Breda O’Brien: Consent should be minimum moral standard

Consent is low bar in sexual relations amid repellent behaviour and dominance

Consent in sexual relations should be a minimum standard. It has become the maximum standard instead, and the end result is not pretty.

For example, suppose all Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims were instead absolutely delighted to have sexual encounters with a powerful Hollywood producer who could derail their careers and who, in some cases, was more than twice their age. (Weinstein denies all charges made against him.)

If consent is the maximum standard, then in that scenario there would be nothing you could say about Weinstein other than he is a perfectly good person.

Every era has its flaws. For example, eras with very repressive attitudes towards sexuality penalised women who became pregnant outside of marriage in very cruel ways.

That kind of repression is unlikely today, thankfully, but anyone suggesting any kind of restraint on sexual behaviour other than consent is likely to be accused of wanting to return there.

In fact, anyone suggesting that there is any downside at all to the sexual revolution is likely to be attacked bitterly.

But the reality is that when consent becomes the only criterion, even this very low bar is unlikely to be met.

Potent norms

Education is usually considered to be the answer. Educate young men to have respect, and young women to be confident enough to assert their right to be safe. But formal education is a tiny part of people’s lives. The wider culture is a far more potent source of norms. And often, the norms the wider culture promulgates are frightening.

For example, in 2003, Martin Scorcese, Meryl Streep, Harvey Weinstein and virtually everyone else present stood and gave Roman Polanski a prolonged ovation, when he won an Oscar for best director.

Polanksi raped and sodomised a 13-year-old girl after drugging her.

Just as Hollywood applauded its own, no matter how repellent his actions, staunch Republican moms stand by Donald Trump, who has boasted about sexually assaulting women.

The ability to condone terrible sexual behaviour is true even of feminist icons, like Gloria Steinem who, in a famous New York Times oped on March 22nd, 1998, defended Bill Clinton at the height of the sexual scandals engulfing him.

(Oddly, you cannot get the original on the New York Times website, only a version edited in 2010 for a collection of New York Times opinion columns.)

Writing about Monica Lewinsky, Steinem said her encounters with Clinton had "never been called unwelcome, coerced or other than something she sought". She went on to say that "welcome sexual behaviour is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one".

Aside from the odd analogy, which seems to compare women to cars, Steinem blithely ignores the imbalance of power between a starstruck 22-year-old intern and a 49-year-old US president.

‘No means no’

That was not all: Steinem said she believed Paula Jones when Jones claimed that then-governor Clinton had asked her for oral sex and even dropped his trousers. But when Jones refused, Clinton backed off, Steinem said, proving the president knew that "no means no", which, in her view, is apparently all that matters.

One wonders whether Hillary Clinton, who describes in her biography feeling "dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged" and "gulping for air' when her husband confessed about Lewinsky, might have agreed that consent is all that is required.

What about that old-fashioned word, fidelity? In a world where consent is the only moral value that is allowed, infidelity just becomes shrugworthy.

Steinem commented on Weinstein in an interview in Elle magazine and said that men like him should have charges pressed against them.

But she also said something much more ambivalent. She said that Weinstein is two things: the best in Hollywood for supporting “talented, powerful women and doing great movies” but also that he is “turned on by powerlessness, because male-dominant culture has told him he has to dominate. He can deal with smart women whom he sees as his equals; presumably, that’s not sexualised to him. It’s dominance that’s been sexualised.”

Smart women

That characterisation of Weinstein as someone who can deal with smart women whom he sees as his equals might leave Rose McGowan and other alleged victims wondering what that says about them.

Weinstein supports many popular progressive causes. He contributed $100,000 toward the $3 million campaign to endow Rutgers University’s new Gloria Steinem chair in media, culture, and feminist studies.

Did his impeccable liberal credentials make it harder for women to accuse him of repellent behaviour? Just as Trump’s belated espousal of values shared by many Republicans renders him above reproach for some?

At the moment, our culture says that fleeting encounters are just as valid as sex in the context of loving commitment, so long as no one gets hurt. But in terms of things that help human beings to thrive, surely random, meaningless sexual encounters are not high on the list?

If we want people to honour consent, it might be more likely that they would do so if we also endorsed the idea that love and respect are not just optional extras when it comes to having sex.