Is consent alone, however defined, ever enough to make a sexual encounter moral, asks David Quinn
A sexual consent programme has been launched that is aimed at second level schools. It has been developed by the ‘Active Consent’ unit at NUI Galway and will include workshops for students and parents. The programme is aimed at 15-17 year olds. Its lack of a proper vision of the human person should worry us.
The launch of the programme coincides with the publication of a new report by the Active Consent unit which surveyed the attitudes of more than 600 teenagers in fifth year and transition year towards the issue of sexual consent.
The finding which grabbed the headlines is that one in five teenage boys don’t believe consent is needed before sexual activity with another person is initiated. Less than one in ten girls believe the same thing.
This is what the finding appeared to say at any rate, but when you examine the report more closely it is hard to know what the teenagers believed they were being asked, precisely because the idea of ‘consent’ can be ambiguous. For example, does it have to be verbal, or can it also be non-verbal?
Respondents to the survey were asked whether they agreed with the following statement: “You always need to get consent before the start of a sexual activity” (ranging from touching a breast to full sexual intercourse).
So, 79% of boys and 93% of girls agreed with the statement. On the face of it, therefore, coverage of the report appeared to be accurate. But in their own minds, how did they define ‘consent’? Did they believe they were being asked about verbal consent only? Maybe the boys and girls who disagreed with the statement believe non-verbal consent is also alright?
Respondents were then asked to respond to two more statements that did distinguish between verbal and non-verbal consent.
They were asked if they agreed that, “There should be verbal consent for any of those sexual activities”.
Fifty eight percent of boys and 67% of girls said ‘yes’.
A third statement was then put to them which said: “Non-verbal consent for any of those sexual activities is sometimes okay.” This time, 59% of boys and 61% of girls agreed.
As mentioned, when the first statement was put to the teenagers, perhaps some of the boys believed they were being asked about verbal consent only? If it had been made clear to them that consent could be verbal or non-verbal, then hopefully far more boys than 79% would have agreed with it. In fact, hopefully there would have been 100% agreement on the part of both sexes with the statement, otherwise a significant percentage of boys and girls think sexual assault is okay, which would be appalling.
Perhaps confusion over what exactly ‘consent’ means is a good enough reason for a programme in schools to discuss the matter?
How does the new report, called Active Consent for School Communities define consent? It says it “works from the definition of consent given by Hickman and Muehlenhard (1999, p. 259), that it is ‘the freely given verbal or non-verbal communication of a feeling of willingness to engage in sexual activity’”.
In other words, consent does not have to be verbal.
But then the report seems to contradict itself by leaning in favour of consent as being verbal only because it describes the ways in which non-verbal consent can be confusing. It concludes: “Accordingly, the Active Consent programme supports the achievement of direct, verbal consent”.
However, this sentence then continues in a way that only adds to the confusion when it concludes that “young people [must be] comfortable integrating it [verbal consent] with their gender and sexual identity, personal experience, and preferences as individuals and sexual partner”.
This seems to be mean consent doesn’t need to be verbal after all. It only has to be verbal if you are comfortable with that.
But as big a question as the proper definition of consent, is whether consent alone, however defined, is enough to make a sexual encounter moral.
That word ‘moral’, is now considered extremely problematic in this context because it is considered judgemental.
Liberal sexual morality thinks consent alone is enough before two (or more) people who might have met only seconds ago move on to full sexual intercourse.
Traditional sexual morality believes there should be much more than consent alone. Most of the major religions believe the couple should be married first, but a modified version of traditional sexual morality says they should get to know, like and trust one another as a minimum first.
The Active Consent programme believes consent alone is enough, and this is what teenagers will be taught by it from my reading of the new report.
For example, the new report outlines a number of scenarios for students to consider.
One involves ‘Jim and Claire’. In this case, they are not in a relationship and sexual intercourse is initiated by Claire, but Jim is reluctant.
Another involves a ‘hook-up’ between two teenagers (described as ‘cisgendered’, meaning they identify with the sex they were born as), who have simply met for the night and have oral sex.
Teenagers are asked about what consent means in these cases but are implicitly led to believe that consent alone is enough.
The philosophy behind the Active Consent programme does not rule out in principle an individual having endless numbers of sexual partners in their lifetime and multiple ‘one-night stands’. It appears to believe that detaching your body from any real relational setting can be successfully achieved without harm to your sense of self-worth, or your partner’s sense of self-worth (who might be looking for more than an emotionless, one-night stand), and without too much danger of anyone feeling undervalued or used.
Obviously, this approach is totally incompatible with Christian teaching about sex. Even the most liberal Christians think couples should be in a loving relationship before moving on to full sexual intercourse.
Christian sex education has to include a full understanding of the meaning of consent, but to be properly humanistic, in the proper sense of that word, it must involve so much more than that as well.