BYU’s suspension of forward Brandon Davies for having sex with his girlfriend has divided the sports blogosphere between those who applaud the University for upholding its honor code and those who express incredulity that anyone could get kicked off the team for such a thing (after all, isn’t this why many people play sports, to get first crack at the most attractive members of the opposite sex?).
What has been decidedly missing in the conversation, however, is an investigation of why BYU has this as part of their honor code in the first place. If asked, most persons would simply chalk it up to the sexual peculiarities of Mormons: sex with no one before marriage, and multiple spouses after. But this would be overlooking the proposition that any well-organized community will and ought to have a say in the selection of sexual partners.
The hoary cliche goes like this: “Who I have sex with is no one’s business but my own” – a phrase that obscures more than it reveals. On the surface of it this idea can’t possibly be true, for surely it is the business, in one way or another, of the person with whom one is having sex. (Here I’ll freely confess that, as a father, I think it’s my business too if it happens to be one of my kids.)
Once this concession is made, the libertine takes a step back and introduces the idea of consent. “Sex between two consenting parties is no one’s business but those two parties.” But even here, one suspects that the libertine cannot effectively make a rearguard action, for introducing the idea of consent necessarily involves an examination of the characteristics that make one capable of consent. In other words, it will require, in some fashion, a discussion of the necessary and natural characteristics a person has such that their engagement in sexual acts is considered acceptable.
These reflections are grounded in a community’s deliberation about the nature of sex itself, the nature of the persons who engage in it, and its appropriate contours and expressions. Without such communal deliberations connected to sex’s nature, lines of legitimacy become hopelessly blurred and arbitrary, even confused. Why, for example, should 16, or 17, or 18 become a magical moment of legitimacy? Are all 18 year-olds equally capable of such deliberation? Why is it that we have child pornography laws that are designed to protect the dignity of 14 year olds while at the same time we are handing out condoms to them in our schools? Why is it sex between two 16 years olds is permissible (and condoms provided with taxpayer dollars), but between a 19 and a 16 year old it’s not?
Surely part of the problem here is the malleable way we have come to understand biological determinations of sex itself. In the March issue of First Things, Douglas Farrow demonstrates the legal significance of replacing objective characteristics such as the biology of sex with subjective categories such as “orientation” and a largely liquid sexual “identity,” which, as Charles Taylor has argued, require mutual recognition in order to legitimate themselves.
Farrow still believes that nature divides us into male and female, but the reasoning of “identity formation” has moved backwards on this issue, with the result that “scholars” are now arguing that nature is as fluid as subjective self-perception. Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown, has made her own bargain with the devil by arguing that there are at least five sexual classifications, “male” and “female” simply being extreme ends of a biologically diffused spectrum. Her book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality argues that “labeling” someone as a man or a woman is a social (therefore contingent and subjective) construction. One is reminded of a scene from Monty Python, where parents of a newborn ask if it’s a boy or a girl and are told that it’s too early to start imposing social roles on the infant. Life imitating satire.
The claims largely undercut themselves, however, for science itself is not grounded in nature the way human sexuality is: as a language of discourse it’s far more open to subjective manipulations. Fausto-Sterling has no way to protect herself against the charge that her claims are not, properly speaking, scientific ones but are rather ideological.¹ One breaks the connection to nature at one’s own peril, for if “maleness” and “femaleness” are not given in the nature of things, then it is hard to know what might be, and the scientist is simply engaging in a counter-discourse which advances the cause of knowledge not at all.
A community that has no way of communicating “maleness” or “femaleness” to its offspring is unlikely to figure out how to communicate to them the proper exercise of the gift of human sexuality. Any reference to an authority outside the self will necessarily be seen as an oppressive restriction of one’s primordial mode of self-expression. Perhaps Freud was right that cultural formation is a result of sexual repression; but one fears now that cultural illiteracy has left the confused youth of our age with nothing more to project on to the world than their own ejaculations, and that moaning is as eloquent as they’ll get.
Our communal confusion about sexual conduct and the status and nature of the persons who engage in it necessarily results in efforts to isolate sex from its communal context. It’s hard to imagine any form of human interchange that has been further removed from the nurturing solicitude of communal life – assuming, that is, that you have a nurturing community. For the most part, the larger community is what I’m trying to shield my children from.² So what we say about who can have sex with whom alters that fragile social ecology that informs and sustains our daily decisions. More than that, however, sex cannot be abstracted from our general conversations about other goods in human life. A person who is willing to take what they want sexually is unlikely to be trustworthy in departmental meetings, or when the lights go out in our cities. Only if one rejects the proposition that being human demands consistency of character in the light of a comprehensive accounting of our lives does contemporary libertinism get any traction at all. That it tracks the “end of philosophy” is no coincidence.
Sexual libertinism is a sign that society has broken away from the full truth about unified selves and their capacity for moral discernment and moral discipline. The complementarity of male and female in modes of mutual donation and acceptance, of being both active and receptive – ultimately to life itself – has given way to a pervasive selfishness. The spiritual wholeness of sex, predicated on the unified wholeness of persons body and soul, now is seen as just one more bodily function, although one requiring external stimulus (thus also leading to an attenuation of modesty, which means in turns that people will be treated like objects. That the people who complain about “objectification” are the same ones who celebrate the “gains” of the sexual revolution is one of the many ironies of the modern academy).
The Church has recognized the scope of this problem. In its 1995 Statement on the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (which was itself largely a restating of the core teachings of Humanae Vitae), the Pontifical Council wrote:
In the past, even when the family did not provide specific sexual education, the general culture was permeated by respect for fundamental values and hence served to protect and maintain them. In the greater part of society, both in developed and developing countries, the decline of traditional models has left children deprived of consistent and positive guidance, while parents find themselves unprepared to provide adequate answers. The new context is made worse by what we observe: an eclipse of the truth about man which, among other things, exerts pressure to reduce sex to something commonplace. In this area, society and the mass media most of the time provide depersonalized, recreational and often pessimistic information.
Sex is thus located within a general accounting of what men and women are, how their complementary differences alone can provide a basis for a sexual love that is neither selfish or impure, and how such love connects to a life of hope and faith (for what else are children but the ultimate expression of the theological virtues?).
We expect economic exchange to be well and fairly regulated. We demand that speech be civil and respectful, to the point where we have complex codes, often legally entrenched, which carefully manage the way human beings speak to one another. We place all sorts of restrictions on who may drive and how, who may drink and how much, who may smoke and how much; on living arrangements, and how we treat animals; on whether certain music or movies are appropriate for certain persons; on everything, it seems, except sex. Here the community falls silent.
But it’s not silent, of course. Our obsession with sex has infiltrated every corner of our lives. Even the academy, which one would hope is a redoubt against cultural trends, one which celebrates the virtues of the mind, has been torn apart by sexual politics. Many faculty can’t stop talking about it. Curricula are designed to indulge the appetite. Life again imitates satire: whereas instructors having sex in front of class was farce for Monty Python, it is now supported by tuition dollars, replete with instruction in the proper use of a “sex-saw.” [JMW has brilliantly analyzed this event in an earlier post. For the stout of heart, CBS did a story on this, complete with video of the sex-saw, which is actually much worse than it sounds.] A professor might defend it in the negative – “I can’t see any reason not to” – but one suspects that the same professor wouldn’t be too keen on teaching students the virtue of prayer by having someone pray in front of the classroom. We ought to worry about a world where public acts of piety are frowned upon, but public displays of masturbatory masochism are celebrated and paid for with other people’s dollars – so that which is properly public becomes hopelessly private, and that which is most intimately private becomes public. We can’t agree on the higher good, so let’s at least agree on sharing that which is most base. One thinks of Freud’s epigraph for The Interpretation of Dreams: Flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo.³
One fears, however, not that the new libertines respect sex too much, but far too little, for in partitioning the standards for sexual activity off from every other form of human activity, they have severed sexual expression from our deepest understandings of what human beings are, and to what they ought to aspire. The very persons who insist on these detailed speech codes are the ones who insist we ought to have nothing to say about who does what to whom. Is sex as a medium of human interaction less valuable, less worthy of our collective ordering, than talking? Less intimate, less necessary, less connected to our sense of what is good? So it would seem.
Any community must think carefully of its perpetuity, and for the better part of the history of the species that has meant regulating sex, for reproduction was generally thought to be necessary for social continuity (Europe is losing its experiment in challenging that proposition). In the wake of development of technologies which make reproduction without copulation and copulation without reproduction possible, the community loses its foothold in sexual conduct: not in the sense of prurient observation but in the sense that it helps individuals contemplating sexual action tame their otherwise parlous impulses. After all, the authoritative voice of a priest or a parent is more likely to be a restraining presence in the back of an SUV than your 8th grade sex ed teacher. But in our pornographic age we invert, for we observe without taming instead of tame without observing.
The problem here is at least twofold: one is the general state of understanding what language is and how language operates, and the other is the uncoupling of sex from any genuinely human good other than gratification. One of the more pernicious consequences of the so-called postmodern movement has been its proclivity to treat all reality as if it’s discursive. This has infected and affected almost all moral deliberation (think, for example, of the strange use of the word “margins” to describe persons with no apparent social power). Language is, of course, an essential quality of being human and a primary mode of expressivity, but it also points to our fundamental sociality and participation in a larger reality. Only if we buy the Saussurean conceit that language has no external referent but only gets its meaning from tracing its grammatical significance will we embrace its potential to alter reality according to our desires. I’m afraid we’ve lost on the substitution of the word “gender” when we mean “sex” – the latter being biology, the former being that which pertains to words. It’s a concession we made too readily.
Making reality as contingent and malleable as language has led to adjusting it to conform to our desires or “deepest selves”, be they expressive or experimental. The social confining of sexual desire to its proper sphere is unlikely to be accomplished by concepts as thin as “consent” or variations of the harm principle, or by recourse to putative “rights.” The recent public spectacle of Charlie Sheen ought to give pause to most people who would otherwise be inclined to carry the baggage for his moral arguments. The barely contained ridicule of him for his interviews may actually be cause for hope. In the main, however, one suspects that Sheen is simply a harbinger, for the legal case for polyamorous relationships is receiving greater and greater support in law journals.
Nor can consent or the harm principle provide principled objections against other forms of sexual license which ought to cause decent people to shudder, such as incest, which is receiving increasing public attention. Larry Constantine, Professor of Psychology at Tufts, has argued that “children have a right to express themselves sexually, even with members of their own family.” Only when one understands that sex has a proper nature, and the community must organize itself in accord with its nature, can one see why incest is such a problem. Otherwise, one is left like the poor author of “I Had Sex with My Brother But I Don’t Feel Guilty” (The Sunday Times) who cannot see or understand the right ordering of love, and its concomitant jealousies (there is a jealousy proper to well-ordered love, after all). Nor can these principles be of any use to the feckless schlep Joshua LeSeur who, writing in the pages of Salon, couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want to have the threesome his wife was recommending. The essay is a piece of such profound confusion that one actually ends up feeling sorry for the guy. But alas, he has to navigate this all on his own, and the cues he gets from his culture only deepen his confusion, which, after all, is testimony to the fact that he retains at least a residual sense that sex has some boundaries.
Perhaps in its most pernicious manifestation, the sexual revolution, which was supposed to put women on their feet, ended up with their daughters on their knees (see footnote 2 below). The debasement of our young women in the casual performance of fellatio is a problem that very few feminists seem to want to acknowledge. Perhaps they made too cozy a deal with a former president who did, after all, do so much good for them by working to expand their abortion rights. Oral sex would seem to solve two problems at once, but only if you don’t think carefully about what you’re being asked to do. We live in the era where all orifices are created equal, and where young men can find young women only too eager to “service” their needs. Given the unilateral nature of the exchange, that eagerness is curious, to say the least.
It would seem most young men would welcome the advent of a world where sex, be it oral or intercourse, is readily available with little expected of them in return. But here we see how what we think we want is the opposite of what is good for us. I think some women, at least, are beginning to realize they have paid a high price by bargaining off their chastity and modesty for – what, exactly? Power? As Kay Hymowitz has argued in her Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men Into Boys, one of the main effects of female promiscuity has been that it has allowed males to stay in a state of arrested adolescence well into their 20’s. This delay of adulthood has all sorts of consequences for the formation of healthy families and the raising of children in the most propitious circumstances. Having a generation of young males who are ill-prepared for the rigors and responsibilities of adult life damages the political community in all sorts of profound ways. The repercussions of easy sexual release have a rippling effect over the whole social fabric.
One argument against the constant broadening of our communities is that it leaves us with nowhere to go with things go awry. Our “culture” has become more individualized as it becomes more abstract, more libertine as it becomes more statist, and more sexually pathological as it becomes increasingly convinced that we are only as good as our next orgasm. The crudeness of expression reveals how inconsequential it has all become. College students “hook up” with one another, like two (or more) box cars whose coupling is temporary and unrelated to what’s inside of them. In the memorable and depressing deflowering of Charlotte Simmons, Hoyt Thorpe gallantly remarks that he “had to knock the dust off her” – an expression of such crudeness it requires no commentary. Any thinking parents have to ask themselves if sending their children to college is even responsible, given the levels of harm to which you are exposing them.
But local communities can still provide tenuous bulwarks against the corrupting tides. Here we can find those backward red-staters who cling bitterly to archaic ideas such as “male and female He created He them” and have articulated principles which define lines of permissibility. When my college got into a public dispute over the Board of Trustees issuing a statement affirming traditional ideas of human sexuality, the local townspeople came under attack from some faculty for their purported “bigotry.” I couldn’t have been prouder of my fellow citizens, for if there are any cues I don’t want to be taking from this culture, they are sexual ones. Perhaps the culture wars will inevitably end in some sort of Balkanization of America, but only if the federal government decides it won’t take sides in the battle. Unfortunately, present circumstances give us no reason to hope this will be the case.
1 This is, of course, independent of the issue whether it’s even good science. Leonard Sax in the Journal of Sex Research has provided a damning critique of Fausto-Sterling’s “science.” Fausto-Sterling’s work is little more than the execrable work of Judith Butler given scientific sheen.
2 Caitlin Flanagan has produced a worthwhile essay on this, especially as it pertains to the sexual development of young girls, in the pages of The Atlantic. If you’re a parent with young children it won’t make you feel better about your odds.
3 From The Aeneid Book VII: “If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will stir up the Acheron” (or the infernal regions). Knight translates: “If I cannot change the will of heaven, I will release hell.” Whatever the complexities of Freud’s use, he clearly favors apparent realities he think he can control to “illusions” he can’t. The Promethean implications can be discussed all on their own.