Thursday, August 7, 2014

Morality and Sexual Liberation

Damon Linker has an interesting essay at The Week arguing that the essential thing separating liberals from "cultural" conservatives is attitudes toward sex. (Rod Dreher agrees.) For traditionalists, beginning when Christianity took over the Roman Empire,
down to roughly my grandparents' generation, the vast majority of people in the Western world believed without question that masturbation, pre-marital sex, and promiscuity were wrong, that out-of-wedlock pregnancy was shameful, that adultery was a serious sin, that divorce should either be banned or allowed only in the rarest of situations, and that homosexual desires were gravely disordered and worthy of severe (often violent) punishment. . . .

For an ever-expanding number of people born since the mid-1960s, the sexual world is radically different. Sex before marriage is the norm. There is comparatively little stigma attached to promiscuity. Masturbation is almost universally a matter of moral indifference. . . . More recently, we've also witnessed the rapid-fire mainstreaming of homosexuality and the transformation of the institution of marriage to accommodate it. . . .

Welcome to sexual modernity — a world in which the dense web of moral judgments and expectations that used to surround and hem in our sex lives has been almost completely dissolved, replaced by a single moral judgment or consideration: individual consent. As long as everyone involved in a sexual act has chosen to take part in it — from teenagers fumbling through their first act of intercourse to a roomful of leather-clad men and women at a BDSM orgy — anything and everything goes.
That's not really right; European attitudes toward sex varied a great deal over that 1600-year period. But I do find this is acceptable as a description of something quite important that has happened over the past 150 years. Only as a description, though -- as an analysis it misses much that is crucial. While sexual liberation has for many people been mostly about fun and freedom, for others it has been about something more serious: overthrowing the patriarchal order responsible for violence, war, and the oppression of most of humanity by a small ruling class. I know that sounds strange in our cynical, post-modern ears, but in the nineteenth century bohemian sexuality really was put forward as a part of a broader Revolution that would lead to freedom for all of humanity. Sexual repression, the bohemians said, was both a key element of the repressive political order and a manipulative tool, used to make people feel guilty about their innate impulses toward liberation. The creation of a grand moral order centered on sexual sin kept us downtrodden in both psychological and political senses. Women especially were manipulated and controlled in this way, convinced that the only escape from their innate sexual sinfulness was to submit to the rule of men. For people like Margaret Mead, freeing women from the sexual control of men was the first step toward a just and peaceful world.

The problem with sexual liberation in the nineteenth century was that it led to babies, which are a way of controlling people (especially women) even more effective than preaching about sin. People with lots of children don't have time for revolution. Not until the spread of effective birth control in the twentieth century could sexual liberation become a more practical route to freedom.

That happened in the 60s, when the pill overturned the old sexual world. But for the people who led this trend and tried to articulate its meaning, sexual liberation was only one piece of a broad revolutionary program that included civil rights, economic equality, women's equality, peace, child-rearing without violence, and more. Part of the reason our memories of the 60s focus on sex and drugs is that most of the other goals no longer seem radical. Who now is defending wife-beating as a key pillar of the social order? Whites only hotels? Separate want-ad sections for men and women? The communes are mostly closed, the minibuses scrapped, but the culture was changed in profound ways.

So now what? I think about this all the time. Like Damon Linker I am ambivalent about the rampant public sexuality of our world and nervous about the collapse of marriage among the poor. But I have a strong sense that Victorian sexuality was connected to all the other oppressions of the nineteenth-century world, and to the extent that it wasn't just hypocrisy it worked only because of cruelty. I'm just not willing to shun a pregnant girl abandoned by her lover, let alone her family. I am also not willing to hush-up the sexual abuse of children to preserve the facade of a well-ordered moral world, or to wink at the sexual harassment of servants as an outlet for the pent-up desires of upper class men.

Sexual freedom has been woven through all the other transformations of post-World War II society -- equality for women, the end of legalized racism, the creation of non-patriarchal families and partnership marriage. I go back and forth in my own mind all the time about what this means. Was this inevitable? Is sexuality so fundamental to human life that every order is in large part a sexual order, every society defined by its attitudes toward sex? Some days I think this is silly; sex is just sex, with no more political importance than cuisine or bathroom habits. Other days I wonder if maybe sex really is fundamental, as both the old moralists and the bohemians said. If it is at the core of things, I wonder what the future holds for a people who seem to understand its power as little as we do.


G. Verloren said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with the notion of restricting sexuality being tied into perpetuating patriarchy and the control of authority and power.

If you look at civilization as a whole, comparing societies and peoples from every point in time and every point on the globe, you begin to see certain trends crop up. One trend I'm convinced is more than mere correlation is the trend between control of sexuality and control of people and property.

In strictly ordered societies, where people live within strongly established heirarchies, you find more restrictions on sex. This makes sense if you stop and think about how power and authority and resources end up being distributed in these sorts of societies - people accumulate wealth and power over the course of their lives, but when they die it gets redistributed. How you choose to carry out this redistribution necessarily shapes the way your society will function.

For example, a hereditary inheritence system keeps wealth and power within a certain family - but it requires exacting rules for who receives what, to prevent (or at least generally reduce) the chaos of squabbling and fighting over who gets what. So you assign certain rules, develop a heirachy of inheritence, and the end result is typically something like the eldest male child becomes the chief inheritor.

Obviously, this then shapes sexuality. It stresses monogamy over polygamy, with children born to women other than the primary consort or wife being "illegitimate" and excluded from inheritence. It stresses male children over female children, with girls being a drain on the resources of the family (and hence the establishment of dowries, as compensation for the resource strain changing families when a woman marries away). And it stresses smaller family sizes to minimize intrafamilial strife, with second and third sons placed in a state of limbo wherein they are expected to live lives excluded from any inheritence unless their elder siblngs are killed before the father dies.

Of course, this is only one very simple example of what is an immensely complex and complicated portion of human endeavor. There are countless variations on the theme of hereditary inheritence, with different rules and different allowances from place to place and time to time, but I believe the general influence toward controlled sex to promote simplified redistribution of wealth and power via inheritence is firmly observeable.

It seems like no coincidence, then, that movements like Bohemianism eschewed traditional viewpoints of family and property ownership, favoring more communally-oriented systems and shying away from heirarchical structures.

Unfortunately it's an immensely complicated topic, with influences from countless different sources - chief among them being religion and ecomonics, both thorny complicated topics in their own rights - so it may simply be the sort of thing we can't really properly unpack without immense effort.

John said...

Well, there's Mr. Verloren for the Bohemian side. Anybody want to argue for the traditionalists? Or that none of it matters? I'm afraid I am too ambivalent to make a strong argument either way.