Consenting to Sex

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Recent news articles exploring the post-#MeToo world of romance have noted the phenomenon of cell phone “consent apps,” allowing millennials to sign digital contracts before they have sex with their peers, sometimes strangers they have just met. Many of these apps are being refined to include a panic button that can be pressed at any time to withdraw any consent given. Lawyers reviewing the practice, as might be anticipated, have urged caution, noting that consent apps are not able to provide definitive proof of consent, because feelings may “change throughout an evening, and even in the moments before an act.”

When we look at modern views about sex, it’s not a stretch to sum them up this way: as long as two consenting adults are involved, the bases are covered. When it comes to “sex in the moment,” consent is touted as key, allowing for almost all mutually-agreed upon behaviors or practices.

Yet this approach to sex is fundamentally flawed, and it’s often the woman who is the first to notice. Even when consenting unmarried couples scrupulously use contraception, there remains an awareness, particularly on the part of the woman, that a pregnancy could follow, and a concern about who will be left holding the bag if that were to happen. Sex between men and women involves real asymmetries and vulnerabilities, with men oftentimes being, in the words of sociologist Mark Regnerus, “less discriminating” in their sex drives than women, eager to forge ahead as long as there appears to be some semblance of consent. Women often sense, rightly, that consent for a particular sexual act ought to be part of something bigger, a wider scope of commitment.

Consenting to sex, of course, signifies the surrendering of our self to another. Sex ultimately speaks of giving our self, and receiving another, in a total, rather than a fragmentary way. This is part of the reason why this unique human activity holds a perennial fascination for us; it goes far beyond other forms of communication, exchange, and bonding. To give our self fully to another, and to receive that person fully, forms a bond with them that extends beyond the morning dawn. Human sexual union is not a mere joining of bodies, but is preeminently a joining of human hearts. It is, at its core, consenting to share one of the deepest parts of our self with another. As Dr. Angela Franks has perceptively noted:

Sexuality is not simply a matter of something that I have, as though my body is another possession just like my wallet or my car. If, as Gabriel Marcel said, I am my body, then sexuality has to do with my very person, which has a deep value. To use the language of Pope John Paul II, when a person is reduced to being merely an object for another’s desire, then the experience violates the core of one’s sense of self.

In casual sexual encounters, the consent we give each other may seem sincere and genuine, expressing our desires within the moment, but this kind of consent is largely transactional and temporary. By consenting to pre-marital or extra-marital sex, we declare, in effect, that we are giving ourselves, our bodies and our hearts to each other, although in truth, our giving remains partial and conditional, and we may be out the door the next morning or the next month. Our consent, limited and qualified as it is, amounts to little more than an agreement to use each other as long as it’s convenient, and when the break up occurs, we are hurt, because we thought we had something special, even though we didn’t really want to commit to anything special.

In the final analysis, human sexual activity calls for something much deeper and more abiding than mere transactional consent, namely, the irrevocable and permanent consent of spouses. Professor William May describes it this way:

In and through his act of marital consent… the man, forswearing all others, has given himself irrevocably the identity of this particular woman’s husband, while the woman, in and through her self-determining act of marital consent, has given herself irrevocably the identity of this particular man’s wife, and together they have given themselves the identity of spouses. …Husbands and wives, precisely because they have given themselves irrevocably to each other in marriage, have established each other as irreplaceable, non-substitutable, non-disposable persons and by doing so have capacitated themselves to do things that non-married individuals simply cannot do, among them to ‘give’ themselves to one another in the act proper and exclusive to spouses—the marital act—and to receive the gift of life.

Through the enduring commitment of marital consent, a man and a woman establish the foundation for personal sexual consent. In the absence of that larger marital commitment, all other consents, even with legalized authorization or electronic notarization, ring hollow.

COMING UP: Swole.Catholic helps people strengthen body and soul

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

St. Augustine once said, “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

Humans are both body and soul and both must be strengthened. This is the reason for the existence of Swole.Catholic, a group of people who dedicate themselves to nurturing their soul while strengthening their body, and through their ministry, motivate others to do the same.

According to Paul McDonald, founder of Swole.Catholic, they focus on encouraging faithful fitness. “We must take care of our temple of the Holy Spirit, because our bodies are one of God’s greatest gifts to us,” he said.

McDonald solidified the idea of faith and fitness when he was a sophomore in college. While “going through a huge moment in my life, at the same time I was really learning about the gym and learning ethical statements on my own. Both things clicked together,” he told the Denver Catholic. As a young guy, he started bible studies, and in those studies, he always had an analogy back to the gym.

He decided to make shirts for him and the guys in the bible study during his senior year. The shirts ended up becoming good conversation starters, and he decided he needed to do something with it — evangelize and motivate others to take care of their body and soul.

Thus Swole.Catholic was born. “Swole” is a slang term for bulking one’s muscles up from going to the gym, and of course, the Catholic part is self-explanatory — not only because of the Church but also for our faith and how it defines us in all we do. Swole.Catholic launched officially in Jan 2017.

The ministry consists of a website which provides resources to helps people with Catholic gyms, Catholic workouts, Catholic trainers, podcasts as well as workout wear.

The workout wear works as an evangelization tool. The word “Catholic” is printed on the front of the shirts and a bible verse is placed on the back.

“This raises questions or interest in others. It also works as a reminder of the purpose of the workout,” McDonald said. He added, “Most of the gyms we are going to have mirrors and all that, making you focus into yourself.” But the real purpose of the workout, as the members of Swole.Catholic say, is to strengthen your body and soul to live a healthy life.

Swole.Catholic also has rosary bands, a simple decade wrist band that people can wear while they workout and be flipped off at any time to pray a quick decade.

“Because everyone’s faith journey is different and everyone’s fitness journey is different, what we are trying to do is connect people with people [for them] to be able to have the correct support with their faith and fitness,” McDonald said.

That is why Swole.Catholic now has outposts around the country, with passionate Catholic members who love to help and inspire others in the fitness world while pursuing God in everything they do.

“Each one has its own flavor,” McDonald said. “In Florida we have a rosary run group where a bunch of girls meet up and pray rosary while they go for a run.” Among the outposts, there is also a group of guys in North Dakota who do a bible study and lift together. Similar to these two groups, members from other states have formed their own Catholic fitness groups and are now part of Swole.Catholic, including in Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Wyoming and more.

“We encourage faithful fitness,” McDonald concluded. “We think your fitness fits in your faith as much as faith fits in your fitness. We are body and soul and we need to be building both.”

To join a group or a workout, visit swolecatholic.com or find them on Facebook.