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.”


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:
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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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.


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

This is a condensed talk that I gave a few weeks ago at UW-Parkside. In the last post, I talked about the first view of sexual autonomy and sexual consent: procedural autonomy and consensual minimalism.

In this post, I’ll be looking at the second view: substantive autonomy and consensual idealism.

Substantive Autonomy and Consensual Idealism

The substantivist form is more robust and is packed with a stronger view of what it means to be autonomous.  If a choice is made under certain conditions and/or the agent is of certain type, then we can say that the agent is autonomous.  The decision is not based on a subjective decision, but also some “external” criteria.

AutonomyMorten Ebbe Juul Nielson explains why:

formal conceptions of autonomy that are meant as action-guiding are said to be so, but it remains unclear why. If one launches a formal conception of autonomy and adds that “autonomous choice should be respected,” we would like to know why. If choice is not linked to some sort of value—for instance, to a conception of human flourishing—it is hard to see why we should respect it. Formal conceptions of autonomy, then, stop short of providing us with reasons.

Part of the answer in the quote suggests that for any form of autonomy to be substantial, it must be because autonomy is either grounded or part of human flourishing, however we define that. Notice that if humans cannot flourish, they are not substantially autonomous. Moreover, the necessary conditions for an action to be consensual are voluntary, informed, and competence. However, for substantive autonomy, a choice must also foster the conditions for flourishing. Therefore, there is something underlying the autonomy, and what underlies it is some sort of virtue ethical consideration in order for the autonomy to get off the ground.

Under substantive autonomy, if someone has not met the normative conditions for autonomy typically identified by philosophers, including choices which have criticizable moral contents, then that person is not autonomous despite the freedom of external constraints. People’s psychology ought to hook up to the world in the right way. Whatever the case may be, the content of people’s preferences and values must correspond to some objective criteria of what is good for people. In other words, substantive autonomy is value-laden and oppression is never valuable. To be autonomous, then, is to be free from oppressive constraints, and these constraints can unconscious. 


The type of consent that corresponds to substantive autonomy is what I call consensual idealism. Under this position, representatives argue that consensual minimalism is necessary, but not sufficient for the sexual activity to be ethical. Rather, there is a moral requirement that people ought to acknowledge and be responsive to each other’s needs, desires, and feelings.


Representatives of this position include West, Pineau, and Estes. I have mentioned West before. Pineau considers that our sexual relations should be based on a communicative model rather than the contractual model. Pineau extracts her communicative model from Kant in that we have the obligation to take the ends of others as our own. Thus, Pineau’s model of consent suggests that “if a man wants to be sure that he is not forcing himself on a woman, he has an obligation either to ensure that the encounter really is mutually enjoyable, or to know the reasons why she would want to continue the encounter in spite of her lack of enjoyment.”  

Yolanda Estes adds two additional criteria: “each sexual partner exhibits concern for the other’s interests and needs insofar as their wellbeing includes and extends beyond their sexual wellbeing” and “each sexual partner attend to the other’s desires.” Starting with the first, without attending to the other’s interests and needs, the sexual interaction could undermine wellbeing. She points out that “sex without desire results in sensual or emotional dissatisfaction at best and physical or psychological trauma at worst.” If there is no interest in the partner’s needs and interests, Estes argues, then there is no concern for the partner. In shorter, non-committed sexual relationships, it becomes more imperative for clearer, explicit, and specific communication.This means we ought to take the time and communicate what the other person desires in order to mitigate any misunderstandings:

We can take time to gain some sexual knowledge of our partner by proceeding cautiously and unhurriedly in the initial stages of a sexual relationship. This increases the chance of correctly interpreting and addressing expressions of consent, expectation, and desire. Before, during, and after sexual interactions, we can solicit more explicit, specific expressions of our partner’s thoughts and feelings; observe our partner’s reactions carefully; and reflect diligently on what we hear and see. This enhances the possibility of reciprocal consent, concern, and desire while improving our sexual technique and our opportunity for a repeat performance.

Consent alone provides no immunity to moral reproach. Insofar as people show a respectful regard for a potential sexual partner, we cannot ignore our partner’s desires.

Problems with this account:

Let me offer some problems with substantivist autonomy and consensual idealism. A common substantivist problem is that there is a conflation between personal autonomy and moral autonomy—which is self-determination regarding how one ought to act. If substantive autonomy provides normative constraints on when people are autonomous, then, under this rubric, people are autonomous only if they make the moral, correct choice. Thus, the conflation: being autonomous does not necessarily mean being moral.

One problem with consensual idealism is that it seems false where one has no mutual desire or exhibiting some care or concern entails that the act is unethical. For example, sex workers, those who have sex to maintain the relationships (aka maintenance sex), and those who have sex purely for the sake of reproduction would not meet this criterion. In each of them, they want an end and which sex sex is a means to reach that end.

A second problem with consensual idealism is that some of the features are too high of a standard. For one example, suppose a newly couple wants to have sex. We can even assume that there is strong chemistry, and they consent to having sex. However, once they start, there is a bit of awkwardness: they see each other naked for the first time, one of them may be self-conscious, they fumble during sex which makes the experience sub-par, and perhaps one (or both) are thinking not directly about fulfilling the desires of the other, but more on the mechanics of sex, which detracts from their enjoyment.  Both are disappointed when the act ends. Yet, they want to give it another round at a later time. It seems that they did not mutually try to satisfy each other’s desires, nor did they exhibit concern for the other’s sexual well-being, at least not directly. This is not the ideal sex act, but it does not make the act unethical.

Another problem—which relates to the last—is that people, especially when they are novices or feel uncertain about sex, may not know what they want. They may engage in various activities for curiosity, experimentation, trial and error, or simply “just to try it out.” There is no mutual desire to be had since one is not sure what sort desires one has. Moreover, younger people are still figuring out their own sexual-well being, which includes what sort of values and boundaries they are comfortable with. They may not enthusiastically say “yes” because they are not sure what they are enthused of, yet they still want to have the sexual experience for the reasons mentioned above.

In short, consensual idealism ignores the context of the sexual actors and possibly places too high of a standard.

Full Picture

Let’s take stock and see where we’re at right now. In terms of consensual idealism and consensual minimalism, we can see that they have different standards and different perspectives on what is permissible or not. Consensual idealism has higher standards and therefore, anything that falls below that standard makes the sexual activity morally impermissible. Remember the case of Monica in the last post? We can place her on the chart and see why consensual idealists would find that what happened to her is unethical, but the consensual minimalists would consider what happened to her as ethical, albeit perhaps not the best of all situations.


These two views of consent have been the dominating pictures, but they seem to have many problems. I suggest we need to relook at consent, and I can do so by looking at another view of autonomy.

In the next post, I’ll be looking a third picture of sexual autonomy and sexual consent.

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

This is a condensed talk that I gave a few weeks ago at UW-Parkside. I’ll be dividing that talk into three separate posts.

Sexual consent has been getting a lot of attention lately. We often hear news about sexual campus assaults, rape culture, and affirmative consent. But what, exactly, is sexual consent? I want to contribute to the discussion by noting some various differences among three different theories of sexual consent and remarking what these different types entail. Sexual consent is based on the sexual choices, preferences, desires, and wants of the people involved. And yet, the ability to make choices, to exercise one’s preferences, desires, and wants of the individual is based on autonomy. Therefore, to discuss sexual consent, we must also talk about sexual autonomy. I will also show that these three different pictures of sexual consent correspond to three different types of sexual autonomy. I want to investigate these three different types, various advantages and disadvantages, and see what sort of individual best expresses sexual autonomy.

Procedural Autonomy and Consensual Minimalism

When discussing personal autonomy, there is a distinction between procedural and substantial autonomy. 


Procedural autonomy means that an agent is autonomous when that person can freely choose an action. This view seems to be the most common, but this conception suggests that it does not matter what the action is or what kind of being the agent is. The content of people’s desires, values, preferences, and beliefs are irrelevant. All that matters is that the agent makes a choice through, at the very least, some critical reflection. Procedural autonomy is based on how the decision was made.  Through this account, we ought to respect persons because they are autonomous. In short though, a person is autonomous as long as there are no constraints.

Free Person

The first type of consent is what is known as consensual minimalism.  Under this view, the necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as consent is a voluntary informed agreement. The best representatives of this view are Mappes, Wertheimer, and Steutal and de Ruyter. In short, this position entails no coercion, deception, or incapacitation may take place otherwise, the action is unethical.  At minimum, provided the people involved give permission to the sexual act, then the sexual act is morally permissible. Mappes applies Kant’s second Categorical Imperative and derives moral and immoral sexual activity. According to Mappes, sex is morally impermissible if at least one person involved in the sexual activity treats the other as a mere means, whereas morally permissible sexual relations comes about when the participants have voluntary informed consent. To undermine the other’s voluntary informed consent means that one coerces, deceives, or takes advantage of the other’s desperate situation.

Another way to look at consensual minimalism is to say that it is contractual.  Raymond Belliotti argues that the

nature of these [sexual] interactions is contractual and involves the important notion of reciprocity. When two people voluntarily consent to interact sexually they create obligations to each other based on their needs and expectations.  Every sexual encounter has as its base the needs, desires, and drives of the individuals involved.  That we choose to interact sexually is an acknowledgement that none of us is totally self-sufficient.  We interact with others in order to fulfill certain desires which we cannot fulfill by ourselves.  This suggests that the basis of the sexual encounter is contractual; i.e., it is a voluntary agreement on the part of both parties to satisfy the expectation of the other.

While a voluntary agreement with another person is necessary for consent, to say the agreement is contractual makes it seem like the sexual relation is more of a business deal rather than a reciprocal agreement of fulfilling wants and desires. However, Belliotti does mention that this contract is based on the expectations of fulfillment of reciprocal needs. Moreover, there is a guide of reasonable expectation, and this is what the sexual contract entails: we are to help fulfill our sexual needs and desires and, in return, there is an implicit expectation to help fulfill the other person’s wants and needs, but not necessarily an obligation to do so.

We can see how procedural autonomy entails consensual minimalism.


Problems with this account:

There are many problems with consensual minimalism, but I’ll offer one.

Robin West and Lois Pineau have argued that consent in this framework is problematic. West has argued that traditional consent has mainly been for the benefit of the male. It is possible for a woman to have consensual, non-coercive, non-forceful, non-criminal, yet harmful sex. These harms, however, may be hard to discover. Many women consent to sex even when they do not desire it, and it is usually not pleasurable. So then why do they engage and consent to sex if they do not desire it or if it is not pleasurable? Through several vignettes, she reveals how engaging in sex multiple times under this context can be harmful: her self-assertion and self-possession is weakened, her integrity is lessened, and, most importantly for our discussion, her autonomy is draining. Having consensual but unwanted sex over time can take a toll on her. Since it is wrong to act in ways that cause (unjustified) harm to oneself or others, not all sexual activity engaged in under conditions of voluntary informed consent is morally acceptable.

Pineau discusses on a young woman who goes on a date with someone. She feels an attraction to him and believes that he feels the same way about her. She goes out hoping there will be mutual enjoyment with mutual interest. However, the mutual and reciprocal interest is not realized. The man uses aggressive, coercive tactics to have sex with her.  She feels immense pressure to have sex with him, though she does not want to have the kind of sex he does. She is having trouble disengaging his body from hers, and wishes he would just go away. But she feels stuck because she feels afraid to say “no” lest his aggression become more violent. Instead, she goes along with him just to get it over. He does not even notice she finds the encounter disagreeable, and probably still would not have changed course if he had. He congratulates himself for his aggressive tactics in that they paid off. She, however, does not feel quite right with the experience. This woman described by Pineau could also be someone whom Robin West describes in her vignettes: she engages in sexual activities with a man for economic sustenance, or to lessen some violent outburst. For simplicity, let us call this woman Monica. (Keep this in mind as I’ll refer to her in future posts.)

There are also problems with procedural autonomy. The main critique against procedural autonomy is that it cannot explain away oppressive measures. How could the theory explain such deleterious activities such as selling oneself into slavery, the deferential wife who wishes to be subservient to her husband, or anyone that has effectively internalized oppressive norms and treats those norms as their own ends? Can we really say that those ends are really their own? Specifically, with internalized oppressive norms, what if society is structured in such a way that we are not really autonomous, but we think we are?  These preferences influenced by oppressive norms cannot be autonomous but are really “adaptive preferences,” meaning that our desires and preferences change based on our surroundings. Thus, various choices we make may not be beneficial. Indeed, it can be detrimental to the self, even if we think it is a beneficial choice. For example, we may consent to prostitution or pornography not because this agreement was a full expression of our self, but perhaps because of economic hardships. For a less extreme example, a woman may “consent” to being a dutiful housewife but only because the society she is in expects her to not only have a future of being a dutiful housewife but also to enjoy doing so. Thus, if we cannot make a difference between desires that are one’s own and desires brought about through oppressive norms, then we cannot, among other things, know between desires that are one’s own, and desires that come about through oppressive norms. In that case, it is difficult to ascertain whether a decision is done through one’s autonomy or because of one’s socialization. In short, the critique of procedural autonomy is based on what the agent prefers without any obstacles but it does not consider that the agent’s preferences could be oppressive or adaptive.


In the next post, I’ll look at the second picture of sexual consent and sexual autonomy.

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