What is one to think of the movement for sexual liberation that has become so pervasive among us? This is currently an unavoidable question, and one too important to be left to bumper sticker catchphrases and shrill name-calling. What follows is an attempt to lay out the principles and claims that undergird the movement such that they can be calmly looked at and their coherence and value reasonably assessed.
The revolutionary movement for sexual liberation needs to be understood, not simply as a desire to have a lot of sex – hardly a stirring moral cause – but rather as part of a wider program for human happiness and fulfillment. People of all times have found sexual restraint difficult and cultural sexual norms irritating. But our age has developed a much more potent and salvific sexual hope: a vision that promises humanity’s final triumph over evil through personal autonomy and self-creation, a key step of which is the refusal to submit to received sexual boundaries of any kind.
A Bit of Context
Universal human experience has tended to arrive at the view that Eros is a very strong god. Eros has sometimes been worshipped and sometimes demonized, but all human societies have realized that there is great power, for good and for evil, in sexual desire and sexual activity. Because of both its life-producing potency and its often destructive effects, all human groupings have been forced to find some means of keeping sexual desire in constructive channels as a sine qua non of successful communal life. In some societies the restraint has been handled aggressively and occasionally brutally. In others, shame rather than physical violence has been the main mechanism used to impose sexual order. But whether brutal or not, the driving impetus behind such practices has not been irrational bigotry so much as simple survival. Some kind of restraining force has been required to confront the power of sexual desire lest sexual license destroy the possibility of common life.
This is not an abstract theory; it has been the fruit of lived experience. One sees this concern chronicled in Homer’s Iliad. In that famous epic, the pursuit of unrestrained sexual desire leads to years of warfare involving the killing of thousands, the dissolution of the families of both Paris and Helen, and the destruction of the great city of Troy. Sexual license also destroyed the fellowship of King Arthur and his Round Table. The same tale is told in innumerable novels, movies, and TV dramas down to our own time. Every family, every circle of friends, every business, knows the uncomfortable truth: that unbridled sexual behavior among its members will seriously impair the ability of the group to function well, and perhaps even put its survival at risk.
Added to this and connected with it has been the matter of the proper raising of children. Having children and providing for their health and education have also historically been matters of survival for human groupings: not only in the perpetuation of the society into a distant future, but a more proximate source of workers, warriors, and care for the elderly.
Most societies, when confronting the great difficulty of getting people to live according to sexual norms, have arranged culturally acceptable zones in which the strict rules of sexual restraint and identity could be relaxed. Whether it was an allowed form of prostitution, or agreed-upon rules for carrying on extra-marital affairs, or relaxation of sexual norms at set times or special festivals, the behavior was carefully fenced off from the vital centers of life such that the destructive possibilities of sex on communal survival were kept to a minimum. Think for instance of the English King Henry VIII. Henry had sexual affairs with two Boleyn sisters successively during the space of a few years. The first affair with Mary was hardly commented on because it was handled within the acknowledged cultural zone. The second affair with Anne brought the kingdom to war, contributed to a momentous rift in the religious life of the country, and caused many deaths including that of the woman involved, because it disrupted the essential social fabric concerning marriage, family, and children.
The "Imperial Sexual Self"
Beginning with certain currents of Enlightenment thought, the view arose that there was no God, or at least no God that needed to be taken into account when arranging the patterns of human life. Arising out of this “God vacuum” was a way of thinking that has sometimes been called the idea of the “Imperial Self.” With God out of the picture, the question arose as to where one was to look for the sources of personal identity, and for guidance in moral behavior. Some hoped that an almost deified Reason could fill the vacuum. But increasingly the only source of authority and dignity devolved upon the individual self. While it was obvious that some restraints upon individual autonomy needed to be maintained in the interests of necessary common endeavors and to respect the rights of others to their own self-development, such concessions were to be kept to a minimum. People would be most free when they were most able to create their own sense of value and meaning and follow the inclinations of their own wills. To maximize such freedom was considered the highest of goods and the road to happiness.
Because the human experience of self is so tightly tied to sexuality, personal autonomy in matters of sexual behavior and sexual identity emerged as an important locus and test case for human freedom. Just after the French Revolution there was a proliferation of communes with philosophies advocating “free love,” inspired by the writings of people such as Charles Fourier and the Marquis de Sade. From that point on, movements of sexual liberation came upon the society like a series of waves, each reaching a higher point before receding somewhat and returning underground: the decadent movement of the 1850s and 60s in France among whom the poet Charles Baudelaire was a noteworthy figure; the so-called “naughty nineties” characterized by Oscar Wilde and his circle, the “roaring twenties” as exemplified by the theory and practice of the Bloomsbury circle in England and the Berlin cabaret scene, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The rapid and pervasive spread of sexual liberation during the sixties has led some to conclude that these ideas first arose at that time. In fact the ideas were not at all new, but with the development of new electronic technologies they were compellingly available to the whole of the population, and especially to the young. Since then, sexual liberation has been making its way rapidly through widely diffused entertainment media, in university classrooms, and increasingly into all institutions of the society.
Key Principles and Claims of the Sexual Liberation Movement
To assess this significant social development, it can be of use to identify some of the key principles and claims that underlie it. Here are ten of them:
1. There is no divine cosmic order.
Human cultures previous to our own viewed human society as inextricably bound up with an order of life and being that transcended humanity. Because sexual behavior was the wellspring of the social order and touched on the mystery of new human lives, it was held that cosmic meaning was written into our sexual being. Therefore sexual behavior needed to harmonize with the cosmic nature of things. This was as true for believers in polytheistic fertility religions as for Jews and Christians.
Proponents of sexual liberation begin by assuming the significant metaphysical stance that there is no such cosmic order to the universe. This assumption often goes unrecognized, but it is the basis of the whole program, without which the impetus toward sexual liberation ceases to have any coherence. It stands to reason that if we are part of an order that transcends us and gives meaning to our sexuality, our wisdom and happiness will be found in conforming ourselves to those deep rhythms of the universe. Conversely, if there is no such order, if there is nothing outside of ourselves that tells us who we are and why we are alive, then it makes sense to fend for ourselves and to arrange matters as best we can. A number of necessary conclusions arise from this fundamental metaphysical view.
2. The human is not a "fallen" being.
An essential aspect of all the schemes of personal freedom that arose from Enlightenment thought was the denial of the Christian doctrine of the Fall. The evil in the world was not to be traced to a fundamental moral wound at the core of each person; evil was the result of natural circumstances or of ignorance. This meant that there was nothing that needed healing as regarded our sexual desires and behavior. The assumption provides the force behind the arguments, “I was made this way,” or “I am only doing what is natural to me.” To suggest that certain sexual desires and practices were inherently disordered would make sense only if a state of internal disorder was first acknowledged. Otherwise it would be seen as an unnatural attack on the inner core of the person. Norms for sexual restraint would then be viewed, not as medicine to aid in the healing of a deep wound, but as unhealthy and repressive bonds that needed to be broken in the interests of freedom.
3. There is no religious dimension to sexual behavior or sexual desire.
This view also follows necessarily from the first noted above. If human existence is an accidental occurrence in a meaningless universe, the idea that sexual relations or sexual identity represent an important participation in divine reality makes no sense. There can be no basis apart from a vague illogical sentimentality for treating human life as sacrosanct, and therefore nothing to venerate in our sexual being, nothing Godlike in it leading us to treat it with special care. Sexual desires and sexual relations need to be “demythologized” and treated as natural physical phenomena and nothing more.
4. There is no essentially moral dimension to sexual behavior or sexual desire.
A further consequence of the first principle above is the absence of sexual morality. There are, of course, moral concerns that impinge upon sex, but there is no specifically sexual moral order. Sex is just something people do, like driving a car or dancing. As long as no one gets hurt, all is fine. Hence the widely used formula concerning “consenting adults.” True, a person should not harm another during sex; but the same might be said about driving and dancing. There can be no such thing as morally wrong or evil sexual behavior in and of itself, nor can there be any sexual behavior that is especially morally good. Thus adultery is not problematic as long as both parties agree; and no positive moral value attaches to the nuptial embrace. Each person should sort out sexual preferences much like fashion preferences, not with a moral compass.
5. Sexual behavior is non-momentous.
From the previous principles the conclusion necessarily arises that sex is not a big deal; it doesn’t affect things much. This is the unstated assumption behind the casual stance around sexual things that predominates among proponents of sexual liberation. Sex is pleasurable and often fun and sometimes exciting; nothing more. Therefore it is not a problem if children get sexualized as long as no one is taking advantage of them; sexual stimulation in the general environment is not problematic and its prevalence is a matter of taste; casual sexual encounters are common and normal. There is nothing serious at stake except personal physical health, which can be handled by following practices of “safe sex.”
6. Sex is not intrinsically concerned with offspring; it is most essentially about personal pleasure and fulfillment.
No one doubts that children sometimes come along with sex, or that the race has kept itself in existence biologically through sexual activity. But there is nothing necessary or normative about this connection, and if ways can be devised to eliminate the possibility of offspring in sexual activity (contraception, abortion), and other ways found of producing offspring (surrogacy, cloning) then nothing has been lost, and freedom from biological necessity has been gained.
7. Sexual behavior (between consenting adults in private) has no significant social repercussions.
This is a sociological claim. Since there is so little at stake in sex, the social consequences of sexual behavior between individuals is minimal. It is therefore no one else’s business. The wider society has a reasonable interest in whatever affects its members as a group; we understand why people have a problem with second-hand smoke, or loud music blaring in the middle of the night when others are trying to sleep, or drunk driving. But private sexual behavior does not impinge upon the public and therefore it should not be subject to laws or customs that put restraints on it.
8. Throwing off of sexual restraint and societal sexual norms will lead to personal liberation, freedom from irrational guilt, and in general greater happiness for the individual.
This claim moves to the psychological. Given that the above assumptions and claims are true, nothing but good can come from throwing off legal or conventional sexual standards and expectations. Sexual restraint, whether of behavior or of identity, is unnatural and therefore unhealthy. The more people experience sexual freedom, the happier and healthier they will be, physically and psychologically.
9. Humans have an intrinsic right, based on their right to human dignity, to define themselves sexually.
This is the one aspect of sexuality that is indeed held to be momentous, and has to do with the individual’s right to self-creation. Any restraint from outside the individual self upon sexual identity and practice is an infringement of a basic human right and an attack on human dignity, and may cause serious psychic trauma and unhappiness. To be a free human being, one must be free to determine how one identifies and behaves sexually.
Given the preceding assumptions and claims:
10. It is therefore unjust and oppressive to insist on objective sexual moral norms whether concerning specific sexual acts or sexual self-identification. Instead we should celebrate and maximize sexual freedom and encourage sexual diversity.
Those who attempt to curtail such freedoms are not just incorrect: they are infringing on personal freedom and the dignity of the individual and are thereby oppressors. They justly fall under the accusation of being nasty, bigoted, and hate-filled, and their ideas should rightly be censured. Those who promote sexual liberation are the true “freedom fighters.” They are honoring human dignity and increasing human happiness, and their views should be written into law and embraced by the society at large.
The conclusions in point #10 above follow reasonably from the previous assumptions and claims. If these propositions concerning sexual behavior are true and reasonable, then it is indeed oppressive to insist on any specific sexual behavior or to impose a sexual identity, except in those limited situations such as rape or the abuse of minors where there are obvious negative consequences on others.
But are they true and reasonable? Let’s examine them a little more closely to see if this is a plausible view of human sexuality.
Flies in the Ointment
To begin at the beginning, concerning the assumption that there is no created cosmic order and therefore no normative guide for sexual behavior and identity: this touches on much broader matters beyond sexuality and would open up a wider discussion than can be pursued here. Yet it still might be noted that the vast majority of humans and human cultures, both in the past and in the contemporary world, have held that there is some sort of normative cosmic order that impinges on human sexual identity and behavior. The fact that most of humanity has held this view doesn’t make it true, but it should give pause to those who are proposing a radical departure from so universal an approach to a complex human reality. We should have very good grounds for lightly abandoning the experience of millions of people over thousands of years. The burden of proof should be on those pushing for the change.
A more immediate difficulty arises in the assertion by proponents of sexual liberation that justice, freedom, and dignity are the motivating drives behind the movement. There is a problem here. If there is no God and no purpose in the arrangement of the universe and therefore no normative sexual order, if all has come about by a random development of unconscious bits of matter and forces of energy, then words like justice and freedom can have no possible meaning, and the notion of human dignity is only an accidental evolutionary residue that corresponds to nothing outside of itself. There is a kind of catch-22 in the liberationist stance. It wants to be free of any normative sexual rules and identities; yet it appeals to ideals of justice that can only be meaningful in a purposeful and consciously designed universe. It begins to look as though the liberationist attitude is potent only as long as it is secretly being sustained by the very principle it has openly rejected.
As to sex being non-momentous: there is a deep schizophrenia among proponents of sexual revolution concerning this claim, an inconsistency that casts doubt on its plausibility. On the one hand, we pass out condoms to kids, we laugh at conventions of sexual restraint as prudish and silly, and we flood the airwaves and the internet world with all kinds of explicit sexual content, all of which points to a carefree attitude about sex. We are often more cautious about food additives than about sexual behavior. But if so, why are we so violently agitated by rape and sexual abuse? Is there any other human activity that is so destructively momentous under circumstances of lack of consent, and so relaxed and non-momentous when consent is present? A coerced meal, a coerced walk, a coerced dance, a coerced football game, any of these may be annoying or irritating; but they are not likely to leave years of trauma and lifelong scars. Why the difference here? Either sex is essentially momentous and always needs to be handled with care, or we should stop being concerned about rape and abuse. We can’t reasonably have it both ways.
As to the claims that sexual liberation has no (negative) social or psychological effects: here we are dealing with areas that can be assessed more objectively, and the evidence runs overwhelmingly against these claims. Just to glance at a few areas of concern in assessing the consequences of sexual liberation:
- Public health: STDs from AIDS to Herpes are all at high and some at epidemic levels.
- Poverty: The leading cause of child poverty in America by a significant margin is unwed mothers with illegitimate children. Much of current poverty and its attendant social pathologies can be traced to patterns promoted by the sexual revolution.
- Divorce: Sexual liberation demands access to easy divorce; the traditional family is regularly cited by proponents of sexual liberation as fundamentally enslaving. This is a complicated issue with many factors involved, but sexual liberation has certainly been a key influence in the prevalence of broken families among us. The negative effects of divorce especially on children have been well documented.
- Sexual addictions: There has been a rapid growth of many kinds of sexual addiction, most notably of boys and men to pornography. For many, supposed sexual liberation has turned out to be a new form of slavery, with seriously negative personal and social consequences.
- Abortion: In the US, over 50 million children have been legally put to death, and over a billion worldwide. What happened to the idea that “no one gets hurt” in private sexual activity? By any measure this represents a highly significant social consequence of sexual liberation.
- Sexual abuse and date rape: The rates of both have soared, a rise not simply ascribable to better reporting.
- Plummeting birth rates: This is a complex phenomenon in which sexual liberation plays an important part. To some this is good news, but it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be serious social and economic consequences to the decline.
- Harm to individual consciences: This effect is hard to calculate, but hard also to deny.
- Unhappiness: Many studies show a direct correlation between sexual promiscuity and unhappiness, especially for women. Longitudinal studies make clear that women in general are unhappier than they have been for decades, and also unhappier with their sexual lives; and the more promiscuous their sexual behavior has been, the less happy they are. Early indications from the “trans” wing of the movement are not encouraging in this regard either, to say the least.
It is evident that, contrary to the claim that sex is an entirely private matter, the sexual behavior of individuals has inevitable and powerful social consequences. The fact that every human society has viewed even private sexual matters as inherently social underscores this reality. By any rational measure, the modern effects of sexual liberation have been and continue to be a social and psychological disaster area. If any other ideology and behavior pattern resulted in so much harm, so much unhappiness and so many pathologies both individual and societal, there would be a massive private and public attempt to change the behavior and handle things more intelligently. Why is that response less widespread than one would predict? Why are we not simply following the data? The answer lies in the fact that there is an assumed and unprovable but powerful dogma at work in the insistence on sexual liberation, one that is often held as a kind of religious belief.
That dogma involves the ninth of the above claims: that sexual autonomy and sexual self-creation are essential to personal dignity. One may reasonably question that highly doubtful dogma. Does one’s dignity as a human really depend on exercising personal choice in the matter of sexual identity and activity? Has that been the real experience of real people, or only the theoretical constructs of detached intellectuals? If it is so, why are we the first humans in history to discover it? And why is the attainment of that supposed dignity so often accompanied by undignified and troubling patterns of brokenness and despair?
When there is so much irrationality in a proposed way of going at the world, we should be on the alert. When those who champion sexual diversity insist on imposing a rigid sexual uniformity; when those who insist on a woman’s right to medical knowledge attempt to hide medical knowledge from women when it touches on abortion; when those who are most concerned about ecological questions of pollution and resource management overlook the pollution resulting from artificial contraceptives and the resource waste of the multiplication of households resulting from divorce; when those who are so insistent on the individual’s right to sexual autonomy are ready to snuff out that right entirely for a huge class of unborn humans; when those who pride themselves on being scientific refuse to engage the growing mountain of scientific data that runs counter to their dogmas; when a supposed road to happiness and freedom so often ends in misery and bondage; it becomes clear that we are not just uncovering the kind of occasional hypocrisy and fudging of ideals that every movement suffers from in some of its members. Instead, we are facing an incoherent way of thinking whose inherent contradictions prevent even its most committed advocates from living out consistently.
There has to be a more intelligent and less destructive way of understanding and engaging the complex mystery of human sexuality, one that will put us on a road to genuine freedom and joy.
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