An excellent debate went on at The Week last week (h/t to director Jeremy Boreing for sending it to me). The issue was sex.
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.
All of our so-called cultural conflicts flow from this monumental shift — and the fact that some of our fellow citizens (religious traditionalists and other social conservatives) are terrified by the new dispensation.
Linker goes on to say that, while he feels comfortable with modern sexual liberty and appreciates its relief from “sexually inspired suffering, shame, humiliation, and self-loathing,” he has also come to appreciate that some traditionalist critiques of the situation are worth considering. The gains of the sexual revolution are clear: “It’s fun! It feels good!” But it may be that traditionalist fears that promiscuity threatens the stability of society and the welfare of children have merit.
Ed Morrissey of Hot Air responded to the essay in the same venue the next week, maintaining Linker’s thoughtful and respectful tone. He points out, though, that when we argue about sex we’re not just arguing about sex:
The traditionalist view sees sex as a natural function as well, but one that has profound implications for the structure of society. Civilization was built on family structures, and the legal and cultural parameters that deal with sexual attraction and procreation grew in response to the resulting pressures on society. Responsibility for children, organizing for their protection, and the strengthening of the family unit made the creation of cultural norms and legal structures — such as the recognition and definition of marriage — imperatives for communities.
Morrissey agrees with Pope Paul VI’s incredibly prescient 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae which predicted that widespread use of the then-new birth control methods would destabilize marriage and the family and lead to “a general lowering of moral standards.” Morrissey adds: “The culture ‘wars’ relate in large part to sexual politics — but in the end, they are about culture and civilization, not just the sex itself.”
Now, it’s possible that the advent of two skilled writers disagreeing online in a considered and considerate manner is a sign of the Apocalypse so none of this will matter, but in case it’s just a fluke, I’d like to point out that there may be a third point of view.
It is certainly true that when we discuss sex, we are not just discussing sex, but we’re not merely discussing society and civilization either. I think arguments about sex are really arguments about the essential nature of human beings, what it means to be who we are. When we bring our bodies together, is it just a matter of a joy stick going into a happy hole, or is there something more to it? Is there something more to us? Is there something irreducible in us that can be uplifted, glorified, degraded or disgraced by the way we treat our flesh?
Personally, I agree with neither the left nor right on most sexual issues. Ethics — the application of unchanging moral principles — change as situations change. Modern birth control and medicine changed the sexual situation and conservatives need to accommodate those changes in their thinking. It may simply be that certain behaviors that were once genuinely immoral — like pre-marital sex — are immoral no longer if rightly done.
What hasn’t changed, however, is who and what we truly are. A sex life in which the spirit leads the body may be somewhat different for different individuals, but it will always involve respect for oneself and others and a coherent moral acceptance of the possible consequences.
I don’t think that behavior can be legislated but it can be modeled and praised. And it should be.
image via shutterstock / Subbotina Anna