The issue of consent and the term “consent culture” have become far too influential in sex education, sex therapy, and psychotherapy.
Now if by “consent” you mean ‘people should want whatever they’re doing together, and no one should be forced into doing anything they don’t want to do,’ of course that’s a good thing. Conversely, a quid pro quo demand—‘have sex with me or you’ll lose your job’—is a power play between unequal parties that offers very little choice, and so that’s a bad thing.
But for some officials and commentators, “consent” is a cover for the same old anti-sex stereotypes: that male sexuality is by nature exploitative. That women need special protection from men and sex. That enhancing sexual pleasure and intimacy is much less important than preventing danger. That feeling pressured or heartbroken is so awful that it must be eliminated from dating.
While consent can contribute to pleasure and intimacy, trying to eliminate seduction, encouragement, flattery, or even manipulation from dating is not only unrealistic, it’s unwise, unwanted, and contrary to human experience. That’s because the erotic dance between two people invariably involves ambiguity, ambivalence, multiple agendas for each person, incomplete communication, and an ever-changing context. This is fully as true for women as it is for men.
And that doesn’t even begin to factor in alcohol. Or the way that some people reinterpret their experience of the previous night in the face of daylight sobriety or their friends’ (or therapist’s) disapproval. And America still hasn’t resolved this question: When a man and woman are both too drunk to legally consent and both want to have sex, why is the man more responsible for preventing the sex than the woman?
The advocacy of “consent culture” as the most important part of sex continues to distract us from other equally important issues in sexuality and public policy (which, by the way, affect whether a person can give or perceive consent in the larger sense). Here are some contemporary realities that are as important as “consent”:
~ The reversal of evidence-based sex education in schools.
Last spring, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program created by the Obama administration in 2010 will only fund organizations promoting abstinence-only approaches. For twenty years, research has consistently found these programs to be ineffective and sometimes dangerous.
According to the National Institutes of Health, only half of teens receive school instruction about contraception before they first have sex.
Only 20 states require information on condoms or contraception, and only 20 states require it to be medically accurate. Meanwhile, 27 states require lessons that stress abstinence, and 18 states require instruction that teaches students to engage in sexual activity only within marriage—while only a tiny fraction of Americans are virgins when they marry.
People of all ideologies decry the role that pornography plays in educating young people about sexuality—an absolutely legitimate concern. More than ever, this makes accurate and relevant school sex education an urgent policy.
~ Fetal personhood laws.
Pregnant women across the country are increasingly subjected to laws that place the welfare of their fetuses above their own. American women have been arrested after accidentally falling down stairs, taking drugs prescribed by their physician, being in a car accident, and having a stillborn delivery.
In fact, states such as Indiana have now established that fetuses which cannot live outside the womb have the same legal rights as viable (i.e., late-term) fetuses. And so as the New York Times described yesterday,
when a pregnant woman is shot and survives, or a pregnant woman attempts suicide and fails, or a pregnant woman is in a car accident, all involved can be (in fact, were) charged with manslaughter or murder. Feticide.
States such as Texas now require physicians to report pregnant women who take street drugs. In addition to undermining the basis of health care, this has led the state to arrest over 50 such women.
State legislators with no training in either biology or philosophy are now deciding when life begins—more importantly, when a woman’s life is secondary to her fetus’s. And even if these legislators want to take the bizarre position that the fetus needs a spokesperson and protector, who is going to protect the woman carrying it?
These are the same legislators, of course, who deny funding for pregnant women’s health care services.
~ The explosion in the number of people on sex offender registries, including minors.
Every state is now required to maintain a sex offender registry that is open to the public. There are almost 1,000,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. One-quarter are minors.
Today’s trial judge typically cannot exercise any discretion about whether or not to sentence someone as a registered offender. Depending on the state, offenses requiring registration range in severity from public urination or teen-teen sexual experimentation to violent sex crimes. According to Human Rights Watch, American children as young as 9 have been placed on the registry. In some states, registration is for life.
Although the Supreme Court has twice upheld sex offender registration laws, U.S. Department of Justice studies show these laws have little impact on the rates of sexual offense recidivism.
~ Marriages ending because a wife objects to her husband’s use of porn.
I don’t have data on this, but my therapy practice, and that of every therapist I know, reveals the same thing—cases of women divorcing men because of their use of porn are increasing dramatically. As I travel the country training therapists, audiences uniformly agree. Divorce lawyers and anti-porn activists loudly agree that this is true.
As anti-porn organizations become better organized and better funded, as feminist-oriented groups erroneously conflate porn with domestic violence and rape, and as church groups become more vocal about porn use being a dangerous sin, the pace of women’s demands and men’s shame is increasing. And so is the needless suffering of women and men alike, as homes are dramatically broken up.
Since divorce affects children as well, this is a family health crisis—not dad’s porn use, but mom’s insistence that dad’s porn use has disqualified him from marriage and parenting.
Since most therapists get no training whatsoever regarding pornography (or healthy sexuality), they are typically unprepared to deal with it. Therapists almost invariably side with women who feel they have a right to a porn-free home—whereas they’d side against any man who insisted he has a right to a home free of, say, Grey’s Anatomy, hair conditioner, or his wife’s Facebook account.
Given the number of both men and women who stay married (indeed, sometimes improving their marriage) after their spouse has admitted to actual physical infidelity, it seems clear that destroying a marriage and family because one spouse masturbates to pictures of naked women is a complete overreaction.
And for those who say “porn is what destroyed my marriage—my husband hasn’t touched me in years,” I am sympathetic—and I can confidently tell you porn is NOT why your husband has lost interest in you sexually.
There are many other sex-related issues that are as important as consent, such as:
~ the increasing inability of medical students to get training in performing safe and healthy abortions;
~ the number of teens who get arrested for sexting;
~ the dramatic increase in claims of religious exemptions from insurance coverage of contraception;
~ the cynical mission creep in the definition of sex trafficking (which now includes porn actresses and sex workers);
~ The epidemic of sudden gender dysphoria in college women;
~ The increase in entrapment cases in which police or volunteer vigilantes go to adult chatrooms, impersonate minors, and entice people who engage them in age role-playing—which is illegal with actual minors, but legal with adults pretending to be minors.
Of course, resolving issues like these will NOT resolve the issue of consent. On the other hand, resolving the issue of consent won’t resolve any of these crucial issues that affect us and our loved ones every day.
If you enjoyed this article, I bet you’ll also enjoy my piece at www.MartyKlein.com/more-religious-bullying-around-sex-of-course