The complexities of consent that western societies are experiencing today can easily be attributed to the feminist agenda which is so emotionally driven to abolish “misogyny” that it is often blind to logic. Upon deeper examination of gender and consent we can see that social issues like the #MeToo movement highlight errors in modern ways of thinking regarding premarital sex. Without these errors, there would not be obscurity in regards to whether or not a sex act was legitimately consented to. By drawing on concepts from evolutionary psychology, biology, and recent social statistics, this article will identify and explain such errors and argue that consent agreements for premarital sex should involve the discussion of the intent of commitment in order to remove this obscurity. I will also explain why this need is largely the result of a gendered difference between men and women who identify as such given their respective reproductive capacities.
Firstly, by referencing the #MeToo movement, I do not intend to imply that cases of sexual assault and/or rape are morally acceptable in any way. Rather, I am referring to the cases where it is believed that there was a “grey area” in terms of whether or not consent was given for a sex act to take place. The notion of this grey area was discussed in a recent research article (Barker, 2013) which highlights the great subjectivity that comes with consenting to sex acts. In short, you cannot separate a sex act from the implications of that act for the individual who partakes in it. We must therefore take responsibility for acknowledging the power dynamics that are inherently part of all social interactions which limit self-determination and the legitimacy of consent. In other words, the process of giving and obtaining consent is not as simple as “yes means yes and no means no.” Sex means different things to different people and therefore “yes” and “no” do not necessarily provide adequate information about the other person’s true wants and needs as a human being who is worthy of respect.
In ethical philosophy, it is well regarded that consent is only considered to be true consent when there is full disclosure. According to philosopher John Kleinig on the Nature of Consent, consent is a communicative act for which responsibility is presupposed (Miller, 2010). What this means is that there must be a mutual understanding about what the act to be consented implies for each person involved in order for the consent to be legitimate. For instance, we reason that young children do not have the capacity to consent to mature activities because they have not developed enough psychologically in order to be able to fully understand the costs associated with their participation. Given that mature acts may have several psychological, social, and biological consequences for the child, the specific act may not be in their best interest. To protect the child, adults who are aware of these consequences, often the parents, are then considered to be responsible for taking on the role of the “guardian” which is to discern whether or not an activity is in the child’s best interest and to provide consent on their behalf when it is. Similar to a child, a “commitment-oriented” person (an individual who chooses to have sex based on its association to a current or hypothetical committed relationship only) does not necessarily have sex in their best interest. This is because they may not yet have enough (truthful) information about whether or not the outcome of sex would align with their needs and desires for commitment with the person they are about to have sex with. If the outcome does not align with those desires, then they will pay several costs (which are social, psychological, and biological in nature) and these costs are often gendered.
As a result of biology, the woman in a sexual relationship is usually the commitment-oriented partner. This means that sexual acts, particularly intercourse, are psychologically associated with the pursuit of or involvement in a committed relationship (Geary, 2010). This is not a social phenomenon but is rather due to the fact that she can become impregnated which would ultimately result in a relative loss of both autonomy and the capacity to acquire resources. For this reason, it is in her best interest to have sex only on the terms that it is a part of a committed union so that she will have a partner who is able to compensate for her lack ability during the time she at a disadvantage. This is a survival-based need which not only ensures her protection but also the protection of her child. Correspondingly, the act of having sex signifies possible fragility and loss of autonomy to a woman, whereas to a man, there is no such risk (unless he is socially or legally forced to take responsibility for the outcome as needed). If the woman consents to sex before entering a committed union, she is therefore consenting to something that is not necessarily in her best interest.
It is a common argument that contraception has eliminated or greatly reduced the risk of unwanted pregnancy but for several reasons this is still not a solution to the disparity problem. Firstly, it is well-known that contraception is imperfect and there is still a risk of accidental pregnancy with most methods. Secondly, those methods often come at the cost of the health of the women who use them (Bosetti & Vecchia, 2003). Finally, as a result of the biological consequences of sex which were outlined above, neurochemicals within the woman’s body which are released during sex, particularly oxytocin, promote bonding to her partner (Gao et al., 2016). This is problematic given that new research shows that oxytocin in men has other, non-related functions (Gao et al., 2016). Thus, one gendered consequence of sex without commitment is that the woman is more prone to developing an unrequited emotional connection to her partner. In sum, men and women who are not married to each other have very different consequences as a result of sex and contraceptives do little to account for this disparity.
What I believe is the cause of this disparity is the modern postfeminist ideal that falsely suggests women want to and/or should engage in sex autonomously, to the same degree as men. In order to achieve equality of outcome, supporters of these values turn a blind eye to the aforementioned consequences of casual sex for women. This is unfair as we have observed in common casual dating trends in western society: women tend to feel guilty if they do have sex outside of a committed relationship as a result of the sexual double standard (Townsend, 1998), however, at the same time they are socially pressured to appear highly sexual in nature (Barker and Gill, 2012). This creates cognitive dissonance for the woman which can be very difficult to resolve; they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. The result, I believe, is a state of paralysis which manifests as consenting to sex reluctantly. A good example of this is the case of “Grace,” a woman who participated in the #MeToo movement claiming that she was sexually harassed by Aziz Ansari but did not leave the situation despite her ability (Cooney, 2018). Advocates of the #MeToo movement noted that this is indeed a gendered trend. It appears evident that the feminist idea of “equality” in dating is actually working against women.
The intermediate solution to this problem is for individuals to state their intentions and/or desires for commitment as a part of the consent process. This practice would acknowledge the disparity that women face when they choose to have sex outside of a committed relationship, thus de-stigmatizing a woman’s justified choice to say no and encouraging responsible behaviour if she says yes. It would also solve the ethical dilemma of illegitimate consent by providing a mechanism of “full disclosure” – when employed, it would create a mutual understanding about what sex means to each person involved, therefore legitimizing the consent once it is given. This satisfies the ethical guidelines of consent because if one partner believes that sex should only be a part of, or lead to a truly committed partnership, then sex is only consensual for them on the grounds that it at least potentially leads to that. Finally, it goes without saying that this would be fair and morally appropriate given the gendered consequences of sex.
I call this full disclosure an intermediate solution because in reality there will always be negative consequences of casual sex for those who want commitment unless they deliberately decide not to have sex before commitment is established. This is because once a commitment-oriented person has consented to and participated in casual sex, he or she will always have an awareness, no matter how subconsciously, that they performed an act with another person on terms which may or may not be ultimately fulfilled by that person, resulting in a loss of power. In addition to this, research has shown that men strongly prefer to marry women who have been with fewer sexual partners, making casual sex problematic for women altogether (Stewart-Williams, 2017). As backwards as it may intuitively sound today, it appears that religion may have provided a viable solution to this problem – by discouraging sex before marriage. Religion has notoriously suggested that women give away their power by having sex before marriage and after considering the many consequences that casual sex implies for women, it should be evident that this idea is actually not so “crazy” or oppressive.
In conclusion, the illusion of sexual freedom that is so highly valued by modern western society is a dangerous one, particularly for women. This illogical battle to make everything “equal” between the sexes has made us collectively blind to the fact that men and women have fundamentally different needs and desires and should therefore perform differently in society. We need to ditch the idea of “equality” and instead think about how fairness and cooperation can be created. One of the best ways that we can do that is by acknowledging each other’s needs and desires while consenting to sex. This would not only be socially fair but it is also an ethical requirement that has gone sadly unrecognized. Only when such standards of reason and morality are adhered to will we no longer have obscurity in regards to whether or not a sex act was legitimately consented to. Feminism, in its current state, just isn’t accomplishing that.
Barker, M. (2013). Consent is a grey area? A comparison of understandings of consent in fifty shades of grey and on the BDSM blogosphere. Sexualities, 16(8), 896-914. 10.1177/1363460713508881
Barker M., Gill R. (2012). Sexual subjectification and Bitchy Jones’s Diary. Psychology & Sexuality 3(1): 26–40.
Bosetti, C., & Vecchia, C. (2003). The risk of cervical cancer increases with increasing duration of oral contraceptive use—meta-analysisSmith JS, green J, berrington de gonzalez A, appleby P, peto J, plummer M, franceschi S, beral V. cervical cancer and use of hormonal contraceptives: A systematic review. lancet 2003; 361:1159–1167. Evidence-Based Obstetrics & Gynecology, 5(4), 181-182. 10.1016/j.ebobgyn.2003.10.010
Gao, S., Becker, B., Luo, L., Geng, Y., Zhao, W., Yin, Y., . . . Kendrick, K. M. (2016). Oxytocin, the peptide that bonds the sexes also divides them. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(27), 7650-7654. 10.1073/pnas.1602620113
Geary, D. C., & American Psychological Association. (2010). Male, female: The evolution of human sex differences (2nd ed.) American Psychological Association.10.1037/12072-000
Miller, F. G., & Wertheimer, A. (2010). The ethics of consent: Theory and practice Oxford University Press.
Stewart-Williams, S., Butler, C. A., & Thomas, A. G. (2017;2016;). Sexual history and present attractiveness: People want a mate with a bit of a past, but not too much. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(9), 1097-9. 10.1080/00224499.2016.1232690