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I have noted numerous times on this blog that the ethics, and increasingly the laws, surrounding sexual behavior are coming to rest exclusively on the idea of consent. Like an ant who can apparently carry multiples of its own body weight, the principle of consent is now expected to be the sole provider of a sufficient moral foundation for society at large.

In a recent article on the psychological cost of sadomasochism, Aaron Kheriaty makes the point that consent is a complicated issue. Most obviously, it has a social context and is typically shaped by existing power relations. In short, consent can be manufactured or indeed cajoled. It is therefore a very dubious foundation for a social ethic.

The problem is exacerbated by a connection which Kheriaty does not make explicit in the article but for which he offers evidence. He cites research on the plasticity of the brain’s neural pathways which demonstrates that the brain has the ability to change depending on the type of stimulation it receives. Learning an instrument or a second language at a young age, for example, creates certain mental capacities by literally altering the way the one thinks. On the dark side, this means that exposure to pornography transforms sexual expectations and behavior.

In large part, sexual morality has been transformed by the aesthetics of pop culture, with its rhetorically loaded narratives of liberating the marginal and giving voices to the victims. Making the case for traditional sexual morality must take this into account. Yet it is clear that even dismantling these aesthetics will not be enough. Pornography is not simply changing our tastes through its representation of sex as a self-directed and recreational activity; it is literally changing the way our brains think. That makes the task of defending traditional morality in the public square much more difficult.

It also exposes the specious nature of moral arguments built on the principle of consent. These assume that the nature of consent is constant, absolute, and easily established. As Kheriaty points out, it is none of these. Consent is always complicated by specific context. Furthermore, the principle of consent assumes at a minimum that individuals have sovereign rights over the range of purposes and uses to which their own bodies can be put. Yet the evidence of the impact of pornography on the brain indicates that the individual is not consciously in control of determining the nature of that range. Pornography alters the sexual desires and transforms the understanding of the body’s purpose not by ethical or even aesthetic persuasion. Rather it does so by altering the physiology of the brain itself, a process beyond the conscious control of the consumer of pornography, and which thus subverts the assumptions of the principle of consent.

One would not allow alcoholics to have the last word on liquor licensing laws or crack addicts on drug policy. Yet when it comes to sexual morality, that is the kind of world in which we now live. The availability of pornography and the near universality of its consumption are today facts of human existence, at least in the West, and are likely to remain so. That means that moral thinking is thus at the mercy of an industry whose interests do not lie in promoting the common good unless that common good is understood in terms of unfettered sexual license. Even worse, we are seeing the creation of a hardwired ethic of supply-side immorality to which the principle of consent will not be able to set meaningful boundaries. Indeed, if the only practical ethical standard left is the principle of consent, then in a world pervaded by pornography, society’s sexual ethics are likely to be as plastic as our neural pathways.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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