A recent Oregonian article reads:
A 59-year-old Portland man accused of befriending a woman in church and then raping and sexually abusing her in an assisted living facility is in custody on a 16-count indictment…
Vandenberg is accused of sexually assaulting the woman who prosecutors contend was “incapable of consent by reason of mental defect,” according to the indictment.
The printed version of the story, sitting before me (dated April 3, 2015), says:
The prosecution alleged the woman was unable to consent to the sexual contact because of her dementia.
If people with dementia are “unable to consent to sex,” does this mean that once you get dementia, you are not allowed to have sex? This is a question others have grappled with.
I think people are uncomfortable with the question because it forces them to confront contradictions in some of the moral stances they’ve taken for granted. If the answer is “No, people who are mentally disabled, including those with dementia, cannot have sex,” then this premise would force us to tear elderly couples apart – under the grounds that they’re raping each other. This would strike most people as cruel and ridiculous. But if the answer is “Yes, those who are mentally disabled, including those with dementia, may have sex,” then this opens the door to other possibilities. As soon as we acknowledge that a person needn’t be of sound mind to consent to sex, then what about drunk people? What about unconscious people? What about mentally retarded people, whose minds are those of 4-year-olds? In other words, a “yes” answer opens a pandora’s box.
Obviously, context should play a large role in issues such as this. We shouldn’t forcibly separate senile couples if they’ve been married for 40 years, and obviously love each other. But is it okay for a husband to have sex with his sleeping wife if by all accounts she’s okay with it? Can a wife pleasure her drunk husband?
I don’t claim to have easy answers, but I do think our judgment is clouded by our still-overly-puritanical attitudes about sex. Perhaps, in some cases, we shouldn’t even be asking about consent. Instead, we should be asking a more fundamental question: Was anybody actually harmed by this action?