On Consensual Sex

On my own blog, I’ve been complaining about this absurd practice of jailing people for engaging in consensual sex (see here, here and here).

A central ethical issue in these cases is whether or not youth and an asymmetrical power relationship eliminates the possibility of informed consent. Now obviously the whole issue of consent is complex. Here’s a small thing I’ve written about it (for a book that isn’t out yet).


Dido and Aeneas, first year students of philosophy and husbandry, have become inseparable during Fresher’s week at Carthage University. However, somewhat conservative – old fashioned even – in their attitudes towards love, they have not yet consummated their dalliance in a sexual union. This situation, however, is under threat after they spend an evening quaffing wine under the cypress trees at their halls of residence.

Aeneas: Your golden locks are more resplendent than the most resplendent of sunsets, my darling. Thou art more lovely and more…

Dido: Yeah, what are you after, Aeneas?

Aeneas: Well, I think it might be time to express our love in a more physical manner – a union of body and soul.

Dido: You want sex?

Aeneas: Pretty much, yes.

Dido: I’m tempted, but it’ll probably end badly. For all I know you might run off to Italy afterwards…

Aeneas: Never, my love. I am yours until Aphrodite herself rips out my heart.

Dido: I doubt that, Aeneas, but anyway there’s another issue here. We’ve been drinking. We can’t be sure that we really want to have sex. We might be taking advantage of each other…

Aeneas: Come on Dido, that’s setting the bar for consent way too high. People often regret sexual encounters: the fact that tomorrow we might wish we hadn’t had sex, doesn’t mean we that we don’t want to have it now.

Dido: The great philosopher Immanuel Kant says that it is wrong to treat people simply as a means to an end. If we’re not concerned about our feelings going into the future, then we’re treating each other purely as tools for the gratification of our sexual desires. The point is that drink undermines our ability to make a judgement about how we really feel about a sexual encounter.

Aeneas: But all kinds of things undermine our ability to make that judgement. Maybe we’re lonely, or we haven’t had sex for a long time, or we feel unloved, or we’re desperate for a meaningful relationship. Neither of us is incoherent or unconscious. If people don’t have sex simply because they can’t be sure they won’t regret it in the morning, then not many people are going to be having sex…

Dido: Look we haven’t brought any Trojans with us anyway! Now be quiet, and eat another date…

So is Dido right to suggest that people shouldn’t have sex when they’ve been drinking – even if it is only a small amount – since they can’t be sure that their consent is genuine rather than alcohol-fuelled?

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