Morality seeks to regulate human behavior in the pursuit of desire. Regulation is needed because desires collide. If you and I want the same thing, we can either compete under mutually-agreed rules, or we can declare war on one another. If every instance of competing desires resulted in conflict, family would attack family, wives would murder husbands, friends would cheat friends. The community would disintegrate. In our pursuit of desire, the elimination of morality doesn’t lead to freedom, but to mayhem.
That is particularly true of sex, because for young men (and sometimes for the not so young) it is the most powerful of desires. Most violence perpetrated by individuals — as opposed to communities or governments — involves sex in some way. That’s true across the world, in every culture. (The peaceful, sexually liberated Samoans of Margaret Mead have been proven to be a fiction. The Samoans of Mead’s time endured high levels of rape, as criminal records would have made plain to a serious researcher.)
Consequently, all communities have placed taboos and prohibitions on sexual behavior. Some taboos are universal: the loathing of incest, for example. Others appear more culture-driven: the level of control of women by men varies significantly over time and space. Regardless of how arbitrary the local rules may seem, some rules are necessary. That has been universally understood, until our own day.
As Roger Sandall observes in this excellent essay, the Western nations — the modern world — have been progressively sexualizing everyday life. Our popular culture treats sex as a freely available commodity. Pornography is surely the largest Internet domain. Exhibitionism and obscene language are accepted in public spaces.
The taboos of the past resemble once-white urban walls, which gangs compete over to deface. Homosexuality has somehow moved from the love that dare not speak its name to a verbose media and artistic obsession: from titillated silence to weary deafness in a generation. And in a world in which all desires are legitimate, Sandall observes, pederasty will necessarily emerge from the shadows and stake a claim: men openly chased boys in the classical world, after all.
Social life is complex, and every cultural transformation has many causes. We can, if we wish, blame Freud for the sexualization of everyday life. He held that sexual repression led to unhappiness. That was bad science, but a good excuse to indulge. Sandall himself blames writers and artists, who used their genius to mock self-restraint and preach a post-Freudian amorality. He singles out Thomas Mann for glamorizing pederasty in Death in Venice, and Nabokov for doing the same to incest and pederasty in Lolita.
True enough. But in my opinion the most corrosive aspect of the equation is also the most obvious: sex sells. In a world glutted with information, the display of a sexual image catches attention. Beer commercials, aiming at men, show sexy women. Magazines of every stripe do the same. Even on the Internet, pornography mostly has to be paid for. These aren’t freely associating dirty old people. It isn’t personal — it’s business.
Unless banned by law, sex sells. It commands people’s attention, and often their cash. Google the word “sex” today and one obtains an astonishing 436 million hits. “God” for all his power and glory only gets 336 million; “politics,” so endlessly blathered about in this town of Washington, a mere 231 million.
Sex sells. The question is what to do about it. Some desires are clearly evil. Some actions are criminally wrong. The rape or abuse of women is wrong, for example. The molestation of minors is wrong. Whether real or virtual, the sexual exploitation of women and children must be punished harshly by the law.
And for the rest? For the rest, we come to individual decisions. Sex sells because there are buyers. It shouldn’t be banned — not can it be banned, realistically. Great art often relies on the attractive power of sex: any who doubt this, look on the Venus de Milo. Great fun can be had mocking our sexual predilections, as playwrights from Terence to Goldsmith have done. Grownups, who can hardly avoid the subject, are able to deal with it forthrightly.
But what we call “adult” material trades for profit on an adolescent fixation with body parts. We are free to participate in this market, or to opt out. It isn’t a question of law, but of character.
It all hinges on the kind of person we aspire to become, and the kind of community we wish to live in.