Today’s Solutions: April 19, 2024

In part one of this two-part series, we discussed the limitations of consent as a concept when applied to sexual engagements. We dove into senior research scholar and philosophy professor at Georgetown University Rebecca Kulka’s essay “Sex Talks” to explore how extending sexual invitations is actually a better and more ethical framework to apply in situations where people are starting a sexual partnership. However, this process isn’t always the same for those who are in established, long-term relationships.

“Once we are in an established, long-term relationship with a partner, sex is sometimes initiated via a gift offer,” Kulka says. “While it would be odd and almost always inappropriate to offer sex as a gift to someone we barely know, it’s not unusual for longtime partners to offer each other gifts of sex.”

She goes on to describe that it isn’t completely outlandish for someone to offer their partner the chance to indulge in a fetish that may not be something that the giver is not necessarily into out of love, care, and generosity.

“Gifts, by nature, cannot be demanded or even requested,” Kulka clarifies. “If you ask me to indulge some sexual desire of yours, then my doing so is not a gift but the granting of a favor.” 

The difference between an invitation and gift-giving is that “gift-giving is… essentially reciprocal… which is part of every gift-giving system despite cultural variations. Gifts need to be reciprocated, and this is part of how they sustain relationships.”

An invitation, on the other hand, “need not presume that the recipient wants to accept it.” But a gift offer is designed to be an act of generosity that pleases the recipient (whether or not it succeeds in doing so), and it calls for reciprocation. 

This is what makes offering a sexual gift inappropriate in the early stages of getting to know someone, because you probably don’t have enough information about them to know what would please them, and you also aren’t in a position to impose an obligation to reciprocate on them. “But generous offers of sexual gifts, designed first and foremost to please one’s partner rather than to directly satisfy one’s own sexual desires,” Kulka says, “are a normal part of an ongoing healthy relationship.”

However, just because people may be part of an established relationship, gifts, like invitations, can still be inappropriate. “Unsolicited dick pics are typically not appropriate gifts, for instance,” she states.

The two suggested replacements for consent and refusal that Kulka offers, we believe, better embody the true complexity and mutuality of sexual relationships, without deeming one participant as active and the other as passive. Sex should be, after all, something that we do together, in communion with one another, and not something that we do to each other.

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