How Yes Can Become No
This guest opinion piece was written by Nick Monco, who graduated from Claremont McKenna College (CMC) in 2006.
In addition to being a CMC alumnus and former writer for the CI, I am a Catholic priest, so I suppose it is fitting to begin this reply to Jordan Bosiljevac with a confession: when I first read snippets of her article, “Why Yes Can Mean No,” it occurred to me that CMC was filling its students’ heads with rubbish that I never encountered during my tenure as a student. However, more mature and charitable reflection, and reading the article in its entirety, led me to more sympathetic thoughts. Despite the liberal sprinkling of critical theory terminology, at its core the article provided a very honest portrait of a wounded soul in a debauched culture. The labels used for the experience were different, but the experience itself mirrored in many ways the life and thought of the first man to publish a book confessing his own sins: Saint Augustine of Hippo.
Before becoming a Christian bishop, Augustine was a philosopher, an intellectual, and a party animal who would have fit in quite well at TNC. He recognized the deleterious effect that certain exterior moral forces had on his character (most notably his pagan father and mischievous friends). Jordan points to alcohol, a culture that associates hookups only with fun, and an implied obligation when returning to someone’s room as some of the external forces she encountered. Augustine noted that his own desires (passions) and the absence of good moral teaching were internal forces that contributed to his wild ways. While Jordan does not devote as much analysis to these internal forces, she is clearly aware of them: desire, loneliness, and anxiety about future relationships and ruined friendships are explicitly mentioned.
The crux of the issue is how to frame the problem. Jordan’s approach is based entirely on the idea of consent. If a person gives their full “yes” to something without hesitation, then it is morally acceptable. However, when that “yes” comes with hesitation or is produced out of fear and anxiety, then it is really a “no” and what has happened is “rape.” To get rid of “yesses” that mean “no,” we must remove the external forces that push women to give consent when they don’t really mean it.
The focus on consent assumes that full consent itself makes the sexual act good. In no other area of life is consent believed to contain such magical powers. Stuffing one’s face every morning with donuts does not, by some mystical process, become healthy when one does it with full and complete consent. Investing all of one’s saving without reservation in a poorly run company does not transform that decision into a financial windfall. And yet when it comes to sex, consent takes the bad, the uncomfortable, the irresponsible, the dirty, and the dangerous and transforms them all into the good. Consent is certainly important in relation to sexual activity, but ascribing to its god-like powers only distracts us from the problems inherent in what we are consenting to. Perhaps Jordan’s real problem is not that she is only partially consenting to sex, but that she is consenting to actions that she may sense in some deep, intuitive way are not good. The action chosen, not the act of choosing, may be the heart of the problem.
There is not space in this article to give a full and fair airing of Augustine’s views on sex. However, a few salient points must be made. Although he is often portrayed as anti-sex, Augustine defended the idea that God was the creator of our sexual nature and that sex, like all creation, was good in itself. Given our inclination to evil though, we often pursue this good thing in bad ways, for the wrong reasons, at inopportune times, with a less than ideal accomplice. Evil is never the result of loving things that are evil, but rather the result of loving a good thing more than other things that are actually better. Sexual pleasure is not evil in itself, but when it is desired more than our genuine welfare or the honor of God, our pursuit becomes sinful.
Once we recognize what we should be choosing, there is still the problem of failing to make the choice. Instead of framing the issue around rape, Augustine understood his own struggles within the context of slavery. The evil of slavery is that a person, who ought to be free to pursue happiness, is subjected to the will of another. True freedom consists in loving the Good with our whole selves. Love unites us to what we love and produces the happiness we all desire. Real slavery occurs when our desires drive us to do things that ultimately make us unhappy. The greedy man robs a bank to get money and then spends the rest of his life worrying about the police. His money has come at the price of his peace. His greed has enslaved him by preventing him acquiring that which would truly satisfy his heart.
Augustine was unable to discontinue the relationship with his live-in girlfriend and mother of his child, even when he became absolutely convinced that it was immoral to keep having sex with her. This dilemma inspired his famous prayer: “Lord, give me chastity, but not today.” It also produced this famous summary of the life of vice and virtue: “Therefore the good man, although he is a [legal] slave, is free; but the bad man, even if he reigns, is a slave, and not just of one man, but…of as many masters as he has vices” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 3). When we are slaves to our vices, we cannot pursue the best sort of life because we consent to acts that ultimately make us miserable. The chains that bind tightest are not worn on wrists, but on the human heart itself.
What then would Augustine say to Jordan? First, it does no good to remove the pressure of external forces without making sure that forces at work within us – our desires, passions, ideas, and hopes – are pointing us in the right direction. Second, if we get what we think we want and lose our peace in the process, then we do not yet know what it is we truly desire. Keep looking. Third, the pursuit of happiness has been the great quest of every human being since the beginning of history. In trying to find our own happiness, we would do well to learn from others’ mistakes and triumphs. Fourth, given our own obvious weaknesses, we cannot expect to free ourselves from slavery. In chapter eight of his Confessions, Augustine movingly recounts his own sudden release from servitude at the moment when he seemed most powerless against the forces binding him from within. Finally, the need for society is not only to promote consent, but to also promote choices that lead to true and lasting happiness, not for some, but for all.