Consent Is a Low Bar
Historically, in western societies, sex before marriage was rare: families and communities exerted significant pressure on a man to “do the right thing” and marry a woman if he knocked her up (think “shotgun wedding”). This set of cultural practices existed because there were things called “communities” and most sexual relations happened with people who grew up in the same place. Parents had significant sway over who their children, and especially their daughters, married.
The organization of the western world changed radically with the invention and popularization of the birth control pill. Young people flocked to cities, and women entered the workforce en masse. The birth control pill started the sexual revolultion and changed the default from “abstaining from sex” to “having sex, unless there is a good reason not to.” We’re still dealing socially and culturally with the repercussions.
In a famous Vice Interview, Jordan Peterson was asked if men and women could work together in the workplace. His answer is, paraphrased slightly, “we only have 40 years of data, and so far things aren’t going well.” This is framed as a huge gotcha for JBP fans, and yet, I find the clip incredibly compelling. It hadn’t occurred to me to even question whether this was an arrangement likely to work well. Given how differently men and women experience the world, it doesn’t seem likely that women will be able to express themselves sexually without drawing unwanted attention from men (it’s hard for a man to know whether he’s wanted until he tries). It seems unlikely, given how common it is to find “mates” in the workplace, that the only sexual attention women get from men will be from the men she decides she wants attention from.
Not long ago, women were protected from men not only by their parents, but on college campuses. The sexes were divided, often college by college, and they were not allowed to be in the same room without a chaperone. Chaperones accompanied women in male company (for their protection). All that changed when Feminists fought to be considered the equals of men, arguing that women needed no such protection.
As the conversation around sexual relations between men and women evolved, the consent doctrine has become salient to the debate. What a woman can expect from a man is that they can engage sexually as long as he obtains her consent prior. For the past few decades this doctrine has been celebrated as men have been taught that a satisfying sexual experience with a woman is one in which she consents to everything that happens. And yet, consent is sometimes portrayed as somehow being “not enough,” at least in the media and among some women. Many high profile cases demonstrate the perceived murkiness of consent for some women, and how confusing sexual experiences can be for them in hindsight.
As a result, a new push is being made for “affirmative consent.” Affirmative consent distinguishes the absence of a no, from a positive yes. It proposes that a man should ask for consent each time he crosses a new sexual boundary. These rules apply even in the context of a committed relationship and must be done each time one is in a new sexual encounter. Consent expires at the end of each encounter. Any normal person observes the absurdity of these rules, as well as the way they turn many women off, and yet they are spreading in the media, academic and legislative worlds. Four states have adopted this legislation while California has currently limited it to high school and college students. Why affirmative consent? Will affirmative consent be enough?
Affirmative consent is usually framed as the gold standard, a victory for women, which is likely to solve all of our problems. If the problem is that women need consent to feel good after a sexual encounter, the solution should be affirmative consent. And yet, women have started to report what many normal people intuit: that even “yes” sometimes means “no”. While affirmative consent is frequently framed as a victory for a progressive, sex positive culture, which has been continuously raising the bar, viewed through a historical lens the bar is as low as it’s ever been.
Recently, on the Subversive podcast, Alex Kaschuta had a conversation with Louise Perry. Louise asserted that consent is actually a very low bar. Until recently, men had to marry women in order to have sex with them. There were numerous expectations around how men would treat women with whom they were having sex. For instance, men could be expected to “be gentlemen”. Feminism has not only removed gentlemanly norms, they have disparaged them as vestiges of a patriarchal mindset. And yet, most women still want you to pay on the first date.
In the absence of these expectations, “consent” is the only language and conceptual framework women are left with. We’ve framed men and women as being the same, their sexual desires matching. Men and women like sex equally, we are told! All you have to do is get a woman to say yes, and afterwards as long as she said yes, she has no right to complain. Ghosting has become an epidemic. Women can’t even be sure that a man might respond to a text message after having sex with him.
And yet, complain they do. Scientists have know for a long time that women and men respond to sex differently. Women typically release dramatically higher levels of oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone. Men are much more likely to want NSA sex, report being happy with the sexual encounter, and have an orgasm, while women are typically hoping that the sexual relationship will turn into “something”. Men want Grindr, women want romance novels. Women experience a lot of anxiety when they’re not sure how the person they are having sex with feels about them, particularly when they think the man is higher status than they are. We know women are unhappy with hookup culture, and yet we keep telling them they should like having sex like men, and that affirmative consent is the gold standard for a sexual encounter. It’s easy for women to get a high-status man for sex, but much harder to keep him for a relationship.
Even in cases of affirmative consent, some women report feeling “used”, or sad after having sex with a man who doesn’t want to spend time with them outside of a sexual context. They feel “disrespected” that a man doesn’t text them after having sex with them. This is certainly not true of all women all of the time, but many women report dating to be a stressful and unpleasant affair that they can’t wait to be done with.
When women consent to something, but feel bad after the fact, they have to resolve conflicting narratives in their brain. They are a girlboss who is supposed to like casual sex, and yet they feel “used” and sad. There are no longer any community norms that can be enforced on the man. Her friends might support her by telling her “he’s an asshole”, but rarely does this message even reach the guy, particularly if he’s higher status than she is, or at the top of her potential status range. He might just “ghost” her, disappearing forever. They have to ask themselves, why did this sexual experience leave me feeling so awful? Maslow taught us that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, and in this case, the hammer is consent.
Humans have a hard time accurately predicting how events will make them feel. Women often have sex with men in the hopes that the men will behave a certain way, but our social norms no longer allow women to hold men to certain standards of conduct in exchange for sex. When a woman feels bad after having sex with a man, when she’d predicted she will feel good (perhaps because she was inebriated, or rolling), she has to ignore or resolve that contradiction. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum, we reach for cultural frameworks to understand our decisions and feelings. She realizes that even if she felt like there was, there wasn’t any contract that was signed when they agreed to have sex with the man. She starts wondering if she would have voluntarily done something that made her feel so poorly? Particularly if she’s had a drink or two already? History starts to rewrite itself…maybe I couldn’t consent. This person must have taken advantage of me. He is older, smarter, more powerful and knew better than I what I wanted. He asked me out. He suggested we go back to his place. She is upset that she signed a contract that promised nothing more than consent. Our culture tells her that the only reason she would do something that would cause her emotional or physical pain is because she is easily taken advantage of by manipulative men. She starts thinking…If I feel this badly, I must not have consented. Or maybe I couldn’t consent? I was drunk. I was rolling. I hadn’t planned on having sex with him so soon. He should have known I would regret this. He was older than me. He manipulated me. He ***** me.
We want men to be paternalistic when it comes to sex with women, but we can’t say that because it invalidates the Feminist idea that women are mens equals. How can we resolve this conflict?
The language around consent has its origins in contract law. We draw up contracts/waivers when we believe that an experience is possible or likely to cause harm. In a litigious society, people who offer dangerous experiences require the other party to sign a consent form waiving their rights to sue and acknowledging the risks they are taking. We do this because we don’t trust individuals to be accurately able to predict their future state of mind (behavioral economics and psychology lend academic support to these ideas). When people regret decisions that harmed them they look to blame anyone but themselves. The younger the individual the less experience and theory of mind they have. This is why there are different laws for children and adults. This is why we ban addictive substances like nicotine and regulate who and how we can use them.
And yet, we don’t regulate one of the most powerfully addictive drugs, love. Sex releases multiple times more oxytocin, the love drug, in women than in men. In America, we hold bartenders responsible for the actions of their patrons. They are legally liable for your actions if they over serve you, because they were sober and you were intoxicated. They should have known better. Who is responsible for women’s choices, if she is not?
When we hide the darker side of men’s sexuality from women, we leave them badly under equipped in sexual encounters. We are therefore purely relying on the man to behave well, rather than arming a woman walking into the lion’s den. The only weapon they wield is the language of #metoo and consent. Is it any surprise they use it?
“She wrote that I had taken advantage of her vulnerability and used age and wisdom to become intimate with her. She also wrote that I had betrayed her trust in me. She was the active participant in seducing me and I recall what she was like in bed (eager, happy, seemingly satisfied or faking it well).”
Feminists insisted we remove all the restrictions societies had built up around female sexuality. They were sure the reason these restrictions were there to exert the patriarchal force on women. An alternate interpretation is Chesterton’s fence:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
Flippantly saying you “may as well charge” for sex, or that you “just wanted to get it over with” when referring to losing your virginity speak volumes about where Americans stand with sex.
One theory I’ve been entertaining is that this is a reaction to the normalization of being discarded. It wasn’t even ten years ago that we were talking about hook-up culture on college campuses and elsewhere:
“Guys view everything as a competition,” he elaborates with his deep, reassuring voice. “Who’s slept with the best, hottest girls?” With these dating apps, he says, “you’re always sort of prowling. You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”
Could “I may as well charge”-style retorts be a coping mechanism for being discarded being normalized? I find that there’s an undercurrent of pain around how we talk about sex.
“Sex is meaningless” starts to make a lot of sense when you consider that people are very likely fielding more rejection today than any other population in the history of humanity.
Maybe we weren’t meant to be rejected a hundred times a month; some of us being rejected after sex, others never being chosen at all.
This isn’t the first time I’ve proposed something like this, and I’ll often hear from women that they’re not being discarded and that I’m being paternalistic.
Why do we have so much rhetoric around men being trash, if you’re really the one in the driver’s seat here, then? I’m asking this sincerely.
It’s relatively easy for women to get guys in the top 20% of their range for casual sex, but hard to entice those guys in relationships. Historically, we relied on families to moderate those impulses, while currently online dating exacerbates them. The other side of “freedom” is “responsibility.” Women who don’t take responsibility for themselves, want some other entity (colleges, corporations, courts) to do it for them. Those kinds of entities are intrinsically blunt and imperfect instruments which have no good place in a bedroom. As a society we’re not really sure what to do with all of this. It’s not that hard for women to find a guy who’ll be monogamous and give them a family, etc.—it’s just that the monogamous guy is rarely as thrilling and exciting as the casual sex hot guy. We used to call this problem, “cad versus dad.” We used to tell women to pick one, now we wonder why they can’t have it all?
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