Rethinking sex: Culture, consent, and robots?
A Pillar Interview
Sexual liberation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Despite their promises of freedom, contemporary sexual ethics have left many people lost and confused, according to Washington Post editor and columnist Christine Emba’s new book, “Rethinking Sex.”
Emba talked this week with The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy about what sex is for, the difference between men and women, and — yes — AI-driven sex robots.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I realize one could write an entire book in answer to this question — and you have, of course — but can you give us a synopsis of how you think sex figures into our culture?
In short: we’re liberated, but we’re miserable.
Viewed from a vantage point of say, 50 years ago, it would look like we have reached an apex of sexual freedom. In a post-sexual revolution, post-feminist movement world, we’re more unfettered when it comes to sex than ever before.
According to our expressed cultural preference for liberation, this should make us happy. Yet for many people, young people especially, it hasn’t.
A dogma of sex positivity has created new stigmas that make it harder to say no or express discontent. A lack of norms and standards has left them feeling lost and confused about how to interact with others. And a definition of freedom that rests on a belief that sex means nothing and that the most successful person is the one who cares the least has left people hurt and lonely.
Many will say that this sorry state of affairs critiques itself, but to be direct: What is your central critique of our sexual culture?
One of the major thrusts of the book is a critique of “consent” as our standard for what counts as good sex. To be clear, consent is absolutely necessary in all cases. But it’s a legal criterion, not an ethical one. Consent concerns itself with permissions, not morality. It doesn’t answer the question of whether that consent was fairly obtained or reflects the real desires and wishes of our partners; whether it’s actually right to do what we’ve gotten permission to do; and what kind of world our actions bring into being. It doesn’t show us how to be good.
Our sexual culture fails to hold us to a higher standard. Making consent our sole criterion for good sex punts on the question of how to conduct a relationship that affirms our fundamental personhood and human dignity, and we all suffer when that is not taken into account.
At a launch event for “Rethinking Sex,” someone asked me who the real “villain” is in this book. Really, it’s selfishness. In many ways, as a society, we have absolved ourselves of the responsibility to care for each other. Instead, it has become normalized – and even valorized – to care only for ourselves and what we can get. And that extends to romantic and sexual relationships. A culture that only talks about consent and doesn’t ask any further questions about how we should treat each other allows selfishness to flourish.
Your replacement theory - your positive sexual vision - invokes an idea of Aristotle's through Aquinas: willing the good of the other.
I think this is the right move, but I'm curious about how you think it helps our current situation. Won't foundational debates over “the good” — given the West's radical pluralism — eventually push us right back to autonomy and consent? Basically right back where we started?
Do you think we'll be able to agree on some theological - or at least metaphysical- vision of the good when it comes to sex?
I asked almost all of my interviewees for “Rethinking Sex” what they thought sex was and what it meant to them.
And although they were from all sorts of religious and philosophical backgrounds, just about everyone had an intuitive understanding that sex was meaningful, even spiritual in some way, and that they were looking for a specific good within it. Natural law shows itself here, and this is a place to meet people even if they disagree on the specifics of the definition.
Plus, looking at where our sexual culture stands right now and the unhappiness that is evident, I think there is growing recognition that consent and autonomy haven’t solved our problems, and that we need a better way. So there is more openness to talking about what a “good” vision might be.
I don’t know that we as a broader society will agree on a single theological vision of the good when it comes to sex (if we’re being honest, even we Catholics don’t totally agree on one today, simply because everyone experiences sex differently!), but even acknowledging that there is or might be one vision of the good is better than where we are now.
In writing “Rethinking Sex,” one of my aims was to try to push people to begin to make substantive claims about what sex means, and what the good might mean – if only so that doing so becomes a more natural part of the conversation, which then makes it easier to normalize having a good to aspire to!
I admire your willingness to discuss the real differences between men and women in this context.
It shouldn't be courageous to simply focus on this data, but — at least in 2022 — it really is courageous. Especially for a Washington Post columnist. Why did you think those differences were important enough to discuss in its own chapter?
In many ways, the ‘modern’ understanding of how we achieve gender equality seems to be based on the goal of sameness – making women more like men whether by suppressing their biology so that they can be as sexually available, or suppressing tendencies towards care and vulnerability so that they can live an entirely autonomous lifestyle. But really, progress should look like valuing women as equal persons simply in light of their equal human dignity, making a culture that is hospitable to both women and men as they are.
As I write in my book, “what makes women women should not –logically or ethically– be seen as a liability… Difference can–and should– be respected.” But to do this, we have to be honest and talk about what those differences are, what vulnerabilities exist that call for particular care or recognition, and what realities need to be taken into account. That means that we have to talk about the data.
One of the major arguments of the book is that we need to be honest and acknowledge reality if we hope to achieve the good and live flourishing lives. The delusions about sex and gender that many in our culture feel the need to labor under are keeping us from the better world we want.
What happens if we aren't able to come up with a positive vision of what sex is for?
In particular, I wonder if the coming of sophisticated, AI-driven sex robots make it particularly urgent that your project is a successful one.
AI-driven sex robots are an alarming proposition, but I’m not convinced they’re as close to becoming mainstream as some would have us fear. I think that we should be most worried about further disconnection, a further retreat to our corners as the sexual culture becomes even more visibly broken and inhospitable to intimacy, relationship, and trust.
The so-called “sex recession” was being discussed even before the covid-19 pandemic took hold, but now in America we’re at a 30-year low for partnership formation and marriage.
I’m hopeful, though – one of the my major takeaways from talking to people and doing interviews for “Rethinking Sex” is that there is a hunger for connection.
People are realizing that loneliness hurts, that radical individualism isn’t serving them, that having zero emotional ties is not, in fact, a good way to go through life. We want to be loved, we want to love others – we were made for love.
And recognizing that, and beginning to identify and fix our failures, is a step towards recreating something good.