Rape Culture and the Paradox of Consent

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The principal mistake of current rape-culture rhetoric is that it attempts to address the issue from within the framework of the hookup culture; that is, it first assumes that consent is the primary—if not only—moral criterion to be considered when it comes to sex (what I will call a “consent-only sexual ethic”) and then tries to craft a response to rape culture from there. The problem with this, however, is that by adopting a consent-only sexual ethic, critics of the rape culture have already ceded its most fundamental premise, since consent—far from being the solution to rape culture—is in fact at the heart of the ideology that perpetuates it.

Because the defining characteristic of rape is that it is forced (i.e. against the will of the victim), consent seems to be the obvious direction in which to look when searching for a solution to rape culture. The danger with this approach, however, is that it often assumes the problematic framework of the hookup culture, at the heart of which is the idea that sex can be whatever we want it to be—casual, romantic, unattached, significant, pleasurable, painful, dominating, submissive, one-sided, mutual, etc.—so long as it is consensual. But if sex can be anything, then sex, in and of itself, is nothing. If sex can mean anything, then sex, in and of itself, means nothing. If sex can be used for anything, then sex, in and of itself, is useful for nothing. It is only because the hookup culture assumes that sex has no intrinsic meaning or value, that all sexual limits and boundaries are ultimately subjective and personal, that it can proceed to say, “Anything goes, so long as it’s consensual.”

Contemporary critics of the rape culture assume this framework of the hookup culture when they focus their criticism on the way we think about consent rather than the way we think about sex. Their focus is typically on shifting from the dominant negative conception of consent (“no means no”) to a stronger, positive view of consent (“only yes means yes”), which are hereafter termed the “weak” and “strong” views of consent, respectively. On the problematic weak view of consent, their argument goes, simply not saying no is sufficient to constitute consent, while on the better strong view of consent—the view of consent that should be the norm—the only sufficient consent is explicit verbal consent to specific sexual acts. While understanding consent is important, such an emphasis on its minutiae reveals that the assumption of the hookup culture remains, for an analysis of consent only becomes this important when we assume that consent is the sole moral criterion worthy of note, when we assume that any sexual act is permissible so long as consent—regardless of how it is defined—is satisfied.

The problem with accepting the consent-only sexual ethic of the hookup culture, however, is that it denies the distinct and extraordinary gravity of rape and other forms of sexual assault, and it is upon this very denial that rape culture is built. According to the consent-only sexual ethic, the moral permissibility of a sexual act hinges upon consent alone. This, however, can only be the case if it is already assumed that there is nothing special about the act in question that might affect its prior permissibility. For example, my consent to have my body cannibalized only makes a moral difference if cannibalism is already assumed to be morally permissible. If cannibalism is not morally permissible, then my consent is irrelevant, as the act of cannibalism would be immoral regardless. Likewise, if I sell myself into slavery, my consent is only morally relevant if it is already assumed that there is nothing unique about buying and selling human beings that might give this act prior moral significance. For if there were something intrinsically reprehensible about the commodification of human beings, my consent would be irrelevant, as the act of slavery would be morally impermissible regardless of whether I consented or not. Thus a sexual ethic that sees consent as the only morally relevant issue must already assume the prior permissibility of all sexual acts.

But to assume that all sexual acts are already morally permissible is to assume that there is nothing special about sex that might give it moral significance in its own right. This, however, would preclude any principled grounds for recognizing the distinct and extraordinary gravity of rape and other forms of sexual assault as opposed to more banal forms of harassment and assault. If sex is meaningless, then what is it about rape that makes it so much worse than, say, a non-consensual back rub, a coerced game of chess, or my grabbing your hand and slapping you with it while yelling “stop hitting yourself”? If sex were simply a pleasurable physical act like any other pleasurable physical act the permissibility of which is contingent only upon consent, then there would be no moral difference between sexual assault and plain old platonic assault. What, for example, would be the distinction between a slap on the back and a slap on the butt if there were nothing significant about sex? If there really were no prior ethical norms attached to sex, then—however preposterous it seems—there would be no principled reason to distinguish between rape and a wet willy, as both would simply be non-consensual penetrative acts.

While the absurdity of these conclusions points to the falsity of their premise, the real issue with assuming the consent-only sexual ethic of the hookup culture is that it forms the ideological basis for rape culture itself. For if we assume that sex has no intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose, then we deny the distinct and extraordinary gravity of rape and other forms of sexual assault; but if we deny this, then we also deny that there is a distinct and extraordinary issue to be addressed at all.

This denial is at the root of every aspect of rape culture, as we can only normalize sexual violence if we refuse to see it as particularly grievous; we can only joke about rape if we deny that rape is extraordinarily serious; and we can only belittle, blame, or dismiss a victim if we have already dismissed the legitimacy of sexual assault as a whole. Again, it is only because we deny the distinct and extraordinary gravity of rape that we tend to judge the seriousness of rape by the seriousness of the accompanying assault, a judgement at the heart of the myth of stranger rape so characteristic of rape cultures.

The lesson is clear: we cannot address rape culture from within the consent-only framework of the hookup culture, for we cannot critique a culture if we accept the very ideology upon which it is built. If sex is not special in some way, then rape is not especially harmful; but if rape is not especially harmful, then there is nothing for us to critique; but if there is nothing for us to critique, then the status quo should be maintained. But that status quo is a culture of rape. This means that contemporary responses to rape culture, insofar as they assume and thus perpetuate a consent-only sexual ethic, in fact perpetuate the very status quo they seek to change—namely, rape culture.

If—as I believe—we do live in a rape culture, and if I am correct that we cannot address this rape culture from within the framework of the hookup culture, then we must look outside of that framework if we are really serious about effecting change. This cannot be done by simply asserting that, when it comes to sex, we must use the strong view of consent, the view that only explicit verbal consent to specific sexual acts counts as valid consent. Besides the fact that this solution usually assumes the problematic consent-only sexual ethic we want to avoid, making this assertion only pushes the problem one step back, as we would still need to explain why sex requires the strong view of consent by explaining what it is about sex that makes consent especially important.

Likewise goes the argument that it is the law that determines the special gravity of rape. For while every state does distinguish between sexual and non-sexual assault, all this argument does is to again push the problem one step back, as it does not explain why it is that the law makes this distinction. After all, these legal distinctions could simply be irrational, and indeed, if we assume the consent-only framework of the hookup culture, they do look irrational. In fact, it is characteristic of rape cultures that these distinctions are seen as irrational, and the incredible number of schools now under investigation for Title IX violations is proof of this.

Ultimately, the only way to justify the distinct and extraordinary gravity of rape and other forms of sexual assault is to say something about the act of sex itself. Perhaps sex is a uniquely unitive act, and rape is especially wrong because it takes something that literally unites two people and renders it adversarial. This would be somewhat analogous to why we find clowns and children so horrifying when they are used in certain films. Because clowns are supposed to bring joy and children are supposed to be happy, blissful, and innocent, there is something particularly perverted about using them to murder and terrorize. In a similar way, thinking about sex as a uniquely unitive act could explain the extraordinary gravity we attach to rape as compared to, say, my forcibly but platonically sticking my thumb in your mouth: because my sticking my thumb in your mouth, while disgusting, is not a uniquely unitive act, most of us would not consider it as serious or perverted as rape.

But simply adding unity doesn’t quite do the work we want it to, as we still need to specify the kind of unity intrinsic to sex. Back massages, wet willies, and superglue are all capable of bringing two people together either in shared bodily pleasure or in literal physical union. But a non-consensual back rub is not the moral equivalent of rape, and supergluing my hand to your face involves a considerably different kind of physical union than sex. I argue that what makes sex unique, that what makes sex different in kind from any other human act, is that it involves the true bodily union of two people coordinating at the biological level towards the same shared goal. Unlike two bodies united in, say, a handshake, two bodies united in sex themselves become the parts of a single system ordered to a specific end.

This coordination of bodies found in sex is important because the coordination of parts towards an end is literally what it means to be one thing rather than many. For example, when I see a dog chasing a cat, how do I know that what I am seeing is one thing, namely a dog, and not just a bunch of furry parts superglued together? The reason there is only one thing chasing a cat and not several things simply in contact with one another is because in that one thing, in that one dog, every part is coordinated towards an end: the eyes and the nose work with the brain, the brain with the nerves, the nerves with the muscles, the muscles with the bones. It is because there is an intrinsic unity to the creature in front of me that I can say what I see is a dog, that what I see is one dog. In a similar way, two bodies joined in sex, because they become parts of a coordinated system, literally become one thing in that respect.

Because sex involves this kind of literal bodily union, it is a relational act uniquely capable of bringing two people together. That is why rape is so wrong. By forcing another person to have sex, the rapist takes an act that brings two people together in a way unlike any other and uses it in the most selfish way possible. He takes the act most capable of turning us outward towards another and turns it back inward towards himself. Furthermore, because sex is intrinsically relational, rape always involves forcing another person into an unwilled relationship, much akin to forcing someone into slavery or into swearing a false oath of allegiance (the Hitler oath being a good example of this). While forcibly shaking someone’s hand involves a coerced relationship, the relationship being coerced is of a superficial kind. On the other hand, in rape, the relationship being coerced is of the most intimate kind, as it involves the most intimate and literal bodily union possible.

While seeing sex as a true bodily union in the way I have described may not be the only way to account for the extraordinary seriousness of rape, it is at the very least clear that the ethos of the hookup culture must be abandoned. If sex is meaningless, then rape is only as bad as a wet willy—that is to say, not as bad as we seem to think. But this is absurd. Rape is bad. Rape is seriously bad, and our strong moral intuitions about it should not be abandoned. It is for this reason that I urge the Princeton community to abandon the ethos of the hookup culture and to look elsewhere for a solution to rape culture. While salves like bystander intervention and consent education remain important, they are merely superficial cures, and the latter especially can cause harm if it is built upon an assumption that consent is all that matters. What we need is a solution that goes to the heart of the issue, and the heart of the issue is the way we think about sex itself.

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