Monday, January 26, 2015

Sexual Liberation And Sexual Inequality

Whatever, by Michel Houellebecq. I love that The Independent called the book "funny, terrifying, and nauseating."

I was reading MathBabe the other day and she linked to this piece by a professional dominatrix who was arguing that greater sexual liberty would make the world a better place. Especially, she said, if men felt free to be themselves instead of being laced into some absurd masculinity, then they might relate to women in a better way.

Here's a passage I find appealing:

" the majority of my sessions, I am creating a space for men to explore areas of their sexual lives that society feels are unmanly; they come to me to be penetrated, to be used, to serve, to submit, to worship, to be taken. A client might have any or all of a bewildering array of fetishes, but they mostly come to me to experience something well outside the very narrow confines of what society says that it means to be a man."

As she goes along, she develops an idea that feminism, if it rejects a certain kind of sexual moralism and narrower views about sexuality, might contribute to men's well-being in wide-ranging ways, including sexual liberation of a kind that would allow men to be themselves and perhaps be less caught up in problematic kinds of masculinity and aggression.

Basically, I agree with this idea. Years ago I on TKIN I wrote a post that said, "You know how they say, 'If you want peace, work for justice?' Well, if you want sex, work for feminism."

Really, nobody is more for sexual liberation than I am. One of my philosophical research projects is devoted to developing theoretical concepts of sexual freedom and autonomy that go beyond the crude kind of "you can't tell me what to do" -- concepts that can articulate a sense of positive sexual freedom, the freedom to be yourself sexually, which surely goes beyond the right to be left alone and not told what to do. So, yeah.

And yet. I think it's important to acknowledge that there are certain problems that sexual liberation will not solve, and could plausibly exacerbate. And I think that some of those -- contra to the spirit of the essay -- are linked to anger and aggression.

First, as one of the MathBabe commenters said: "Unfortunately there is tension between liberty and equality, and complete sexual license would probably increase sexual inequality rather than diminish it."

Here is an elaboration of that idea, expressed in what I take to be the canonical text on the matter: the novel "Whatever" by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq:

"It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It's what's known as 'the law of the market.' In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a total liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude."

If that's too wall-of-texty for you, here's the Cliffs Notes. Basically, if sexuality is constrained by commitment and monogamy, then roughly speaking each person gets one -- or maybe a few -- sex partners. That is, it's something like "each person gets one person," with a little wiggle room around the edges.

If you're at the top of the sexual hierarchy -- the most attractive, rich, accomplished, fit, sexy -- commitment and monogamy mean you might attach yourself to one person and have a few affairs or see a few prostitutes. At most.

If you're at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, commitment and monogamy mean there will be other people of your preferred sex/gender for partners who will also be at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, and you can form commitments and marriages with them and then have sex with them.

So with commitment and monogamy, the people at the top and the bottom would be having some sex with not too many people. Once things open up and those constraints go away, you get immediately into a more sexual "haves" and "have-nots" situation. And what's more of a trigger for male aggression than being a sexual have-not?

Gendered attitudes about sex are obviously complicated, but even leaving all of that aside, I guess I'd want to say that sexual inequality could be, in itself, a bad thing, and that the fact that some people never get to have sex at all would be, in itself, a very bad thing, and that even just the concept of "hierarchy" in sex is a bad thing. Bad, that is, for women and men alike.

I don't think any return to the constraints of commitment and monogamy are what we should be aiming for. But I wish we could talk about sexual inequality in a constructive way that wasn't all caught up in anger, aggression, indignation, and blame.

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