Consent is not enough — Choice is necessary but not sufficient for healthy sexual images


Esperanza Spalding performed magic on Feb. 25, plucking and smacking her upright bass at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

Spalding’s wild hair leaped as her hands flew up and down the neck of her instrument. She danced and interacted with the audience, visibly enjoying herself — and God, her voice. It was measured and clean, but still expressive, filling the Kibbie Dome with songs in English and Portuguese about winter and Humpty Dumpty and love.

I felt so proud: of my hometown, Portland, for producing such a talent and my school for hosting such a tremendous event, but more than anything, of a jazz culture that allows women to play music without acting sexy.

Spalding owned the stage and showed a woman can love her body without presenting it as a sex object.

As we filed out of the performance, I prepared to write a column demanding more women like Spalding. I wanted more female actors and singers whose careers continue after they reach 30 and their sexuality appears to dry up in the eyes of popular culture. I wanted female athletes who wear clothes more practical than skirts or spandex. I wanted entertainment to build on talent and passion instead of sex appeal.

But I kept running into the issue of choice: what about the woman who consents to being sexualized?

My initial response was that choice is often an illusion. A singer who must dress sexually to advance her career is not making a choice, just like a woman in Saudi Arabia who prefers not to drive is not making a choice. At the same time, I felt uncomfortable telling women who express themselves sexually they’re internalizing sexism, just as I feel uncomfortable telling Muslims in hijab they’re oppressed.

My discomfort comes from being exposed to a liberal sexual ethics that worships consent. For decades, the left has been fighting for choice in the face of efforts to legislate morality, from archaic sodomy laws to current attempts to limit women’s access to contraception.

While these are noble fights, they’ve had the effect of compressing sexual ethics to consent: sexuality is unambiguously good when all parties are free to choose. This view is dangerous, particularly for unchurched young people like myself — outside a religious context, potential harms from consensual sexuality can go unnoticed. A Nicki Minaj concert is consensual, but it still devalues and degrades women.

Here, the left needs to make a distinction between law and culture. The government has no place telling people how to express their sexuality, but the culture must encourage women to see and enjoy their bodies as more than tools for sex.

Spalding neatly fit the mold of feminism shown to me by my sister, mother and countless other examples in my life: that women are powerful, creative, expansive minds worth treating with respect.

The law should allow women to choose less wholesome modes of expression, but the culture can and should encourage women to be their most thoughtful selves.

So I feel comfortable demanding more women like Spalding — more female actors and singers in their 40s and 50s, more female athletes in practical clothing and entertainment based on talent and passion instead of sex appeal.

Danny Bugingo can be reached at

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