"Rethinking Sex: A Provocation"
A new book by Christine Emba
Christine Emba (a self-described liberal feminist and Catholic) has been making the rounds talking about her new book, "Rethinking Sex: A Provocation." Drawing from interviews she’s had with Millennials and Gen Z, and using the language of the secular world, she appears to be trying to upend the predominant sexual ethic that reduces “the good” to simply consent.
She wrote an article about her main thesis in the Washington Post.
Her core argument is that while consent is absolutely necessary for every sexual encounter, it's not sufficient for that encounter to be good. She says:
While college scandals and the #MeToo moment may have cemented a baseline rule for how to get into bed with someone without crossing legal lines, that hasn’t made the experience of dating and finding a partner simple or satisfying. Instead, the experience is often sad, unsettling, even traumatic.
She goes on to say that "we need a new ethic — because consent is not enough."
Emba argues that pornography is a significant reason why consent is not enough:
The most readily accessible kind of pornography — aggressive and hardcore, shot from the male perspective, with women existing to give men pleasure and not much else — has mainstreamed acts (choking, anal sex and outright violence) that used to be rarer. The ubiquity of pornography also means that growing numbers of women are interacting with porn-addled men who either disregard their desires or who don’t understand how to interact with a fellow human being as opposed to an avatar on a screen.
Consider what Kaitlin, 30, told me at a party.
“I’ve been going on dates with this guy who I really like.” It’s the winter of 2019 — the pre-pandemic era, when single urbanites still crushed up against each other in crowded apartments, trading complaints and advice over mediocre beers. “But he chokes me during sex?”
Kaitlin (also a pseudonym) wasn’t sure whether to say anything, or even if it could be considered a valid problem. After all, moments like this had happened to lots of her friends. And in the moment, she had said yes.
She then asked me — a complete stranger — to tell her how she was supposed to feel.
Emba proposes that love —defined as willing the good of the other—ought to be the new ethic:
In practice, this would mean that we have to think about the differentials in power that come with age, gender, experience, intoxication level and expectations of commitment, especially when clothes come off. This new ethic would also acknowledge that sex is likely to be something different and more substantial than we want or expect it to be. This makes it our responsibility to make a good-faith bet on what the good actually is — and what just might be a bad idea.
In this podcast interview with Sarah Isgur (a self-described conservative feminist), Emba talks about the potential value of shame.
They discuss that while there is toxic shame, shame to manipulate others or put them down, that perhaps there's also a good shame. Like, maybe someone ought to feel shame if they don’t bother to concern themselves for the good of their partner in a sexual encounter—even if the sex was consensual.
As a Catholic, I think the research and arguments Emba makes are interesting and valuable. It makes me think of this line from Amoris Laetitia:
A good ethical education includes showing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right. Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring.
Emba is helping to give voice to the potential harm of casual sex and sex outside of a committed relationship—even if it's consensual. If the Church wants to convince people to embrace our sexual ethic, I think this (rather than force or shame) is the approach we ought to take.