“Consent itself is a concept fraught with metaphysical assumptions.
“On a theoretical level, the notion of consent is notoriously difficult to pin down. For example, feminists (and law makers) to this day have been struggling to define consent so that they can decide once and for all what constitutes rape. Rape, for nearly all people, is the ultimate example of sexual violation, so in many ways it has served as an archetype of sexual immorality in Western sexual ethics and liberal thought. And, of course, what makes rape a violation is the absence of consent. And while, in the case of a stranger sexually assaulting an unwilling person, the meaning of consent and its relevance to the moral status of the act is crystal clear, for other sexual behaviors and scenarios the meaning and relevance of consent is far less obvious.
“Some extreme feminists, for example, argue that for a sexual encounter between a man and woman to be fully consensual, the man must continuously ask for permission throughout the act of intercourse since, at any moment during the act, his partner might change her mind and not want to proceed, in which case, what was permissible intercourse becomes rape.
“In this vein, it is argued that for sex to be truly consensual and hence morally sound, every act between the sheets must be preceded with an, “Is this okay?” and a verbal affirmative from one’s partner. Before any change of position, any touch, kiss, or movement, a partner must stop and get formal authorization in the course of what would be a normal sexual encounter. (Yet, we are to believe that it is Islamic law that is autocratic in its regulation of sex compared to the supposed “Caligulan permissiveness” of the modern West!)
“Other feminists and liberal theorists wonder whether the institution of marriage can ever be anything other than slavery and institutionalized rape. After all, given the existence of patriarchy even in modern society and how men are comparatively more powerful than women on average in terms of wealth and influence, how can any woman be independent enough to provide meaningful consent?”
“Beyond internal debates within feminism, there are other sexual behaviors where the significance of consent and its connection to morality are opaque. Again, let’s consider voyeurism. A man spies on women in a dressing room without them ever knowing about it. Since the women do not consent to being watched, consent-based sexual ethics deems the man’s action as morally wrong. But from a purely secular materialistic perspective, what impact does the man’s spying have on these women? Clearly, there is no physical or psychological harm to the women since they are none the wiser. One might say, well, maybe the man records what he sees and passes that along to friends and the overall reputation of the women is harmed.
“-But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that this does not happen, that the man does not record anything and just enjoys what he sees in the moment. In this case, presumably we still believe this is morally wrong, but why? From the perspective of secular materialism, what is so special about consent that it can operate beyond the realm of physical or mental harm? Does consent have some kind of metaphysical or supernatural significance that is not captured by any physical factor? Wouldn’t this mean that even secular sexual norms, insofar as they invoke consent, have a metaphysical component, not unlike religious sexual morality?”
–From my essay “Debating Homosexuality.”