I was surprised by the headline when I saw it last month: “Florida Teen Faces Charges for Same-Sex Relationship.” As I read more about the case of Kaitlyn Hunt, I discovered that the headline was misleading. The charges themselves are not about the gender of the parties in the relationship but their age. Hunt, 18, was dating a 14-year-old girl and Florida state law says that individuals under 16 years of age are not able to give legal consent to a sexual relationship.
As I thought about this case, I connected it with an article in The Atlantic about sexual ethics in sadomasochistic pornography. Author Conor Friedersdorf argues that consent is the ultimate arbiter of sexual ethics. If someone willingly performs a sexual act, no matter how degrading or inhumane, this is to be celebrated as the ultimate end of sexual freedom.
These two stories drove me to contemplate the ethics of consent and sexuality. Is consent really the proper arbiter of sexual freedom? What role, if any, does consent play in a Christian sexual ethic? Can we as Christians formulate a notion of sexual freedom that transcends and supersedes the so-called freedom of consent as the final arbiter?
As we wrestle with these questions they quickly become complicated. At what age is one able to give consent? How do other factors (socio-economic status, power dynamics, life history) affect one’s ability or inability to provide true consent?
Despite the complications, a few things come to mind for me as important elements in the conversation.
First, we must be careful before we decide for someone what they do and do not desire sexually. As much as my first instinct may be to lament the degradation of the image of God (which the Atlantic article captures in a fashion that nearly caused me to weep), when I began to read through the comment feed I was amazed by the number of female contributors vehemently defending their right to be treated with degradation. While we may mourn this, my hope is that we can hear what lies beneath such comments: a deep-seated desire to experience the gift of sexuality to its fullest. While we may believe that such formulations of sexuality fall short of sexual freedom at its best, can we set aside our discomfort and our grief to hear the God-honoring desire for intimacy?
Second, despite its complications, consent is an important component of a sexual ethic. Non-consensual sex is always wrong. Consider the number of times a television show features a character who, after finding his initial sexual advances rebuffed, grabs hold of his love interest, pulls her forcefully to his chest and kisses her passionately until she melts into his arms. Without thinking about it, we are buying into a sexual ethic that says that if a male thinks a woman secretly wants him, he has the right to push himself upon her physically. I suspect that we in the church need to do a much better job standing for consent and against the subtle attitude of “she wanted it.”
Third, we need to create a culture that not only celebrates a God-honoring vision of sexual freedom, but also gives people space to express their questions and challenges in living it out. For a host of reasons we are hesitant to talk about sexual ethics from the pulpit or in small groups. Sometimes we fear crossing the line into voyeurism; other times we simply don’t know how to have age- and maturity-appropriate conversations about sex in the church. Despite this near silence, many of us are surprised when our teenagers and young adults are unable to formulate a positive, God-honoring vision of sexual freedom. What would it take to make our churches a safe place to wrestle with the honest questions of sexuality?
Finally, we need to discern and celebrate a holistic vision of sexuality that goes beyond simply limiting sex to marriage. What does a vision of God-honoring sexual freedom look like to the single college student? To the divorcee? To the recently widowed? To a 14- and 18-year-old girl? What would it look like to formulate this vision of God-honoring sexual freedom in a way that is less about lines in the sand of what is and is not allowed in certain types of relationships, but focused more on the way in which sex and sexuality help us relate to God and to one another?
I suspect that answering these questions is not simply a matter of quoting a Bible verse or two on sexual purity. Instead, it would take a vision of sexual freedom that goes beyond lists of dos and don’ts. It would take pastors encouraging married couples to have sex. It would take ears willing to listen to those who are struggling to understand God’s vision for sex. Ultimately, it would take a vision of sexual freedom founded upon the intimate love of Christ for His church, His bride.
More importantly, I suspect that such a vision of sexual freedom would actually be far more freeing than simply giving consent.