Unjust consent.

While we usually think about chastity in narrowly sexual terms, I often suggest to people that we think of it in a broader, more anthropological sense.

In a negative sense, the chaste person doesn’t exploit human weakness. Important here is that this includes not only my neighbor’s weakness but my own as well.

In a positive sense, the chaste person respects human weakness and sees it as an opportunity not to exploit but to make a sacrificial offering of self for the benefit of the other. This I think helps us understand what self-restraint is essential to a chaste life.

Limiting this self-restraint to sexual behavior is an act of self-deception. Sins against chastity (or sins of sexual immorality) are almost always the result of a series of self-indulgent thoughts and actions that exploit the immaturity or vulnerability of others.

A recent post in Just Thomism touches on the importance of this wider, deeper understanding of chastity.

Reflecting on the popular, contemporary notion that “consent” is the only ethical limit on sexual activity, James Chastek points out what I would call the unbearable naiveté of such a standard.

Drawing from the business world, we see the insufficiency of consent as a moral standard. In the economic realm,

…all kinds of consent are exploitive. Consent is usually given in timeshare sales, phone bills 50-100% greater bottom lines than announced in the big print, donations or campaign contributions that are functionally equivalent to bribes, payday loans, loans made to those in dire circumstances, loans made at no risk to the lender, most college loans, most historically existing forms of debt peonage, accepting perpetual slavery as a punishment for default or as the price for anything at all etc.

Just as in business, consent in the sexual realm can also be unjust. After all, “Since sex might be the only thing we want more than money, there are as many ways in which sexual consent is exploitive.” Chastek goes on to say, that

People agree – consent – all the time to exploitive, wrong, and unjust things, and it is silly to protest that their agreement makes everything right. But this is where everything gets interesting, since we find ourselves trapped by the question of what justice looks like in sexual relations, i.e. what are sort of sexual relationships to which one ought to consent? This is, however, exactly the sort of question that the Sexual Revolution wanted to replace with an economy of sheer consent, and it’s here that one sees the contradiction at its heart.

The contradiction is overlooked because we naively (and often implicitly) contrast consent with physical (or at least) emotional violence.

But coercion in human relationships is broader than physical violence. Working with college students, I frequently find that students feel great social pressure to be sexually active.

The practical effect of this is that free consent between two individuals is compromised by the social coercion. This puts sexually active students in the curious–and emotionally and morally untenable–role of being both victim and perpetrator.

Especially with the young, social pressure can rob individuals of the ability to consent. This shouldn’t be a surprise. We know that the opposite is equally true. Fidelity to the promise we make depend, at least in part, on the support of family, friends and the wider community.

And so back to chastity.

Chastity is not simply a private virtue; it is fundamentally social. Not simply interpersonal (i.e., between two people) but communal. We avoid exploiting the weakness of self and others, I need a community that supports and sustains me in my acts of self-restraint and self-denial.

Put another way, the self-sacrifice at the foundation of love is not only something we engage in for others but the fruit of the community’s sacrifice on our behalf.

Consent as the primary moral norm in sexual activity, then, reflects not enlightenment but a mere affirmation of human poverty and loneliness. While consent is personal it is also fundamentally communal. Consent abstracted from a community founded on self-restraint, self-denial and the self-sacrifice of love is simply an illusion.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory