Rachel, 25, has the open face and friendly demeanor of a born-and-bred Midwesterner. She’s lively and opinionated, and feels in control of most areas of her life. But when it comes to sex, something isn’t right.
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.
The results are widely felt. Many of my contemporaries are discouraged by the romantic landscape, its lack of trust, emotion and commitment, but they also believe that safer options and smoother avenues aren’t possible. Instead, they assume that this is how things go and that it would be unreasonable to ask for more — and rude not to go along with whatever has been requested.
In our post-sexual-revolution culture, there seems to be wide agreement among young adults that sex is good and the more of it we have, the better. That assumption includes the idea that we don’t need to be tied to a relationship or marriage; that our proclivities are personal and that they are not to be judged by others — not even by participants. In this landscape, there is only one rule: Get consent from your partner beforehand.
But the outcome is a world in which young people are both liberated and miserable. While college scandals and the #MeToo moment may have cemented a baseline rule for how to get into bed with someone without crossing legal lines, that hasn’t made the experience of dating and finding a partner simple or satisfying. Instead, the experience is often sad, unsettling, even traumatic.
As Rachel told me: “Every single person I know — every woman I know — has had some questionable encounter, whether it was, like, really violent or really forceful or just kind of like, ‘Oh, I hated that. That was not fun.’”
These are typically encounters that adults have entered into willingly, in part because consent alone is the standard for good and ethical sex. But the experiences that many young people described to me sound neither ethical nor particularly good.
When the covid-19 pandemic briefly pressed pause on our overheated social lives, many young adults suddenly had time to reflect on their experiences and desires: what we really want from dating, sex and relationships, and what we want and expect from each other. Today, as we make our way back into the world, we need a new ethic — because consent is not enough.
Even when it goes well, sex is complicated. It involves our bodies, minds and emotions, our connections to each other and our deepest selves. Despite the (many, and popular) arguments that it’s only a physical act, it is clear to almost anyone who has had it that sex has vast consequences, some of which can last long after an encounter ends. Over the past several decades, our society has come to believe that consent — as a legal standard and a moral requirement — could somehow make our most unruly activity more manageable. But it was never going to be that easy.
To be fair, it’s taken a great deal of effort even to get to the place where consent is considered a baseline requirement for ethical sex.
The earliest rape laws reflected the historically common view that women were the property of a father or husband whose honor might be harmed. Even as laws were slowly rewritten to recognize rape as a crime against the woman herself, the burden remained on the woman to prove her truthfulness, chastity and resistance to attack — making cases extraordinarily difficult to prosecute in the minority of cases when women came forward.
In the 1970s, second-wave feminists organized speak-outs, hosted forums and established rape crisis centers, drawing attention to the pervasiveness of sexual assault and violence against women. Still, change came slowly. Laws that protected husbands from being prosecuted for sexual violence against their wives remained on the books in 2019. Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016 even after audio emerged of him bragging about grabbing women by their genitals.
“No means no” was a radical slogan when it was first popularized in the 1990s. And the idea of affirmative consent — getting verbal permission clearly and often during a sexual encounter — was considered even more radical when it was implemented in 1991 at Antioch College, a tiny liberal arts school in Ohio. In 1993, “Saturday Night Live” mocked it with a game-show skit featuring sex-hating “victimization studies” majors; comedian Dave Chappelle was still roasting the idea of a “love contract” in 2004.
And yet, by the 2010s, the preferred consensus had moved away from “no means no” and coalesced around “yes means yes.” California enacted a law of the same name in 2014. This phrase, and the accompanying idea of “affirmative consent,” made clear that the absence of a “no” didn’t constitute agreement to anything; an active “yes” was needed, too. “Yes” as the standard would ideally make the act of giving consent an informed, empowering exchange. Or at least, that was the idea.
More recently, sex educators have moved toward the “enthusiastic” formulation of consent. This approach, which has become received wisdom on college campuses, tries to distinguish between wanted and unwanted sex, and encompasses both agency and desire. Again, the goal is to remove ambiguity, but it sets the bar higher. “If it’s not a f--- yes,” as social media influencer Serena Kerrigan proclaims to her 150,000 Instagram followers, mostly young women in their 20s, “it’s a f--- no.”
But even this more modern definition does not seem to have substantially reduced the unhappiness among many sexually active men and women. The same complaints and confusions abound. What if one party hopes for a future together and the other does not? What counts as a relationship, and what is “casual,” if the definition isn’t mutually shared? If men and women have different fertility timelines, does that affect the power dynamic? Where does money play in, or status?
Even the qualified versions of consent — the “affirmative,” the “enthusiastic” — have the lowest possible standard as their working assumption: “Did I get permission, so that my actions are not statedly against this person’s will?” The new adjectives are often understood as simply shifting the goal posts — rather than stopping when your partner says “no,” you just have to get them to say “yes” in the right way.
The problem with all this is that consent is a legal criterion, not an ethical one. It doesn’t tell us how we should treat each other as an interaction continues. It doesn’t provide a good road map should something go off the rails. And it suggests that individual actions — “ask for consent,” “speak your mind,” “be more forceful in saying yes or no” — are enough to preempt the misunderstandings and hurt that can come with physical intimacy.
Too often, they’re just not. And setting consent as the highest bar for any encounter effectively takes a pass on the harder questions: whether that consent was fairly obtained; whether it can ever fully convey what our partners really, ultimately want; whether we should be doing what we’ve gotten consent to do.
More clarifications of consent — or ever-more-technical breakdowns of its different forms — won’t rebalance power differentials, explain intimacy or teach us how to care. Making the standard of consent our sole criterion for good sex punts on the question of how to conduct a relationship that affirms our fundamental personhood and human dignity.
And an overreliance on consent as the sole solution might actually worsen the malaise that so many people feel: If you’re playing by the rules and everything still feels awful, what are you supposed to conclude?
The forced isolation of the pandemic, and the attempts that many people made to work around it, put an unexpected lens on modern-day intimacy. The vast array of dating apps has skewed our sense of what is acceptable and what is not by dangling the prospect of another, better match merely a swipe away.
Meanwhile, millennials and Gen Z are the first generations to have entered puberty with easy access to pornography via the Internet — often easier access than they had to genuine sex education. By 2019, Pornhub — which had launched only a dozen years earlier — averaged 115 million visits per day, nearly the equivalent of the combined populations of Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Poland. The most readily accessible kind of pornography — aggressive and hardcore, shot from the male perspective, with women existing to give men pleasure and not much else — has mainstreamed acts (choking, anal sex and outright violence) that used to be rarer. The ubiquity of pornography also means that growing numbers of women are interacting with porn-addled men who either disregard their desires or who don’t understand how to interact with a fellow human being as opposed to an avatar on a screen.
Consider what Kaitlin, 30, told me at a party.
“I’ve been going on dates with this guy who I really like.” It’s the winter of 2019 — the pre-pandemic era, when single urbanites still crushed up against each other in crowded apartments, trading complaints and advice over mediocre beers. “But he chokes me during sex?”
Kaitlin (also a pseudonym) wasn’t sure whether to say anything, or even if it could be considered a valid problem. After all, moments like this had happened to lots of her friends. And in the moment, she had said yes.
She then asked me — a complete stranger — to tell her how she was supposed to feel.
“I mean, what do you think? Is that okay?”
My immediate thought was that of course it wasn’t. She had felt pushed to do something that she didn’t want to do, and she should be honest with her partner and herself. Her discomfort was valid. That she felt the need to ask a stranger for confirmation felt disturbing — and sad.
Yet I understood her hesitancy. Early in the #MeToo movement, many commenters argued that women should simply get better at saying no, at withholding their consent and exiting uncomfortable situations. There’s some truth to that. But it also felt like yet another burden placed on women: to be gatekeepers, whose comfort and safety were predicated on having the right level of self-confidence and self-possession even in their most vulnerable moments. What about those of us who are not always perfectly self-assured?
And making the issue “being firm about consent” sidesteps a critical question about what our standards should be. There are some sexual practices — Kaitlin’s surprise choking encounter among them — that eroticize dehumanization and degradation, ones for which the issue should not be whether they are consented to but whether they’re ethically valid at all.
Instead, “between two consenting adults” has become a stock phrase, a conversational yield sign indicating that whatever is detailed next might raise eyebrows but remains beyond critique. This obscures the fact that not all sex is the same. Some things are worse than others. Yet the bias toward acceptance makes it difficult to say so, even when something feels obviously wrong.
And when we do object to a particular act or practice, there isn’t language to do so. Since we have made it effectively impossible for anything apart from nonconsent to be wrong, we end up framing issues in that prevailing standard — the consent given wasn’t the right kind, we say: It wasn’t verbally affirmative or visibly enthusiastic. There’s no clear way to talk about the underlying problems of sexual acts agreed to in order to “be polite,” to please a pushy partner or to avoid something worse.
This is the problem with consent: It leaves so much out. Nonconsensual sex is always wrong, full stop. But that doesn’t mean consensual sex is always right. Even sex that is agreed to can be harmful to an individual, their partner or to society at large.
As a society, we tend to shy away from declaring certain behaviors intrinsically wrong, or right, or uncomfortably in between. The focus on consent has — perhaps inadvertently — allowed us to dodge difficult questions about morality, autonomy and what our sexual culture ought to look like.
But that low-bar formulation doesn’t begin to cover the complications that arise in modern-day dating and mating. And the gap between what young people want the sexual landscape to look like and what the consent paradigm offers is turning many off of sex entirely, as evidenced by falling rates of sexual activity, partnership and marriage — some have dubbed this the “sex recession” — that recently hit a 30-year low. One woman told me that at the age of 34 she had “just stopped thinking a relationship is even possible.” Rather than expanding our happiness, liberation seems to have shrunk it.
What would a better ethic look like?
I met a lot of Rachels and Kaitlins, failed by our current sexual protocols. And I heard from men, too, that the current culture was less to their liking than one might guess.
In their experience, the pressure to say “yes” feels more like a pressure not to say “no” — to live up to the “callous womanizer” stereotype that the low bar of consent culture still seemed to allow. This pressure, they said, made it harder to pursue the real connection many of them desired. And at the same time, a lack of clear norms apart from consent contributed to an underlying level of anxiety and uncertainty — you know enough not to be Harvey Weinstein, but what if you end up canceled like West Elm Caleb? — making even low-stakes interactions feel more and more out of reach. As one therapist told me: “Men in their twenties are terrified, and they talk about it a lot.”
I asked many of these people what a better sexual world might look like. “Listening,” I heard. “Care,” they said. “Mutual responsibility,” some suggested. Or, as one woman plaintively put it: “Can we not just love each other for a single day?”
That question points to what looks to me like a good answer. The word “love” tends to conjure ideas of flowers, chocolate, declarations of undying devotion. But the term has a longer, more helpful history. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian, defined love as “willing the good of the other.” He borrowed that definition from Aristotle, who talked about love as an intention to bear goodwill toward another for the sake of that person and not oneself.
Willing the good means caring enough about another person to consider how your actions (and their consequences) might affect them — and then choosing not to act if the outcome would be negative. It’s mutual concern — thinking about someone other than yourself and then working so their experience is as good as you hope yours to be. It’s taking responsibility for navigating interactions that might seem ambiguous, rather than using that ambiguity to excuse self-serving “misunderstandings.”
In practice, this would mean that we have to think about the differentials in power that come with age, gender, experience, intoxication level and expectations of commitment, especially when clothes come off. This new ethic would also acknowledge that sex is likely to be something different and more substantial than we want or expect it to be. This makes it our responsibility to make a good-faith bet on what the good actually is — and what just might be a bad idea.
There are many situations in which a partner might consent to sex — affirmatively, even enthusiastically — but in which sex would still be ethically wrong. In general, “willing the good of the other” is most often realized in restraint — in inaction rather than action. This involves a certain level of maturity and self-knowledge on all our parts: an understanding that if we aren’t able to manage this level of consideration — in the moment or more broadly — we probably shouldn’t be having sex. And, yes, it might lead to less casual sex, not more.
It’s a much higher standard than consent. But consent was always the floor — it never should have been the ceiling.