Agency, Responsibility, and the Limits of Sexual Consent

Dissertation, State University of New York, Stony Brook (2020)
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In both popular and scholarly discussions, sexual consent is gaining traction as the central moral consideration in how people should treat one another in sexual encounters. However, while the concept of consent has been indispensable to oppose many forms of sexual violence, consent-based sexual ethics struggle to account for the phenomenological complexity of sexual intimacy and the social and structural pressures that often surround sexual communication and behavior. Feminist structural critique and social research on the prevalence of violation even within consensual sex suggest that consent is insufficient to ground responsibility; a more fundamental orientation toward the value of sexual agency provides a better foundation for sexual ethics. Using feminist critical theory, phenomenology, and black feminist thought, this dissertation develops a socially situated and relational notion of sexual agency and diagnoses how such agency is neglected in prevailing discussions of consent in moral philosophy and legal theory. I argue that the ethical question of responsibility to another in a sexual encounter—apart from juridical considerations—should be reframed around the value of each person’s socially situated practices of agency. Preceding and extending beyond the obligation to gain valid consent for an action, responsibility demands adapting one’s intentions and behaviors in response to the wider range of another’s communicative expressions of agency. However, communicative expressions can be ambiguous or overdetermined by social context and cultural norms; they often offer only provisional traces of agency. To address this inherent uncertainty in intimacy, I propose drawing on insights from Emmanuel Levinas about the dynamic, open-ended nature of relationality, responsibility, and communication. Responsibility toward another does not depend on securing certainty about their “yes” or “no,” but requires responding continuously under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, adapting behaviors and intentions to make room for another’s agency despite its opacity.



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Caleb Ward
Universität Hamburg

Citations of this work

A Phenomenological Approach to Sexual Consent.Ellie Anderson - 2022 - Feminist Philosophy Quarterly 8 (2).

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Freedom and Resentment.Peter Strawson - 1962 - Proceedings of the British Academy 48:187-211.
Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments.R. Jay Wallace - 1994 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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