Sexuality, and the Conflicted Contortions of Modern Liberalism
Andrew Brown in a recent blog for The Guardian argues that Catholic attitudes to gay sex fail to account for human beings. Though his conclusions are different, in terms of argumentation Brown often seems to adopt an approach that is quite like that of Judeo-Christian moralists, so it is refreshing to discuss an issue while supposing similar languages of sexuality and morality.
Here I should like to assert in response to Brown’s position that it is in fact modern Liberalism’s attitudes to sex which fail not only to account for human beings, but even to be internally consistent.
Since the European Enlightenment Liberty has probably been the most highly praised virtue. Along with the universal ‘Brotherhood of Man’ and universal Equality, Liberty has been something almost all have sought to protect and advance for the common good.
Sexuality has played, perhaps unsurprisingly, no small part in this process of ‘liberalisation’. It speaks to something essential in Man, both in terms of personal origins and, for many, as pointing to the greatest work of their lives – that of raising the next generation. In this regard Brown is right to link attitudes to sexuality to the very nature of human beings. But the vision of sexual liberty Brown, and others like him present suffers from narrowness in its conception of human beings, and as a result excludes some from the class of ‘person’ and from any hope of ever being admitted to share in our common humanity.
Here is a sketch summary of the tenets of modern sexual orthodoxy:
- a key part of modern liberty is free sexual expression, and it is inhumane to deny someone fulfilment of his or her sexuality, in that to do so withholds the fullness of liberty;
- sexuality is a key aspect of a person’s identity, and to such an extent that subjecting anyone to treatment to ‘change his or her sexuality’ is a violation of humanity;
- since sex frequently has serious outcomes (both emotional and physical) it should only be allowed between consenting adults.
Such tenets are doubtless familiar, but it is interesting that the second has solidified recently in the wake of the campaign for same-sex marriage. As part of this campaign sexuality has been presented not as a choice, as was the case in the middle of the twentieth century, but as a natural and unchangeable ‘sexual destiny’ whose fulfilment is a requirement of true liberty. By claiming that people are simply ‘born this way’ advocates of same-sex marriage have construed sexuality as ‘innate’ and impossible to regard as deviant regardless of orientation. One might think that attitudes to sexuality had changed to the extent that there were no more serious sexual problems in the world aside from illiberal ‘bigots’ who seek to suppress free expression.
But such liberalisation has not actually removed the category of sexual deviancy from either laws or language. Naturally, sex that does not take place between consenting adults is still prohibited and subject to the ire and distaste of most in our society.
Unfortunately, this cannot but lead to conflict between those whose ‘sexual destiny’ does not include, or look primarily, to consenting adults, and society at large. If sexuality is indeed natural and unchangeable those whose sexual fulfilment is not to be found in concourse with other consenting adults are barred from the fullness of liberty and so from the fullest expression of their humanity. Moreover, interference with their sexual identity, be it through therapy or medical intervention, requires that they submit to something viewed, in other circumstances, as inhumane.
Doubtless the harm caused by sexual abuse does something to dull the sense of reason when it comes to rapists and paedophiles, and naturally their sexual tendencies only come to light when someone is caught with child-pornography or when abuse is actually reported. But this does not change the fact that they exist, nor the fact that the modern vision of sexuality, and with it modern liberty, does not and cannot extend to all people, even on its own terms.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held sexuality as integral to humanity, but also as virtuous specifically when directed towards procreation and marital love. It is seen as harmful to the common good to subvert that natural order. By placing sexual orientation at the centre of personal identity and humanity, modern Liberalism has put in place a vision of Liberty that, due to the plain facts of reality, cannot extend to all people and from which some people must be barred. It is for this reason that I submit it is actually Andrew Brown (and his co-ideologues) whose attitudes to fail to account for human beings.
Of course, this is not to excuse sexual abuse of any kind, but just as we wish to see justice done to anyone convicted of a crime, sexual or otherwise, so too must our vision of humanity be one extendable even to deviant individuals. Without such a wide vision of humanity there can be no such vision of justice, and sexual deviancy becomes not a matter of humanity or inhumanity, but rather a statistical quantity.