The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

[Content note: sexual assault]

A week and a half ago I gave a talk about sex education at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference. In the section on creating a better sex education program, I mentioned that we need to center consent in the way we teach healthy sexuality to kids and teens. Rather than defining “right” and “wrong” in terms of what your religion accepts and what it does not, or what social norms approve and what they do not, we should define right and wrong in terms of what hurts other people and what does not, to put it simplistically. Sexual assault is wrong, then, because it means doing something sexual to someone else without their consent. By this definition, then, homosexuality or premarital sex or polyamory cannot be wrong by default (as long as they are consensual).

It’s become really apparent to me that when most people talk about the ethics of sex, they do not talk about consent.

For instance, premarital sex is wrong because sex is for marriage. Homosexuality is wrong because sex is for straight couples. Polyamory is wrong because sex and relationships should only involve two people.

Even things that are considered unethical from a consent-based point of view, such as pedophilia and bestiality, are often talked about as being wrong because people “shouldn’t” be attracted to children or animals, not because children or animals cannot give consent. The “sick” part of it is that someone could’ve wanted to do that, not that someone disregarded a child’s or an animal’s inability to consent.

To illustrate what I mean, consider one common argument against same-sex marriage: the slippery-slope fallacy that it’ll lead to people marrying and/or having sex with animals. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for instance, recently hinted at this. He claimed that if we start allowing same-sex marriage, then “marriage can be anything.”

No, it can’t.

People like Paul seem to think of sex as one person “taking” something else, that may or may not belong to them. A person of the opposite sex? Sure. A person of the same sex? No. An animal? Hell no. Laws concerning sex and relationships exist to prevent people from “taking” what they’re not supposed to have, based on moral standards we have set as a society.

If Paul switched to a consent-based sexual ethic, then he would realize that there’s absolutely no reason legalized homosexuality would lead to legalized bestiality. Another adult of the same sex is capable of consenting to sex; an animal is not. And that’s that.

Likewise, the conversation around Anthony Weiner’s sexting habits has largely revolved around whether or not it’s “appropriate” for someone in an elected position to be doing such things. Should a politician be sending dirty photos to women? Can we trust a man who cheats on his wife?

At least one of the times that Weiner sexted in the past, the woman did not solicit the photos. They were unsolicited. It was a nonconsensual encounter. That means that Weiner committed sexual harassment.

Accordingly, the problem with what Weiner did is not–or not primarily–that it’s “stupid” for a politician to send dirty photos or that what kind of a perv would even do that. It’s that he imposed himself sexually on someone else without their consent.

And while his latest dalliance appears to have been consensual, the fact that he sexually harassed someone in the past was not something for which he was ever truly held accountable.

Another example. Polyamorous people and/or people in open relationships or marriages are often accused of cheating despite the fact that what they’re doing is not defined as such under the parameters of their own relationships. Recently, the Frisky wrote a story about Brooklyn Nets player Andrei Kirilenko, who has an open marriage with his wife. However, the story framed this as “being allowed to cheat on his wife.”

First of all, that’s nonsensical. If you’re being allowed to cheat, then you’re by definition not cheating. Second, as long as Kirilenko is following the terms that he has set together with his wife and not keeping anything from her that she has requested to know, then he can’t be cheating.

The fact that people so often persist in viewing consensual non-monogamy as “cheating” suggests that they do not center consent. To them, certain things are verboten in relationships no matter what the people in the relationship have and have not consented to. The point, to them, is not that people in relationships should mutually agree on boundaries that work for them; it’s that people in relationships should just not do certain things because those things are wrong for people in relationships to do–such as sleeping with other people.

One final example: BDSM. Although BDSM can be used as a mechanism for abuse, and abusers obviously exist in the BDSM community as they do in any other, there are also plenty of practitioners of consensual, risk-aware BDSM who are happy and healthy through their choices. Yet some people, from sex-negative conservatives to certain feminists, insist on referring to all BDSM collectively as sexual assault, or at least as unhealthy, dangerous, and abusive.

They claim that because BDSM can resemble “real” violence, therefore it is violence and it must be ethically wrong, because hurting another person is wrong. But they divorce the content of a BDSM encounter from its context–a conversation about desires and boundaries, the setting of a safeword, the aftercare that takes place, well, after.

Interestingly, they often restrict this literal interpretation of things to sexual matters only; many people understand that while walking up to a stranger and tackling them is not okay, playing a game of football and tackling an opposing player is okay. They understand that while choking the crap out of a random person is wrong, practicing judo with a fellow judoka is not wrong. The difference is, of course, consent. A football player consents to being tackled; a judo student who shows up to class consents to practicing judo*.

But with sex, for some reason, this ethic falls apart, and many still believe that BDSM is, if not morally wrong, at least a sign of mental sickness or brokenness. (It’s not.) The fact that the participants consent to it, create mechanisms to withdraw consent if necessary, and make sure that everyone feels safe and satisfied afterward seems not to matter.

Failing to center consent in one’s own thinking about sexual ethics is a problem for several reasons. First of all, it conveniently allows for bias, stigma, and discrimination against queer, poly, kinky, and otherwise sexually non-conforming people. It allows people to dismiss others’ lived experiences by naming them something other than the participants themselves wanted it named. Consensual BDSM becomes sexual violence, consensual nonmonogamy becomes cheating, and so on, despite the protests of the people actually doing these things.

Second, painting any sex other than heterosexual monogamous (perhaps married) sex as Bad blurs the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex and makes it easier for abusers and assaulters to get away with abusing and assaulting. For instance, if teens are taught that all sex before (heterosexual monogamous) marriage is wrong, they have little reason to be suspicious if their first partner manipulates or coerces them, because they know that Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay. If people think that having sex with someone other than your spouse is Bad, they may not realize that it’s unreasonable and abusive for their partner to adamantly refuse to tell them anything their other partners, including their STI status.

There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely. Viewing all consensual sex as Completely Good obscures the fact that even consensual sex can perpetuate systems of sexism, racism, and so on, no matter how much its participants enjoy it. Consensual sex can, of course, be risky health-wise, and while people are free to choose to contract STIs if that’s what they for whatever reason want to do, their other partners and their children do not always have that choice.

However, consent can be a great framework for sorting out what is definitely ethically wrong, and what is not. Consensual sex may not be flawless, but nonconsensual sex is absolutely not okay. The examples I provided–of bestiality, of sexting, of open marriages, and of BDSM–show that basing sexual ethics on consent works better than basing it on oughts and shoulds.


* The sports examples here are also good examples of the limitations of consent that I mentioned. A judo student who feels pressured to engage in exercises they’re not comfortable with isn’t really consenting. A football player who isn’t informed of the traumatic and permanent physical consequences that football can have on the body isn’t really consenting either. Sports, like sex, can promote racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other crappy things.

The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

24 thoughts on “The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

  1. Pen

    I love this post, I couldn’t agree more. Consent has to be the moral centre of sexual activity. I saw an article recently (I can’t remember where) about how girls have no idea that they should expect to enjoy sex so I don’t know what reasons they are forming in their heads about when and why they might consent. I find that idea really upsetting but I don’t know if it’s really that widespread.

    1. 1.1

      I think it is pretty widespread…because in most sex ed programs, sex is framed by something that guys try to “get” from girls and that girls “give” guys to get them to commit to relationships. Women’s pleasure never really enters the conversation.

  2. 2

    So, you put a content warning for sexual assault, but a rather bad trigger for me is any mention of that accursed bdsm because i was indeed abused by someone in that way.

  3. 3

    The part that creeps me out is when people say that getting consent ‘spoils the mood’. For me, there is no ‘mood’ to be spoiled unless we are both in it.

    I find that having my partner express enthusiastic consent is very much a turn-on. What can be more exciting to most people wanting sex with someone(s) than to know that right then, at that moment, that/those someone(s) really wants to have sex with them too?


    “Fuck yeah, I’d like to fuck!”

    What’s unsexy about that?

    (content: BDSM, non-graphic; nonconsent mentioned)

    There are even ways to play with non-consent consensually: I had a particular scenario I was interested in, which my then-partner and I agreed would be triggered by a codeword, with whomever it was that said the codeword. It worked perfectly, we were at a play party several months later, someone asked me to dance, and while we were dancing, said the word. It was unexpected, and went amazingly well, and allowed me to play with a fantasy version of nonconsent, all in a careful, safe, and consensual way. It required that I trust my partner not to have told anyone but the intended the word, and to have carefully briefed the person on my safeword(s) and preferences/hard lines, which I did absolutely.

    Excellent and thoughtful post, Miri.

  4. 4

    What are your thoughts about consent in the context of mind-altering intoxicants such as alcohol or other drugs? It seems that several high-profile legal cases have revolved around whether an intoxicated person was able to give consent or not. It also seems all too common that people make sexual decisions while intoxicated that they regret later. Is it possible for two people to ethically have sex if both are intoxicated, since one might construe that no consent can be given by either party?

    1. 4.1

      I view it as a matter of risk. If one or both people become intoxicated and have sex, there’s a chance that both of them really do want it and the intoxication is not merely making it impossible for them to assert themselves and say no. But there’s also a chance that one or both of them, if sober, would definitely not want this to happen. I don’t mean they’d be too shy to initiate it or not turned on enough or whatever–they would actually be like, “I do NOT want to have sex with this person.”

      So, if one or more intoxicated people are hooking up, they must assume the risk that they are doing something to the other person that that person does not actually want to do, and that upon returning to a sober state, that person will realize that they did not consent and have been sexually assaulted.

      However, I DO think it’s ethical and not nearly as risky to decide PRIOR to becoming intoxicated that you’d like to become intoxicated and then hook up. Plenty of people do this. However, being intoxicated still makes it difficult to assert your boundaries, especially if you’re doing something that requires a safeword. So it’s still risky, albeit less so.

      Although a person who’s intoxicated cannot consent by definition, and sex without consent is sexual assault by definition, I’ve had sex while drunk with people I wanted to have sex with. Should I claim that I’ve been sexually assaulted? Of course not. It’s up to me. But there was risk involved.

      1. Although I love the original post, I’m not sure I follow your train of thought in response to the question of consent while intoxicated. I think defining those types of encounters as “risky” breaks down a proper consent model at it’s core. It’s almost like someone walking into their bedroom, finding their significant other asleep and mentally performing a risk analyses about whether or not that person will consent after the fact. Making it a question of risk also raises moral quandaries about whether or not wrong is only wrong if negative consequences follow. “Risky” is not an adjective associated with right or wrong, it is simply about the possibility of consequences.

        In my experience, sexual activity while intoxicated (or mind altered in any way) is something that should be reserved for pre-consent situations only. Even within the bounds of a long term relationship this topic should be discussed and decided upon between partners. I realize this might not be the most popular viewpoint, but I find it to be the most moral course of action. Others I’ve expressed this viewpoint to have argued that it’s a product of an overly PC society, but when it comes to sex, my gratification is far lower on the ladder of importance than the right of my partner to their dignity. Even on a selfish level; who wants their sexual act to be someone else’s regret? Is your sexual partner a toy for your amusement, or are they a person who deserves the same level of respect as you do?

  5. 5

    I think people complain that asking for consent ruins the mood are imagining asking consent to be something way more formal that it really is in practice, or they’re failing to acknowledge that, within a relationship, the means of negotiating and communicating consent change as people know each other better. Getting consent for a hookup is going to be considerably different than the way 2 people who have been having sex with each other for a long time might negotiate consent.

  6. 6

    I think it’s got to be real consent all around, to be a moral system. It can’t just be consent between the two (or more) partners in any particular act. The consent needs to include any other partners with whom one has an important relationship. When one partner is openly having an affair outside of marriage and the other partner in the marriage is miserable, but going along with it for the sake of the children or whatever, that’s not really consent.

    Focusing on whether there’s true consent is not as easy as saying, eeuw, texting dirty messages, bad, bad Anthony. I think, though, if people are able to work through to a true consensus, it’s definitely a more solid morality than the kind of knee jerk dictation of rules that has formed traditional sexual morals.

    1. 6.1

      I agree with you on one hand, but I also don’t think we should expand the definition of consent quite that much. A person who’s being cheated on is definitely being manipulated and mistreated, and they aren’t consenting to have an open relationship/marriage by that definition of consenting. But that’s also a very different sort of violation than it is to, say, have sex with a person who’s not consenting to it.

      1. Okay, I can see having a very specific principle of leaving adults alone, if what they’re doing is agreed to by all contributing parties.

        I think, though, that there needs to be some sort of moral principle that you don’t do things you know will really hurt third parties. Of course, it gets messy when the “third party” is some guy in Alabama you’ve never met, but who has a prejudice against you bringing your sweetie flowers instead of candy, because he (the guy in Alabama) has a rose allergy and sells chocolate.

        But when the third party is somebody you’ve not only met but you’ve asked that person to make a serious commitment to you, then their needs and preferences do have a place in your moral equations.

  7. 7

    Have you considered consent in a larger context, specifically where it deals with religion? It seems to me like saying all sex is fine as long as they are adults and consenting isn’t inherently problematic, but what about women who are forced into marriage and sex, but simultaneously taught an overarching religious belief that their consent doesn’t matter because they have no value. And closer to home, consider women who believe that sex is their duty as a result of their religious upbringing. They happily service their husbands and freely consent, but I would still contend that this constitutes abuse.

    1. 7.1

      I got into this a little bit here:

      There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely.

      So yeah, that’s one of the problems with it. One could also argue, though, that the definition of consent itself precludes the sort of thing you’re referring to. Giving someone no choice–whether through direct threats or brainwashing–but to say “yes” means that they are not actually giving consent. They are simply not saying no, which is exactly why “no means no” is not sufficient.

      And in your latter example, of women who are taught that “sex is their duty,” that may not really be consent, either. If they don’t ever believe that they CAN say no, then they’re not saying yes “freely,” even if they believe that they are.

      However, I think with such cases it’s really important not to apply the general to the specific. We know that many women are indeed taught by religion that it’s their duty to service their husbands. But if you meet a particular woman who happens to be religious and who is eager to please her husband, it’s inappropriate, in my view, to try to argue that she has been brainwashed, because you don’t know. And historically, it really hasn’t worked out well when feminists have tried to convince women that they are brainwashed and oppressed and need feminism’s help. We should try to provide people with enough information to draw their own conclusions about patriarchy and religion rather than trying to define their experiences for them.

  8. 8

    About the sports metaphors and sexuality . . .

    A friend of mine, a professional sexuality educator, likes to teach a lesson about sex as pizza, not baseball. If you and I are ordering a pizza together, we have to collaborate, we have to communicate, each of us gets to ask for the crust we want, the toppings we want and to get the pizza we want to share, we have to negotiate and ultimately give consent – i.e. “Let’s get a pizza that’s half pineapple, half mushroom, with extra cheese on both halves.”

    The baseball metaphor breaks down because one “team” has to play defense, one offense, on team is trying to keep the other from scoring and so on. The pizza metaphor works for me because it emphasizes a shared experience. I know, that’s an aside.

    I teach sexuality education to adolescents on a volunteer basis and the sessions I facilitate on consent are some of the most difficult sessions. One session, on date rape, really pushes the participants to think about consent – when and how does a person consent, how can a person withdraw consent, are there behaviors that constitute consent or must consent be verbal? By exploring consent, the goal is to help participants think through sexual behavior and understand that consent is absolutely necessary. I like to tell them that the freedom to say “yes” comes to us only when we are secure in the knowledge that if we say “no” it will be respected.

    Years and years ago, I read a book by a defrocked Catholic priest who argued that the only ethic we need for sexuality is that it be “mutually agreeable and agreeably mutual.”

  9. 9

    Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay.

    I have heard so many survivors of sexual/ domestic abuse in the Bible Belt who believed this. Thank you for writing about it. They not only have to overcome the actual abuse, but they then have to carry the burden of their perpetrator’s guilt.

      1. “By definition?” Nonhuman animals empirically lack the cognitive capacity to give informed consent. One of those science-fiction dogs-with-human-intelligence could reasonably be considered capable of consent, if one existed, surely.

        But, of course, it it would still be ICKY.

  10. 12

    This is horrible. Nobody ever mentioned children, except as sexual targets. :-/ Sex does not usually involve just two people, it involves a very real potential for creating more of them. _That_ is the root of all those beliefs you fundamentally don’t understand. It’s not about taking and giving, it’s about creating.

    1. 12.1

      Sex does not usually involve just two people, it involves a very real potential for creating more of them.

      Basically what you’re saying is that sex IS ONLY penis in vagina, yes?

      Way to miss the entire point of the article.

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