn’t given her consent? What if she gave her consent hoping he might be in love with her? What if she becomes pregnant—what does a “good man” do then? Is he willing to be a father, or just pay for an abortion? Or neither?
I am not for a minute suggesting that sex should ever happen without the consent of both parties. Rape is real regardless of what form it takes, and it is never okay. But there is something grotesque about all this: that sex, the most intimate of human interactions, apparently must be governed by numerous and specific rules, expectations, strategies—and pledges.
On the other hand, there is a husband and a wife. They know one another. The first night of their marriage they can sexually discover one another—even if they are nervous or awkward—without fear of rejection, because they have pledged to love one another and to remain with one another until death. And over time they will get to know one another better, sexually and otherwise. Because this is so, they don’t need a consent manual to inform them about what they need to hear or not to hear; or to rehearse verbal cues. Will they always be clear concerning one another’s expectations? Of course not. Will there be tension and misunderstanding about sex? Sometimes. But that’s the point of marriage: to be able to get to know one another, for better and for worse, without the fear of the other leaving; to learn to love one another through the difficulties. Knowing one another—made possible by a lifetime marital commitment—removes the need for a detailed list of do’s and don’ts.
The mind-numbing volume and complexity of material out there pertaining to consent should tell us something: The culture of consent, with all its rules and warnings, bears unwitting testimony to the goodness of sex and the wisdom of God’s intention for sex to be reserved for marriage. Because sex is so good, it is both powerful and potentially destructive. Therefore it must be regulated. The question is how? The “Me Too” movement likewise bears testimony to this, even as it has yet to realize the implications of the power of sex.
It is an odd day when a man is called upon to sign a statement declaring he will try to refrain from taking sexual advantage of women. I guess that’s the day we are in. However, there is a better—less complicated—way for a good man to ensure he has a woman’s consent.
Marry her (if she will have him).