Three Pictures of Sexual Autonomy and Sexual Consent: Looking at the Third View

This is a condensed talk that I gave a few weeks ago at UW-Parkside. I have  been dividing that talk into three separate posts. This is the third post.

In the first post, I looked at procedural autonomy and consensual minimalism.

In the second post, I looked at substantive autonomy and consensual idealism.

Both views, I argued, are inadequate to fully explain sexual consent. Thus, I have come up with a new view of sexual autonomy and sexual consent.

Weak Substantive Autonomy

With the problems of both procedural and substantivist autonomy, is there another route that keeps the advantages and discards the disadvantages? Diane Meyers has offered a route which has been known as weak substantive autonomy.


Weak substantive autonomy has normative constraints, but not on the contents of people’s preferences and values. Meyers’ account suggests that agents must have autonomy competency, meaning there must be a collection of skills and capacities so that individuals reach self-realization whatever this may mean for each individual. It is a skills-based view of autonomy. The agentic skills that Meyers has in mind include introspection, communication, memory, imagination, analytical reasoning, self-nurturing, resistance to pressures to conform, and political collaboration. Meyers sees self-realization as crucial to self-respect. If traditional gender socialization compromises women’s capacities to achieve full autonomy and damages their self-respect, this kind of socialization is oppressive.

Meyers further asks whether all desires deserve the same weight. After all, if desires come about due to their oppression, should those desires be given credence? If yes, then we seem to be feeding into the oppression. If not, then we would ignore their experiences, which is a form of disrespecting them. Meyers’s answer is not all desires have the same weight. If the desires come about autonomously—meaning through the exercise of skills of self-discovery, self-definition, and self-direction—then those desires should be given more weight over desires which have not been critically reflective because they are built into the social norms and expectations. So, the content of the desires is not the focus like those who endorse substantive autonomy, but neither is the lack of external constraints the focus either. Rather, it is whether those desires have been acquired or endorsed autonomously and, for Meyers, the acquisition or endorsement comes about through competent skills. Applied to sexuality, to be sexually autonomous entails one needs certain skills such as knowing when one is ready, communication, courage to say “no,” and emotional intelligence.

The Complexities of Sexual Consent

What view of consent comes from weak substantive autonomy?  For one, the previous theories miss out on the conext. The participants may have different standards on what counts as affirmation. For example, one person may consider enthusiastic consent as too high of a standard such as long-term couples may still engage in sex consensually, but not enthusiastically. Or consider novices of sex, or even having a new partner can cause trepidation or stress which can inhibit any enthusiasm, even if the partners are more than willing to have sex. From a different angle, some people may find the broadest view as too low of a standard. They may want to constantly check-in, maybe continually ask questions to make sure their partner is comfortable with the activity. On the other hand, many people may find this cumbersome, even ruinous to the flow of the sexual experience, and instead preferring the affirmation be ongoing rather than a disjointed check-in.

Second, what is more complex is the latest scientific research sexual responses vary between males and females as revealed by Emily Nagoski’s explanation of the latest scientific studies.

Dr. Emily Nagoski (not my image)

Let me briefly bring up three differences and suggest how these differences make consent more complex. The first discusses sexual concordance which is the (mis-)match between one’s subjective sexual response and one’s physiological sexual response. For example, if you say that you are aroused, and the machines detecting your physiological responses suggest various sexual responses perfectly (e.g. blood flow, penis erection, vaginal fluid), then we have a one hundred percent sexual concordance. In the literature, men typically show a concordance fifty percent of the time whereas woman only show a concordance ten percent of the time. In the case of women, they will say they are not subjectively turned on, but their physiological responses suggest otherwise.

Not my image. Notice with men, they have a 50% between how much their bodies respond and how turned on they feel. For women, it’s 10%.

The second difference has to do with various systems in play when it comes to sexual arousal. There is the sexual excitation system—which Nagoski calls the sexual accelerator—and the sexual inhibition system—which Nagoski calls the sexual brake. Every person has this, and some accelerators and brakes may be more sensitive than others. The sexual excitation system notices relevant information in the environment so that one can be aroused (e.g. partner’s appearance, ways your partner makes you feel, novelty). The sexual inhibition system notices relevant information in the environment to suggest good reasons not to be aroused (e.g. stress, body image, trauma history, relationship conflict, sleep deprivation, reputation).

Not my image. To see the whole comic, please visit Nagoski’s blog here.

On average, men appear to have a more sensitive sexual accelerator and women have more sensitive sexual brakes. Nagoski discusses that when we want to turn our partner on, we often think that we just need to press the accelerator more. However, since women are more likely to be attuned to their brakes, they may need to release the brake pedal so that sexual arousal can initiate. Simply turning people on is not merely a matter of touching or caressing, but setting up a context where they are comfortable and already set in a situation where they could be easily aroused. Or, as Nagoski puts it, “arousal is the process of turning on the ons and turning off the offs.”

Finally, the third difference involves the genesis of sexual arousal. We often think of sexual arousal happening spontaneously: sexual arousal appears out of nowhere, and we want to have our sexual desires fulfilled. This narrative is so strong that we assume it is a universal human condition. However, Nagoski points out that spontaneous arousal typically works maybe seventy-five percent of men and fifteen percent of women. Conversely, other people typically have response sexual arousal, which is when arousal arises after the accelerator has been pressed and/or the brake pedal has been released. In other words, the person is in a state of arousal in response to a context that fosters sexual arousal. This form of arousal occurs in roughly five percent of men and thirty percent of women.


Not my image


With these factors in play, consent becomes complex. To see why, suppose we have a typical woman who has these typical responses named Tonya. If Tonya’s sexual concordance happens twenty-six percent of the time, she may not be sexually aroused, but she may be physiologically aroused. How would she be subjectively aroused? Here is where the other two features are helpful. If her brake pedal is on more so than the accelerator, then it seems having more acceleration would hardly work when releasing the brake pedal would be more efficient. Now, to release it, she would either have to self-release or someone else would have to help her release it. In short, Tonya would have to get turned on through manual or external stimulation. The motivational push hinges on the last feature: the response sexual desire.

If Tonya’s sexual desire is responsive rather than spontaneous, then it seems she typically becomes aroused as a response from external sources rather than a spontaneous genesis. Thus, her experience is such that she is more likely to engage in sexual relations from an external source where the context is set up just right and she is nudged to have a sexual encounter. This is not to say it should happen all the time, but if Nagoski is correct, then the typical woman would respond to sexual initiation from her partner. In Tonya’s experience, she has a hard time initiating sexual encounters because she may not currently be in the mood, but she could be given the right physiology (i.e. possible sexual non-concordance) and right context (i.e. release of brake pedal) from a good external source (i.e. responsive desire from her partner as opposed to someone with aggressive sexual tactics). In this sense, perhaps a playful nudge, a soft persuasion, a positive pressure, or a helpful sway would be ethically permissible. If we are having trouble imagining this imagine an ideal society without any unethical sexual actions, the helpful sway may still be unproblematic to bring forth ethical sexual conduct.

Perhaps what makes this experience more accurate—and more complex—is that of high school female students. Most high schoolers are novices when it comes to sex and, for many young women, discussing and thinking about sex—especially sexual pleasure—is still taboo. Thus, many young women in high school may not know what their boundaries are, what sort of pleasures they have, what they desire, what they are willing to do, or what they may not want to do. At the beginning of many sexual experiences, Tonya as a high school student may feel awkward at first. But over time, she learns about her subjective sexual arousal, how to release her sexual brakes, and environment in which she is responding to various stimuli that arouses her sexual desires. In short, she consents to sex because of the context which enables her to build her arousal mechanisms, and thus increase her desire at which point she consents.

Ok, that’s it for this post. In the next and final post, I’ll be applying this view and see what this new type of consent looks like in the practical world.



About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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