Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sex and sensibility

by Thomas Dollar

People have been blogging a lot about sex lately, so I thought I’d take a break from Africa and get my two cents in. Stepping into a discussion on sexual ethics is like stepping into a fen of snark, recriminations and umbrage (feigned and real), so I’ll be sure to tread carefully.

Equal Writes does an excellent job (much better than most feminist blogs) of including a diverse array of opinions on sexual matters. Still, when it comes to discussions of sexual morality, conservatives and traditionalists tend to do most of the talking, with liberals and libertarians merely rebutting their points.

Traditional sexual mores place great importance on restricting sex: who can have it with whom, what they can do, when they can do it, how they should feel about it, etc. Gender roles are important in a conservative sexual ethic: men and women are assumed to have different needs and desires, and are held to different codes of behavior. Also important are concepts of the family, childrearing, and social stability. Sexual conservatives typically justify their philosophy through the invocation of a deity, natural law, tradition, and concern for the wellbeing of society.

Sex-positive liberals usually deride these conservative mores, calling them patriarchal, repressive and supremely unrealistic. And reality appears to be on the liberals’ side, as 95% of Americans engage in pre-marital sex. Still, when it comes to offering their own code of sexual morals, most liberals demur, advocating little beyond the need for consent and safe-sex practices. The result is that the only people talking about sex in moral terms are the ones who have a narrow view of it. This is really a pity, for a number of reasons.

Sex is complicated, because people are complicated. (Sex between dogs, by contrast, is most decidedly uncomplicated.) People have complex emotions, desires and needs, and when people form close relationships, these strong emotions may clash. I have heard countless allegations from sexual conservatives (including on this blog) of the dangers of the so-called “hookup culture.” They claim that casual sexual encounters are emotionally and psychologically jarring to those involved—especially the women. They may even cite several cases that demonstrate their point. Sexual liberals usually counter with a blanket, “No, that’s just not true,” and offer counter-examples of their own.

Both sides fail to recognize the difference between “is” and “may.” Some people may form strong emotional attachments to any sexual partner; others may not. Some people may engage in sexual activity merely for physical pleasure with one partner, yet form a tight bond with another. Some people may go on a tour of one-night stands (suitcase and guitar in hand), while others want to commit to only one partner for life. And people can change too, desiring different things at different points in their lives.

Any description of universal norms is a case of wishful thinking. Conservatives engage in wishful thinking when they claim abortion (generally) harms women, or that sexuality is a precious gift that women must control but men cannot, or that having sex reduces women’s self-esteem. Before the advent of hormonal contraception and legal, safe abortion, unwanted and unsupported pregnancies were a real danger for women. (And societal control of women’s sexuality had a rational basis.) But the world changed, and morality has to change with it.

Instead of morality, though, sexual liberals have given men and women a muddled mish-mash of mixed messages. We’re supposed to desire sex (that’s natural, right?), but not show it too much, lest we pressure our partners, and we should not engage in sex at all unless it’s somehow “empowering” personally. (And anything is okay as long as it’s portrayed as “empowering.”) Women desire sex just as much as men, and are not the “gatekeepers” of sexuality (that’s sexist!), yet if there’s every a dispute over consent, we assume the man wanted sex and the woman didn’t. Confused? I’ll say we are.

I’m quite confident that a new sexual morality will develop—after all, it hasn’t even been 50 years since we (or most of us, at least) tossed off the old one. My guess is that this new sensibility, unlike the old one, will be based on personal responsibility, not just restriction and self-denial. Responsibility means seeing sex as a good in itself that can nonetheless cause harm when practiced carelessly. Responsibility means recognizing that drunken sex—whatever pleasures involved—is no more empowering than drunken anything else. It demands openness and honesty between sexual partners, and in public discussions about sex. This frankness will help us overcome our tendency towards pluralistic ignorance about other people’s sex lives. It will also help people find partners who are compatible with how their own sexuality is—not some abstract idea of how it should be. This new morality will recognize that having children is too serious a responsibility just to stumble into, and that family planning benefits all of society. When will this new morality take root? It’s already starting to, but I’m afraid there will be a few more years of confusion while we sort things out.


At April 14, 2009 at 9:44 AM , Blogger Courtny said...

Excellent post, Tommy.


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