Some Musings on Consent, Part 2

Image: Sammie Chaffin

Part 1 of this series explored some ideas about how technology might change the things we’re willing to consent to, and even the way we think about consent. What we haven’t talked about, though, is specifically how the technology of the Passionate Pantheon world affects risks associated with sex. Sex is risky. If you take away that risk, how does that change the picture when it comes to sexual consent?

Throughout history, arguably the two biggest factors that have influenced social attitudes and mores about sex are pregnancy and STIs. The advent of penicillin, hormonal contraception, and reliable barrier methods of STI prevention changed, and are still changing, cultural attitudes toward sex in the real world. Sure, that change is slow and not evenly distributed, but it is happening. Even in the 21st century, not everyone has the same access to contraception and barriers. Hard as it may be to believe, plenty of people in Western countries still seek to roll back access to contraceptives and comprehensive sexual education. But the interesting question here is: what happens when sex is completely disconnected from the risks of unintended pregnancy and health problems? How does that change the society, its sexual morality, and the activities its members will consent to? How does the idea of morality change, when morality is detached from sexual risk?

In the world of the Passionate Pantheon, people have conscious control over their fertility. Accidental pregnancy is, in a literal sense, impossible. Advanced biomedical technology makes STIs essentially non-existent. If you lived in the City, would that change what you would consider? What impact would that have on your consensual sexual choices?

In our world, the consequences of sexual choices aren’t evenly distributed. In most societies throughout human history, the consequences of pregnancy fall most heavily on the people who tend to have less power in society. Access to contraception and access to health care have historically not been equally available, something that’s reflected even in the way people have traditionally thought about these things (for example, consider the historical narrative that men receive STIs from “loose women,” rather than the other way around, or the way that pregnancy is considered a ‘suitable punishment’ for ‘promiscuous’ people with uteruses who have sex with people with penises).

In the Passionate Pantheon, we explore a world where pretty much all the risk (except emotional risk, itself not a small risk, of course) has been removed from sex. On top of that, there’s no shame or taboo around consensual sex of almost any kind you can imagine, and the ability to reshape your body at will has blurred the ideas of sexual orientation and sexual identity. Even without religious and social structures that revolve around sex, this alone would have a profound effect on what sexual relationships look like.

When you remove physical risk from sex, you go a long way to leveling the playing field for a lot of people who, in the real world, bear disproportionate consequences for their sexual choices. 

Sexual risk, and particularly the unequal distribution of the possible consequences of sex, arguably has left a lasting impression in current sexual morality from the earliest days of antiquity. Ideas about sexual exclusivity for women appear to have arisen after the Agrarian Revolution, when people began to collect enough resources to pass it to their heirs. In a society without modern technology, the only way a man could know for certain that his partner’s children was related to him by blood was to control her access to other sexual partners, planting the seeds for moral ideas about sex that continue to this day.

What would you do if there was no physical risk attached to sex? What might society look like if the consequences were removed from sex? Many sexually conservative modern religions have examined that idea and don’t like what they see, which is part of the reason so many US “pro-life” groups also want to ban or limit access to contraception. They see the risks inherent in sexual activity as a feature, not a bug—it’s a way to enforce sexual abstinence and sexual exclusivity.

In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we explore a society where all the negative physical consequences of sex are entirely absent, leaving only the benefits and the emotional risks inherent in all connecting with other people. That’s not necessarily guaranteed to lead to a Utopian society, of course—we explore some of the ways this can lead to darkness in books two and four—but it would have a deep effect on social attitudes toward sex that could easily  lead to greater respect for agency and variety.

In the City, sexual mores are driven not by physical risk but by emotional risk. Human beings evolved to feel emotional and social rejection acutely painfully; for our tribal ancestors, social rejection could be a death sentence. Changing society doesn’t necessarily change our evolutionary heritage. Even in the City, emotional rejection is painful, which is why the people of the Passionate Pantheon novels are so concerned with consent as a foundational part of the social structure. In the absence of physical risk, emotional risk takes on greater importance!

Of course, there’s a thousand and one other societal consequences that would arise in an environment like that of the Passionate Pantheon cities—and each city has its own nuances and variations. We’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic.

This is one way we think it might play out—we’d love to know what other norms you could imagine arising in this world!

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