In April 2021, partly in response to a series of high-profile sexual assault allegations, the Commonwealth government funded a set of educational videos about sexual consent. Safe to say, they did not do the job.

There was the infamous milkshake video, in which a girl smears ice cream on her partner’s face with a devious grin; one in which a taco is distinguished from a person by the fact that a taco cannot have preferences, and one set at a swimming pool, in which the desire to go for a swim is compared to the desire (or not) to have sex. The videos were condemned in ringing terms by educators and activists – they were “problematic”, an insult to students’ intelligence, or too flippant for the gravity of the subject.

Anyone who has sat through workplace or educational training about harassment and sexual boundaries knows what a difficult feat these videos had to pull off. It’s hard to talk about sex, because sex is not one thing – even between partners, much less across the population. This makes it hard, in turn, to talk about sexual ethics — there are many more ethical lenses available than the ethics of consent.

Sex ranges from the grave and the intimate to the flippant and the casual, from the depths of taboo to the frothiest of frivolities, from power and domination to play and healing, from authentic self-expression to pantomimed degradation. It is such a chimerical experience that it’s no wonder we struggle to talk about its morality in clear and unambiguous terms. No wonder our sexual ethics education materials can fall into a kind of “uncanny valley” – videos depicting wooden interactions between characters who at once are blithely unaware of sexual norms and calmly receptive to learning them, or oddly literal exchanges that feel like they’re discussing an experience almost, but not quite, entirely unlike sex.

How can sex be so operatic and so stone quotidian, so universal and so private, so dangerous and so familiar?

Why, when our sexual experiences are so many and so varied, do we hope that an ethics of consent will be able to accommodate them all?

If we wanted a more holistic approach to sexual ethics and education, which moral frameworks would we turn to?

Time was, if you wanted an ethics of sex, the psychoanalysts were the place to turn. Freudian analyses of desire located it squarely in the individual and the underbelly of their consciousness. Desire was seldom understood as something about which one could ask the questions of justice – Is it fair? Who deserves it? – or as a candidate for political analysis. But beginning in the 20th Century, a feminist perspective rejected this picture. Feminist philosophers and legal scholars like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argued that desire was both an expression of and a means of enforcing the prevailing hierarchies of power. In Mackinnon’s “Pleasure Under Patriarchy”, she quotes poet Adrienne Rich’s Dialogues: “I do not know who I was when I did those things, or whether I willed to feel what I had read about”.

Once the questions of justice had been asked around sex – once it was pointed out that power and hierarchy do not stop at the door to the home or the bedroom – there emerged uneasy questions about how sexual unfairness could create demands of sexual fairness: for instance, does anyone have a right to sex? (This question has been explored by Oxford Professor Amia Srinivisan at length). Or can a person have a moral complaint when over and over again, they are rejected for sex; unable – through the aggregation of other people’s choices – to access an experience that everyone else says is one of life’s central joys?

Sexual desire has long discriminated along racial and disability lines – as Srinivasan notes, Asian men on dating apps or disabled people are frequently told to their faces that they are instantly rejected as prospective sexual partners because I would never sleep with someone like you. How can we make sense of the utter rigidity of the rule that nobody should have sex with anyone they don’t want to – alongside the possibility that those choices en masse enact a prejudice that each of us might individually deny? One more mystery for the ethics of sex; for the challenge of bringing justice to something as fraught as desire. As Srinivasan so memorably writes: “There is nothing else so riven with politics and yet so inviolably personal.”

In this morass of ethical grey, the concept of consent seemed to promise some black-and-white. We might not know the full list of our sexual rights, but an ethics of consent at least clearly names the sexual wrongs. The centrality of consent to sexual ethics is in fact a relatively recent development; the concept gained traction in the 1980s, at roughly the same time as the autonomous individual became the main character of political analysis. It was not long before then that “informed consent” was still a foreign notion in healthcare ethics, and that rape of a sex worker was often understood not as a violation of consent, but as theft of services.

Perhaps consent education reaches for simple metaphors like milkshakes, tacos, or cups of tea because an ethics of consent is simple – so simple we can say it in the familiar truism: “No means no”. But the trouble with centering consent in our sexual ethics is that it risks confusing ‘not-capital-B-Bad’ with ‘good’. Plenty of consensual sex is also cruel, harmful, selfish, painful, alienating, or subordinating.

Consensual sex is not necessarily ethical, nor even necessarily good. By treating non-consensual sex as the primary case about which to do sexual ethics – the jumping off point for our analysis and education – we risk introducing young people to sexual morality primarily through the category of wrong and how to avoid it, instead of through the lens of sexual joy and how to share it. Sex can be a way to connect with one another, to know, to be vulnerable, to give, to reveal, to trust – the intelligibility of aspiring to sex like this can be lost when the highest aspiration of our sexual ethics is “getting consent”.

By treating non-consensual sex as the primary case about which to do sexual ethics – the jumping off point for our analysis and education – we risk introducing young people to sexual morality primarily through the category of wrong and how to avoid it, instead of through the lens of sexual joy and how to share it.

One of the central tasks of an ethical life is to distinguish between the realm of duty – what can be demanded of us, and the realm of benevolence, what we can freely give, and to realise that the person who thinks only about their duties is in some ways a moral miser. An ethics of sex which prioritises duty by emphasising consent and permission can accidentally obscure the possibility of an ethics of benevolence – one which would not stop after asking what we owe to one another, but would carry on, asking how we might help them flourish.

To live an ethical life is more than avoiding wrong – how strange it would be to forget that in our most vivid encounters with others.