Over the past few years, there has been a crescendo of talk about sexual consent aimed especially at our teens and young adults. Freshman orientation at the local college is now less likely to orient students in the ins and the outs of campus and curriculum and more likely to teach the ins and outs of sex and consent. Students are taught that consent must be given before the commencement of any sexual encounter and again explicitly through each and every progression of that encounter. Any withholding, denial, or inability to give consent are clear indications that all sexual acts must cease immediately.
It is good and wise, of course, to teach the importance of sexual consent and the terrible harm that comes by ignoring or violating it. Please hear me: non-consensual sexual activity of any kind is immoral, abhorrent, and inexcusable. It falls to parents to teach our children its importance. But, as we will see, the problem with so much of today’s talk of consent is that it studiously avoids grounding it in the only appropriate context for sexual activity. If we, as Christian parents, ground our children in that context, we will have come a long way toward instructing them in the matter of consent in a confused and confusing world.
First, let’s consider consent as God intended it, as he created it to exist in his perfect world. Sex—with its nakedness, its vulnerability, and its intimacy—is very powerful. It is risky, even, and this is why God has set it in a particular context. According to God, the creator of human sexuality, marriage is the only appropriate context for sexual activity of any kind. Within marriage, sex flows out of the commitment formalized in the wedding vows and always points back to it. For this reason, Tim and Kathy Keller describe sex as a “covenant renewal ceremony” and say, “sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’ You must not use sex to say anything less. So, according to the Bible, a covenant is necessary for sex. It creates a place of security for vulnerability and intimacy.” Thus, marriage is the God-ordained context in which husband and wife willingly consent to give themselves to one another as an expression of their mutual love and commitment.
Within this God-given context of general consent of the marriage covenant, there must also be express consent. In a relationship that functions as God decrees, a husband acting in love would never demand or take what his wife is unwilling to assent to (and vice versa, of course). He loves his wife, he is eager to protect her, he is eager to do what is good for her, and is willing to submit his desires to hers. Further, he is committed to their long-lasting joy and, therefore, unwilling to forcefully gain any short-term satisfaction that would jeopardize long-term harmony. Rather, his concern is that any sexual activity they share is mutual—desired by both, with the assent of both, and for the good of both. It is not the fear of law and consequence that constrains him, but the presence of love and commitment. It is his love for his bride and his desire for the well-being of their relationship that keeps him from violating her.
Of course, this world isn’t perfect and sex, like everything else, has become fundamentally disordered. So let’s turn our attention from sexual consent as it ought to be to sexual consent as it actually is on campuses and through Tinder today—consent as it is being taught in this confused time in history.
The sexual revolution has long proclaimed that to be fully human we can (and should and must!) enjoy sex outside the constraints of marriage. It has deliberately severed sex from any notion of love and commitment. Young adults, always at the forefront of revolution, are responding by embracing the hookup culture and the sexual indulgence it provides. Where sex without love and commitment was once associated with assault or prostitution, today it is associated with merely hooking up, having fun, or going on a date. Where God intends sex to communicate, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you,” today it communicates nothing more “let’s have fun,” or “you’re good enough for now.” It has no great meaning and demands no special context.
In a time like this, consent becomes difficult. Why? Because sex has been torn from its divinely-ordained covenant. The vulnerability and intimacy that are meant to thrive within the protective vows of love and commitment now attempt to exist in their absence. But without love there is little care or concern for the other person, so boundaries are soon crossed. Why deny yourself a selfish desire for the sake of someone you don’t love and may hardly even know? Without commitment there is little thought for a harmonious future, so rules are soon broken. Why hold back when you don’t intend to stay together anyway? Sex without marriage is inherently risky because it has been ripped from the only context that protects the hearts and bodies of those who participate in it.
And this is where we find ourselves today. Because sexual union is no longer governed by love, it must be controlled by law. So students are instructed in how to share with strangers what is meant to be shared only with a spouse, how to claim one of the benefits of love and commitment in relationships that are unloving and merely temporary. It is little wonder, then, that sex is mingled with exploitation, for the very foundation of sex has been deliberately destroyed.
As parents, it is right and good to teach our children the importance of sexual consent. But as we teach them this, we must not fail to set the matter of consent in the only context in which it really works, in which it really makes sense—the context of marriage. It is only here, within the covenant of marriage, that sex can be truly safe. It is only here, within the covenant of marriage, that sex can thrive.
(I acknowledge, of course, that some wives have been forced into non-consensual sexual acts by their husbands. This represents a terrible and inexcusable violation of trust and is a mockery of the safety and intimacy God intends for marriage. Sadly, even something as good as sex within marriage may at times be misused by sinful people in a sinful world.)