(Links in this article are not all to Christian sites. And some sites I link to here may be NSFW.)
Blogger Libby Anne, who grew up in Christian Patriarchy but chose to leave it, believes she got a much better sexual ethic now: Consent, she claims, is far superior to God’s rules as a basis for sexual ethics.
I largely empathize with her: If you see God’s rules as an arbitrary imposition, you will pretty much prefer sexual values in which your opinion matter.
But on the other hand, “consent” or “choice” is a very inadequate standard of ethics: Brahmin widows, for example, “chose”/ “consented” to be burned on the funeral pyres of their husbands. This, of course, was because of societal expectations. It did not make it ethical to burn these widows to death.
The same is the case with sexual ethics. For one thing, women are socialized, to a degree men are not, to think more of the needs of others than their own. This means girls/ women would sometimes consent to things which are not in their own interest. A sex act may also not be in the best interest of other people: For example, consensually getting pregnant with the child of a drug addict (the child would not want a father like that), or two consenting adults cheating on the spouse of one of them. People choose myriads of things which are not good for either themselves or the people around them, so ethics have to go further than consent.
Here are some things which I believe should play a role in Christian sexual ethics. (Okay, full disclosure: I say all these things as someone who have never actually been sexually active. So you will probably know quite a few things about this topic that I do not.) But, for what it is worth, I want to start with the biggest commandment: Love the Lord with all your heart, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Sexual ethics has to do with how you treat people, so I want to handle the second part first:
Ethical sex cares about the needs and interests of both partners. Mutuality (as seen in, for example, the due benevolence of 1 Cor 7:3-5) should be a key principle. One example of ethical sex that is interested in female well-being is to recognize how a safe relationship is better for women than hookup sex. They are even more likely to orgasm there.
It also cares about the needs of others around the couple. If you perform acts from which a child could result, ethics consider that it is usually best for a child to grow up with two loving biological parents. If you love vulnerable younger humans as you love yourself, you will care about who you make children with.
Loving children as yourself also has to do with what is acceptable public displays of sexuality: What message does this TV show, this billboard, this public behavior, give to children? Is it in their best interest? Is it okay to sexualize public breastfeeding, as babies get hungry everywhere?
Love builds up, it does not break down: Some women allow their partners to act like the stalking, threatening, sadistic male lead with a room of pain in a recent book trilogy named after 50 hues of a bland color. Superficially, that is consensual. However, this goes so far against natural human self-preservation that we have to care what pressures in society causes women to allow this. Men who like to hurt women1 and call them sexually degrading names does something deeply evil. 2
Pornography? Most pornography nowadays are not just sex with women, but violence and degradation against them. If you love others as yourself, you would not want violence to happen to this porn actress. The caring person would, when seeing pornography, care about the roughly treated, shell-shocked woman called sexual slurs in porn, as much as he cares about himself. In that case, he will be unhappy about the violence against this woman, the trauma she experiences. (2 links)
There are reasons why couples promise, when marrying, to be faithful. If and while you love, cheating is impossible to contemplate. Faithfulness keeps those promises.
What about consent?
Consent – enthusiastic, informed, ongoing – should be an aspect of loving others as yourself. Enthusiastic consent means that if A pressures B into something that B hates, A is unethical. Informed consent means that if C said yes, under a wrong impression of what D wanted to do, (s)he did not consent to D’s act. Ongoing consent means you have the right to change a “yes” to a “no” – and your partner may not ignore it.
If you want them to stay virgins pre-marriage, why teach consent to teens? For one thing, it clearly says who is to blame when consent is violated: The rapist. Nobody else. Secondly, consent is only incompatible with virginity until marriage if taught the way the young Libby Anne did: Everything inside the consent box = good, everything outside the consent box = bad. But in addition to her knowledge that non-consent is bad, a consensual act can still be bad for other ethical reasons.
A good view of consent also teaches teens to be wary of abusive people in general. Partners with controlling natures, who cannot take “no” for an answer, do not respect consent. A bad view of consent (“everything consented to is okay”), however, helps abusers: The abuser will say that the partner consented and cannot withdraw consent (the opposite of ongoing consent), s/he will pressure and coerce the abused partner into “consent”, usually while there is a power imbalance, s/he will say it is okay to hurt and degrade a partner and make her – or him – unhappy (the opposite of enthusiastic consent) as the partner consented. (Here is an example of a woman who was traumatized and purposefully emotionally triggered by pornographers but who claims she “consented”. Consent does not mean that abusers like this do no wrong.)