Sometimes it’s staggering to me to see how misrepresented non-Christian moral codes are in Christian and rightwing media outlets.
The latest example is by David French in the National Review in what’s now a right-wing trope that tries to use the Harvey Weinstein scandal to repudiate non-Christian moral codes when it comes to sexual behavior.
What’s worse is that French’s central premise is based entirely on his misrepresentation of consent based sexual ethics.
French’s contention is that consent based sexual morality is “oppressive” and is “destroying lives”. However to back this up he moves from standard examples of consent based ethics to outright misrepresentations:
“You can sum up the sexual ethic of the sexual revolutionary in one sentence: Except in the most extreme circumstances (such as incest), consenting adults define their own moral norms. One-night stands? Fine, so long as there’s consent. May/December relationships. Fantastic, so long as there’s consent. Workplace liaisons between boss and subordinate? No problem, with consent. Adultery? Yes, there are tears, but the heart wants what it wants.”
Let’s go through the list and examine what a consent based sexual ethic will actually say about each issue:
One night stands? Fine (and fun!) with consent.
May/December relationships (ie. relationships with a significant age gap)? Fine with consent, and FYI consent requires being an adult, so age gaps that go below adulthood don’t have consent by definition.
Workplace liaisons between boss and subordinate? Nope! Every workplace I’ve been at has rules against this, and with good reason. This is typically seen as coercive and the power differential blurs the line of informed consent which is required. In my 15+ years working in Corporate America ™, this will get your ass fired. If someone is serious about something, one of the pair transfers or are put on different projects. At best you could say that the sex was ethical if both parties truly have non coerced informed consent – but then ethical problems do arise from the business ethics of this relationship.
Adultery? – Nope! Adultery, at least as I understand it, inherently requires the non-consent of one partner in a relationship. At best you could say the sex act was ethical between two people because they consented, but then another ethical norm – the vow or understanding between the aggrieved person in the relationship who was cheated on is what makes the act of adultery unethical. Of course there are people who are in polyamorous relationships, in which the couple agrees to not be sexually exclusive in their relationship, and so there is nothing wrong with extramarital affairs so long as there is consent by all parties involved in the relationship.
Amazing that, how consent makes it all better. It’s almost as if once you take a sexual ethic seriously it’s self-consistent.
Here we can see how French will expand on his mischaracterization above to link his demonization of consent based sexual ethics and the Harvey Weinstein scandal:
“And for powerful people in particular, the ask so often has fruitful results — sometimes out of genuine desire, sometimes out of fear, and sometimes out of a sense of intimidated resignation — that the ask quickly blurs into expectation, and expectations can yield demands. But the pressure of course doesn’t simply come from those with corporate or political clout. Power is defined by more than wealth or fame. People who seek companionship and love feel sexual pressure to initiate or preserve relationships. Sometimes people want to simply fit in with the dominant culture, to feel included rather than excluded.”
First off, the women Weinstein harassed didn’t consent any more than someone being robbed at gunpoint “consents” to give over their wallet when the robber says “Give me your wallet or I’ll shoot you!”
In fact that analogy is directly applicable in the Weinstein case because he was effectively threatening the livelihood of the actresses he sexually assaulted. Effectively saying “Fuck me or I’ll make it so you never work in this industry again!” is not how one obtains consent.
This fact should be painfully obvious, so one has to wonder why French would so blatantly misrepresent consent based sexual ethics.
My guess is projection, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what French’s motives are. This is because what French is trying to defend against is true regardless of his motives:
Conservative Christians loathe consent based sexual ethics because it so easily falsifies their religious teachings.
This can be seen very easily once we consider what French uses as proof of the “goods” that come from following a Christian sexual ethic:
“When husbands and wives understand and adhere to Christian ethics, the dominant result isn’t just a healthy family life, their sex life is often more vibrant than their more “liberated” peers. In other words, the natural result of the Christian sexual ethic is an intact family and a culture of human flourishing.”
So let’s review what French considers positives:
- Healthy Family Life
- Vibrant Sex life
- Culture of Human Flourishing
The problem for Christians is that literally none of those things are guaranteed outcomes of following a Christian sexual ethic, and in many cases it absolutely doesn’t follow. In fact the internet is rife with counter examples: read any of the blogs like Love, Joy, Feminism on Atheist Patheos, especially those focusing on women who came out of Christian homeschooling and “courtship” cultures. You’ll find plenty of horror stories, primarily told by women and LBGT people who’ve escaped those cultures.
In fact, things get worse for Christians like French because each of his positive outcomes can be achieved, in many cases in better ways, by using decidedly non-Christian consent based sexual ethics.
Literally every single person who violates Christian sexual ethics that also has a healthy family life, a vibrant sex life, and every non-Christian culture where humans flourish is a falsification of Christian ethics being the key to achieving those things. Every person living a happy, flourishing human life who had pre-marital sex, or masturbated regularly, or is LBGT, or anyone divorced and happily with another partner, every successful open relationship – they are a walking testament to the lack of utility to be found in Christian sexual ethics.
In fact I think this is a large part of why many on the right are so opposed to LBGT rights – by having their relationships be celebrated like any other when they get married, to have it just be “normal” to see two happy gay people in love getting married and living their lives, stands as a falsification to the idea that only Christian ethics is the only way to achieve human fulfillment.
I think this is an area where atheists should explore to make arguments against specific religious beliefs like Christianity or Islam, to point out how little utility there is in their ethics and how superior a humanist approach to ethics is in producing an environment where humans flourish.