The general reaction to the revelations of #metoo has been dismay. It is as if we finally looked under the bed and uncovered a chaos of rotting food and unwashed underwear. When we sat back up and looked each other in the face, it became clear that we needed to rethink sexuality. Particularly in the area of consent.
One response to the murkiness of consent has been a retreat into the supposed safety of traditional sexual morality.[i] The contention of some conservative commentators, both Christian and secular, has been that the sexual revolution of the 1960s created a situation in which sexual abuse and harassment have become rampant.[ii] These commentators advocate for a return to traditional sexual morality, away from what is characterised as a ‘consensual’ ethic, in which most sexual behaviour is acceptable if proper consent is obtained.
At first glance, this seems a safer approach. However, I want to suggest that by itself, it isn’t as safe as one might think. It assumes that the sexual revolution caused a significant increase in sexual harassment and abuse, and that before that everything was fine. But even a cursory glance at the #metoo stories and statistics paints a more troubling picture. This isn’t merely a permissive Western phenomenon—#metoo trended in over 85 countries.[iii] And within Western countries, communities which hold to a traditional sexual morality were not exempt. The hashtag #churchtoo revealed the presence of sexual abuse and harassment within conservative churches.[iv] Julia Baird’s research here in Australia told of clergy wives experiencing sexual abuse within marriage, revealing an inadequate understanding of the ongoing need for consent in this context.[v] We need to be aware that if we denigrate the concept of consent, we are in danger of losing our emphasis on the dignity of all humans. In themselves, traditional sexual mores do not seem to be sufficient to prevent abuse.
This is not to say that a mere consensual sexual ethic is sufficient to restrain sexual abuse either. The sexual revolution did not create a sexual paradise. A mere consensual morality ignores the harm that occurs through casual and sinful sexual expression. It tends to ignore the participation of the whole person in sexual acts, reducing what at its best is a relationally unifying act into one of mere physical mechanics. As well, the sexual revolution in some ways gave licence to further exploitation. It did not address the objectification of women, or change the power structures within society which enable sexual exploitation. We need both consent and traditional sexual morality for flourishing.
But this is still not sufficient to prevent abuse. Of course, freedom from sin requires heart transformation as well as mores, but we would also do well to consider whether we have fully understood how sin is present within our sexuality.
As I pondered the effect of sin on our sexuality, it came to me that I had never read the Genesis narrative of the increase of sin with an eye to the increase of sexual sin. As I read the stories of Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Dinah, Tamar and Joseph, I realised that we have been given a narrative in which the focus on sexual immorality centres on sexual abuses perpetrated by those with greater power—usually men. This is the same story #metoo tells. We must then grapple with how power and gender interact with sexuality and consent. Did Bathsheba have the option of denying King David consent? Or Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton?
When we read of the positive sexuality within the Bible, from the one flesh of Genesis 2, to the dual sexual agency of Song of Songs, to the mutual giving of 1 Corinthians 7, what we find is a mutual, consensual vision of sex grounded in commitment. This vision, in the context of the kind of biblical reconfiguring of power inherent in the story of Christ (e.g. Philippians 2:1-11), has the potential to bring on an entirely different—and welcome—sexual revolution.
Megan Powell du Toit is a Baptist minister, Publishing Manager of the Australian College of Theology, and the chair of the Voice and Representation working group of the No Place for Violence initiative of the Australian Baptists. She also co-presents the podcast With All Due Respect with Michael Jensen for Eternity.
[i] By traditional sexual morality, I refer to ethics based upon sex being reserved for monogamous heterosexual marriage.
[ii] See for instance: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/in-the-me-too-moment-the-tenets-of-the-sexual-revolution-prevent-a-true-reckoning, http://thefederalist.com/2018/01/17/metoo-descended-criminalizing-failure-read-womens-minds/, http://www.tfp.org/why-the-metoo-movement-is-doomed-to-fail/, https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/10/sex-consent-morality-culture-ruined-sexual-revolution/.
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