Sexual ethics, consent, and violence prevention

Q. Recently, there have been calls for education regarding sexual ethics. How do you conceptualise this? In terms of sexual consent?

Framing violence prevention education among young people in terms of ‘sexual ethics’ has obvious advantages. The sexual ethics framework is fundamentally oriented towards skill-building. It engages young people as social and sexual agents, inviting processes of critical reflection and negotiation. And it avoids many of the problems of some other violence prevention approaches, particularly those based in narrow sexual prescriptivism or in ineffective pedagogical approaches. Emphasising sexual ethics is an innovative and valuable part of violence prevention work.

However, I also have several concerns about the sexual ethics approach as it is currently articulated. In some discussions, the approach has involved an inaccurate, stereotyped account of other violence prevention approaches. These are misrepresented as based only on teaching women ‘risk avoidance’, as based on simplistic notions of men always as perpetrators and women always as victims, and as neglecting cultural messages about gender and sexuality. Their notions of ‘healthy’ or ‘respectful’ relationships are more progressive and even more radical than these discussions allow.

The sexual ethics approach focuses on creating the conditions for ethical reflection, decision-making and negotiation. While the approach sometimes is described as avoiding ‘telling young people what they should do’, it does have two normative assumptions. Both are entirely sensible. First, coerced and sex and violence are judged to be unacceptable, and ethical reflection and negotiation are seen to make them less likely. Second, there is an implicit meta-assumption, that young people should make ethical decisions.

I have three further concerns. I agree that encouraging skills in ethical reflection and negotiation will make it less likely that young men (for example) will use sexual violence. But mutual negotiation – or, more simply, participants’ consent to their sexual relations – is a necessary but not sufficient basis for ethical sex. People may consent to sex in the context of unequal power relations, limited alternatives, or dire needs, and may be manipulated, deceived, or coerced into consent. (A young woman agrees to have sex with a much older man for money or other favours.) People may consent to sexual activities which harm them. (A man chooses to have unsafe sex with his HIV-positive male partner. A young woman agrees that her boyfriend can put sexual pictures of her on the internet.) They may consent to sexual relations which have third party effects, involving harm to others in the presence of these sexual relations. (A young couple regularly has sex in front of a four-year-old nephew.) And they may consent to acts which reflect and reinforce oppressive social roles.

In short, a minimalist ethics of consent is not a sufficient basis for a substantive sexual ethics. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough. Teaching young people sexual ethics won’t necessarily prevent their involvement in unethical sexual relations, because of the limitations on their individual ethical reflection and negotiation and the influence of wider cultural forces and relations. Of course, this same criticism is equally applicable to other violence prevention approaches.

One of the key challenges in violence prevention is working to undermine the discourses of gender and sexuality which feed into violence. The sexual ethics approach recognises this. But it’s not clear that it’s any more effective than other violence prevention approaches in enabling people to challenge such discourses through personal reflection or to contribute to wider social change in discourses and power relations.

Finally, a sexual ethics approach may not give us much purchase on unethical or harmful behaviours and relations which are not sexual, such as various forms of social and emotional abuse. Still, a focus on sexual coercion and sexual violence is valuable given the neglect of these in some prevention programming.

A sexual ethics approach has real strengths. It focuses on skills development, offering a clear behavioural message, and the evidence is that such programs are more effective than those focused only on attitudes. It gives a language with which to make ethical choices and construct ethical relations. It invites a positive standard of consent, arrived at through reflection and negotiation. And it makes room for young people to arrive at a variety of (ethical) sexual involvements, from intimate monogamy to casual sex to no sex at all. If done well, other approaches focused on ‘healthy’ or ‘respectful’ relationships have similar strengths.

Q. Historically, it has been a woman’s responsibility to communicate either her consent or non-consent to sexual activity. Increasingly, a ‘positive standard’ of ‘free agreement’ is being called for, and also men’s role in managing and negotiating this agreement. What do you think are the key factors in ensuring men are aware of, and active in, negotiating free agreement in their sexual interactions?

The shift in law towards a positive standard of consent is to be welcomed. To some degree, it holds potential perpetrators of sexual assault to a higher standard, in which they must take reasonable steps to ensure consent. It recognises the power relations within which sexual relations may take place. And it moves the law away from a traditional construction of heterosexuality in which women give in to male ‘seduction’. At the same time, it’s clear that in practice, the use of a positive standard of consent in sexual assault cases has not eliminated victim-blaming.

In everyday sexual relations, there are real challenges in establishing a positive standard of consent based on voluntary agreement. Above all, a negative standard of consent, based only on the absence of overt resistance among women to men’s sexual advances, remains a powerful social norm. In other words, the norm is that a man should stop only when faced with overt resistance from the woman he is with, rather than actively seeking consent throughout. This norm is wrapped up in wider constructions of gender and sexuality based in notions of uncontrollable male sexuality, female sexual passivity and subservience, a sexual double standard, and male sexual entitlement.

A positive standard of consent is stymied too by the absence of strong norms of explicit sexual negotiation, particularly among heterosexuals, a climate of sex negativity or erotophobia, and an increasingly pornographied popular culture based on sexist narratives of female nymphomania and male sexual prowess. On the other hand, a potential shift towards a positive standard of consent is supported by broader shifts towards norms of gender equality and by the increasing recognition and assertion of female sexual agency.

Focusing on young men for a moment, there is no Australian data to tell us what proportion have used sexual pressure or force in their sexual relations. But it’s obvious that a significant minority – around one in seven – does tolerate or condone sexual violence. From a 2001 survey of 12-20 year-olds, 14% of males (but only 3% of females) agreed that “It’s okay for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on”, and 15% of males (but only 4% of females) agreed that “It is okay to put pressure on a girl to have sex but not to physically force her”. Among Australians in general, the recent National Community Attitudes Survey found that over one-third of men (and close to one-third of women) agreed that rape results from men “not being able to control their need for sex”.

It is vital that we invite men to take on routine practices of positive consent. Many young men rely on problematic indicators such as the absence of resistance, body language, or previous or current sexual activity. Some simply do not care whether or not the woman is consenting, or even find forced sex arousing. We need to teach young men (and young women) not only how to do consent, but why it is important. Among some young men, those most invested in notions of male sexual entitlement, the biggest obstacle to practising consent is not that they don’t know how but they do not feel the need to do so.

Most young men would declare themselves to be adamantly opposed to rape, and yet many participate in sexual relations which are experienced by young women as at best uncomfortable and unwanted and at worst assaultive. Yet neither parties are likely to name such interactions as rape or violence, and sexual pressure and coercion are normalised and often invisible. Encouraging a positive model of consent will require a determined effort to deconstruct the wider scaffolding for negative consent and sexual coercion, based in particular in constructions of masculine sexuality and masculinity.

There are tricky questions here. How do we deal with the ‘gray’ areas in and around unwanted sex, for example where women consent to sex because they don’t want to be seen as ‘frigid’, because they don’t have the energy to avoid doing so, or out of a sense of nurturance or care for a partner who really wants to? Should explicit verbal negotiation be the standard we demand in every single sexual interaction, or can this be relaxed between sexual partners in established relationships? How will we respond to women’s ‘token resistance’ to sex? What does it mean, politically and otherwise, to claim that some women are raped and do not know it? Perhaps hardest of all, how will we deal with the inevitable, and even desirable, naming of women’s sexual coercion of men?

Q. How do you think concepts of ethics, respect and sexual interaction can translate into prevention and education campaigns?

Fostering community commitment to a progressive sexual ethics also involves addressing the profound limitations of the two frameworks for an ethical sexuality which are most influential.

The most powerful framework is a traditional Christian one. Here, sex is morally permissible only if it is heterosexual, within marriage, limited to intercourse, and not deliberately incompatible with reproduction. This framework has serious failings. Traditional Christian moralism has fed sexual oppression and gender injustice. It has shown little but contempt or pity for non-normative sexualities, been based in bodily denial, suspicious toward sex and pleasure, and focused on conformity and control rather than ethical reflection. Its intellectual bases are open to question, appealing selectively to Scripture, problematic notions of ‘nature’, or Church authority. On the other hand, the libertarian framework focuses simply on consent, and as I’ve noted, consent does not guarantee moral acceptability.

However, other frameworks for sexual ethics are emerging, including from Christian sources. They are sex-positive, respectful of sexual diversity, and responsive to sexual abuse and exploitation.

Note: This is a long version of an interview with Michael Flood published in ACSSA Aware, the newsletter of the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, No. 26, 2011. The short version is available in the PDF below.

Also see XY's collection on consent, here: