The #MeToo movement made it clear that consent is crucial when it comes to sex or even kissing. But what should be a starting point has too often become the ceiling for such encounters, the only requisite for men and women to engage with each other, writes Christine Emba in “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation.” The Washington Post columnist argues that while today’s young people feel freer than ever to experiment with sex, that freedom, along with weakened social taboos, has created unprecedented dissatisfaction and the sense that something vital is missing.
A single woman in her early 30s who is active in the dating culture, Emba has a bone to pick with “uncritical sex positivity,” the notion that casual sex can be healthy for everyone involved. The practice has left many feeling dissatisfied precisely because sex is not a casual act, she contends, but one that engages both body and spirit. Ignoring that reality leaves many feeling liberated and miserable, especially women, she notes, and treating sex as a no-strings transaction creates “too much of the kind of sex that saps the spirit and makes us feel less human, not more — sex that leaves us detached, disillusioned or just dissatisfied.”
Emba’s faith has certainly shaped her views on sex. She was raised as an evangelical Christian in Richmond, Virginia, before converting to Catholicism during her senior year at Princeton. She studied public policy and international affairs, planning a career in public service and dreaming of working for the United Nations. Instead, she has been drawn to writing for media outlets that let her explore her interest in culture and ethics. At the Post, she writes a society and ideas column she calls “a delightful and humorous beat I kind of gave myself.”
Dating has never been more confusing. A 2020 study by Pew Research Center found that most single adults in the United States say dating is hard. Many simply don’t want to do it. That outcome seems at odds with the movements that are changing how people relate. Deseret asked Emba how what we think and teach about sex and relationships has gone wrong.
Deseret News: What led you to explore sex and consent?
Christine Emba: I’ve always been interested in questions of culture and society and ethics. How we treat each other. How do we figure out what the good is? How should we be in the world as the world changes so rapidly? I come at it from an unusual point of view, growing up with a pretty conservative mindset when it came to sex and relationships, before spending most of my adulthood in a far more secular world. And, of course, I am a young woman living in the world. I’m not married, so I have an in-the-thick-of-it view on the culture of dating and relationships, but I also think about questions of being female and feminism.
Deseret News: How did covering #MeToo impact you?
CE: That was an eye-opening moment that drew together those questions about culture, gender, morality, and questions about whether various movements that we are almost expected to support had delivered on what they promised. I’m thinking specifically of feminism and the sexual revolution, and their attendant beliefs and mores. #MeToo shows that the problems that many people thought we’d move past just hadn’t gone away.
Beyond the high-profile cases — the Harvey Weinsteins, the Charlie Roses, where it was clear that this was a bad thing — “Don’t do bad things!” — I was more interested in cases that didn’t have clear answers, that hit closer to home and, consequently, went the most viral. They surface tricky issues that were causing young women a lot of pain and sadness and seemed at odds with what we would have hoped would have been resolved by now.
I was also surprised by how common certain experiences were: “It’s not rape, but this sexual encounter made me feel trapped, disappointed, even traumatized.” Haven’t we all been pressured into doing something we don’t want to do and it’s terrible? And I was left thinking, is this what dating is like now? If this is normal, normal seems really bad.
Consent tells us what we can’t do. We spend a lot of time asking what is allowed, and not enough time asking: what is actually good?
Deseret News: What assumptions do people make about sex that are wrong?
CE: That depends on the people. In writing this book and dealing with how it’s been received, I’ve found that some of the assumptions that I think are wrong feel almost taboo to say in a progressive, liberal milieu. Then to conservatives, or to people with a religious upbringing, they are just obvious.
Like the belief that men and women are basically the same and experience sex in the same way, that both just want to get out there and fulfill their desires, and that both can treat sex with equal casualness.
Or the idea that sex doesn’t really mean anything, that it’s like any other physical activity that people do together. And as long as you’re careful and use protection and get consent, it’s fine. That there’s nothing to think about, there are no consequences.
Or the assumption that at least while you’re young, the best way to be is liberated and unencumbered, untied down; that feelings are the enemy.
Or the notion that people want what they want, and we shouldn’t judge anyone for what they want. That all judgment when it comes to sex is inherently bad.
But what assumptions is our broader culture holding about sex that aren’t serving us? Where do we think the sexual revolution should have taken us? And where did we end up? We’ve talked about consent so much, from college onwards, but clearly that hasn’t solved these issues. So what ethics do we need if consent isn’t enough?
Deseret News: What, then, should we criticize? And how?
CE: It’s important to be able to speak in the public square about what our goals are, what we think good looks like, what our ethics are. It’s important to be able to say that some things are better than others, to at least try and hash out some moral judgments. In fact, some acts are harmful. Some things make us better or worse people. And we want to be creating a good society, which means that we do have responsibilities to each other and a duty to try and do the good — not just whatever we want, or whatever pleases us in the moment.
Deseret News: You write about willing the good for each other. What does that mean and how do you do it?
CE: Consent tells us what we can’t do. You get consent to make sure that what you’re doing is not strictly against the rules or illegal. But I worry that in our current moment, we spend a lot of time asking what is allowed, and not enough time asking: What is actually good? What should I be doing? There’s a negative vision, but not a positive vision. There’s been so much conversation about how the sexual culture is bad. These are the terrible experiences that are so common to women — “You too? Me too. Yeah, we all hate this.” But where do we go from there? What is the good, and how do we change our society to get there? That was one factor that pushed me to try and hash out these questions in the book. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard.
I suggest that past consent, willing the good of the other could be a good ethic, a good norm that we should strive for in our relationships. The formulation is from Aristotle by way of Thomas Aquinas. It’s this definition of love as willing to give to the other — not just romantic love, but a deep love for another human person. Willing it to the other implies that you have some understanding of what good is. It’s your responsibility to try and figure that out. And then it also implies that you’re valuing the other person as highly as you value yourself, which is difficult, I think, for humans; it’s not necessarily a natural posture. Even the attempt will bring us to a better place than where we are now.
Slowing things down would be huge. Caring for another person, respecting them and their human dignity. You need to get to know someone.
Deseret News: How do things change?
CE: We’ve arrived at a place where we know not to be like Harvey Weinstein, which is great. But we didn’t make much progress on how to actually change this situation. So I wanted to jump-start that discussion, because one of the benefits of our cultures is that we talk. Sex is everywhere, sex is so prevalent in our advertising and our discussion. But it’s a particular vision of sex, almost an ad- and media-created fantasy. It’s not necessarily real. And I do think that if women and men are able to talk honestly about what they want from each other, even where that clashes with what’s expected in the current culture, or what they’ve been told they should want, forward movement can happen. That sort of honesty and realism about what sex is, who we are, what is good, what is not so good, that is how we set the stage for actually creating something new.
Deseret News: What you describe seems to require getting to know each other. Does that imply taking our time?
CE: Slowing things down would be huge. Caring for another person, respecting them and their human dignity. You need to get to know someone to care for them well. You need to sort out what you want, not just in this encounter, but also what sex means to you, what relationships mean to you, what you want in the long term. And yeah, doing all of that takes time and consideration and forethought in many cases. Talking to a friend about “Rethinking Sex,” he made a point that this book has sex as the focus, but the questions in it are broader. They’re about freedom and individualism versus community and our responsibilities to others.
Part of what shapes any encounter with another person, sexual or not, is the frame that you’re looking through. Are you seeing yourself as an untethered individual whose responsibility to another person is nil, apart from not actively hurting them? Or do you feel that you have some tie to another person or should have some responsibility to them that’s higher than that? And then what implications does that have for what you do? Or what you ask of someone or how you treat them?
Deseret News: Any last word?
CE: I want people to know that they are not alone. And they are not crazy for feeling out of step with the current culture if they aren’t enjoying it. They aren’t bad women — or bad feminists — or bad men for not having a good time right now. The thing that you sense is wrong is wrong and it’s not in fact crazy to want more, to ask for more, to wonder how to change your culture to be better. And also, I think it’s possible.