Looking to ensure that your partner has consented to sex? There’s an app for that—or at least, someone tried to make an app for that. Earlier this year, iConsent was released in Denmark in response to a new law that criminalizes sex without explicit consent. The app allows users to request consent to sexual intercourse within 24 hours to another person with the app.
Though not the first app of its kind, iConsent sparked a debate over the meaning of consent and sexual ethics. Lawyers are sceptical that the app would hold up in court, for obvious reasons: someone might rescind consent verbally (or otherwise) after it was granted in the app. Consent at one moment does not mean consent for everything that might happen in the next 24 hours.
Even though the app is ill-considered, it is an understandable response to a culture that sends fundamentally contradictory messages about human sexuality.
On one hand, our culture teaches that sex is supremely important to a person’s life and identity, a powerful force that can be either very fulfilling or, when misused, very damaging.
On the other hand, we are also told that sex is a trivial recreational activity that can be enjoyed by casual acquaintances or complete strangers, with no lasting consequences. You don’t have to care about or even really know the person you have sex with, so long as they engage consensually.
The combination of these two messages sets up a predictable dilemma. People (often men) seek out low-investment sexual interactions with others, but they also want to protect themselves against possible criminal liability. Hence, they want some kind of “proof” that they did not commit a crime when they had sex, which leads to the shallow formalism of iConsent and similar apps.
The app is a solution for people who want to cover their bases without the hard work that healthy sexual relationships require.
But what if we really did care about the person with whom we have sex? Is consent alone—through an app or in person—enough to show that we value that person as a unique and irreplaceable being that they are?
That depends on whether sex can be as impersonal and trivial as is often assumed. If sex really is a trivial, meaningless recreational activity, it is not clear what is wrong with “using” others for sexual gratification. Having sex with one person rather than another would be no more significant than, say, interacting with one store cashier rather than another.
But perhaps sex is not trivial. Perhaps using another person, even with their consent, is a significant way of mistreating them. Sex seems to involve the person in a more fundamental way than other activities.
Not only that, but sex also has the potential to create the possibility for a new human life, one who will be related as child to his or her biological parents. Sex seems to involve all of our person, including our future and futures of other real and potential children. As Elizabeth Schlueter and Nathan Schlueter write, “Because sex is an embodied union of the whole person, consent to sex without total commitment to the whole person contradicts the meaning and language of the body. It makes an act that speaks love between persons into an act of use of persons.”
And here is some good news for those seeking sexual satisfaction: research indicates that sex in committed relationships, such as marriage, is better than sex outside of those relationships.
For women, in contrast to less committed relationships, sex in committed relationships leads to greater satisfaction, increased likelihood to orgasm, and more emotional fulfilment and physical pleasure from sex.
For men, sex in committed relationships also leads to increased sexual quality, relationship communication, relationship satisfaction, perceived relationship stability, and increased likelihood for orgasm.
Instead of searching for sexual fulfillment and consent in the app store, cultivating a loving relationship creates a lasting union and greater sexual satisfaction—for both partners. One does not approach the other as a mere object to be used, but as a person to be known and loved.
Even in marriage, spouses must honour the sexual consent of their spouse. Although probably not through an app, spouses, too, must discuss sexual preferences including frequency and specific practices. As spouses honour a more robust form of sexual consent, they create the trust and emotional investment that supports sexual fulfillment. And not only can marriage provide a situation that leads to more satisfying sex, but marriage can also provide a healthy environment for children to develop.
Indeed, despite arguments to the contrary, research consistently supports the reality that the nuclear family remains the most stable environment to raise children. Published in the Harvard University Press, McLanahan and Sandefur summarized findings from four nationally representative longitudinal studies with more than 20,000 total participants. Results indicate that children who grow up in a household with two biological parents have better outcomes than children who grow up with one biological parent—even if that parent remarries. In addition to fostering sexual satisfaction, marriage can also have benefits for children not found elsewhere.
The iConsent app may be far from a solution to contradicting messages regarding sex. But a slightly different contract, a healthy marriage, may be a better approach to mutually satisfying sexual experiences and a better environment for children.
Daniel Frost and Hal Boyd teach in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University and are fellows of the Wheatley Institution. Matthew T. Saxey is an incoming Masters Student at BYU in Marriage, Family, & Human Development. Their views are their own.