How My Personal Sexual Evolution Makes Me Loathe Slut Shaming and Victim Blaming

I grew up a religiously, morally, and sexually conservative person. I believed in virginity before marriage, and I believed in it in a principled and egalitarian way. I didn’t hold to double standards where it was okay for men to be promiscuous but women who were so were “sluts”. I explicitly criticized such hypocrisies then. I was indoctrinated to believe that the world was run by a just God who had naturally rigged the world such that if you simply loved Him and waited for marriage to have sex, you would have the most perfect kind of intimate connection imaginable, with someone absolutely perfect for you. While I wouldn’t have believed in soul mates in the sense that God had predestined a specific person for you, I would have believed that usually people who were faithful and godly would be rewarded by a perfectly naturally explicable process by which they found an equally faithful and godly person that they connected with profoundly, simply by moving in shared circles with such people.

I essentially believed that waiting for marriage to have sex wasn’t a matter of avoiding a “stain” and “impurity”, so much as it was preserving the uniqueness of intimacy. Intimacy, by its nature, is to some extent exclusive. It means sharing with someone in a rare and personal way. So, if sex was to be maximally intimate between a married couple they would have to share it in a maximally exclusive way—in a monogamous connection not only while married but even before. This belief was combined with an overemphasized belief that sex was a profoundly bonding activity–heart, mind, body, and soul–such that it only made sense to share it with someone you wanted to be bonded with, heart, mind, body, and soul.

While my sexual morality was highly restrictive, it was at least idealistic. While I was inevitably judgmental towards sexually promiscuous people, my judgmentalism wasn’t of the sort that demonized or degraded them but rather pitied them and wanted better for them for their own sakes. They weren’t “skanks” or “trashy” or “womanizers”. They didn’t deserve to be shamed, they didn’t “get what they asked for” when they were raped, they weren’t “worthlessly impure“, and they didn’t deserve any kind of self-righteous vigilanteism to “teach them a lesson”. Their participating in any particular illicit sex act didn’t entitle others to come along and sexually exploit them with impunity.

I just truly believed that they would be more empowered, have better sex, and be able to give and receive love through sex better had they reserved sex for marriage. I truly had people’s own good at heart–even as I had a paternalistic, narrow-minded, naïve, and unduly constricting belief about what that good was. 

So even when I was a conservative Christian I thought morality was justified by how it empowered people. Why else would God give it to us but that He knew it was genuinely good for us? What was good for us couldn’t be good for no reason or if it hurt us. It couldn’t be good just because God arbitrarily told it to us whether or not it hurt or helped us. And it was this deeper understanding that what is truly morally good must be what truly morally empowers us that helped me see my error. When my attempt to supportively love my gay best friend while condemning his homosexuality didn’t help him but might have exacerbated his suicidal self-loathing over his sexuality, I learned. The notion that my idealized conservative Christian sexual ethics was empowering was ultimately a hypothesis, not an unshakeable dogma that I would blindly cling to in the teeth of evidence and at the risk of destruction to the people I loved.

When new information about the harmfulness of what I was doing came in, it didn’t take me overly long to process it and make a fundamental change of mind. Within just a year, I was able to revise the sexual ethics I had been dedicatedly living by and judging all situations by since I was 11. This coincided with my finally finding myself simply crushed by a three year avalanche of philosophical reasons to doubt my entire Christian faith, since I had started college. By senior year, I had to recant my faith, I could do no other.

In retrospect, I can see why it is easy for the truly abstinent and faithful young evangelicals to naïvely think they’re not hurting gay people with their rigid demands for denial of their gay sexuality. They are in many cases putting themselves through the emotional and spiritual ringer trying desperately to stay sexually pure. They’re suffering too for the values they’re espousing. They think the endurance they’re asking of gays is just another variation of what they’re working towards themselves. What they fail to empathetically appreciate is that gays are being asked for a far different kind of self-sacrifice. The straight abstinent evangelical is only being asked to delay his gratification of his sexual-romantic desires—not to completely reorient those desires so that they’re geared towards the gender or sex of people that they’re not attracted to. Gays and bisexuals are demanded to abandon an entire set of longings rather than merely delay their satiation. On conservative Christian sexual ethics, gays don’t have the option of simply rushing into marriage as young as possible, as so many desperate evangelical kids do. These young people have to realize that the sacrifices they’re asking of others are qualitatively worse than the ones they themselves are making. 

But I digress. When I came to believe my faith was generally a lie and its sexual idealism was built on myths, I didn’t initially have a very robust replacement sexual ethic. Having falsely believed moral values could only exist if they came from a supernatural source that ordered the world a certain way, and having been morally corrupted with an extremist’s absolutist standard of sex—all sex between truly godly married people can be perfectly fulfilling while all sex outside of marriage is inherently harmful to those who engage in it—I wound up swinging into an extreme overcorrection. Now if there was no absolute standard of morality coming from outside the world, it must all be purely emotive and non-rational in character. And now that the perfect sexual fulfillment I had been patiently saving myself for was clearly just a myth, I felt completely suckered. I had waved away my sexual youth. I was still only 21-turning-22, so in retrospect, I had plenty of time to “catch up”. And from the wiser vantage point of 36, I now think the whole notion of “catching up” wrongheaded anyway. But, nonetheless, having missed out on what I now assumed was desirable high school and college sexual experimentation and pleasure, the feeling of irrecoverable loss was substantial.

Worst of all, I was developmentally behind my new secular peers. I was no longer going to be trying to date among fellow virgin evangelical Christians who were waiting with me. Emotionally, I could still tolerate having missed out if only I could find someone who missed out too. But I knew (or thought I knew) that going into the secular dating pool, I was going to be sexually inexperienced in a way that put me at two disadvantages. For one thing, I might be an ineptly unpracticed sexual partner and be rejected for it. And, secondly, I was going to be jealous of my partners’ sexual experiences. The kind of jealousy I was prone to was less the selfishly possessive kind that wanted someone to only have ever been with me. While there was some of that, the stronger jealousy was for what I missed out on. In my first relationships post deconversion I suffered a great deal of feelings of inadequacy related to my partners’ greater number of experiences because I felt like they had the good things I was robbed of.

In my still absolutist mind, to have had sex, any kind of sex, was now basically inherently good. I went from thinking that sexual fulfillment required maximal exclusivity, between the same two people for an entire lifetime, to an overcorrection mindset in which nothing short of total sexual indulgence across a diversity of partners was ideal. In my standard fears of not being good enough to be loved, I took my partners’ greater sexual experience as something that made them better than me. They had lived richer lives that made me feel like a loser compared to them. My jealousy was competitive. If I couldn’t compete with a lover in any area, that was a reason I might be rejected by them.

My jealousy also wasn’t constructed in a sexist way. I was egalitarian and universalist in wanting everyone to have the sexual liberation that I felt robbed of. I viscerally felt the injustice of attempts to shame women for their sexuality. Both then and now, I viscerally identify with anyone being sexually repressed. Across genders and sexualities, I empathize with the pain of being morally manipulated to fear and loathe your own sexuality. I remember all the self-flagellation I went through over and over again simply for my “moral failure” of masturbating. Every sexual pleasure was immediately followed by spiritual desperation—guilt, repentance, feelings of despair at my “brokenness”, confession to “accountability” partners. While in one respect I idealized sex as “God’s perfect gift”, my sexuality was experienced over and over as a source of guilt and self-loathing.

So, yes, whenever I see anyone being put through that, I feel anguish on their behalf. I feel anguish and defensive anger at gays being destructively pressured to deny their sexuality. I am livid over how especially torturous this must be for those growing up in conservative Christian homes, whose often deadly homophobia runs a destructive gamut from casual to aggressive.

I feel outrage over girls and women being bombarded with messaging that sex “defiles” them, that if they’re sexually promiscuous they lose the right to refuse sex, that they shouldn’t be equally as sexually liberated and empowered as men in the movies are, that they are undesirable if they’ve been with many men, that their sexual pleasures are less important than men’s, and that their sexuality exists only for the gratification of men and not themselves. This messaging is constant and pervasive. And it makes me rage internally. I empathize with and identify with women when they have to deal with this shit because of my own history with sexual repression. So even as I would be sick to my stomach with envy and threatened by the prospect of sexual partners more experienced than me, I also didn’t want them to endure the repression I had and was abstractly glad they hadn’t. I was just ripped up that I had. 

And in this context, I empathize and identify with the millions of devoutly religious people who suffer on account of their religious repression. The sexual ethics many of them live by does work for some. I’m not trying to say everyone suffers. But when it doesn’t, it’s particularly unjust because the intensity of religious indoctrination and the intensity of the demonization of non-heteronormative-marital sex makes it so that they can’t make informed decisions. They’re actively discouraged from having an open mind, from listening and learning from the experiences of the happily sexually active, from reasoning through sex in a balanced and empirically informed way, and from experimenting if they want to. While many can mouth words about the goodness of sex, they can’t live by the truth of their sexuality’s goodness. So much of their experience of their sexuality is spiritual warfare in which they try to assert a bogus abstract ideal of purity over their tangibly burning loins. The heat of sexual arousal ever ends with the flushness of shame. The ecstasy of orgasm becomes inextricably mixed with sour feelings of helpless failure and guilt.

I don’t care that everyone just have sex. That’s not the point. People shouldn’t just have sex out of fears of inadequacy or because they’re rushed or because of—well, any reason besides that they want to and it will be an experience conducive with their thriving as a person, emotionally, socially, physically, and sexually. What I want for those religious people who are captive to beliefs that are deliberately resistant to evidence is simply the ability to genuinely think for themselves in a way that is unencumbered by the spiritually and bodily invasive ways that their religions lay claim to their entire sexual lives.

My general interest in deconverting people is not out of any delusion that atheists are inherently better or happier people. It’s not out of a narcissistic desire that everyone be like me. It’s not out of a desire to control people. It’s an empathetic wish that people who were where I was mentally, spiritually, and physically as a believer get the ability to taste the genuine freedom of genuinely thinking for yourself. The empirically resistant, socially manipulative, spiritually demanding and cultish structure of sincere religious faith genuinely denies people real freedom of thought. Having experienced it, I don’t think it’s trivial. I don’t think it’s harmless so long as its victims report being pleased with the arrangement. I have escaped that false consciousness. I believe everyone deserves freedom of thought. By all means, if disabused of the false beliefs that prop up their current sexual ethics, they want to still go on living the way they do then if they can thrive that way they should do so! But I believe in informed choices. Faiths, with their notorious hostility to reason, to doubt, to seeing moral understanding as rationally experimental rather than fixed and absolute, are an inherent hindrance to this kind of freedom. Even among the relatively progressive, who can (laudably) make relative progress, there is the problematic need to arduously rationalize every moral advance as somehow really and truly in continuity with the preexisting faith is one hurdle too many to intellectual, emotional, sexual, spiritual freedom.

The fall out for me of being disabused of illusions and realizing that I had not been empowered to choose rationally but manipulated to choose by faith in high school meant immense pressure to “catch up” sexually and make up for what I had missed out on. This meant an emotionally excruciating decade or so until I finally started gaining enough experience and philosophical perspective to mature in my attitudes. I deeply resent having been so aggressively sold a contorted absolutist and mythological view of sex in my teens. I feel like I suffered an arrested development sexually on that account and was (and remain) a decade younger emotionally than I should be with respect to sex.

Eventually, I was able to come to a hard won rational approach to sex that assesses it in terms of genuine values of thriving and empowerment. I’m now more focused on asking the really important question of sex (both mine and everyone else’s): “What does this sexual act or attitude mean to both individual and communal empowerment?” How can we all be sexually more satisfied? How can we all be able to employ our sexuality in such a way that we each thrive?

I now appreciate it’s not about mere summing of sexual partners–whether the ideal total is presumed to be one or ten thousand. It’s about finding the way to connect most satisfyingly with both your own pleasure and other people’s, and your own overall good life, and other people’s. You can have sex for fun or for love or for adventure or for procreation or for any of a number of reasons and have it be positive contribution to your life and that of others. Or it can be a negative experience, somewhere on the scale from boring to traumatizing, for you or others. The goal in every sexual question should be, how can everyone involved in, or affected by, every sexual interaction be empowered to thrive the most. That’s the only question that should ultimately matter.

And figuring out what is going to make any given individual thrive, sexual choice by sexual choice, cannot be done with an absolutist standard of judgment. It simply won’t be one size fits all. Judging what’s best sexually in any given case requires paying close attention to the subtle particulars of each person’s psychology. That means attending to their own subjective preferences and perceptions about what is valuable. It means attending to their personal narrative in which events will be processed as meaning different things to them than to other people. And who will this act of sex impact and in what ways? Will it be at minimum pleasurable and at most empowering to their partner? Will anyone else feel betrayed and do they have a right to by fair standards? (For more on my views on sexual ethics and sex education see my post countering the meme that “You Can’t Stop Teenagers From Having Sex”.)

So, it is with these eyes, that went through these three distinguishable stages of conceiving sexual happiness that I look at the debates about sexual violation. And on behalf of all three of my selves, I am appalled and disgusted by so much of the discourse. The sex-sacrificing Christian idealist in me, the reactive and envious libertine in me, and the humanistic empowerment-oriented ethicist in me are each viscerally repulsed by slut-shaming, by victim blaming, and, most of all, by the rancid moralistic sexual hypocrisy of sexual violators and of their apologists.

The slut shaming reminds me of my own repression that turned me against my own body. It appalls my libertine sense that the inherent goodness of sex should be liberated rather than repressed. And, from an empowerment ethics standpoint, slut shaming is unethical because it’s antithetical to people feeling empowered to thrive in their inherent powers and so fully realize their potential excellence and pleasure. And, simply as a promiscuous heterosexual man myself, the idea of holding the women I have sex with to a more repressive standard than I myself adopt is unjust and an outright practical contradiction. I cannot wrap my mind around the hypocritical self-absorption necessary to self-contradictorily want to have sex with lots of women and to demonize the very women who are willing to make that possible. To undermine the conditions of your own behavior like that is flat out irrational and astoundingly disrespectful.

Then these evils all go off the scale when it comes to sexual predators who manipulate bogus moralistic absolutist standards they don’t even live by in order to undermine their victims’ claims to violation. This corrupt logic is so pervasive its staggering. From the moralism of horror films which operate on the logic that has its young victims have sex in order to lose their “innocence” and become targets whose torture and murder you can indulge in enjoying. Mind you, I’m not scolding anyone for the pleasures of watching a horror film. There’s a place for that. What’s insidious is the logic in horror films that people who are not “innocent” are morally fair game and sex takes one’s innocence. It’s a reiteration of the poisonous Christian doctrine of original sin whereby one sin morally defiles all humanity, makes us worthy of infinite torture by a “just” God. This horrific Christian concept is that the most just being in the world has both the moral right and the self-satisfied will to inflict endless pain on account of the cosmic loss of innocence that comes with one moral misstep. Or even with just disobedience to His arbitrary will or even just the “failure” to love Him.

As Nietzsche astutely warns us, historically many of our earliest civilizations’ moralities and legal codes developed employing brutal violence. They imposed themselves and burned their injunctions into people’s minds as absolute through the use of terrifying torture, dismemberment, and death, and the threats thereof. (Learn more about this in my post, Nietzsche’s Immoralism As Rebellion Against the Authoritarian Tendencies of Morality.)

The great advance of the Western Enlightenment was to shift the ability to coerce people from the right of brute force to the right of rational justification. We now understand that might does not make right. The morally right things, the things we must do or avoid doing even if we do not want to, are not determined by authoritarians and their raw physical abilities to coerce us against our consent. The only things we really must do or avoid doing are those that are rationally demonstrable as being connected to our own thriving in mutual interdependence with our community’s thriving. If someone cannot show how their proposed prescriptions and prohibitions actually conduce to the overall thriving and empowerment of ourselves and the global community, then even though they might be able to impose on us violently, their commands have no rational, and so no moral authority. The shift has been from morality as control over the individual by whatever means possible more and more to morality as a means of empowerment of the individual as much as possible.

But in so much victim blaming there is the barbaric authoritarianism of ages yore passed off as morality. Those who are falsely accused of transgressing the bogus absolutist moral standard by dressing attractively or having a lot of sex or drinking a lot of alcohol or taking a private nude photo or sexual video of themselves wave all rights to self-determination. They may be either punished for their supposedly immoral violations by “the natural consequences of their actions” or, in the sickest cases, by deliberate violators who engage in enraging practices like “corrective rape” or who harass victims explicitly to “teach them a lesson”.

The implicit logic goes that these suffocating moral strictures are there for a reason and any deviation from them invites the “natural” consequence of exposing yourself to the animals in the darkness beyond civilization. The cost and price of the protection of morality and civilization is that you never make a foolish choice, either intellectually or morally, and you never play with the wolves of uncivilized humanity. Any imperfection is sin, a missing of the mark, and is punishable.

The violators become the agents of moral enforcement. It’s counter-intuitive on the surface. Why does the attention turn to castigating victims and not perpetrators of rape and theft and beatings and interpersonal harassment campaigns? Why are college attending porn stars exposed on their campuses penalized while the people who were using them for sexual gratification before hypocritically turning them over for public scrutiny are not blamed but are leading the self-righteous mob against them?

But it’s really not so mysterious when you look at the logic of absolutist morality. Morality has a vicious, punitive side that historically can get ugly. We must have moral penalties for each other, that’s part of life. But historically, morality has been a context for abuse because it lets the vicious sides of ourselves have free rein to be as horrible as they want with a clear conscience. If you want to see people express unvarnished rape and torture fantasies right out in public, it’s simple to find. Just read the comments section under any article about someone convicted of raping a child and you’ll see all sorts of gleeful wishes for impending rapes. It is the law that gives power to strip people of their autonomy, degrade them, and kill them with impunity.

So when I hear that anyone who takes nude photos of themselves has to be held responsible for their role in exposing themselves to thievery and subsequent exploitation, it’s the same old logic that we live in a just world and deviating from the moral straitjacket makes you responsible for the consequences. It may go under the guise of “just saying that people shouldn’t be foolish with known hazards” but, make no mistake, there’s a moral logic of rationalizing what happened as deserved. This is clear because the emphasis is not proportionate.

It’s not that these victim blaming remarks come in a context where these people “just worried about prudence” also have intensive fury at the real perpetrators of wrongdoing–the rapists or those who sexually exploit people by stealing their nude photos or sexual materials and distribute or watch them against their will. It’s not like they first write paragraph upon paragraph dissecting and denouncing the evils involved in the mistreatment and slut-shaming of the outed porn star or the rape victim or the victim of unwilling sexual exposure. It’s not like they go out of their way to first emotionally support the victim that they did nothing morally wrong. It’s not like they first focus on how to prosecute violators and systematically prevent future predatory behaviors. It’s not like they first ask where we’re going wrong in our moral education when people rape others or stand by while others are raped. It’s not like they first show deep concern for whether the victim is going to be psychologically okay and able to recover their sense of power and their sense of trust in the world and resist irrational feelings of being morally and personally defiled and worthless.

It’s not like they do all these morally vital things that should be any morally decent person’s first priorities. No. Instead, they put the least important thing–prudence, which is a non-moral category, first (or disproportionately on the same level as moral blame). They blame victims for trusting other people. They blame victims for trying to have fun. They blame victims for autonomously expressing their sexuality in the way they wanted. They act as though the “animals” have a claim on people who are trusting, fun-loving, and sexually liberated.

The only sympathetic motivation I can understand behind victim blaming is the dimension of it that manifests a desire to rationalize away that bad things can truly happen to anyone no matter how smart or good. That fear of powerlessness against evil, especially when it’s felt on behalf of someone beloved, is a wish that there was a way to guarantee freedom from harm in the future. Victims themselves even fall into this kind of blaming as a desperate grasp to regain a feeling of power and control after they’ve lost it. But it’s not the solution. We need to cope with the risks of evil straight on, proactively, by rooting out the conditions that let its perpetrators thrive, rather than counter-productively deny that bad things happen to smart good people and blame the smart good people.

And, on the other side of the spectrum, the sickest of these victim blamers are the predators who anoint themselves God’s avenging angels against those compromised, worthless, sinful women and so rape, verbally harass, stalk, expose, and exploitatively masturbate to the stolen images of them, objectifying them without a trace of interest in their desires, their well-being, or their thriving.

Your Thoughts?

For more of my moral analysis of the nude photos leak please read my post How to Create the Sexual Utopia. If you like my philosophical explorations into morality and social justice, I recommend you read my systematic series of posts on ethics called Empowerment Ethics and consider signing up for one of my many philosophy classes I offer. Among my offerings are a class on Ethics and a brand new class on Social and Political Philosophy. If you’re an atheist wanting to work out your irreligious worldview like I had to when I deconverted, my Philosophy for Atheists class is specially designed for you. For more on my days as a Christian and my journey out of faith and beyond it, read more installments from my Deconversion series. For more key posts on social justice, I recommend my moral defense of feminism, my post on why we need labels like “gay”, “bi”, “cis”, and “trans”, and my article on how I wish arguments about homosexuality would go.

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