With the verdict in the Steubenville case has come a lot of discussion about rape and sexism, and the state of culture in our supposed "post-feminist" America. I say supposed because like those who speak of a post-racial America, folks who say frameworks like feminism have outlasted their use are either woefully unaware or deliberately trying to reverse the gains made during the second half of the 20th century. At the same time, every framework or set of frameworks has its limits. Which is why I'd like to take up this interesting post from the IDProject blog on Right Action and consent.
Caroline Contillo, the author of the post, argues that Buddhist teachings around sexuality point towards the creation of a culture of consent. The term "enthusiastic consent" was hot stuff back in my college days (mid-1990s) and has returned to the forefront in recent years to address a diverse range of sex scandals, including Steubenville. While I agree with the principle behind enthusiastic consent, it's always felt a bit too black and white of a response to what is decidedly a not black and white world. People consent to sexual contact, as well as many other forms of action, in a wide variety of ways. In addition, people make rejections in a wide variety of ways, which is why the focus on verbal rejections in rape and assault cases is problematic at best, if not a great way to privilege the rights of the accused over the rights of accusers.
There's a lot more I could say about the intricacies of consent, but what I want to dig into goes beyond that. Here's a selection from Contillo's post:
The emphasis in all three aspects of Right Action is consent. The need for another sentient being to agree with your intentions and provide you with an emphatic agreement. To take a life, to take possessions, or to force sex upon another human being against their will is unwise and "wrong" because it is selfish and creates suffering for all parties. Right Action is about using our intention and mindfulness to encourage a culture of consent.
Now, these aspects of Right Action have been framed as things one must abstain from doing. But what if we reversed that and created things that a Buddhist *must* do?
We must encourage life and health (perhaps by learning permaculture, perhaps by taking an interest in health-care reform), we must participate in selflessness, and we must seek an emphatic and freely-given "yes!" in all sexual situations.
I am reminded of something Acharya Eric Spiegel said during the Refuge Vow ceremony I took part in, when discussing the precepts. One of the precepts, in the vein of Right Action, admonishes the participant to refrain from unwholesome sexual activity. Acharya Spiegel made sure to explore this concept in depth. He told us that to him, even flirting your way out of a speeding ticket could be considered a flouting of this precept. "Using your personal charisma to manipulate someone into giving you something" is how he phrased it. That has always stuck with me. If we take this advice to heart, then Buddhism really is a philosophy that puts incredible emphasis on consent.
First off, I reject the notion of "must" she offers. It doesn't reflect the dynamic functioning of Buddhist teachings that are responding to the ever changing world we live in.
But what I'm more interested in is this focus on consent she's offering. I like that she's brought it in here. I don't think I've seen Right Action framed in this way before. At the same time, there's something off about it. Because people consent to things that cause suffering all the time. Either deliberately or out of ignorance. Whatever the case, though, mere consent doesn't really shift us towards a culture of lessening suffering and moving towards liberation. It emphasizes individual freedom and autonomy, but fails to uphold our wider interdependence.
An experience from my college days comes to mind. One night, I was hanging out with a pair of friends playing games and having a few drinks. The male friend of mine had a crush on the female friend of mine, but she didn't share his feelings. In fact, she was interested in me, and that entire evening, I struggled to reconcile my interest in her with my desire to not hurt my other friend. As often happens with college students, we had our share of drinks - not too many, but enough to cloud our judgements a bit. My female friend started flirting with me, while my other friend cooked something for us all in his kitchen. It was a delicate situation to say the least. Eventually, her and I went outside for a bit. It was a warm summer evening, the moon nearly full overhead. We made out for awhile in the alley about a block from his apartment. She repeatedly gave consent, quite enthusiastically I might add, for us to have sex right there in the alley. I continued to struggle with loyalties to my male friend, but continued to consent to an escalation. That is, until we were half naked and at the point of intercourse. Perhaps it was as much about not having protection as about my concerns about our mutual friend back home cooking for all of us. I'm not interested in painting my 21 year old self in a heroic light. However, what happened next - when I told her we should get back to the apartment now - wasn't just about rescinding consent. It was really about weighing the potential consequences. The upset my male friend might have felt about us disappearing to have sex. The possibility of destroying the friendship all together. Unplanned pregnancy. STDs. (I really didn't know her sexual history.) The lists goes on. I already felt guilt about the sneaking around we had done. It didn't make any sense to keep going just because we both wanted to, and agreed to.
I suppose it's possible to argue that consent contains all the rest of the stuff I spoke about. But more often than not, I don't think it does. I certainly have consented to having sex when I probably would have been better off saying no. There seems to be an assumption by the author that when folks are consenting, they're doing so mindfully, with at least some awareness of what that might mean in terms of the Eightfold Path or the precepts. But really, how often is that the case? And how often is consent mainly driven by horniness or lonliness or some other powerful emotion?
What do you think of all this? I'm especially interested in ways folks have reconciled Buddhist teachings around sexuality in our sexually diverse, modern society. Because one of the things I enjoyed about Contillo's post is that she attempted to do just that.