Where Do You Set The Bar For Sexual Consent?

I’ve just completed a new interactive activity for my Philosophy Experiments web site. It deals with some of the issues of consent that I’ve been thinking and blogging about (e.g., here & here) over these last few months.

But You’ll Regret It In the Morning

The data is already showing something interesting – namely, that men and women tend to have a slightly different attitude towards some of the complications surrounding consent. Basically, it seems men are more likely than women to think a sexual encounter is morally permissible in the (arguably) borderline situations the activity focuses upon.

As usual, let me know if you spot any glaring errors, lacunae, etc.

Oh yes, I’ve also written a piece for the Huffington Post that covers similar issues.

Leave a comment ?


  1. This is a complex question and I imagine there will be completely different reasons behind some of the same responses to the questions. Or that the responses will be different based on a different interpretation of the scenarios rather than different guiding principles.

    For me, I did not find any of the suggested actions wrong. However, in real life I would not do any of the things suggested for other reasons such as they are tacky or ungentlemanly or likely to make me have regrets. The reason I answered that I didn’t think the actions were wrong was that, if the other person consents openly and seems enough in possession of their faculties to know they’re consenting, it isn’t for me to try to derive what they really want.

    I heard of another experiment where one person offers another a cup of tea. The one being offered the tea says no assuming it is too much trouble, even though they would like the tea. The experiment identified two responses to this. One was to accept the refusal on face value. The other was to persuade the person that it was no trouble, until they admitted they wanted the tea. This experiment identified two types of people, one very literal (accepted the refusal at face value) and the other not so. The second type can feel offended when their refusal is taken at face value. As the first type myself, I find it very difficult to understand the second view although I do now accept it is equally valid. Being this type of person influenced my answers to the consent quiz, I’m sure.

  2. I was going to write a comment to explain how I felt, but the one above describes it perfectly.

    Due to the questions assuming I would actually do the actions if I didn’t feel them wrong, I gave up.

  3. Thanks guys.

    @Dave – Hmmm. The intention certainly isn’t to suggest that you’d go ahead in that particular situation if you didn’t feel it wrong.

    Here’s the wording:

    In this situation, and assuming, all other things being equal, you would welcome a sexual encounter with your friend, would you be doing something wrong if you consented to it?

    Maybe that’s a bit ambiguous. I was just trying to say that the sexual encounter is something that would be welcome given the right circumstances (where the right circumstances aren’t ridiculously specific – e.g., only if you were on honeymoon in Hawaii).

    I’ll have a ponder about the wording.

  4. Jeremy:

    My disgust at binge drinking is so strong that I find it hard to imagine that any kind of binge drinking, with consent or not, is not wrong.

    Intellectually, of course I can see the difference between binge drinking with and without consent, but still my visceral disgust at binge drinking in general affects my answers, at least when I do the test quickly, as I did.

    Otherwise, a great activity….

  5. Hi Amos

    Yeah, I realized that people might react that way to the alcohol thing (that’s why I kept saying that it was the principle, rather than the specific scenario, that was the important thing).

    Of course, that possibility also exists in terms of how people respond to the sexual consent questions (i.e., they might just think sex outside marriage is wrong).

  6. Jeremy:

    I tend to see sex as a beautiful moment of shared pleasure (although I know that it is not always that) and to see binge drinking as disgusting and vulgar.

    Those are stereotypes, but they do affect my thinking as they may that of others.

    However, as you say, other people may have negative views of sex and positive views of drinking (camaraderie, etc.).

    I wonder how those stereotypes line up with political and of course religious views.

  7. I scored 100 on the Consentometer and 0 on Tension Quotient. I Assumed this referred to sex outside of wedlock, and so far as I remember no mention was made of this as a variable. My replies would be the same were we both married to other people, or maybe one of us was married to someone else or we are both single. Sex with people who have ideas or tendencies foreign to mine, is for me, best avoided. Sex with people which will result in grief in others is likewise best avoided. In an exercise of this nature it is surely not possible to control all the variables which would confront us in a real life experience. I accordingly could not guarantee that my 100. 0. result would easily transfer to real life.

  8. What was perceived as a tension in my last response (really in my last pair of responses) comes from the fact that I see morality as something that impacts not only the other person but myself. While I do not believe that morality is about maximizing happiness (though that plays a part), I believe that minimizing anguish (including my own) plays a role as well. Therefore, I can consider the making of a decision that will cause anguish to myself (the morning after say) to be an immoral action — EVEN if the other person has given full (one-time) consent.

  9. I wasn’t a fan of question 3. It posits something outside normal experience and asks for an intuitive response.

    Hypothetical scenario- We develop a miracle drug that temporarily cures phobias. It does not impair judgment. The person remembers their previous reasons for being afraid, but those reasons do not feel compelling while under the influence of the drug. When the drug wears off, the person reverts to their earlier way of thinking.

    Your agoraphobic friend takes the drug, and is now willing to go to mother’s outdoor funeral procession. He needs a ride. Are you acting immorally if you drive your friend to his mother’s funeral? You have no particular reason to believe he will regret this later.

    That seems structurally analogous to question 3, but I don’t perceive any immorality in it. The reasons its generally bad to do things with people who are under the influence of drugs and which they would not do sober are, typically, because 1) they’ll regret it later, and 3) because their judgment is impaired. But your hypothetical disclaims those possibilities.

  10. I had a little trouble with the alcohol/drug questions for a different reason than swallerstein; the description of how the drug affected someone, or of how alcohol was supposed to affect someone, didn’t sound very much like how alcohol and drugs seem to me to work, in a way that affected the scenarios. The description of the scenarios made the action seem more clearly wrong to me than they would have on what seems to me to be a more realistic account of alcohol/drug effects. Notably, some people (for example, some past selves of mine) are known to consume alcohol specifically because they wish to do things they think they are more likely to do if they become intoxicated than if they remain sober.

    Perhaps this is related to the point Patrick makes, plus my own belief that real-world alcohol and drugs are actually in some murky place between the phobia cure Patrick describes and the judgment-crippling regret-machines they are sometimes portrayed as being.

  11. The tension between my moral judgements on consent and my general beliefs are clear to me. First of all I believe that everyone should make and be responsible for their own actions (even when drunk, because they made the sober decision to drink in the first place). I genuinely don’t believe that people should be used as a means to an end but in the case of the sexual encounter we have the problem of “drive”. This is, at least for me and probably for most people (especially males), the problem with sexual desire. I know that I would not knowingly harm anyone or ride rough shod over their feelings but the difficulty with sex is that, when the opportunity arises, morality tends to go flying out the window. This is not something that I or anyone else would be proud of admitting but it is simply the fact that the sexual urge is by nature incredibly strong.
    I don’t think that the test showed me anything that I didn’t already know about myself but it was interesting from an objective point of view to see how I ranked with a more general view. Incidentally some years ago a female friend of mine was consoling me at a time when I was low and, out of kindness or desire I don’t know, made it abundantly clear that sex was ok. We did and I felt no regret whatsoever the following day, in fact that person was later to become my wife to whom I’ve been happily married for 23 years. These chance encounters (and yes we were slightly drunk) don’t always turn our regretful I suppose.

  12. I actually agree with you Patrick. Things can be, and often are, done under the influence of drugs that are neither immoral or regretful. I the case you stated it was simply the removal of fear that drove the person to act “out of character” but in a good way. Similarly with the “binge drinking friend”, is it not possible that the morning after he/she may think, “Hey, that was great, let’s do it again”. In that case your actions may have opened up a whole new way of thinking to them. If, on the other hand, they did regret it they could just put it down to experience and use their freedom of choice to not do it again.

  13. David Keith Johnson

    The sticking place for me was the Utilitarian decription, and that old bugaboo, happiness. If happiness consists of more than pleasure, more than feeling good for now, more than a couple of laughs, it is not diametrically opposed to the Kantian principle. The tension between those two ideas rests there. I would suggest more of a description of what you mean by happiness. It is proverbial that something that gives me great happiness today will cause me great misery tomorrow. A good example – how about some binge drinking? A certain school marmish, judgmental tone in the commentary, which is automatic, after all, not at all personal, was offensive in the same sense a robot voice on the phone is inflected with “caring tones” and the illusion of personality.

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