Something amiss when we are too casual about casual sex
California’s new law requiring “affirmative consent” for sex is a good one. The “yes means yes” law rules out the possibility of consent when someone is asleep, intoxicated or otherwise impaired. Neither silence nor lack of protest counts as consent.
That’s a good law. But I thought decent human beings already knew this. Sex without consent is rape. And sex without communication is not very sexy. Trust, tenderness and mutual affection are the heart of erotic experience.
Erotic relations are deeply ethical. Erotic experience is heightened by shared intimacy and imagination. The zenith of the erotic occurs in seeing and feeling your lover’s desire and pleasure. Mutuality and reciprocity heighten pleasure and deepen desire. In a genuinely erotic relationship, there should be no mistake about consent.
In a culture of casual hookups, however, this may be missing. The players in the hookup culture need the reminder that only an explicit “yes” turns on the green light for sex. Indeed, as if on cue, there is a new app for consent called “Good2Go.” Prospective partners can use their smartphones to register consent (and level of intoxication) during a hookup in order to avoid messy “he said, she said” accusations after the fact.
This is an inevitable development. Erotic relationships are a lot of trouble. It is difficult to talk and listen to your partner about feelings, needs, hopes and expectations. In the smartphone universe all of that mushy emotional stuff can be dispensed with. We can send sexy photos, use an app to register consent, exchange bodily fluids and then get back to the lonely business of living.
Erotic experience is much more than a contractual relation in which we consent to intercourse. Unfortunately, our culture tends to divorce sex from social relationships and shared intimacy. Ubiquitous porn normalizes unsocial orgasms. What we used to call “making love” is described as “doing it” or “having sex.” When sex becomes an “it” that we can “do” or a thing we can “have,” we risk confusing a social relationship with an act of solitary gratification.
Some may argue that sexual acts are simply pleasant biological functions, something to be done without much fanfare or any necessary social connection. Some may also object that idealism about making love is a gourmet indulgence for those fortunate enough to have found a loving partner. Many people don’t have the time, energy or opportunity for deeply meaningful erotic relations. A quick consensual hookup may be the best we can hope for in our fast-food world.
I corresponded about this with Professor Qrescent Mali Mason, an expert on the philosophy of sex and love at Drexel University. Professor Mason thought I was too moralistic in my thinking about the importance of what I call making love. She argued that there is something to be learned from sexual experimentation without love. She suggested that experiencing sexual relations with partners we do not love can help us to understand and recognize love when we find it. Professor Mason also pointed out that some people just want sex.
Fair enough. We do have a tendency to idealize and romanticize sex, which is after all simply an animal function. But I still contend that there is something missing when we are too casual about casual sex. Animals can exchange bodily fluids. But only human beings exchange ideas, hopes and dreams.
Some may suggest that the deep problem is that sex has been decoupled from marriage. But there is no guarantee that sex within marriage is loving. Husbands can rape their wives. And people can make love and share profound intimacy without being married. The real problem is that sex is often viewed as a mere bodily function divorced from the erotic and social connection that is its greatest joy.
Technology and the law make the hookup scene easier, safer and more efficient. But consent apps and “yes means yes” laws cannot transform sex into love. Professor Mason concluded her correspondence with me by joking that one reason to like the “yes means yes” law is that we all like to hear a little “yes, yes, yes!” shouted in the bedroom. But I would add that we also like to hear a whisper of “I love you.”