The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 8, In Praise of Taboos

Chapter 3 of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is entitled "Some Desires are Bad."

In Chapter 3 Perry argues that taboos serve a positive function in society, and that when we lose taboos, those bright moral lines in the sand, the moral fabric of a society can quickly unravel. This argument, of course, cuts against the progressive grain of the sexual revolution, which has prided itself on breaking and transgressing sexual taboos. 

Perry starts the chapter by discussing the moral foundations research of Jonathan Haidt. I expect many of you are familiar with Haidt's work. For our purposes, Haidt's research has shown how the moral code of liberals and progressives reduces to concerns about harm and equity. This is why the moral sensibility of the sexual revolution reduces to consent. If no one is being harmed, then no one should object about what consenting adults are up to in the bedroom. If everyone is consenting, you can do anything you're into. There are no taboos.

And yet, human societies possess moral sensibilities beyond harm and equity. One of those sensibilities is the distinction between the sacred and profane. This domain tends to be regulated by taboos, actions that are strongly prohibited to protect the dignity of persons and the moral compass of society. As Haidt has shown, conservatives, due to their religious sensibilities, want to protect the sacred. Liberals, by contrast, see respect for the sacred as an oppressive powerplay, inserting religious values into a secular, pluralistic public space. Liberation is achieved, rather, by throwing off traditional sexual constraints and transgressing sexual taboos.

There's a lot to debate here. Think, for example, about traditional taboos regarding divorce. Getting or being divorced was once very taboo. Today, divorce is much less taboo. Even among Christians. Has this been a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it's a mixed bag, isn't it? Divorced people in my church are not shamed or stigmatized. Divorced people can even serve as elders, the role in my church reserved for the most spiritually mature among us. And all this is a good thing. And yet, as Perry will discuss later in her book, the loss of the taboo surrounding divorce has also had negative social consequences. Study after study has shown that the best thing for a child is living in a home with both biological parents. Study after study has shown that the most vulnerable children are children being raised by a single mother. And study after study has shown that the most dangerous person in a child's life is a step-parent. The loss of the taboo about divorce has had demonstrable effects.

What is difficult for us, in our highly polarized world, is an honest and balanced accounting of these gains and losses. While Perry admits that the sexual revolution liberated us from oppressive sexual mores, she wants to point to some of the damage that has been done as well. Specifically, as a society we've lost the collective ability to say "some desires are bad." And while there is a liberation with an "anything goes" sexual ethic, there's also a correlated unraveling, as the bare ethical minimum of seeking consent isn't able to capture moral sensibilities that fall outside the narrow categories of harm and equity. Some values ground and structure society, and those values might need a wee bit of protection. And I'm sharing Perry's concerns here as someone who holds progressive views on many culture war issues. 

To make her point, Perry cites a famous passage from G.K. Chesterton:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
As Perry goes on to comment:
Chesterton points out that the person who doesn't understand the purpose of a social institution is the last person who should be allowed to reform it. The world is big and dynamic--so much so that literally no one is capable of fully understanding it or predicting how its systems might respond to change. The parable of 'Chesterton's Fence' ought to encourage caution in would-be reformers, because there is such a thing as society, and it is more complex than any of us can fathom.

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