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The Risks of Sex
How safe can it be when the consequences are unpredictable?
Last week, I shared excerpts from Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. This week, I have a selection of your comments on the complications of consent and self-knowledge. Next week, I’ll share some of your thoughts on viability standards and dignity.
Tonight at 7p, I’ll be part of a panel on what the Left and Right get wrong about family policy. You can tune in on YouTube here.
Monica points out that questions of consent and safety are usually framed in terms of limiting danger, not seeking positive goods.
I know I have absorbed this idea pretty much entirely from Phoebe Maltz Bovy but, I feel like a lot of this starts from the consent framework question of "what will women permit?" and just adds "but what and how are women actually incapable of permitting?" in a way that leaves out questions about what women actively want.
This is a major theme of Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, but wasn’t the focus of the quotes I selected.
Martha worries that the limits of self-knowledge can be used as a defense by predators:
While Angel's point about the limits of self knowledge is intriguing, I see these and similar critiques of 'consent' frequently used to justify terrible policies ranging from abstinence-only sex ed in schools (a verifiable failure) to policies in colleges and workplaces that "inadvertently" favor perpetrators. After all, if a woman can't know herself well enough to consent or not, it's unfair for a perpetrator to expect to understand her intentions or desires—thus the only solution is abstention.
I think in some cases, the limits of self- or other-knowledge should lead to abstention. When you meet someone new at a college party, and you’re both drinking, you shouldn’t assume you know them well enough to tell how impaired they are by what they’ve drunk. It’s better to wait than to hurt someone inadvertently because you didn’t know them well enough to interpret their behavior.
I think this is broadly a good argument against one-night stands, sex with strangers, etc. There’s a much bigger risk you might have sex that your partner experiences as unwanted or coerced, even if you’re trying to be a good person. You just don’t know each other well enough to take care of each other yet.
I don’t think this creates a shield for predators. Rather, it’s a reminder that we can harm people deeply, even when we don’t set out to hurt them. Someone can feel they couldn’t say no to sex without the other partner intending to commit rape or being aware that that’s how their partner experienced the night.
Magdalen drew a connection between the complexities of consent and the limits of how safe and predictable sex can be:
What I think is missing from the discourse of sex and consent is appreciation for the fact that sex itself is mysterious or even spiritual, that even though contraception can mostly eliminate the unanticipated material consequences of sex, the emotional consequences of sex are still unpredictable and unknowable. I discovered this myself in my undergrad days, where I found that a "casual" make-out session with a boy at a party would so often lead to undesired romantic feelings. The act of intimacy with another person has the potential to change us on an emotional or spiritual level, and there is no way to predict or limit that change. This should force us to focus less on knowing and accepting the consequences of sex, and more on sex as self-gift, and since we ourselves are unknowable, the gift of self must also be unknowable in some sense.
I think that the idea of willing the good for one's partner must undergo a similar transformation from the language of knowing to the language of accepting or gifting: beyond committing to will the good, and to will it for this specific person as opposed to some general sense, we must also acknowledge that we don't know exactly what that good is. Willing the good must become something more mysterious, something that may turn out entirely different from what we originally imagined it to be. Sex becomes less of a fun bonding activity and more of an agreement to hold hands and joyfully jump into some unknown adventure!
I think this is one of the biggest under-discussed divides on what sex is. Is it an intrinsically risky (in both good and bad ways) activity, whose emotional and procreative consequences can’t be entirely predicted or controlled?
Or is it a kind of recreation constantly being refined, so that more and more of the risk can be pared away?