It really has been a turbulent time for sexual politics this past six months. Weinstein is but the tip of the iceberg. We have the #MeToo movement, and a growing list of prominent people accused of various degrees of sexual misconduct, though it is often hard to distinguish these degrees and so gain a proper perspective and sense of proportion. The mere publication of an allegation against a young actor has been enough to stop a BBC production involving him, and to have sections of a completed Hollywood movie re-filmed to replace another accused (but also not convicted) actor. True sexual assault in any degree is a crime to be deplored. However, “innocent until proved guilty” is now an endangered species in our society; clergy know that for them it is almost extinct.
In Britain there has been another side to this topical coin. Numbers of young men in recent months have been cleared of rape—in court, after a proper judicial process and testing of evidence. These men have had their names dragged first through the press, as good as declared guilty by the mob. There seems to be a fairly common thread of prosecution incompetence and even misconduct. There also seems to be a growing phenomenon of retrospective withdrawal of consent to sexual activity on the part of accusers. No wonder then that universities (in the UK at least) are introducing instruction on what constitutes sexual consent, no doubt to protect students but perhaps also, in part, to protect themselves from lawsuits. Just Google it to see a long list of universities with pages dedicated to sexual consent guidelines.
Quite rightly, men (and women) need to accept that No means No. There is of course the phenomenon of “playing hard to get”. However, nowadays that risk should not be taken by anyone. No must always mean No, for everybody’s sake.
However, it brings into question the whole nature of consent and sexual relations. It is the secularised, sentimentalised, trivialised, de-moralised approach to sexual relations and their purpose that has given birth to this sad situation. There is one basic culprit, easy to name but harder to locate: secular society. In this society has been aided and abetted by a Church that has become too often too timid to speak the truth about sex, love and consent to society. It is a sin of omission that is a sin nevertheless, and a form of collusion. Sometimes pastors and theologians even try to justify a deficient, even vicious, view of the matter, and that is very much a sin of commission.
Sex and consent to sex properly belong in one place only: marriage. Outside of this sexual intercourse is always misused and abused. We know that the sexual act is meant to be an act of love which is open to bearing the fruit that is natural to it: children, new life. Now, society will tell us, one way or another, that this love of which sexual intercourse is an expression is based on whether we feel loving. How many relationships have been doomed by their being based on this fleeting feeling of love. How fickle is human emotion; how enduring can be its fallout.
Now, let us say boy A and girl B have had sexual intercourse, feeling themselves to be in love, and let us say that they have not used contraception, or that their contraception has failed. B falls pregnant, to her horror and that of her family and that of the boy A. Being all typical products of secular society, they enter damage-control mode. Boy A blames girl B for her failure to take proper precautions, and vice versa. Boy A and his family protest that he is too young and that he has yet to finish his studies and begin a career; to marry this girl now and bring up the child would doom his prospects. Girl B and her family feel similarly. All agree to procure her an abortion to deal with this unwanted and troublesome consequence of their passing night of passion.
I do not think it unreasonable to claim that this hypothetical is not too uncommon in reality, and even more common in variations of it. One might today add, perhaps, that girl B, in order, say, to procure an abortion more easily, claims she was raped by boy A.
Some act of love. What “love” was this in the first place?
Here is exposed the problem with consent that secular society will not face, and has not the equipment to face. Consent is not meant to be reduced to a moment-to-moment phenomenon. When it is, then it is all too easy, in the way of human logic, to grant it one moment, and revoke it the next, even after the event. This is a travesty of sexual consent. It is juvenile caprice and little more. Secular society has sentimentalised sex, and thereby trivialised it, and indeed infantilised it.
Christian marriage tells us the truth about sexual consent. First must come the consent of mutual commitment, for life. Since the proper fruit of sexual intercourse is new, permanent, life it is only logical that its context be one of permanent commitment. That permanent commitment cannot be made in a moment. It requires courtship, a getting-to-know the other, discovering the other’s strengths and weaknesses, a learning to like and respect the other, a training in self-discipline for the sake of the other. It requires a period of discernment, moving from relative detachment to relative intimacy, to determine if the other is someone to whom we can commit for life, to whom we can give our entire selves and from whom we can receive his or her entire self.
Sexual consent in its proper context of marriage is not a moment-to-moment phenomenon. It is the enduring fiat that comes from the basic and enduring fiat of the marriage vows. When outside its proper context sexual consent is little better than a toy used by capricious juveniles, who like it one day, toss it aside the next. The problem is that sexual intercourse has a greater and more enduring purpose beyond our fleeting emotions and fleshly desires. Mess, to a greater or lesser degree, invariably follows.
How important then is the Annunciation to Our Lady for understanding the nuptial mystery, a mystery that will always be imperfectly lived by us but must never be imperfectly presented. By her fiat to God, which while not physically sexual was still very much nuptial, Mary gave herself over entirely to God in a permanent commitment she understood immediately and implicitly due to her upbringing in a household of faith. She knew it would be life-changing; her consent was informed. She gave over to God her body and soul; and God as love—the real thing I mean—overshadowed her in a way beyond physicality but still essentially fruitful in new life. And what life she thereby conceived.
The Church’s advice to young men and women—and not so young—in this current social sexual crisis is indeed to be sure of consent before sexual activity. But the only consent worth having, worth giving—the one consent truly necessary—is that “I do” made before the altar of God a consent made intentionally for life.
Let us pray this Lent especially—with fasting and almsgiving—that the Church’s hymn of nuptial truth might prevail over the clamour of secularism’s siren song of sex.