Christianity,  Culture

If everyone consents, why not “50 Shades” or incest?

At this point in our culture’s sexual devolution, the only recognized boundary on sexual expression is consent. If two or more persons are of age and if all parties agree to a given sexual activity, then that activity is deemed acceptable—no matter what it is. Any attempt to suggest moral obligation beyond consent is treated as repressive and as a throwback to puritanical austerity. That’s simply where we are right now as a people.

Certainly Christians would agree with our secular counterparts that consent is a necessary moral condition for sexual expression. No one disagrees with that. The problem we have is with the suggestion that consent is the only necessary condition. Nevertheless, our culture has been experimenting with the “consent only” norm for many decades now. How is this working out for us? Is it really true that anything consenting adults agree to is acceptable?

Two stories in the news today illustrate the problem with this kind of thinking.

1. College Student Accused of ’50 Shades’ Sexual Assault (NBC News) – A college student is accused of trying to reenact a scene from 50 Shades of Grey with a female student. Prosecutors say that the young woman went along with the scene until the young man became physically abusive. She asked him to stop, and he wouldn’t. The young man is arguing that what they were doing was consensual. She says it was not.

So this case is likely to boil down to whether the young woman consented to this activity. I think it is obvious that she did not. But even if she had, are we really okay with that morally? As one professor of psychiatry recently wrote, consent is “a very thin and insufficient defense against sexual coercion and sexual abuse.” Why? Because people sometimes consent to things that they are not really comfortable with. Sometimes they even agree to do things that are harmful to them. Sometimes their consent isn’t always informed. There are a number of reasons that consent alone is an insufficient moral criterion, yet the sexual revolutionaries are claiming otherwise.

I would suggest that we would be much better off as a people if young men understood that beating women is morally evil. And it is evil even if the woman gives permission to do it. In fact, it is evil even if the woman asks for it to be done to her. It’s not okay to stab a person in the stomach merely because they consent to be stabbed. Consent is not a sufficient reason to allow such a thing. Likewise, why would we think that reenacting scenes from sadistic pornography is okay so long as everyone agrees to it?

2. “Genetic sexual attraction is normal, and very real”: A woman describes the reality of parent-child incest (Salon) – By now, we have all heard of SSA (“same-sex attraction”). But have you heard of GSA (“genetic sex attraction”)? In case you haven’t, GSA is the new term of art for incest. The woman featured in the Salon article highlights GSA as the reason for her sexual relationship with her estranged biological father. The story is too sordid and sad to recount here. Yet the entire moral premise is that no one should question her relationship so long as it is consensual. But again, is that really where we want to go as a people? If consent is the only criterion for sexual morality, then we shouldn’t be surprised when people defend incest on such grounds.

I am a Christian. I believe that the Bible’s vision of sexual morality is the best and happiest way to live. Having said that, one doesn’t have to be a Christian to see that consent alone will not do as a basis for sexual ethics. I’m hoping that we won’t have to see too many stories like the ones above before people realize that.


  • David Shane

    On the one hand – in a strange way these stories give me hope. Just carry the current reasoning to its logical conclusion, and everyone will have no choice but to realize how flawed it is, right?

    On the other hand, I despair because of the extremely short memories of modern Americans. Maybe they will realize the flaw for a moment, change the argument, and five years later nobody even remembers the problem. “Government shouldn’t legislate morality” – anybody remember that? “Gender is nothing but a social construct” – anybody remember that one? Both quite common not at all long ago (I’m only 31), but all but tossed aside today.

    (I do think the quick pace of modern change is, if nothing else, quite a convenience to the devil. By the time good thinkers have gotten on their feet and written good rebuttals, the question has changed.)

    • Ian Shaw

      Agreed David, but I would submit that many people don’t like the process of following their current reasoning to its logical conclusion. When pressed, many people will dodge that conclusion knowing it’s faulty and bring up an emotional argument rather than the prior “logical reasoning”. Not that our goal should be to trap them in a flawed logical conclusion, but it’s difficult to get people to admit that their reasoning leads to a very poor and dangerous conclusion.

  • Daniel Moody

    My usual response to this sexual morality/consent approach is to point out that, like the stabbing example, consent does not make a wrong act right. It doesn’t change the act’s nature. Consent pertains to risk, not morality. The Consent approach amounts to ‘ABR’ – anything but rape.

    But this article prompted another approach: suppose we open a bedroom door and find some people engaging in a sexual act. Since consent is mind-based, we have no way of knowing whether that act is ‘moral’. We could ask, but they could lie.

    But, since their bodies are physical, objective morality gives us a way of knowing whether the act’s moral status: 1) are they one man and one woman? If no, immoral; 2) is the act itself marital? If no, immoral; 3) are they closely related? If yes, immoral; 4) are they married to each other? If yes, moral. Each answer can be ascertained either visibly (1, 2, 3) socially (3, 4) or legally (3, 4).

    The mind can lie, but the body cannot.

  • Ben Rhodes

    All this seems like an unnecessary appealing to an external standard for sexual ethics. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people on this blog are Christian conservatives (I consider myself one), and therefore agree that “the Bible’s vision of sexual morality is the best and happiest way to live.” Why does it have to be more complicated that this?

    Suppose we can find some sort of broad cultural agreement that consent is not sufficient. Suppose in a place like France or Norway or Japan, where sexual expression has been more open for many more years than in the US, we can find other ethical categories on which to base sexual expression. What then? The reality is that we, as Christians, will still not agree that these sexual ethics are “enough”. We will always reach for the narrow way.

    That being said, I’ve grown weary of pretending that another ethic will be enough, as if I’m arguing for the greater good based on a single point (like consent). Let’s just be honest – most of our detractors will not be swayed by our arguments against the sufficiency of “consent”, but might be swayed by the fruits of a faithful life. Let’s talk about that instead, because that’s what really matters (to most of us, at least).

  • dr. james willingham

    I can’t express my intense anger at even the very thought of incest, for example. In 1985 I had the experience of having five cases present to me as a pastor counselor. I was pushed to feel that I needed more training in order to deal with the situations. Liberty was just beginning its distance learning program. so I enrolled in the Master’s in counseling. I was in the first graduating class in January, 1988. In September I was employed by a school system, and I was charged with the responsibility of dealing with such cases as they present in public education. The reason for giving me that responsibility was because I had written a paper on the issue during my Master’s program. Generally speaking, my responsibility was to report to the law and child welfare any such cases as incest along with pedophilia is a felony in our state, and one can be charged with being an accessory which entails a stiff fine, if one does not report the crime.

    But what angered me then and still angers me now is to see the damage done to the personalities of the people who experience such assaults on their persons, when they are defenseless. Naturally, they are likely to agree with the adult who tell them the sex will be enjoyable, etc. But the truth is that a child is not ready for such events, regardless of any childish interests. I could write an extensive paper on the subject, but I will close with one illustration. An adult who suffered molestation between the ages of 6-9, the industry stage of either Piaget or Erickson (I can’t remember which at this moment) was promiscuous, could not hold down a job, was unable to establish marriage and home life. Others that I dealt with displayed similar problems, depending on the age stage in which the molestation occurred. All, however, seem to have in common a tendency to promiscuity and alcoholism and/or drug abuse. We cannot afford to stand on the side lines and see our nation go down the toboggan slide to disaster, but neglecting our responsibility to demand by voting and political participation. Our response must be multi-faceted. We need a real prayer effort, one that follows an updated view of Jonathan Edwards’ Humble Attempt, pleading the prophecies/promises which he discusses. We must provide for a better understanding of the doctrines of Sovereign Grace, the theology of the Awakenings, and how it is designed to deal with the situation of a nation in precipitous decline like England was in the early 1700s, when people had sex in the parks in public view during the daytime as one minister who had studied the matter informed me. And then there must be prayer for the families along with conferences designed to improve communication, relations, discipline techniques, efforts to make time for the family, as well as many other aspects of life related to the home. There is no doubt more that could be said, but this suffices for now to get the ball rolling.

  • Thomas Witten

    No one said you can’t personally disapprove of these peoples sexual relationship, that’s 75% of this blog. That’s not the question, the question is: should we put these people in prison?

    Also, no one is arguing that the sexual standard of legal consent is perfect, we’re arguing it’s better than the previous standard, where it didn’t matter nearly enough.

    • Ben Rhodes

      So….what would happen to Abraham (patriarch in Genesis married to his half-sister) in NC? Whether he garners a prison term or not, do you think his consequences are appropriate? Serious question.

      • Brian Sanders

        Ben: The children of Adam and Eve married their siblings and there was no problem and no prohibition. Because of the fall the human DNA began to accumulate errors that caused birth defects and in time lead to the prohibition of marrying a close relative who would likely have similar DNA errors complicating the problem; those prohibitions are strictly for biological reasons. However, adults marrying close relations is not at all the same as the sexual exploitation of minors which was never acceptable.

  • Christiane Smith

    As a Christian people, ANY activity that disregards or denies the dignity of the human person as made in the image of God is a violation of the two great commandments . . . to love God and to love one another . . .

    any demeaning of one another while seeking personal pleasure would also be a violation of the human dignity of that person

    we have to back the camera up to take in the fact that all of our personal interactions with one another are to be guided by the commandments of Our Lord, and some even take into consideration that all living creatures exist by the very hand of God who gives life to all and conserves life in its existence . . .

    when we attempt to shame or disgrace or belittle another being, we are stepping on holy ground where the Royal law of Christ forbids us such behavior in us as his followers

    • Ian Shaw

      To “love one another” does not include, nor did it ever include taking action that makes you a stumbling block for another person, or taking action to be complicit or support another persons sinful behavior. One must not forget that when throwing out the word “love”. We are to love others, which means wanting what’s best for them and that is having relationship with Christ and to turn away from the ensnarement of sin.

      Loving someone does not mean being a “yes-man” to whatever behavior they may be doing. That’s not even being a true friend to someone.

  • buddyglass

    “Any attempt to suggest moral obligation beyond consent is treated as repressive and as a throwback to puritanical austerity.”

    Disagree. A majority of people, including those who generally approve of sexual activity outside the scope of God’s design, nevertheless condemn adultery when it’s one-sided. That is, the relationship isn’t such that both parties are semi-knowingly cheating.

    There’s an acknowledgement that, when one is in a monogamous relationship with a partner who both believes the relationship to be monogamous and has acted in good faith, it’s “wrong” to violate that trust by having sex with someone else. Even if both one’s self and the third party consent.

  • 51tom

    I can’t help but get the conclusion that when we take God out of the equation, what is right in the end becomes what society finds convenient at a given place or time. Logic does have a part in this, however world view effects that logic.

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