Liberty, Justice, and Sexual Ethics

Last week, I talked about Queer Theory and how plastic and socially constructed sexuality is. Today I want to follow up by reflecting how ethics interacts with all of that.

In my lifetime, the acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ people has changed a lot. There’s been dramatic expansion of sexual liberty. Yes, there’s still fear and hatred. As of last spring, there were “more than 400 proposed bills in states across the U.S. that aim to restrict the rights, freedom and fair treatment of LGBTQ people.” Liberty can be frightening -- and what we're seeing is the backlash against the dramatic expansion of sexual liberty. What might help address the fears is to understand that universal acceptance of LGBTQ people would not mean anything goes, would not mean there were no longer any standards of sexual ethics. But the principles of sexual ethics that serve us now are different from those in the past.

The ways that we love – with whom and how we express love – are so intensely personal and private, yet societies have always sought to regulate, to channel, the energies of romantic attraction because those energies can be destructive: violent, abusive. Human libidos can disrupt social harmony. Love should be personal and private, yet we need guidelines to define and protect that space because the drives that can express in love can also express in ways that harm and are socially disruptive.

Liberty is a tremendous good – and at the same time society has an interest in fostering stable relationships. Free ranging sexual energies – like the stereotype from earlier generations of sailors on shore leave, looking for a good time and getting into fights – can be harmful. A whole society of everyone acting like that would be miserable and unsustainable.

Love needs liberty, yet it also needs justice. Cornel West, speaking about general social justice, said that justice is what love looks like in public. We can add that romantic love needs to be what justice looks like in private.

In the world into which I was born – the world of the 1950s – the prevailing attitude was that sexuality be channeled through recognizable forms of courtship and into heterosexual marriage. Sexual ethics used to be simply: Only within marriage. And marriage was understood as a set of five tightly-linked features:
  • creation of a household of two adults;
  • sexual exclusivity to within that household;
  • production of babies;
  • raising of the children; and
  • perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines.
That was the package deal. And, naturally, the two adults had to consist of one woman and one man because that was what producing babies required. Being married implied all five of those things -- most of the time: a two-adult household, sexual exclusivity, making babies, raising them, passing on genes. If, every once in a while, an infertile man or woman got married, or a couple past child-bearing age, that was OK. As long as that was the exception to the rule, the basic model (that those five went together), remained intact.

The sexual ethic, then, was to support the package deal, to uphold the idea that any one of those five parts ought to imply all of the other four as well. So the ethic of the time declared: don’t make babies outside a two-adult, sexually exclusive household – but do enter into two-adult exclusive households, and, once there, do make and raise children. Those were the norms. Thus, the sexual ethic included such principles as no premarital sex, no extramarital sex, and no sex that wasn’t the kind that procreates.

Over the course of my lifetime, those previously inextricable features of marriage came apart -- and with that dissolution the old sexual ethic has faded. The arrival of reliable birth control was a huge change, and that’s been within my lifetime. The year I was born, 1959, was also the year the pharmaceutical company Searle sought FDA approval for the birth control pill. I was a toddler when The Pill came on the market, and of course had no idea what that was all about or how it would change things. Reliable birth control meant that otherwise fertile opposite-sex couples could, as they chose, form a household together without producing or raising babies.

At the same time, various other social forces have brought about a rise in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families resulting from producing and raising children without two adults making a household together.

You can have marriage without sex, and sex without marriage (which has always been fairly common but in recent decades has lost much of the stigma it used to have). You can have sex without babies and babies without sex – the former through the aforementioned new technology of birth control, and the latter through new technologies of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Through adoption, you can propagate your genes without raising the children, and raise children without propagating your genes. The package deal has come undone. And with its undoing, the sexual ethic that supported that package deal no longer compels.

Yet sexuality remains, as much as ever, a powerful force that can bring us into our wholeness -- or break us into little pieces. As much as ever, we need a way to say what’s OK and what isn’t when it comes to romance, and sex, and coupling.

Things that weren’t regarded as OK in the 1950s have become OK. At the same time things that used to be OK, or at least fuzzy, have become more clearly not OK. The change is illustrated by how we see a certain iconic photo taken in 1945. Amid the celebrations in America of Victory in Japan, the photo shows a US Navy sailor, in Times Square New York, embracing and kissing a total stranger, who appears to be nurse (she was actually a dental hygienist). At the time, the image was seen as a delightful expression of the ebullient celebration. What was seen then as simple joyful jubilation, we now see as sexual assault, normalized. In the 1940s, consent was not so strong a part of our sexual ethics as it is today. Along with some things becoming OK that didn’t used to be, other things have become not OK that did used to be – as our sexuality has morphed in the wake of the coming apart of the five-part package deal that used to be the meaning of marriage.

Our private relationships and our public relationships foster each other. In both cases, it’s about treating people in ways that respect and honor them to facilitate their flourishing and our own. This requires understanding, and it requires compassion, and those are skills that Unitarian Universalist congregations exist to help develop. Whether the issue is hate or the issue is love, the need is justice -- respecting and honoring personhood; flourishing by helping each other flourish; liberation from domination.

Our bodies are themselves unique vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. They are integral parts of our identity. When our bodies love, the first awakening of love may not be a matter of choice. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love. Yet love can be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence our loves by, as Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“choosing to pay attention to certain realities or not, putting ourselves in a position to discover lovableness...,choosing to believe (even if we do not yet 'see,'...) in the value of persons or of anything in creation....We can identify with our loves and freely ratify them....We can also repudiate, or defer, some of our loves by choosing not to identify with them.” (Farley, Just Love)
Where there is choice, there is space for ethical reflection. How shall our liberty embrace justice?

Justice means equal respect. Yet the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to cultural differences and to individual differences. Justice is a social concern, including romantic and sexual justice -- and sometimes it is a highly contentious social concern, as we saw, for example, in Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991 and for Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

We all have a role to play in creating a favorable social context for personal integrity, freedom, flourishing – and thus for individuals to choose love that is true and also based in justice. We all have a role to play in working out sexual ethical norms. Ethics isn’t law. Ethics is a field of philosophy: a discourse in which we try to tease out from the contradictory mish-mash of culture which parts are worth trying to uphold more consistently. Its usefulness is not in settling questions, but in providing us with some tools and some angles of approach to help us think through the questions for ourselves.

A Catholic Nun, of all people, has done thoughtful and helpful work in articulating sexual ethics in this context where the old sexual ethic recognizably does not serve us. Sister of Mercy Margaret Farley was Professor of Christian Ethics and Yale Divinity School. Her book, Just Love, was denounced by the Holy See for moral views which opposed the teachings of the Catholic Church, so it's got that to recommend it. I think Sister Margaret Farley has put her finger on some excellent considerations as we wrestle with what justice requires in our intimate relationships, so let us look into the principles she offers.

First: Do No Unjust Harm.

Harm can take many forms: “physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.” In love and its sexual expression, we are uniquely tender and vulnerable -- so acute attention to the risks of harm is called for.

Sexual expression is highly variable, and just because something is repulsive to you or me doesn’t make it wrong. Pain may be a part of sexual expression, and for some folks it may be particularly central. Bodily damage may part of that. Sexuality-related cosmetic surgeries also constitute bodily damage. So we can’t simply say, "Do No Harm." What we can say is do no unjust harm. That’s the overall guideline, the overall ethic, the first rule. The other points are for clarifying what "unjust" is.

Second: Free Consent.

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Consent seems such an obvious principle that it’s remarkable how much the emphasis on consent has grown in recent years. And it’s worth remembering that there has been resistance. It wasn’t that long ago – it was in 2010 – that fraternity members at Yale University gathered outside the campus Women’s Center to chant, “No means yes.”

Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent.

But seduction is complicated. It’s certainly not wrong to try to make yourself attractive to a prospective mate. It’s not wrong to lower the lights, put candles on the table, and Barry White on the stereo. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person. If promise-keeping and truth-telling are honored -- and neither party has "limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" -- then I'd say we're in the realm of wholesome courtship rather than ethically problematic seduction.

If alcohol is going to be involved, then the consent should be clear at some point before inebriation, but does ethics require it to be clear before the first glass of wine? It starts to get a bit fuzzy. Certainly, the clearer the consent, and the more clear-minded the judgment of both parties when they consent, the better.

At the same time, one of the wonderful things about love is that it isn't coldly, rationally clear-minded. Moreover, we may be of partly divided mind when it comes to romance. Part of you may be ready to jump in, while part of you is not so sure. Yes, as we teach our children, you’re the boss of your body, but this boss is sometimes a divided internal parliament. To address these difficulties, it may help to look to the "free" part of "free consent." However swept up in nonrational feelings we may be, and however internally divided we may feel, where our liberty is not compromised, we are on solid ground. "Limited capacity for choice" means limited liberty, whether it is "because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" (including loss of ordinary power from inebriation). Those conditions don't feel free. Exhilarating emotion, on the other hand, even if not rational, feels free -- indeed, it may feel very freeing.

Fortunately, the "consent" requirement gets some help from further guidelines like mutuality, equality, and commitment.

Third: Mutuality.

Ethical sexual expression involves mutual participation. What we’re talking about here are the old ideas of “the male as active and the female as passive, the woman as receptacle and the man as fulfiller.” That’s a violation of the mutuality principle. True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving. Mutuality need not be perfect, but it does need to be present in some degree. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both putting heart and self into the encounter – if either partner is overwhelmingly passive, hardly participating, it isn’t mutual.

Fourth: Equality.

Justice in love means that the partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners. It’s not that such inequalities shouldn’t exist, just that they shouldn’t exist in a romantic relationship.

The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.” Thus prostitution is unethical on grounds of violating equality. Ethical sexuality may include all manner of role-playing, but if a partner is an actual element in a market exchange, that’s not playing a role. It’s an inherent inequality. Any overlap of the sphere of paying people for goods and services and the sphere of sexual relationship, any blurring of those spheres, compromises our flourishing.

Equality, like mutuality, is rarely perfect. The ethical concern is that the power be balanced enough, as Farley puts it: “for each to appreciate the uniqueness and difference of the other, and for each to respect one another as ends in themselves” – and not a means only.

Fifth: Commitment.

The important consideration is that any sexual encounter be entered into with an openness to the possibility that it may lead to long-term relationship. If it turns out to be a one-night stand, that, in itself, is not an ethical violation, as long as it was entered into with openness to the possibility that it become something more. As Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“Sexuality is of such importance in human life that it needs to be nurtured, sustained, as well as disciplined, channeled, controlled....Brief encounters...cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.”
The rhetoric of commitment can get overblown, and it is worth remembering that “particular forms of commitment are themselves only means, not ends.” Nevertheless, as Sister Farley reflects:
“Given all the caution learned from contemporary experience, we may still hope that our freedom is sufficiently powerful to gather up our love and give it a future; that thereby our sexual desire can be nurtured into a tenderness that has not forgotten passion. We may still believe that to try to use our freedom in this way is to be faithful to the love that arises in us or even the yearning that rises from us.”
Thank you, Sister.

Sixth: Fruitfulness.

The ethical sexual relationship bears fruit. Traditionally, this has meant procreation, but there is a deeper underlying principle of fruitfulness: that the relationship must not close in on itself. The sexual encounter occurs behind closed doors, but not in a social vacuum. Love brings new life to those who love, and that new life is to be brought outward to the nourishing of other relationships. A relationship of both love and justice strengthens the partners, and encourages them in their work in the world. Thus is the romantic love fruitful because it serves the good of all.

Finally, we should note that sexual ethics includes obligations that everyone in a society bears to affirm for its members as sexual beings. There are claims of respect that all of us are called to honor – respect for the many forms that human sexuality may take:
“single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from...the wider society.”
Justice in love requires not only that we bring certain principles to our own romantic and intimate relationships, but that we participate in making a society that honors and respects romantic and intimate relationships.

The principles of justice do not stop at the bedroom door. In fact, they go through that door in both directions: entering to inform the sexual encounter, and, strengthened and affirmed there, exiting to inform all our relations.

Justice, as Cornel West said, is what love looks like in public. Recognizing, however, that love can take corrupted forms – can be manipulative, domineering, and abusive -- we do need to add that love must look like justice in private.

May it be so. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment