In recent weeks charges and denials of sexual harassment and assault filled the headlines and the “breaking news” interruptions. And if the accused party cannot plausibly deny that the incident happened, the issue then turns on “consent.” Was the incident consensual or not? If the act possesses a consent-like quality, that is, some form of silence or non-resistance, a further question arises: what is true consent? Must you say “yes” out loud in answer to an explicit request? Must you sign a letter of consent? Is later regret a sign of original non-consent? And how soon must the regretting party express doubts about their true consent? Hours? Days? Weeks? Years? These questions and distinctions could be multiplied to the point of absurdity. But I am interested in a more foundational issue.
Mutual consent and legal liability seem to be the highest moral standards contemporary society expects in personal interactions, especially when it comes to sex. Many people can’t think of another reason to judge an action wrong. Whatever self-destructive consequences an act may have for the consenting parties, all that matters is mutual consent. It is assumed that mutual consent removes the possibility of moral objection to an act because (1) there is no higher moral law that consent cannot override. Consent is itself the highest moral law because people have the right to do whatever they want with their souls and bodies; and (2) the mutually consenting action of two or more parties can be isolated from all other people.
[Both of these presuppositions are false to the point of absurdity. See note at the end of this essay for further thoughts on why.]
Don’t misunderstand me. It is a good thing that our society has not sunk to the point that it condones nonconsensual sexual violence and other forms abuse. But there is much more to morality than consent. And Christianity calls us to a much higher standard.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13: 8-10).
Like you I am appalled at the abusive behavior of politicians, media moguls, and business executives that has recently come to light. However I am concerned that many people will take the whole affair simply as a warning to be more careful in their seductions and adulteries. But I urge us to attend to the root problem of such behavior. It’s not failure to get consent. It’s rejection of the God-originated, Jesus-modeled, and Spirit-inspired love that gladly and spontaneously fulfills the law. It puts other people’s needs above its own. It thinks always not of ways to seduce but of ways to bless others. It views power as the opportunity to serve others, not abuse them.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
I hope you will teach your children a higher morality than mutual consent. You will have to do this yourself, by your example and words. And your children will need to see it practiced in a community of Jesus’ disciples. Contemporary society and its educational institutions will not do it for you. Mutual consent is as high a morality as it can imagine.
For an in-depth study of how consent replaced Christian morality in contemporary society see my essay from June 2014:
What the wider cultural discussion of these incidents tends to miss is the contribution of the commoditization of sex to this rightfully-denounced behavior. Culture wants the reward without the risk. It wants the pleasure buffet of free love, easy gratification of pornography, and emotional detachment of “no-strings-attached” flings without the dark underbelly that tags along with these.
Yet what do we prepare our young adults for when we teach them they can have sex with anyone they choose, as long as they can get the other person to “consent”? How are our young men prepared to treat women in professional contexts when they are bombarded and encouraged to objectify them daily through rampant pornography? And how can we expect them to show any glimmer of hesitance or remorse over sexual abuses when they are taught not to have any in their Tinder dates and one-night stands?
Either the paradigm shifts, or the power rape continues. I fear that society, as horrified as it is at recent revelations, isn’t willing to give up the fetish of commoditized sex to prevent the creation of future victims like these.
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Wow! Well said! I hope everyone reads your comment.
After reading about all these sexual harassment claims, I was first struck by how a lot of the perpetrators didn’t really see what they were doing was wrong. It seemed like normal behavior to them. But once they saw that it was wrong or not socially acceptable, they’ll comment on the power dynamic and their failure to see that they were putting the victim in an unfair position.
Then I began to see how “easy” it is to sexually harass someone when sex is disconnected from a higher moral law, but instead connected to arbitrary/fluid socially-imposed rules / codes, which are very confusing to adhere to when you are also being taught that your identity or the realization of your identity is only fulfilled when you are able to love (have sex with) the person or people (or creature as The Shape of Water would have us believe – thank God it was consensual) you desire.
Thank you for putting words to the truth behind this #metoo moment