The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to invent scenarios that test our moral intuitions. He will ask research participants to listen to a story, give their opinion on it, and then explain their reasoning.
Here is one such scenario: imagine a man goes to a supermarket and buys himself a whole dead chicken. He takes it home, has sex with it, and then eats it. No one else ever finds out. Did he do anything wrong?
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Haidt has several other scenarios concerned with sexual morality. Is it ok for a brother and sister to have sex, if they use multiple forms of contraception, and no one else knows about it? Or, to use a real scenario, is it ok for a man to consent to being eaten by another man, for the purposes of sexual gratification?
The psychologist reports that his participants’ responses tend to be affected by their political allegiances. Social conservatives generally give swift, confident answers, because they are able to appeal to values like sanctity and authority. For them, having sex with a dead chicken or a sibling obviously violates religious or traditionalist moral principles and is therefore unacceptable. End of story.
Liberals have more difficulty: they want to say that the acts are wrong, because they are instinctively disgusted by them, but the scenarios are designed to prevent any appeal to J.S. Mill’s harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
In the chicken example, for instance, it is difficult to identify anyone who has been harmed by the man’s behaviour, since the chicken, being dead, can’t be harmed, and other people, being ignorant of the act, can’t be harmed either. The man is simply exercising his sexual autonomy, which means that, as Haidt puts it, “if your moral matrix is limited to the ethic of autonomy, then you’re at high risk of being dumbfounded by this case.”
Not everyone is dumbfounded. The American anthropologist Gayle Rubin, for instance — a key figure in the sex-positive feminist movement that emerged in the 1980s — would, I imagine, be unbothered by the chicken scenario, just as she is unbothered by unusual sexual behaviour in general. “Ultimately, of what possible social significance is it if a person likes to masturbate over a shoe?” Rubin writes, “in Western culture, sex is taken all too seriously”.
Rubin is radical in her liberalism. She famously rejects the idea of “good” or “bad” sexual behaviour, interpreting such moralising as inherently oppressive. To her mind, sex does not need to involve either love or commitment, and it certainly needn’t have any connection to marriage or reproduction. The only thing that matters to sex-positive feminists like Rubin is whether or not all parties are able and willing to consent to a particular sex act. All other sexual morality must be discarded — indeed, one group that was influential early on in arguing for the destigmatisation of commercial sex made the point crystal clear with their choice of name: COYOTE, “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.”
Within the last 40 years, sex-positivism has been remarkably successful within academia and the media, to the point that it is now the dominant ideology among liberal feminists, who are themselves the dominant feminist sect. The moral minimalism that comes from holding only to the principle of consent results in certain policy positions.
For instance, the neutral or even positive attitude that liberal feminists take towards transactional sex leads them to support the decriminalisation or legalisation of porn and prostitution, including pimping, as long as all participants consent. BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism) is also permissible, according to the principle of consent — in fact, some argue that BDSM relationships are preferable to “vanilla” ones because explicit discussions of consent are (supposed to be) front-and-centre within the community. A rejection of traditional sexual morality or “Old Tired Ethics” also encourages a positive attitude towards casual sex, polyamory, fetishes and more.
On university campuses sex-positive liberal feminism is currently the order of the day, along with its various trappings. At the beginning of term, freshers are given a lecture on the importance of consent and sent on their way with “I heart consent” badges and tote bags. The rule they’re taught is simple enough: with consent, anything goes.
But while threesomes, nipple clamps and butt plugs may now be acceptable topics of conversation on campus, there still remains a frightening taboo: the fact of innate, average differences between men and women when it comes to sexuality. The research evidence is clear — we know that men, on average, prefer to have more sex and with a larger number of partners, that fetishes are far more common with men, that sex buyers are almost exclusively male, that men watch a lot more porn than women do, and that the vast majority of heterosexual women do not orgasm during casual sex and mostly say that they would prefer a committed relationship, if given the option. All in all, the evidence demonstrates that the acts that sex-positive feminism encourages are acts that men are much more likely to enjoy.
These differences make perfect, intuitive sense when you reflect on male and female reproductive roles. Of course the group of people left literally holding the baby are going to have evolved to be pickier about mating partners, and of course the other half, who are able to pass on their genetic material painlessly and in a matter of minutes, are more likely to have a preference for sowing their wild oats.
The uncomfortable truth is that, up until the arrival of reliable contraception — about five minutes ago, in evolutionary terms — sex was much riskier and costlier for women than it was for men. And as Mary Harrington writes in these pages, “ignoring our animal nature in favour of an abstract vision of egalitarianism has ended up disproportionately harming women”.
But you can’t say this in sex-positive circles, where a belief in the blank slate mandates that any differences in male and female behaviour be explained as solely a consequence of socialisation. So when inexperienced young women are encouraged by liberal feminism to behave exactly as men would like them to, and find themselves feeling used, violated and miserable — as they often do — they have no way of understanding what is happening to them, or recognising that the system is rigged.
This cognitive dissonance can lead to some strange places. Last week, there was the predictable social media outrage after liberal feminist writer Heather O’Neill wrote: “If you have sex with someone knowing full well it is going to be a one time thing, but the other person believes they are embarking on a relationship, I don’t think you can really consider the sex consensual. (Although this opinion gets me into trouble at dinner parties.)”
O’Neill was widely mocked as an extremist and a fool. I think she’s wrong to stretch the definition of “consent” to breaking point, but I have some sympathy for her viewpoint. Many liberal feminist women are sincerely unhappy with the sexual status quo, but they struggle to reconcile their unhappiness with their ideology. And since the only moral principle left standing under the reign of sex-positivism is the need for consent, this principle must be put to work in order to explain away their feelings.
O’Neill is correctly identifying a problem — the fact that horny and unscrupulous men (“fuckboys” in contemporary slang) will regularly manipulate naive women into casual sex that leaves the women feeling wretched. Such sex isn’t illegal, since the women do say “yes”, but it’s unpleasant and unkind. It’s immoral, in other words, but this is not a term that liberal feminists feel comfortable using, given its icky associations with religious conservatism, and so the only vocabulary left available to O’Neill is that relating to consent.
Liberal feminists have got their premises wrong. A moral system based solely on consent is inadequate because the presence of consent is such a very, very low bar — an absolute bare minimum requirement, not an ideal. Given the profound importance and complexity of sexual relationships, a much larger and more sophisticated moral system is required to determine what good, not just legal, sexual behaviour looks like, and the Gayle Rubins of the world are not best placed to describe it.
Liberal women are being asked to rationalise away their moral intuitions — to believe that a punch to the face can be a sign of love, that “catching feelings” for a sexual partner is something to be resisted, and that consent is all that matters. When it comes to sex, the ideological toolbox put together by liberal feminism contains just one blunt, useless implement. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t up to the job.
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