Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sex, Consent, and Buddhist Right Action

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.


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Great post and questions, Nathan. I'm reminded of a section in Thich Nhat Hanh's book "Old Path White Clouds" on love. Here the Buddha is advising a king on two kinds of love:

"First of all, you should know that the suffering caused by a love based on desire and attachment is a thousand times greater than the suffering that results from compassion. It is necessary to distinguish between the two kinds of suffering—one which is entirely useless and serves only to disturb our minds and bodies and the other which nourishes caring and responsibility. Love based on compassion can provide the energy needed to respond to the suffering of others. Love based on attachment and desire only creates anxiety and more suffering. Compassion provides fuel for the most helpful actions and service. Great King! Compassion is most necessary. Pain that results from compassion can be a helpful pain. If you cannot feel another person’s pain, you are not truly human."

I think sexuality is similar. First, I don't think one can talk of 'compassionate non-consensual sex'; but in terms of consensual sex, it might be either based in desires or in compassion. I like the quote for pointing out that while we do suffer in compassionate relationships, it isn't the 'useless' suffering that is caused by desire-based 'love' and sex. Getting back to the path, I would say that each sexual encounter can be an opportunity to ask, "is this an act of compassionate love, or of desire?" It's likely that desire is always there, so it's when she (or he) says "no" or "not tonight" that one is most clearly tested. Can you just take a breath and stop or is frustration the most dominant feeling?

Bob said...

Sexual impulses arise naturally as part of a healthy human animal's biological program. The test for any aspirant committed to the pursuit of freedom from afflictive states entails a matter of attention. In other words, the impulse itself is what it is, but will we add something extra to it, superimposing emotionally reactive qualities on to something that is merely an innocent part of the human functioning?
For example, one can lift any particular impulse out of the river of impulses that regularly course through the body-mind organism and grant it special attention, even up to the point of fixation. In such an event, one construes a sense of concrete (and demanding) self through identification with and consequent attachment to the body, thereby setting oneself up for suffering in the process.
Whether or not one actually follows through on the impulse from this point matters little, since a sense of self has already been created around the impulse, and hence an internal division has been set in motion, a vicious cycle of craving and frustration that comes with the self-sense package.
The only antidote is the practice of non-dwelling, which involves neither embracing the impulse nor turning it away. In fact, it entails exactly doing nothing about it, just letting it arise and dissolve as it naturally will, without using it as a platform to identify with the body and therefore establish a self-matrix, a "me-story". It can be inspected, seen through, and released without creating the dramatic conditions which lead to the assumption of an independent and enduring self.


Algernon said...

It's happened again! I've been drafting a blog post about consent and the third precept and boom, you're writing about it, too. I'll have my response up later this morning, I hope.

Nathan said...

I just offered this comment to Algernon's post, which is partly a response to mine.

Over the years, I have had a couple of partners that wanted some sort of domination to occur during sex. Wanted me to break their resistance to something, or simply to bypass consent to sex in the first place. It really confused me as a 20 something feminist man dating mostly progressive women. And even when it came up again in a more recent relationship, I still wasn't quite sure how to handle it. Would I feel good about breaking that boundary? Would she afterwards, even if she wanted it beforehand? The thing is that in a ideal world, one could work through these kinds of questions alone and together without a lot of guilt and shame mucking up the process. But the reality is that so often, the very questions we need to ask our selves and our partners get lost beneath emotional patterns that we've inherited from a society that can't handle much of anything sex related. So, it seems to me that helping to cultivate spaces where folks can't unearth the questions and consider possible results from their actions is much more important than consent itself. Because in such an environment, consent would arise much more naturally.

Nathan said...


I do think that suffering from desire can be a teacher. Namely, to teach us that suffering from desire is useless and unnecessary. It's got one lesson. Unfortunately, it seems like most of us have to repeat that learning again and again before finally taking the lesson into our heart and bones.

Nathan said...

And then you have Bob's points about not even needing to act upon the impulses if we make stories and additions - and attach to them - in our minds. Territory I've been in more times than I wish to admit.

LuLu3156 said...

Thank you for this discussion. It reminded me of a thought from the book "Sex in the Forbidden Zone: When Men in Power...Betray Women's Trust," it said something like "the dynamics of the power differential can render a woman unable to withhold consent..." While this book is pretty specifically talking about sexual misconduct such as that by the Sasaki Roshi and Richard Baker types, I really appreciated its consideration of choices that may be regarded as "totally mutual!!" when there are so many causes and conditions contributing to how two people even got into the situation that consent is quite delicate, if not impossible in some respects. So complex!

Nathan said...

" "the dynamics of the power differential can render a woman unable to withhold consent..." " This is definitely another angle on some of these relationships. It's easy enough to see how a student who may be moving towards priesthood, for example, is put in a very difficult position. Odds are, rejection of a sexual relationship would derail their spiritual training. And of course, it raises questions about the teacher's judgment of that student's insight and skills. I'm not sure it's accurate to say a woman in this situation has "no choice," but certainly whatever choices are available are highly charged and consent isn't "free and enthusiastic." Very complex stuff indeed.

Nathan said...

I received an e-mail today questioning whether my post was defending the rights of rapists. The e-mailer and I have had a good exchange, but I wanted to offer my initial response because it adds to the original post.

First off, I had zero intention of privileging the "rights" of rapists in that post, nor minimize rape in any way. As a survivor myself, I'm all too aware of how poorly society deals with rape and assault, and how neither really is about sex.

This was not a post against saying no to a rapist. Anyone who says no should be respected, and all movement forward should cease. Period. That's a base level for me. And in such cases, talking about consent makes a lot of sense.

However, focusing on verbal consent or rejection isn't always reliable for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, there is no verbal response at all. It's all non-verbal. When I was assaulted, I was totally overwhelmed and surprised, and couldn't say anything either way. My body was tense, trying to pull back and get out of the situation. But I never said anything. A lot of rape cases get tossed or at least highly questioned (wrongly in my view) because there was a lack of verbal rejection. And it's so much harder to prove non-verbal rejection when verbal consent is the expected norm.

Secondly, if you read the sentence you quoted from my post closer - it says that focusing on verbal consent is a great way to privilege the rights of the accused. What I'm saying is that it actually backfires in protecting survivors and victims because it places a burden of verbal rejection on the person accusing. Anyone who doesn't make a definitive NO is treated as suspect at best, never mind the ways in which these situations frequently render survivors and victims unable to make definitive responses. Either out of fear of their lives, or because conditions changed so quickly that they didn't know how to respond.

In my view, either the definition of consent needs to be much more nuanced, especially if it's going to be used in legal action, or we need to move beyond consent and see it as only one piece of the puzzle.

The IDProject post is about a lot more than rape and assault. She's proposing consent as a way to frame Right Action in all situations involving sexual contact. It's a pretty wide field she's offering.

A lot of my response, and the reason that dating experience I wrote about came up was her focus on "enthusiastic consent." Something I've long wondered about, because it doesn't seem reliable. Particularly if we're using it is the barometer for reducing suffering through Right Action. Both parties can be enthusiastic and yet cause more suffering through acting on those "Yes's." Beyond that, though, excitement and enthusiasm ebb and flow during any given sexual experience. Consent seems to reinforce a more static view. That someone agreed, was even excited at the beginning, and that's that. While some of us might realize that it's more complex than that, I think the majority of folks - especially the majority of men - think of consent as just getting that "yes" in the beginning. If they have a concern with consent at all.