When yes means yes

It really has been a turbulent time for sexual politics this past six months. Weinstein is but the tip of the iceberg. We have the #MeToo movement, and a growing list of prominent people accused of various degrees of sexual misconduct, though it is often hard to distinguish these degrees and so gain a proper perspective and sense of proportion. The mere publication of an allegation against a young actor has been enough to stop a BBC production involving him, and to have sections of a completed Hollywood movie re-filmed to replace another accused (but also not convicted) actor. True sexual assault in any degree is a crime to be deplored. However, “innocent until proved guilty” is now an endangered species in our society; clergy know that for them it is almost extinct.

In Britain there has been another side to this topical coin. Numbers of young men in recent months have been cleared of rape—in court, after a proper judicial process and testing of evidence. These men have had their names dragged first through the press, as good as declared guilty by the mob. There seems to be a fairly common thread of prosecution incompetence and even misconduct. There also seems to be a growing phenomenon of retrospective withdrawal of consent to sexual activity on the part of accusers. No wonder then that universities (in the UK at least) are introducing instruction on what constitutes sexual consent, no doubt to protect students but perhaps also, in part, to protect themselves from lawsuits. Just Google it to see a long list of universities with pages dedicated to sexual consent guidelines.

Quite rightly, men (and women) need to accept that No means No. There is of course the phenomenon of “playing hard to get”. However, nowadays that risk should not be taken by anyone. No must always mean No, for everybody’s sake.

However, it brings into question the whole nature of consent and sexual relations. It is the secularised, sentimentalised, trivialised, de-moralised approach to sexual relations and their purpose that has given birth to this sad situation. There is one basic culprit, easy to name but harder to locate: secular society. In this society has been aided and abetted by a Church that has become too often too timid to speak the truth about sex, love and consent to society. It is a sin of omission that is a sin nevertheless, and a form of collusion. Sometimes pastors and theologians even try to justify a deficient, even vicious, view of the matter, and that is very much a sin of commission.

Sex and consent to sex properly belong in one place only: marriage. Outside of this sexual intercourse is always misused and abused. We know that the sexual act is meant to be an act of love which is open to bearing the fruit that is natural to it: children, new life. Now, society will tell us, one way or another, that this love of which sexual intercourse is an expression is based on whether we feel loving. How many relationships have been doomed by their being based on this fleeting feeling of love. How fickle is human emotion; how enduring can be its fallout.

Now, let us say boy A and girl B have had sexual intercourse, feeling themselves to be in love, and let us say that they have not used contraception, or that their contraception has failed. B falls pregnant, to her horror and that of her family and that of the boy A. Being all typical products of secular society, they enter damage-control mode. Boy A blames girl B for her failure to take proper precautions, and vice versa. Boy A and his family protest that he is too young and that he has yet to finish his studies and begin a career; to marry this girl now and bring up the child would doom his prospects. Girl B and her family feel similarly. All agree to procure her an abortion to deal with this unwanted and troublesome consequence of their passing night of passion.

I do not think it unreasonable to claim that this hypothetical is not too uncommon in reality, and even more common in variations of it. One might today add, perhaps, that  girl B, in order, say, to procure an abortion more easily, claims she was raped by boy A.

Some act of love. What “love” was this in the first place?

Here is exposed the problem with consent that secular society will not face, and has not the equipment to face. Consent is not meant to be reduced to a moment-to-moment phenomenon. When it is, then it is all too easy, in the way of human logic, to grant it one moment, and revoke it the next, even after the event. This is a travesty of sexual consent. It is juvenile caprice and little more. Secular society has sentimentalised sex, and thereby trivialised it, and indeed infantilised it.

Christian marriage tells us the truth about sexual consent. First must come the consent of mutual commitment, for life. Since the proper fruit of sexual intercourse is new, permanent, life it is only logical that its context be one of permanent commitment. That permanent commitment cannot be made in a moment. It requires courtship, a getting-to-know the other, discovering the other’s strengths and weaknesses, a learning to like and respect the other, a training in self-discipline for the sake of the other. It requires a period of discernment, moving from relative detachment to relative intimacy, to determine if the other is someone to whom we can commit for life, to whom we can give our entire selves and from whom we can receive his or her entire self.

Sexual consent in its proper context of marriage is not a moment-to-moment phenomenon. It is the enduring fiat that comes from the basic and enduring fiat of the marriage vows. When outside its proper context sexual consent is little better than a toy used by capricious juveniles, who like it one day, toss it aside the next. The problem is that sexual intercourse has a greater and more enduring purpose beyond our fleeting emotions and fleshly desires. Mess, to a greater or lesser degree, invariably follows.

annunciation welch
The Annunciation, by Dame Werburg Welch OSB of Stanbrook

How important then is the Annunciation to Our Lady for understanding the nuptial mystery, a mystery that will always be imperfectly lived by us but must never be imperfectly presented. By her fiat to God, which while not physically sexual was still very much nuptial, Mary gave herself over entirely to God in a permanent commitment she understood immediately and implicitly due to her upbringing in a household of faith. She knew it would be life-changing; her consent was informed. She gave over to God her body and soul; and God as love—the real thing I mean—overshadowed her in a way beyond physicality but still essentially fruitful in new life. And what life she thereby conceived.

The Church’s advice to young men and women—and not so young—in this current social sexual crisis is indeed to be sure of consent before sexual activity. But the only consent worth having, worth giving—the one consent truly necessary—is that “I do” made before the altar of God a consent made intentionally for life.

Let us pray this Lent especially—with fasting and almsgiving—that the Church’s hymn of nuptial truth might prevail over the clamour of secularism’s siren song of sex.

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  1. Tell that to Barnaby Joyce! Though indeed what no one in the media is mentioning is that at least in this case Boy A and Girl B aren’t having an abortion. Though who knows if that’s thanks to him and the ragged remains of his faith or to her desire to be a mother.

    1. Aaagh! Well spotted. You can now see that I intended originally an ironic sentence and ended more prosaically, but forgot to go back and do the necessary editing. Done now, thank you.

  2. It is a mess isn’t Father???!!!
    Sadly I feel the notion of “courtship” has long been lost on this generation…
    crudely I call it the ‘wham bam thank you mam’ generation—and now it’s no longer even a thank you—Sleeping together upon first meeting is the standard norm with this generation—and then we all wonder why we’re in such a mess—this yes, no, maybe business…

    As a former high school educator, it is best I don’t jump on this soap box as it’s a wonder I was never fired as I was not shy to tell my kids that there is one way and one way only…and that’s God’s way…and if they don’t like it then they are playing Russian Roulette in all sorts of areas—and are they willing to live with the consequences…chances are that is a definitive NO.

    But the Chruch, the global Catholic and Apostolic Chruch has not done herself any favors which in turn has created a ripple effect amongst both Believers and nonbelievers.
    The Chruch has lost a good bit of teaching credibility due to her own scandalous affairs…and I’m not talking merely the Catholic Chruch Father as each denomination has its fair share of secrets, sinners, and liars sadly. as well as pedophiles and those who certainly covet the women and or men of others..so much so that the masses pay Her no never mind…the voice of morality is growing fainter by the minute…and we the remaining Faithful of this tattered flock need to continue sharing Her message—God’s way or no way—because any way other than God’s opens Pandoras box…and are we willing to live with the consequences…sadly we see that we cannot!

    1. It is obviously false that “[s]leeping together upon first meeting is the standard norm with this generation.” Humans have not suddenly turned into bonobos. Furthermore, even if we avoid over-the-top generalisations, trends are just not that simple. For example, for the USA one finds for teenagers: “During 1991–2015, a significant linear decrease occurred overall in the prevalence of having ever had sexual intercourse (54.1%–41.2%).” https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/2015/ss6506_updated.pdf

      Our children grow up in a world we have helped shape. We should do a lot more chest-beating than pointing fingers. For example, it is the socially accepted norm in the West now to live and sleep together for a few years before even contemplating a marriage. You can call this fornication, but that does not change that it is the done thing. In consequence, quite a lot of the “sleeping around” that occurs is not due to an orgy of carnal desire but simply an attempt to establish a modern long-term relationship with someone. It is modern courtship, it is the current way of trying to find a compatible mate.

      Is that good? Nope. It that Christian? Nope. Is that Catholic? Nope. But is it a sign that our young have all become sexual gluttons with no interest in stable relationships? Nope. They are simply people who with the usual enthusiasm and sometime foolishness of youth try to make their way in the world as they find it. And we are at least as responsible for how that world is as they are.

      1. Firstly, I cannot nor will I attempt to speak on behalf of the good Father… who has been gracious in creating a space for dialogue. Nor do I speak as a theologian or even as an “official” Catholic but rather one who was raised in the Episcopal Chruch.

        What I can speak to however is the perspective and observation of a retired high school teacher who has worked with thousands of teenagers over the course of 31 years.
        Plus I am a mom, a mother-n- law and new grandmother.

        I do not generalize nor beat my chest when I speak of the lost art of courtship nor of this current cultural trend to ‘cut to the chase’ as it were.

        I’ve known far too many a youth who has taken that sad and empty route of casual sex to call it a generalization on my part.

        And I certainly wouldn’t call this “sleeping around” business, of today’s more youthful generations, a feeble attempt by those who are trying to make their way in the dark as they swim the muddied waters of dating or “hooking up” while trying to establish relationships in a modern society.

        Nor will I accept the excuse of foolhardiness and that of the reckless abandon of youth as an excuse for an increasing and widely accepted new open sexual norm—
        that is not a generalization but rather a fact—that our society is witnessing an open sexual norm.

        Nor have I insinuated that previous generations are guiltless of the same “crimes” against morality.

        I am adopted–born in 1959—the product of a “sexual union” outside the confines of marriage.
        So I certainly know all about moral virtue, conservative morality, and physical control having fallen victims to previous generation’s tastes, wants and desires.

        Sex is a sacred union between a man and a woman….bottom line.
        It is not an excuse for a modern mode of relationship searching.
        And that isn’t finger pointing, it is, in fact, a statement.

        And as the good Father reminds us–a sexual union is a bond, nay sacred union, given by The Creator to the created…that being man and woman …as a gift. And in turn, it is a gift then given one to another.
        And in that intimate physical gift of bond resides the notion of a lifelong commitment…
        a commitment whose byproduct can certainly be pregnancy.

        So if a pregnancy could be a likely by-product of a said physical union–how in the world and why in the world then should society consider an open sexual, no holds barred, relationship prudent?

        Only if termination of such a by-product in an open sexual society is to be the new norm…
        which it is.

        And if this gift of an intimate physical bond, which in turn is a sacred form of commitment of two becoming one…how do we think it all okay to wade in the open waters of an open sexual relationship.

        God’s idea of monogamy was not foolhardy rather… it is our refusal to adhere to such an idea which is foolhardy.

        Not only is this a foolhardy approach to seeking “lasting relationships” it is also a form of both physical and spiritual Russin Roulette. I for one do not find one iota of justification for living one’s life with such reckless abandon wise nor excusable.

      2. Following God’s commandments is easy – or at least easy to accept as sensible – when they overlap with practical reason. For example, every society has some law against stealing, because practical reason dictates that people taking each other’s stuff leads to social unrest and inefficiency. God’s commandment concerning stealing hence falls on open ears. Whereas it is much harder to follow commandments that practical reason is neutral about, or perhaps even contradicts. Consider the Jewish prohibition against eating pork as an example. Practical reason is silent about this, or may even suggest that pigs are an efficient way of providing meat. And Christians did not continue this particular rule given by God to the Jews.

        Now, Christian morals used to be largely aligned with practical reason concerning sexuality. Where there is great likelihood that intercourse leads to pregnancy, restricting sex to marriage that provides support for the resulting children makes good sense. Given that raising children is a long-term endeavour (and typically more children will come while one is still raising a previous one), declaring marriage to be a life-long commitment is at least compatible with practical reason (though it is a stretch, as the documented reaction of the apostles shows…). In addition, the serious threat of sexually transmitted diseases that were devastating and incurable (like syphilis) made it practically reasonable to stick with one partner. Finally, being open to having children was a practical necessity in the face of high child mortality and reliance on family in sickness and old age.

        However, this comfortable overlap with practical reason has largely disappeared now. It is certainly true that one can have sex these days with very little chance of pregnancy and indeed with little chance of catching a STD that cannot be treated. Maybe one can still make sophisticated arguments concerning human psychology and sociology why the old ways are better. But the immediate concerns of practical reason have largely evaporated. Pregnancy is easily avoidable (and if contraception fails, abortion is easily procured and very safe for the mother), and STDs are either treatable or avoidable. And having children at least on the individual level tends to be more financial burden than boon, and is basically not necessary to guarantee support in sickness and old age.

        In consequence, Catholic sexual morals in the minds of our contemporaries (including many Catholics…) now basically have the status of the “not eating pork” rule for the Jews. They are odd rules that one might chose to follow because of faith, but are neutral or perhaps even disfavoured by practical reason. And given this state of affairs, modern behaviour of “sleeping around to find a sexually compatible partner” is not some sign of great moral decay, but simply of people doing what appears to be practically reasonable.

        The current generation(s), our sons and daughters, are not somehow all degenerate perverts. Their society, which we have maintained and built, is not simply a temple of debauchery. In every age and everywhere, people have found it easy to follow God when His word was aligned with what seemed to them practically reasonable, and hard to do so when that wasn’t the case. What is new in our age is that sexual behaviour has largely shifted from the former to the latter, due to technical and medical advances.

  3. Today, I have seen a report on the TV about a group of young men who raped a girl. One of them was already under custody, the other ones are missing and unknown. The report had the title “coarsening of the young”, and it is completely fitting to call it that. Through the banalisation and trivialisation of sexuality, the massive amount of pornography (not seldom with brutality and rape involved), and the general lack of moral guidelines, we cannot be astonished that sexual crimes nor only exist, but are committed by confused teenagersand young adults. Of course, I am not saying that rape is a modern phenomenon, or that only young people are the culprits, but the mindset of “that’s really hot, let’s do that!” is in my estimation a pretty new one.

    Not only do we need the Church’s moral teaching more than ever, we also need an effective prevention system that is not based upon the principle “all men are rapists and monsters, and all women are innocent victims”, but rather upon the Church’s teaching in clarity, but not without charity. The secular programs to rehabilitate culprits, or to prevent crime, are centered around secular arguments. It is bad because society says it is. There are no absolute values. One can try to explain everything with sociology, but that won’t convert hearts and minds.

    1. In the USA, there has been a significant and basically linear drop of rapes since the 1970s:
      Japan has one of the lowest rates of rape in the world (about 25 times less than the USA). It is also well-known for the ubiquity and variety of porn that is being consumed there, including porn depicting violent and deviant sexuality.

      Societies are complex entities, and simple cause-effect relationship are rare. We should argue against porn because of what it is, essentially, and how it demeans those involved in producing it. But if we talk about its effects on society we have to check existing data carefully, or our just cause may run into seemingly contradictory facts.

      1. Yes, you are absolutely right. I don’t think the relation is “porn -> rape”, but rather “porn/sexualised society -> coarsening/desensitising”, especially when sexual crimes are depicted as something pleasurable. Thus, those crimes lose their inherent horror, and become a sexual practice which is in itself neither bad nor evil. It’s the same with groups advocating for the habilitation of pedophilia. All sorts of monstrosities today are practiced, and instead of repenting for that, groups try to make normalise this kind of behavior.


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