Why “No” and “Yes” Won’t Cut It: Turning the Tide of Sexual Assault

October 6, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


College CampusIn the wake of a horrifying barrage of sexual assaults on college campuses, university administrators – and now whole state governments – are scrambling to turn the tide. The California legislature passed a law at the end of August requiring what is referred to as “affirmative consent.” The measure requires not only that a person not say “no” to a sexual encounter, but also that he or she offer “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”[1] In other words, a person must say “yes” to a sexual encounter. Interestingly, according to the legislation, this “yes” need not be verbal. It can also be communicated through actions. Or, if you prefer, it can even be communicated electronically.  Just like everything else in our high tech world, if you want to make sure you’re having consensual sex, there’s an app for that.  Of course, trying to discern what constitutes affirmative consent, even when you have an app, is no easy task. Emma Goldberg, a member Students Against Sexual Violence at Yale, admits: “It’s obviously quite difficult for administrators to adjudicate affirmative consent, and there is always room for improvement in enforcement of these policies.”[2]

Ultimately, the problem with affirmative consent laws such as the one California lawmakers have passed is not that it is too strong, but too weak. Feeble legislative attempts that require mere consent will not and cannot address the deep moral realities of human sexuality.

Robert Reilly, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, recently published a book dealing with modern sexual ethics. In the introduction, he insightfully notes that differing views on sex are rooted in different conceptions of reality:

There are two fundamental views of reality. One is that things have a Nature that is teleologically ordered to ends that inhere in their essence and make them what they are. In other words, things have inbuilt purposes. The other is that things do not have a Nature with ends: things are nothing in themselves, but are only what we make them to be according to our wills and desires. Therefore, we can make everything, including ourselves, anything that we wish and that we have the power to do.[3]

This is a stunning analysis of the worldview that permeates and shapes our sexual ethics. In a myriad of ways, we have worked to separate sex from its natural – what Reilly would call “real” – ends. We defy sex’s procreative reality with abortion. We fight against sex’s emotionally intimate reality with our hookup culture. We have placed sex and its moral entailments squarely in the confines our wills. If we want to have sex, sex is moral. If we don’t want to have sex, sex is immoral.

The fact of the matter is this: our wills cannot provide an adequate moral framework and reality for human sexuality. The contrail of shattered families, wrecked finances, and broken hearts that our sexual wills have left strewn in our societal sky is proof positive of this. Furthermore, teleological reality has a funny way of continually smacking us squarely in the face, no matter how stridently we may try to escape it. Through sex, babies will continue to be conceived. Because of fleeting trysts, people will continue to be riddled by regret. Sex will continue to impress its reality on us, whether or not we want it to. Perhaps we ought to start living in that reality rather than seeking to escape it.

In a society where we pretend that our mere wills can determine the morality of sexuality, states and universities can do no better than to legislate a “yes” before sex, no matter how insufficient, impotent, and fraught with adjudicative hair splitting such legislation may be. But as Christians, we can affirm that God had purposes in mind when He created sex. Therefore, as the Church, we can call for sexual ethics to be in line with these purposes and not just with our desires. So for those on college campuses, I ask, for the sake of God’s will and your wellbeing, to consider waiting not just for someone to say “yes” before you have sex, but to say “I do.”

It’ll work out a lot better.

_____________________________

[1] Aaron Mendelson, “California passes ‘yes-means-yes’ campus sexual assault bill,” Reuters (8.29.2014).

[2] Richard Pérez-Peña and Ian Lovett, “California Law on Sexual Consent Pleases Many but Leaves Some Doubters,” The New York Times (9.29.2014).

[3] Robert R. Reilly, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), xi-xii.

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