In Armistead Maupin’s 1978 soap opera novel Tales of the City, almost every character (gay and straight) is busy having one night stands in San Francisco. At one point, Brian and Mouse wonder if the next generation of young people will rebel by reverting to Victorianism. But it wasn’t a serious question. It was a silly question they could laugh about.
But on second thought…
The sexual revolution, consent, and objectification
Raja Halwani, writing for Aeon.co, says that “sexual desire is objectifying – and hence morally wrong.” But he’s not a conservative Christian longing for a return to traditional values.
The left embraced sexual freedom in the 1960s. Today, only a minority of people think premarital sex is wrong, and a slight majority support same sex marriage.
Our grandparents had clarity: if you’re not married heterosexuals then sex is wrong. But as the clearly defined boundaries of the 1950s blurred, sexual assault and rape increased (though these crimes have decreased since the 1990s). And men seemed to benefit more from the sexual revolution because women still had to worry about being labeled a slut.
No means no and increasing awareness about the objectification of women were two responses. But no means no has a loophole. Some claimed that if she didn’t say yes but didn’t no then it’s not rape.
This problem lead to yes means yes. The lack of no is insufficient for consent. But what if the yes is nonverbal? Is that really yes? What if she said yes but later says she felt pressured?
It was decided that the yes must be enthusiastic. But even this is problematic. How enthusiastic? And how do you measure adequate enthusiasm?
There are more gray areas. Do these guidelines apply equally for women to seek men’s consent? If both are equally drunk (but not incapacitated) and agree to have sex, but both regret it the next morning, is only the man at fault? What if the woman initiated? What if the couple is lesbian or gay? Who’s at fault then?
The simple solution: sex is bad
We’re not achieving the clarity our grandparents had. Halwani, however, takes progressive thought to a new level: sex is wrong because sex almost always involves objectification. And, “not even love can fix it.”
So, we’ve come full circle. Sorry, Brian and Mouse, but you may have been more right than you thought.
This line of progressive thought converges with some conservative ideologies. I was raised Catholic. The Church teaches that sex is for procreation and must only happen within the bonds of sacramental marriage.
How did the Catholic Church come to that conclusion? Was it misogyny? Were the Church fathers obsessed with controlling others? These are common progressive beliefs.
But maybe, 2,000 years ago the Church came to a similar conclusion as Halwani is coming to today. Sexuality is such a delicate subject that nothing but firm and clear boundaries will minimize human suffering. Of course, we know that’s not true either, but that’s tangential.
Instead of objectification, the Church spoke about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the potential for sex to profane that temple. Both notions are concerned that sex can be dehumanizing. So the Church, like Halwani, decided that sex necessarily means compromising one’s purity, or in modern terms being objectified.
Celibacy, or voluntary asexuality today (in contrast to asexuals who actually have no sex drive), is the only way to avoid this compromise. Of course, we need babies for the human species to continue, so Catholic celibacy is for the elite. But the compromise of allowing sex for common folks must be small. Sex must only happen within a Church sanctioned marriage, and it must be about procreation (or at least not artificially close off that possibility). Homosexuality, then, is an obvious abuse of sex because it can serve no other purpose than using someone for your own pleasure.
Will Neo-Victorianism become a thing?
Will progressives latch on to Halwani’s conclusion that sex is inherently wrong? If so, what specific sexual mores will they advocate? Only time will tell.
But I have my doubts. People like sex. The Catholic Church’s strict standards failed – sometimes with horrific consequences like the recent sex abuse scandal. Nineteenth century Victorianism didn’t succeed either.
Instead, there might be a fringe group of voluntary asexual progressives who hold themselves up as an elite, similar to vegan’s dietary strictness. But they won’t gain mass appeal. And certainly pop culture won’t embrace Neo-Victorianism – sex sells, after all.