But these days, Dr. Bialek told me, many people “experience a lot more unexpected interaction in a sexual context than they do at dinner.” Because of our unwillingness to acknowledge a shared set of norms for sex beyond the bare minimum of consent — let alone the fact that we haven’t even gotten that bare minimum completely right — our current sexual culture can feel painfully unmoored.
It’s easy to see how overly stringent social regulation caused harm in the past; the sexual revolution happened for a reason. Yet we can recognize the benefits we have gained — less shame, more acceptance of sexual minorities, a recognition of the value of women’s sexual agency — while acknowledging the problems that persist or have worsened. Are there norms we might create or reclaim today that might paradoxically make our romantic landscape freer for everyone?
That enjoyment of dinner parties rests on a clear set of social standards: broadly shared, community-regulated understandings of what we hope a gathering will look like and how attendees should behave. For sexual encounters, setting these standards will require heated debate, and our vision for what sex means in our society must be corrected together.
We will need to make substantive claims about what we think a good sexual culture looks like but also be willing to acknowledge the ways in which certain definitions might be exclusionary and how some norms have negatively affected women and others. We will have to be open to negotiation and open to hearing from voices that have been excluded from such conversations. And we will have to have these debates in public.
Still, some new understandings may be in order. Maybe even casual sex is significant, an act unlike any other. Maybe some porn-inspired practices — those that eroticize degradation, objectification, harm — shouldn’t be mainstreamed. Maybe we do have a duty to others, not just to our own desire. We need norms more robust than “anything between two consenting adults goes.”
It’s time to raise the standard for what good sexual encounters look like and hold ourselves and our peers accountable to it. Good — that is to say, ethical — sex is not simply about getting consent so that we can do what we want. The ideal we might strive for instead is to will the good of our partners, too — and hold ourselves back from having sex if we cannot or are unsure that our partners do.
This might lead to less casual sex, at least in the short term. But, considering the clear dissatisfaction with the current landscape, that might not be so bad.