September 2006. I’m starting my freshman year of college. It’s orientation, and it’s time to talk about sex. We file into a dark auditorium to watch “Sex on a Saturday Night,” a meant-to-be-educational skit that will show us how it all works here, in the fresh wilderness of dorms and parties and our new set of peers.
The loud buzz of chatter dies down as the curtain goes up. Upperclassman actors dramatize a typical weekend night out, complete with budding romances, bad jokes, and too much to drink. We crow with laughter. They show us a pregame, a party, and then—startlingly—an alcohol-enabled sexual assault.
Fade to black. We file out more quietly than we came in.
September 2018. I’m no longer a student, but I’m visiting my college again, on a reporting assignment for my actual, adult job as an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. It’s orientation, and the freshmen have to talk about sex. We file into a dark auditorium to watch a meant-to-be-educational skit that will show them how it all works here, in the fresh wilderness of dorms and parties and their new set of peers.
The loud buzz of chatter dies down as the curtain goes up. Upperclassman actors dramatize a typical weekend night out, complete with budding romances, bad jokes, and too much to drink. The crowd crows with laughter. They show us a pregame, a party, and then—startlingly—an alcohol-enabled sexual assault.
Fade to black. We file out more quietly than we came in. Over a decade later, very little has changed.
Which is odd, because in the real world quite a lot has happened.
In 2017 the New York Times publishes a blockbuster investigation into Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, accusing him of raping, sexually assaulting, and sexually abusing dozens of women over the past thirty years. In the months that follow, a wave of similar stories begins to flood the news. Women have been suffering sexual misconduct for years, and they’re fed up. Women are saying #MeToo, and people believe them. No one can look away. It feels like a reckoning may be taking place.
But the problem is not as simple, or as obvious, as bosses locking their underlings into hotel rooms.
Just a few months after the wave of highly public firings, the New Yorker publishes “Cat Person,” a short story about two characters—Margot, a twenty-year-old college student, and Robert, a man in his midthirties—who go on a single bad date. Told in the third person but from Margot’s perspective, it takes the reader through her thought processes as she realizes that she
doesn’t want to have sex with Robert but, for a variety of reasons, does so anyway. The story touches on the power imbalances of gender, the unpredictability of emotion, the commonness of unwanted sex, yet Margot’s experience is not seen as particularly disastrous—it’s more banal than anything else. And it seems to reflect the disappointing state of affairs that has somehow, maybe without our fully realizing it, come to be the new normal in sexual relations—at least for women. “Cat Person” goes viral because women around the country can relate. It’s the most-read piece of online fiction the New Yorker has ever published.
And that piece of literary fiction is followed just a month later by its nonfiction mirror image on the website babe.net.
“I went on a date with Aziz Ansari,” reads the headline. “It turned into the worst night of my life.”’
A young woman, pseudonym “Grace,” recounts a date with the super popular, self-described-feminist comedian (who, incidentally, published a book on “modern romance” not more than eighteen months before the encounter took place). She describes his aggressive sexual advances and the feeling that she was being pressured into sex, despite her verbal and nonverbal expressions of discomfort. In the end, she goes along with it and eventually leaves in tears, feeling violated by Ansari’s grotesque behavior.
It’s real life, unlike “Cat Person,” but it’s another story that feels almost . . . ordinary? And for many of the 2.5 million readers who clicked on it in the twenty-four hours after its publication,
Grace’s grim indignity is painfully relatable.
“Throughout my high school and college years, I’ve listened helplessly as friends and acquaintances have described encounters with their own Azizs, and I’ve cried to them when I had my own,” writes journalist Rebecca Alifimoff. “It’s an ugly tapestry of close-calls and unwanted sexual encounters.”
I didn’t really want it, but I did it; it wasn’t rape, but it feels bad.
In the meantime, the “Shitty Media Men” list emerges. The shared Google spreadsheet created by writer and editor Moira Donegan allows women to anonymously collate rumors and incidents of sexual misconduct by men in the magazine and publishing industry. But the offenses recorded run the gamut, from outright rape to the less obviously bad. Alongside the starkest allegations, there are accusations of “forced cuddling,” “creepy DMs,” “encourag[ing] other men to have sex with blacked out women because ‘that’s what they’re there for.’” The solidarity of the document’s creation is cathartic; the prevalence of sexual misconduct it reveals is shocking. Still, it marks a shift: The whisper network becomes concrete. Normal, not-famous women’s complaints might finally be taken seriously. It feels, at least a little bit, like change is afoot.
Back to the college auditorium. Actually, in 2018, a few things about that hour in the auditorium have changed, perhaps because the #MeToo movement had spurred administrators into self-defensive action. “Sex on a Saturday Night” has been retitled—it’s now “The Way You Move.” (Still cringeworthy but less salacious.) And in 2018, there’s a lengthy debrief immediately after the curtain falls. The main character having sex with a blacked-out classmate was not okay, an administrator explains, because the classmate could not consent. She goes to great lengths in discussing the “gray area” between a clear yes and an absolute no. It’s a “contaminated” space, we hear, where to engage in sexual activity is to assume varying amounts of risk.
This was where the 2018 version of the play strikes me as odd, in a way it had not back when I was one of the 18-year-olds in the audience. The only real change to the production is that this year’s debrief is all about consent: pedantically describing what part of the show’s sex is legally problematic, and how to stay in the clear.
The importance of consent—and its ethical limitations
Today consent is the legal standard for good sex. Rape has been defined as “sex without consent” in twelve European countries. Affirmative consent, once seen as the mockable obsession of overly progressive college campuses, has now been written into law in five U.S. states. K–12 sex educators are urged to begin talking about consent in early childhood, and the most progressive parenting websites give advice for teaching the concept to babies (ask their permission before you change their diaper!). At colleges, students are force-fed consent education via eye-glazing training modules, posters plastered on every available surface, and phalanxes of earnest “sexual health educators”: modern-day pamphleteers. By the time you reach adulthood, it’s simply common knowledge: consent is what you must obtain, legally, before you take part in a sexual encounter.
On many levels, this is a victory. It took a great deal of effort to get us to the place where consent is seen as a baseline requirement.
The baseline norm is correct: Consent must be present in any sexual encounter; otherwise it is morally illegitimate. Having sex with someone who hasn’t agreed to have sex with you is unacceptable; criminal, in fact.
But will more lectures on consent dissolve gender stereotypes, rebalance power differentials, explain intimacy, or teach us how to care? Reminding people to make sure they have consent becomes a case of providing a right answer to the wrong problem. And an overreliance on verbal consent might actually worsen this malaise: if you’re playing by the rules and everything is still awful, what are you supposed to conclude?
I DON’T KNOW,” Rachel said with a gusty sigh. We were drinking iced coffees on an unseasonably warm October day. My 25-year-old former colleague and I had both reflexively made fun of ourselves for our orders, but we also admitted that they did provide an outsize amount of joy.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I felt pushed into something, exactly, but . . . there have been times when I felt like, ‘Oh, we’re already here. We’re already in my bed.’ So I’ll give them a blow job. Or I’ve gone home with someone and we’re having sex and they keep asking for anal, or they say weird stuff to me—‘You’re a little slut, you’re a bitch,’ and I don’t like it but it’s like: this is the situation we’re in, and I kind of feel like we have to . . . follow suit. It’s not like I was being forced into anything or that I feel unsafe, but it’s not . . . good. And I don’t like how I feel afterwards.”
She paused. “But you know, one of my coworkers mentioned that ‘Cat Person’ story to me at an internship. She said, ‘Every single person I know—every woman I know—has had some questionable encounter, whether it was, like, really violent or really forceful or just kind of like, ‘Oh, I hated that. That was not fun.’”
Consensual, but not fun
How do we respond to stories like these? We can say that the consent wasn’t sufficient and try to get more or better consent. But is that the real problem here?
More recently, the discourse has moved toward “enthusiastic” consent. More than the absence of a no and the presence of a yes, the yes needs to be engaged, excited, and active. This approach tries to distinguish between wanted and unwanted sex, even though both might conceivably be “consented” to, and attempts to encompass both agency and desire. And yet even here, I’m not sure that this has made much of a difference against the unhappiness that has come to light. The same complaints still repeat, and the same confusions still arise.
Consider the challenge of determining whether the right sort of consent is present in some situations: If a movie star deigns to sleep with an avid fan, are both engaging in an encounter of equals? If men and women have different fertility timelines, does that affect the power dynamic? What if one person is seeking a relationship and the other is not?
Even the newer, qualified versions of consent—the “affirmative,” the “enthusiastic,” still have that as their baseline question: “Did I get permission of the right kind, so that what I am going to do to this person is not statedly against their will?” The modifiers may try to complicate the question, but they’re most often perceived as simply shifting the goalposts—rather than stopping when your partner says no, you now have to get them to say yes. But the end goal is still to Get the Sex from someone else without having committed an actual violation. If we invoke just getting consent as an ideal—the ideal, the highest ethical standard for any encounter—we’re giving ourselves a pass on the hard but meaningful questions: whether that consent was fairly gotten, what our partners actually want, whether we even should be doing what we’ve gotten consent to do.
Limiting our sexual liberation
Even if we got consent right every single time, we might still have these questions—and no clear way to answer them. Because in the end, consent is a legal criterion, not an ethical one. While it is a necessary statutory framework and an excellent tool for risk avoidance, it doesn’t address the questions that have become all the more pressing since #MeToo began. What are we talking about when we talk about sex? What does it mean, to us and to each other?
Nonconsensual sex is always wrong. But the inverse is tricky: Is consensual sex always right? Not necessarily. Can consensual sex be damaging to an individual, to their partner, to society? Absolutely. It’s hard to look at the woes of our sexual “marketplace” and say that we’ve got it figured out. Consent is a fig leaf, and it’s falling off.
This is not a popular thing to say. As a society we tend to shy away from declaring certain behaviors intrinsically wrong, or right, or uncomfortably in between. This may be done out of a skewed sense of pluralism: we’ve seen moral standards used to silence and discriminate and prefer not to cast further judgment.
Less attractively, it’s done because we hate the idea of limiting ourselves: if we declare that something is always wrong, we might not be able to do certain things that we want to do. More frighteningly, perhaps, it would mean that we must sometimes do things that we would not prefer. The idea that sex might be meaningful and have consequences seems almost offensive, an affront to our liberation.
Right now, the broad agreement seems to be that sex is good, and the more of it we have, the better. We can have whatever kind of sex we want to have and do whatever we need to get it.
There’s only one rule: get consent for whatever you’re about to do from your partner beforehand.
Except most of us aren’t looking for just sex, or more of it, and that’s why the broad agreement isn’t working. What we are all looking for is a good life—ideally, for most of us, with good sex as part of it. When I say “good” I don’t just mean pleasurable—although hopefully it is. I mean sex that is ethically good. Sex that respects us as human persons. Sex that is just—meaning noncoercive and taking into account our individual realities. Sex that puts the ideal sexual encounters that we hope for within reach and in fact validates those ideals as worthy goals. Sex that’s good for society, our partners, and ourselves.
Making the standard of consent our sole criterion for good sex, we punt on the question of how to conduct a relationship that is not only allowable but also right—one that affirms us in our existence as sovereign human beings of intrinsic worth, and that is engaged in with our human dignity in mind.
And an ethic that makes consent the only rule doesn’t account for how our actions are constrained by biology, by society, by norms that we did not choose. It doesn’t address our fundamental personhood, the fact that events resonate within us long after the deeds are done. It doesn’t ask what, if anything, we owe to each other. It doesn’t tell us what behavior is right or wrong or what values should inform how we treat each other.
To find answers to these questions, we have to start making substantive claims about what we believe about sex, if only so they can be considered, critiqued, and revised to eventually get to something approaching the truth.
Because our frame of reference matters. To build something different, we have to acknowledge the reality of where we are. And if a new standard for behavior—or any other solution that we land upon—is based on false assumptions, we can expect the results of our efforts to be lackluster, too.
Back to that college auditorium.
After the presentation ended and the freshmen had filed out, I sneaked backstage to talk to a few of the student actors. What did they think of the play they’d just put on? Hadn’t it seemed a little . . . incomplete?
“Yeah,” shrugged one junior. To her, it had been painfully simplistic. “Do this, not that. Don’t break the rules. But given the time constraints . . .”
She was right, of course. A one-hour tableau put together by college risk managers was never going to fully explain sex or impart a full understanding of human dignity, and it shouldn’t have to. The ability to view relationships as shared, rather than transactional, to see other people as deserving of respect and goodwill—that’s the work of decades.
But most of us don’t have that kind of formation, at least when it comes to our sex lives. What understanding we do have has been shaped by an ideal of liberation, with personal agency as the key that unlocks every door. It’s not a moral question, we tell ourselves: the problem with sex is gender roles, or social stigma, or a restrictive biological clock, or even our own unruly emotions that make consent confusing and speaking up harder than it should be. If we could just get really, truly free, things would be better.
But sex has become more liberated, by leaps and bounds. And the problems haven’t gone away.
Rather than suggesting marginal improvements to these problems, I’d like to rethink the assumptions beneath our approach to sex, the ones that got us here and the ones that add to our dissatisfaction. For instance: “Sex is a purely physical act.” “The absence of rules will make me happier.” “My sex life is nobody’s business.” “Women and men are basically the same.”
What happens after we’ve identified the faulty assumptions? That’s a more complicated project. I can make some suggestions—and I make a fairly radical one in my book—but I can’t give you rules that will mean we never have to talk about this again. There’s no simple, cut-and-dried, one-and-done approach to getting rid of bad sex. But there is a positive vision to reach for: a sexual culture that is pleasurable, connective, and enriching instead of confusing, alarming, or immiserating. Let's rethink the possibility of what sex could be and raise our expectations. Let's not just find ways to prevent disappointment—let's find out how to pursue joy. Let’s rethink sex.
This article is excerpted from Rethinking Sex: A Provocation by Christine Emba (Sentinel, 2022). Reprinted with permission.