Experiences like these are common, but they aren’t stories of sexual assault — we freely consented, without fear of violence and often with the coveted verbal “yes.” After all, asking young men to be mind readers seems neither practical nor fair. Everything went according to script. Why then, did we go through with sex we didn’t want? And why didn’t we have a way to talk about why we did?
College students today often become sexually active with too little to guide them — beyond, perhaps, abundant pornography. There is some evidence that teenagers are waiting longer to start having sex, and when they do start, they’re having less casual sex. Consent education takes already anxious, inexperienced young people, and gives them a simplistic, binary way of understanding sex. It’s no surprise then that many of us have absorbed the message that sex is a straightforward transaction with little room for complicated feelings — and that we’re confused when we experience the inevitable complications that sexual intimacy brings.
In 2017, Kristen Roupenian wrote about such uncomfortable romantic encounters in her viral short story “Cat Person.” When a professor of mine assigned it as part of a feminist philosophy class, my classmates and I were encouraged — for the first time in college — to evaluate sex outside of consent box checking. Our professor asked us if what happened in the story was right or wrong — and whether the characters themselves were morally blameworthy. When one student began reciting a familiar argument about enthusiastic, verbal consent, our professor stopped her. She wanted us to think beyond legal definitions and Title IX trainings, and to precisely examine for ourselves a question of sexual ethics.
A new kind of thinking emerged — one that allowed consideration of questions like: What duty do you have to a sexual partner? Can you hurt someone without being blameworthy yourself? Is sex … special? The class was divided on the answers to these questions — that’s the whole point of asking them in the first place.
Even though consent is essential, when it dominates our discussions about sex, we don’t learn enough about our power to do more than refuse or approve advances. We don’t learn what we owe to our partner beyond simply not committing a crime against them. And we don’t learn to navigate the complexities of loving — and making love to — another person.
The best sex is as rewarding emotionally as it is physically. This requires trust, both in our partner, and in ourselves. When we trust ourselves to know what we want, and have the language to articulate those wants to others, sex becomes more than the transactional experience common under current norms. Instead, it’s exciting, joyful and intimate. Valuing one another as equal people — not just as bodies to extract consent from — forces partners to recognize our moral duty to one another, namely that concern for others’ pleasure also means concern for their dignity.