I was surprised by many statements in the recent article in America Magazine, “#MeToo shows the dangers of ‘end-less’ sex. ‘Humane Vitae” shows the way forward.”
I think we need to think more about this idea of consent. What is consent and what does it have to do with sex?
Does it justify all sexual behavior or does it lead the way to all great sex? What are we talking about when we talk about consent? How do feminists feel about consent? Does the idea of granting or getting consent take the sexy out of sex? Does consent always make it safe to have sex?
What the hell are we talking about here?
Is consent sufficient?
The author, Angela Franks, said, “mere consent is necessary but not sufficient because it is entirely too thin to support the weight of a sexual encounter.” She went on to say that consent doesn’t take into account the power dynamics that often exert pressure on women to have sex.
Doesn’t consent, in fact, address power dynamics? To have or give true consent, both parties who are engaging in sex are assumed to be on equal footing. That’s why it is discouraged or prohibited for therapists to sleep with their clients, for teachers to sleep with their students, for priests to sleep with parishioners, for adults to sleep with children, etc.
This is also why it’s impossible to give consent if you are drunk. That’s not true consent. It’s just…well, being wasted.
Is bad sex exploitative?
Franks said in the America Magazine article, “Is consent really so powerful that it can make any kind of sex non-exploitative? What about women acting out male pornography fantasies, no matter how bizarre? Isn’t there such a thing as bad, consensual sex?”
Franks equates “bad” sex with “exploitative” sex. This is the stuff that gets people in trouble when they talk about consent. Bad sex and non-consensual sex are not the same thing, necessarily. You can have bad sex that you both went into willingly and with consent and then regret it later or feel totally bad about it forever after… because it sucked. Not because you didn’t want it.
Bad sex is not necessarily non-consensual sex. It’s entirely possible to have “bad” sex that is consensual and non-exploitative. I define “bad sex” as lacking in technique or passion so that it might not be enjoyable for the people involved.
And yes, non-consensual sex is, I imagine, mostly bad. Because you didn’t consent to it. And yes, you might feel pleasure, or even orgasm, but if it’s against your will, it is non-consensual, and you are going to feel really, really bad afterward.
Yes, consent is powerful enough to make sex non-exploitative – in other words, if both people agree on any act of sex, no matter what, who cares what they do together? Who cares if it’s a “male pornographic fantasy?” (And by the way, what the hell does that even mean?)
What if it’s a female “pornographic fantasy?” Is that okay? (I would say yes, if both parties give consent.)
IF the people involved in a sex act understand what true consent is (see below*) and are empowered to act on it, then go to it, act on whatever you want, try it once, see if it works for you. If it isn’t fun, or one of you doesn’t like it, don’t repeat it.
* True consent requires equality between partners, it requires a thorough understanding of what’s being requested, along with a discussion and awareness of any risks involved, and a sound and sober mind.
True consent means there also needs to be no fear of reprisal or the presence of coercion on either side for both parties to be able to say a genuine “yes” to any sex act.
And both people involved need to understand how to say “no” to anything they don’t want and to feel safe enough to do so.
Another issue with the author’s statement is the idea that women acting out “bizarre” fantasies must only be doing so in order to please men. The reality is that women enjoy participating in a wide variety of sexual activities, many of which may seem “bizarre” to those who believe only traditional, limited, (and possibly one-position-missionary-style) sex with a spouse is acceptable.
Is procreative sex the only acceptable kind?
This author, Franks, is coming from a religious conservative background, she writes in a Jesuit online magazine, but when she suggests that sex should only be engaged in when procreation is the goal – that means people who cannot have children shouldn’t have sex. So post-menopausal women shouldn’t have sex. Women who have had a hysterectomy and men who have had a vasectomy shouldn’t have sex. People who are infertile for whatever reason shouldn’t have sex.
For those who are not orthodox, or conservatively religious, sex has far more purposes than procreation and not all of those purposes are exploitative or selfish, as Franks stated.
Sex can help couples deepen their bonds. Sex can be emotionally and physically healing in many ways. Sex reduces stress and anxiety. Sex can be fun and pleasurable.
Is no sex better than bad sex?
Finally, the author seems to misunderstand what the #MeToo movement is about. She reported that a key insight of #MeToo is that “No sex is better than bad sex.”
The #MeToo movement isn’t about sex, per se. It’s about power and women finding their voice. As a result of the pressure for women to have sex that they don’t want with men who have power over them, such as their bosses, women have found a way to rise up and be heard, to fight back with their voices. The author discards the idea that nonconsensual sex and sexual harassment is about power.
She doesn’t get that #MeToo is about finally standing up and claiming the right to our own bodies and sexual agency. She seems to think it’s just about not accepting bad sex.
The women who say “Me Too” are not complaining about bad sex! They’re sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault – sex they never wanted!
We still have a long way to go
It amazes me that this could be so fundamentally misunderstood, especially by another woman.
This article demonstrates that we need to keep talking and educating: about sexuality, about consent, and about sexual harassment and assault.
Our society in the U.S. is undergoing a powerful paradigm shift and it’s good to be reminded of just how deep some of the archaic beliefs around sexuality are embedded in our collective consciousness.
It’s also important to remember that anytime a major shift begins, there is an intense backlash. The pendulum must swing from one extreme to another and then partway back again before it finds its final destination.
So, let’s keep the conversations going, even among those who espouse radically different viewpoints. Maybe especially between us whose opinions differ.
We need to keep talking and working toward mutual understanding and respect. It’s only then that we can hope to find empathy for others and perhaps persuade someone to change their perspective on these important issues.