Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A New Look at Sex: Author Christine Emba on the Boundaries of Consent

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Why are so many young Americans so unhappy with their sex lives?

That’s the question that looms over a fascinating new book by Washington Post columnist Christine Emba called: A new look at sex: a provocation† A provocation indeed: in the book, Emba digs into why young people, in her words, “enter into sexual encounters they don’t really want for reasons they don’t quite agree with.”

She argues that the sexual revolution, or the sex positivity movement, has turned sex into a hollow – and sometimes degrading – transaction. And the price of sexual liberation has been a wide-open dating culture that, ironically, has replaced old taboos with new ones and made many of us, especially women, miserable.

There are parts of Emba’s argument I agree with and don’t share, so I reached out to her for a recent episode of cafemadrid conversations† We discuss how her Catholic faith shapes her views on sex, why she thinks consent isn’t enough, and what kind of sexual culture she wants to see in the world.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s a lot more in the full podcast, so listen and follow cafemadrid conversations On Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifystitcheror wherever you listen to podcasts.


Sean Illing

Who or what do you hope to provoke with this book?

Christine Emba

The book is a push to rethink some of our views on sex and sexuality, and what they mean in our lives, especially after the sexual revolution and during the third wave feminist movements. So it’s a provocation to rethink how we talk about consent, and play the role we’ve asked for consent to play as an arbitrator on whether sex is okay or not. It’s also about rethinking the way we talk about gender and the concepts of freedom, privacy and equality, and what they should look like.

I hope it’s a provocation for conversation and not just anger. But I do think that the question of taking a second and harder look at the moral worth of sex, the ethical questions involved in sex, whether certain desires are healthy for us to admit, tends to make suppliers to provoke from what I have in the book ‘uncritical sex positivity’, the idea that sex is great, that all sex is good –

Sean Illing

What’s wrong with that view?

Christine Emba

Well, there are a few different angles that I go into in the book. The first is the idea that consent can have a legitimizing function for sex. That once you have two consenting adults, two adults consenting to do something, there is nothing left to criticize. There is nothing to question. I think consent is an excellent legal basis – it is absolutely necessary. It is the floor we must have under all our sexual encounters so that they are not actively illegal or actively attacking anyone else.

But we want so much more from sex than simply not being illegal. We want to ask questions about what we owe each other, about the responsibilities we have to each other, about whether sex is not only legal, but also morally and ethically right. And so by saying, “Anything beyond the consent, we don’t talk about it,” omits all these really important questions, even about whether the consent was obtained fairly, whether we’re actually helping our partner, or what we’re doing. doing it is even good for us.

Sean Illing

When I hear that, I think it means that you think that consent is not enough, because we actually don’t know what is good for us, that we are confused about our wants and our needs. And therefore, because of that confusion, we agree to things that are bad for us. Is that a misreading of your beliefs?

Christine Emba

I think that’s really true. I think it’s really easy to agree to things that won’t help us in the long run, or that won’t get us any closer to the sex life we ​​want, or even the general human bloom that we so desperately want.

On the other hand, I also think that in many cases consent can be used as a kind of fig leaf for selfishness. And we see this in some of the messier #MeToo cases, right? Where someone like Louis CK, for example, makes his defense after masturbating in front of his co-workers and leaving them traumatized in some cases is, “I asked first and they agreed, so it was fine.”

Or I read about the Evan Rachel Wood and Marilyn Manson and she talks about how she was abused by Marilyn Manson, how he did all those horrible behaviors on her that she didn’t really want to, but she was captivated by him, and this happened. And his defense is like, “Well, this was a consensual, intimate relationship. So why are you bothering me with this?”

Consent doesn’t make up for that, and I think it provides a lot of coverage for people who would abuse it by supposedly getting permission for activities they shouldn’t be doing.

Sean Illing

I don’t know much about those cases, but there are people in the book you’re interviewing who, for various reasons, aren’t happy with mutual encounters, and I suppose I’m wondering who you think is responsible for that? If as adults we consciously agree to something and we don’t like the outcome, isn’t that exactly what happens in a free society where people make free choices and thus make mistakes?

Christine Emba

No, I get that. The next thing is to just say, ‘Okay, we’re not necessarily sure what to do or we’re making bad choices, and that’s free will. That is what being human is like in a free society.” And one backlash I’ve had on this criticism of consent is, “Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to make bad sex illegal? Or lower the law for anyone who has sex with someone and that’s not right?” No I do not want that.

When I criticize consent, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have it or that there should be consent police to make sure every encounter is ideal. But I also think we can have better standards and a higher standard of what we look for in sex and what we expect from each other, after consent, to bring us closer to more good interactions rather than more bad or mediocre interactions.

Sean Illing

What standard?

Christine Emba

A higher standard I propose in the book is this idea of ​​wanting the other person’s well-being, which basically means that you care about the other person’s experience, about the other person, as much as you care about yourself in a sexual relationship. meeting. And ideally, trying to figure out what the good guys would look like for them and for you together, and focus your encounters on that. And recognizing that if you can’t figure that out, maybe you don’t want to have sex with this person right now.

Again, this is not a legal criterion. This does not stop people from having bad sex. If you don’t, the hand of the law won’t stop you from having sex. But even if we try to hold ourselves to a higher standard, thinking through these questions before we do it means we’re more likely to end up in a better place than if we said, “Well, as long as we’ve agreed to whatever, it’s fine.”

Sean Illing

History is very important here, as you know. In the book, you argue, or at least suggest, that our sexual culture used to be better when it wasn’t so liberating. But that situation and the taboos that formed it were hard on people — like gay Americans, to cite one example — who didn’t conform to our conventional mores about sex, and I’m not sure how that fits into your story or how to weigh the benefits against the costs.

Christine Emba

I think that’s a really important criticism and I try to think about it in the book, although there are always areas where I could have been more explicit about that. You are right that we have made so much progress in the sexual revolution. I think that’s great, especially for the groups you mentioned, especially for women, for queer people, who saw their desires and their personalities empowered, who ended up being treated, or at least meant to be treated as equal actors. in society.

While I criticize consent, it’s good that we’ve come to a place where we can recognize that it’s important and that we should have it. That was a leap forward that really took years, decades, and that’s incredible. That said, we can appreciate how far we’ve come, while also suggesting and realizing that there’s still a way to go. We can still realize that in some areas there has not been much change and that new problems have also arisen, even in the midst of new forms of liberation.

We don’t want to go backwards here – I certainly don’t. This is ultimately about moving forward to a place where we have even higher standards of care that serve us all.

Sean Illing

Do you feel that your views on sex are necessarily anchored in your religious perspective?

Christine Emba

Interesting question. The answer is yes. I converted to Catholicism in my senior year of college. And I found that the Catholic Church had a much stronger philosophical and theological background and was rooted in a tradition of practical and spiritual thinking about sex. And not just questions about sex itself, but all kinds of questions about sex and how it relates to the Christian faith.

But I did not necessarily write this book for Catholic readers or for my priest to read. I wrote this book in response to the many people I spoke to—both religious and non-religious—who felt they lived in a culture of sexual malaise and weren’t sure what to do about it. And they were trying to figure out how to answer some of these questions and come up with better sexual ethics.

I was looking for an ethic that would make sense to someone who wasn’t religious, who wasn’t me, that would be universally applicable. And so I spent a lot of time asking people what they thought a good sexual culture would look like. What did they want from a sexual encounter that was different from the sexual encounters they seemed to continue to have?

And so many people said they were looking for “empathy” or “caring.” There’s one interview that’s very memorable in the book, and it’s a woman who is extremely non-religious who basically says to her partner, “Can’t we love each other for one day?” This is what she wanted an ethics to look like. And I think that’s something that’s shared by people, both religious and non-religious.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click hereand be sure to subscribe cafemadrid conversations On Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifystitcheror wherever you listen to podcasts.

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