14 January

Discussing Sex in Public in 2014

Into another year the Jimmy Savile inquiry rumbles on. Today The Guardian runs a front-page article about a lawyer representing around sixty victims who is calling for a judge-led inquiry that should have access to evidence collected by other investigations.

The extent of this scandal in particular, and the more widespread, even routine, sexual abuse of minors in the not-too-distant past seem to have led to an impasse in public discussion of sexual morality. Social conservatives are quick, happy indeed, to point to marriage between one man and one woman as the only acceptable environment for expression of human sexuality, while more liberal, or permissive commentators cling hard to the notion of ‘informed consent’ as the basis of morality in this area of life.

The more the subject is discussed the more it appears that positions become entrenched. Yet endemic abuse of minors in the 1970s and 1980s with institutions, from music schools, to churches and to the BBC, regularly turning a blind eye, should, one might have thought, have had the opposite effect.

Problematic seems to be the way in which it is easy to dismiss both socially conservative and liberal positions in a few words. Natural Law can readily be styled antiquated or ‘unproved’, and some positivist accounts regard this as a correct summation. Meanwhile, ‘informed consent’ can easily be shown up as false when it is realised that consent — one that can see all the consequences at once — is in fact impossible to achieve. In the absence of other ‘workable’ versions of sexual morality it is all-too-easy for even the well informed to justify their own idiosyncratic attitudes by pointing to the flabbiness of other options. Thereby opinions on how best to approach sexuality in public policy become ever more polarised.

The reality is, as ever, more complex than the papers would have us believe. After all, informed consent plays an important role even in Natural Law accounts of marriage, just as an inviolable and ‘un-provable’ account of human nature must play a part in informed consent. The notion that sexual mores can be uncoupled from marriage and children is no less ridiculous than the suggestion that the Ten Commandments can be spelt out in genetic code. We all, however, suffer from a tendency to plump for simple solutions that all-too-often reduce arguments to a series of tribal slogans.

Nonetheless, it is perhaps apt that the Savile affair, and with it the scandals in British and American music schools, should have occupied so much media space. Sexuality is indeed a serious matter, and it deserves more than rapid-fire exchanges of provocative sound-bites dividing the varied and often interested voices in the debate. Many wish to position themselves on the ‘right side’ of historical development. Perhaps in 2014 we might usefully slow the discussion of sexual morality to a pace at which all sides could understand each other, and move forward.


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