Three Pictures of Sexual Autonomy and Sexual Consent: Applying 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, which I did in my third post which has its basis on weak substantive autonomy.

In this post, I’ll be investigating what type of consent emerges from weak substantive autonomy.

Recall Nagoski’s discussion from the last post. I claim Tonya’s experiences are ignored in the literature which instead primarily focuses on women as manipulated actors in the encounter, such as Monica. To show why, suppose we had a young woman going on a date with a man. The date seems wonderful, and both parties seem to be enjoying themselves. Later that evening, the man tries to initiate some sort of sexual contact. He is not doing it aggressively, but he is letting his intentions be known. The young woman is not against having any sexual relations with him, but she does not desire having sex right then. He displays more arousal techniques. She is still not sexually aroused, but she is not disinclined. She may experience feelings of awkwardness, stress, vulnerability, self-consciousness, joy, pleasure, detachment, connectedness, and nervousness. Moreover, she may feel unsure because part of her enjoys the experience, and another part of her is hesitant to engage. At some point, his efforts to arouse her succeed in acquiring her consent to initiate the next level of sexual intimacy, even if she remains unsure of herself. During the sexual act, she continues to consent, but she is dissatisfied with the experience: maybe his technique is unimaginative, and to be honest, he half-heartedly focuses on her. It is an awkward experience, but she tells herself that if they continue to see each other, his technique could improve, they will be more familiar with each other’s bodies, and overall, that things may get better. This is not the worst sexual experience that she has had, but it is certainly lackluster. Eventually, over time, this woman starts to feel more at ease and relaxes. She can slowly get into the flow of the sexual experience, even if it was not enjoyable from the beginning. She may not be in the mood or turned on, but she could be if she sees some potential in future encounters, or she may be aroused throughout the sexual encounter. Thus, she can consent to the act, even if she is presently not aroused. Or, to make it even more complex, her lack of experience may mean she does not know what turns her on so she may be confused as to whether she is aroused or not, but she still may consent nevertheless.

The woman I have just described would be considered Monica according to West and Pineau. But the experience easily could have been Tonya’s. Indeed, the higher standard may be asking too much because that is not how desires typically function. There may be differences between how the sexes initiate sex but, through the work of Nagoski, these differences do seem to have some biological basis.

I suggest that West and Pineau are conflating Tonya’s and Monica’s sexual experiences and that there are three missing components that can help show the differences between Monica and Tonya’s sexual experiences. First, Monica’s autonomy and integrity could weaken, but the motivations vary. Monica’s motivation was to avoid a scenario, whereas Tonya wants to approach a scenario. How do we explain this? A study from Impett et. al. shows how the motivations of engaging in sex with a partner when one does not specifically desire the sex are important. In this study, there are two types of motivations: approach goals and avoidant goals. Approach goals are goals that one pursues to reach a positive outcome whereas avoidant goals are those one pursues to avoid a negative outcome. In the sexual domain, approach goals could be seen as obtaining pleasure, helping a partner obtain pleasure, and increasing or maintaining relationship satisfaction. Avoidant goals could be avoiding sexual or relationship conflict, a partner’s loss of interest, or sexual tension. The study suggests that when someone consistently pursues avoidant goals in their relationship, they are more likely to experience a breakup, find the relationship dissatisfying, or are less satisfied with their sexual experiences over time. In short, consistently pursuing avoidant goals can be detrimental to maintaining relationship satisfaction. Monica has avoidant goals whereas Tonya has approach goals. In both scenarios, the women are hesitating, reluctant, and may have a split will. They are both unsure of the experience. However, the difference is that Monica is less than willing yet feels she has no choice but consent; Tonya may simply be willing, more than willing, or taking a chance and chooses to engage in the sexual interaction. She may also feel unsure, but the context is such where she can easily opt-out if she wishes.

To sum up, the addition of looking at how desires and arousals function biologically requires us to take this reality into account. Therefore, I call my position “consensual realism.”

Consensual Realism

The realism is looking at Tonya’s experiences and I consider her experiences, desires, and biology the standard of consent. With that, my position lies between consensual minimalism and consensual idealism. What makes this complex is that Tonya’s experience will change depending on the context, but the context will be more accurate. For example, suppose Bob is with Tonya and they are in tune with each other’s bodies and can easily read each other’s body language. Let us also suppose that they have been in a relationship for a long time. Thus, the background of the relationship gives them the experience and context of how to engage in a sexual way that they are familiar with. Since Bob and Tonya have known each other for a while and know how to turn each other on, it is almost as if they can do it automatically (not monotonously) to gain pleasure for themselves and for each other. Because they know what they are doing, the context suggests that there is a low bar to hurdle.

Now let us suppose Tonya and Jess. They are at the beginning of their sexual relationship and so they have not yet developed the experience of what turns them on, the limits or boundaries of what is appropriate, or what they can do to enhance the experience rather than leading to awkwardness. Because of this context, there is a higher bar to hurdle. Both Tonya and Jess have to put in extra effort for a mutual enjoyable sexual encounter, which could mean to check-in with each other, to be more sensitive to the reactions and body language of each other, to display a more caring attitude to make everyone more comfortable, and to communicate beforehand to ensure each other’s boundaries, or at least to have a good certainty that pleasure will not be diminished.

Finally, both Tonya and Monica are sexual agents, but expressed differently. In a way, Monica’s sexual agency is reduced to the man’s sexual agency in an unethical way because her contribution to the sexual action is an afterthought, as a way to cross off the checklist of what counts as consent. In describing someone like Monica, Cahill notes:

the interaction itself does not enhance either her sexual agency (that is, it does not empower her to become more knowledgeable or forthright about her sexual needs, desires, and interests in the context of this particular relationship) nor, most likely, does it broaden her sexual subjectivity by creating more possibilities. In this sense, the interaction most likely does not contribute positively to her sexual becoming or flourishing. Thus, her sexual agency is hijacked, used not to forward her interests, but in fact to undermine them, particularly those interests that are related to her always-developing sexual subjectivity.

Tonya’s agency, on the other hand, are where her interests are not ignored, but taken as a factor to consider. Her experiences may be treated with respect, but they may be treated with reckless indifference or out of ignorance. There may be confusing moments, but this is largely due to the ongoing relationship with her partner, her familiarity with her body and her partner’s body, whether she is comfortable or awkward, whether she is stressed, etc. Nevertheless, she may continue the act in the hopes that it may get better. Overall, she may be able to sexually flourish. In some cases, she enjoys the act, in other cases, she may find the experience wanting, but she does not consider the act as violent or assaultive, or even “unjust” as is Monica’s experience who cannot flourish. If, over time, Tonya feels unsure about her sexual actions consistently but still consents, it is possible that she is slowly losing her sexual well-being and becoming increasingly more unjust, and she may end up like Monica.

Unjust Sex

Taken together, this is what makes sexual consent so complex: it is not just a “yes” or a “no” for many encounters. Indeed, when most people have sex, we hardly explicitly garner a “yes” or state a “no.” Instead, we are searching for clues and giving clues to see if it is ok to proceed, to slow down, or to stop. Most sexual initiations happen non-verbally. If many sexual interactions happen non-verbally, then we need to teach consent that is based on giving/receiving clues, and that, of course, depends on the reality of the context.

To wrap things up, I have given a picture of three different types of sexual consent that corresponds with three different types of sexual autonomy.

Three pictures of Consent

That’s it for this topic, but I want to reiterate that as a consequence and because this autonomy is somewhat substantive, that means that consent by itself is not sufficient for ethical sexual relations. Indeed, a consent-based sex education is not enough. Something more is needed. The substantive portion suggests that various traits are necessary which coheres with some type of virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. Therefore, virtue ethics, in some fashion, needs to be included in sex education, which is a topic I hope to consider in future work.

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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One Response to Three Pictures of Sexual Autonomy and Sexual Consent: Applying the Third View

  1. Pingback: The Complexities of Affirmative Consent | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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