Despite the fact that many would say that people in our society don’t believe in any kind of morality, if you listen to what our broader society has to say, especially on issues of sexuality, then it becomes apparent that our contemporary society is fiercely ethical. It’s just that the ethical discussion has shifted away from traditional pre-sexual revolution assumptions.
Glossing over a lot of recent cultural history, our contemporary discussion of sexual ethics has centered around the concept of sexual consent. The standard narrative goes something like this: Sex between any two (or more) adults is fine so long as they consent. This makes sense because as Americans, we put a huge premium on the freedom and sanctity of individual choice, and the ethic of consent is just the logical outgrowth of such emphases. This is why our society doesn’t have a problem with homosexuality, with pre-marital sex, or even sometimes with adultery, because these are all consensual forms of sex. But this is also why our society still opposes adults having sex with minors, because minors are not capable of consenting. This is also why we oppose rape, because it is by definition not consensual.
In recent years we’ve also had a lot of discussion on what exactly constitutes consent. Typically rape is understood to be forceful and violent, but our cultural conversation has expanded the definition of rape to be any kind of non-consensual sex, and justifiably so. The highly publicized case against Brock Turner at Stanford is an excellent case in point for this expansion. And furthermore as Christians, we should be able to rejoice when society and the courts take steps to recognize sexual violence and coercion and punish it as well as to lament when society and especially the courts fail to do so, as happened in the Stanford case (read the victim’s own report of what happened here).
The reaction to things like what happened at Stanford among others has been to emphasize consent. We have recognized that in a certain sense the person who is coerced into sex while drunk is a victim of sexual violence just as much as the person who has been violently raped. So in turn we emphasize that sex must have explicit or enthusiastic consent. It’s not enough if someone merely doesn’t say no. They must say yes. If you have a yes, then you’re good to go. If you don’t have a yes, then proceed no further.
It sounds reasonable. And to be fair it does address a lot of issues such as what often happens on college campuses. But I believe that such an ethic while preventing rape fails to give us the tools to live out sexuality virtuously.
Consent is a Weak Sexual Ethic
The recent sex abuse scandals here at the end of 2017 have been a dramatic testament to the sexual abuse that is so common in our media. Every day it seems that a new person has been fired, a new person has fallen from a position of power and influence. It’s a been a strange season of reckoning as all of a sudden the climate has shifted such that women who were previously and understandably too scared to come forward and report their sexual abuse now feel that they can. And the abusers seem to be falling like dominos.
Now, in almost all of these cases, abusers were in positions of power, authority, and influence. These men used their power as a tool to influence and ultimately coerce women who did not share the same level of power. However, the ethic of consent is unhelpful for addressing these kinds of cases, because the abuser can in a sense obtain consent, even if it is a consent that he can only obtain because of the difference in power between him and the victim. If the only thing that matters is that both parties agree to have sex, then what’s the problem with these cases? Or to use a more everyday example, what’s the ethical problem with the boyfriend who manipulates his girlfriend into have sex with him?
The issue is that consent is a weak sexual ethic. Sexuality is extremely dynamic and powerful, which means that we have to be careful with how we use it. However, if all we have to say about how we use sex is consent, then we are already in a sad place. Surely there’s more to sexual ethics then whether or not two parties agree, right? Sex is not merely a business contract and any sexual ethics that do not realize the weight and complexity of human sexuality will fail miserably. Consent-based ethics fail to take into account both the importance of sexuality as well as the complexities of power dynamics inherent in human relationships.
What Do We Do?
One option would be to expand the concept of consent. This is what I would not be surprised to see people doing in the near future. One might say that coerced consent is not real consent. Consent is not just getting someone to begrudgingly agree, but it is making sure that someone actually wants to have sex.
This is an option. And I’ll admit it’s a better articulation of consent because it focuses more on what the other person actually wants. But I still think there’s a better answer. And moreover as a Christian, I’m going to have an alternative view that is deeply rooted in the Christian narrative.
In many places, St. Paul lays out how Christians are to treat each other. The general theme can be summarized as mutual submission. Paul lays this out towards the end of Ephesians 5, a section that he opens by saying, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He then goes on to give specific instructions to wives and husbands. Wives are called to submit to their husbands and husbands in turn are called to love their wives in the same way that Christ loved the church, i.e., by giving his life for her. Thus, both husbands and wives submit to one another in their own way.
Now, there’s a lot that could be brought out of this passage, but for our purposes here it’s important to note that Paul is teaching both wives and husbands to turn their attention away from their own wants, interests, and desires and towards the wants, interests, and desires of the other. One way of talking about our sinful condition (which I discuss at greater length here) is that we are curved in on ourselves. Instead, the new logic of the gospel opens us up to stop worrying about what we want and what we need and instead focus on what the other wants and needs. This is following after the pattern of Christ, who gave himself up for the church (Eph 5:25). In other words, the gracious, self-sacrificial action of God in Christ gives us a new framework from which we approach our relationships with other people:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the vary nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is a lot more than “treat others how you want to be treated.” This is “treat others how God has treated you.” That is, show the same kind of self-effacing humility and sacrificial kindness that Christ showed. This is a theme that shows up throughout the New Testament and needs to be the guide for any genuinely Christian sexual ethic. Paul applies this idea to sexuality in 1 Corinthians:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
—1 Corinthians 7:3-4
Even with sexuality the Christian does not focus on their own desires, but on the desires of their spouse.
What Does This Mean?
So, how do we translate this into more concrete, practical terms? Well, one way that we can do this is to reject all forms of sexuality that are transactional or instrumentalize the other person. These ideas are particularly important for Christians to consider because we tend to have our own version of the consent ethic. In conservative Christian circles, we tend to focus on the context in which sex properly occurs, i.e., marriage. And while this is true and deserves further conversation, that is not enough. Just as in the secular model consensual sex is not necessarily ethical sex, so also in the Christian model, marital sex is not necessarily ethical sex.
Transactional relationships keep score. They keep track of the balance sheet between two people. If it’s two friends who often meet for lunch, then it means obsessing over the fact that the check is split evenly or that you strictly take turns paying for things. Instead, a gracious, non-transactional friendship doesn’t worry about who owes what. A gracious friend is happy to be the one who tends to pay more often and isn’t even keeping track of that sort of thing in the first place. With respect to sexuality it means not acting like you deserve sex or have earned it after doing a certain amount of household chores or anything else. Sex is not something to be expected as remuneration for services or even as something one is owed simply by virtue of being married. While it is good for married couples to be having sex (cf. 1 Cor 7:5), this does not mean that one is owed sex simply by virtue of being married.
Secondly, we instrumentalize other people any time we use them to for our ends or goals, rather than allowing other people to be the end themselves. This could happen if we develop friendships with people merely for personal gain or if we manipulate people to get them to do what we want. With regard to sexuality this happens when one spouse uses the other spouse to satisfy their own sexual desires or when one spouse uses the other spouse merely to fulfill their own reproductive goals.
Instead, sexuality is to be viewed as a gift. Sex is meant to draw husband and wife together into real one-flesh intimacy. And this kind of deep covenantal intimacy is seriously damaged whenever the relationship is made transactional or when one person intrumentalizes the other. If we’re interested in true intimacy, the husband does not concern himself with satisfying his own sexual desires, but considers how he can please his wife. If this means not attempting to initiate sex when he wants to, then that’s what he needs to do, because it’s not about how he can get what he wants, but it’s about how he can best love his own wife. The same goes for wives.
But this doesn’t mean that desires go unfulfilled and nobody says or does anything at all sexually for fear of manipulating the other or selfishly asserting one’s own desires on the other. Rather, in a Christian ethic of mutual submission, the husband or wife actually wants to fulfill the desires of their spouse, which means that the husband or wife needs to express their desires. In fact, it can actually be loving to express and enact one’s own desires, namely when one’s spouse wants to fulfill them. Yet we must note that this is different than asserting one’s desires for their own sake. The problem is not sexual desire. Sexual desire is good. Instead, the problem is sexual desire used for one’s own benefit rather than the benefit of the other person. In other words, the concern is how one can best love one’s spouse. This will mean expressing and enacting one’s own sexual desires, but only because one’s spouse wants those desires to be expressed and enacted.
Of course when one tries to consistently do this, one will inevitably find that this is all easier said than done. It’s easy to obey simple and straightforward laws like get consent or keep sex in marriage, but it’s infinitely more difficult to practice Christlike virtue even in just this one area of life. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still strive for it. After all, this is the calling that all Christians have been called to. And it’s not a calling that we perform to earn something, least of all God’s love or our spouse’s love. We hopefully already have both of those. Already having the love of God and already having the love of our spouse, this is what it looks like to attempt to live out that kind of love because this is who we’ve been called to be. In other words, we don’t do this to earn the love of God or the love of our spouse. But the reality of that love changes how we act. Real love calls us out of ourselves and toward the other.
And when we inevitably fail we will be brought back to the start of it all: Jesus’ death for sinners. If we’re honest with ourselves we will find ourselves coming back to the forgiveness of Jesus and likewise sharing the love and forgiveness of Jesus with our spouse.
A Final Caveat
Of course, this mutual submission will be destroyed if it turns into a fight for power and control. The very idea of mutual submission is to reject attempts to claim power, control, and authority.
Now, in the public sphere we need to be particularly sensitive to the dynamics of power in sexuality. Steps must be taken to lift up those who are without power (usually women) so that they can speak out and be heard when sexual abuse takes place. And while it’s easy for Christians to point fingers at the immorality of Hollywood and the media, it’s often not much different within churches. Churches can be notorious for sexual abuse and for sweeping sexual abuse under the rug, as if it were not a grievous offense in the sight of a holy God. Christians have a lot of repenting to do in this area, although that’s a discussion for another time.
In all of this we need to not let ourselves simplify sexual ethics down to easy performable rules like consent or sex-within-marriage. We have to continually strive to be the people who have been so deeply forgiven by the love of Christ that we overflow with that same love and forgiveness to all of those around us, most especially our spouse.