Today’s Solutions: January 30, 2023

In terms of sexual relations, the idea of consent and consent education has been picking up speed in recent years, with things like the #MeToo movement and the rise of women’s rights and empowerment propelling its progress forward. While this is certainly moving along the right trajectory, there have been qualms about the limitations surrounding the word consent and questions being raised as to how appropriate it is to use for sexual engagements and interactions.

As a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and philosophy professor at Georgetown University Rebecca Kulka points out in her essay “Sex Talks,” “Consenting typically involves letting someone else do something to you.” She goes on to explain that consent or the refusal of consent “is a response to a request; it puts the requester in the active position and the one who consents in the passive position.” Oftentimes, in most cultural realities, “our discussions of consent almost always position a man as the active requester and a woman as the one who agrees to or refuses him doing things to her,” she adds.

This makes clear that the narrow view of public discussion that focuses only on this specific kind of communication: requests for sex which are then answered by either consent or refusal doesn’t fully encompass the complexity—or the mutual participation—of ethical sexual negotiations.

“We flirt and rebuff, express curiosity and repulsion, and articulate fantasies,” Kulka continues. “Ideally, we talk about what kind of sex we want to have, involving which activities, and what we like and don’t like… We check in with one another and talk dirty to one another during sex.”

According to Kulka, “good sexual negotiation often involves active, collaborative discussion about what would be fun to do. It also often includes conversations about limits, constraints, and exit conditions.”

So, considering all these layers involved in communicating sexual desires and boundaries, the word consent undeniably falls short. Instead, Kulka offers two different words that can be used: invitations and gift offers. In part one of this two-part series on consent, we will focus on invitations. 

Exploring a new connection: Inviting rather than requesting sex

When someone is trying to establish intimacy with someone, an invitation sets the scene for good and ethical sexual experiences much better than a request. This is because the one extending the invitation isn’t just opening up a neutral possibility, they are making it clear that sex would be welcome and wanted. 

Kulka asks the reader to imagine that someone has said to you: “I’m cooking dinner at my place on Wednesday and I want you to please come, and if you don’t I’ll be hurt.” This is a request, not an invitation. If the speaker says: “I’m cooking dinner at my place on Wednesday and you can show up or not, it’s totally up to you, I don’t care either way,” then this is more like an offer, or, at best, a highly unwelcoming invitation. 

True invitations allow “the invitee [to feel] free to accept or reject them,” Kulka explains. “If you turn down my invitation, I get to be disappointed, but not aggrieved (although I can feel aggrieved if it is turned down rudely or insultingly),” she adds. “An interesting quirk of invitations is that, if they are accepted, gratitude is called for both the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you.”

The nature of an invitation as welcoming without being demanding is key in the realm of ethical sexual intimacy. Generally, if we extend a sexual invitation and it is accepted, we feel pleased. However, it’s safe to say that most people don’t want someone to agree to engage in sexual activity as a favor or because they feel bad for us—this is more like conceding to a request.

Understanding participants in sexual interactions as inviters and invitees renders consent and refusal inappropriate responses within this new framework, and makes it clear that “the consent model distorts our understanding how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex.”

Extending an invitation is often how people initiate sexual encounters with someone that they are just getting to know. Check out part two of this series to continue this discussion by exploring gift-giving as a way that sex is sometimes initiated within established, long-term relationships.

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