Re-Imagining Consent

Re-imagining Consent

David W. Hegg

I am reminded of the joke about the dog chasing the car, whose punchline is “what’s he going to do when he catches it?” Its corollary is the admonition “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

For some time now, we have been confronted almost daily with news of those caught in the perverse and inexcusable activity of sexual harassment. We are awash in the accounts of those who believe their position and power grant them rights to another person’s most intimate possession. From the casting couch and executive suite to fancy hotel rooms and lavish condos, the long-standing mating rituals where sexual favors are demanded in exchange for certain personal benefits have now been exposed as the predatory actions they really are. And it’s about time.

But my question is this: How did we get here? How do otherwise intelligent men come to think such behavior is acceptable? And how do otherwise intelligent women come to think they can put themselves in vulnerable positions without considering the potential risks? I think I know.

Slowly, very slowly, the foundational set of ethical restraints that have circumscribed sexual intimacy throughout history have been systematically obliterated by those who saw them as archaic obstacles to their sexual freedom. But in doing so – by chasing the car of unrestrained sexuality – they have now awakened to a society without mutually agreed upon boundaries.  

Yes, I know, the one restraint still in place is that of mutual consent. But what constitutes consent? Is it a smile? Is it silence in the midst of flirtatious words or touches? Is it agreeing to an invite to “go to my place?” In the highly charged world of sexual nuance and innuendo we are struggling to set boundaries in an area where overstepping the line can destroy reputations, careers, and most of all, lives.

Add to this the fact that all around us the entertainment and advertising media are blasting the ethic that sexy is powerful, lust is exciting, and worst of all, sexual intimacy is a right unconcerned with commitment. Sex has become something we try, like a favorite drink or meal, and, without any societal restraint, we’re encouraged to try as many different flavors as we can, just for the fun of it.

After all, over time we have taken all the risk out of it. We’ve eliminated the natural fruit of sexual activity through birth control, and if that fails, there’s always abortion. By severing the act from its biological consequences, we’ve freed ourselves to use sex purely for our own pleasure. And it must be asked, how is that working out for us?

Here’s how it is supposed to work. In God’s economy, sexual intimacy is the blossom of a plant with roots deeply set in the soil of marital commitment. We all agree that consent is absolutely necessary when it comes to sex with another person. But, I believe consent is meant to be viewed in a much bigger context. It begins with consent to enter into a binding covenant called marriage.

We now recognize the wisdom of seeing sexual activity within the confines of a committed relationship where consent means agreement to life-long friendship, mutual care, support, and faithfulness through good and bad. It is this foundation that can support the full giving of one’s self to a spouse, knowing that one-flesh intimacy is the beautiful fruit of lives joined in deep, committed relationship.

I am so thankful the perverted activity of predatory males continues to be uncovered. And while I do fear that “innocent until proven guilty” is too often set aside when anger takes over, it is important to bring aberrant behavior into the light of day. But I greatly fear such behavior will not end as long as we consider sexual activity to be disconnected from ethical convictions of pre-marital chastity and marital faithfulness.

Simply put, where marriage acts as the boundary within which sexual activity is beautifully satisfying, it provides a safeguard to those involved. But when sex is seen as nothing more than a tool for excitement and pleasure to be used as often and as far as it can, we can expect the prurient and perverted to use it to their own detriment. And, as well, those they prey upon may find that, in their campaign for sexual freedom, they have exchanged their human dignity for a series of fleshly flings.