Rethinking Our View of Sexual Assault

Every freshman is required to attend a Stand Up Boston College sexual assault education program. The topic is a serious one, and I think few people would object. My qualm is that there is an exclusive focus on “consent,” which is procuring from one’s sexual partner verbal agreement to engage in sexual intercourse. I think that BC’s decision to end the conversation on sexual morality at this stage is mistaken. Such an approach leaves students with a sense that the only important thing about sex is such consent, and it makes unintelligible sexual assault’s terribleness.

Without articulating some background picture of sexual fulfillment, the moral outrage we feel toward sexual assault lacks foundation. The focus of BC’s program, at least when I was a freshman, was on the violent nature of sexual assault. The violent act of overpowering a sexual partner is of course outrageous, but there is another form of sexual assault which is void of violence, except in a metaphorical sense.

This is the situation in which one partner is intoxicated, agrees to have sexual intercourse with the other, and then regrets it. This is said to be an “assault,” even though all that happened was sexual intercourse. It is said that the intoxicated partner was not in a position give consent, so sexual intercourse is said to be a sort of “assault.”

I think the outrage at such “assault” is well placed, although the emaciated morality which is used as its justification is inadequate. The real “assault” that has been committed isn’t primarily physical—drunken sexual intercourse need not by its nature be violent. Instead, we can recognize it as a spiritual “assault” on the victim. It is to take advantage of a person who one should have realized was not ready for sexual intercourse. Such a claim assumes that sexual intercourse has a significance greater than pleasure or normal interpersonal bonding.

Christians have long recognized that sexual intercourse is unlike other acts, and certainly not merely a biological function. On this view, two separate persons are brought together, cooperating in a task of mutual self-giving, in which there exists a unity of body and spirit unlike any other human relation. Sexual intercourse is considered so significant that the Church maintains its only proper place is within a life-long commitment, after marriage vows have been taken in front of one’s community.

True “consent” can only be given within the context of such a commitment because implicit in engaging in sexual intercourse is an unconditional and permanent offering of oneself to one’s partner. It is in these circumstances that sexual fulfillment is possible. Sure, verbal agreement will play a role in such offering of consent, but the real consent is to give oneself entirely to the other, not merely to the immediate act in question.

In this framework, it is somewhat dishonest to consent to such a deep relation with a sexual partner without there being a real guarantee of one’s readiness to make such a commitment, as would be the case in premarital sex.

Similarly, this conception of sexual fulfillment sheds light on why sexual assault is so bad. The outrage over sexual assault, to use English philosopher Roger Scruton’s words, is that it “pollutes” the victim, robbing her or him of the ability to consent to the unconditional self-giving which is the ideal of marriage. Such assault leaves a permanent mark on the victim who, no matter her or his intentions, will have experienced herself or himself as an object to be used rather than as the bearer of a gift to be given.

It seems to me that the view I have just outlined is lacking from BC’s discussions of sexual assault. This is to the disservice of our students, many of whom especially as freshmen, are still determining their moral views.

Perhaps, an objector may hold that BC’s purpose is not to instruct students on sexual morality, not everyone is Catholic, and such teaching would be out of place.

I disagree for two reasons. First, BC has broached the subject of sexual morality by bringing up sexual assault, and to not provide some vision of what sexual fulfillment may look like leaves the impression that the only essential thing about intercourse is consent. Everything else is up to one’s “personal beliefs.”

Second, without having seen a glimpse of the good of sexual fulfillment, the rationale for the prohibition on sexual assault will be left obscure, and perhaps one day become just another one of those old-fashioned rules that people today need not heed.

Editor’s noteThe Heights improperly used a photo of Stand Up BC as the featured image of this column. The opinion expressed in this column do not reflect the opinion of Stand Up BC as an organization. The Heights regrets the error.

  • Adam Druit

    I’m sorry, but this article is utterly ridiculous, and shows a profound lack of understanding of the secular morality regarding sexual assault. The basis doesn’t reside in the notion of “purity” or some spiritual fulfillment through sexual intercourse.

    The reason both “physical” and “intoxicated” assaults violate the principle of bodily autonomy- that an individual has ultimate authority over the personal functions of his or her body. The rationale isn’t obscure, nor will it “go out of vogue” without a spiritual foundation. The suggestion that, without your framework, the moral impetus not to assault falls apart is painfully false. I urge you to fully embrace the Jesuit Education at your disposal and take an ethics class in the philosophy department.