Throughout the year, this column has repeatedly articulated an anthropology—a conception of the human person—that respects our human dignity and outlines our ultimate destiny. Three weeks ago, in advance of Valentine’s Day, I urged that the essence of love is to seek the good of the other, the antithesis of “a utilitarian game.” That is, “one person cannot ‘use’ another for self-gratification and at the same time make a gift of oneself. . . . We are human persons, not instruments.”
Last week, I asserted that the morality of our actions must be grounded in truth—in reality—and not simply arbitrated by a preferential “yes” or “no.” Consent alone cannot be the sole determinant of morality, as “consent can mean only ‘I will,’ not ‘I ought,’ and can express only a personal preference and not a moral imprimatur.”
This week, on cue, “One Sexy Week” arrived at Duke University, providing an opportunity to address more specifically the contrast between an anthropology of human dignity and one of utilitarian self-gratification.
“SexFest,” the headline event for “One Sexy Week,” was held Monday evening in Reynolds Theater and drew about 90 people, myself among them. The keynote speaker was Laci Green, who has been described as an activist, feminist, “sex-positive video blogger” and “peer sex educator.”
The event began with an introduction that touted the evening as an opportunity to learn how to “get consent” to “get some”—a seemingly aggressive, objectifying way to frame sex when opening a 75-minute talk about the scourges of rape culture and sexual assault. The talk itself, to its credit, presented the frightening prevalence of sexual assault and rape, especially among college-aged adults. Moreover, the talk rightly recognized that the human person should never be objectified.
But in promoting “consent culture”—a culture free of sexual norms, defining sex only by consent and pleasure—as the solution to rape culture, the event presented an empty vision of sexual relations that is incapable of rehabilitating the attitudes that underlie rape culture. Peculiarly, for an event called “SexFest,” sex in itself was never attributed any meaning, significance or purpose (other than physical pleasure). “Consent,” “safety” and “pleasure” were the buzzwords. “Love,” on the other hand, was not mentioned once.
That consent-based conception of human sexuality reduces sex to a transactional act between two (or more, I suppose) people, no different from a chess match or an exchange of goods. In doing so, that conception of sex vitiates human dignity and misconstrues the human person as a utilitarian object of pleasure, the very perspective that fuels the lamentable rape culture.
The great 20th-century poet T.S. Eliot vividly captured the dehumanization that ensues when “consent” is the only measure of sexual activity. In his hallmark piece, “The Waste Land,” Eliot describes modernist England, a place bereft of transcendence, loving relationships and meaning. He then hones in on a young typist, a “lovely woman” alone in her apartment at teatime. Soon, the expected guest, a clerk—note that both are nameless, underscoring the anonymity of the whole encounter—knocks at the door, and an ephemeral and “unreproved” carnal collision promptly follows. After the hook-up, the clerk “Bestows one final patronizing kiss, / And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit.” The typist, meanwhile, “turns and looks a moment in the glass, / hardly aware of her departed lover;” and then “allows one half-formed thought to pass: / ‘well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’”
The experience between the typist and the clerk manifested no feelings, no trust and no recognition of the subjectivity of the other person. They mutually reduced both themselves and each other to objects of pleasure. Not surprisingly, the encounter fulfilled neither; the clerk departed furtively, while the typist, alone in her apartment, could not bring herself to contemplate what had just occurred.
The emptiness that follows such encounters—encounters not unfamiliar to Shooters, etc.—has been expressed by many who have engaged in hook-up culture. Social science surveys have found widespread dissatisfaction among hookup participants, especially college-aged adults. In one study, 77 percent of female students regretted their hook-ups, while in another, 78 percent of women and 72 percent of men regretted having uncommitted sexual hook-ups. Furthermore, men were more likely to feel regret for having used a woman, while women were more likely to regret their having been used—the latter of which Eliot so intensely illustrates in “The Waste Land.”
“Consent culture” and human dignity are incompatible because human dignity flows from the reality, the objective truth, of sexual relations that “consent culture” denies. In fact, our sexuality expresses our relational dimension as persons and articulates itself through the language of the body. The rightful sexual union rests upon and completes a covenant in which male and female unite, freely and fully, physically and spiritually, committedly and indissolubly. In respecting the reality of the act, they thereby demonstrate an openness to accepting its natural consequence—the potentiality for new human life—into a family of unconditional love.
Sex thus unites romantic and charitable love—eros and agape—and combines physical attraction and spiritual self-gift, matching perfectly our integrated bodily and spiritual nature. The very idea of “getting consent” to “get some” is absurd, for sex is about neither “getting” nor “something” but about giving one’s entire self—one’s person, one’s love, one’s fertility—to another person through a reciprocal union.
Which account of sex accords with your heart, with your deepest interior self? If sexual relations as the completion of a covenant, building toward a "covenant culture," resonates, do not think you are alone. Many on college campuses across the country are forming communities of like-minded students through the Love & Fidelity Network and similar organizations.
In making its case against rape culture, SexFest mistook what is most important: the nature of the human person and its consequences for the meaning of sex. When sex is understood truthfully, as it actually is in its authentic depth and meaning—and not as a consensual, utilitarian engagement of pleasure—instrumentalization and objectification become impossible, and rape culture is eviscerated. Even more, by respecting the true nature of sex and the reverence that a covenant merits, we respect the true nature of ourselves and others—that we are not objects but persons, images of God bestowed with inestimable dignity and worthy of love.
Wills Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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