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The principle that sex should be consensual is a good one, but what does this mean in the real world?
In the messy details of human relationships, things are rarely clear-cut. We have pressures, preferences and obligations, we make assumptions about other people, their actions, beliefs and motives. We don't even understand what we do ourselves half the time. Ignorance, awkwardness, social baggage and embarrassment frequently interfere with clear communication, especially when it involves sex.
ENID Network offer a good summary of the subject: A Philosophical Analysis to Better Understand Consent. But it's not perfect: they start by recognizing that there are two definitions.
- Definition 1: ‘Consent’ merely implies agreement or acquiescence. So, in this context a person can be coerced into agreeing to sex, but the coercion renders their consent invalid.
- Definition 2: ‘Consent’ necessarily meets certain (fairly stringent) conditions. With this definition in mind, a person cannot consent to sex if they are not competent to consent or if their agreeing to the sex is involuntary.
And they then go on to argue that the first definition is invalid. But, in the real world. neither coercion nor competency is an absolute: we are all motivated and pressurized to act in certain ways all the time, not just concerning sex; and our competency to agree to anything is always partially compromised by conflicting demands and obligations, by lack of time and space to properly consider the issues and options, by lack of information about the situation and by ignorance of the consequences of our choices.
This is another example of the problem caused by binary thinking. Both coercion and competency exist on a continuum: if we believe that (in any specific situation) consent is either present or absent, then we need to fix an arbitrary point on that continuum to enable us to say you can have valid consent on this side but not that side.
And if a person is deemed to be not 'competent' to consent (for example, some people with mental disabilities), the implication is that society will insist they remain celibate for their entire life. This assumption has been challenged in recent years, but there is no clear framework for handling the situation. I had a friend at university who had a sister with mental disability: at one point, she was trying to work out the ethics of getting her sister sterilized - long term reversible birth control was not available at the time. It was tough.