It’s always frustrating reading something that comes really close to hitting it’s target but still manages to completely miss it altogether. That’s how I felt when reading Courtney Sender’s recent NYT piece, He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost.
She describes a recent hookup with a kind of man I never thought could actually exist—one trying to rigorously adhere to an only-yes-means-yes standard of consent who a woman actually wanted to sleep with. From what she describes, he was literally asking her if it was ok to remove each and every article of clothing. (Of course, she doesn’t say that he continually asked whether she had revoked consent during intercourse, so he could still be found guilty of violating an affirmative consent standard.) I’m not going to congratulate fornication, but… I can’t help but be impressed that he pulled it off without seeming like a frightened child.
Naturally, fulfilling even the most outlandish demands of feminists wasn’t enough to avoid her finding fault.
Yet something else about his asking also made me uneasy. It seemed legalistic and self-protective, imported more from the courtroom than from a true sense of caretaking. And each time he asked, it was as if he assumed I lacked the agency to say no on my own — as if he expected me to say no, not believing that a woman would have the desire to keep saying yes.
So in other words, the guy actually managed to make fried ice for her, but she’s still complaining that it’s too tepid.
Irony aside, though, she’s not exactly wrong in her assessment. Affirmative consent certainly is legalistic rather than caring—it has more in common with how computers swap data than it does with how humans relate. In the end, while he may have treated her yes’s as divine oracles, he nevertheless stopped returning her texts and started pretending she didn’t exist after only two hookups. In her conclusion, Ms. Sender comes really close to expressing a fundamental truth about building a “culture of consent.”
In the days and weeks after, I was left thinking that our culture’s current approach to consent is too narrow. A culture of consent should be a culture of care for the other person, of seeing and honoring another’s humanity and finding ways to engage in sex while keeping our humanity intact. It should be a culture of making each other feel good, not bad.
And if that’s the goal, then consent doesn’t work if we relegate it exclusively to the sexual realm. Our bodies are only one part of the complex constellation of who we are. To base our culture of consent on the body alone is to expect that caretaking involves only the physical.
I wish we could view consent as something that’s less about caution and more about care for the other person, the entire person, both during an encounter and after, when we’re often at our most vulnerable.
Because I don’t think many of us would say yes to the question “Is it O.K. if I act like I care about you and then disappear?”
So close, and yet so far. Yes, our expressions of sexuality should promote caring about one another. But caring has nothing to do with consent, and that’s precisely the problem.
Consent Cannot Be Enough
During the sexual revolution, large swaths of our culture decided that sexual morality was irredeemably oppressive and archaic. Accordingly, they worked hard to undermine it and replace it with a simple statement of “everything is ok as long as its consensual.” It was our way of legitimizing all the illicit sex we wanted to enjoy while still forbidding rape. In doing so, we also made our thinking about sex entirely one-dimensional. This kind of reductionistic thinking is entirely inadequate for dealing with something as multi-faceted as human sexuality.
A few years back, I wrote a piece called Ending the Real Rape Culture in which I argued that the way feminists have treated consent as the only relevant facet of sexuality has served to completely dehumanize it. This dehumanization is most easily seen in the extreme examples—that Christmas is “rapey” because of the Annunciation or that parents need to seek consent before changing their baby’s diaper. However, it is just as present in the push for affirmative consent. As Ms. Sender attests, nobody actually wants a sexual encounter that requires explicitly seeking and granting permission at every conceivable escalation. Isolating consent from things like relationships, social expectations, and common sense actually facilitates “rape culture” rather than inhibiting it.
But rape and sexual assault are not the only rotten fruits of this dehumanization of consent. It produces all kinds of misery in our relationships as well. Ms. Sender’s experience that, “Sex makes me feel unsafe, not because of the act itself but because my partners so often disappear afterward” is a pretty typical example of this. It’s amazing how often women who are adamant that they’re empowered hookup-loving feminists are simultaneously disappointed that their no-strings-attached affairs never lead to relationships—to strings.
The problem is not, as Ms. Sender argues, that we think about consent too narrowly and that it should extend to emotions as well. The problem is that we think of nothing but consent—and that itself is too narrow. Feminists myopically focus on consent because they see it as empowering. After all, consent is nothing more or less than permission, and the person who is granting permission is the person who is in charge.
For feminists, power differentials are the key to understanding the world. Specifically, they believe that women are oppressed by men because men have held power over women through much of history and have perpetuated that imbalance by entrenching their power in various social structures. Their solutions, therefore, are always to “correct” this imbalance by giving power to women at the expense of men. That empowerment is the ultimate goal of their every policy, social engineering endeavor, and program. Everything else is secondary–at best, caring for what they would consider the symptoms of male power and at worst, empty rhetoric to gain support for their policies.
The focus on consent is no different. This is most easily seen in the new affirmative consent policies that are being pushed. Critics have pointed out that there is literally no way for the accused to prove innocence under such policies. But proponents remain undeterred because this is ultimately a feature, not a bug. Affirmative consent is specifically designed to empower women by allowing them to penalize any sexual partner who sufficiently displeases them. That’s not part of feminists’ rhetoric—after all, most people recognize this power as rather arbitrary and unjust—but it is an inherent part of their purpose.
But as long as one’s sexual ethics rest solely on a matter of empowerment, sex cannot really be a matter of care. Ms. Sender recognizes this dynamic at play in her hookup. She says of his strict adherence to affirmative consent policies, “It seemed legalistic and self-protective, imported more from the courtroom than from a true sense of caretaking.” This is only natural. She held power from which he needed to protect himself, so he toed the party line he was probably fed in college. Nothing more can come from it because you cannot use power to create a relationship—you cannot force people to care about you.
But when Ms. Sender complains that her hookup didn’t have her permission to ghost her, that’s precisely what she’s trying to do—She’s trying to be in charge of whether or not he cares. No culture of consent is ever going to create caring because empowerment is insufficient to that task. Care proceeds primarily from self-giving rather than from demands.
Sex Is Not All About You
One of the most fundamental aspects to sex is that it takes two. Anything less than that is rightly seen as kind of pathetic. This means that giving is just as important as receiving, which inevitably requires partnership. Despite what feminists are trying to accomplish through slavish devotion to a dehumanized consent, women cannot have sex with men entirely on their own terms. Expecting to get absolutely everything you consent to and absolutely nothing else is radically selfish. There is no real partnership there; and when you treat men as disposable, they are going to treat you the same way. In this way, caring is fundamentally incompatible with hookups. The entire point of hooking up is no-strings-attached sex—an attempt to remove any and all responsibility to another person from the equation.
And yet, this piece and many others inadvertently reveal just how badly many women actually want the strings from which feminists “liberated” them. Despite her insistence on hookups, Sender doesn’t actually want to be abandoned after sex, and I see the same thing in virtually every high-profile piece about hooking up that I read. The example par excellence is “Kristina” from a Rolling Stone profile in 2014. Kristina has two faces. The first, presented by herself and the author is one of an empowered and liberated young woman who is quite satisfied with hookup culture. The other, unintended face is one of despair. Kristina once hoped for a boyfriend before she got used by “frat bros” and is obsessed with weddings and marriage; but she plies herself with alcohol to enable her to hookup with random guys “just looking for someone to bang” who she admits she doesn’t want, all while desperately trying to convince herself that servicing 29 guys and counting is going to lead to marriage somehow. Behold sexual “liberation.”
In examples like these, we see two mindsets at war with one another. On one hand, there’s the natural human impulse towards marriage and family. On the other hand, there’s the feminist indoctrination that marriage and family are snares that keep women from being all that they can be. Our culture imposes on women a moral obligation to radical selfishness that drives hookup culture and staves off marriage and family as long as possible.
Our culture’s prejudice is that it is men who are either too scared or too selfish to make a commitment. After all, it is more often the women who complain about men not manning up and a putting a ring on it. But contrary to our prejudices, the truth is that both sexes are too selfish to commit. We might want commitments, but wanting a commitment is not the same thing as offering one. And offering one is precisely what many young women assiduously avoid. Consider some of the things young women said about themselves in this 2013 NYT piece which celebrates women’s participation in hookup culture.
- “We are very aware of cost-benefit issues and trading up and trading down, so no one wants to be too tied to someone that, you know, may not be the person they want to be with in a couple of months.”
- Instead, she enjoyed casual sex on her terms — often late at night, after a few drinks, and never at her place, she noted, because then she would have to wash the sheets
- Many privileged young people see college as a unique life stage in which they don’t — and shouldn’t — have obligations other than their own self-development.
- Women at elite universities were choosing hookups because they saw relationships as too demanding and potentially too distracting from their goals.
- Women say, “ ‘I need to take this time for myself — I’m going to have plenty of time to focus on my husband and kids later,’ ” Dr. Armstrong said. “ ‘I need to invest in my career, I need to learn how to be independent, I need to travel.’ People use this reference to this life stage to claim a lot of space for a lot of different kinds of things.”
- “‘I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together,’ ” she said. “That sounds terrible. I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.”
- In Catherine’s view, her classmates tried very hard to separate sex from emotion, because they believed that getting too attached to someone would interfere with their work. They saw a woman’s marrying young as either proof of a lack of ambition or a tragic mistake that would stunt her career.
As before, most of these women are looking for strings—just not yet, and only on their own terms. They want entitlements without responsibilities.
The overwhelmingly common point of view of these women is that their youth, energy, and dreams are far too valuable to waste on a husband and a family. Marriage is only for later on when these treasures have been too used up and abused to be worth anything better. They desire a commitment from men—eventually. However, they don’t offer one. Instead, they work hard to avoid having any skin in the game themselves. They achieve this by squandering what they hold most valuable so that they aren’t tempted to share it with anyone. If men aren’t putting a ring on that, it’s hard to blame them.
And of course, one must once again point out the fact that women’s commitments after marriage leave something be desired as well. The prevalence of unilateral divorce and the lopsided reality that women commit a super-majority of them does much to erode caring and commitment on the other side of marriage.
If You Want Care, Try Chastity
Even when they’re just looking for anonymous sex, people are still looking for love—something apparent in Ms. Sender’s article. Unfortunately, too many women have been taught that genuine, self-giving love is something to abhor. This is certainly part of sinful human nature in men and women alike, but the present reality is that men don’t have to contend with a powerful and entrenched social movement trying to present our selfishness as virtue.
To get past hookup culture and find a culture of caring, we have to move past a culture of consent and empowerment and towards of culture of love. Once you let love in the door, sexual morality necessarily goes far deeper than mere consent. It has to entail self-giving, and therefore the institution of marriage which makes this kind of self-giving reasonably safe. It has to entail commitment and exclusivity—two sides of the same coin—because you cannot truly give a person something that’s been held in common among dozens of people in your youth. It has to entail a mutual respect because you’re so deeply invested in each other.
If you want to be cared for, you must remember that in most circumstances, you cannot be genuinely cared about without actually caring in return. On the contrary, people actively try to distance themselves from those who couldn’t care less. So if, like Ms. Sender, sex is so steeped in loneliness for you that you already dread his departure even as you lie with him, then perhaps you should reflect on the price of your freedom from strings. For the past few generations, we have been slowly trading away caring in exchange for sexual license. And like most forms of hedonism, it’s made us feel great for about 5 minutes and terrible in the long run. Anyone who is interested in a loving marriage would do well to consider actually saving themselves for it.