“Whether it’s tea or sex, consent is everything.” This we learn from the closing statement of a video entitled “Tea and Consent,” created by the Thames Valley Police. Over the last few years, this short and clever educational video has made its way around the internet, and Baylor University even began showing it to incoming freshmen.
The video analogises an offer of tea with seduction. You only make someone tea if that person explicitly expresses a desire for tea and—the video tells us—sex is no different. While the video aims to educate men on the importance of receiving explicit verbal consent for sexual activity, it does so via a clumsy and unhelpful characterization of sex as a simple transaction. The video’s conclusion, “Consent is everything,” and the subtitle, “Consent, it’s simple as tea,” are both false: the complex human activity of sex cannot simply be reduced to matters of consent and it is nowhere near as simple as tea. To pretend otherwise is to endorse a crudely transactional view of sex that favors men and, if accepted by young women, exposes them to the possibility of real psychological and emotional harm.
Consent, it must be emphasized, is extremely important. Nonconsensual sexual activity is sexual assault; nonconsensual penetration is rape. The harrowing testimonies of assault and rape victims are poignant reminders of the grave harm done when a refusal to consent is ignored. However, reports of the power of consent to prevent all sexual harms have been greatly exaggerated. While consent certainly helps to distinguish consensual sexual encounters from nonconsensual ones, it does not guarantee that both partners will walk away from the encounter unscathed.
Our concern here is not the video itself, but what it represents in college life today: the misguided notion that consent allows young people to navigate sex, specifically hookup culture, safely. The message that colleges and universities are communicating to students is that consent is a sort of panacea against all the (non-biological) risks of sex, and that, so long as there is consent, everything is okay. Of course, in a limited sense, the stance of higher education is understandable because, from a legal perspective, consent is everything. But, just because consent protects universities from liability, that does not mean that it protects women from harm. Sex, in short, is a lot more complicated than tea.
What sort of harm is at issue? Rather than oversimplifying this complex phenomenon with an inadequate term, we will simply point at it, drawing on an infamous moment during the #metoo movement. In January, the website Babe published an anonymous article about a date with American actor and comedian Aziz Ansari that went wrong—as the headline indicates, it became the worst night of the 22 year-old author’s life. The controversy this story generated offers an apt illustration of why sex is more complicated than consent. The article provoked immediate disputes over whether Ansari had really done anything to deserve condemnation. And, even if Ansari had done something wrong, was it fair to mention him alongside men like Harvey Weinstein, who stood accused of rape and sexual assault?
Ansari’s defenders pointed out that he performed oral sex on the woman with her consent, and that when she refused consent for other sexual acts, he relented. But even if it can be shown that Ansari did nothing wrong at all, that does not necessarily mean that this woman did not suffer harm. So long as we try and assess her experience on the narrow basis of consent, confusion about sex and harm will proliferate.
The young woman consented to Ansari performing oral sex on her, but as she rode home in her Uber crying, she felt violated by the entire experience—including the sexual activity to which she had consented. Some have attempted to dismiss this as merely a case of consensual sex regretted after the fact, but a better interpretation is this: the harm, experienced and realized retroactively, derives from the fact that she did not receive what she consented to and that Ansari had no intention of giving it to her. That is, she consented to sexual activity, but did so in the expectation of something larger than just the sexual act. She understood the sexual activity to be something worth doing for some sort of relationship beyond the sex itself. But, she realized, Ansari wanted nothing but the act.
Consider the transactional nature of casual sexual encounters. A hook-up is a sort of transaction—a mutual exchange for mutual benefit. One consents only because one hopes to benefit from the sexual encounter. Now, what happens if the desire for sex or the expected benefit is higher on one side than on the other? That is, what if Bob wants access to Sally’s body more than Sally wants access to Bob’s? In other words, what if it is not an equal trade because of a difference in desire? Then, generally, one of two things is going to happen: either (1) Sally will not consent to sex with Bob or (2) Sally will require additional compensation. The first is a refusal, the second is a purchase. In either case, ideally, the result will be that each party feels they got dealt a fair deal in the transaction (or lack thereof). Of course, in non-ideal situations, the transactions may not be entirely equal. Both parties are often consenting to the full experience of sex, and the benefits of a sexual encounter are rather open-ended; sex is an extremely rich and multivariate experience that has many potential desirable (and undesirable) features.
For the hook-up to be a fair transaction, the two parties have to be mutually satisfied with obtaining the potential benefits of a single sexual encounter. This certainly includes the bodily or physical pleasures of arousal, stimulation, and climax. What makes sex tricky is that there is much more that is desirable about sex than these more physical pleasures. Many of the other desirable features are not easily contained within the single sexual encounter. Some of the enjoyments of sex have to do with a reflective enjoyment of the experience. Here we get into trouble because there are reasons to think that men have an advantage over women in obtaining these benefits from a single and self-contained sexual encounter.
It is a kind of folk-wisdom that men enjoy a certain higher-order pleasure related to the “conquest” of the sexual experience; stereotypically masculine idioms such as “sowing oats” and acquiring “notches on the belt” bear this idea out. An analysis of why this is the case lies beyond the scope of this essay, but it does seem to be an observable fact about the state of things. Simply convincing a woman to have sex is a benefit men often enjoy from a single encounter—it boosts their self-esteem, which they can carry forward even if, as they may prefer, they never see the woman again. This sort of benefit is generally not available to a woman. While sexual promiscuity may enhance the perception of masculinity, it often diminishes the perception of femininity.
In addition to increased social stature, men also appear to desire or value the physical pleasures of sexual activity more than women do. Statistics on how many, and how often, people pay money for sex indicate that men place a higher price on physical pleasures than women. According to the Scientific American, around 16 percent of men in America have paid for sex, but very few American women have done the same (reliable numbers on this are difficult to come by, but most studies put it somewhere between one and three percent). This indicates that men and women value the physical pleasures of a single encounter differently; men place a higher price on them than women. This should give us something to think about when we consider the hook-up. If women in general do not value the one-off physical pleasures as much as men (because women pay for these pleasures much more rarely than men), then how is the woman getting as much out of the hook-up as the man? She probably isn’t.
Of course, all that either party of a hook-up can hope to guarantee the other are the physical pleasures of arousal, stimulation, and climax—but for women, this too is often not achieved. Awareness of the gendered imbalance of physical satisfaction in sexual encounters has recently been referred to as the “pleasure gap.” By gathering all the potential benefits into a single sexual encounter, hook-ups become inherently risky and women absorb much more of the risk than men. This risk goes beyond pleasure gaps, social detriment, and the like; women are, of course, also at risk from a greater number of sexually-transmitted infections than men, HPV (human papilloma virus), and an unwanted pregnancy (which itself incurs further health and financial dangers). If anything, to say that women are more vulnerable to transactional losses in hookups seems to understate the case—women take a huge gamble when they engage in casual hookups, and when her sexual partner fails to realize this, or take the necessary precautions, the result will be a feeling of violation, a feeling of being harmed, a feeling of being taken advantage of.
The inherent riskiness of casual transactional sexual encounters helps to illuminate why consent has become such a murky and unhelpful concept. While pop culture tends to portray sex between two people in love as a near communion of souls, perfectly attuned to the desires of the other without a word needing spoken, hook-ups are by their nature removed from this ideal. Sex with a partner with whom you are unfamiliar involves taking on the risk of not being able to read their body language or understand their dispositions from the standpoint of a shared history with them—resources that likely would be at the disposal of one having sex with a familiar intimate partner. Even with explicit verbal consent, those engaging in casual sex (and especially men) must trust that their sexual partner is aware of the risks associated with the transaction—the risk that, perhaps more likely than not, she may be the transactional “loser.”
The nature of hook-ups diminishes the power of consent to prevent harm, because the more casual the acquaintance, the less aware both parties will be about the risks to themselves or their partners. To that end, we argue that it is extremely difficult to engage in casual sexual encounters without incurring the significant risk of harming one’s sexual partner—a notion that our sexually-liberated society seems unwilling to consider.
R. P. Reed is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Texas A&M where he researches virtue ethics, Anscombe, Aristotle, and the history of moral and political thought.
Megan Fritts is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research is concerned with topics at the intersection of philosophy of action and human flourishing.