A freelance writer for The New York Times named Suzannah Weiss, who, according to her bio, specializes in “feminism, sex, and psychonautics,” recently attempted to instruct the unwashed Twitter masses about the intricacies of consent. Weiss wants us to know that consent is necessary even when the sexual encounter is happening via text message.
“Ask consent for all sexual encounters, yes, even sexting. I just came up with this script that you’re all welcome to borrow,” Weiss tweeted. Her script has the would-be sexter saying “I’ve been having some sexual thoughts about you I’d like to share over text if you’d enjoy that.” In the scenario she provides, the lucky sextee gives clear consent by saying “ok” with a blushing smiley face emoji. And now the sexting may commence, though she spares us a sample of what that might look like.
There are, of course, a number of problems here. The first and most obvious is that the sexter comes across like a randy Spock or a vaguely self-aware robot. “Greetings life form. Requesting permission to initiate erotic communication sequence.” This would be a great way to sweep one of the Coneheads off their feet, but it will probably send the wrong kind of shivers down the spine of any normal Earthling.
Secondly, we have an X-rated chicken or egg problem on our hands. After all, you didn’t have permission to think sexually about the other person in the first place, and you didn’t have permission to ask permission to share the thoughts. A real sexting-with-consent script would have to begin with a neutral greeting and then work its way slowly, over many pages and hundreds of introductory questions, to the sexting request. It would be a sort of Socratic dialogue, if Socrates was a horny teenager with a cell phone.
Maybe it’s not fair to pick on the sex expert Suzannah Weiss. She’s just one small example of a growing trend (or spreading plague, depending on how you look at it). Her notion of consent brings to mind the “consent condom,” which “makes a powerful statement” by requiring four hands to open. More troubling, and certainly more dangerous, are the “affirmative consent” laws across the country that make any sexual encounter into rape if consent is not verbal and ongoing, meaning both partners — or really just the man, as these policies tend to go — have to be given continuous and explicit consent throughout the sexual act.
A consent checklist over at Cosmopolitan takes it a step further. Item number three on the list: “Is consent ongoing before, during, and after an encounter, or throughout a relationship?”
After? According to the braintrust at Cosmo, you may become an unwitting rapist if consent for sex is withdrawn after the deed has already been done.
Planned Parenthood — an organization that violates the consent of 300 thousand unborn children every year — adds another wrinkle. Consent must also be enthusiastic: “When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.”
Yes, but how is your sex partner supposed to know if you don’t want to do the thing you said you wanted to do? And what does this have to do with consent? If I choose freely to do something, despite not really wanting to do it, I have still consented. The begrudging nature of my consent does not erase the fact that it is consent. If I feel guilted into giving five dollars to the kids raising funds for their little league outside the grocery store, I can’t later claim that I was robbed. Begrudging charity is not robbery. Begrudging sex is not rape.
It is rather ironic that sex in our oversexed age has become laden with rules, stipulations, and fine print. We fled so far and so fast from anything resembling sexual morality that we came full circle and ran into it from the opposite side. This is our culture’s weirdest and most significant innovation: prudish hedonism. We’re like a Frankenstein mixture of Victorian England and the 1960s, as if the Woodstock festival had a lovechild with “Pride and Prejudice.”
It’s not hard to see how it came to this. The hook up culture is not what it was cracked up to be. It is, in fact, fraught with danger — physical danger, emotional danger, psychological danger. When you put yourself into the role of a stranger’s sex toy, the pleasure will be fleeting and it won’t be enough to compensate for the peril. An ever-expanding list of rules is meant to offer protection, but it always fails, and so more and more rules are added. But all of these new rules are only really necessary because we have thrown out the ingredients that make sex truly safe and joyful. Those ingredients, as much as we hate to admit it, are love, devotion, and commitment. Also known as “marriage.”
The Suzannah Weisses and Cosmopolitans of the world aren’t giving rules for sex, per se. Rather, they’re giving rules for sex with strangers who don’t give a damn about you. They are trying to spare you from the danger inherent in giving yourself to a person who barely knows your name. But the best way to avoid those dangers is to refrain from doing that altogether. You don’t need to worry as much about all of the lawyerly stipulations if you’re with someone you know, love, and trust.
It’s probably not a good idea to sext anyone, given that nothing you do on your phone is really private, but at least you don’t have to worry about the cops getting involved if you flirt with your spouse. Marriage affords a security that a million consent checklists could never offer. As it turns out, verbal consent doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t start with the words “I do.”