Liberalism versus Sex

In the USA, it’s customary to divide the political spectrum into liberal and conservative, where “liberal”= “left” and “conservative”=”right.”  This tends to leave Americans perplexed when they hear people in other countries denouncing hypercapitalist economic policies as neoliberal or ultraliberal.  The easiest way I’ve found of explaining this usage to my countrymen is to mention H. G. Wells.   When Wells visited America in 1906, he remarked that the United States lacked two of the three major political parties that existed almost everywhere in Europe.  One of these was a socialist party.  While there was a socialist movement in the USA in 1906, no socialist party was a leading contender for power in national politics.  The other missing party was a conservative party.  Not only was there no major contender for power in the USA that stood for monarchy, an established church, and the traditional relationship between peasant and aristocracy; there was no constituency in American society that could possibly demand such a platform.  The parties that Wells did find in America would in the UK have been represented by the left and right wings of the Liberal Party:

It is not difficult to show for example, that the two great political parties in America represent only one English political party, the middle-class Liberal Party, the party of industrialism and freedom.  There is no Tory Party to represent the feudal system, and no Labor Party… All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another.  (The Future in America: A Search after Realities, pages 73-74)

Liberalism, in all its forms, holds out the promise of a social order based on reason.  Left liberals, including some who call themselves Greens or Social Democrats, want to reform the public sphere so that rational dialogue among individuals will dominate politics, and through politics rational dialogue will provide a meeting ground where a diverse population can live together peacefully.  Right liberals, including some who call themselves Conservatives or Libertarians, want to reform the economic system so that the rational self-interest of individuals will dominate the marketplace, and through the marketplace rational self-interest will generate an free and orderly society.  In either form, liberalism places its faith in the power of reason.

Such a faith can be very comfortable indeed.  Liberals left and right sometimes annoy their opponents by seeming so “terribly at ease in Zion.”  Even the most complacent liberal, however, can hardly fail to notice that some extremely important areas of human life do not seem to invite reason’s governance.  Among the most obvious examples is sexual behavior.  Decades ago, science fiction writer Robert Sheckley imagined what a perfectly rational lover would be like; in his 1957 story “The Language of Love,” Sheckley presented a character named Jefferson Toms who learned how to make love without compromising reason in any way.  Toms discovers why the species that invented this art went extinct when he finds that no potential lover can tolerate his scrupulously accurate endearments.

Of course, Jefferson Toms’ namesake Thomas Jefferson was at once one of the supreme exponents of the liberal tradition and a man who likely followed his sexual urges to betray every principle that tradition exalted.  When they consider sexual behavior, liberals typically speak of “consent.”  That “consent” is a technical term which has little meaning outside the legal processes where it arose becomes clear when we speculate on what may have happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  As Jefferson’s slave, Hemings could not legally consent to enter a sexual relationship with him, or with anyone else.  The law of a liberal society would thus label any sex act in which she participated as rape.  Hemings may indeed have experienced her encounters with Jefferson as rape.  We certainly don’t know enough to defend him in any way.  But surely it must give us pause to realize that our idea of “consent” implies that none of the billions of human beings who have lived as slaves has ever engaged in a wholesome sex act.  A non-liberal Right might claim that this implication reduces the whole liberal project to absurdity, and throws us back to traditional definitions of social roles, rather than individual self-determination, as the proper standard for judging the moral status of any action, sexual or otherwise.

A non-liberal Left might respond differently, but with equal certitude that it had found a fatal flaw in liberalism.  In our own times, Catharine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin exposed the shallowness of the notions of “consent” that underpin liberal definitions of rightful sexual behavior.*  Those notions imagine a man and a woman facing each other as equals and deciding, by a rational process, whether they will engage in a particular sex act.  At a minimum, an act can be consensual if and only if both parties are consenting to the same thing.  This in fact never happens, nor can it happen in a patriarchal society.  Wherever men as a group are recognized as dominant and women as a group are labeled as submissive, a man will gain power over women and status among other men if he extorts sex from women, while a woman will pay a price for resisting this extortion.  Because of these facts, men and women make such radically different cost/benefit analyses before agreeing to sex that the parties can never be said to have consented to the same thing.  For this reason, Dworkin wanted to excise the word “consent” from rape laws.

When liberals turn from “consent” and other legalisms, their attempts to say something useful about sex tend to consist of retreats into the therapeutic disciplines.  I think I see a bit of this in the subhed assigned to JoAnn Wypijewski’s column in the latest issue of The Nation,  “Masturbation is normal, natural, and good for you.”  Authors don’t write their own headlines, of course, and the great theme of Wypijewski’s work is the failure of liberalism to prevent the American political system from criminalizing a wide and growing array of sexual behaviors.    Still, even she does show some signs of the idea that the therapeutic disciplines can save us from the nightmares that an irrational politics has brought upon us.  She opens the column with quotes from nineteenth century medical professionals who solemnly pronounced masturbation to be an immensely destructive force, then turns to the results of the latest National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, a study periodically conducted by researchers affiliated with Indiana University at Bloomington.  When Wypijewski points out that the current political debate surrounding Delaware US Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell is driven by views very similar to those quoted at the beginning of the column, she expresses a fond hope:

If the Indiana survey simply blows a hole in the notion that masturbating is always and everywhere a lonesome practice, and thus forwards the fact that self-abuse is often also a lesson in self-knowledge, corporal mysteries, erotic response and how-to-have-fun-with-a-friend, maybe we can finally be done with shame, and with the coy and irksome way the press talks about this very homely pleasure.

The survey gives hope for a more humane approach to this most widespread of human practices because it is better science than the antiquated notions O’Donnell and her followers still expound.  What could be more rational, and therefore more likely to bring on a liberal utopia, than science?  Nothing but newer, fresher, better science.

It would of course be unfair to leave it at that, as if there were nothing in Wypijewski’s column but a reaffirmation of a liberal faith in the reasonable society.  She expresses perfectly something I’ve long been trying to put into words.  When the Republican Party of Delaware chose as its candidate for the US Senate a woman whose main occupation had been the fervent denunciation of sexual behavior in which virtually every one of her prospective constituents had engaged and which could not possibly have done any of them the slightest harm, the response was as follows:

Gasbags of the right waved off as irrelevant the fact that the most notable aspect of their girl’s résumé is a career obsession with sex, while liberals only tittered and sneered.

In an essay accompanying some of the Indiana study data in The Journal of Sexual Medicine Joycelyn Elders** wrote, “We have finally included masturbation in our national conversation and as a result stopped checking our hands for growing hair”; you wouldn’t know it from the days and nights of talk-media devoted to winks and nudges over the adventures of young Christine. If there was a liberal commentator who took sex as seriously as O’Donnell had in her passionate abnegation, only from the other side, I missed it. No one said, Come on, masturbation is one of the great, free joys of life; powerful, relaxing, instructive too; as common as rain and as good for you. No one punctured the absurdity of public squeamishness on the issue and argued plainly, like the Spanish socialists in Extremadura with their campaign for youth, that “pleasure is in your own hands!”

Instead, it was 1994 all over again. The liberals laughed not because they’re so at ease with the subject but because they’re so embarrassed by it. Everything in the tone of discussion made masturbating somehow weird and vaguely dirty, a compulsion of the young and consolation of the lonely, perhaps; but in that a little disgusting too, a little sad, not quite sex, never as good as “sex,” almost unspeakable, really.

Here Wypijewski corners the liberal tradition in its last hiding place.  Having failed to convince anyone that sex can be governed by the rational processes they want to enshrine as the first principles of just social organization, liberals have retreated into law, then into the therapeutic disciplines.  Smoked out of that redoubt, they have called on their last defense, and tried to laugh the problem out of court.  But that simply will not do.  Sex is one of the most consequential parts of life.  A school of thought which does not allow its adherents to talk about sex seriously is a school of thought which dooms its adherents to a perpetual preadolescence.

Must we then abandon liberalism?  I certainly hope not.  So little remains of feudalism or any other pre-capitalist social order that the old Conservatism is an absurdity.  And whatever virtues the PSOE may exhibit in its twitting of the Vatican (a pastime it inherited from the world’s first self-described Liberal party, the anticlerical Liberales who were behind Spain’s 1812 Constitution,)  Socialism as a tradition is at least as deeply compromised as is Liberalism.  In the absence of any of these traditions, the rule of law, free inquiry, social equality, and all the other aspirations that make social life tolerable  are likely to perish as well.

So, in this century we will have to answer a question: does liberalism have within itself the intellectual resources to develop a form of moral reasoning that can take sex seriously, on its own terms?  That is to say, can people who disagree about questions of sexual morality find in liberalism tools with with they can make sense of each other’s positions, learn from each other, and potentially change their minds about those questions in doing so?  If not, then the liberal tradition will likely not survive into the 22nd century.

*Martha Nussbaum wants to claim Dworkin and MacKinnon for liberalism, and in the 1980s an apparently infinite number of right-wingers wanted to use them as sticks with which to beat left liberalism.  Of these latter, I would mention only Allan Carlson, both because Carlson distinguishes himself from the rest by actually bothering to find out what Dworkin and MacKinnon had written  and responding to their works, and because his associate Anthony Gancarski wrote a remarkably intelligent obituary of Dworkin for The American Conservative.

**In 1994, Dr Elders was nominated for the post of US Surgeon General, a nomination which the US president of the day withdrew when it was revealed that Dr Elders had publicly given it as her medical opinion that masturbation was a normal practice.

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