The Chaos of “Consent” Morality

Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton is normally a media darling, especially when it comes to her clothes. Entire articles are written about how she “nailed it” with her look at galas, charity events, and parades. She can literally do no wrong in the fashion department. So it was with some surprise that I saw an article the other day expressing outrage over the forest green dress she had worn to an awards ceremony. Her crime? Neglecting to wear the socially-mandated black in support of the #metoo movement (known in the UK as #timesup). Today’s British royals are supposed to remain above politics, which is probably why the duchess opted to avoid making a statement with her clothes. However, her non-statement, for many people, was itself a statement: that Kate is not willing to support women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. Kate’s green dress became a scapegoat for humanity’s long history of sexual misconduct.

But clothes, whatever the color, and honestly, whatever the cut, are not going to solve the problem of sexual harassment and objectification. Many traditional conservatives get in hot water among their liberal friends when they try to suggest that, while the offending man in question was very much responsible for his actions, the woman in question might have been treated differently if she had not worn revealing clothes. After all, men are more visually-wired than women, and if a woman wants to avoid being objectified, she should wear clothing that clearly states her desire for respectful eye-contact rather than salacious bust-contact. Arguments like these are a great way to be accused of “victim blaming” and “slut shaming.”

While I do believe that modesty is important for both women and men to aim for as we dress ourselves, modesty itself can be a moving target. It is difficult to find an objective, timeless standard of what is modest, as it is largely culturally contingent. Historically, a modest wardrobe reflects what the typical person in society would consider attractive, without flaunting sexual characteristics or pushing the boundaries of social norms. Clothes should complement the body without fetishizing it. Of course, in our pluralistic society, it is difficult to determine whose views are “typical” as opposed to overly scrupulous or promiscuous. Additionally, what is considered modest changes organically from generation to generation, and not always because of loosening sexual mores. Granted, Red Carpet celebrities tend to drape fabric everywhere except where it is most needed, a decidedly immodest behavior that purposefully transgresses societal norms to provoke lustful thoughts. Does celebrity indecency contribute to the objectification and abuse of women that is being reacted against? Undoubtedly. But clothes alone will not end sexual misconduct.

Both liberals and conservatives are missing the underlying problem. All of last year’s headlines about rampant sexual assault and unprofessional behavior merely lay bare the symptoms of a confused moral standard. The current batch of men (and even some women) who are being turned into social pariahs by public accusations might become more fearful of exposure and more careful in their actions, but this would only be a band-aid, when the bleeding is internal. In attempting to address this issue, the #metoo movement preaches the very disease that is causing the problem to be so rampant: the idea of a purely consent-based morality.

A few years ago, personal nude photos of the actress Jennifer Lawrence, intended for her boyfriend, were hacked and published publicly. Naturally, she was devastated and attempted to remove the photos. However, within a month, she posed nude for a series of magazine covers to “educate people about the importance of consent.” The reason why it was wrong to have the first set of photos on the web was because she had never consented. The second set–although equally private in nature–were perfectly fine because she had consented.

Is posing in the nude for a magazine cover any more virtuous when it is done with knowledge and consent? The action is wrong because it does real harm: to oneself and to others. It objectifies the body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It hurts relationships with loved ones: no loving parent or partner is open-minded enough to support such behavior as “her choice” (though some may claim to be). And of course, it degrades the morals of society, setting a bad example for teen girls and an even worse temptation for teen boys.

But consent dictates much of the conversation surrounding the current #metoo movement, as well as many other well-intended movements attempting to put a stop to the completely unacceptable objectification of women. The problem with their cure is that it misidentifies the disease. Consent is a flimsy basis for a morality system. When the same action is right or wrong based simply upon the answer “yes” or “no,” people are able to rationalize bad behavior much more easily: maybe she is teasing, or playing hard to get, or would actually like it once she experiences it. Right and wrong feel arbitrary: if that girl would jump in bed with one guy she barely knows, but rejects the advances of another, the rebuffed man assumes that her consent is pliable. So he tries again, pushing harder and more boldly in the knowledge that her objection is not on the basis of principle, but taste and timing.

Consent-based morality is inherently ambiguous and unreliable: while some men assume that “no” might mean “maybe,” some women, regretting consensual sexual encounters that left a negative impression upon them, end up revising their “yes” into a “no” after the fact. Take, for instance, Monica Lewinsky, who has resurfaced to suggest that the power structure in her consensual affair with then-president Bill Clinton was unbalanced, and thus her “yes” was forced–a slow-burning realization that took over twenty years to dawn on her. Is any sexual relationship completely balanced? By the Lewinsky standard, any sex could be called “rape.”

Consent-based morality will not save women from unwanted sexual transgressions, nor is it a helpful check for men struggling to behave properly. If the #metoo movement wants to effect real change, it needs to embrace a morality system where objective good and evil make actions right or wrong, not the words “yes” and “no.” Human nature is frail, and we all have free will, thus we will never have a foolproof system that stops bad behavior from happening. But a morality system based on right and wrong rather than consent results in a society where many a man, finding himself alone in a room or an elevator with a woman he is not married to, would not make sexual advances toward her, wanted or unwanted, because he knows the action itself to be wrong. In this sort of moral system, what a person should or should not do is much easier to understand because there can be an objective, logical explanation for why an action is good or bad, and thus in-the-moment rationalizations of bad behavior are harder to justify. A consent-based morality system removes all of the logic in favor of purely subjective individual preference, and social chaos ensues.

Mary Cuff


Mary Cuff is currently a PhD candidate at the Catholic University of America, and will be defending her dissertation in the spring of 2018. Her area of focus is nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, specifically literature of the South and the Civil War, as well as the role of religious symbolism in literature. Her essays have appeared in academic journals such as the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, and the Mississippi Quarterly.