Why Sex Education Needs Philosophy

Socratic Sex Ed

When we think of sex ed, we often think that the info is made up of a conglomeration of various subjects combined together under one theme: sociology to learn about the social construction of gender for example, biology for reproduction, literature for gender dynamics, social work for helping those who are disadvantaged, psychology for understanding our sexual desires, arousals, and our thought patterns, and queer theory to understand sexual orientation and disrupting heteronormativity. All of these topics make up a comprehensive sex education. However, where is philosophy in all of this?

Now, I can imagine that while having philosophy is an interesting subject, it seems too theoretical for a practical field like sex education. Sex ed is all about helping students become more knowledgable about who they are as a sexual person which can help them form better relationships, communicate sexual boundaries and needs, and perhaps develop resiliency and courage to set down those boundaries. Philosophy, on the other hand, it too theoretical, too abstract, and divorced from the real world. How can philosophy help? The list I’ll provide isn’t comprehensive, but here are some major reasons why philosophy is crucial for sex education.

  1. Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of what is real. A major discussion in metaphysics is what is real vs. what are mere appearances. So what is the metaphysics of sex? A major question to ask is what counts as sex. Why is this important? For many religious folks, they are concerned with maintaining virginity and the common understanding of virginity is PIV (penis in vagina) sex. Think about that. Suppose that really was the definition of sex. If that is the definition, then that means any other form of sexual behavior/activity doesn’t really count as sex. That means that anal and oral sex isn’t really sex under the PIV definition.  Many religious folks who are concerned about maintaining virginity, therefore, engage in oral and anal sex but still claim to be virgins. Another implication: if the PIV definition is true, then that means that gay sex and lesbian sex isn’t really sex. Notice that if something isn’t really sex, then PIV sex is the sex. It’s the paradigm of what is considered real sex and anything else are derivations of the real thing. So what, you might say? Well, with PIV being the center, then anyone who doesn’t engage in PIV sex isn’t really a sexual being. If anything, they are derivations of the real thing. They may appear to be sexual, but they are not. Thus, gays and lesbians aren’t really sexual under the PIV definition. You can see where this is going. Thus, gays and lesbians aren’t really one of us—meaning heterosexual people who do engage in PIV sex. Defining PIV as real sex automatically gets us toward heteronormativity and is a very restrictive view of sexuality. This is just one example of how our definitions of sex isn’t just a theoretical thought experiment, but it has serious implications: it can harm those who don’t engage in PIV sex.
  2. Ethics. Ethics isn’t just the study of what is right and wrong, but it also investigates our values and whether we have the right values or not. There are three main topics that I want to discuss:
    1. Values. When it comes to sexual values, people have a variety of them. Some people value casual dating and causal sex. Others consider monogamy a value. Others may see as remaining a virgin until marriage as a high value. And still others may want to develop feelings for the other person first before getting involved sexually. At the same time, many people may be value neutral or may see disvalues in some of the activities/attitudes I’ve mentioned. Some people see no value in casual sex and may find it appalling. Others may see monogamy as a take-it-or-leave-it value, or perhaps they may see monogamy as appalling and so see monogamy as a disvalue. Now we often consider values as pluralistic, meaning that that there are a diversity of values and we should all respect, or at least tolerate, different aspects of sexuality—up to a point, and this point, is usually consent. There are major things to consider: which values are the right values? Are values universal or purely subjective? Is it possible to have the wrong values? Suppose that someone values sex after marriage, and considers this as a universal value. Now if that was true, the implication is that sex before marriage isn’t a value universally. It doesn’t matter if someone believes it’s a good value. If sex before marriage is an absolute universal value, then any other value is wrong. The implication is that sex before marriage is wrong, and anyone who engages in sex before marriage is wrong. Moreover—and this relates to epistemology down below—it doesn’t matter what that person believes: having any other value is wrong and if people believe there’s no problem with having sex before marriage, then they simply have the wrong value.
    2. Sex Positivity/Negativity. Finally, one of the major proponents of comprehensive sex education is to be sex positive, which means to view sexual decisions as one’s own. No one can tell me what to do with my sexual relationships or how to perform my sexuality. It is purely subjective. However, this is a weak foundation. Subjectivity has never been a good starting point for any ethical position. After all, if subjectivity is the true ethical position, then virtually anything is permissible (e.g. I can do whatever I want sexually because it’s up to me to decide what to do which includes, rape, sexual assault, or causing sexual trauma). So we need to put constraints, and the constraint that people in the sex positive community give is consent. But now consider those who are sex negative. They wouldn’t call themselves sex negative, but they hold to certain values and positions that are opposed to the sex positive movement. They would argue for such values such as abstinence, sex until marriage, monogamy, sex only for reproduction. Now, I’m not going to go through their arguments, but their arguments are philosophically valid and they give various arguments as to why. These arguments can include naturalness, mitigating risk, promoting family values, and the virtue of temperance. Furthermore, the sex negative movement also has arguments against the sex positive movement: consent cannot be the necessary and sufficient conditions for ethical sexuality, pleasure cannot be the main motivation behind sexual activity, and that the sex positive movement has the wrong goal. So philosophically speaking, the sex positive movement has a weak argument as to why it’s true; the sex negative movement has solid arguments as to why it’s true AND why the sex positive movement is false. The sex negative movement, philosophically speaking, already has an advantage. We can see this more so in our education systems, laws, and politics. To make the sex positive movement more robust, it has to engage with the sex negative movement and debate their arguments on their own terms in the same way as the sex negative movement has argued against the sex positive movement on their terms.
  3. Epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, beliefs, and justification of those beliefs. There are a couple of ways we can look at this.
    1. Consistency. To be epistemologically sound, our beliefs must be coherent. Otherwise, we are contradicting ourselves based on our actions and beliefs. For example, people may believe, and gives reasons for this belief, that sex before marriage is never ok. However, these same people engages in sex with a partner whom they are not married to. Their behavior is inconsistent with their beliefs. To have philosophy as part of the program would help students investigate their beliefs and see if they are consistent. Otherwise, to be consistent, they would either have to change their beliefs or change their behaviors. Of course, there are different nuances behind this and I’m oversimplifying it a bit, but this is just one example of what people could do.
    2. Consent. Consent has a big topic lately. Consent is a major ethical issue, but I would also put it under epistemology. Why? I think most people understand that sex is wrong when it’s nonconsensual. However, I think the complexity is when is an activity consensual? In other words, how do you know the activity is consensual? This is an oversimplification, but I think we could use a matrix to analyze this issue.Grid

Let’s start with A. A is considered ethical: consent is happening and you know there’s consent. There’s no problem. Both parties are on the same page and there is no perpetrator or victim.

What about B? With B, consent is happening, but you don’t know/believe that it is consensual. You may act like it was, but you really don’t know. In this case, you just happened to be lucky…but why would you continually engage in sexual encounters where you’re not sure if i was consensual or not? The next time may not be so lucky, but it also suggests that you’re epistemically negligent. Imagine if you went hunting and you see a rustling in the bushes. You’re not sure what it is, but you shoot it anyway. Luckily, it just happened to be an animal, but what if it was a human being? Clearly, you’ve got to make sure that you’re in the clear before you proceed. More than that, if you don’t believe that it was consensual but you still proceeded anyways, you’re not only negligent, but you’re uncaring toward your partner and perhaps have the intention of being an assaulter. Now from the victim’s point of view, this is really fascinating. Is it possible to believe one is sexually assaulted, but in reality, that person wasn’t? I actually don’t know. With that, it comes down to not only the metaphysics of consent—hence why metaphysics is important to sexuality—but also whether the epistemic stance of the victim has higher priority than the metaphysics of the case. Is the victim playing “the victim card,” or is there something still seriously wrong here? A philosophical investigation, combined with other elements in sex ed, is required.

In C, consent is not happening. The perpetrator made a mistake and it was a costly mistake. Now, we often hear sexual assault cases happening and when we do, we often think it is with cases D: someone who doesn’t care about consent. I would wager that most non-consensual cases, from the perpetrator’s point of view, comes down to case C: someone who doesn’t know whether the other person consents or not. Let’s suppose that the perpetrator genuinely wants consent, but simply has no idea how to obtain it or even what it is. Again, the metaphysics is important here. From the victim’s point of view, this is a classic case of exploitation and depending on the extremities, manipulation. What does it mean to be exploited and manipulated? How does this relate to consent? Knowing the signs is helpful because one often doesn’t know one is being exploited.

Finally, in D, this is a clear case of sexual assault. The perpetrator doesn’t care that consent is happening, and the victim is clearly a victim of sexual assault.

I hope that with the philosophical  categories of metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology, we can see why sexuality is rich with philosophical analysis. Because it’s very complex and requires a lot of thought and analysis, I suggest that philosophy needs to be in sex ed. This means that educators and students need a good dose of it. For some books that have used philosophy in the sex education classes, check out Al Vernacchio and Sharon Lamb. Lamb has a website dedicated to her book about sexual ethics and even has a podcast dedicated to sex and ethics. These are good starts and I hope there is more to come.

Posted in Consent, Education, Sex Education, Sexuality, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Reflecting on AASECT 2018

This past week, I went to the AASECT 2018 conference in Denver. AASECT stands for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. The conference had a mixture of workshops, plenary speakers, exhibitions of products, and poster exhibitions. Overall, I had a good time. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. My favorite portion was the poster exhibition. Perhaps it’s the academic in me, but I love learning about new studies and see what sort of insight we can do with that information. Plus, I can talk to the scholars various questions and either produce more questions for further research, or clarify some points that can prove fruitful.
  2. I got to make some really good friends who are also at the beginning stages of their careers. It’s fun to meet like-minded folks to not only network, but to build lasting relationships where we can learn from each other. I’m assuming I’m the only philosopher there, so it helps me garner some new insight from other perspectives and hopefully they can gather some insight from me.img_1083
  3. Denver, as a city, is fantastic. It has the conveniences of a city, the environment of mountains, and many different places to explore. I also happened to be there during Pride Weekend.
  4.  

    Here’s an electro-wand I tried out.

  5. One of the plenary speakers was Peggy Orenstein. She wrote a book entitled “Girls and Sex” which is informative on its own right, and has helped inform my dissertation as well.

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With the many workshops I’ve attended, I felt there was something missing. I had similar feelings when I attended the National Sex Ed Conference in 2017. I couldn’t quite find the language as to why it felt off. I chalked it up to my philosophical background and how I wasn’t used to these different type of conferences. Philosophy conferences usually present ideas and arguing for those ideas. These sex ed conferences don’t have arguments per se, but they instead present possible ideas that they’ve tried out on their clients or schools. Or they give certain suggestions of what to do. It’s strategies and practical advice from one educator to another, from one therapist to another. All of this is well and good, but still, I found something missing. It wasn’t until the last day of AASECT that it started to click. One of the workshops I attended discussed how sex education is missing theory and why it was important to have theory. The speaker talked about the ontology and epistemology of sex and how this is needed in sex ed. I fully agreed with on this, and as I was thinking about the theoretical aspects of what more could be done in sex ed, I could see what was bothering me about these conferences.

In the sex ed conferences I’ve been to, almost everyone, I’m assuming, has some sort of background in some academic field: sociology, psychology, social work, education, marriage and family therapy. With those disciplines, people could go to these various workshops from others and learn about their discipline. With these conferences, it’s not as if people have to learn from square one; people in those disciplines already have the necessary background. The speaker is just adding more information or bringing forth new insight to further the discipline. But with these sex ed conferences, the workshops I’ve attended were either intuitively obvious, or I was completely lost. The obvious ones felt like the information wasn’t new and it was just a simple application of a theory that I was familiar with. I could see the students or the clients taking the information as a given, but without understanding why, the given could be questioned or not taken seriously. I understand that with sex education, you have to be practical and try to help the students and clients where they’re at.  In some of the workshops, in fact, people gave out data and other tidbits of information, but didn’t tie it all up. I felt like saying, “so what?” to some of them because I didn’t understand what made it important. I’m very weary when a speaker presents something and says, “I just found this interesting!” Great, but what can we do with this interesting information? Tell me why this is important. Why did you find it interesting? We need theory! The workshops where I was completely lost relied on various procedures and/or backgrounds that I was not familiar with.

Since everyone is coming from different backgrounds and educational disciplines, everyone is coming to this topic through their own lens and tackling a specific issue. But without a common background, we may be talking past each other, not understand each other, or find the speech intuitively obvious. Sex education has not been disciplined, or not in the same way as other disciplines are. We can make a coherent structure of philosophy, sociology, psychology, social work. We can see within those fields various specialties, sub-divisions, and what sort of questions people in those sub-divisions ask, even if we ourselves are not in that field. But with sex education, it’s a mixture of people from different educational backgrounds giving their two cents on sex education. We have no common background, no common language perhaps, no common…well…discipline. What do I mean by discipline? For starters, imagine if you could major and study sex education. You would have a discipline that would have structure, organization, and help students give the theoretical background to really help those that need sex education.

“But,” you might say, “sex education is tough to make into a discipline because there are so many factors to consider. Sex education is a combination of biology, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, gender studies, and education. Perhaps you need to bring in anthropology, history, and maybe politics in this discipline as well. It just seems to vast.” I understand that, but we have done made an inchoate matter of thought into a structured form. People can major in gender studies, feminism, and the liberal arts for example. There’s a combination of different disciplines coming together to form one structured discipline. Why couldn’t we do that with sex education? Now we could ask whether it’s a subset of education, or if it should be its own discipline. I’m fine with either, but the point is that we shouldn’t rely on sex education having different patches of education. Sex education, as of now, is like a bunch of quilt patches. But there’s no structure, no organization, no form. The theory of sex ed, or disciplining it, threads these patches together. Yes, application is important and we need it. Theory without application is in vain. But application without theory is blind.

This isn’t to point out the fault of sex education falls on one individual or a group of individuals. Because of the political climate, sex education hasn’t been seen as a serious endeavor and so it’s scattered to these disparate disciplines. Many people share the attitude that sex education is important. We have the numbers, but we now need to organize those numbers and start to formulate what we can do together collectively. We all have different ideas of what is the best way to do it, but all disciplines have different ideas, approaches, and theories as to what should be done. Let’s do the same thing with sex education.

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Ideas That Matter with Gregory Sadler

About two months ago, Dr. Gregory Sadler—also a public philosopher and also known as the YouTube Philosopher—and I had a discussion about my work. We discussed philosophy of sex, particularly with my research in the three different moral types of sex education classes in the United States. We also discussed consent, different ways of educating people, and sexual ethics in general. Check it out:

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Savory, Mindfulness, and Qualitative Experiences

If any of you have dogs, you know that they love treats.  Just imagine your dog jumping for joy when they see their treats.  Their tails are wagging extremely fast, and they’ll do anything to get that treat.  It’s like candy to them.

Here’s what I don’t quite understand though: usually with sweets, you want to take your time and eat them.  It’s to savor the taste.  I’ve noticed that when people eat dessert, they usually eat it more slowly.  We like sugar and we look forward to dessert.

Dogs, however, they just instantly gobble it down.  So what’s the deal?  They don’t savor the flavor.  Why do dogs take in everything, both food and treats, without savoring the flavor?  They seem to look forward to the treats but they don’t slow down.  Why?

It could be that they don’t have the sensors to detect the “sweet” things.  But that can’t be totally right.  Animals have evolved to desire sweet things to get their burst of energy. What may be sweet to them may not be sweet to us, but that doesn’t deny the fact that they desire sweet things.

Maybe it has to do with savoring things.  Perhaps our human culture is structured where we generally savor sweet things and other foods we just passively eat.  So savoring things may be a cultural phenomena rather than a biological one.

Not my image

Maybe it’s more infectious than we thought.  To savor things, we savor good wines, good cigars, good perfume, and good paintings.  Yes, I know that savoring things is mainly dedicated to our gustatory and olfactory faculties, but I think the analogy could extend to our visual faculties too.

When we savor things, we like to take our time.  Why? We use this time to simply enjoy “the finer things in life.” However, time is often equated with money.  Those who have the extra time can either use that time for the object they are savoring, but also spend that money for this finer thing to savor. Savoring something seems to focus on the minute details of that beer, that soufflé, that cigar, that crushed velvet, that painting. It’s to increase the sensitivity of your sensory palate so that you can sense the various flavor notes, the smell the particular scents, to see the particular dots from the impressionist paintings. But from someone who has no need or a point to highlight these minutiae, it’s just a waste of time. To those who have no interest in developing these extra sensitive palates, savoring is wasting time.  Indeed, savoring seems to be an exercise among those who have extra time, or at least can spend the money to make the time. Perhaps savoring things is an elitist activity.

I would like to see a study to see if savoring things were mainly meant for the rich and aristocracies.  One hypothesis is that anyone could see a painting or smell perfume. But to distinguish the upper class from the rest, maybe the aristocratic class developed a route where having an extra sensitive palate was the mark of a distinguished person and that meant to use your time to develop an extra sensitive palate. The commoners didn’t have this extra time and so they couldn’t develop a high palate and just had a “common palate.” Savoring seems to be dedicated to the “high pleasures.”  These are the pleasures that are dedicated to the high arts, the pleasures that exercise the mental faculties, or those that supposedly make yourself into a cultivated person. And since the higher class considered themselves and distinguished and cultivated, they alone could experience and enjoy these “higher pleasures.”

Is it true that the more time you have, the more you can savor?  Well, we often say that time is money, but a recent study has shown wealthy people have a weaker ability to savor things. Maybe it was because nowadays, wealthy people are in a state of up keeping their wealth and so their focus is on the things to make the wealth flow. The aristocratic class, however, were already wealthy and did not really worry about losing it compared to today’s wealth perhaps. I’m not sure. I don’t know the history of economics or what the attitudes of the wealthy today are different from the wealthy of the past.

But perhaps this isn’t the correct picture of what it means to savor something. Maybe savoring isn’t about experiencing high culture, but simply experiencing period. Pop culture and pop psychology have suggested that savoring something means not only experience various objects, but to experience that experience. In other words, don’t savor simply to increase a heightened palate, but simply to enjoy the experience itself. We say things like “be in the moment” or “enjoy the experience” or “enjoy the journey.” Indeed, many millennials are spending money not on objects or material possessions, but on experiences.

I can see this as a route to savor something, and this route would shift the meanings and the point of experiencing something. Not only would this include paintings, wine, and perfumes, but also simply being with friends, taking a trip to where ever and record it on social media, and surrounding yourself with like-minded people to simply enjoy people’s company. The experiences where we can “savor the moment” are different than our everyday, mundane experiences. They are meant to be mindful of the experiences where we “soak up the experience.” The savory, here, isn’t so much about class or wealth, but more about what am I going to do with my time to make it meaningful?

I’m not here to show which is the correct view of savoring things. Perhaps, if anything, this is an observation piece just to notice what it means to savor something. But the shift has moved from an elitist position, to more of simply mindfulness…

But now isn’t mindfulness an elitist activity? We often hear about the benefits of mindfulness. There are numerous studies that show that mindfulness has health benefits by reducing stress. Those who practice mindfulness, it seems, are those who have the extra time. So isn’t there a worry that we just end up with the same problem? Maybe, but I don’t think mindfulness has to necessarily be considered as those who have extra time, but perhaps more about priorities. We often squeeze our time to make sure we can watch our favorite tv shows, see that extra Netflix episode, or stay up to fall into a YouTube hole. We make room to perform our hobbies and the things that we enjoy. We never consider mindfulness as another activity that is part of our routine. I have to admit, I try to get into mindfulness by meditating fifteen minutes a day. The longest stretch was three months, but then I stopped. Why? Because I had other things to take care of and when I was tired, I would rather mindlessly watch a tv episode rather than try and be mindful. I do think being mindful helped me out, but it is difficult once you start since your mind wanders constantly. However, I did notice that I was more present, more focused, and more in the experience through mindfulness practices. I guess you could say that I had a better ability to savor my experiences.

The savory shift from having things to experiencing things moves the savory aspects from those in the external world to our internal world. The external savoriness had to do with the more distinguished material thing: the more expensive the item was, the deeper you could savor that item. In a way, more money = a deeper savory experience from the external world. But for the internal savoriness, we aim toward quantity. The more experiences we have, the better. But what if you could deepen your savory experiences too? Perhaps mindfulness is the key so that you not only experience what you are experiencing, but making those experiences more present-like, more qualitative. Thus, the move, it seems, is that mindfulness = a deeper savory experience from the internal world.

Does this mean that we should all exercise mindfulness in order to really enjoy our experiences? Not necessarily. Many people enjoy their experiences without mindfulness. But I wonder: is it just the quantity of experiences, or the quality that people enjoy? This brings me back to the beginning of this post. Savoring is to momentarily use your time to take in the experience. It seems that savoring is correlated with qualitative experiences. This doesn’t mean that we should aim for quality instead of quantity. What it does give us is a route to know what it means to savor something, and that when we do, it seems that we focus on the quality. The more we can develop that palate, the more we can appreciate that specific experience. Savor it!

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Three Minute Thesis

A few weeks ago, I performed at the Three Minute Thesis at Marquette University with other fellow grad students. The purpose is to explain your dissertation work in three minutes or less. You can see the video here. The first thirty seconds the audio is off, but the rest of it is fine. Alternatively, you can read the transcript below.

Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey. We recognize these now-infamous names because they have been accused of sexual assault. They have taken advantage of their status and exploited those who are vulnerable. This is a sad consequence how people don’t take care of the sexual self. How do we prevent this? This cultural crisis calls for a new approach to sexuality education.

My research investigates the moral assumptions of sex ed programs in the United States. After looking at countless syllabi, I have determined there are three different moral foundations that underlie existing sex ed programs. The first are abstinence only programs, but this doesn’t work, empirical research shows that gender discrepancies are presented as inevitable.

The second model is what I call consequentialist sex ed, which emphasizes avoiding negative consequences such as unwanted pregnancies and STIs. This model is an improvement since it empowers students with essential knowledge such as anatomy and sexual mechanics. But this model is still limited because it fails to discuss many forms of sexuality and gender such as intersex and transgender folks.

The third model is what I call consent-based sex ed, which teaches sexual consent. With the cultural recockening of the MeToo movement, this is the best model since current conversations largely revolve around how to properly give and receive consent.

While this model definitely improves on the previous two models, there is still something lacking. Most importantly, this model fails to address the gender inequality at the root of the problematic power dynamics. For example, if to receive consent is to garner a yes, then all men have to do is manipulate woman to get that yes.

These three models focus on a person‘s behavior, but sexuality is much deeper. Therefore we need another model that focuses on what I call care of the sexual self.

For simplicity, I analyze care of the sexual self to three components: the sexual emotions, the sexual mind, and the sexual body. A comprehensive sex ed program helps students train the moral sexual character by disciplining whether those components are coming from their authentic character, or if these ideas were simply societal expectations. This model, thereby, helps students question their own social mores and understand various forms of sexualities and genders. The upshot is to implement this into public policy where the ethical considerations are to not only focus on avoiding assaultive behavior, but also cultivating a character where they wouldn’t want to in the first place and help reject the Weinsteins of the world.

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Podcast: Building Resiliency

I had the amazing opportunity to be on the Birds and the Bees podcast. We talked about building sexual resiliency, a topic that I’m starting to be interested in. There are some people who are pressured into sexual activities they don’t want to do. They are manipulated and aggressively pressured. And then there are others that can repel manipulative and sexual aggressive pressure. The latter seem to have, for lack of a better term, grit or resilience. How do we teach grit, resilience, resisting pressure tactics, etc? Resiliency may also be a way to move forward from sexual assault. How does this work?

I have to admit, I was nervous at first, but Braxton was very easy to talk to and I was able to relax as we had a really good discussion.

You can go to here to listen to the episode or you can listen to it on iTunes or Stitcher.

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Book Review: What Love Is and What It Could Be by Carrie Jenkins

I had the delight to get back to my original interests and read some metaphysics of love.

Jenkins project investigates the possibilities of what love can do and accept the conclusions thereafter. However, she does not give a precise conclusion of what love can do. This is actually to her benefit because any precision can automatically leave out various people who don’t fit into that definition. And other words, if you make a definition of love, then presumably you can bring all sorts of people into the tent, but it also leaves people outside of the tent. Instead, Jenkins makes the definition broad enough to the point where it has a subjective component where the people who are in love determine what sort of relationship they want. As an example, Jenkins is in a polyamorous relationship. The presumption is that love must be monogamous meaning that one is supposed to love only one person. This definition of love automatically assumes an exclusionary principle: if you love more than one person, then by definition, you are not really in love. But think about what we’ve also excluded who can be in love in the past. Remaining within your race is the proper way to legitimately be in love. If you’re in love with someone of a different race, then, by definition, you’re not really in love. We’ve also excluded queer people of being in love or having romantic relationships. Over time, we’ve realized our mistakes and have expanded the exclusionary principle to make our definition less heteronormative and less amatonormative. This exclusionary principle suggests that love is not something that is set in stone, but comes about because of our social understanding of love. Couldn’t the same be true for those who practice non-monogamy? Could the exclusionary printable also expand to those were polyamorous? Or perhaps more importantly: should we even have the exclusionary principal? Let me start with the metaphysical categories Jenkins addresses and then I will move to the ethical project.
What is love? What Jenkins does is she further analyzes this question and I think what she’s really asking is what can love be reduced to. Here, we have two answers: love simply comes down to biology, or love simply comes down to our cultural and social understanding of love. So, which is it? Jenkins makes good responses in that love cannot be reduced to simply one of them. And so, Jenkins argues that it’s both: the metaphysical picture she has is that love has a dual nature.

This is the way she frames it. “At its core is the idea that romantic love has a dual nature: is it ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role” (82). The analogy is an actor embodying a character: William Shatner embodying the role of Captain Kirk is her analogy. If you take out one, then you miss out on the other.

Admittedly, I’m having trouble seeing this. As I was reading this and came across the notion of dual nature, I was half expecting the result would be love qua biology and love qua social construction as two sides of the same coin. Or that one would be the emergent property of the other. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that with any sort of metaphysics about social construction, it is the way we value the facts. So love qua biology is simply the fact about humans. Love qua social construction is how we value those facts. For example, love for Victorian women is much different than modern love because society back then had different values than we do today. However, they had the same biology. So it’s the same fact but different ways of valuing those facts. Now one problem I have with Jenkins’s process is that I’m not so sure it really is a dual nature. Suppose early humans had no robust culture or a very rudimentary society. Any social constructionism would be very minimal. Let’s suppose that it’s so minimal that it is non-existent. Yes, they would be very early humans. Yet, their biology would be the same.  Would we say they are in love? Well, biologically yes, but social constructively no. In my mind, this makes sense. These early humans would love each other, but there aren’t any valuations about this love. It’s a heavily biological process.

But now let’s suppose there are some rudimentary creatures that are very complex (perhaps early mammals) but do not have the biology that can bring forth love. It seems that they are incapable of love because they don’t have the biological processes to do so. Thus, the biological process needs to be there in order for love to happen, and then the social constructionism can take place. Without the biology, the social constructionism is moot. Therefore, the biology is prior to social constructionism. Therefore, the dual nature of the metaphysics of love is faulty. And yet, when we think about the dual nature of love, we can either see it as either biological or social constructionist. This recognition, however, doesn’t seem to be based on the reality of the situation, but more on our perspective of the situation. Thus, I think the dual nature of love is more epistemological rather than metaphysical. If there is no Captain Kirk, we can still have William Shatner. But if there is no William Shatner, there is no Captain Kirk that we wold recognize. Thus, William Shatner is prior to Captain Kirk. “Ah,” a critic might say, “couldn’t we say that even if William Shatner didn’t exist, someone else could simply embody Captain Kirk? We could simply have an actor embodying the character.” Now this is true, but suppose, along with my example, there was no biology. By analogy, there are no humans but just simple creatures (early mammals, let’s say). In that case, nothing could embody Captain Kirk. With my analogy, the biological aspects need to be there for the social construction to take place. As I mentioned before, social constructionism is how we value the facts (in this case, biology). But without the facts, there is nothing to value. No biology, no constructionism. Likewise, no William Shatner (or no humans, let’s say), no Captain Kirk.

The metaphysical implications of Jenkins also needs to be addressed. Here’s a thought that may have troubling consequences. Jenkins argues that we need both biology and social constructionism to make sense of love, but the biology doesn’t necessarily have to be human. We can imagine aliens or advanced robots being in love as long as they go through the romantic-love-like behavior. This speaks to what is known as functionalism in the philosophy of mind. Now, there’s a debate within functionalism about whether philosophical zombies are logically possible. Let’s suppose there are. If that’s the case and if Jenkins theory is correct, then these philosophical zombies are not really in love. They just exhibit romantic-love behaviors. So at the very least, they can be in love qua social constructionism. But hold on. If love has a dual nature, and these philosophical zombies can be in love qua social constructionism, then they have to be in love qua biology. If that’s the case, then this implies that philosophical zombies cannot be logically possible. If, however, philosophical zombies are logically possible, then the dual nature theory that Jenkins proposes cannot work since they can only love qua social constructionism. I’m not sure if Jenkins considers this a high stake implication. Perhaps she’s willing to embrace the idea that philosophical zombies cannot logically be possible, but it’s an issue that grabbed my attention.

Next, I would like to address the ethical implications of this book. People assume that love cannot change because the nature of love is stable. But, if we can change the values and the script of what we expect out of love, then we could improve love by changing the script and the expectations. For example, if we go back to the exclusionary principle, we’ve expanded it to lovers of different races and queer folks. If we change our script and expectations, we can also include those who are non-monogamous. In a way, we can look at the ethics of what we can love and if what we love doesn’t fit into the social script, then it’s not that our love is wrong; it’s the script: it’s the way we value the romantic loving interactions. But if we change our values, meaning our script, to include those people into the tent, then we will feel at home. Thus we can change the social values and expectations of love.
Likewise, we now have the technology to change our biology about love. Recent work by Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu have investigated the idea to change the dopamine or oxytocin levels so that we can either continue to stay in love, or to get over break ups more easily. Thus, we could change the biology of love. Of course, it is controversial as to whether we should change our human biology to order to enhance ourselves, but in principle, it can be done.
Here’s the ethical upshot: if we have an ethical idea of what is considered the good life, and our biology does not fit that, then one ethical project is to change our biology to fit our script of what is the good life. Likewise, if our social values and expectations fall short of what is the good life, then the ethical project is to change our values and expectations so that the narrative fits in what we consider the good life. Therefore, if the biology and social constructionist view of love falls short of what we consider the good life, then we should change them so that they fit into what we consider the good life.
There something promising about this prospect. However, I can imagine a critic responding like this. “Sure, denying love for interracial couples or for a queer people was prejudicial and wrong. But now we’ve realized our mistakes and have fixed that. Love however should still exclude some types of love such as pedophilia, hebephilia, and maybe non-monogamy. Those types of love should be excluded from the tent because of either ethical implications, or because the nature of love ought to be exclusionary at some point. Well, here’s the drawing line of where it should be.” Thus, the critic will suggest there is an exclusionary principal but it’s not defined by the people. Otherwise, we run the risk of some sort of relativism.  Now I think Jenkins could respond to this by embracing some sort of metaphysical pluralism that does not lead to metaphysical relativism, for example. However, that seems to be a different project altogether. But it does seem like a project worth investigating. She hints at it when she states that if the nuclear-type family were really natural and desirable, then we wouldn’t need the social norms and penalties to channel everyone toward it. I think that’s a promising start and it would be worth investigating more into that claim, at least metaphysically and ethically.
Does this mean that polyamory is the next step of social acceptance? Maybe, but it’s a slow progress. Jenkins thinks that we are slowly moving toward the idea that serial monogamy, specifically serial temporary monogamy, will become the new norm. We can see this with dating apps where it was considered scandalous, but it’s now slowly becoming socially acceptable. Dating apps have the reputation for temporary connections or “hooking up.” Perhaps these hook ups are either expected as part of our social narratives of relationships or at least the default position won’t be long-term monogamy, but rather, “let’s have a conversation about what we want” which I think Jenkins would embrace.
Overall, I really enjoyed Jenkins book. It’s not a heavy philosophical tome where one can only read a few paragraphs at a time to let the ideas fester. However, there are plenty of spots where I did have to stop just to think about the issue more. Indeed, I’m still thinking about the book as I’m writing this review.

 

Posted in Book Review, Culture, Love, Metaphysics, Monogamy, Polyamory, Relationships, Values | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Complexities of Affirmative Consent

After my previous posts that you can see part one, two, three, and four, I thought I should offer some insights about affirmative consent. Affirmative consent—sometimes known as “yes means yes” consent—has gotten a lot of traction lately. What I want to do is to talk about the different variations of affirmative consent, but also suggest that some variations seem more suited than others, especially given what I had to say about consensual realism in my previous posts.

What surprises me is that affirmative consent is hardly written by philosophers and more so from lawyers. In a way, it makes sense since if affirmative consent becomes the standard, then we must see what it legally entails. However, I think this issue is ripe with philosophical investigation. I only offer a small outlook of what could be done with affirmative consent.

 

The assumed standard position when it comes to sexual consent has been “no means no,” which has the intuitive appeal that if someone does not want to engage in any sexual encounter, one simply must say “no” or show a “no” through body language. Let us call this the standard model of consent, which has had some criticism lately.

First, a lack of “no” translates as “permissible to proceed.” I discussed Pineau before. She has pointed out that our standard narrative views male sexuality as aggressive, whereas women sexuality has been seen as passive, where sex just happens to them. In the standard scenario, a woman may not feel comfortable engaging in sex, but might also feel uncomfortable saying “no.” Women are taught to acquiesce to sex: they do not actively choose to have sex, but they do not actively choose to not have sex either. Or if she does say “no,” a man may try again until the “no” is no longer in play.

The second problem is if consent is contested, it puts the onus on the victim (usually the woman) to prove she said “no.” The default is that we are all consenters and to opt-out, we say “no.” However, since women are considered passive, she may fear saying “no” and stay silent to avoid the repercussions of a “no.” Thus, one implication of the standard model is that the silence means “yes.”

yesmeansyes-1024x500

Not my Image

Opposed to the standard model is an affirmation model of consent, sometimes known as the “yes means yes” model. Under this framework, both partners must obtain a “yes” from each other.  The “yes” to opt-in as it were can be verbal or non-verbal, where some type of communication is necessary for the sexual encounter to be ethical. The affirmation can be highly regulatory, such as a contract, or it could be broader where the people must be aware of the context and perhaps simply stop and ask. The validity involved can range from “enthusiastic consent” to paying attention to non-verbal bodily cues to determine whether to stop or to continue. Simply missing a verbal “no” or physical restraint does not automatically constitute consent.

Many proponents find the affirmation model better because the partners involved need to be in tune with each other’s wants and needs. Obtaining the “yes” ensures that the people know each other well, or at least have an in-depth conversation about what the other’s wants and needs are.

“But hold on,” you might say. “It seems that affirmative consent is synonymous with consensual idealism. Therefore, if you endorse affirmative consent, don’t you have to endorse consensual idealism?” Well I do endorse affirmative consent, but I don’t consider it synonymous with consensual idealism. After all, affirmative consent can be compatible with consensual minimalism. One can still obtain a “yes”—even enthusiastically—without explicitly focusing on the other’s wants and needs. Consensual minimalism and idealism tells us the content of consent where the focus is on the ethical portion of consent; the affirmation model tells us when it is permissible to proceed by focusing on how a token consent can be communicated. In short, consensual minimalism and idealism tell us what consent is; affirmative consent gives us the conditions to make consent valid. The affirmation model suggests that there are at least two people involved in making the decision instead of one doing the instigating and the other being the instigatee. Moreover, the onus is now on both actors to ensure there was a “yes” rather than relying on a proof there was a “no.” This model does not erase all the problems of whether someone consented or not, but it gets rid of various defenses used by men to prove there was consent: “She didn’t say anything so it was ok,” “She kissed me back so it was ok to go forward,” etc.

Are there any problems with affirmative consent? There have been some criticisms and I’d like to tackle them:

  1. Affirmative consent must be verbal. A common critique against affirmative consent is that the “yes” must be entirely verbal. By requesting a “yes” for each progression of the sexual act, the pleasure could be mitigated thereby making the sexual act not as enjoyable. After all, part of what makes sex pleasurable, according to the critique, is what is unsaid. Constantly stopping and asking for permission can disrupt the flow of sex and perhaps make the sexual act awkward. In response to this, Schulhofer offers a way to have affirmative consent without a constant disruption. His solution is to understand consent as contextually sensitive, which can include silence and passivity. And while silence and passivity by themselves are not treated as consent, “they are forms of conduct, and all of a person’s conduct should be taken into account.” Thus, Schulhofer defines consent as performative rather than merely verbal. The point, however, is affirmative consent changes the default in that a “yes,” and not a “no” or silence, must be the moral transformation that moves from a duty to restrict oneself to interfere with another person’s rights toward permission to engage with the other. It is true non-verbal cues are harder to interpret than a verbal “yes,” but the way to correctly read the body language is to be more aware of the relevant facts of the context and people can gain this through education and experience. In a way, it is a type of phronesis to correctly acknowledge when someone is saying “yes” non-verbally, where they have enough knowledge to make good judgements about sexual matters. What counts is how desire manifests in the occurrence of the sexual act. It is to recognize a desire for desire rather than simply desiring to have sexual contact. Otherwise, sexual encounters risk becoming “unjust.”
  2. Affirmative Consent Still puts the Onus on the Woman. With affirmative consent, the focus may be on the woman’s autonomy but, again, nothing is necessary coming from the man. Either way, it is up to the woman to give the signal whether the sexual engagement can proceed or not. Thus, gender stereotypes are still upheld in that women are the gatekeepers of sexuality and men must find the right combination to unlock the gate. Men just need to “work out a yes” if needed. If there are no changes on how the genders relate to each other, the institutional system is still in place which has the process favoring men, whereby men could manipulate a “yes” to continue with the sexual transaction instead of simply thinking silence is a “yes.” As Hlavka puts it, “[p]lacing responsibility on women and girls to ‘just say no’ and excusing boys and men as they ‘work a “yes” out’ works to erase institutional and structural responsibilities.” It is just one extra move needed, but it is still within the framework that favors men. I do find this a problem. In many ways, this is why I think consent is not sufficient for sexual conduct. If consent is all about getting a “yes” out, then it still reinforces and hardly challenges heteronormativity. In a way, I think a route out is to see what underlies consent. I’ve mentioned my previous posts that I think some type of virtue ethics is undergirding sexual autonomy and sexual consent, which I may have to save for another post.

Overall, I have looked at what affirmative consent is and how it’s different from other types of sexual consent. I consider affirmative consent as the way to communicate a token consent rather than being a category of giving/receiving consent. Affirmative consent advances the cause to mitigate sexual misunderstandings and sexual assaults. But it does leave room for ambiguity. 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 or to slow down, or to stop. Most sexual initiations happen non-verbally, and this is important to know and address. If many sexual interactions happen non-verbally, then we need to teach consent that is based on giving/receiving clues. And yet, if it happens non-verbally, students also need to be taught how to use their words comfortably when the time comes. In another post, I would like to give some of the specifics of affirmative consent and try to show that there is another ethical foundation that underlies consent.

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My Experience at the National Sex Ed Conference 2017

Recently, I went to the National Sex Ed Conference in Atlantic City this past weekend. It’s definitely different than a philosophy conference. Most of the workshops were about how to teach sex ed to students which were mainly geared toward K-12. It’s definitely not philosophically rigorous, but there were a few tidbits that I found helpful. I’ll mention a few highlights and see if I can garner some philosophical insights from these ideas.
1. I went to a workshop on touch and how important it is. We seem to be a touchphobic society. Touch doesn’t necessarily have to be erotic. Yet, at the same time, to be constantly touching and being touched can be exhausting. Touch, it seems, can deplete the self. This brings up a philosophical point: how essential is touch to the self? We seem to want touch to those we care about the most, and not so much from strangers. Touch also has gender components in that females are more comfortable to touch whereas males not so much. But as for touch, imagine never being touched and imagine never touching. We would lose out on some relational aspect of who we are. Indeed, what makes us who we are is how we relate to other people and one component of this is touch. Touch, then, constitutes the relational self. Without touch, we would loose a sense of who we are as a relational being.
2. One workshop talked about the sexual citizenship. One of the interesting questions that was posed is how to discuss using drugs and sex. One of the common narratives is that those two should never mix and that sex should always be done sober. I can understand the reason why, but I also found this too strict. Does that mean sex and alcohol should never mix? What about when the people are buzzed? What about if someone doesn’t want to have sex unless they’ve had a few drinks? What about a long-term couple who’ve known each other for a long time? Can’t they drink and then have sex afterwards? This isn’t to say that the mixture of alcohol and sex can have the same quantity, but I couldn’t find the language of how to explain the context. It wasn’t until this workshop that I heard the speaker discuss it well.  Basically, it’s better to get a handle of your alcohol intake (or whatever drug you choose) so that you can know what levels you can handle sensibly. It’s also better to know your sexual activities sensibly as well. Make these two activities separate. Once you get the hang of it, then mixing sex and drugs can work, but don’t just jump into it. You’ve got to know the comfort levels of yourself, your partner, and the context. Each mixture is going to be different for the people involved.
3. One thing I’ve learned is how race is tied up with sex education. This idea comes from a variety of workshops and from a keynote speaker and admittedly, it was a weak point in my knowledge about how race is connected. So I will take a combination of what was said for this point. What I enjoyed about this idea is the intersectionality of the whole topic. Think of the sexual stereotypes we think of when it comes to different races. By associating those stereotypes, we see people in terms of what they are sexually capable of and that may inform whether we want to have a relationship with them.
The other idea had to do with racial microaggressions and and how that relates to sex ed. Here is how the microaggressions can build up:

Not my image. Taken from Anti-Defamation League

What I really like is how it starts off with the social norms and customs. They are the unwritten, informal ways of excusing various behavior. But once that becomes coded in society, then they become discriminatory on a civil level.
To discuss the issue then, there are two strategies: one is meet them where they’re at, and then nudge them forward. If you advance to where you want to talk about without first breaking down the myths and false beliefs of the students, they’re going to rebel and take the new knowledge seriously. So you must first meet them at their epistemic level and try to show why those beliefs are not only unjustified but also unjust. Once that is down, they need another foundation and it is here you can nudge them toward just and justified beliefs.
Second, data can change your mind; stories changes the heart. Data can only do so much. Change people’s beliefs can only do so much. Now they have to take on that data and make it personal. They have to not just believe the new narrative but also be committed to it in where it affects them. Moreover, once they hear the story, they can feel a personal connection and have a harder time denying it. What’s funny is that denying data is considered ok because there isn’t a person there. Denying a person, however, seems to ignore the humanity and/or dignity of that being. Place some stories in your education. Maybe bring in people who are affect by a certain policy or social norm to connect the students to the position.
4. Finally, there was one whole workshop that I found really insightful. The workshop was about how to teach consent and positivity in a school setting that is abstinence-only. The key is that we need to develop skills for these students, but these skills are not just restricted in the sexual realm; rather, it’s a skill that is helpful for the whole person. So for example, when it comes to consent, it’s not just for sexual activity. Consent is a helpful skill for all sorts of affairs. So then, how do you teach them these skills that the students need, but not lose your job because teaching comprehensive sex ed could be illegal? The answer is to teach students skills that can be helpful in fostering healthy relationships. The skills are knowing what you want and knowing how to ask for it. Here, we can break it down:
Skills.png
Notice then that the argument is an analogy: if we can teach students these skills in a non-sexual realm whereby these skills are useful for any activity in their life, then hopefully, these skills will transfer to the sexual realm. Or this argument could be a genus-species argument. Teach them these basic skills for everyday life and one instance of everyday life is sexual activity. Here, the method isn’t really important, but it’s the application and whether that transfer can be done. I’d be interested to see some data to see if analogy and genus-species is more psychologically grasping for the students. But overall, I like this strategy. It’s to teach social and emotional learning, which sounds very similar to sex education. If you provide the examples that they’re familiar with right now, then the abstract thinking will come later. Indeed, the examples that resemble sex or relationships, the better so that the students can come away with these skills.
One question I had was whether students might not consider this a good analogy? We are bombarded with messages that sex is somehow different than other activities and so if the skills work for the non-sexual realm, they may not work for the sexual realm just because they are very different activities. The presenter suggested that we should teach them what you can and hopefully they can make the leap. It’s not a completely satisfying answer, but without psychological research, this is the best we can do. Overall though, I think there’s some promise and that we can start with non-sexual examples to teach healthy relationships and consent, and then hopefully nudge them toward what a healthy sexual relationship looks like.
I did get to meet some big names such as Lizz Winstead and Dr. Ruth Westheimer:
 Dr. Ruth
This was my first time attending a conference like this so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Overall, I may attend another one and perhaps even facilitate a workshop. In the end, I’m glad I attended and I hope that I can contribute to the field with my philosophical background.
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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.

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