Consent: a word so bland I once found it almost ugly. Why would I base my framework for romantic relationships on a word as flippant and perfunctory as a waiver to have my photo taken? Bodies and relationships are deeply important to me as a Christian. Naturally, sex is also deeply important to me. Even after I left purity culture behind, I still searched for a rich, God-honoring sexual ethic. Consent seemed like a pretty bare standard for behavior.
Yet, in looking back on my experience with purity culture, I have to admit that consent has not been a given in my romantic relationships.
With its intense fixation on boundaries, it may seem like purity culture values consent. However, in framing sexual relationships only in terms of individual purity and in failing to educate us about our own bodies and sexuality, purity culture discourages us from learning and using language to communicate about boundaries and physical touch. Many evangelicals were indirectly taught that consent is implied until the word “no” brings an interaction to a halt. Meanwhile, women—raised to be demure and compliant in most interactions with men—are expected to be staunch champions of their physical boundaries. Believing they were protecting us, proponents of purity culture and strict gender roles withheld the tools young people needed to advocate for and protect themselves.
I was kissed for the first time in high school. It was unexpected and confusing. Actually, it bordered on assault. I blamed myself for my feelings of shame and loss, because I hadn’t stopped it from happening. And, because I was taught to perform evangelical gender roles in my relationships, I expected men I dated to set the tone for physical intimacy—while I was to stop them if I felt uncomfortable. Our parents, mentors, and pastors (and the books they gave us) never invited us to imagine any other arrangement. We fell into the pattern they outlined for us in Christian college, drawing imaginary lines across our bodies and trying desperately to appease a tiny, damning referee inside our heads. An invisible line judge always stood ready with a shrieking whistle any time someone’s hands inched out of bounds.
For me, this translated to encounters where I acquiesced to a man touching my body even as my mind roiled. As I began to ask friends about their experiences, far more horrifying stories emerged of young men who simply used the gendered power dynamics of purity culture against their girlfriends and ultimately assaulted them. Again and again, women took the blame. Purity culture—supposedly meant to keep women safe—had left them vulnerable to manipulation and violence.
Clearly, the “bare minimum” of consent is a standard far too few people have actually adopted. The rise of violent pornography, the online harassment women experience daily, and the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements all serve as evidence. We need more conversations everywhere we can muster the courage to have them—in churches, schools, bars, colleges, hospitals, legislatures, and more. Perhaps especially within the church, we have a great deal to learn about consent.
A consent ethic for romantic relationships provides a higher standard than an ethic focused only on personal boundaries because it requires active and open communication and shared responsibility. It requires us to not only respect our own bodies but also the bodies of others. Project Respect explains, “Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games. Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal “yes” or “no”—it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well… Only yes means yes—and yes should come from an engaged and enthusiastic partner.” Enthusiastic consent means 1) there are no reservations or discomfort on either side of a physical interaction, 2) both participants are attuned to and listening to each other’s verbal and nonverbal signals, and 3) both are placing the other’s total comfort ahead of their own desires.
From an ethical perspective, purity culture’s rules are actually far less robust than an ethic of enthusiastic consent. Purity culture locates responsibility for purity with the individual, but consent culture insists that both individuals are responsible to one another. Purity culture implies that only married people are entitled to sex; consent culture states that no one is entitled to sex. Purity culture warns people away from their bodies; consent culture invites them into their bodies. Purity culture places responsibility for communication on the sender of a message; consent culture emphasizes the importance of both speaking and listening. Purity culture determines the rightness or wrongness of an action based on the beliefs of an individual; consent culture determines it based on the context and quality of communication within a relationship and the values of both parties.
Instead of simply imposing rules out of fear, our approach to decisions about physical touch should involve asking our significant others questions and listening to their answers. This way, the decision-making process itself becomes a part of the physical relationship. By asking these questions and verbalizing these answers, we make space for radical honesty—both with our partners and with ourselves. We begin to develop and trust our own intuition to tell us not just about our individual readiness to engage in an activity, but also about the health of a relationship; how we really feel about the other person; and what we believe about sex and physical intimacy.
Asking for consent takes maturity. It requires everyone to be honest and clear about their intentions, to speak their needs and boundaries out loud. It means taking an active role in decision-making, not just acquiescing to the desires and pressures of others. It requires self-control and the ability to cope when things don’t go our way. It encourages us to voice our opinions, needs, beliefs, hopes, and fears about our relationships—even when it seems easier not to.
An ethic of consent does not (and should not) preclude rules, Christian beliefs, and boundaries. Instead, it shifts the responsibility for sharing, listening, and respecting beliefs and boundaries onto the person pursuing further intimacy—rather than placing the onus on the other person to interrupt the encounter with “no.” When we learn that intimacy is not intimacy without enthusiastic consent, we recover its intended purpose of bringing joy. We are also better able to intuit that something is not right when an activity or relationship brings shame, fear, worry, doubt, pain, or secrecy.
Likewise, teaching people to develop intuition and communication skills doesn’t mean tossing out Christian values or expectations. It means equipping people to better live out those values in the context of today. “I want to wait to have sex until marriage” is a belief—a what. Enthusiastic consent is the how—and the how requires ongoing, candid conversation about putting that belief into practice in intimate relationships.
Jesus’ preaching MO was to replace a legalistic, outwardly-focused standard of behavior with a relationally-focused one. Instead of “do not murder,” Jesus said “do not insult your brother or sister” (Matt. 5:22). Instead of just keeping the letter of Sabbath regulations, he honored the spirit of the Sabbath: celebration, wholeness, and healing in community (Matt. 12:7). Others accused him of being impure, and he didn’t bother to refute them; he simply went on loving (Matt. 9:11). He knew the law-keepers cared less about holiness before God than about keeping their lives tidy.
Determining our values, listening to our bodies, emotions, and intuitions, communicating about them in relationship, remaining open and curious toward our partner, practicing self-control, and maintaining open communication throughout our relationships and throughout our lives can certainly be difficult work. Rules and referees seem, at first glance, more foolproof, and they’re certainly more straightforward.
Yet, Jesus knew that when we focus only on keeping regulations, we lose our sense of imagination and adventure. We become judgmental, petty, and mean—especially toward ourselves. Perhaps worst of all, we come to think we can be perfect all by ourselves. On the other hand, when relationships are the focus of our lives, we are able to live with hope, excitement, and abundance. We bring compassion and creativity to each other and ourselves, because we are concerned not with outward purity but with internal wholeness.
At first glance, purity culture’s rules and whistle-blowing referees can seem foolproof. In some ways, they are certainly more straightforward than a consent ethic. But where purity culture so often trains young people in habits of judgment and fear, a consent ethic consistently invites us to curiosity, honesty, and care. In choosing between purity culture and a consent ethic, we are not choosing between upholding Christian values and a no-rules sexual free-for-all. We are choosing between fearfully controlling others using shame and misinformation and empowering believers to build healthy relationships and make informed, positive decisions. It is clear, to me at least, which of these paths follows in the way of Jesus.
This article appears in “Dating While Egalitarian,” the Summer 2019 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.