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Some thoughts on sex negativity

"Quand la morale triomphe, il se passe des choses tres vilaines." (When morals triumph, many very evil things happen.)
--Remy de Gourmont

The extent to which people confuse sexuality with morality never ceases to amaze me.

It shouldn't be amazing, really. I've been participating in various fora related to sex and sexuality for my entire adult life, after all; that's plenty of opportunity to come into contact with all sorts of attitudes about sex, including attitudes that I find, frankly, to be bizarre in the extreme.

Yet every so often, I still encounter some set of ideas that boggles me.

On another forum I read, I encountered a woman who believes that all sexual activity involving more than exactly one lifetime partner is inherently Bad And Wrong. Nothing new there; it's just the ordinary, dreadfully boring sort of pedestrian sex-negativity we run into all over the place. Hard to turn on the TV or shake a stick in American society without smacking into this sort of mundane sex-negative attitude.

But she took that ordinary, dry little kernel of sex negativity and from it built a monument to sexual hostility that would make the architect of the Taj Mahal weep and gnash his teeth in artistic impotence. So convinced was she of this premise that she asserted, with a straight face, that it is utterly impossible for a celibate person to commit an immoral act.

And when confronted with serial killer David Birnie (who was quite proud of his vow of celibacy), or with the case of the Rev. John Skehan (a Catholic priest who ended up in legal trouble not for the run-of-the-mill sorts of sex scandals that often bedevil an empowered but celibate priestly caste, but rather for the more earthly sin of embezzlement), she reasoned that since they were bad people, they must not have been celibate at all, but instead must have been lying about their celibacy.

And that's not even the good part.

Moral myopia is nothing new, of course. It's the mainstay of many of the boringly predictable scandals that periodically rock American society. Charles Keating, the anti-porn moral crusader who produced anti-sex films and served on Ronald Reagan's Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, spent his entire life as a crusader for public virtue before embezzling $1.2 billion from Lincoln Savings and Loan, singlehandedly triggering the collapse of the entire S&L industry. This same story repeats itself regularly: anti-sex crusader believes sex to be the beginning and end of all morality, commits immoral acts without even blushing because he can't see beyond sex when thinking about his own ethics.

But in the conversation in that other forum, we veer wildly from this dull and predictable tale into all sorts of breathtaking new ways to twist up sex and morality. The good part goes beyond your typical religious loathing of sex and your traditional, homespun moral double-standards, and into radical new territory that speaks directly to the Platonic ideal of a very pernicious human mental failing whose shadows can be seen in everything from Creationism to the mindless pseudoscience of "Doctor" Masaru Emoto, who claims that water molecules can do things like respond to human emotion and read written Japanese.

The Platonic ideal, which has ensnared so many people throughout human history, is the notion that humanity is the grandest of all of nature's accomplishments, and that all the forces of nature and all the divinity we can imagine revolves around our place as the center of the universe.

A couple of weekends ago, when my friend Jan was visiting, we went to the Georgia Aquarium, which bills itself as the world's largest.

I like aquariums. I particularly like the exotic, deep-sea life forms you find in environments like undersea thermal vents--these weird, bizarre organisms that live their lives in totally isolated ecosystems entirely disconnected from ours.

I snapped this picture of a lionfish while I was there. Lionfish are predatory fish with venomous spines and, which is most relevant to this post, a complete disregard for the affairs of man. They're not edible, nor are they useful to us in any way; like the weird things living by volcanic vents, they're removed from the sphere of human existence, except insofar as the fact that they're an invasive species sometimes means they're a pest.

Which is often the way it goes with nature.

You might think that deep-sea aquatic life has little to do with sex-negative attitudes about morality, but hang on, I'm getting to that.

When asked why she believes that sexual morality is the beginning and end of all morality, the person on this other forum replied that she'd had this epiphany while thinking about sexually transmitted diseases. Why, she wondered, do such diseases exist? What is their purpose?

Her conclusion, naturally enough, was that they exist for the purpose of telling human beings when they are doing something morally wrong. STDs, she reasoned1, must be nature's way of telling us how to live. All other diseases, according to her, can not be avoided; they are inevitable. But not diseases transmitted sexually! Those, she said, could be avoided just by not having sex; therefore, they myst serve some purpose, a purpose different from other diseases.

To be fair--and it is very hard to be fair in the face of such lunacy--she's not alone in this particular failure of thinking. A recent Boston University study shows that people seem predisposed to believe in purpose--to subscribe to "promiscuous teleology," the false idea that things exist for a purpose. Young children might believe that rocks have rough edges so that animals can scratch their backs, while their older, better-educated, wiser siblings might believe that the sun produces light so that plants can make energy.

So she's not alone in looking for purpose;she's following in the erroneous footsteps of many misguided people before her.

Still, it's hard to know where to start with this nonsense.

First, thee's the notion that people who contract certain diseases do so because they choose to, and they could just as easily choose not to by changing their sexual behavior. We are as a culture conditioned to believe that certain categories of diseases are 'dirty' and the people who have them do so because of their bad behavior; anything that finds new hosts through sexual contact tends to get stuck into a different mental category than other diseases, at least for most folks.

Think about how differently you respond emotionally to the thought of having chlamydia than to the thought of having strep throat, for example. Both are bacterial infections, potentially dangerous if left untreated but usually easily cured by antibiotics. But we don't think of folks with strep throat as being "dirty," and we don't have the same moral repugnance to it that we do to chlamydia.

And what about HIV? Most of us would say that AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, but in reality there is no such thing as a disease that is only transmitted through sex. When I was on the radio promoting Onyx, one of the people who called in was HIV positive. The result of a sinful, morally bankrupt lifestyle? Not quite. He became infected when he witnessed a serious traffic accident and rushed to help save the life of a woman who'd been thrown through the windshield. In the process, he came into contact with her blood, and you can guess the rest.

Of course, a different choice on his part would have prevented it from happening...but would it have been the moral choice?

That's one of the things I find most odious about these perceptions of STDs--the insidious idea that those folks who have them somehow did something to deserve them.

I bring up chlamydia in specific because the the chlamydia organisms (technically, chlamydia is a genus of several related bacterial species) are among the most wide-spread of parasitic bacterial species, and are capable of infecting a wider variety of hosts than any other single known genus of bacteria. Chlamydia can infect humans, cats, rodents, parrots, lizards, guinea pigs, horses, cattle, seagulls, sheep, dogs, rabbits, ducks--you name it.

It's also a remarkably promiscuous organism, leaping easily from species to species. Humans have become infected by handling infected animals, by inhaling the bacteria from animals with respiratory chlamydia infections, and by contact witht he droppings of infected animals.

Young animals, such as kittens and puppies (and, it should be pointed out, humans) are particularly prone to chlamydia infections, often through their eyes or mouth, because their immune systems are not completely developed. This poses a challenge to the notion that STDs are nature's moral guideposts; is nature trying to tell us not to play with kittens?

The idea that "nature" is some kind of sentient thing that strives to do things to the benefit or detriment of human beings is a mental aberration I'm not quite sure I fully comprehend. The notion that nature has any capacity whatsoever to make decisions or to act with purpose seems to me to be a particularly specific form of superstition born of one part wishful thinking, one part anti-intellectualism, and one part desire to believe in some sort of Higher Purpose; we talk about the "balance of nature" as if there actually was such a thing, and we revere nature as the source of all things good (and, by extension, our own enterprises as the source of all things bad) while forgetting that nature gave us rabies, lightning strikes, giant venomous spiders2, and gangrene.

There's a sneaky thing about human beings, though. We are not animals who reason; we are animals who rationalize. More often than not, we decide things based entirely on irrational feelings, then bring our big monkey brains to play to justify the decisions we have already made. Oh, we like to think we make decisions for reasons that make sense, but mostly that's not true. The reasons we give for doing what we do and believing what we believe come after, not before. And so skilled are we at doing this, half the time we don't even know it.

I've written before about how when someone believes some damn fool thing, it's usually a garbled, twisted-up expression of some hidden emotional state. The anti-vaccination nutjobs who insist that vaccines cause autism and that viruses and bacteria don't even cause disease to begin with are expressing an internal emotional state: they feel helpless to protect their children from scary things, and they view the "medical establishment" with uncomprehending suspicion. The folks who say Obama is secretly a Muslim terrorist are expressing an emotional state: they feel frightened, and they feel the government is not adequately defending them from the monsters under the bed. And so on.

So I don't put a lot of stock, really, in the lessons of nature as the real reason why folks believe such weirdly over-the-top things about sexual morality.

The attitude that all of morality is reflected only in the people one has sex with and the positions in which one does the deed is, I think, also a garbled expression of some deeper emotional state. I've talked to folks who hate and fear sex because it presses against their insecurities ("If my partner values sex highly, and I fall short in that department, then I might lose my partner!"), because it feels threatening (sex is, after all, a very powerful thing, and evokes very powerful feelings; anything powerful can be threatening); because we're taught to fear for our lives in the face of it (abstinence-only sex education in a nutshell: if you FUCK you will DIE!!!); because it can be intoxicating ("If I feel free to have sex when and where I want, I will soon lose control of my life, and sacrifice everything for sex!")...it's a mess, no mistake.

Now, don't get me wrong; sex and morality really are intimately tied up together. A great deal of someone's moral values are revealed by the way he treats his lovers, no question about it. It seems obvious to me that a lover who has had a thousand sexual partners and treated all of them well is far better a person than the lover who's had only one sexual partner but treated that person poorly. Seems obvious, right?

Of course, in the end, it doesn't really matter why folks do the things they do in the bedroom. People have all kinds of reasons for making all kinds of sexual decisions, and that's their own prerogative; for the most part, I don't care who the vast majority of the world chooses to fuck or not to fuck, and care even less for the reasons why they do it or don't do it. I'm content to concern myself with such things only within my own monkeysphere and let it go at that.

If other folks want to believe that a kindly Mother Nature, or an invisible man in the sky, or UFO aliens think they shouldn't be doing the nasty, that's actually fine with me. A bit silly, I might think, but no matter.

I do wish they'd extend the same courtesy to me, though.

What I'd like to propose, to the people who for whatever reason believe that sex is Bad And Wrong, is a simple and I think equitable arrangement: I won't come into your bedroom and make you fuck, and you won't come into my bedroom and make me not.

I think adoption of this simple principle would probably do much to change almost every aspect of society, culture, and ethical philosophy. Since all these things as they stand now are without fault, I fear this must argue against my proposal.

1 For some value of the word "reason."
2 If you're afraid of spiders, you really, really don't want to click that link.



( 51 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 28th, 2009 03:00 am (UTC)
You had me until I clicked on the goddamned spider.
Apr. 28th, 2009 12:08 pm (UTC)
I have learned, at least with Tacit, to read the WHOLE article before clicking or to not click at all.

If it says spiders, it usually is.

If it says "monkey rocker" It's usually a good thing to click.

Now if he puts a spider pic behind a monkey rocker hotlink, I will walk to his house and smack him myself.
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rake_blackguard - Apr. 28th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 28th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
To some extent, I think that's true, but only to some extent. Morality is inherently about how we relate to others--in a world with only one human being in it, there would be little in the way of moral problems--but at least part of it has to be a two-way street. I will interact with others in accordance with my moral principles, but I'd really prefer that others interact with me in ways I find moral as well.

In some cases, I have the ability to choose not to entangle myself with folks who don't, as with my former business partner, who I stopped associating with when he stole money from me. In others, though, there are people who have the power to inflict their actions on me without my active participation, and I'd prefer they have some set of ethical guidelines that's at least roughly compatible with my own.

This quickly becomes a monkeysphere issue, in many cases. Folks often have grossly different ethical guidelines for people inside their monkeysphere and people outside it--a used-car salesman who would never cheat his own mother might cheat a stranger without the slightest moral qualm whatsoever, and in fact might even sincerely believe there's nothing unethical about it.
Apr. 28th, 2009 04:03 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, your simple and equitable arrangement wouldn't be acceptable to those people. The same suggestion gets brought up in a variety of other contexts ("Against abortion? Don't have one.", "Against gay marriage? Don't have one.", etc.). These are people who don't view morality as a personal choice. They believe that these things are absolutes, that are equally true for everyone and that, having "discovered" the objective right and wrong for a given situation, they are not only entitled but obligated to attempt to prevent others from doing the "wrong" thing.
Apr. 28th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC)
Abortion is a different sort of case, though; if you have the damn-fool idea that a fetus is a person, then that slogan is equivalent to "Against murder? Don't kill anyone."

It's catchy, but it's not going to hold any weight with anyone who doesn't already agree.
(no subject) - brithistorian - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brithistorian - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thenanerbananer - Apr. 29th, 2009 11:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jonnymoon - Apr. 29th, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brithistorian - Apr. 29th, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jonnymoon - Apr. 29th, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brithistorian - Apr. 29th, 2009 10:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 28th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 28th, 2009 04:08 am (UTC)
There's a sneaky thing about human beings, though. We are not animals who reason; we are animals who rationalize.

This was actually the topic of my Master's paper. Nice to know I'm not the only one who's seen this deplorable fact for what it is.

Great essay, as usual, Franklin. Makes me have lots of thinky thoughts.
Apr. 28th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
I read "kinky thoughts" rather than "thinky thoughts" at first, and was about to ask a very silly question...
Apr. 28th, 2009 04:39 am (UTC)
Apr. 28th, 2009 05:30 am (UTC)
Nature gave us spiders because spiders are PRETTY.
Apr. 28th, 2009 06:37 am (UTC)
Hear hear!
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 28th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - the_xtina - Apr. 28th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 28th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 28th, 2009 10:40 am (UTC)
Sunday Sermon
Pandagon had a post up about morality and where it might come from that I think fits in with this discussion. http://pandagon.net/index.php/site/comments/sunday_sermon_does_morality_come_from_in_or_outside/
Apr. 28th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Sunday Sermon
Wow, intersting link, and probably worth a post in its own right.
Apr. 28th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)
That's probably not what you expect to hear after such a post, but -- I disagree with you!

"I won't come into your bedroom and make you fuck, and you won't come into my bedroom and make me not."
Did she actually come into your bedroom and tried to steal your flogger collection? No. All she did was that she argued with you on an Internet forum. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that.

Moral values are subjective by definition, but many people see as their moral duty to stand for their values -- in particular, to argue for them and explain them to others. The funny thing -- you are one of these people, Franklin. You argue for what you believe in: rationality, transhumanism, polyamory, etc. You don't just write in your own blog and website -- you also speak out in public forums in defense of your beliefs and values. So why is it OK for you not OK for her?

I know, you're probably going to say that a person's sexual behavior does not hurt anyone and therefore nobody has a right to say anything about it. But notice the subjective assumptions of this statement:
1) It is OK to speak out against a practice only as long as it is hurtful to oneself or others
2) Sexual behavior does not fall in the above category
These assumptions are very problematic.
Even if this woman agreed with you about (1), she'd never agree about (2). She believes that your immoral, promiscuous life is extremely hurtful to yourself and your lovers... so she has to speak out against it. Particularly due to the fact that you don't take any shame in your life and even brag about it -- so, God forbid, other people might be lured your sinful lifestyle... :-) She must speak out.

And you know what? I agree with her. This is the only thing I agree with her about: that she was right to argue with you.
Apr. 28th, 2009 11:55 am (UTC)
I agree with her right to say whatever she wants. However, Franklin wasn't saying she shouldn't say it, or that there was anything wrong with her saying it. He's disagreeing with her philosophy, and discussing why he disagrees.

And it's not that simple; people like this women are the ones who stand in the way of more acceptance for sexuality, for more funding for AIDS research, for approval of the HPV vaccine. They don't just spout their ignorant viewpoints in forums; it wouldn't be a problem if that's all they did.
(no subject) - petite_lambda - Apr. 28th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - petite_lambda - Apr. 29th, 2009 12:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jonnymoon - Apr. 29th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Obviously I'm not Franklin, but ... - awfulhorrid - Apr. 28th, 2009 12:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - petite_lambda - Apr. 28th, 2009 12:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Obviously I'm not Franklin, but ... - (Anonymous) - Apr. 30th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - petite_lambda - Apr. 29th, 2009 12:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 28th, 2009 11:48 am (UTC)
But she took that ordinary, dry little kernel of sex negativity and from it built a monument to sexual hostility that would make the architect of the Taj Mahal weep and gnash his teeth in artistic impotence.

I do so love your metaphors.

Her rationale makes a twisted sort of sense. People like her can't come to terms with the fact that Bad Things Happen to Good People - shit, they happen to everyone - and has thus come up with a philosophy in which if you simply avoid sex (something, I'm guessing, she probably doesn't like anyway, and thus feels left out) you will live a long and happy life, nothing bad will happen to you, and you'll go to heaven. It seems strange, but like a lot of other religious philosophy, it's comforting because it promises you that you can have control over your fate, that you aren't subject to random accidents, that God Has a Plan For You, and if you only behave by these rules, everything will turn out for the best, and it's only people that violate them that get hurt.

Never mind babies turned blind by herpes or your Good Samaritan with AIDS - I'm sure in her estimation those are just exceptions that prove the rule, and they were probably Bad People anyway, right?
Apr. 28th, 2009 02:07 pm (UTC)
Well said, my friend. i would like to throw in a corollary or three as well:

a) this is among the same set, or a subset of, the more-right leaning/primitivist Christian peoples who believe that disease means God is pissed off at you; they never seem to think-- or argue vehemently against-- the idea that 1) bacteria and virii are a part of God's creation, and thus have every right to be here, as much as we do, and 2) are prolly under the same commandments as us as well (chiefly, go forth and multiply). Their mechanism of multiplication just happens to be infecting us and making us sick.

b) according to some of Rouquelierre's ideas (an out of the way 15th century French theologian), one of the reasons sex and morality go hand in hand so often and so well is because the first thing we see God do in all but a very select few of the world's religious texts is create life; since our proceative skills bring us closer to the Divine and are, indeed, one of the only aspects of our divinity we have maintained throughout our history as a species, the main vehicle for that-- sex-- should be handled with a certain amount of awe and caution. This dovetails nicely with the fact that in most religious doctrines, sex is one of the first things we are beaten over the head with and about.

And lastly, c) moralists are paranoid about justifying their position in such a way as to tell everyone else that if they don't agree with them (the moralists), then they are somehow wrong and/or bad and/or destined for Hell. This seems to be the same across the board, whether we're talking about sex, dietary standards, or who and who not to associate with.

Personally-- if God didn't want us to do the nasty, He shoulda left that poor, cute couple who had to travel to Bethlehem to pay taxes and register for the census alone. Or, at the very least, kept His mouth shut about it.
Apr. 28th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)
Damn. To know now that I could have claimed the moral high ground and been inculpable in any situation had I simply not fucked around...!!

Apr. 28th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
Awesome post.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 28th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
The thing that's interesting about the idea of that making you "fake" is the underlying tacit assumption that the emotional response must be what's real.

I find it very interesting--and have been considering writing an essay about--the cultural notion we have that our emotions are always what's real. There are echoes of this assumption in statements like "every emotion is valid"--something which I think is absolutely, positively false.

Our ideas can be wrong; our thoughts can be wrong; why don't we recognize that sometimes, our emotions can be wrong?
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 28th, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - Apr. 29th, 2009 06:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 28th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
Apr. 28th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
My sneaking suspicion is that human beings, like our amorous bonobo cousins, had, at one time, expressed ourselves much more sexually with one another. I don't think our longing for intimate contact with multiple partners has changed. We have, however, learned to feel a certain measure of guilt and apprehension about it. My theory is that today's strict sexual controls evolved alongside the organisms that began to take advantage of early man's promiscuity. Rather than instruct people to be more discerning, religious and cultural leaders instead took the hard line (maybe not initially, but eventually). Those who wished to remain within the good graces of their neighbors complied with the new regulations and shunned those who refused. That which was once good in the interest of public safety became bad.
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