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Right Action as Consent

In doing research in order to write a blog post on the concept of sexual consent in a Buddhist framework, I came across many blog posts broadly written about homosexuality in Buddhist circles but not a lot of discussions around the need for consent in sexual relationships. I believe that Buddhism has as one of its explicit goals the cultivation of a consent culture. 

Buddhism is not free of sexual abuse. Allegations of misconduct have erupted around Joshu Sasaki Roshi in recent months, and the power dynamics involved in student-teacher relationships are always a hot topic of discussion. 

This week, as the verdict of the Steubenville rape case came in, discussions around including lessons on the topic of consent in sex ed curriculum have come up. The idea is that the standard of "no means no" places the emphasis on the woman's need to protect herself, while teaching consent as a necessity would place the emphasis on a man's need to stop himself from going forward without an enthusiastic "yes."

So what did the Buddha have to say about this topic?

Buddhist writer Ken Ward broaches the topic on his website under the umbrella of "Right Action." As part of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold path, Right Action instructs us to take part only in actions that are harmless and not based on ill-will. This involves other aspects of the path, including Right Intention. "Right" in this context does not mean that there is a binary of right and wrong, as in Abrahamic religions, but that the "right" thing to do in any situation is the one that is wholesome and contributes to the well-being of everyone involved.

Right Action is split into three specific areas. One must abstain from taking the life of other sentient beings. One must abstain from taking things that are not freely given. And one must abstain from Wrong Sexual Intercourse.

So just what is "Wrong Sexual Intercourse" in this context? Wrong here means sexual intercourse with someone who has not consented or who can not freely give consent. Someone who cannot give free consent might mean someone who is intoxicated or someone who is of 'lower rank,' like a student, or someone who is too young to give consent.

The emphasis in all three aspects of Right Action is consent. The need for another sentient being to agree with your intentions and provide you with an emphatic agreement. To take a life, to take possessions, or to force sex upon another human being against their will is unwise and "wrong" because it is selfish and creates suffering for all parties. Right Action is about using our intention and mindfulness to encourage a culture of consent. 

Now, these aspects of Right Action have been framed as things one must abstain from doing. But what if we reversed that and created things that a Buddhist *must* do?

We must encourage life and health (perhaps by learning permaculture, perhaps by taking an interest in health-care reform), we must participate in selflessness, and we must seek an emphatic and freely-given "yes!" in all sexual situations. 

I am reminded of something Acharya Eric Spiegel said during the Refuge Vow ceremony I took part in, when discussing the precepts. One of the precepts, in the vein of Right Action, admonishes the participant to refrain from unwholesome sexual activity. Acharya Spiegel made sure to explore this concept in depth. He told us that to him, even flirting your way out of a speeding ticket could be considered a flouting of this precept. "Using your personal charisma to manipulate someone into giving you something" is how he phrased it. That has always stuck with me. If we take this advice to heart, then Buddhism really is a philosophy that puts incredible emphasis on consent.

What are the areas of your life where you might begin to seek the emphatic yes?

Here is a great article that first introduced me to the idea of "cultivating a consent culture," called "How I Learned to Talk in Bed."

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i totally welcome the

i totally welcome the comments because i really want to make sure that I am internalizing the Buddha's words in the way they were intended! I guess I was under the impression that what the Buddha was saying was that if we want to reduce suffering in the world, then there are certain things we must do. not that we need to cultivate these qualities because of any creator god, but rather that the universe operates in such a way that there are very specific actions we can take to help alleviate suffering. in that sense a 'must' does seem involved, but it is a different must than is involved in Abrahamic religions.


Also, from Thich Nhat Hanh's precepts:

3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate my responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect families from being broken by sexual misconduct.


Nice post, Caroline!


if there are no musts, then it would be incorrect to say that if one wishes to cease his or her suffering, one must then proceed on the Noble Eightfold path? and if this is true, is it correct then to assume that the Buddha meant that there are other paths to enlightenment?

no musts

Buddhism doesn't say one "must" do anything. if one aspires to attain liberation, this is how to behave. If you don't care about liberation, then go ahead. it's your choice. the Buddha only offered suggestions for action.
also, I like "wise" or "skillful" action rather than "right" action. it removes wrong from the equation.
and I believe Buddhism addresses sexual misconduct, not just intercourse. lots of inappropriate behavior takes place that isn't intercourse.
great topic. I love the idea of a culture of consent. goes with the culture of kindness, I hope.

rewards are a hindrance to my

rewards are a hindrance to my practice. I tend to focus on the reward rather than the practice. and to use it to achieve milestones or to sit "with" people feels inauthentic to me.
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sorry about the wording of this

I wrote this comment badly.

I loved your post. I think creating a culture of consent is an excellent thing, and I loved the way you related it to Buddhism.

but I'm sure you've heard teachers say that the Eightfold Path is not the equivalent of the Ten Commandments. The Buddha himself said something on the order of "try out what I said and see if it works for you.

probably this was a point I didn't need to make. I should have just said: great post. Thanks for bringing this discussion to the blog.

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