Is it possible for a human being to consent to anything?

Reading about some of the possible reasons for annulling a marriage makes me worry about whether it’s possible for two human beings to actually marry each other at all.  We have become bewitched with a model of perfectly free consent that can never exist in the real world.  Do not deception, coercion, and unsoundness of mind invalidate consent?  Yet we always make decisions with imperfect knowledge, imperfectly understood knowledge, or knowledge that might conceivably be false.  Our options often have negative consequences attached, so we can always say we are coerced.  I expect only death will fully cure me of immaturity.

Is this a real ambiguity of ethical principle, or just a matter of bad will, of widespread sophistry?  I don’t doubt that mass-annulment apologists are arguing in bad faith, that they don’t really believe in indissolubility at all.  Ideally, my prejudice would guide practice.  To a man who wants to trade his wife, and the canon lawyer willing to help him:  prove to me that your new case of why-my-consent-wasn’t-really-valid-and-shouldn’t-bind-me doesn’t apply just as well to millions of other marriages.  If you can’t, then you are an enemy of marriage, and the only thing the Church should be doing is deliberating on your punishment.

It’s not just in the Church that people are catching on to what a flexible concept consent can be.  Have you noticed how much harder it’s getting in the secular world to consent to sex?  The moderns have reduced sexual morality to consent, but in fact there are many other practices that still do bother people.  To justify their aversion, they have to claim that their real problem is that the consent was somehow imperfect, as, on inspection, it will always turn out to have been.

Some time ago, I was reading–I think it was on Sunshine Mary’s blog–the complaint of some female professional (read: feminist) about her husband cheating on her.  Now, her ideology prevented her from directly condemning what her husband and his mistress freely consented to do.  She had to condemn him for continuing to sleep with her (his wife) without telling her about his mistress.  The wife’s consent to intercourse was based on a false assumption that he didn’t have another girl on the side.  The consent wasn’t valid, which means…she was raped!  She must make this claim, because rape is the only sexual offense we have left–adultery is long gone, so it would be pointless to accuse the husband of that–so every sexual wrong must be identified as a form of rape.

Lying to a girl in order to get her to sleep with you is rape, “rape by deception” (as opposed to just being dishonest, unchaste, and pathetic).  I don’t just mean something fantastic like Uther and Igraine.  Remember the used car salesman in True Lies who pretends to be a secret agent to get girls to sleep with him?  Well, I caught the end of a documentary about a guy who was actually doing something like that and ended up with illegitimate children by a half dozen women.  He got caught, and one of the women sued him for “rape by deception”.  He had to pay up for a bunch of other charges, but the jury wouldn’t buy the “rape” thing, which of course the documentary deplored.  I for one am relieved, because once a principle like that is on the books, it’s only a matter of time before all bragging to impress girls will be categorized as attempted rape.

Power and status differentials make consent impossible.  Even if the man never uses his seniority to pressure the woman, its presence in the background does its rapish work.  A sixteen year old girl cannot consent to have sex with an adult man, except we all know that she can.  A woman can’t consent to have sex with her boss, except that we all know women are attracted to powerful men, making the consent particularly easy.  (As far as I know, no one has yet thought to say that attraction and arousal are themselves coercive forces.)  There is certainly a danger of exploitation in such “asymmetric” relationships, but I don’t accept that they are rape by definition.  Most of the danger of exploitation would be taken care of if we’d just say that a man may sleep with a girl of lower status as long as he marries her first.

Having sex with a college girl is rape, because they’re very good at these games of redefining consent.  Was the experience not quite what she was expecting?  Well, she didn’t consent to that, you rapist.  I’ve said before that I don’t believe there really is a rape epidemic on college campuses–real rape, I mean.  Liberals aren’t the only ones who buy into this “rape culture” paranoia.  At The Public Discourse, Greg Forster tells the following anecdote to prove that his university had a rape culture:

One morning in my first semester, a young woman was absent from one of my classes. It was a small class, and she was usually a lively presence, so I noticed her absence. Halfway through the period, she burst into the room, panicked and hysterical. She cried out in a loud voice: “Does anyone here know the technical definition of rape?”

This story actually implies the opposite of what Forster claims.  If this woman had been physically attacked and violated–that is, if she had really been raped–would she be scouring for a “technical definition”?  A regret=rape rationalization seems much more likely.

California thinks it can solve its sex problems by demanding prior explicit positive consent.  Sorry, we Catholics already tried that, only to learn that “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes”, at least when people have a strong interest in saying it doesn’t.

7 Responses

  1. Some time ago I remember a feminist arguing with me, saying that rape is really about power, the masculine libido dominandi. Her evidence for that was that, according to this or that study/book/NYT article/whatever, most rapes don’t even involve sexual penetration, but penetration with a gun barrel or knife handle. Well, that sounds an awful lot to me like something other than what we mean by rape, which makes it hard to infer anything about rape from it, doesn’t it?

  2. Nearly 150 years ago, Lord Hagan summarised the approach of the Scottish courts to the question of matrimonial consent: “In all inquiries of this sort, I apprehend the true rule is not to regard singly and apart the one transaction on which reliance is placed as constituting the marriage. It is necessary to exercise “a large discourse of reason looking both before and after,” and from all the antecedents and all the consequents to ascertain the true mind and purpose of the parties whose intention determines the character of their act.” Robertson v Stewart 1875 2 RHL 80 at p 108

    Thus, in Hakeem v Hussein (2003 SLT 515) Lord Penrose, giving the judgment of the Inner House (Court of Appeal) said “formal compliance with the procedural requirements of regular marriage is not conclusive of the contraction of a valid marriage”

    These judges were applying what they took to be the Canon Law, as it stood in 1560 and which remains the law of Scotland in consistorial cases.

    In his 886 letter to the Bulgarian prince Boris I, Pope St Nicholas I (858–67) said, “according to the laws (leges), the consent of those whose union is arranged should be sufficient. If that alone is absent, all the other solemnities, even including coition, are in vain. as the great teacher John Chrysostom attests, who says: ‘Not intercourse but will makes marriage’” (Homilies on Matthew 32) [PL 119, no. 97, pp. 978–1016 at 980] St John Chrysostom (347-407) is here simply repeating the words of the great Roman jurist, Ulpian (170 – 228) “Nuptias non concubitus, sed consensus facit” – It is not sleeping together, but agreement that makes marriage. [Dig. 50.17.30 Ulpianus 36 ad sab]. On this subject, the law of the Church and of the Empire was the same. This letter was cited by Gratian, C.27 q.2 c.2 §1, from whence it passed into the law of Scotland.

  3. “prove to me that your new case of why-my-consent-wasn’t-really-valid-and-shouldn’t-bind-me”

    And moreover, actually prove the factual claim. If you’re claiming you
    wouldn’t have gotten married if you knew you could never leave, you better have told that to someone.

    “Liberals aren’t the only ones who buy into this “rape culture” paranoia”

    The about page on the site you linked to says this:

    “Public Discourse is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies”

    So while it may not be leftist, it’s certainly liberal.

  4. “so every sexual wrong must be identified as a form of rape.”

    ^^ THIS ^^

    Liberals have very funny ideas about consent. The secular retort to the slippery slope argument on sodomy (that its legitimization would necessitate the legality of bestiality) is of course “animals cannot consent!”

    And they say this as they shovel the bacon from a freshly slaughtered pig into their mouths.

  5. […] asks, in view of the modern Annulments Crisis, Is it possible for a human being to consent to anything? He […]

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