How come so many young Americans are so dissatisfied with their relationships?
This is the question that hangs over a fascinating book written by Washington Post columnist
Christine Emba known as “Rethinking Sex An Inspiring provocative. Indeed, in this book Emba
examines the reasons why teens are, “engaging in sexual encounters they don’t really want for
reasons they don’t fully agree with.”
She claims she believes that the revolution in sexuality which is also known as the sex-positive
movement has made sex an uninspiring and sometimes degrading exchange. The price for
sexual liberation has been open-minded dating culture that is ironic, has transformed old taboos
into new ones, and has made most of us, specifically women miserable.
There are aspects of the argument Emba’s with, and some parts that I don’t, which is why I
approached her to discuss the latest episode of Voice of America. We talk about the ways in
which her Catholic beliefs inform her opinions about sex, the reasons she feels consent isn’t
enough and what kind of sexuality society she’d like to be able to see on the planet.
What or who do you hope to inspire by writing this book?
The book’s aim is to examine the way we think regarding sexuality and sex, and the significance
they have to us today, specifically in the post-sexual revolution as well as during the third wave
of women’s movements. It’s an opportunity to think about the ways we talk about consent and
the role we’ve entrusted to consent as an arbiter on whether or not sex is a good thing or not.
It’s also about reconsidering how we speak about gender, and freedom concepts like equality,
privacy, and freedom and what these should be like.
I’m hoping that it will provoke discussion and not just be a source of anger. But I do believe that
it’s a good idea to take consider the morality of sex, the ethical concerns that come with sexual
relations, and whether certain desires are good for us to indulge in or not, which tends to cause
a reaction from those who advocate what I refer to in my”uncritical sex positivity” book “uncritical
sex positivity,” which is the belief that sex is good and that all sexual activity is good and that all
sex is good.
What’s wrong with that perspective?
It’s true that there are many different perspectives I explore throughout the work. One of them is
that consent could serve the purpose of legitimizing sex. Once you’ve got two adults who have
consented that are the two adults who’ve signed a consent form to take part in something, then
there’s nothing to complain about. There’s nothing to question. Consent is an excellent legal
basis and is absolutely essential. It’s the ground that we must have at the bottom of every
sexual encounter in order to ensure that they’re not in any way illegal or attacking someone
We want more than just being legal. We’d like to think about the obligations we owe one another
as well as the responsibilities we owe one another, and about whether or not sex is legal, but is
actually ethically and morally. In other words, saying “Anything past consent, we don’t talk about
it,” is a way to avoid the most important questions, including whether consent was properly
gained, whether we’re aiding our spouse, or whether the actions we’re taking are healthy for us.
If I hear this I believe it’s a sign that you believe that consent isn’t sufficient, since we don’t really
know what’s best for us, and we’re in a state of confusion about our wants and our
requirements. Because of this confusion, we give agree to things that harm us. Do you think that
this is a misreading of your convictions?
I believe that’s the case. It’s quite easy to be apprehensive about things that aren’t going to help
us over the long haul or won’t bring us closer to the sexual life we desire or even the human
flourishing we sincerely desire.
On the other hand, I am also of the opinion consent could be used as an excuse for selfishness
in a variety of cases. We see this with some more controversial #MeToo incidents, isn’t it? In this
case, you can find someone similar to Louis C.K., for instance, who defends himself after having
masturbation before his colleagues and leaving them, in certain instances, traumatized is “I
asked first and they consented, so it was fine.”
Or, I’m reading about the Evan Rachel Wood and Marilyn Manson case right at the moment and
she’s talking about the way she was victimized in the hands of Marilyn Manson, how he was
able to perpetrate all sorts of horrible behavior towards her which she didn’t wish for but she
was still enthralled by him and that’s what happened. The defense of Manson is similar to, “Well,
this was an intimate, and consensual relationship. Therefore, why bother me with this?”
Consent doesn’t mean that it’s okay and I’m of the opinion that it can provide lots of excuses for
those who use it to their advantage by seeking consent for things they shouldn’t.
I’m not sure about these cases however, there are some individuals in your book that you
interview that, for different reasons, aren’t content with the consensual interactions they have
And I’m not sure who is responsible for this? If we are able to consent to certain things as adults
but we aren’t happy with the result, isn’t it exactly what happens in a society that is free, where
individuals make their own choices and, consequently, make mistakes?
It’s not a problem for me. The next step is to affirm, “Okay, we aren’t entirely sure of what to do
or make decisions, but that’s our freedom of choice. This is what being a human in a free
society.” Another objection I’ve had to deal with in this discussion of consent is “Well what are
you planning to accomplish? Do you wish to prohibit sexual relations that are not good? or
impose laws on anyone who has sex that isn’t good?” No, I do not want to see this.
When I criticize consent isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have it, or that we shouldn’t have consent
officers to ensure that every interaction is perfect. But I do think we can establish better norms
and a higher bar of what we expect in sexual relations and what we should expect of one
another, post-consent for us to be closer to having more positive interactions instead of more
terrible or average ones.
What is the standard?
A better standard that I advocate in my book is the concept of wishing for the best for the other.
This involves focusing on the person’s experiences and the person, just as you’d care about
yourself during any sexual encounter. and ideally, trying to determine what the goodwill looks
like for both of you and then directing your interactions towards this. If you can’t figure it out,
then you don’t want to be sexually intimate with the person at the moment.
It’s not a legal requirement. It doesn’t stop those who have sex that isn’t good. If you’re not doing
and you’re not doing it, the law won’t be able to stop you from having sexual relations. However,
even if we try to be held to an upper standard, even contemplating these questions before doing
anything, is a good way to get to a better position as opposed to having if we simply thought,
“Well, as long as we’ve agreed to whatever, it’s fine.”
The past is a huge factor in this book as you’ve seen. In your book, you make the argument or
suggest that our sexuality was more tolerant in the past when it wasn’t as open-minded.
However, the taboos that created it were difficult on those like gay Americans for an instance —
who did not follow the conventional norms about sexuality. I’m not sure how this is a part of your
narrative or how you assess these benefits against the risks.
I believe that’s a crucial critique and one that I attempt to address in the book, though there are
areas in which I could be more explicit about this. It’s true that we’ve seen a tremendous amount
of progress in the age of the sexual revolution. I think this is great particularly for the groups you
mentioned, specifically for women, and for those who were queer, and saw their sexuality and
desires recognized and were or at the very least supposed to be accepted as equal citizens in
Though I don’t like the agreement the possibility of being able to arrive at a stage where we
recognize the importance of it and that we must be able to. This was a major leap that took
years, even decades in reality, which is a remarkable feat. We can be grateful for the progress
we’ve made but also recognize that there is still the possibility of improvement. We are able to
appreciate that certain areas haven’t experienced significant change and the fact that new
challenges have arisen from the new forms of liberation.
We do not want to go backward in this regard. I certainly do not. The goal is to move forward, to
a point where we can have more high standards of care for everyone.
Do you think your opinions on sexuality are inherently tied to your religious beliefs?
Interesting question. Yes, it is. I changed my mind to Catholicism in my senior year in college. It
was clear I was able to see that the Catholic Church had a more solid theological and
philosophical foundation and was rooted in a long-standing tradition of thinking both spiritually
and practically about sexuality. Not just about sex and all the other concerns about sex and how
it is connected with and is connected to the Christian faith.
The reason I wrote this book is solely for Catholic readers, or even for my priest to go through it.
I wrote this book in response to the countless people I met -at all levels – religious or not who felt
they were living in sexual insanity and weren’t certain of how to address it. They were trying to
find a way to answer these questions and formulate the right sexuality ethics.
I was searching for an ethical system that would be logical for someone who wasn’t religious, or
not me, and would be applicable to all. So I spent many hours asking people what believed a
positive sexual culture should look like. What do they expect out of a relationship which was
different from the sexual encounters they seemed to have a tendency to continue experiencing?
Many people have claimed they were seeking “empathy” or “care.” One interview is extremely
interesting in the novel and it’s about a woman who is non-religious. She basically asks her
spouse, “Can we not love each other for a single day?” This is the kind of ethic she wanted to
be like. This is something that’s shared by many from all religions, religious and non-religious.