I think that the specific concept of consent is probably best defined by its quasi-legal definition: both parties verbally agreed, were of sound mind, and there were no major deceptions as to the nature of the sex (e.g. reproductive coercion). Trying to push the concept of consent beyond those boundaries inevitably runs into the problem of the limitation of self-knowledge, as Angel so aptly puts it.

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!

Expand full comment

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.

My kiddo and I watch a fantastic Australian cartoon, Bluey, that features a family of dogs living in Sydney - two episodes we recently watched taught consent-y topics. In one the younger daughter-pup learns to use her 'big girl voice' to speak up for herself when something isn't okay with her. In another, she says yes three times when she wants to say no. Her mom helps her unpack why she said yes and then the family apologies and works to rectify the situation. It's lovely!

This is also what the dutch sex ed model also does so well - they don't shy away from consent and using your voice being complicated human topics, but they focus on concrete practice of delving into knowing yourself better, speaking up for yourself, and respecting others as full people too.

Expand full comment

I was recently surprised by someone who was cheated on and compared the pain of multiple traumatic events and said being cheated on was worse. I checked the scientific literature on ptsd and other mental health problems after infidelity and was shocked at how high it is. Even as a sexually conservative person (for instance I waited for marriage) I vastly underestimated the importance of fidelity on the mental health of society. I am not arguing for a more punitive approach to infidelity - this sin is the very one that features in mercy triumphing over judgement in the gospel of John and the woman caught in adultery. However, given around two fifths of people cheat in their life time, and 45% of those will develop ptsd as a result, this seems like a bit of a public health issue. It also doesn't seem as simple as saying "don't cheat" since I would bet most of the two fifths see cheating as wrong. The only other option given on the market is the "Mike Pence" rule (or the Billy Graham rule) which at least takes the issue seriously, but isn't fair to female colleagues

ref http://www.impossiblepsychservices.com.sg/our-resources/news/2020/01/12/infidelity-associated-with-ptsd-related-symptoms-and-poorer-psychological-outcomes

Expand full comment

In my younger, extra-bad-boundaries-around-myself days, when someone would ask me about what I wanted/preferred, my first thought would be, "What's the answer I'm supposed to give?!?" (if it's a decision that's going to affect people other than just me; as opposed to, "Do you like turquoise blue or sea green more?" in a conversation that is severed from immediate context.)

And what was the meaning of "the answer I'm supposed to give" in my mind in those days? It was "figure out what the other person wants me to say I like, and then decide if there are any moral factors that mitigate against me stating my preference as what they want me to say it is." So it's, uhh... not completely black-and-white thinking. But it has very little to do with what MANY people mean by the verb "want."

But maybe not all people!! Remember "Ask" cultures vs. "Guess" cultures?! Throwing someone who thinks they're in one type of culture (poss. because they believe only one of those two types exist!) into the other type could wreak total havoc! I feel like in a "guess" culture, "what do you want?" always has a meaning that is modulated by an awareness of the preferences of the asker! (and other people directly affected by the outcome of the choice!)

I had no idea what my "wants" would be independent of the given social context!

So a discussion of the limits of self knowledge that says, "there's a lot of ambiguity here; we don't always really know what we want" jives with mine!

Expand full comment

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*.

Expand full comment

I agree, the self knowledge point is really a profound one. I have previously wondered (although couched differently) whether our theories on gender are built on the shaky assumption that we are all capable of knowing ourselves. How could we know what it means to be male/female/human if we can't really know ourselves?

To your point, one of the biggest gaps in self-knowledge, it seems to me, is that we cannot predict how our bodies will react ahead of time in any given situation. We can "want" something only to find that our embodiment communicating something else entirely. True to your work here, this problem appears to fall particularly hard on women, who must force natural rhythms and bodily particularities into a world that, while striving to be neutral, is largely designed for an "average" male experience.

It's interesting, too, to reflect that our not knowing what we want can feel shameful. How many of us have claimed to want something simply because we were too embarrassed to admit that we really felt somewhat indifferent or uncertain? We are constantly pressured to know what we want and go take it. Yet real self knowledge seems so slowly and randomly acquired. It's really quite frustrating.

Expand full comment

Your questions: "What do you think of Angel’s discussion of the limits of self knowledge?

When have you been surprised by being mistaken in what your own good consisted of?"

I agree with Angel's point, absolutely. It's the problem of liberal feminism, the presumption that women's equality with men means they are making choices as equal actors and with equal effects.

Once the woman agrees, and once she is "respected" in the abstract for making her choice in the name of empowerment, all is well. I don't have a specific example of something that I experienced, but I can think of a story I read about women and porn. Its an extreme example, but it's apt.

The women consent, they are compensated, they are treated "well," ie., being told how well they performed. They are given high fives by the men they work with.

But what if they don't feel good about what they consented to and what they were paid for? Was compensation for pornography fulfilling their own good? Or was believing so a mistake?

Expand full comment