Last month The Washington Post ran one of the most powerful and important essays I’ve read in a long time. Christine Emba wrote a blistering critique of modern sexual morality built almost entirely around consent—the idea that all things are permissible so long as consenting adults enthusiastically participate.
The essay begins with the story of “Rachel,” a young woman whom Emba spoke to over a cup of coffee in D.C.:
Rachel (a pseudonym) reeled off a list of unhappy encounters with would-be romantic partners: sex consented to out of a misguided sense of politeness, extreme acts requested and occasionally allowed, degrading insults as things unfolded—and regrets later. “It’s not like I was being forced into anything or that I feel unsafe, but it’s not … good. And I don’t like how I feel afterwards.”
Young Americans are engaging in sexual encounters they don’t really want for reasons they don’t fully agree with. It’s a depressing state of affairs—turbocharged by pornography, which has mainstreamed ever more extreme sexual acts, and the proliferation of dating apps, which can make it seem as though new options are around every corner.
As I read Emba’s essay, I immediately remembered a previous piece by Michelle Goldberg, in The New York Times. She described how “sex-positive feminism is falling out of fashion,” and she began like this:
In her new book, “The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century,” the philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who is quickly becoming one of the most high-profile feminist thinkers in the English-speaking world, describes teaching Oxford students about second-wave anti-porn activism. She assumes her students, for whom porn is ubiquitous, will “find the anti-porn position prudish and passé.” They do not. Rather, they’re in complete agreement with assertions that could come straight from Andrea Dworkin.
“Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real? I asked. Yes, they said,” writes Srinivasan. She continues, “Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.” (Emphasis added).
Reading both Emba and Goldberg (and Helen Lewis in The Atlantic), it’s increasingly apparent to me that we’re approaching a critical cultural moment—a deep questioning of contemporary sexual morality that’s arising not just from traditionalist religious spaces that have always questioned the sexual revolution, but also from the heart of feminism and mainstream cultural commentary.
At the core of this cultural moment is the realization that one of the more popular moral trends of the last 60 years, the notion that sex can be both casual and recreational so long as both parties enthusiastically consent, is fundamentally at odds with our human nature and our profound moral needs.