Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sexuality and the De-valuing of Humans

Today in my Byzantium and the Islamic Empire class, we were discussing the effects of the early church's repudiation of the value of sex for anything other than procreation, and its effects on society (we were looking at it from Muhammad's perspective in the 7th century, but that's not important here). My professor asserted that the teaching contributed significantly to the devaluing of women for many centuries, and the subsequent lower status that females had. Based on this assertion, an interesting thesis popped into my head, though I'm not sure if it has been argued elsewhere or not. I agreed with the professor, and going a step further, I believe that the sexual revolution of the 20th century and the philosophical change toward sexuality that has occured has swung the pendulum the opposite direction. That is, the "sex as a commodity" approach that sociologists speak of amounts to a repudiation of sex in a similar way, but this time it does so to the suppression and detriment of all non-married people.

Obviously, I'd have to tighten this thesis up quite a bit, and I haven't developed it very much. I do see an alarming trend in our culture, where sex within marriage is not given higher status than sex outside of marriage. If there is no philosophical difference between the two, the results are disastrous, with children being born out of wedlock, sexually transmitted diseases running amok, and marriages breaking down constantly.

Thus, my basic argument is a descriptive one, and would therefore require a lot of sociological and historical data to back up. At this point, I just want to throw it out there to see what everyone thinks. Is the liberal view of sexuality in our culture leading to devastating consequences? If so (which I think the answer is clearly yes), then is the ultimate consequence the devaluing of humanity in general? I think the answer to this is also a yes. When we no longer care about illegitimate child rates, divorce rates (broken homes with children), and sexually transmitted diseases killing thousands, then I think we have lost a large degree of human dignity and worth.

Let me know what you think.

18 Comments:

At 10:39 AM, Blogger StandingOutInTheCold said...

I think the majority of our culture leads to the devaluing of the human. The overarching mantra of "progessive" culture is "let people do what they want as long as they aren't hurting other people." At first this seems like a very liberating and altruistic ideal. However, what this really leads to is "I don't care about what anyone else is doing and I don't want anyone to tell me what to do." Which further devolves into, "I don't care about anyone but myself." At this point can the human be further devalued? We don't care about anyone else, most people have no value to us except how they can hurt or benefit us. In conclusion, I think that sexuality is a symptom, not a cause, of the devaluing of the human.

 
At 11:48 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

I'm not exactly sure what your first thesis is--if it's something like "the contemporary commodification of sex has decreased its value," or something abstract like that, I'd have to disagree.

As for your second thesis, though, "the liberal view of sexuality in our culture is leading to devastating consequences," I'd absolutely agree, and I think this affords me the chance to clarify my position on some social issues.

In posts about sexuality or contraception or abortion it often seems like I'm arguing that the current state of affairs is acceptable, or good, or the best of all possible worlds, or the best it's ever been, or some derivative or combination of these. It is never my aim to do this--rather, it's to try to deflate grand claims about the current status of society, like "sexuality was healthier in the 1950s than it is today" or "sexuality was healthier in France in 1284 than it is today" or "the commodification of sex has destroyed its value." Those are enormous claims requiring massive historical and sociological backup: they might even be true, but they're nearly impossible to establish in a comment on a blog. We have better discussions when we keep our arguments more local.

So, back to the matter at hand: the liberal (and by that we mean permissive or hedonistic, presumably, and not FDR or John Kerry) view of sexuality does have devastating consequences--divorce, STDs, and cohabitation, which mair will tell you is probably worse than a nuclear weapon. There is lots of work to be done--we need to reduce the number of abortions, the number of divorces, the prevalence of AIDS and STDs, the acceptance of cohabitation, the number of children in foster care, etc.

HOWEVER, when you draw conclusions like "I think we have lost a large degree of human dignity and worth," it's there that I part ways with you. When did we have so much more dignity and worth? In 1950? In 1920? In 1620? In 732? In 499 BC? Has anything improved in the past two hundred years? I think the sexual revolution had good and bad consequences; I think contraception made a lot of good things possible and a lot of bad things possible. Would you really want to argue that sexuality in America is less healthy than sexuality in Saudi Arabia, or sexuality in 1890s America? Which is better--repression or promiscuity? Do we have to choose? There are a lot of hard questions you should wrestle with before concluding that we've lost dignity. We might have--you're just going to need a longer blog post to establish it.

=)

standingout: I care about you.

 
At 12:36 PM, Blogger Barnabas18 said...

Charles...

I obviously agree with you about the enormity of the claims that I made, and that a short blog post would never be enough to substantiate such a claim. I want to answer your question:

"Which is better--repression or promiscuity? Do we have to choose?"

I think this is largely what I was getting at, that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. We've gone from an unhealthy repressive form of sexuality, and at many points in history a completely negative view, to a far too liberal (and yes, I mean hedonistic and permissive) form of sexuality. Both have devastating consequences. And on another note, I agree with Mair that cohabitation and divorce are both worse than a nuclear bomb.

Standing... I don't necessarily agree with your critique that sexuality is the cart and not the horse here, but I can see your point. Personally, when it comes to sociology, I tend to see most of it boiling down to sexuality, but that's my personal sociological bias.

 
At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Nathan Peretic said...

I left a comment for you at my blog. In a nutshell: Yes, I agree, unbridled sexual “liberty” is problematic for society. No, it’s not devaluing our humanity. It’s quite natural.

 
At 3:28 PM, Blogger StandingOutInTheCold said...

"when it comes to sociology, I tend to see most of it boiling down to sexuality, but that's my personal sociological bias."

Freudian much? Maybe that reflects your own approach to society more than society itself ;)

 
At 8:13 PM, Anonymous smash said...

Good post. I'm curious to what de-valuing of humans you think occurs between Christian couples when they have a very physical but non-sexual relationship.

 
At 1:03 PM, Blogger Barnabas18 said...

Smash...I think what you're talking about is a different subject altogether, but I know what you're saying. When Christians are in a physical relationship outside of marriage, I think it causes them to become far too attached to something that is completely artificial. It is so easy to let a physical relationship take the place of a deeply rooted one. Plus, it is extremely difficult to draw a line when it comes to purity, no matter how harmless the physical acts seem at the beginning.

As for dignity? I think every relationship that gets the least bit physical before marriage takes something away from that person's future spouse, and that is the primary reason why I refuse to get involved in a physical relationship before marriage.

That was a bit all over the place, but oh well.

 
At 8:49 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

I think I'm missing something in your "thesis" here - if it's just "sexual freedom helps destroy marriage/nuclear family," without arguing the validity of the idea, it seems to be the party line, right? I mean, Dobson has been saying that for a while now, right?

 
At 5:11 AM, Blogger Barnabas18 said...

This post didn't quite come across like i meant it to...

What I really mean is that it is analagous to the sexual repression of late antiquity, which held the status of women down. It would take a lot more argumentation, but oh well.

 
At 11:46 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Barnabas, I think this is a good post, but, like you said, requires a lot of fleshing out. Here is what I take to be your primary thesis:

“I do see an alarming trend in our culture, where sex within marriage is not given higher status than sex outside of marriage. If there is no philosophical difference between the two, the results are disastrous, with children being born out of wedlock, sexually transmitted diseases running amok, and marriages breaking down constantly.”

I woul argue, actually, that there has been an incredible de-commidifaction of sex in our contemporary culture. I would argue that marital sex was extremely commodified in both the agricultural and geneological classes of the western past (for reasons of labor and legitmation, respectively). I would argue also that there were several categories of extra-marital sex that were extremely commodified in the past (e.g. sexual rights of masters over slaves, “spoils of war” sex, prostitution, etc.).

That is not to say that there has not been an incredible commodification of sex in our contemporary culture also. The prevalence and position of pornography, for instances, is on the rise in an unprecedented way. Porn is a mainstream, lucrative, and influential commodity in a way that it has never been in the past.

This is what I take to be your secondary thesis:

“[If my original thesis is correct,] then is the ultimate consequence the devaluing of humanity in general? I think the answer to this is also a yes. When we no longer care about illegitimate child rates, divorce rates (broken homes with children), and sexually transmitted diseases killing thousands, then I think we have lost a large degree of human dignity and worth.”

Again, I think you may want to clarify this a bit. It seems that there is a certain type of devaluation that has occurred, but I wouldn’t want to generaize that. I mean, STDs do kill lots of people, but nothing close to what influenza used to kill (which we have done a great job of curtailing precisely because our valuation of humanity has been on the rise). What I think we actually see is a “clash of cultures.” There are those, like you and I, who would couch discussions of sexuality in terms of “value” while there are others who would couch it in terms of “empowerment.” There is a basic disagreement about the terms by which this part of human existence operate. So, what seems like empowerment to one may seem like devaluation to another, and vice versa. I think there is something more fundamental going on than commodification, but I may be wrong.

 
At 11:57 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

“I agreed with the professor, and going a step further, I believe that the sexual revolution of the 20th century and the philosophical change toward sexuality that has occured has swung the pendulum the opposite direction.”

I guess here is the question: the pendulum of what? I can invision three problems with this:

1) If this “pendulum” is the commodification of sex, then I think you may have to either conceed that there are multiple arenas in which sex operates and has been either commodified or decommodified over time or that you would have to localize your thesis to one particular arena of sex,

2) If this “pendulum” is the morality of sex, then I think you would face the problem of trying to write from some meta-morality that allows you to both critique the extremes of the pendulum and also define some appropriate middle ground, and

3) If I am right in my previous post that the break is on some fundamental level about what terms by which sexuality opperates, then perhaps the pendulum analogy doesn’t work at all. There is, in this view, no swing, but rather a break with an ever-widening gulf. The vocabular and grammar have changed and translation is becoming increasingly difficult. As such, there is no swing back and forth, only irresolvable conflict.

 
At 4:42 PM, Blogger Mair said...

I’m not going to say anything about the actual content of this post because I don’t really even know where to start. But, I have to ask just one question (maybe two):
1)How can you say that sociology all comes down to sex? And, related:
2)What do you actually know about sociology that would allow you to make a comment like that?

As a sociologist, I just have to lay the smack down. So, here goes.

I suspect that the reason you think sociology all comes down to sex is that you are using what you call “sociology” has a method for proving your point of view is the correct one. This is a bastardization of sociology that I just can’t allow.

Sociology is not statistics and demographics that are to be used by battling ideologists as fuel for their respective fires. Sociology, in fact, is not a method at all, but a form of consciousness that informs one’s thinking about the entirety of the world and especially of our existence as social beings. That being the case, it is offensive on so many levels that you (who as far as I know aren’t a sociologist) would make a statement that “sociology all comes down to sex.” A more fitting statement for you would have been, “For me, everything that’s wrong with society all comes down to sex.” The narrow lens with through which you are viewing issues of the family, gender, sex as a commodity, etc., make it even more evident that you do not possess the sociological imagination, and aren’t qualified to make statements about “what it all comes down to” because any sociologist who is worth their tenure would answer (as Max Weber always did) that “it’s all very complicated.”

 
At 12:07 AM, Blogger Barnabas18 said...

Mair...

I understand completely the complexity of sociology...and I love the field of sociology. I misspoke if I said that all of sociology comes down to sex, because what I meant was that my bias for explaining social institutions deals largely with sex. What I should have said is something more along the lines of, "I believe that the way a society views sexual relations largely determines the types and relative strength of their social institutions." You will probably disagree with that, but I think that better characterizes what I mean to say.

As for me personally, I am not a sociologist, but I have just today been offered a job working in the social domestic policy department of the Heritage Foundation. My background in sociology is limited to a few undergraduate classes, and my own personal reading of some Weber materials. I'm not claiming expertise in the field, and appreciate your input, though I think you went to town on a comment that was peripheral to the discussion.

 
At 6:47 AM, Blogger Mair said...

Barnabas,
Thanks for your response. I came on a little strong, and will back up slightly for the sake of discourse. Here's the thing. While your comment may have been peripheral to the discussion at hand, I don't think it is peripheral to your argument, and that is what rubbed me the wrong way. I will agree with you that "the sexual revolution" led to unforseeable consequences in other areas of social life. I really do think that the decoupling of sex from marriage, and of procreation from marriage had devistating effects on the insitution of the family. But, I think to say that it all comes down to sex is a reduction that flattens out a social landscape that is irreducibly complex.

I also object to what seems to be you using the tools of sociology to make moral claims, and to convince people of moral truths and boundaries. That is better suited to theology and moral philosophy than to sociology.

 
At 6:53 AM, Blogger Barnabas18 said...

Mair,

I can appreciate your response, and am largely willing to acknowledge that I'm using sociology/history to prove a moral point, perhaps to a fault.

However, I am not trying to prove commodified sex outside of marriage as morally wrong (though I think it is), but instead that from a practial standpoint, is a negative sociological trend. In order to really prove this, I understand that I would have to do a lot more work to connect the breakdown of the family with a differing view of sexuality, which I haven't done, and can't really do on this blog.

 
At 7:58 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/
02/19/opinion/19coontz.html

A few good things have happened in the last hundred years. A few.

 
At 8:22 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

I'm not going to become a member of the NYT, and I don't have the patience to click through some bugmenot portal, so I never read articles like that. Why do they do that to people?

 
At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I do see an alarming trend in our culture, where sex within marriage is not given higher status than sex outside of marriage. If there is no philosophical difference between the two, the results are disastrous, with children being born out of wedlock, sexually transmitted diseases running amok, and marriages breaking down constantly."

I think you're and idiot who is living in a dream. STDs still happen INSIDE marriage as people are not always faithful, christian divorce rates are through the roof, and to prevent children from being born we use contraceptives. Marriage is as much a civil ceremony as a religious one if not more so because the fact remains that there are certain rights and obligations a couple only obtains through marriage in a lot of countries.

Sex has been with us since the start of life and your bronze-age book's ideas about it are no longer relevant, like most of the items it mentions. Examples include the bible's stance on homosexuality and women, and its condoning of and guidelines on slavery. And really, it features talking snakes and donkeys and a global flood which we can confirm never happened (see geological record) so it might not be the best source of information.

In closing, just because you're not getting any, don't stick your nose in my sexual business. I'll decide who to have sex with and when, and if you're living under the illusion that I'm having sex carelessly or without feeling just because I have had multiple partners you are an idiot.

 

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