Sex Is Nothing, Until It Isn’t

This one comes to us from Scott Larousse. Last spring I was sitting in on […]

Mockingbird / 10.5.15

This one comes to us from Scott Larousse.

img_0Last spring I was sitting in on a seminar on marriage at a prominent California university. The professor put forth a hypothetical about whether the state should recognize an intimate relationship based on a shared love of muscle-cars (rather than sex). Like a sort of intimate muscle-car form of romance. Although the bulk of students would’ve likely described themselves as liberal, it seemed like the hypothetical stretched them some. The appreciation in the room was palpable, like when you’ve been looking at a rabbit for several seconds but finally, you see the duck.

It’s strange that not one student, nor the professor, really challenged it. The work of challenging was already done; he had not put forth a thought-experiment so much as shared the irrefutable results of one. People can bond over an almost infinite array of shared passions, of which sex is just one. In other words, why should bonding through a shared enjoyment of one another’s bodies have a privileged status over bonding through enjoyment of one another’s muscle-car taste?

The fact that the law gives a privileged place to sexual relationships might seem strange to (elites’) common sense, but relationships aren’t the only place where sex enjoys a privileged status. The state protects us against unwanted sexual contact with others, unwanted sexual remarks addressed to us, or sexual encounters where strong power differentials, like age, exist. I don’t think many people would question the good purpose served by the criminalization of those things, any more than they would advocate a lifetime in prison for those who assaulted us with their views on muscle-cars.

The reality is that our bodies – and in particular, certain parts of our bodies and the things they do – are integral parts of us in a way that no hobby ever can be. That holds, at least, for the average person. As stories of sexual assault on college campuses draw increasing concern from administrators and the media, there’s been a strange bifurcation in what might be called – though reductively – a ‘liberal’ view of sex. On the one hand, an unwelcome sexual remark would draw as much or more opprobrium than ever; on the other, linking sex and morality is as disfavored as it ever was.


To separate sexual acts (including remarks, flirting, or talk about sex) which are 100% okay from the ones which are 100% wrong (there’s even less of a middle-ground here than there used to be), colleges have had to rely on consent. There are some problems with this idea, but the recent developments of it have helped tremendously with identifying harmful conduct and justly punishing it, a push that is long overdue. Implicitly, however, there are some strange assumptions at work.

In the upheaval caused by our reexamination of sexual mores, certain moral structures have been demolished, and consent is, on paper at least, a replacement of limited value. All sexual acts without full consent are harmful, but not all harmful sex can be identified by that one-dimensional test. For instance, some men and women are stuck in systemically toxic relationships, and you don’t have to look very hard to find them. Some individuals possess a harmful degree of power over their partners, and in many of those cases the partner’s act of consent is itself a symptom of toxicity, rather than a sign that all is well.

The problem then is that many relationships which continue do so because one person lacks the necessary perspective to recognize the relationship is harmful or lacks the willpower to end it. Some particularly promising programs, such as raising awareness for bystander intervention, help in these cases. But on the whole, the discourse of consent is insufficient because it implies too high a view of human nature. Where there are no longer strong cultural safeguards, people may need more help than a legal rule to engage in healthy sexual conduct.

Smoking-Wheel-49875141126_xlargeAs an illustration, the vast majority of smokers know that smoking is harmful to themselves and do it anyway. Where willpower fails for these people, cultural norms may help. If you want to quit smoking, move to San Francisco. Because while cultural norms sometimes produce rebellion, they may also make up for what willpower lacks.

Which is just a way of saying that the test of consent, itself, helps to reduce the instances of sex which are life-destroying. What it does not help to reduce are circumstances where sex is merely unhealthy or mildly harmful.

There is not, to be clear, any sort of spectrum or continuity between perfectly healthy sex and nonconsensual sex; the latter is a category of its own and infinitely beyond the pale of a emotionally negative hookup. Theoretically, they are perfectly distinct; in practice, things may become murkier.

All that’s been said so far is that the rules governing sex in our society imply it is of almost life-and-death importance, and that a roomful of students at an elite university appeared to agree that it is on a level with a muscle-car hobby. There is a tremendous tension between these two views, implying that one of them (the latter) is a bit disconnected from reality.

The coexistence of these two views can be a bit disorienting. All year students seem to hear the message that, so long as the requirement of consent is satisfied, sex will be healthy, empowering, fun, and rewarding. On paper, this position could be defensible, a matter for only subjective morality to decide. Yet as a must-read recent article about “Sex and Danger at UVa” by Vigen Guroian and William Wilson points out, the cultural norms and structures of the past had the function of building a ring-fence around sexual misconduct, consensual and non-consensual alike.

This ring-fence consisted of many parts. For instance, a meddling bystander might intervene to question a couple going upstairs from a party, regardless of how the situation appeared. Doubt about one’s ability to ascertain the situation, reluctance to patronize a friend, or desire not to be seen as prudish would not diminish the bystander’s likelihood of stopping a bad situation as it might today. At fraternities or sororities, adult house supervisors might intervene, with curfews or mandatory check-ins or a no-locked-doors policy. This would, of course, preclude seemingly healthy hookups as well as unhealthy ones. Motivated partly by a sense that this all smacked of the patronizing and the puritanical, we moved on from it.

Again, in practice, the abrasion between the idea sex being an issue of ultimate moral importance so far as consent is concerned, and of little moral significance apart from that, is not innocuous in practice. Perhaps the sophisticated mind of the liberal-arts professor can hold those two ideas in tension; unfortunately, that of the 18-year-old cannot. It would be naivety approaching an act of faith if one supposed that the erosion of all moral categories concerning sex would have no effect on the care and conscientiousness of a drunk 18-year-old in obtaining consent. Yet in universities’ communications on the matter – communications in which the cynic detects a PR consultant’s artful hand – there seems to be little recognition that one message about sex (a fiction, experientially) is undercutting the other (a vital truth).

Instead there is a widespread, though implicit, conviction in such circles that the current problem with sex is a holdover from the patriarchic attitudes of old, that the problem springs largely from a persistent gender-imbalance which is in the process of being rectified. Men have power and feel entitled, and they act on that entitlement. Only a thoughtless person would deny that this is a factor, but it does not explain everything. The removal of a moral context for sex, which acted as a ring-fence, was a choice by our culture and its universities in the service of autonomy.

But when you’re dealing with bad people, autonomy has its costs. And this is the heart of our culture’s inability to deal properly with sex: that we are hard-wired to believe that we are better than we are, that we are not bad people. Human sexuality, as proved by the myriad stories of those who have been harmed in some way or another by it, is an extremely powerful thing. And as with other powerful things – from the nation-state to the Christian religion to the process of parenting – there is a terrifying array of things that can happen when bad people are put in control.

A return to the merciful constraints of the past is not an option moving forward. The past isn’t a place you can go back to, and if you could, you would find it disappointing. Things move forward in part by the worst of human tendencies looking for more space to assert themselves, and in part by the best acting on new insights. More simply, the reasons for moving on from the way our culture handled sex in the past were partly, and perhaps mostly, good ones, and they continue to hold true today.


The current problem, however, remains enormous, as the number of scandals and media preoccupation has shown. And to cut the other way for a moment, Christianity mishandled sex for two thousand years, with its odd blend of puritanism and scandal.[1]

The contribution of Christianity cannot be to try to reimpose some golden age that never was. But it can perhaps make a slight contribution. First, the law. This is the least promising contribution, because it has been abused for so long, and rampant signs of hypocrisy have made the church less than credible on the issue. Still, these things do matter. For people who have regretted a hookup and had difficulty vocalizing why when sex has been marketed to them as harmless and insignificance, could use some elucidation. And people sometimes do come to the church when they’re dissatisfied with the explanations being offered elsewhere. Against the message that everything’s always okay, having your guilt acknowledged as something beyond a mere pathology can be surprisingly refreshing. Recognizing you’ve made a (consensual) mistake can be a good thing; it makes the guilt and regret real, but in doing so it limits it, both conceptually and emotionally. But proceed with caution: somehow the neighborhood minister usually stints on the compassion.

Second, the church can offer grace. Everything’s not quite okay, but there is a “love that covers a multitude of sins.” Since no one’s perfectly okay here (just like no one’s a perfect parent or a perfect sibling), everyone needs to hear it, no matter how much we might pretend it doesn’t apply. Given its track record on the matter, that’s about all the church can offer, and it no longer has the credibility to offer it very vocally. It’s easy to throw up one’s hands and conclude that the whole church-impacting-culture thing is close to futile, anyway. And maybe on a macro-level it is. But on an individual level, things can be different. Because if ever there were a home for misfits, for both those who flout moral standards and those broken by them, the harlots and hypocrites, and – perhaps especially – those of us who go on stubbornly believing that everything’s okay, it is the original fellowship of those who need love, and need help, very badly. Even if we don’t quite know it.

[1] Which hasn’t exactly abated: A brief look at Wikipedia shows that since 2000, there have been 16 republican sex scandals in Congress, to the Democrats’ 6, a trend stretching back to the early 90s. Could easily be mere correlation, but for those who believe the power of sin is the law, it’s tempting to speculate.

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5 responses to “Sex Is Nothing, Until It Isn’t”

  1. Jim McNeely says:

    Great article on this, thanks. On reflection, isn’t the power of temptation found in that it gains consent for that which harms? And hookup sex, I would suppose, depends upon seduction in that way. So consent is a bad place to draw the line. And as usual this whole thing takes us right down into the thick of the law/gospel mindset.

  2. Jim Moore says:

    I’m a little confused by the penultimate sentence. Is that “okay” supposed to be there? Typo?

  3. William Harper says:

    This is really thoughtful and helpful. In a short space it captures key threads of not just the “college consent’ conversation, but provides a sense to see a bit more clearly into where we have been and where we are in relation to relationships–and how one’s personal anthropology needs to rise, consciously, to the surface in all our intimate connections. And the role described here for a helpful, pastoral theology is great. I am also grateful for the “media” content chosen to accompany this. I assume that was an editorial choice made by MB and not necessarily the author. But the fit is perfect. And arresting. Muscle cars of Mad Max? Lord have mercy! What do our apocalyptic portrayals (Mad Max, The Road, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad) all reveal about our (mostly) sub-conscious understanding of what it means to be “us.”

  4. […] as good as Scott Larousse‘s take on consensual sex, but at least this article serves as a (discomforting) follow-up, […]

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