clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The limits of today's emerging sexuality

In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Franken, facing fresh allegations of sexual misconduct and vanishing support from fellow Democrats, said he will resign.
In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Franken, facing fresh allegations of sexual misconduct and vanishing support from fellow Democrats, said he will resign.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

If everyone agrees on something, something is being overlooked. If everyone passionately agrees on something important, something important is being denied. If everyone suddenly agrees passionately on something important, then we are deep in the fog of ideology.

Suddenly, many now passionately agree (or profess to agree) that men as a class are at least potential sexual aggressors, and that women as a class are innocent victims. Some important truths are missing from this picture.

Of course some men, too many, are brutal aggressors (others just insensitive louts), and some women are innocent victims. For much of history men have possessed physical and social powers over women, and it follows that there have always been abuses of these powers. Abuse that is violent should be punished with severe criminal penalties, and lesser forms of sexual harassment should result in commensurate moral reprobation and professional (and, where relevant, political) consequences.

Moral and religious convictions and attendant social shame once provided significant disincentives to sexual abuse and harassment. The sexual revolution that was enthusiastically promoted by the political and cultural left in my lifetime, and exploited for profit by many uninterested in politics and ideology, has somewhat dismantled these moral restraints. We should not be surprised by the ridiculous, ugly and sometimes cruel and monstrous passions that have been unleashed. A society that celebrates the “contributions” of Hugh Hefner and is shocked by inconsiderate and exploitive sexual behavior is involved in a self-deception that requires the repression of some rather obvious facts of human nature.

We think we are in possession of a new, rational moral code by which we can now regulate sexual conduct on the clear and simple principle of consent. Consent is indeed an indispensable consideration in morality, but it cannot by itself govern mankind’s sexual nature, for two kinds of reasons:

1) The consent/coercion distinction cannot adequately map the complex and subtle territory of sexual relations. Sexual commerce is not like economic exchange; a healthy, consensual relationship does not arise from explicit and transparent decisions alone. The dance of budding love involves both risky initiative (stereotypically male), and tentative, ambiguous receptivity (stereotypically female). Venturing and consenting form a process of discovery not amenable to the terms of some prior explicit contract. Moral principles and social custom can and must frame and restrain this process, which will almost always involve some kind of inequality or “asymmetry”; sheer “consent” alone will never be able to capture it.

2) The ethic of consent by itself cannot command the real sanctions necessary to check and channel sexual passions. If there is nothing inherently wrong in casual, extramarital sexual relations, if sex is in itself a matter of no more importance than scratching an itch, then what can the real harm be — especially since consent might well be bought or manipulated. Why should I check my strongest passion by the vague contingency named “consent”? If I can get someone to cooperate with me in scratching an itch and get away with it, then in effect haven’t I contrived “consent”? This Harvey Weinstein logic (which has been well prominently represented in both our political parties) is ugly, but it is a logic that follows once intrinsic moral standards, in particular those grounded in religious belief, have been dissolved.

Instead of facing up to the rolling disasters of the sexual revolution, it is much easier to jump on the bandwagon of ideology. Ideology works by dividing the world into opposing classes of people, the good and the bad: bad capitalists and good proletarians; evil perpetrators and innocent victims. We would do well in the midst of this ideological fervor to recall Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s reminder that the line dividing good and evil does not run between ideological classes but instead right through the heart of every individual person. There is good and bad in every man — and every woman. Men often hold power, and so men too often abuse power. Women also hold power, and can also trade on it and abuse it. Where human beings are involved, it is rarely a matter of all immoral power on one side and all innocence on the other.

The evil in the human heart will not be expunged, it will not even be controlled, by political and legal power fueled by ideological passion. New powers will be created, and new abuses will follow. The civilizing of our sexual desires and powers requires moral resources with deeper roots than contemporary ideology.