21 March 2012

Sex, porn and moralism

As someone who is sex-positive and polyamorous, my views on sexuality and relationships can be at odds with those of the largely monogamous, sex-negative mainstream. So it was encouraging to read Jennifer Wilson’s critique of anti-porn, anti-casual sex advocates and their self-righteous moralising. Wilson’s essay is set within the context of Australian pornography laws (which local anti-porn campaigners deem insufficiently censorial), but her cogent arguments are not restricted to any one country or culture. Take these for example:

In my opinion some campaigners are engaged in a moral battle to control who may desire whom, when and how. Their arguments are founded on conservative moral assumptions about what sex is or ought to be, how it can and can’t be performed, and by whom. To this end they define pornography as not about sex, but solely about violence against women.

Anti porn campaigners conflate sexual violence and exploitation with pornography to strengthen their argument against it, even though there’s a variety of porn available, from the inoffensive to the frightening. They allow no exceptions: their position is that all porn is bad because all porn is inherently violent and exploitative.

Wilson correctly points out the ethical biases of those who want to impose their own sexual values on others, and the false generalisations they employ to achieve that end. She also exposes the idealistic view of sex that anti-porn campaigners and other sex-negative types tend to have:

Anti porn campaigners often express a view of sex that is sentimental and euphemistic. Sex should be devoid of messiness, vulgarity, impulses to power and aggression of any kind. Certain sexual acts disgust them, as campaigner Gail Dines makes graphically apparent. What really matters in sex, they claim, is the relationship. Sex as the expression of complicated emotions, not all of them pretty, sex as a performance of erotic power, male or female, and sex as a means of gratifying physical desire without emotional commitment, is apparently abhorrent to them.

It is this commonly held ideal of sex being special only in the context of a monogamous relationship that polyamorous people like me reject. The very term ‘casual sex’ implies that enjoying sex outside of a monogamous relationship is somehow less meaningful, less valuable, to both parties involved. Casual sex is cheap sex, unlike the premium monogamous stuff. But this smug, disdainful view isn’t supported by any evidence. There are no empirical, objectively verifiable facts showing conclusively that safe and consensual casual sex is less beneficial or more pernicious than monogamous sex. And the a priori premise of anti-casual sex arguments put forth by those like Emma Rush and Clive Hamilton is often rooted in religious soil. As Wilson writes:

Claims of the rightness of a sexuality confined to “loving relationships” and the alleged profanity of casual sex must refer to the commandments of some metaphysical authority, unless Rush and Hamilton assume an infallible authority for themselves. Alternatively, their positions are social constructs, and if that is the case, we need to be convinced why they ought to have more influence over us than any other social construct. Empirical evidence for claims is the best way to establish this. Rush and Hamilton et al need to prove the “sacredness” of sex, the profanity of casual sex, and the need to confine sex to loving relationships, or risk being perceived as founding their campaign in a crypto theology that is of no real consequence to anyone other than those who believe in it.

Precisely.

Russell Blackford (who blogged about Wilson’s essay and led me to it) has this to say about the issue:

The recurrent theme seems to be that [anti-porn campaigners] want to ensure that our society decisively privileges sex within committed, loving, monogamous (though, to be fair, not necessarily heterosexual with all these campaigners) relationships. This should be privileged to such an extent that no messages favouring other kinds of sexual activity should be tolerated - all such messages should be subjected at least to strong moral(istic) criticism and possibly to some kind of legal deterrence.

If that's not what these people are really saying, let them clarify it, please, because I agree with Wilson that that's how it often comes across from the likes of Emma Rush and Clive Hamilton. Wilson quotes Hamilton as saying: “Perhaps this is why many people are left with a vague feeling that each time they have casual sex they give away a little of themselves, that something sacred is profaned and they are diminished as a result. Casual sex truly is meaningless sex.”

Well, it may be that “many people” feel like that, especially if they've been socialised to feel like that. It may also be that many other people do not feel like that at all, and perhaps we shouldn't support socialising young people to feel like that.

Blackford’s last comments raise questions about causality. Do people, young or old, who have casual sex think less of themselves because a sex-negative society has taught them to see casual sex as demeaning even though it isn’t? Or is casual sex inherently demeaning, a fact that society is simply recognising and attempting to mitigate with its sex-negativity? I’m betting that it’s the former.




22.3.12

7 comments:

  1. I had a much more carefully worded response, but my computer crashed half way through writing it, so I’m giving you the cliff notes version this time 

    I agree that the naysayers have a lot to prove, and the porn laws are already sufficient for their requests.

    You’ll notice that you’ve assumed monogamy where none was mentioned in the original article. I know often the “relationship before sex” crowd often assume that, but it’s still only implied. Now being poly means different things to different people, so I’m going to go by the wiki definition.

    Now the theme I‘ve taken from both sides of the argument is one of *respect*. Now the check list provided by the ‘anti’s are actually covered in the intimacy involved in being poly (in my opinion.) The point of contention mainly relates to emotional ‘stamina’. Or to put it another way “How could someone possibly care for multiple people to the best of their ability?”. That is what I think you’ve picked up as the pro-monogamy aspect, where I think it’s more a fear of being abandoned or made to play second fiddle to another partner.

    Of course, there are still the background agitators that want the public to produce as many demon spawn as possible (but let’s ignore that for the moment.)

    Now in regards to the casual sex, this is another clash of definitions . To the ‘anti’s, casual sex means doing roughly the following:
    1) Get trashed
    2) Follow someone home
    3) Screw
    4) Walk of shame
    Now under that definition, I think we can all agree that it’s as cheap as a pack of Mi Goreng noodles and about as fulfilling. In an age of Fuck Buddies and Sex Friends though, we can also agree it’s stupidly short sighted as well.

    As a though sparked by typing the above, it really makes me think that sex ed in high school needs to be less about the mechanics and more about the interpersonal. Russell was going part of the way by encouraging the ‘anti’s to be more lucid in their statements, but I don’t think they will really find an effective framework for doing that without being met half way.
    In regards to the ‘Breeding cheer squad’ glossed over above, there is no hope for them as their motivation is pure and simple greed.

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  2. Yes, I assumed that monogamy was the gold standard of the anti-porn/casual sex crowd, because they're certainly not for polyamory. I mentioned monogamy to contrast it with my own polyamory, but given the obviously conservative, vanilla-only sexuality advocated by the antis, a committed-to-a-single-sexual-partner arrangement is undoubtedly their gold standard.

    I agree that the sort of careless/irresponsible sex you describe is not the sex we should aspire to have. But casual sex should not carry such negative connotations by default. Casual sex can be enjoyed with mutual respect, responsibility and sobriety. Sex-positivity isn't about screwing everything that breathes with reckless abandon and disregard for consequences. It's about challenging the arbitrary taboos surrounding sex, which include the assumption that if you responsibly enjoy sex for its own sake with more than one person, you're morally suspect.

    One salient aspect of anti-porn/casual sex advocacy is the implicit or explicit religiosity that often informs its arguments and ideas about sexuality. Scratch the veneer of 'feminism', 'moral values' and the 'sacredness of sex' and underneath you'll find God-made 'laws' that all of us are supposed to abide by. And those 'sacred sex' crusaders who are religiously motivated can be dishonest in their reluctance to just come out and say that the reason why they oppose porn, casual sex and unconventional expressions of sexuality is because the sky fairy they believe in doesn't like that sort of stuff.

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  3. Mmm, even if it isn't directly the god bothers, their previous influence on pop culture may have a bit to answer for.

    As I was working today, I noticed the prevalence of songs talking about 'the one' romantically. I'm sure that doesn't help with dispelling a culture concentrated on pairing people.

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