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Sex Redux

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I’m calling this post Sex Redux because I think I’ve already got a post back there somewhere called Sex, but I can’t find it this morning, which is not surprising.  I’m writing from a really bang up new computer at school, because we’re having classes this Saturday morning, in spite of the fact that we had a major snow storm yesterday, and getting here was like negotiating a county-wide ski run, and exactly one of my students showed up.  But, you know, we’ve got to look rigorous where it doesn’t really matter.

Okay.  I can’t get started on that now.  Next week.  On to sex.

Here’s the thing–societies regulate sex.  All societies regulate sex.  In fact, it seems to be the first thing most soceities do do.  Before they have writing, before they have a division of labor in anything else, they’ve got rules about sex.

We have rules about sex, too, and always have.  And those rules fluctuate, and always have.  For all the blithwering that gets done about how “repressive” society was about sex before us, it had in fact gone through several repressive and less than repressive periods, in a big wheel.  Renaissance Europe didn’t bat an eye over homosexuality, or–let’s be real here–about sex between grown men and adolescent boys, activity our own supposedly more tolerant society will not stomach.  When I was in grade school, I used to wonder how those colonial New England couples managed to bundle all night without getting themselves into trouble.  In graduate school, I found out they didn’t–there were just lots and lots of pregnant brides in Calvinist churches.

Originally, we regulated sex by considering the job of the public authorities to be to validate some kinds and invalidate others.  That is, formal marriage defined that sex that was considered “licit,” and the reasons for making it licit had nothing to do with love or desire.  Marriage was a public act, instituted to insure the legitimacy of children or, barring that–and there was a lot of barring that–to secure the rights of children born in wedlock to their father’s property, while at the same time excluding children born “illegitimately” from those same rights.  There were lots of illegitimate children, of course, and quite often their fathers had no trouble both recognizing them and providing for them, but the law confined validation to what went with a formal, public marriage.

A lot has changed, of course, since the Victorian period.  Men and women don’t think of their marriages as “public acts” any more.  If you ask any stray fifty people on the street what marriage is all about, they’ll tell you it’s about “love” or something of the kind.  Keith Olberman did an on-line editorial on gay marriage on his Countdown program on MSNBC, and it was all about the government (or voters voring in favor of Prop 8), legislating “love.”

And he’s hardly the first person to make the mistake, and it is a mistake–feminist groups in the 1970s got a lot of bang for the buck by printing the legal status of marriage in their states and passing it out for women to read.  The law did not, at that point, and in most states does not now, recognize “love” as a reason or basis for marriage, and it didn’t care whether you and your spouse got along at all.

Still, people change, societies change, and this is one genie that is not going to get put back into the box. Even Pope John Paul II recognized the shift in sensibilities, which is why we have his ‘theology of the body,” an approach to marriage that would have caused any medieval Pope to be struck dumb. 

And it’s not just that we’ve “advanced” morally or socially.  We’ve changed in fundamental, technological ways that need to be taken into account.  We no longer need marriage to legitimate children, for instance, because we’ve got DNA.  DNA can tell us who is actually the child’s father, and when it turns out that Joe isn’t, he’s shocked as hell to find out that the law still considers him to be.  He’s who was married to the mother when the kid was born, tag, he’s it.

There are people who believe that the social regulation of sex was and is mostly about controlling the sexuality of women or, to expand the range a little, to uphold the sexual privileges of heterosexual men.  If that were the case, however, or the main case, many of the rules societies have come up with would make little or no sense.  Monogamous marriage, for instance, is actually  very bad news for alpha males, and not much better news for women. 

At least as strong as the issue of determining which children a male is responsible for, then, I think that social regulation of sex is about defining what it means to be human, as opposed to animal.  Sex is the crux of the mind-body problem.  It is definitively part of our animal, rather than our intellectual, natures, and unlike other of our animal functions–eating, say, or defecating–it often produces a kind of mental derangement that reduces us to sensation.

And therein, you see, likes the problem–or at the intersection of that and our present cultural moment.  Man in a state of nature was morally innocent, Rousseau said, and the Romantics responded by declaring the “natural” to be the good.

Come to the second half of the twentieth century, or the first half of the twenty first, and we find people confidently declaring that it is a good thing to be “polymorphously perverse,” that all sexuality ought to be accepted because it goes to the core of what and who we truly are, that it is morally wrong to disapprove of homseoxual practice or to try to regulate sexual relations between “consenting adults” at all.

At which point, we run smack into Fred and Rosemary West.

Fred and Rosemary West weren’t the first couple to get caught doing what they did, and they weren’t the last.  The first I ever heard of were another British pair, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, and then there was another pair in Canada.  But there will be more. 

Fred and Rosemary West had a hobby.  There was a bus stop just outside their house in Glouchester, and they would periodically befriend runaway teen-age girls waiting there, take them home, drug them, tie them up, torture them, rape them, murder them, and they put the bodies in the poured concrete of Fred’s endless DIY projects in the basement.  Oh, and they taped the whole thing.  Did I mention that?

The modern response to Fred and Rosemary West is to decalre what they’ve done “unnatural,” by which we mean, these days, neurotic or psychotic, the result not of natural drives but of psychological illness.  We have the same explanation for most of the kinds of sex we don’t like, for one reason or another–for pedophilia, for instance, or for what we like to call pedophilia but isn’t, meaning sex with post pubescent teen-aagers who have yet to reach the latest age of consent.

There are good reasons to ban these activities  that have nothing to do with their “naturalness” or otherwise, but “naturalness” is the place we’ve decided to take our stand, and that’s what’s getting us into so much trouble. 

Homosexuality certainly seems to be “natural” to the human race, or some proportion to it, in the sense that it exists in all societies at all times among a subset of the population.  It seems to exist in most species of mammals under at least some conditions, too.  The Renaissance Church knew this, which is why it would never have made the mistake of the modern Church and said that homosexuality was “gravely disordered.”  As far as the Renaissance Church was concerned, all human sexuality was “gravely disordered” as a result of the Fall, and one kind of disorder was no more shocking than any other.

But if you can’t regulate homsexuality on the grounds of its being “unnatural,” I don’t think you can tolerate it on those grounds, either.  Contrary to contemporary popular wisdom, lots of truly repugnant sexual practices are also natural, just as heterosexuality is natural–that is, they are biological phenomena that do not require illness of any kind to emerge into a population.  Rape is natural.  And as for that thing with the adult men and the post pubescent teenagers, it’s been the custom in most of the world for most of history to marry off girls as soon as they hit puberty.  At, for instance, thirteen.

The usual response to all this is to say “sex is okay as long as it’s between consenting adults” because “otherwise, we cause harm.”  But, for God’s sake, define “harm.”  When I was in high school, two of the girls in my class had “relationships” with much older men.  In both cases, the girls enjoyed those relationships and now, forty years later, look back on them fondly and as generally positive experiences.   We are not, however, about to make such relationships legal, and in fact have become more and more harsh by the day on the adults men involved in them.

Neither “naturalness” nor “harm” is a workable basis for sexual rulemaking, not unless we want to allow a lot of things we don’t, and shouldn’t.  We make sexual rules as a way to define our humanity–to wall off “human” behavior from “animal” behavior.  Let’s start there and see what we come up with.

As for “gay marraige,” if we are going to define marriage in terms of love, we have to allow it.  And if the law is meant to keep the peace, and not to establish morality of one kind or another, then the law must recognize those arrangements it needs to recognize in order to function.  I live in a state where the vast majority of people willing to adopt and raise HIV positive children are gay couples.  I say we need to regularize those unions for a dozen reasons having to do with streamlining the law and safeguarding the rights of those children. 

But don’t talk to me about “natural” any more.  The snow storm that just hit my part of the country is “natural.”  I’ve been plotting ways to abolish nor’easters all morning…

Written by janeh

December 20th, 2008 at 11:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Sex Redux'

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  1. Can’t argue the basic point: as human activities go, rape and murder are as natural as they come, though robbery and slavery are equally widespread and have a similarly long pedigree. One might say the whole point of law and custom is to keep people from doing many things which come naturally to us–and sometimes more so to us than other animals, which is why I’m a little suspicious of permitting “human” behavior. Most of our worst behaviors are very human. They practicallly define us.

    As for which things to permit and forbid and why, it helps to think of the regulation in terms of societal good. That’s not a popular concept these days, and when it does show up, it’s sometimes a pretext, but it’s certainly true that not all sets of laws and customs make for equally safe, stable and prosperous communities. On paper, our federal structure should favor experimentation, but that only works if the Supremes don’t discover a “right” regardless of societal harm.

    On adoption, I would think better of our society if the best interests of the children came up more often in the debate, and the rights of would-be adoptive parents and unwed fathers less often. Sadly, that might require nuanced law and individual judgements rather than slogans and sweeping decrees. The sexual preferences of the would-be adoptive parents is probably irrelevant for that HIV-positive newborn or toddler. That’s NOT the case with a 12 year old “older adoptee,” but defining adoption as a right blurs that cirtical distinction. That is, however, how I expect the issue to be fought out.

    I would, of course, be happy to be wrong.

    robert_piepenbrink

    20 Dec 08 at 8:05 pm

  2. I think I’m at the point where I don’t know what marriage is anymore. Oh, I have a pretty good grasp of the various ideas on what marriage *should* be, including the range of religious views, but none of them seem to reflect what I see happening among the younger generations (ACK! It seems like only yesterday that I WAS the younger generation!) For them, marriage doesn’t seem to signify more than a party, although they don’t like to admit as much, and the fashion in weddings has gotten steadily more elaborate and expensive in recent years.

    A rite of passage into adulthood? The formation of a sexual relationship? The formation of a publicly-recognized sexual relationship? The formation of a new family unit and/or extension of the birth one? The birth and (sometimes) raising of children? All these normally occur long before any of the paperwork gets done or the party is organized. The only thing missing is the religious one – whether you think of it in terms of getting God’s blessing or carryingout his will or whatever. A church ceremony is usually part of the big party, but I’ve known or heard of that being chosen becuase (a) Granny would be upset if we didn’t (b) that specific church looks good in pictures/ has a central aisle for the procession / it is near the reception/ there’s good parking there.

    Anyway, I think common-law is far more accepted in Canada than in the US, so technically (not so technically actually, if there’s a breakup and a fight about property or custody) a couple is married basically if they say and act like they are, and can and do file join income tax returns etc without the ceremony – so what’s the point of the ceremony? It doesn’t regulate sex or anything else; it’s tacked on, often years after the relationship is established. And yet, it seems to intensely important to a lot of couples.

    I don’t get it. Mind you, I’d pay good money to AVOID a big formal party, and in my family, marriages are usually in the form of an elopement – the couple and a witness or two go off to a minister (or, nowadays, a marriage commissioner), get married, announce it, and maybe have a dinner in a restaurant with their closest friends and relatives later. Or maybe not.

    I do think that the interests of children should override family re-unification and culturally appropriate foster care in some cases. That has absolutely nothing to do the HIV+ children or gay parents and everything to do with a few high profile cases in Canada having gone fatally wrong – for the child.

    I shouldn’t keep up with the news; it’s too depressing. If you’re wondering where that came from – at least Phoenix Sinclair’s mother and stepfather won’t be engaging in child care for a long, long time – if ever. And there have been other cases – the child in Toronto who was given into the care of a violent person at her mother’s request and without the judge looking into the foster parent’s background..

    cperkins

    21 Dec 08 at 9:00 am

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