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.