For the past several decades, campus authorities from deans and chancellors all the way down to lowly RAs have been reiterating the talking points of “safe sex” to college-age teenagers. For the vast majority of incoming freshmen, these messages of consent and the prevention of sexual assault have been a staple of their educational culture since junior high, if not earlier. But despite this constant campaigning for consent, sexual assault on campus remains a perennial problem. The more we insist on viewing sex in the context of consent, the more insecure we are about our ability to prevent rape. What explains this troubling trend?

Other essays at Public Discourse have focused on various aspects of the scourge of sexual assaults on campuses. Robert Carle and Greg Forster, for example, have argued for moving investigations of such assaults out of the hands of compromised university bureaucrats and into the jurisdiction of the legal system. Adelaide Mena and Caitlin Seery La Ruffa have lamented the crassness with which campus administrators confront the hook-up culture, while Jeffrey A. Hart has expanded on Mena and La Ruffa’s proposals by arguing for an “Augustinian philosophical anthropology” that explains why the hook-up culture has left so much misery in its wake. All of these are excellent investigations of the problem of campus rape.

But we must understand that the liberalism that undergirds consent- and rights-based discourse on sex is utterly incapable of understanding human sexuality. Because it reduces the human person to a mere vehicle of abstract rights, liberalism has no language to express the transcendence and sacrifice of human sexuality. As long as we are talking about sex in terms of mere liberty and consent, we will continue to face the specter of rape hanging over every sexual encounter. This is because the “Yes” given in consent-based epistemologies—i.e., a yes to a physical interaction premised on radical individual autonomy—is fundamentally different from the “Yes” in which human sexuality is designed to operate: a “Yes” to the other in his or her spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical entirety.

Sex functions precisely to break down autonomy and overcome the overweening sovereignty of the self upon which consent is ultimately based. In a liberal framework, our freedom to engage in activities assumes that all activities are equal, as long as we have obtained consent when those activities involve others. But sex is not like other activities. Sex, unlike anything else we might do with another person, transcends the self while radically reorienting it within a new, shared context with our sexual partner. Consent assumes that sex will not do this, that sex will leave two people as fully autonomous after sex as they were before. But this is precisely the one thing that sex was designed not to do. Sex, even if entered into based on a free agreement between two autonomous people, by its very nature dismantles the autonomy upon which the consensual understanding of sex had been based.

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In the wake of this compromised autonomy, sexual partners, confronted with a transcended self but still working within the conceptual confines of leveling liberalism, may very rightly view this transcendence as a violation of their sexual integrity. This holds true even when the sexual encounter was freely and consensually entered into, and especially when the myriad other expectations attendant upon sex are left unfulfilled. These expectations of emotional and spiritual intimacy, including the promise of future growth as a couple and openness to new life through sex, have no place in the liberal understanding of sex. Thus, when these hopes are dashed, women, especially, see “consensual sex” as a misleading proposition. Their subsequent sense of violation feels very similar to the devastating effects of non-consensual sex. To be clear, sex without consent is rape. But the wasteland of the hook-up culture shows that merely granting and receiving consent do not safeguard against the manifold consequences of casual sex.

If we want to talk seriously about ending campus rape, we must get to the bottom of the liberalism that underpins consent discourse on campuses. By rescuing sex from liberalism, we can restore sex to its rightful place—not as bargained recreation between Lockean rights-bearers, but as the complete gift of mind, body, and soul to another person, and the reception of the complete gift of the other.

What Is Liberalism?

A good working definition of liberalism can be found in the February 2013 issue of Chronicles. Chilton Williamson, Jr. writes:

From Hobbes forward, but after Locke particularly, liberalism has taken for granted . . . a social contract between individuals for the purpose of securing them and their property and for promoting their personal freedom. For classical liberals, the theoretical aim of society is not society realized as a commonwealth but society as a collection of discrete individuals, each, so to speak, composing his own society of one, whose security the association guarantees.

This view is almost completely incompatible with human sexuality. Liberalism posits radical autonomy and then attempts to mediate those individual autonomies through contracts (“consent”). By contrast, sex draws two people into the most intimate form of community, forming a new relationship based on a shared totality of existence. Where liberalism deals in a world of unjoinable, antagonistic atoms, human sexuality strives to bring two atoms together in order to make an entirely different molecule.

Liberalism is unable to understand sexuality in part because liberalism sees a steady-state interaction of discrete rights-bearing units, while sexuality is distinguished from other activities in being existentially unstable. It is unfashionable in many circles to assert that sexual intercourse makes men and women “one flesh.” One needn’t appeal to the Bible, though, to demonstrate that this fusing and repurposing of natures is literally true. Vicki Thorn, for instance, has shown that intercourse profoundly alters the bodily chemistry of men and women, leaving them chemically joined to one another. This reality gravely complicates the personal autonomy upon which consensual sex is based. Even on the physical level, human sexuality challenges liberalism’s narrow worldview with a much more intricate and dynamic understanding of personhood.

Men, Women, and Children

This existential instability cuts across the liberalism of rights- and consent-framed discourse about sex in another way as well. To engage in sexual intercourse is to open oneself to the very real possibility that a new person could be created.

Many liberals now argue that unborn children are subject to extermination precisely because they infringe the rights of the expectant mother. Nevertheless, the deeper fact is that these new rights-holders are entirely new creatures whose sudden presence poses a serious challenge to the structures of liberal personhood. Hostile labels such as “illegal occupiers” and “parasites” reveal that liberalism is well aware of the threat that the radical disruption of new human life poses to its scheme of Lockean bargaining and consent.

Nor does liberalism make sufficient allowances for the sexual differences between men and women. The vast majority of sexual assaults involve men violating women. This imbalance is intuitively obvious to us, because we all understand that men tend to be the more libidinous—and aggressive—sexual partner. Liberalism works only when interactions are seen as taking place between autonomous and functionally identical individuals, but sex refuses to be hemmed in by our modernist democratic assumptions. The horrifying reality of rape and sexual aggression, wherein men prey upon women’s relative weakness, is the twisted inversion of sex’s much, much greater potential for good, by which men and women go beyond their own inherent differences and are elevated to an entirely higher state of mutual complementarity and self-giving. Sexuality is the sharing of one’s entire self with another person—not just physically, or even chemico-biologically, but spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and at every other level of the human personality. Women, especially—that is to say, unequally—realize this truth much more readily than do men.

What is missing from liberalism is a true view of the complexities of the human person. And the key to understanding the human person in all of his or her complexity is dignity. Where liberalism insists on absolute formal equality, dignity explodes the narrow boundaries of this formal equality, understanding the bigger truth that human value is not restricted by difference, but actually comes into full flourishing in the complementarity of difference. Exactly alike in dignity, men and women are nevertheless created unalike.

Sex Challenges and Transcends Autonomy

This likeness in dignity and unlikeness in personality finds perhaps no greater expression than in sex, in which men and women give of themselves for the sake of each other. In this mutual honoring—a sacrifice of the very self that liberalism cordons off as autonomous and inviolable—the dignity of man and woman achieves a new fullness that goes beyond them both.

Because sex necessarily violates the narrow, rigid autonomy upon which liberalism is predicated, sex presents a fundamental challenge to this liberal autonomy. Within the liberal framework of negotiated rights, this fundamental challenge to autonomy—the very nature of sex—works continuously to frustrate the utopian impulse to “tame” sex by means of consent. Sex fills in the moat around the Lockean self and leaves that self vulnerable to another in a radically new way. Consent breaks down where the self has thus been opened and reoriented.

In short, liberalism sees sex as, at best, contractually bargained-out autonomy. But this scheme denies the much fuller truth about sex and elides the real differences in sexual intercourse as engaged in by women and men. Liberalism falsely posits that men and women are exactly alike, and so, with no context in which to situate the differences inherent in the mutual sexual self-gift, liberalism has a skewed view of this higher-order exchange. Rights and autonomy—the staples of the liberal discourse of consent—simply cannot contain the higher meaning of sex.

The Irony of the Sexual Revolution

There is no small irony in the inability of liberalism to understand sex. Unfettered sex, along with free access to abortions and the freedom to define one’s gender as one sees fit, is one of the so-called “sacraments of the cult of liberalism.” Indeed, the sexual revolution was premised on unrestricted autonomy as the ticket to a pleasurable, consequence-free paradise.

Sex overwhelmed this liberal conceit, too. The consequences of denying the nature of sex plague college campuses more now than ever. For example, according to the CDC, 15-to-24-year-olds contract about half of the twenty million new STD infections each year. University administrations, locked in the amber of liberalism, cannot understand the scope of the problem they unwittingly helped to create. If we truly wish to fight the scourge of campus rapes, we must admit that consent, more narrowly, and liberalism, more generally, have failed.

To be sure, “No” means “No,” every single time. But sex is a subject poorly encapsulated by consent, which whittles the question of whether or not to have sex down to a simple (and simplistic) choice between “Yes” or “No” to physical intercourse. The real question posed by sex, though, is one of “Yes” or “No,” not just to the bodily interaction of two material creatures, but to the intermingling of lives and souls that is the true context of sexual intercourse.

If university administrators are serious about ending campus rape, then administrators must turn to curricula that emphasize the importance of abstinence before marriage and sacrificial self-gift within marriage—the only two methods ever devised for bringing inherent human dignity into alignment with the awesomely transformative power of human sexuality. Liberalism can never see these bigger truths, and so must remain at the shallow level of legalistic parsing of rights, autonomy, and consent-language that cannot possibly contain the entirety of sex’s meaning and transcendent goodness.