Sex as Symbolic Act David Horacek



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Sex as Symbolic Act

David Horacek

Early draft—barely proofread!
Everybody thinks that lying and deception are wrong, and we know these wrongs often accompany sexual promiscuity. However, some ethicists think that something else is wrong with sexual promiscuity, that even a perfectly forthright act of promiscuity is immoral. The traditional argument for this conclusion asks us to find something about the act of sex which makes it intrinsically different from other human activities, a feature which allows us to single out sex as being morally special. For example, we are told by __ that “sex is the most intimate physical expression of affection,” and that for this reason, it is our moral duty to couple it with emotional affection.

What makes sex the most intimate expression of affection? Some answers allude to the penetration that happens during sex, while others may remind us of the procreative aspect of sex. These answers are unsatisfying, especially when we remember that women have sex with each other without either penetration or procreation. Still, ethicists feel compelled to claim that what differentiates sex from other human activities is not merely a matter of convention. Morality, after all, is not a matter of convention. If sex is morally special, it must be because of an intrinsic, and not a conventional feature.

So goes the argument, anyway. I happen to think that this pattern of reasoning is faulty. I think that the morally salient features of sex are conventional, and that they nonetheless make sex morally special.

It is because of the social role of sex that sexual promiscuity is wrong, even if that promiscuity happens in the context of complete disclosure. We can imagine an altogether different activity that might fill the same social role in a hypothetical foreign society as sex does in ours. To take a common example, suppose that offering to share a meal with someone typically signified a deep emotional commitment, and that people who lack such a commitment to another typically eat alone. It is common for people in this society to fantasize about sharing meals, and sublimate their desire to do so in various ways, and in general, to treat the activity much as we treat sex. It is a contingent fact, a social or (more likely) evolutionary accident, that the “sex” role in our society is filled by sex and not by sharing meals. Because of this accident, sexual promiscuity, and not gastronomic promiscuity, is wrong.

In this argument, I want to keep the notion of “wrong” as general and permissive as possible. I would feel my work is done if I could convince the reader that she would not wish there to be a general moral law permitting people to be promiscuous with respect to whatever human activity plays the “sex” role. My arguments should also establish that a rule curbing promiscuity with respect to whichever activity plays the “sex” role leads to greater utility.1

Of course, this conclusion is not universally shared. Pat Califia, in her influential essay “Whoring in Utopia,” explicitly claims that she can will a world in which promiscuous sex is universally permissible—in fact, she sees such a world as a sort of Utopia. Her essay specifically addresses prostitution, but she takes her argument to apply to all sex without emotional attachment. This will do as a definition of “sexual promiscuity” for present purposes.

In many ways, Califia’s Utopia is morally superior to our society, even in matters of sexuality. We still disproportionately objectify female bodies and stigmatize women as sexually passive. We backhandedly condone male sexual adventurism while condemning the same drives in women. We treat homosexual sex as morally suspect, even when it is done in the context of a loving relationship. Califia’s Utopians have overcome all these sexual prejudices, and this is indeed moral progress. However, there is one feature of her Utopia that I think we cannot support: the demystification of sex. Consider, for example, the following social arrangement:
Everybody might expect to spend a portion of her or his life as a sex worker before getting married, if she or he didn't want to be thought of as sexually gauche. Perhaps there would be collective brothels where people could perform community service to work off parking tickets or student loans.
Steeped in prejudice as we are, this sexually open and egalitarian vision might strike us a significant step forward, a culmination of the stalled sexual revolution. I too think that sexual openness and egalitarianism are good things. However, do I not wish this progress to be made at the expense of the meaningfulness we currently find in the act of sex. Many popular views about sex are stifling, unfair and altogether reprehensible, but at least we have the good fortune of being able to see sex as deeply meaningful. Insofar as general promiscuity would undermine that meaningfulness, it is bad.

It is easy to find examples of social practices that act as sources of meaning. Ceremonial observances, for example, can provide us with a context which helps see purpose in our lives. Birthdays, weddings and funerals do much to help us define our place within a family and a society. Each of the many cultures of the world has its own rituals and practices, and these help members of that culture define their identity and understand their mutual interrelatedness.

Some of these practices lead to intolerance, sexism, cruelty, prudishness and other ills. We may in good conscience judge these to be bad, insofar as we could not will these ills to be universalized. However, I think it is clear that other things being equal, symbolic, meaning-giving practices are good. Other things being equal, it is always bad when they are undermined or lost.

Consider for example a Native American tribe’s rain dance. This spectacular ritual symbolically marks the end of the dry season and celebrates the fertility of the land. It is a dance consisting of a scripted series of steps, but it is not merely that. It is a ceremony of transition, like a wedding, a bar mitzvah or Fasching. Of course, it does not literally summon the rain, and I think a reasonable anthropologist should not conclude the tribes in question ever literally believed that it would. (If they really thought it had these causal powers, why did they also not do it during the dry season?) The ritual’s value is in its symbolism, not its causal powers.

On some tribal lands, tourists are now able to witness this dance year-round. Cash-strapped tribes find that onlookers are willing to pay good money to see this ritual performed, so it is. Or, more accurately, the tribespeople go through the motions, which are totally out of their context and devoid of their symbolic meaning. One can imagine tribal elders might have been appalled at this sellout of a sacred act, but alas, this is often a cost of the new global lifestyle, and we can find parallels to this sellout in almost every society.

One may wonder whether at the end of the dry season, the tribespeople ever perform the dance “for real” as opposed to for show. I expect that doing it “this time with feeling” might prove quite difficult psychologically. After all, the motions of the real ceremony are identical to those of the show. How does one instruct oneself to mean it this time? One never had to issue such instructions to oneself before, and it’s not clear how one is to successfully follow them.

I hope it is agreed that if financial pressures really do cause tribes to lose sight of the symbolic significance of their rain dance, that this is a bad thing. Other things being equal, they ought not let this happen. Of course, other things are rarely equal, and the need for money can lead to some sad sacrifices. Some may think that in this case, it may even be worth it. But it is nonetheless clear that something significant was lost in this tradeoff.

This conclusion should apply equally to symbolic activities in our society which lose their meaning. If Christmas and Easter have become exercises where even the pious merely go through the motions, a good thing has been lost. Indeed, for various reasons, many traditions of many groups are losing their grip. Of course, it is not always bad when a tradition dissolves. Traditions which portray women to be domestic child care providers are incompatible with our labor market and our quest for egalitarianism. The undermining of these traditions puts a burden on women, because they have to define their social role for themselves. However, the freedom this provides is worth it.

Many of our sexual prejudices have their roots in tradition, and undermining these traditions is likewise worth it. Perhaps we can even coherently wish to live in a society where the tradition of marriage has no place. However, we are unwilling to put all traditional symbolic practices up for grabs. For example, we would not want to live in a Utopia where there are no funeral rites and people simply dump their deceased family members in a garbage can. It’s worth pausing to ask why not. Being clearheaded about the finality of death and the impossibility of post-mortem suffering does not change our judgement. The dumping of a corpse is a symbolic sign of disrespect to the deceased person, and though it is “merely” symbolic, since the dead are not slighted, it is profoundly important.

If a new golf-like leisure sport of cadaver-hurling swept over our country, its practicioners, as well as people who contribute corpses of deceased relatives, would be doing something wrong. Again, what I mean by this is that we would not want to live in cadaver-hurling world. We think that at least in regard to how we treat the deceased, our world is morally superior. We (rightly) think that abolition of funerals and the widespread practice of cadaver-hurling would undermine significance we see in the death of a loved one, and that this would be bad.

Perhaps even more than funeral rites, the symbolic value of sex is profoundly important. In certain contexts, it is more than a mere act; it is a remarkably apt way of communicating affection and commitment. In these special contexts, the act is charged with meaning and significance that stems not from the mechanics sex, but rather the social role of that act. Its communicative power relies on the presence of this social role. If society were to change and role of sex were to be demystified, this communication could not be done in another way, not unless some other activity like “mystical dining” takes over the special social role that sex currently enjoys.

I think it is absolutely clear that demystifying sex would be bad. Even people who never intend to use its mystical communicative capacity should agree. (They also presumably do not intend to take part in the rain dance, but should nonetheless think it is bad when its meaningfulness evaporates for its practicioners.)

If I can argue that promiscuity undermines the mystical, symbolic meaning of sex, we will have our argument that promiscuity is bad. I don’t think this last step should prove difficult. Promiscuity involves meaningless sex, that is, sex which does not also communicate affection or commitment (though it might communicate something else, like “I think you’re hot”). If people think that promiscuous sex is morally permissible, it is presumably because they think promiscuous sex does not undermine the deep communicative role of meaningful sex. Indeed, it seems Califia herself thinks this. However, wishing for a world in which meaningless sex is the norm is incompatible with wishing that the social role of sex remains the same. We cannot have it both ways.

Again, consider Native American tribes who perform certain rituals for the benefit of tourists. We might think that they can also do those same rituals for themselves, “for real,” but is this a stable situation? It seems like it will not take long before the rituals become mere motions. Likewise, imagine that in cadaver-hurling society, certain individuals want to provide a dignified, meaningful ceremonial burial for their deceased relatives. Can rites of death in that world carry profound symbolic meaning when they are also treated as absolutely meaningless? Perhaps, to some degree, and with great effort. But ultimately, the meaningfulness of these activities relies on the conditions of the larger society. If the social role of death changes, individual opinions of the matter will adjust to match; if the rain dance transforms from a traditional ritual to a tokenistic show for tourists, then eventually, that is all it will be. It seems naïve to wish it to be both for very long.

Present-day prostitutes may or may not have extra trouble evoking in themselves the profound, passionate feelings that come easily to us when we have sex with someone we love. However, even if they are able to have profoundly meaningful sex, we must remember that this is in a social context where sex is conducive to that end. In our society, we would not be able to have the “deeply bonding meal” that is possible in the hypothetical society I considered earlier. Imagine now that members of this society treat sexual appetite in the same way we treat hunger. In the same voice we might say to a colleague “Are you hungry? Let’s grab a snack.” they say “Are you horny? Let’s get off.” Are they able to have profound, meaningful sex? No, just like we cannot have profound, meaningful meals. The social context which would make this possible is absent.

Califia takes an “Are you horny? Let’s get off”—type of society to be a sort of Utopia. I have no doubt it would be liberating, pleasant and many other things. However, it would not be a place where the emotionally communicative aspect of sex could survive, and it would not be replaced by a surrogate which could be employed to the same effect. I take this to be an unacceptable loss, especially when fun and sexual liberation are achievable without it.

Califia’s Utopia is best seen as the culmination of the French Revolution’s romantic ideal: a society based on reason rather than prejudice. This movement has accomplished many wonderful things. When we get into the revolutionary spirit, we can indeed get ourselves to think that our negative reaction to universal prostitution and promiscuity reveals nothing more than a personal hang-up. Califia’s article does an excellent job at encouraging this conclusion. However, we should be aware of the danger of applying the revolutionary ideal indiscriminately. Not every one of our irrational preferences and aversions should be overcome and replaced with sober reason. There is nothing wrong with the thoroughly irrational aversion to having the corpses of our relatives be used in a morbid lawn game. We do not want to be cured of this aversion in Utopia, and we ought not want this. If we were cured, death would lose an important aspect of this social meaning, and this loss would be a clearly bad thing. In the same way, we should not want to be cured of our sexual “hang-ups” regarding promiscuity and general prostitution. Though they are essentially irrational, they allow us to communicate emotions through the act of sex which could not be expressed in another way. May God keep us from rationalized, demystified sex!

While Califia thinks that (disappointingly) her Utopia will remain unactualized due to reactionaries intent on legislating their unenlightened prejudices, I think that (alarmingly) we may be on the high road to that Utopia. Increasingly, value is measured in monetary terms, and that’s why it makes sense to sell out the rain dance, the Mediterranean siesta, and countless other local traditions, in order to find a niche in the global market. How far down the road is the mainstream commoditization of death or sex? When will we see sex as nothing more than another service with a value, like a haircut, but sweatier? I never expected to side with the unenlightened reactionaries, but indeed, we must be wary of letting our enlightenment carry us too far.



This does not require us to become prude or to reinstate chastity as a virtue. There is also nothing here which should hinder the project to eradicate sexism and heterosexism. Promiscuity in general is wrong, because general promiscuity is not something we want, so to act promiscuously is to make a moral exception of ourselves. However, this might not be enough to show that each individual act of sexual promiscuity is wrong. Each person who urinates in a public swimming pool does something wrong, even if it is a very large pool in which a single bladder of urine makes no difference at all. But a farmer who grazes cattle on public land may not be doing something wrong. In both cases, we do not want everyone in general to emulate the aforementioned people. In the first case it would lead to a very dirty pool and in the second, a devastated public land. However, the second case is different because we think there may moral space for some public grazing, as long as it is properly managed and sustainable. Should we think of sexual promiscuity in the same way? We might liken promiscuity to public grazing, because so long as it doesn’t get out of hand and undermine the mystical social role played by sex, it has no ill effects (again, assuming that it is free of deception). I think this very un-Kantian idea is worth taking seriously, and doing so takes us to some deep questions in ethical theory which are beyond the scope of this paper. However these are settled, it seems clear to me that general, free-for-all promiscuity is a bad thing.

1 It is for these reasons that my view is not a species of relativism, even though its consequence is that sexual promiscuity is permissible in a society where sex plays a different role.


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