A case against consent
Consent does not go far enough to promote the dignity of women
There has been a significant backlash to SCOP’s letters calling for a porn filter to be installed on University wifi. Among the many objections raised, one of the most recurrent was the claim that pornography is a matter of consent. The University had no place restricting the behavior of consenting adults: performers consent to produce porn, and there is nothing wrong with consumers viewing materials produced by consenting adults.
This is consistent with the cultural movement toward endorsing consent as the best mechanism for addressing sexual assault. The reasoning goes that, if both parties make sure to obtain consent for each step of a sexual encounter, then rape will not be an issue, as no one will experience unwanted sexual contact. “Consenting adults” has become one of the buzz-phrases that justifies all kinds of sexual behaviors: as long as the action was consensual, then it was fine. On college campuses such as Notre Dame, in order to address the purported “rape culture,” consent, through programs such as GreeNDot, is promoted as the means of preventing sexual assault.
This approach is flawed for several reasons. First, it settles for the bare minimum. Legally, an instance of sexual contact qualifies as assault if it was non-consensual. By setting the bar at obtaining consent, college campuses are essentially only demanding that students do not rape each other. Anything short of rape receives its blessing. Consent-based systems do not prevent all kinds of demeaning or harmful behaviors that leave both parties feeling degraded.
Second, there are all kinds of behaviors that can be voluntary and still destructive. For example, helping a depressed friend commit suicide, even if the friend had consented to it, is wrong. Similarly, a physician who helps individuals who suffer from self-loathing mutilate themselves would be in the wrong. To construct an even darker example, two lovers who commit suicide together by simultaneously shooting each other are not justified, regardless of how enthusiastic their consent was. Just because both parties agreed to it does not make it permissible.
From a Catholic perspective, the true test of whether an action is right is whether it is in harmony with promoting the dignity and flourishing of those involved. Even if someone voluntarily engages in a certain kind of behavior, if that behavior is destructive and undermines her best interests, it is not permitted. This is based on a moral philosophy which views virtue as those habits and behaviors which most fully actualize what it means to be human, who we are meant to be.
In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus proclaims, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” By ending the conversation at consent, our culture does the inverse of what Jesus instructed. We lower the bar as far as possible, rather than challenging individuals to bear witness to the dignity of others.
By focusing our attention on “consenting adults,” our culture also actually places more pressure on women to define whether or not the situation is consensual. After a distressing sexual encounter, women could walk away and wonder if they had sufficiently expressed their lack of consent, or if maybe it was their fault for not fighting harder.
What constitutes not giving consent? Silence? Physically pushing him away? Hitting him and telling him to stop? Screaming for help? This remains a problem in legal process for prosecuting rape, as the defense can always argue that there is too little evidence that the sexual encounter was not consensual.
The flawed nature of exalting consent can in part explain why so many women, such as the woman who accused Aziz Ansari of sexual assault, perhaps jump to language of sexual assault when they feel regret over a sexual encounter. There is no vocabulary for women to express that an encounter was wrong except in terms of assault. Because society has set consent as the bar for whether a sexual encounter was acceptable, when women feel as though something went wrong in the bedroom, they turn to the language of non-consensual contact, as that alone qualifies as “wrong sex” in modern culture.
I am not at all calling for programs such as GreeNDot to be abolished. On the contrary, these programs are very important for providing bystander training and empowering communities to take steps towards preventing sexual assault. However, they do not go far enough in promoting the dignity of women. Practices as simple as expecting men not to make objectifying comments about women’s bodies should also be upheld, as this would promote a culture where sexual assault is absolutely unthinkable.
At a university like Notre Dame, which claims to uphold Catholic teaching and values of human dignity, we should be the standard bearers for promoting respect.
Teresa Kaza is a senior majoring in Biology and Philosophy. She is counting down the days until finals are over so that she can go home to drink tea with her cats. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.