The Shifting Sands of Sexual Ethics image

The Shifting Sands of Sexual Ethics

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Last week over coffee with friends Grace and I were talking about life, and our kids, and everything, and inevitably we got onto discussing the challenges facing young people today. And inevitably, a lot of these challenges are to do with sexuality. For the boys, especially, it is porn – and the social pressures that come if a boy doesn’t go with the gang and look at porn. For the girls, especially, it is about finding identity in relationships.

The sexual status of young women is a defining element of how any culture organises itself, and expresses what it values. In most cultures throughout most of human history pre-marital virginity has been seen of high value – in economic terms virginity had a high exchange value, and had to be guarded until a woman was safely married off. In large part this was due to the understanding of the indissoluble link between sex and reproduction, and of the value then placed upon producing legitimate offspring. For a woman to have sex with anyone but her husband might mean her progeny would be in some way tainted or suspect. This also meant that there was often a large degree of hypocrisy, with men allowed to express themselves sexually outside of marriage, while women were not.
 
In The Diary of a Seducer Kierkegaard expressed this dynamic well, “Once a girl has given away everything, she is weak, she has lost everything; for in the man innocence is a negative factor, while for the woman it is her whole worth.”
 
The Seducer in Kierkegaard’s tale sets out to take a young woman’s virginity, and having done so leaves her broken and desolate. As a virgin she had power; once seduced she is a hollow shell.
 
Things are very different today.
 
Rather than holding onto virginity as a high value mechanism of power, girls are now told that if they refuse to have sex they will never get a boyfriend – and to not have a boyfriend is to endure social leprosy. A young woman’s worth now seems to be defined more by her willingness to dispense sexual favours freely, rather than by carefully retaining them for the day of her marriage.
 
Only it still doesn’t work out quite like that.
 
Mrs Hosier teaches part time at a boys secondary school in Poole; the parallel school to the girls secondary school that Daughter No.1 attends. One of the things that Grace has observed is that while the boys are more than happy to take advantage of any sexual favours the girls may offer, they have very little respect for those girls. Instead, they actually prefer those girls whose behaviour places them in a more Kierkegaardian type world. Which to me would suggest, at least, that the sexual revolution of the past 40 years has not been an embracing of what is the natural order of things for human society, but has instead been decidedly against the grain.
 
Things that are against the grain tend not to endure. So perhaps our current cultural assumptions about sexuality are not the shape of the future. Perhaps – just perhaps – when my children (or their children) are middle-aged and discussing their kids over coffee with friends, it will be a different set of problems that are occupying them to those that we wrestle with today.

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