The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 13, There is More to Harm than Guilt

Why am I, someone with progressive Christian and political beliefs, devoting so much time reflecting on Louise Perry's book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution

The main reason is that, as regular readers know, I've come to identify myself as "post-progressive." And one of the reasons I've moved into this new space, as I've shared, is a dissatisfaction with the progressive Christian conversation about sex. Sharply stated, progressive Christianity doesn't have anything to say about sex beyond sacralizing the reigning cultural consensus of guilt-free sex with the minimum ethical standard of mutual consent. 

Broadly speaking, progressive Christians have tried to minimize the guilt associated with sex by lowering the stakes of sex. If sex us just "fun," no big deal, then hooking up is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you're encouraged to do this. 

As a post-progressive, I'm not interested in making anyone feel guilty for having sex. I think just about all of my college students are having sex, and I don't have a judgmental bone in my body about any of that. But as a post-progressive, I do think that sex is pretty high stakes, and that lowering its stakes is a recipe for a lot of hurt. So while I don't judge my students, I do worry about them. 

What do I mean by sex being "high stakes"? 

The progressive moral code is basically "do no harm." If no one is being hurt, then no one should have any moral objection. This includes sex. If everyone is consenting in the bedroom you can keep your nose out of my business. 

But here's my question: Does consent capture everything we mean by harm when it comes to sex? This is the question I think The Case Against the Sexual Revolution gets on our radar screen, a deeper consideration of what may or may not be harmful when it comes to sex. Simply put, more than guilt is at stake in sex, and yet guilt is just about the only thing progressive Christians seem interested in talking about (likely as a reactive posture toward evangelical purity culture). I'm not interested in making anyone feel guilty about sex, but I am concerned about harms that aren't captured by consent. I think #MeToo brought a lot of those harms into the light.

And consider this question that wasn't captured by #MeToo. Imagine a young man in a relationship with a young woman. She very much has a romantic crush on him, is falling in love with him. For his part, he likes this young woman, considers her a good friend. And being a young male, he does entertain thoughts of having sex with her. And she's willing. She'd give consent. But the young man doesn't love her. So, an ethical question: Should he have sex with her? How do you calculate the harm he'll do to her by having sex with her, knowing that, in the end, it's "just sex" for him but so much more for her? Having sex will cause her to fall more deeply in love, and he knows he's going to walk away. So, should he have sex with her? What choice causes more or less harm?

I think you could make a pretty good ethical case that the young man will do more harm if he has sex with the young woman. I'd argue that the ethical thing to do--Could we say the chivalrous and noble thing to do?--would be to not have sex with her. Refusing sex might be painful to her, but that pain would be much less than the harm he'd do to her emotionally if they started a "friends with benefits" relationship knowing that this sexual intimacy will make her fall ever more deeply in love with him. 

This is the sort of thing I mean by describing sex as "high stakes." Like it or not, sex is associated with love and intimacy. Which makes the "do no harm" calculus so much more weighty and complicated. And it raises the question: Where in our culture are we acquiring the virtues necessary to help us navigate this complexity? I just don't see it.

Listen, I appreciate the progressive concern about guilt. But progressive Christians need to start pushing beyond guilt to discuss other sorts of harm. Because those harms are real. Progressive Christians need to snap out of their obsessive orbiting of evangelical purity culture, always playing the reactive moon to the evangelical sun. And that's what I like about  Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, that even if you disagree with her, she spotlights harms that aren't typically talked about by liberals and progressives. Perry's book raises the stakes on sex in ways I think are worth considering. For example, from her chapter "Loveless Sex Is Not Empowering" Perry makes some observations and then asks some questions:
...Today's young women are typically unaware that men are, in general, much better suited to emotionless sex and find it much easier to regard their sexual partners as disposable. Ignorant of this fact, women can all too easily fail to recognise that being desired is not at all the same thing as being held in high esteem. It isn't nice to think of oneself as disposable or to acknowledge that other people view you that way. Often, it's easier to turn away from any acknowledgement of what is really going on, at least temporarily. I've spoken to a lot of women who participated in hook-up culture when they were young and only years later came to realise just how unhappy it made them. I've yet to meet anyone who has travelled the same emotional journey, but in the opposite direction.

If you're a woman who's had casual sexual relationships with men in the past, you might try answering the following questions as honestly as you can: 
  1. Did you consider your virginity to be an embarrassing burden you wanted to be rid of? 
  2. Do you ever feel disgusted when you think about consensual sexual experiences you've had in the past?
  3. Have you ever become emotionally attached to a casual sexual partner and concealed this attachment from him? 
  4. Have you ever done something sexually that you found painful or unpleasant and concealed this discomfort from your partner, either during sex or afterward? 
If you answer "no" to all of these questions, your high sociosexuality and good luck have allowed you to navigate successfully a treacherous sexual marketplace. But if you answer "yes" to any of them, you are entitled to feel angry at a sexual culture that set you up to fail.

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