I didn’t realize my sexual belief was different from others until I went to America. As a Christian, I firmly believed that people shouldn’t have sex before marriage. However, in western society, such a notion has become outdated as sexual revolutions since the 1960s gradually dissolved boundaries in gender relations. Therefore, as someone “from the last century,” quote courtesy of my friends, I became a deviant in this open world. Although I object to premarital sex, this is not my purpose in writing this essay. Instead, I am trying to argue here that since our sexual identities are so subjective and vulnerable, consent is not enough to constitute morally acceptable sex. Allow me to insert my personal story here before we dive into philosophical reasonings.
I loved my boyfriend. We shared the same hobbies of music and sports, and our career goals coincided; so if fortunate, we would study the same major in the same college. Even our sexual ethics were similarly in favor of the Catholic view of sex. However, one day, he embraced me in his arms, looked into my eyes, and said: “Would you go for a night out with me?”
“Why?” I raised my head. His eyes were so genuine and passionate that it would be stupid to reject him. He told me that teenagers had already had sex at our age, and he would be regarded as a “baby” if he had not already done so. “Why care about them?” I struck back and found myself being inconsiderate at that very moment. I knew I would never engage in sex before marriage because of my religion, but I also knew that the power of peer pressure is so enormous that I couldn’t blame him for his thinking. Of course, I didn’t want his friends to look down on him, but when no one seemed to ally with my interest, I felt weak to insist on my voice being heard as well.
I contemplated the dissonance between my peer values and my sexual self. On the one hand, I care about the dignity of marriage and family, and I desire to save my first time for my husband. On the other hand, I dreaded not only losing my boyfriend but also the prejudice from other people against me. Is it ever possible that I will find someone willing to wait until marriage? What if my future lovers break up with me when I refuse to have sex with them? After all, what’s the matter with premarital sex? Why holding on to this conservative notion when everyone is acting otherwise? I couldn’t withstand the loneliness of being left out, as the need to belong is part of my vulnerable human nature. But when I am about to decide, I realized I still can’t forsake the traditional Catholic values embedded in my personality.
At last, my boyfriend broke up with me because I had never consented to his requests. This seems to be a proper ending, but what if I agreed to have sex with him out of fear? Would it make the subsequent sexual encounters morally permissible? The answer, as I would exemplify in the rest of this paper, is no. There’s more to consider for morally permissible sex than consent.
First, the ones who advocate for sole consent ignore the roles of power disparity and social influence. Power disparity occurs when one individual has more authority than the other, such as employers and employees. In the interwar period civil society, for example, there are mediations between state and workers to produce consent, securing the hegemony of the dominant class (Maglaras). Similarly, the one with more power could also reproduce coerced consent when asking for sex. Since it’s easy to get another person’s consent when facing enough inequality, such consent is no longer morally transformative (McConnell).
Social influence, on the other hand, comes in a more unconscious, insidious way. It threatens an individual’s sense of safety by making them scared to maintain their ideology (Denrell, 2008). Although our sexual identities are continually adapting, the forced conformity from social influence isn’t the result of an individual’s rational reasoning but rather a disruption of one’s normal cognition process. In either case, the individuals are deviating from their true sexual selves as a result of coercion. Therefore, if we justify sex by coerced consent, we ignore the persons’ most primitive deliberation and fail to respect their humanity.
Second, if consent remains the touchstone to distinguish permissible and impermissible sex, the former would not have any more intrinsic goodness other than the mere agreement between partners. The mere agreement implies that sex can happen with anyone, even with nonhuman objects, aiming only at the intercourse itself (Scruton). However, this understanding is wrong because it entails the oblivion of another person’s individuality and the purpose of sex. Purposes may vary across individuals. For me, if I agree to have sex with my boyfriend, but if it’s not done to enhance marital love and procreation, it is wrong. Most other people have sex because they believe it will foster mutual trust and emotional connectedness between partners. These values made up the distinctive factors that constitute morally permissible sex. Therefore, the mere agreement fell short of creating a standard for good sex.
In conclusion, although consent is an essential element for sex to happen, not all consensual sex is morally acceptable. I maintained two related perspectives that explored why sometimes consent is not enough and what we have missed. From these arguments, we can redefine our sexual standards—first, permissible sex must involve fully disclosed discretion and equality, as power imbalance may entail coerced consent; second, both sides must appreciate the purpose and consequence of sex before it becomes worthwhile for our human existence. Such sexual ethics will help promote equal sex in society and encourage more people to realize why sex becomes meaningful.
McConnell, Jonathan. “Why Consent is Not Always Enough.” McConnell Law Firm, https://jonathanwmcconnell.com/2020/10/07/why-consent-is-not-always-enough-sex-crimes-lawyers-wichita/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.
Maglaras, Vasilis. “Consent and Submission: Aspects of Gramsci’s Theory of the Political and Civil Society.” SAGE Open, Jan. 2013, doi:10.1177/2158244012472347.
Denrell, Jerker. “Indirect Social Influence.” Science, vol. 321, no. 5885, 2008, pp. 47–48. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20054410. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.
Scruton, Roger, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986)