Even if we’re all liberals now, the question remains: what sort of liberals we should be?
When thinking about sexual ethics, it is easily assumed that the main battleground is between conservatives and liberals. The central skirmishes have historically been over sex within versus without marriage; heterosexual homogeneity v homosexuality and diversity; monogamy for life v freedom to have multiple partners.
To say that this war has been fought and won is not quite true. There are certainly parts of the world and pockets of the west where the conservatives still hold away. Conservative attitudes also still survive where liberal practices have become the norm. The United States is the supreme example of a nation with conservative values and often highly promiscuous liberal practices.
However, intellectually and socially, conservatism is largely dead or dying. To persists in seeing the remaining debate as an extension of the old one is therefore to risk misunderstanding what remains at issue. In a sense, we’re all liberals now. The question is what sort of liberals we should be.
Feminists are not conservatives when they fight a common enemy for different reasons.
Take the issue of sexual harassment. The fact that Donald Trump’s boasts about pussy grabbing were laughed off by many as harmless “locker room talk” shows that it is too optimistic to believe everyone is against it. In the conservative mindset, “men will be men” and “women will be women” is often an excuse for misogyny.
But even when we clearly reject this, there is more than one position left to occupy, as the fallout from the #MeToo movement shows. In France in 2018, around 100 women writers, performers and academics — including Catherine Millet, Ingrid Caven and Catherine Deneuve — wrote an open letter to Le Monde protesting about the what they called the new “Puritanism” which they argued made flirting socially unacceptable. “What began as freeing women up to speak has today turned into the opposite — we intimidate people into speaking ‘correctly’, shout down those who don’t fall into line, and those women who refused to bend [to the new realities] are regarded as complicit and traitors.”
You may or may not agree with them, but you cannot dismiss the signatories as upholding an old-fashioned misogynist sexual morality. They were are keen on female sexual emancipation as the supporters of the #MeToo movement, they just had different ideas about what that meant. They argued the “witch-hunt” against alleged abusers “far from helping women to empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, religious extremists, the worst reactionaries” because it reinforces the “Victorian morality” in which “women are beings ‘apart’, children with adult faces” who need protecting.
Think also about the debates about pornography and prostitution. From a traditional moral point of view, both are wrong because they encourage sexual gratification divorced from marriage. But that does not mean that anyone who thinks sexual pleasure should not be confined to matrimony must be in favour of pornography and prostitution. Indeed, feminist critiques of both have been more powerful than conservative ones, while at the same time pornography and prostitution have also had feminist defenders. Feminists are not conservatives when they fight a common enemy for different reasons.
It is not an inherently conservative position to question “if it feels good, do it (with consent)”
These examples caution against seeing all attempts at defending variants of old norms and behaviours as defences of traditional sexual morality. This is a version of the fallacious principle of guilt by association, which has numerous political parallels. Certain issues — such as patriotism, concerns about immigration, worries about welfare cheats — became so identified with the right that those on the left found them hard to talk about, even when they accepted they were serious issues after all.
In the same way, it would be a mistake to assume that any suggestion that we ought to place limits on our freely chosen sexual activity is an attempt to reassert conservative values. Sexual liberals needs to take seriously the idea that not all consensual sex is good sex, and that we might be better to place some limits on our sexual freedom. It is not an inherently conservative position to maintain that “if it feels good, do it (with consent)” is too thin a principle to guide our sex lives. Serious thinking about sexual ethics requires transcending the old divisions and taking an honest look at what is working in supposedly liberated world and what is not.
This article is part of a series on rethinking the sexual revolution
Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)