I have to live in a world in which utopians are working very hard to tear down the structures of thought and practice that harnessed humankind’s sexual instincts and directed them in socially upbuilding ways. I have to raise my kids in a world that says when it comes to sex, there is no right and no wrong, except as defined by consent.
The problem is consent is a difficult topic, by itself. Dreher’s response does stem from his opposition to the goals of people called “utopians”, who are trying to direct sexual instincts toward “socially unbuilding [sic] ways”. A lot of his response is disgust mutating into rushed reasoning, that reads a little too much like Helen Lovejoy.
Dreher however is right that we should be questioning whether we want a society where people allow themselves to be willingly bound, gagged, and penetrated by other people they’ve consent to. Emily Witt’s original article describes, in graphic detail, a typical extreme pornography scene where “women [are] bound, stripped, and punished in public”.
Consider a scenario of a person being beaten by a more powerful person or persons. Most of us would* react, I think, in ways that are aimed at helping this individual (at very least getting help, if we feel we’re too weak or incapable of stopping a raging mob, say). Why does the fact that someone has consented make the entire scene morally different?
Many things that are immoral are such due to a lack of consent: killing someone without or against her consent is murder, but with her consent, can be justified euthanasia; forcing someone to inhale a cocktail of unhealthy substances can be torture, but if they grab a cigarette, it’s not. And so on. Each of course comes with its own constraints, but just from this, you can see the importance of consent.
Is it a magical property that turns immoral acts into non-moral or moral acts? That’s too simplistic. It’s certainly powerful but whether it’s sufficient is another question.
Conor Friedersdorf makes an important point:
It seems to me that [Dreher and co-thinkers] understate [consent’s] importance and dismiss its adherents without giving them their due. Consent isn’t enough to guarantee that sexual behavior is moral. Adultery, the deliberate conception of unwanted children, the careless spread of H.I.V.—all could happen in consensual encounters. As those uncontroversial examples suggest, the people who truly think consent is the only thing that matters in sexual conduct are a tiny minority, even in San Francisco.
But the clincher is where Friedersdorf says:
[T]he emphasis on consent in today’s sexual morality isn’t decadence. However incomplete, it is a historic triumph. And growing reverence for consent would gradually make our culture radically more moral.
This is an excellent point, but it should be clarified.
First, just because something is a triumph doesn’t make it immune to criticism. And – this leads to the second point – we shouldn’t have “reverence” for anything. We can recognise the importance of consent, we can see why it’s mattered historically, why it matters so much now; and it is this recognition that will make us more moral: We can recognise that murderers are not the same as pot smokers, for example. Consent matters greatly.
All of this should be concerning. I do err on the side that says people should be able to do what they want with their bodies, provided it is consensual and no one is unnecessarily harmed – but that in itself is complicated.
But treating people with due respect as autonomous adults is an important step that needs to be applied consistently: these people wish to be doing such acts, that want such acts done to them. Perhaps there is a good reason to oppose acts like this, even when it is wanted – but so far, I’m not convinced by the idea that harming the children is (ever?) a sufficient justification.
* Though we have reason to be sceptical.