The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

[Content note: sexual assault]

A week and a half ago I gave a talk about sex education at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference. In the section on creating a better sex education program, I mentioned that we need to center consent in the way we teach healthy sexuality to kids and teens. Rather than defining “right” and “wrong” in terms of what your religion accepts and what it does not, or what social norms approve and what they do not, we should define right and wrong in terms of what hurts other people and what does not, to put it simplistically. Sexual assault is wrong, then, because it means doing something sexual to someone else without their consent. By this definition, then, homosexuality or premarital sex or polyamory cannot be wrong by default (as long as they are consensual).

It’s become really apparent to me that when most people talk about the ethics of sex, they do not talk about consent.

For instance, premarital sex is wrong because sex is for marriage. Homosexuality is wrong because sex is for straight couples. Polyamory is wrong because sex and relationships should only involve two people.

Even things that are considered unethical from a consent-based point of view, such as pedophilia and bestiality, are often talked about as being wrong because people “shouldn’t” be attracted to children or animals, not because children or animals cannot give consent. The “sick” part of it is that someone could’ve wanted to do that, not that someone disregarded a child’s or an animal’s inability to consent.

To illustrate what I mean, consider one common argument against same-sex marriage: the slippery-slope fallacy that it’ll lead to people marrying and/or having sex with animals. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for instance, recently hinted at this. He claimed that if we start allowing same-sex marriage, then “marriage can be anything.”

No, it can’t.

People like Paul seem to think of sex as one person “taking” something else, that may or may not belong to them. A person of the opposite sex? Sure. A person of the same sex? No. An animal? Hell no. Laws concerning sex and relationships exist to prevent people from “taking” what they’re not supposed to have, based on moral standards we have set as a society.

If Paul switched to a consent-based sexual ethic, then he would realize that there’s absolutely no reason legalized homosexuality would lead to legalized bestiality. Another adult of the same sex is capable of consenting to sex; an animal is not. And that’s that.

Likewise, the conversation around Anthony Weiner’s sexting habits has largely revolved around whether or not it’s “appropriate” for someone in an elected position to be doing such things. Should a politician be sending dirty photos to women? Can we trust a man who cheats on his wife?

At least one of the times that Weiner sexted in the past, the woman did not solicit the photos. They were unsolicited. It was a nonconsensual encounter. That means that Weiner committed sexual harassment.

Accordingly, the problem with what Weiner did is not–or not primarily–that it’s “stupid” for a politician to send dirty photos or that what kind of a perv would even do that. It’s that he imposed himself sexually on someone else without their consent.

And while his latest dalliance appears to have been consensual, the fact that he sexually harassed someone in the past was not something for which he was ever truly held accountable.

Another example. Polyamorous people and/or people in open relationships or marriages are often accused of cheating despite the fact that what they’re doing is not defined as such under the parameters of their own relationships. Recently, the Frisky wrote a story about Brooklyn Nets player Andrei Kirilenko, who has an open marriage with his wife. However, the story framed this as “being allowed to cheat on his wife.”

First of all, that’s nonsensical. If you’re being allowed to cheat, then you’re by definition not cheating. Second, as long as Kirilenko is following the terms that he has set together with his wife and not keeping anything from her that she has requested to know, then he can’t be cheating.

The fact that people so often persist in viewing consensual non-monogamy as “cheating” suggests that they do not center consent. To them, certain things are verboten in relationships no matter what the people in the relationship have and have not consented to. The point, to them, is not that people in relationships should mutually agree on boundaries that work for them; it’s that people in relationships should just not do certain things because those things are wrong for people in relationships to do–such as sleeping with other people.

One final example: BDSM. Although BDSM can be used as a mechanism for abuse, and abusers obviously exist in the BDSM community as they do in any other, there are also plenty of practitioners of consensual, risk-aware BDSM who are happy and healthy through their choices. Yet some people, from sex-negative conservatives to certain feminists, insist on referring to all BDSM collectively as sexual assault, or at least as unhealthy, dangerous, and abusive.

They claim that because BDSM can resemble “real” violence, therefore it is violence and it must be ethically wrong, because hurting another person is wrong. But they divorce the content of a BDSM encounter from its context–a conversation about desires and boundaries, the setting of a safeword, the aftercare that takes place, well, after.

Interestingly, they often restrict this literal interpretation of things to sexual matters only; many people understand that while walking up to a stranger and tackling them is not okay, playing a game of football and tackling an opposing player is okay. They understand that while choking the crap out of a random person is wrong, practicing judo with a fellow judoka is not wrong. The difference is, of course, consent. A football player consents to being tackled; a judo student who shows up to class consents to practicing judo*.

But with sex, for some reason, this ethic falls apart, and many still believe that BDSM is, if not morally wrong, at least a sign of mental sickness or brokenness. (It’s not.) The fact that the participants consent to it, create mechanisms to withdraw consent if necessary, and make sure that everyone feels safe and satisfied afterward seems not to matter.

Failing to center consent in one’s own thinking about sexual ethics is a problem for several reasons. First of all, it conveniently allows for bias, stigma, and discrimination against queer, poly, kinky, and otherwise sexually non-conforming people. It allows people to dismiss others’ lived experiences by naming them something other than the participants themselves wanted it named. Consensual BDSM becomes sexual violence, consensual nonmonogamy becomes cheating, and so on, despite the protests of the people actually doing these things.

Second, painting any sex other than heterosexual monogamous (perhaps married) sex as Bad blurs the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex and makes it easier for abusers and assaulters to get away with abusing and assaulting. For instance, if teens are taught that all sex before (heterosexual monogamous) marriage is wrong, they have little reason to be suspicious if their first partner manipulates or coerces them, because they know that Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay. If people think that having sex with someone other than your spouse is Bad, they may not realize that it’s unreasonable and abusive for their partner to adamantly refuse to tell them anything their other partners, including their STI status.

There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely. Viewing all consensual sex as Completely Good obscures the fact that even consensual sex can perpetuate systems of sexism, racism, and so on, no matter how much its participants enjoy it. Consensual sex can, of course, be risky health-wise, and while people are free to choose to contract STIs if that’s what they for whatever reason want to do, their other partners and their children do not always have that choice.

However, consent can be a great framework for sorting out what is definitely ethically wrong, and what is not. Consensual sex may not be flawless, but nonconsensual sex is absolutely not okay. The examples I provided–of bestiality, of sexting, of open marriages, and of BDSM–show that basing sexual ethics on consent works better than basing it on oughts and shoulds.

~~~

* The sports examples here are also good examples of the limitations of consent that I mentioned. A judo student who feels pressured to engage in exercises they’re not comfortable with isn’t really consenting. A football player who isn’t informed of the traumatic and permanent physical consequences that football can have on the body isn’t really consenting either. Sports, like sex, can promote racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other crappy things.

How You Know They’ve Run Out Of Arguments

Steven over at WWJTD informed me of this nonsense:

The newest argument against homosexuality has arrived. It turns out it prevents straight dudes from being friends. Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition explains:

“But there is no such thing as absolute freedom when it comes to sexuality. The moment we celebrate or endorse certain behaviors, we curtail freedom in other areas. This is the nature of freedom.”

Wax then lists a few examples of platonic affection between straight men which have fallen out of vogue, such as lovingly written letters, holding hands and sharing a bed.

Wax attributes this lack of affection between men as the result of gay people being accepted into society. Because if there are gays, you don’t want to risk being mistaken for one of those people. He then goes on to talk about how a hypothetical pro-incest movement would damage his ability to be affectionate with his daughter.

As Steven points out, Wax nearly stumbles upon a good point:

Where I do agree with Wax is that I think it does suck that hetero men feel they can’t be affectionate with one another. And a good chunk of the reason for that is people fear being seen as gay.

That’s where we stop agreeing, because society moving toward acceptance of gay people won’t hinder hetero same-sex affection. It will bolster it. The less of a big deal being gay becomes, the less people will care if people mistake them for gay.

Where Wax screws up is that he makes a huge correlation-is-not-causation error. Yes, it used to be acceptable for men to be very affectionate with each other (platonically). It also used to be unacceptable to be gay (although, it’s worth noting that there was no such thing as “gay” back when romantic friendships were in vogue). Nowadays it is much more acceptable to be gay, and much less acceptable for men to be affectionate with each other. Therefore one must’ve caused the other, amirite??

No, I am not right. While this isn’t really my field, my hypothesis would be that the cultural stigma we’ve placed on (straight) men being affectionate with each other is largely a side effect of the way our culture sexualizes everything. Think about it. Women often can’t even breastfeed in public anymore because it’s “inappropriate” (read: too sexy). Women can’t be topless in public, not even on beaches, even though in many other Western countries they can. Fathers being affectionate with their daughters and teachers hugging their students are often looked upon with suspicion, because why would an adult want to touch a child if not sexually? (Maybe because touch is a universal way to express all kinds of platonic, romantic, and familial love, as well as friendly affection and reassurance, but whatever.)

The most amusing thing about Wax’s argument to me, though, is how blatant a sign it is that the bigots have truly run out of arguments to use against homosexuality.

After all, haven’t we rehashed all the usual ones hundreds of times by now?

“YEAH WELL HOMOSEXUALITY DOESN’T PRODUCE CHILDREN”
“Yes it can, and anyway, neither do infertile or voluntarily childfree straight couples.”
“YEAH WELL GOD SAID IT’S WRONG”
“Even if that’s true, you can’t make the rest of the country live by your religion.”

“YEAH WELL IT’S UNNATURAL”
“Homosexuality is found in hundreds of animal species; homophobia is only found in one.”
“YEAH WELL THEY’LL CONVERT KIDS INTO BEING GAY TOO”
“No, there’s no evidence for that.”
“YEAH WELL THEY CHOSE TO BE GAY”
No, they didn’t, here are all the studies showing that sexual orientation is not a choice.”
“YEAH WELL THE BEHAVIOR IS A CHOICE”
“So do some people not deserve to have love and sex in their lives?”
“YEAH WELL IT’S A MENTAL DISORDER”
“Then why can’t it be ‘cured,’ why did it get removed from the DSM decades ago, and why can gay people live happy and healthy lives?”
“YEAH WELL IT’S GROSS”
“So is Jersey Shore, but that’s legal.”
“YEAH WELL NOW STRAIGHT DUDES CAN’T HUG EACH OTHER”
“Wut.”
There you have it. They are out of arguments, and now they’re doubling down and reaching for the most inane ones they can think of.

Why Homosexuality is Not Analogous to Murder

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is clearly very worried about the pervasive immorality that’s taking over America these days. First gay sex will become okay, then murder.

Yes, he really said that. “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

Here’s the context: Scalia was speaking at Princeton University and a student asked him about his decision to dissent in the landmark ruling of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down that state’s ban on sodomy as unconstitutional. Scalia believes that the Supreme Court has no place in this “culture war” and that the activists who wanted to overturn anti-sodomy laws were advocating a “homosexual agenda” (his words, not mine).

When asked about this decision, Scalia used a slippery slope fallacy to suggest that if we can’t have “moral feelings” about homosexuality, then we can’t have them about murder, either.

Yes, yes, I get it. He’s not really saying that homosexuality is like murder. He’s making an analogy. But it’s a terrifically bad one.

Scalia, like many people who enthusiastically infuse their political opinions with religion, seems to think that murder is morally wrong cuz god said so–and, therefore, so is homosexuality. He seems not to realize that most people nowadays think that murder is wrong not because they’ll go to hell for it but because an innocent person is being deprived of their life. 

Who is being hurt by someone having gay sex? Who is being hurt by a same-sex couple getting married and living out their lives together? Who is being hurt when kids are discouraged from (and disciplined for) bullying a classmate for being gay?

Honestly, I think this is why religious conservatives started spouting all that stuff about gay people “converting” children to homosexuality. This is the reason for all those initiatives there used to be to ban openly gay people from teaching in public schools, and the reason why, even today, organizations like the Florida Family Association accuse Office Depot of turning kids gay by selling products saying things like “Be Yourself.”

Even though there is no evidence for the theory that homosexuality is some sort of infectious disease, religious conservatives insist that it is, because that allows them to claim that it actually harms people. And that makes the morality argument a very different one.

I’m also shocked that Scalia (and so many other people) really don’t see any difference at all between having “moral feelings” and legislating those moral feelings upon the rest of the country. These are probably the same people who go around wailing about “Christian persecution” because, guess what? You have the right to say and believe whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to force others to live by it. Making sure you don’t have the latter right doesn’t mean you’re somehow being discriminated against.

In short, yes, you can have “moral feelings” about homosexuality. And murder. And whatever else you want. We just don’t have to live by your moral feelings.

I’ll grant that when someone says something like, “I don’t care if the gays can get married or not but I still think homosexuality is Bad/Unnatural/Gross/Sinful/Wrong,” I will argue with them. I still think they’re wrong. But I care a lot less about these people than about the ones who do care whether or not same-sex couples can get married, and especially the ones who by some twisted logic claim that there is anything at all acceptable about laws banning sodomy.

And, of course, in these debates, someone who thinks they’re really smart always shows up and asks things like, “But aren’t you legislating your morality upon others by saying that they can’t legislate their morality upon others?”

No; this is asinine. The default in a free, just society should be having rights rather than not having rights. So if you’re going to take away someone’s right to do something, you’d better have a damn good reason.

So why can we ban murder but not gay sex?

Well, even if homosexuality were wrong, it would still be wrong in a completely different way than murder. If homosexuality is wrong, it’s wrong because we (or god) just don’t like it. Murder is wrong because it infringes on the rights of others to live.

And, really, if we’re going to base our legal system on religious scripture, I’m still waiting for the laws banning gossiping, lying, speaking ill of one’s parents, working on Sundays, and refusing to love thy neighbor.

[Guest Post] How I Was Indoctrinated into the Gay Agenda

My friend Seth writes about growing up with four gay uncles and how they’ve shaped his views on gay rights.

I never stood a chance.

I was indoctrinated at an impressionable young age—so young that I can’t even remember what age it was. I have four gay uncles; two related by blood, and two more because I don’t give a shit what the law says, they’re family. Regardless, it was these four who indoctrinated me, using the typical insidious and underhanded homosexual tactic of being kind, funny, upstanding and just all-around decent people. Before I knew it, I had been brainwashed into thinking that these four men were human beings just like any other, and just as deserving of my respect and love as any other member of my family.

One more poor soul lost to the gay agenda.

Of course, I can’t place all the blame on my uncles. Some must go to my father, who always loved them unconditionally, apparently considering the fact that they were his brothers more important than their sexual orientation. Still more must go to my grandparents, who failed to respond to the news that their sons were homosexual by disowning them, instead welcoming their chosen partners into the family with as much warmth and fondness as if they were heterosexual spouses. With such weak moral examples from my elders, how was I supposed to know that the proper response to having gay uncles was to shun them as abominations regardless of whether or not they had ever done anything to offend me personally?

All right. I should probably turn the snark off before it makes your computer explode.

In all seriousness, though, this is not a story of redemption, wherein the protagonist starts out thinking that all homosexuals are icky hedonistic perverts who are out to destroy our families, and then has a transformative personal experience that teaches them that, oh hey, homosexuals are actually living, complex people who are not defined by their sexuality. Those are great stories, and I’m all for them, but I was lucky. I never needed that experience. I had a chance to learn, at a young age, that the people who society considers “different” are actually…not so much. (Spoiler alert: growing up with all these gay men in the family also completely failed to turn me gay.)

Well, hooray for me and all that, but what does that mean for the big picture, the larger debate about gay rights? Not everybody is going to have the experiences I had. It would be nice if they did, but it’s understandable if your close relatives didn’t obligingly orient their sexuality in a manner that allowed you to learn an early lesson in equality. Nonetheless, my story and others like it are still a significant factor in the debate over gay rights.

Because here’s the thing: the people who want to deny homosexuals the right to get married, who want to live in a world where somebody can be fired because their employer doesn’t like their orientation, who want to “pray the gay away,” have made the debate very, very personal. This is against our religion, their arguments go. This is something that our God has told us is wrong. These are our traditional values under attack.

To which I say, if you think it’s personal for you, come spend Thanksgiving with my family sometime.

Anti-gay leaders sometimes seem honestly baffled as to why they’re losing ground in the so-called culture war, especially among the younger generations. Is it because the church’s image isn’t hip and cool enough? Is it all this media garbage, driving the young ones away from the one true faith? Is it because those godless Democrats are in office? Please. It’s a lot simpler than that.

It’s because people like me are becoming more and more common. When somebody talks to me about “the gays” or “homosexuals,” I don’t think about some flamboyant stereotype engaging in round-the-clock orgies. I think about the two uncles who run a car repair shop out in rural Colorado, with a house done up in the finest of 50s retro décor. I think of my cousin and her partner, who run a cafe that serves some of the most amazing pizza I’ve ever tasted. I think of the friend who’s a constant fixture at our college house’s game nights, dances, and movie events. I think of the uncle, not related by blood but my uncle nonetheless, who drove me home in his truck through a blizzard so that I could make it to school the next morning. (Spoiler alert: despite being alone in a truck with a young boy for nearly three hours, he utterly failed to molest me. Shocking, I know.)

These are the people I love and cherish. These are the people whose lives I want to improve. These people are my personal stake in the gay marriage debate. So if you were hoping you could win me over to the side of righteous discrimination, I’m afraid that I have to inform you that you’re too late.

I’ve been indoctrinated.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

Is Homosexuality "Unnatural"?

Spoiler alert: no.

First, let’s define “natural.” Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say:

  • “being in accordance with or determined by nature”
  • “having a specified character by nature”
  • “occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural”
  • “existing in or produced by nature : not artificial”

For something to be “unnatural,” then, it would have to be the opposite of these things.

And now here are some facts about homosexuality:

  • Same-sex attraction exists among humans all over the world.
  • Although there’s no such thing as the “Gay Gene,” plenty of research has suggested that ties do exist between genetics and sexual orientation.
  • While some research has shown that one’s environment can influence their sexual orientation–for instance, a study showed that gay men report less positive interactions with their fathers than straight men–such factors aren’t exactly up to the individual to choose. (Also, one can’t really determine causation in cases like that.)
  • In general, psychological authorities agree that homosexuality is caused by an interaction of countless factors, usually develops in early childhood, and is not a choice.
  • There is no evidence that sexual orientation can be forcibly changed through “conversion therapy” or any other methods. (However, one’s orientation may be fluid and can sometimes change on its own over time, just like other types of sexual preference.)
  • Even animals can be gay! Homosexual behavior has been documented in tons of different animal species, such as penguins, pigeons, vultures, elephants, giraffes, dolphins, lizards, sheep, and, curiously, fruit flies and bedbugs. Bonobos, meanwhile, are almost entirely bisexual.

Compare this list to the definitions of “natural” above. Could it be that homosexuality is just a part of nature?

Some people like to claim that because homosexuality is “unnatural” because it’s maladaptive in terms of evolution–after all, how are you supposed to pass on your genes if you can’t have biological offspring?

First of all, for various reasons that I may elaborate in a future post, I don’t believe we need to let evolutionary concerns dictate our behavior. Second, there are plenty of other conditions that people are born with that aren’t evolutionarily adaptive–albinism, for instance. Nobody goes around railing about how albino people are “unnatural.” (Except perhaps in parts of Africa, where the condition is heavily stigmatized. But it goes without saying that what happens to albino people in some cultures is deplorable.)

That’s not even to mention the fact that, last I checked, it’s not anybody’s business whether or not particular individuals want to pass their genes on to the next generation or not.

The reason I’m writing about all of this is because homosexuality’s supposed “unnaturalness” is a common justification given by bigots for why they oppose gay rights. (For some examples, see here, here, and here.) As usual, however, their arguments have nothing to do with the meaning of the word “natural” or with current research on homosexuality. (At least among Christians, the idea that homosexuality is “unnatural” comes from bible verses such as Leviticus 18:22, which refers to same-sex relations as an “abomination.” There’s a vague line of reasoning if I ever heard one.)

Therefore, I wish they’d just give the real reason they don’t support gay rights–that they don’t like gay people, don’t wish to examine why they feel this way, and would rather the LGBT community just shut up and stop making their lives so difficult.