Consent is a necessary prerequisite for any sexual ethic

Consent is a necessary prerequisite for any sexual ethic May 27, 2015

Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism has written several of the most insightful responses I’ve seen to the horrifying revelations of the history of sexual abuse by reality TV personality Josh Duggar, and to the disastrously inept response from his famous family. This is a story from her native tribe — the white evangelical/fundamentalist Christian patriarchal homeschooling subculture of Bill Gothard, the Quiverful cult, the Vision Forum, “courtship” and all the rest. While she has since gotten free of that world, she still knows it intimately, and you won’t find a better interpreter or translator of that world and its ways than Libby Anne.

(To back up that praise, consider this post: “My concerns about the Duggars.” And then consider that it was written more than three years ago.)

In that capacity as a translator and interpreter of the Duggars’ white Christian subculture, Libby Anne is particularly helpful when it comes to explaining why the members of that tribe — the Duggars and their defenders — seem mystified at the way the rest of the world is responding to the news of Josh Duggar’s past (perhaps) pattern of sexual abuse. She writes about “Josh Duggar and the Tale of Two Boxes” — a post that builds on her older post, “A Tale of Two Boxes: Contrasting Sexual Ethics.” That original post has become an indispensable piece of my own mental vocabulary because it does such a fine job of articulating the shape and the limits of evangelical sexual ethics — at least as popularly understood and practiced.

The Tale of Two Boxes clarifies a great deal, as I’ve written about before (see “Sex and theology” and, more recently, “Here’s that ‘Anything Goes’ rant about evangelical sexual ethics“). The basic idea is that for white evangelicals and other so-called social conservatives, all forms of extra-marital sex are considered sinful, while marital sex is good. This produces a system with two — and only two — categories to be considered: Married and Not-Married. And thus it creates a system that asks one — and only one — question when evaluating the ethical status of any given sex act: Are the actors married to one another?

The end result is Libby Anne’s Two Boxes:


Here’s how Libby Anne applies this to the case of Josh Duggar and the irreconcilably different understandings of his actions held by his defenders and those who are appalled by his deeds:

Social conservatives tend to divide sexual acts into “marital sex” and “non-marital sex.” For social conservatives, child sexual molestation is in the same category as gay sex or consensual premarital sex. When divided in this way, sexual molestation doesn’t look all that different from consensual premarital sex — though both are considered sin. This is why the Duggars can talk about Josh’s “mistakes” the way they do—as though it were simply him going too far with a girlfriend, or viewing pornography. Because for them, they’re in the same category—sexual contact before marriage.

Progressives do not have ethical or moral problems with premarital sexual intercourse — but they very much have a problem with child molesting. To conservatives this can look like an inconsistency — even hypocrisy — but it’s not. Progressive sexual ethics center around consent. Sexual contact that is consensual is okay. Sexual contact that isn’t consensual is not okay.

Consent is, indeed, the key factor here. But note that the problem is not only that this essential factor is absent from the “conservative” Two Boxes scheme. That Two-Boxes framework also prevents those steeped in it from comprehending the role that consent plays for the rest of us.

That, in turn, leads to the absurd cartoon straw-man that such conservatives love to mock and dismiss whenever the matter of consent comes up. Hence the reaction of my old friend the Kuyperian Marine, who could never seem to hear the word consent without sarcastically responding, “As long as its between two consenting adults, then anything goes!” This was an intelligent guy — a man with a Ph.D. in ethics who is capable of immensely subtle and principled thought on a host of other subjects. But he was unable to grasp the vital ethical importance of consent because he was so steeped in Two-Boxes ideology.

His confusion, and that of countless others, arises from misunderstanding statements like the one Libby Anne makes when she says that “Progressive sexual ethics center around consent.” His sexual ethics center around marital status, so he assumes — incorrectly — that this means consent must play an identical role in progressives’ sexual ethics to the role marital status plays in his own thinking. He assumes, in other words, that those hippy progressives also have Two Boxes.

To put this all another way, for social conservatives, marriage is necessary and sufficient for ethical sexual activity. When they hear folks like Libby Anne (or me) emphasizing the essential importance of consent, they therefore assume that we are, in turn, arguing that consent is necessary and sufficient for ethical sexual activity. But that’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying consent is necessary. Period.

Ethical sexual activity must be consensual. Take away mutual consent and you take away the possibility of ethical sexual contact. Mutual consent is the necessary starting point, the prerequisite for the possibility of ethical sex. But the presence of mutual consent alone is not sufficient to guarantee that, therefore, “anything goes.” It’s not as Two-Boxes simple or zipless as that. (Any attempt to posit a scenario in which mutual consent would be both necessary and sufficient would involve carefully constructing a simplified hypothetical in such a way as to acknowledge multiple other factors by way of excluding them from consideration in that particular case.)

The real task facing social conservatives is to make a convincing case that marriage is a necessary condition for ethical sex. Many of them aren’t even trying to make that case because they’re too busy defending the indefensible proposition of Two Boxes ideology — the claim that marriage is a sufficient condition for ethical sex. They seem to think that arguing for the necessity of marriage would be a step back from arguing for its sufficiency — and therefore a kind of retreat or wavering or compromise.

But it’s only a retreat from something absurd and morally reprehensible. I can respect and converse with someone who argues that both marriage and consent are necessary conditions for ethical sexual activity, but if someone is arguing that marriage is sufficient, then they cannot believe that consent matters (apart from a once-and-for-all-time “I do”) and that is a perspective I cannot respect or abide.

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