- The consent ideal says, “we've both agreed to this exchange that has no moral components.” It treats what we're exchanging—our bodies, our souls, our humanity—as goods to be traded on the marketplace. Tweet This
- [C]onsent was supposed to make sex [feel] good. But the sex is in fact bad, or makes you feel bad or makes you feel wrong in some way... Tweet This
- People are beginning to wean themselves off of dating apps, and we're seeing almost a revival in some small circles of matchmaking. Tweet This
In her new book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, Christine Emba, a columnist for The Washington Post, makes the case that modern sexual ethics are hollow and leave us unhappy. Ethical sex is often framed primarily in terms of consent—if two (or more) adults come to an agreement, anything goes. But this is a thin way to think through what we owe to each other. Emba finds that both men and women are often left regretful by the sex they’ve supposedly enthusiastically consented to—and they can’t figure out where they’ve gone wrong when they were following all the rules.
Leah Libresco Sargeant: Your book is about the limits of a consent-based culture of sexual ethics. Consent is rightly the baseline of sexual ethics. You can't have ethical sex or ethical intimacy without consent, but people are running into that sense that, "Well, we both agreed" isn't a guarantee that we're acting well or generously or ethically. How do you see this kind of contractualism that people start on and then get stuck in?
Christine Emba: Consent is the idea that there are two individual, maximally free people who get together in a sort of a free-market vacuum to agree to an exchange of goods. Contracts are a market-based operation, a way to ensure a trade in goods and services. And unfortunately, or rather fortunately, our relationships are not goods or services.
The consent ideal says, “Well, we've both agreed to this exchange that has no moral components.” It treats what we're exchanging—our bodies, our souls, our humanity—as goods to be traded on the marketplace. It assumes that everyone owns the things that they have. They can give them up. They can not give them up. We know what we're doing, we're always fully informed; we are always are at the top of our game and making the sharpest exchange. This mentality casts the person that we're consenting with or exchanging goods with as sort of an antagonist who we need to get the best deal from.
Sargeant: It feels like your book is in many ways about giving people permission to be unhappy. People worry that if you can't point to a bad guy who's at fault in a relationship, maybe you’re not allowed to be unhappy. Or maybe you are the bad person—you broke this contract of agreeing not to regret anything. In a recent conversation about whether ghosting is abuse, there seemed to be a belief that guys who have casual sex and then vanish have to be predators for women to be allowed to be unhappy. So where do people get this belief?
Emba: One concept that really gets to the heart of this is what Robin West, a law professor at Georgetown, describes as “hedonic dysphoria.” It’s having the experience of something that's supposed to be good not match up with the good that it's supposed to be.
We have the idea that what we have consented to, especially sex, is by virtue of that consent a good thing. You wouldn't agree to it if it was a bad thing! That’s the hedonic part: the happiness we're supposed to experience. But the dysphoria part comes when you know consent was supposed to make sex [feel] good. But the sex is in fact bad or very bad, or makes you feel bad or makes you feel wrong in some way, like I've lost something, like something happened to me. I said I wanted this, then I didn't want it. So, was I lying?
Sargeant: It feels like the intimacy of sex has been set apart as something that can cleaved off from all other intimacy. It feels like the contraceptive mindset has been extended from children to feelings. Every aspect of sex is supposed to be controllable and both partners are expected to make sure you can have sex without anything that would logically follow from [having] sex, like a baby. Now you're also expected to kind of bring that contraceptive work to the logical emotional entanglements of sex.
That’s more complicated than taking a daily pill. It's kind of an endless emotional practice. And then there’s guilt that you've made a promise to someone that you find yourself incapable of keeping—of not catching feelings. So just where do we get the idea that these parts are or should be severable from each other?
Emba: One of the chapters in this book is called “We Want to Catch Feelings” because honestly, in relationships the feelings are the fun part. The feelings are what we want. I think it's also sort of a form of Cartesian dualism. The idea that the mind or the soul and the body are two completely separate things. It's sort of understood in this materialist culture that what we do with our bodies should have no impact on our minds and our souls. And I just don't think that's true, actually. Our bodies and our souls combine to make us human people. That's kind of what being human is—to have feelings about how we move through the world and what we do with ourselves
Sargeant: Where do you see the most hope in the present-day dating scene or in kind of weird subcultures thereof?
Emba: I actually do think that there is a growing interest in ethics. What should sex look like? What should we be doing? There's a kind of a sex recession that's happening. Young people aren't getting out there and having as much sex as the boomers did. And in some ways that can definitely be seen as a downside.
But maybe that means that they are also stepping back thinking, “Hey, I'm not sure that I like this sexual culture. I'm not sure that I want to take part in, what I'm being asked to take part in. This doesn't jive with me personally or morally or ethically, and so I'm going to sit this out for a little while and like think about my life and think about my choices.”
Sargeant: What do the alternatives look like?
Emba: During COVID, people have been forced to kind of sit in their houses and not date and think out what they really want. People are beginning to wean themselves off of dating apps, and we're seeing almost a revival in some small circles of matchmaking. People who decide the swiping is not working for me, what I'm going to do is ask seven friends to each set me up with someone. Or they’re finding other ways of meeting people in real life through people they know. I think it’s much more natural and grounded in the world than our current swipe regime, and I think that's really promising. I'm excited to see where that goes.