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The body as a battlefield

Published on December 17, 2010 by: in: Thought

Liberals are often compelled to stress that the state is not the only body able to limit the freedom of an individual. Liberalism originally developed to restrict the arbitrariness of state authorities and aimed to prevent the private sphere of life from the influence of interventionist bureaucrats. However, having built the constitutional system of the state under the rule of law and having limited these phenomena, it was bound to notice the insufficiency of those operations. Preventing the private sphere from the public was only a part of the actual battle to protect the freedom of man. The private sphere was the place where an enemy of freedom lurked. It appeared in the form of customs and practices connected with limiting the freedom of the traditionally weaker part of the society by more influential individuals. This part of the battle for freedom turned out to be much harder for liberals, of course. It was relatively easy to deprive the state of instruments used for limiting freedom. Liberals had to take power and force  constitutions and laws through in accordance with their ideology. It happened in virtually all the countries of the Western Europe in the years 1830-90. These activities had the support of the public opinion that traditionally demonstrated hostility or at least distrust towards the governing bodies of the state. However, an attempt to introduce liberal legislation to the private sphere as a means of protecting an individual from the social environment was something totally different. A ban on imposing one’s opinion was considered to be, as in the case of school duties, an attempt on the freedom of individuals dominating in various social systems like a parish or a family. Thus, it met with incomparably more opposition. It faces opposition up until today, as some responses to the new legislations concerning violence in families prove. Topics related to sexuality are certainly a particularly delicate problem in this framework. It is no longer only the private sphere, but also the intimate one. This sphere has been also subject to oppressive and informal customary regulations. No doubt, they have limited freedom of especially young people and particularly young women.

Since time immemorial

Restrictive approach to the sexuality of young people has very long “traditions”. The intimate sphere was subject to tight control and restrictions in many tribes that evolved into the Western civilization. Countless and irrational rituals and superstitious beliefs arose around it. Mentality required treating the sexual potential of young women as a special sort of “good” that was guarded by the elders of the tribe, and directly by the father and brothers of a woman. They were obliged to protect her virginity and hand over the woman to the future husband intact. Hence, young women’s sexuality was treated as father’s private property and was at his disposal (except for incest taboo) until marriage. This meant subjecting these women to slavery, and although it did not involve their whole personality but one vital sphere of life, it has to be called this way. According to Christian ethics, young men’s sexuality was controlled in the same way, though not so rigorously. They were obliged to abstain from sex until marriage too. Society extended a compelling control over them too. It was weaker as a result of the pre-Christian cultural code and patriarchal social structure. “Close your eyes and think of England”, mocked today, used to be a widespread proverb in England that referred to women who were expected to give birth to male descendants of royal families. They were to think about England also during the intercourse so that, God forbid, a thought about potential ecstasy would not cross their minds. The above description of extremely repressive sexual ethics in some cultural circles remains valid even today. A lot has changed in the Latin civilization and the scope of restrictive ethics has decreased. However, the mentality, instinct and inclination to embrace control over young people and introduce prohibitions are still present. Sexual abstinence does not cease to be highly valued in many societies, also after marriage. It is perceived as a means of self-control, discipline, ability to oppose instincts that are considered “low”, “dirty” and “despicable”. Ideally, sex should serve exclusively procreative purposes and never utilitarian ones, since drawing pleasure from it is perceived as sinful.

After the Second World War, especially due to changes in social conventions and spreading oral contraceptives in the 1960’s, the significance and value of premarital sexual abstinence decreased drastically. Yet, the problem of controlling and restricting young people gained in social importance. Teenagers started to reach physical maturity earlier as a result of improving standard of living, particularly in terms of nutrition. In case of girls, it has changed from 17 years two centuries ago to even 12 years nowadays. On the other hand, the average age of marriage in the USA, which hardly exceeded 20 before the social revolution half a century ago, now amounts to 25 for women and 27 for men. If we define “the trial period” when a family has to impose restrictions and repressions on the sexuality of its young members as a period of time since reaching physical sexual maturity until getting married, which marks the socially accepted start of sexual activity, then it has extended from 3 to 13 years, that is over 400%. We have to add increasing awareness of sexual needs among young people. It is connected with an easier access to materials of erotic character and decreasing emotional maturity, which results from many factors, such as common cultural infantilization. Consequently, “the trial period” has become a much more difficult challenge and a complex problem for teachers, those who still support restrictive sexual ethics as well as those who notice real problems in adolescence and perceive them in a rational manner, free from superstitions of the archaic cultural code.

“Morality” and morality

Nowadays liberal sexual ethics dominates in Western countries. Restrictive ethics remains present in numerous social groups that are usually louder and more eager to present their stand in an exaggerated way, of course using religious arguments very frequently. Political elites of most countries are one of the groups that cling to restrictive ethics. A political leader, “a leader of a nation” should be rather prudish and generally more conservative than an average citizen in sexual issues according to a sort of social contract between the ruling and ruled, rituals connected with politics or even political correctness. People representing liberal views on it accepted this state of affairs and settle for legislative idleness of politicians and limiting their attachment to restrictive sexual ethics to declarations, gestures and poses. These images are regularly destroyed after showing sex “scandals” of politicians. It does not make any change and the successors again willingly devote themselves to creating conservative appearances. It seems to result from a tradition of the elders of tribes who perceived embracing young and inexperienced members with trusteeship as their duty. They strived to protect them from the consequences of yielding to temptations. The main reason for natural inclination to conservative attitudes in terms of sexuality is that restrictive sexual ethics is still perceived as more moral and responsible than liberal ethics. The question is whether this thesis is reasonable.

The traditional Christian hierarchy of values, where every form of premarital and extramarital sex is considered to be morally evil, is basic for the thesis that morality obliges us to choose the restrictive sexual ethics. If sexual abstinence until marriage and virginity as such are important values, then activities that effectively prevent their loss, strict imperatives and prohibitions during “the trial period” are reasonable. They gain moral superiority over the strategy of education which allows their loss. There is no point arguing with the matters of faith, of course. Attempts to prove little or a lack of value of virginity and sexual abstinence are worthless. But apart from that, there are still questions concerning the thesis about high moral value of the restrictive sexual ethics. There is no doubt that man will generate drives and sexual needs naturally and independently of their own. Punishing for drives is hence definitely immoral, since punishing an individual for circumstances independent from them is always unfair. Legitimacy of restraining drives and specific acts resulting from drives is disputable, however. Somebody who perceives the value of virginity and abstinence as absolute will of course admit this legitimacy. A person that will take into consideration other moral issues may answer in a different way. Firstly, the restrictive moral ethics is based on beliefs and views referring to permitted and prohibited sexual acts that are completely arbitrary. Thus, imposing them on another man raises moral objection from the liberal point of view. Secondly and more importantly, sexual needs constitute a great power. Restraining and penalizing them, making young people feel guilty, loading their conscience with such a burden and placing them in front of difficult dilemmas due to ideological convictions of arbitrary people raises doubts of ideological nature, actually. It is  sort of abuse.

In the end, there is a question whether those who absolutize virginity achieve moral goals they seek. Hypocrisy and Grundyism have accompanied the restrictive sexual ethics for ages. Typically used alternatives for a standard sexual intercourse that is banned are other sexual behaviours, especially oral sex which formally does not violate the absolute value of virginity. It is hard to reckon this social phenomenon, known as “technical virginity”, a moral success of the strategy based on prohibitions and sexual oppression.

“Responsibility” and responsibility

The fact that abstinence protects us from unwanted pregnancy and venereal diseases constitutes an indisputable argument in favour of sexual abstinence and the restrictive ethics in education, if we talk about responsibility. The problem lies somewhere else. The restrictive ethics involves the conviction that knowledge about sex, especially contraception, is an invitation and encouragement to sex. According to this view, such knowledge constitutes a threat for the ultimate task of protecting virginity. Hence, the objective in terms of young people’s education is to isolate them from this knowledge as far as possible. This is how the restrictive sexual ethics shows its extreme irresponsibility.

If human sexual drives were weak impulses, isolating young people from knowledge and keeping them in the darkness of ignorance would have some cynical sense, possibly. Since they are powerful forces that modify human behaviour to a large extent, however, ignorance is dangerous and increases the risk. Supporters of the restrictive ethics very unwillingly admit that their system based on prohibitions and control often turns out to be ineffective and ends in failure. Young people decide to ignore the ban in certain circumstances. Then, lack of knowledge exposes them to additional threats, diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Knowledge about sex and contraception is in fact an insignificant incentive to devote oneself to sexual acts compared to numerous impulses in media, culture and environment. Isolation from the whole contemporary world, peers brought up according to another kind of ethics, life in seclusion or in a religious community would be the only effective solution. If we do not choose one of these, knowledge must be delivered. Another solution is irresponsible.

It brings visible negative consequences. Teenagers suffer from ignorance and excessive embarrassment concerning the intimate sphere of life. They are not able to break the barriers rooted in their personality to find knowledge from other sources than the family home where they cannot obtain it. There are cases of girls convinced that they are dying on the day of the first menstruation because no one equipped them with knowledge of this matter. The widely described so called “surprised virgin syndrome” refers to girls that experienced the first sexual intercourse unaware of the fact that they were dealing with an actual sexual intercourse. There is sociological research concerning movements like “True Love Waits” in the United States, according to which young people swear to live in chastity until marriage. It has shown certain effectiveness that manifests in a statistically later time of sexual initiation than in the case of teenagers who did not take an oath. On the other hand, a great deal of those members who broke the oath did not use any form of contraception. Statistically they admit  more often than the average of whole population that they did not plan the intercourse, and school initiatives for the sake of abstinence even increase the number of pregnant teenagers. All this, of course, results from reluctance to provide young people with reliable knowledge due to completely absurd reasons. The culture of the Western civilization is still affected by the problem of inability to perceive teenagers as beings that have the sexual dimension. There is still a lack of a mature approach to their education, without taboos, stereotypes or harmful prudery. The responsible solution is a rational approach based on openness and intergeneration dialogue on sex issues.

Of course the opposite of the restrictive sexual ethics, that is an encouragement for early sexual initiation, would be equally or even more irresponsible. In fact, there are good reasons for which delaying initiation makes sense and actions taken up for its sake are responsible. However, the arguments do not consist in irrational convictions or beliefs about the value of abstinence, inhibitions, combating needs and drives and finally the mythical purity. A good reason for consideration is the gap between the pace of physical and emotional maturation of people. It is not a good idea to devote oneself to actions we are physically prepared to but not emotionally, not to mention the economical ability to face the consequences like pregnancy. An individual should make use of freedom, including sexual, if one is ready to cope with potential and probable consequences responsibly. It is a reflection based on most rational premises, not a quasi-religious dogma.  It is a suggestion, to which young people ought to be encouraged by means of an honest introduction to the problem. They should be given full knowledge that is free from the ideological filter, confronted with arguments “for” and “against” as well as warning against a series of possible negative consequences that  objectively exist. In the end, however, there is no other solution than leaving a free choice. It is impossible to establish full control and effective repression anyway. Instead, we need to trust the reason of well-shaped young people and respect them. We have to assume that their choices concerning the time of sexual initiation will be the right choices for their individual cases.

Instead of responsibility

Lack of openness, rationalism and freedom from sexual inhibitions have many negative consequences we can observe. Even a fully adult person still cannot achieve emotional maturity in terms of the intimate sphere of life if they have been brought up in extreme oppression towards their sexuality. Serious behavioural disorders result from loading personality, conscience and a sense of guilt with a mixture of taboo, shame and impulsive reactions. Ignorance of sexual matters remains, because there is still opposition against possessing such knowledge. It has disastrous effects on the education of children and discomfort of  parents discourages children from asking any questions. Not only does it pass sexual oppressiveness down to next generations, but it also can hinder any dialogue within a family on all topics and weaken the trust between parents and children.

Marriages also suffer from the way premarital sexual abstinence is idealized. Strong polygamous inclinations of many people certainly lead to countless divorces around the world. Premarital experiences with a number of partners may restrict sexual needs that lead to unfaithfulness, though it is not a guarantee of course. A lack of such experiences and “discovering” the sexual sphere after marriage undoubtedly can constitute an impulse to make up for earlier abstinence and result in infidelity.

Thus, basing sexual education on promoting premarital abstinence may have disastrous consequences after marriage too. Currently we can observe growing opposition in terms of institutionalized sexual education on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Radically religious movements are very strong in the US in the political and social spheres. They agree to finance educational programmes provided abstinence is promoted in the first place. In Europe, on the other hand, more pragmatic premises weigh upon the profile of education. Rational analysis of reality requires resigning from the American approach as highly ineffective.

Unfortunately, Poland is much closer to the American model, which of course results from excessive influences religion exerts upon social life in our country. Sexual education as such is perceived as evil, depravation, demoralization and “spoiling” young people. Instead, a subject called euphemistically “education for family life” is taught at schools. In this case, however, euphemism incautiously exposes ideologically motivated inadequacy. The point in educating young people lies in preparing them to live before they found a family and not after its foundation.

Fear is a bad advisor

The restrictive sexual ethics is a product of ignorance, mistrust, lack of belief, arrogance, ideological obstinacy, religious dogmatism, and above all fear. Fear from the problems of unwanted pregnancy or diseases, such as AIDS, inclines people to use seemingly the easiest solution: prohibition, control, restriction and a threat of punishment. “Strong” response to the threat creates the best illusion of security. Time after time, we realise that people do not analyse problems rationally and prefer ostensible security or even its illusion over freedom. It works in a similar way as in the case of public security, where the criminal code is toughened up as a result of an increasing crime rate, civil liberties withdrawn due to terrorism, and secret services obtain extra rights because of corruption. Fear from losing a job or poverty acts analogically and results in stiffening of the labour code, increasing benefits and taxes. These reactions are always wrong, but closer to the human nature.

The liberal sexual ethics offers freedom that always involves some risk. However, it is based on respect for the autonomic character of a person. Man has the right to choose, but also the obligation to suffer the consequences. Man has the right to determine one’s own fate. If one has enough knowledge, they will probably make the right choice. The ability to make a responsible decision constitutes a basis of moral behaviour. Seeking pleasure in life is normal and does not deserve condemnation. That is why unnatural sexual actions are not automatically immoral. The only condition of morality is voluntary participation of all people engaged in a given sexual practice. Voluntariness gives rise to acceptability. Hence, the only inacceptable and absolutely immoral act by definition is the act of rape. Rape includes every act that involves people who are unable to express their will due to their age or for example mental disorders.

Irresponsible sex, in turn, is an act that involves people who are mentally immature for it. Actions that sustain this immaturity as well as ignoring it by refusing young people the access to knowledge and education in the atmosphere of taboo and banned topics are extremely irresponsible. Premarital sex as such, on the other hand, is neither immoral nor irresponsible, just like sexual experiments that should not be the subject of interest or evaluating by the outsiders and all the more socio-political organizations.


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About Piotr Beniuszys

Piotr Beniuszys holds Master’s degree in sociology and political science; his views are to the right in economic issues, to the left in ethical and moral issues – i.e. liberal in both cases; the final chairman of Unia Wolności in Gdańsk, a former member of Democratic Party –

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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