There was an article in The New York Times this week explaining that sometimes a woman might consent to sex even though she has not really consented to it.
The author, Jessica Bennett, describes a new category of half-rape called "gray zone sex." In this “murky gray area of consent” sometimes “yes means no.” Although, she acknowledges, sometimes “no means yes.” Sometimes a woman really wants to have sex but says no and expects to be convinced. Sometimes she really doesn’t want to have sex but says yes and expects her partner to do the opposite of what she said. In either case, the man’s task is straightforward: read her mind. Indeed he must ensure that his powers of ESP are finely tuned, lest he accidentally become a rapist.
Bennett quotes a “sociologist and lecturer on the topic of consent” (because we’ve made consent so complicated that we need a sociologist to explain it to us) who says that a man may be sexually assaulting a woman by attempting to seduce her. The woman may wish to be seduced, or she may wish not to be seduced. If she wishes to be seduced, it isn’t assault. If she doesn’t, it is. And even if she says she does, she may not.
You see, consent must be “enthusiastic” and “verbal.” Never mind that, for most humans, sex happens organically and in the moment, and rarely does it involve one partner or the other literally saying, “Yes, let us commence with sexual intercourse. I am enthusiastic about doing this!” Perhaps that’s how a romantic evening with Spock might play out, but I think we should come up with rules suitable for our own solar system.
Nevertheless, Bennett insists that sex without enthusiasm could be a form of non-consensual sex, or sorta, kinda, half non-consensual. And even if there is an enthusiastic and verbal affirmation, there still may not be full consent. It could be that the woman is doing what she thinks she’s supposed to want, not what she actually wants. This, again, is the man’s fault. Or society’s. Or anyone’s but her own.
It’s all very complex and impossible to understand. Sex in modern culture seems increasingly to be that way. “Murky,” as Bennett calls it.
Funny how it all turned out.
We did away with every rule governing sex except consent, and now nobody can define consent or figure out when it has been properly obtained. We’ve been told that sex is just a frivolous recreational activity, yet we have not been able to escape all of the emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical baggage that comes with it. We were given visions of “free love” but now that “free love” has turned into a syllabus and a contract. We removed the restrictions in hopes of making sex more casual and more fun, and instead we ended up with campus tribunals.
Might I suggest another strategy?
Here, try this: Save it for marriage.
Clearly, consent is a flimsy and insufficient framework for sex. I actually agree with liberals who talk about the so-called “gray zone.” I don’t agree with their conclusion — that a man is a rapist if his partner is internally hesitant about the act — but I agree that surface level consent is not the whole picture. Just because a woman allows you to have sex with her, doesn’t mean you should. Sex is not necessarily an active good — for you or her — even if consent has been given.
This is what Bennett is really talking about, though she doesn’t fully understand it herself. Women who feel like they may have been sort of raped, even after an entirely consensual encounter, are experiencing something very simple but very deep: regret. They feel used and exploited because they were used and exploited. And they used and exploited their partner in equal measure. Neither was raped, but they did indulge in something shallow, loveless, and degrading. In having casual sex, they allowed a stranger to use them as a glorified masturbatory aide. They feel embarrassed and vulnerable now. They feel hollow. They feel despair. They feel regret. It’s called regret.
These feelings are inevitable when you divorce sex from love, devotion, and fidelity. Sex without commitment is a dangerous gamble. There is no safe or secure way to go about it. You have given yourself over to someone who does not love you, has not made any promise to you, and whose primary aim is their own gratification. If the sex feels cheap and selfish, it's because it is cheap and selfish. That's the whole point, actually. You aren't a rape victim, but you certainly aren't crazy for feeling damaged and lessened by the exchange. That's your soul trying to tell you something. And it's not telling you to call the police. It's telling you to get married before you do that again.
Sex within marriage can be selfish, too. But, unlike casual sex, it is not selfish inevitably or by definition. If the marriage itself is healthy, then a couple's sex life will reflect that fact. If husband and wife are committed to each other and concerned with the other's happiness, sex will be not only a great joy but fulfilling and even edifying. It will bring them closer together. There will be no regret.
Married couples have one other enormous advantage when it comes to sex: they don't have to be petrified of its natural consequences. Even if they are not explicitly "trying" to have a baby, they will still be in a much better position to provide for one. They can be open to life and less worried about the possibility that their reproductive act will, in fact, lead to reproduction.
A couple having casual sex must be closed off and cautious. Though they may say they like sex, in truth they are afraid of it. They may find pleasure in certain aspects of it, but they cannot enjoy it in its fullness. Theirs is a sex that guards itself from love and life. It feels incomplete because it is incomplete.
"Meh," as Bennett describes it, optimistically. At best it can be "meh." At worst cataclysmic. But beautiful, enriching, and joyful it will never be. That type of sex is only available to married couples.