Consent is One of the Best Things Secular Humanism Offers, and We Need to Emphasize That

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

CN: Sexual Assault, Abusive Language, Homophobia

At this point, Trump’s “October Surprise” is old news. I have no interest in rehashing what he said on this post, but anyone reading this likely knows about his comment about openly sexually assaulting women. This post isn’t about that.

Rather, it’s about the response to some of his people that publically decided to defend what he said. When Trump’s tape of him bragging about sexual assaulting women broke the internet, it cost him a lot of followers and supporters. However, there were a lot of people who thought this claim was trivial, and something that “men just say to other men”, like the motherfucking former mayor of New York, for example. Trump later gave a non-pology for his actions, claiming in an apology message and at his second debate that it was just “locker room talk”. Dissappointment-to-millennials-everywhere Tomi Lahren berated Trump abandoners, acting as if it was completely normal for men to behave that way.

I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed that people want to continue to defend the manchild cantaloupe in a wig. However, I’m most disappointed in those who think that people are just outraged because Donald used some sexually explicit language. For example, Tea Party blogger Mark Meckler thought it was hypocritical for the left to be upset about Trump’s comments while being supportive of Beyonce, who writes about wanting to be fucked and then taken to Red Lobster in her song, “Formation”. He couldn’t tell that Beyonce outwardly expressing her sexual desires was not the same thing as assaulting someone.

For a more high-profile case, Rush Limbaugh attempted to whine about the left by trying to make fun of the mere concept of consent.

“You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it’s perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left.”

This rant is equal parts hilarious, sad, and enlightening. It’s hilarious, because he more or less hit the nail on the head about what leftists and liberals value when it comes to sexual behavior* and he doesn’t even realize it. It’s sad, again, because he doesn’t realize it. But it’s enlightening, because it underlines the true problem we have in these discussions amidst the culture wars.

At some level, all of these defenses ignore the importance of consent. Sometimes they don’t factor it in, or in Limbaugh’s case they actively mock it. This does a lot of damage and dismissal to the amount of trauma that can go into unwanted physical contact, sexual or otherwise. But it’s all too clear at this point that conservatives have a fundamental problem grasping consent. They can’t tell the difference between a rape situation on television or a depraved sex scene, because it’s all just explicit content with naked bodies going at each other. To them, it’s all immoral.

Cultural conservatives largely base their morality off of religious narratives. If we look at their source material, the Bible, we can why their understanding of consent is so lacking. Frankly, the Bible doesn’t appear to give two shits about consent. Not only does it not give any credence to the important of consent, at times it completely dismisses consent altogether. If you’re curious, take a peek at what the Bible has to say about being sexually immoral.

Corinthians 7:1-4 dismisses any sex outside of marriage as “sexual immorality”. But it doesn’t stop there. Within the context of a married couple, one spouse is not capable of withholding sex from the other. They own each others’ bodies, so if one person wants to have sex, the other must comply.

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”  But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

At least it’s equally terrible for women and men in this passage?

The Old Testament laws don’t so much as give lip service to consent. In fact, they are fairly content with simply listing things that they find immoral, and saying it’s immoral “for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19 is a particularly rife offender, and we can take a look at some of what it has to say in verses 19-23.

“You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.  You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.  You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.”

The book lists off a bunch of acts it characterizes as immoral, but gives very flimsy justifications why it gives those labels. It’s immoral to sleep with the wife of your relative simply because it would defile you to do so. It’s not immoral to sacrifice children to another god because it violates their right autonomy and life, it’s immoral because it profanes the name of their god. The reason you’re not allowed to have gay sex is just cause “it is an abomination”. There’s no justification for why it is an abomination. It just is.

The foundations of sexual ethics are on shaky ground for the fundie Christian. When your foundation for ethics are simply based on what a book says or what your pastor says is immoral, it warps and poisons your worldview and causes serious damage to clear critical inquiry about what causes harm to others. It makes people focus on the acts that are labeled immoral, instead of why they’re immoral in the first place.

One of my formative experiences of becoming a humanist was arguing at my university with Sister Cindy “tampon lady” Smock, the wife of hellfire fetishist and college campus nuisance Brother Jed. She was happy to bring up the story of Lot to demonstrate that her god wanted to destroy people who engaged in homosexual behavior. I told her that the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah weren’t wrong because they were gay, but because they were rapists. They wanted to have sex with the angels in the story, and the angels did not comply. Cindy replied with, “they were gay rapists!” She was completely unable to divorce the immorality from the type of sexual behavior displayed. There was no consideration of the angels’ desires (or the desires Lot’s daughters, who were offered up for sex from the supposed most immoral man in the city). She was stuck behind a wall because she had been taught that gay sex was bad, and due to conformation bias anything that remotely mentioned sexual contact between men verified that she was correct.

Humanists don’t have this barrier to overcome. Humanists ground themselves in compassion, understanding, and evidence. We are able to discern the right thing based on the needs of other humans. We know that if someone doesn’t reciprocate our sexual advances, that we should stop immediately. We know that if someone doesn’t give us a “yes” when we ask if they want to fool around with them, then that isn’t a yes and we aren’t given the go-ahead. We know that if someone is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol, then they don’t have the best judgment to consent, and that we shouldn’t take advantage of them in that state. Deviation from this behavior is sexual behavior without consent of one of the parties, or in other words, rape.

This is something that society at large is largely ignorant of, and you don’t need my examples to demonstrate that. I know that in my sex ed classes in junior high that I was never taught to value the consent of my sexual partner. I was taught about the bodily effects of puberty, contraceptives and their failure rates, and STDs, but not so much as a mention that unless both parties have informed consent, that is rape. In fact, the idea of consent between two parties wasn’t even introduced to me until college, and I was introduced to it via my peers. Young humans are going to seek out sexual fulfillment behind their parents’ backs, and if they are going to do so without recognizing the value of the autonomy of other humans then it is going to lead to some pretty big messes. This becomes a major problem when they turn into adults without even considering the consent of another person as they seek out sex.

While humanists are still fighting for recognition from society, consent is possibly the best thing we have to demonstrate our values. It is possibly the most triumphant example of humanist behavior, and it shows off our compassion for humans and the importance we give to individual bodily autonomy. It embodies the platinum rule, stating that we should “treat others the way that they want to be treated”, giving us a leg up over those stuck on the rule’s golden counterpart. If humanists were to make their voices heard under the banner of consent, and make the concepts of humanism and consent inseparable in most peoples’ eyes, then it’s one of the best things we could do to make atheists and nonbelievers accepted. To a layperson observing the culture war, they may see people on one side championing one sexual ethic based on an ancient book, and others championing an ethic based on the needs and boundaries of every individual involved. Who do you think will win out for the outsider?

By pushing a culture of consent, we mitigate the risk of violating boundaries of others. We aren’t met with the confusion of why the Trump Tape was bad, thinking that he did something bad just because it involved sex organs and married women. We recognize that it is bad because Trump violated someone’s body without her allowing it, and whether or not she was married had fuck all to do with it.**

Consent culture gives us a more robust toolset for our sexual ethic, whereas deciding what is and isn’t allowed based on what a book says is like memorizing multiplication tables without understanding what multiplication actually is. Sure you can know that six times seven is 42, but you won’t understand why. Once you come to a problem that goes beyond what you have memorized, you won’t have a clue what to do. If you’ve memorized the multiplication tables all the way up to twelve, then you won’t really know what to do when you have to multiply twenty-four by nineteen.

Sexual ethics are the same way. If a fundamentalist religious person comes across a sexual situation that the Bible or their pastor have said nothing about, they won’t have a robust tool for them to use in that situation. For example, maybe their partner wants to try butt stuff, and the Bible says nothing about butt stuff (I’ve checked). They are clueless as to what the right thing to do is. However, the humanist has everything to work with. They are able take into account the sexual needs of their partner. They are also able to look at the evidence to find out if it can be done safely and how. Once they communicate with their partner, then they are able to make a rational, informed decision that doesn’t violate any boundaries. Not only do they avoid harm, but they may actually make each others’ lives better as a result of trying something new in their sex life.

How is anyone able to argue against this? Arguing against a culture of consent is essentially arguing that it should be ok to treat others however we want no matter what the other person says. You aren’t able to say consent is wrong without implicitly stating that you’re ok with someone violating you.

Furthermore, while I’ve spent this post focusing on sexual consent, everything good about consent can be applied to other areas of life. Informed consent ties into assisted suicide, organ donation, and other medical decisions. It ties into reproductive rights, and how much we value the bodily autonomy of individuals. It ties into substance use, and why we’re okay with people temporarily harming their bodies. Furthermore, it ties into the laws that we establish based around these issues. If we look at these issues from a perspective of establishing consent of all parties involved, then this gives more legal freedom and autonomy to individuals, and establish legal areas where more information is necessary for the individuals. Who can argue against that?

Pushing a culture of consent should, then, be one of our top priorities as secular humanists. As our ultimate goal, we can create a culture where people value the autonomy of others, and learn how to respect each others’ bodies in a way where everyone is happy. It will create a world where people are more willing to seek out fulfillment, sexual or otherwise, and less fearful of being taken advantage of.

Until that culture arrives, it remains possibly the best example that we can give outsiders for why secular humanism is such a powerful force for good. Perhaps they won’t understand why we care so much about critical thinking and evidence, it’s not within their paradigm of values. They may not understand the causes we fight for, such as gender equality or LGBTQ rights, and that’s unfortunate. But if we are going to give people a starting point, consent is such a beautiful, perfect idea that we can provide for them. If you are a compassionate, ethical person, you can’t argue against it. So, as humanists, let’s make sure we keep pushing consent as part of our platform. It’s one of the best things we can do for both our movement and the world around us.

*The only addition I’d add is that it should be informed consent. This means that since minors don’t have the maturity to be truly informed, for example, sex acts with minor shouldn’t be condoned even if they attempt to give a go-ahead.

**Though if she did want to have sex with Trump for some reason then it would be good to communicate that with her partner.


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One thought on “Consent is One of the Best Things Secular Humanism Offers, and We Need to Emphasize That

  1. Carl Baker October 20, 2016 at 4:56 PM Reply

    Is it okay to share this outside of the NRR ecosystem?

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