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Sex, Love, and Consent

In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 novel Fleishman is in Trouble there is a scene where the main character, Toby Fleishman, is having dinner with a woman he found on a hookup app, but has only ever met for casual sex.

As she studies the menu, Fleishman studies her:

“If you looked closely, she had about two centimetres of gray hair at her temples. She had said she was forty-five. She might actually be forty-eight. That’s almost fifty… She reached across the table to take his hand. He squeezed hers back. He never realized her arms were so hairy. It was a dark, thick hair that grew somewhat wiry towards the wrist, like a man’s. He tried to look back at her in the eye, but he suddenly couldn’t bear her. What was he doing here? What had he thought he liked about her so much? She talked, a vapid prattle of superficial nonsense… She was newly shy, and newly confused, sensing an annoyance from him. He felt bad about it, but that’s what sunlight does sometimes. It shows you what you couldn’t quite see in the dark.”

On this occasion, consent won’t be a problem because Dr Fleishman pretends the hospital has called him into work. He has no real feelings for this woman. She’s the object of his gaze, not his affection.

Throughout Brodesser-Akner’s book we see depicted a culture where we’ve become so casual about sex we no longer consider looking at naked strangers or even sleeping with them, well, strange; where what is becoming strange is the notion of exercising self-control to abstain from sexual activity, or using boundaries such as a committed relationship to confine it.

Yet the novel also depicts Fleishman’s shock when he finds his nine-year-old son has been exploring hard-core porn online, and his horror when he’s told his eleven-year-old daughter has sent a photo of her nipple to a boy. The fraught connections between the mores we practice, and those we want for our children, play out before the reader’s eyes.

In recent times, a succession of news stories about sexual harassment has many talking about the issue of consent.

There was the petition detailing thousands of alleged sexual assaults and a subsequent crisis meeting of NSW principals. There were nationwide protests calling for stronger measures to stop gendered violence and sexual harassment. There was the hasty, largely misguided, suggestion that apps could be used to record consent.

It’s one thing to teach children about consent, but if the culture around us suggests sexual encounters between people who don’t really care about each other are okay, it’s unsurprising that confusion about what’s not okay is rising too.

Again, it is a novel which provides us further insight into this problem, in this case Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. It’s not set in the present day, but we all know consent isn’t a recent problem.

The main character is living a lonely, loveless life when, in a rare moment of human contact, a man she barely knows comes onto her. She’s attracted to him too, but feeling used, she pulls away and runs.

“As long as she ranted, sobs couldn’t surface. But nothing could stop the burning shame and sharp sadness. A simple hope of being with someone, of actually being wanted, of being touched, had drawn her in. But these hurried groping hands were only a taking, not a sharing or giving.”

The italics are Owen’s, but they serve me well. If we want to stop people from feeling used and being abused – taken, not given – we need laws and practices that flow from a deeply-held concern for the other, not the abrupt imposition of a shallow one.

If we really want to reduce the risk of people hurting and being hurt, we need to raise the bar.

We need to see a whole person, stop to consider them, and start to care about them. If we care with heart as well as mind, with body and with soul, if we feel respect for a person, treating them with respect stops being a counter-intuitive learned behaviour; we stop doing it because we have to, we do it because we want to.

We’re already asking our teens to insist on consent for themselves and obtain it from others. But are we asking them to care about the person they are sexually attracted to? To expect care from that person? To realise that treating another human being only as someone who may or may not give them what they want will likely lead to hurt, because that someone has feelings? Are we recognising the fact the most vulnerable people, the most insecure, might sometimes be the most likely to give consent?

If we really want to reduce the risk of people hurting and being hurt, we need to raise the bar. We don’t just need to stop seeing people as objects, or start demanding ‘enthusiastic consent’, we need to stop separating sex from love.

Emma Wilkins is an Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.