Christianity has a long history of being at best ambivalent and at worst outright hostile when it comes to sex. And since Christianity has exerted a dominant force over people’s perceptions of not only religious but also moral obligations, a great deal of religious criticism and criticism of traditionalist morality has always been motivated by the desire to reestablish the basic goodness of sex. Atheists often focus on Christianity’s treatment of sex as one of the biggest moral strikes against it. Nominal or “lapsed” believers find themselves in some of their uneasiest tensions with their faith over the disconnect between the restrictiveness of their faith and what seems sexually right for themselves.
Christian sexual ethics becomes such a point of tension and resistance in the modern world that conservative Christians often treat sexual self-sacrifice as the paradigmatic moral obligation to “die to self”. The greedy, exploitative, gluttonous hoarders of wealth can be good upstanding Christians with clean consciences. But anybody not reserving sex exclusively for a procreatively heterosexual marriage is a deviant who lives in sin, has no values, and is an enemy of morality and all that is holy and good. Despite the overwhelming logical, philosophical, and scientific reasons to doubt the truth of Christianity’s fantastic supernatural claims, even rationalist atheism is blithely chalked up to really being motivated by a desire to sin–and the desire to sin is paradigmatically conceived as a desire for (supposedly) illicit sex.
And so the de facto tests of orthodoxy among conservative Christians shift away from metaphysical points about the nature of God and Jesus, or soteriological points about the exact mechanics of salvation, to being about sexual ethics. Opposition to gays, abortion, and free love—all challenges to traditional heteronormative, patriarchal, lifelong monogamy ethics—become definitional of True Christianity™ itself.
And, on the flip side, Christianity’s detractors often wind up centralizing sexual liberation. Moral defenses of feminism, LGBT rights, abortion rights, and of the permissibility of promiscuity, pornography, prostitution, and polyamory are all commonly found in the atheist community. Because to a large extent, really our only prejudice against many of these things is deference to Christianity as a moral guide. Remove that and there are few naturalistic reasons to be so suspicious of sexual pleasure. The focus becomes on health (minimizing sexual infections), on consent (minimizing rapes), on trust and honesty (minimizing betrayal, sometimes more than minimizing adultery per se), and control over pregnancy (birth control, abortion) to make sure that the cost of sexual liberation does not have to mean instability to children or disruption of autonomous adults’ life plans. Have as much sex as you like as long as you don’t hurt other people. And maybe even consider that more sex may even be a positive thing to actively pursue and try out in case you’re the kind of person who would enjoy that.
So, these are the contours of a fundamental values divide in the culture. Often this divide doesn’t just split groups of people, it splits individual psyches. The same person oscillates between traditionalist Christian restrictiveness that they associate with morality and their lived engagement with sex which is often in practice more on the liberal side. Quite possibly the majority of people are in this middle zone. In practice affirming a more liberal ethic of sex by their behavior. In their lives they sleep with multiple people at some point, either they’re promiscuous or engage in casual sex or their monogamy is a serial monogamy rather than a lifelong monogamy with only one partner their whole lives. They experiment with gay sex. They have participate in threesomes or even more ambitious orgies. They have abortions. They engage in kink. They masturbate to pornography. They engage in sexting and cybersex and phone sex. They go to strip clubs or prostitutes. They use birth control. They even have extramarital sex. On and on sexually less restrictive behaviors and attitudes are remarkably common in practice. Finding the people who have only had one partner their whole lives long and never used birth control or had an abortion and have no “dirty” pictures on their phones, etc. is really like looking for a unicorn. But traditional messaging is powerful and in their minds there is still a lot of dominance to the idea that morality would still be on the side of the sexual repressors. So there’s still a great deal of internal conflict.
And sometimes they’ll lapse into reinforcing traditionalist sexual mores as a matter of paying tribute to it–especially when it’s a matter of getting leverage over others or appearing pious or controlling their kids’ sexual behavior or counseling prudence to “avoid being a victim”. They won’t in completely clear conscience explicitly stand up for their practices of “sexual deviancy”, according to morality. They’ll break what they perceive as the “law” but won’t always justify it. Or some who do break with it try to declare these sexual issues “not moral issues” rather than take the bolder move of saying it’s outright moral to oppose traditionalistic sexual morality.
So, it’s a relative minority—typically hippies, feminists, LGBT activists, libertarians, libertines, polyamorists, sex workers, and self-conscious atheists and humanists—who explicitly stand up and say, let’s make a sex-affirming ethics central. Let’s go beyond saying “these aren’t moral issues” to saying these are issues where the traditionalist moral machinery needs to be exposed as a fraud, as a false, oppressive, and counterproductive morality, and replaced with a much more openminded one. Let’s not live hypocritically. In practice, we’re experimenting, in practice we’re affirming sex, in practice many people are finding that there are a number of positives from a lived ethics of sexual affirmation, so let’s change our explicit values statements to reflect this reality rather than be hypocrites who explicitly affirm and promulgate a morality that we don’t live by. Let’s have the courage to defend our actual way of life as actually good.
So, it’s in this context that there’s a key dispute among those I’ll hyperbolically call “sexual utopians”. By sexual utopians I mean anyone who wants us to get as close as is reasonable to a world of maximal guilt free sexual pleasure with no irrational hang ups or needlessly burdensome restrictions. People who dream of the day when we can indulge more freely in positive sexual experiences, unencumbered by arbitrary moralisms. Nudity is natural and good. It’s aesthetically pleasurable and not even always sexually. We should celebrate the beauty of the human form rather than hide it. Everyone should love and have sex with whomever consensually wants to have sex with them. Alternative sexual orientations and genders should be celebrated, not merely tolerated. Kink that doesn’t harm anyone shouldn’t be seen as immoral. Whatever floats your boat so long as no one gets hurt. People should be able to negotiate the terms of their own relationships rather than have adultery defined in some absolute way that forbids any sexual openness among committed people. Friendships can incorporate a dimension of sexual enjoyment apart from romantic commitments. Even entire friendships can be all about two people’s enjoyment of having sex with each other if that’s what they enjoy. Young people should be empowered to make wise sexual choices instead of repressed with abstinence-only fear-mongering. And there should be no stigmas about making or consuming porn or engaging in prostitution or patronizing a prostitute, etc., so long as everyone involved is treated respectfully and is kept healthy. And, of course, if you’re asexual or a celibate or abstinent or a strict lifelong monogamist, etc., then that’s okay too!
While not all people who are sexually progressive will allow for all of these liberties morally, the basic inclination towards this proliferation of sexual openness as basically good is what I will call broadly “sexual utopianism”.
Now there’s a key split among us sexual utopians that erupts most visibly along lines of mainstream feminism and excessive libertarianism. The excessive libertarian streak of sexual utopianism is to focus on the right to do whatever one wants sexually and on the destigmatization of sexual things. The feminist approach is to make sure everyone (but with an emphasis on women since they’re more disempowered at the start) is capable of controlling their own sexuality. The more feminist emphasis is not on a blanket rejection of all moralizing about nudity and sex, but on shifting the focus of such moralizing from heteronormative and patriarchal priorities to more truly empowering and substantively egalitarian ones.
So what winds up happening is that debates over sexual ethics wind up with more excessively libertarian minded people accusing the feminists of prudery because of the deliberate ethical focus they insist on introducing into all things sex and nudity. And feminists wind up casting more unfettered libertarian notions of nudity and sex as just more of the same old patriarchy that was the real problem in Christian ethics in the first place. So just as Christian sexual repression was about controlling and commodifying women’s sexuality and subordinating it to men’s needs rather than women’s own, so an unfettered sexual liberation that does not constitutively respect women’s autonomy and agency just winds up being more of the same old control and commodification of women’s sexuality for men’s purposes. So, breaking out of the old sexual strictures doesn’t liberate women to be free sexual agents, it just liberates men to trade women as property more freely than under the old economy. Same objectification, different transaction arrangements.
And I think it’s unambiguously clear that the feminists have the right priorities here, though I might quibble with a particular feminist about this or that judgment about particular situations. The true ideal of liberty is not just “everyone does whatever they want even at the expense of hurting other people”. That’s not a free society, that’s Hobbes’s violent state of nature in which all may tyrannize each other and might makes right. Genuine commitment to liberty over tyranny means restraining those acts of will that would hurt other people. And if as libertarians we want the law to be a matter of last recourse in matters of restraining people’s wills, then we need robust implicitly powerful moralities that have the ability to restrain people’s wills without resorting to violent legal means. If we want people to be maximally free legally to run their own lives, the flip side is that we have to couple our legal libertarianism with support for private social and moral formation that turns people into respecters of liberty without legal coercion being necessary.
So, the excessively libertarian mindset overextends from the rightful concern for freedom to do as one wants legally to a moral anarchism that thinks the way to protect legal rights in jeopardy is to practically never launch social campaigns against merely immoral (but legally tolerable) behaviors. The belief in a wide range of legality of choices starts slipping into being an equally wide range of morality of choices. But some choices while they should be legal are destructive to genuine moral liberty. So, I think we deserve the free speech rights to express hateful and oppressive attitudes and ideas. But consistent with defending the rights to such speech, if we want substantive liberty to flourish, morally we need to be equally (or more) aggressive about encouraging moral and social and aesthetic norms that don’t promote disempowerment, marginalization, and debilitation of any groups of people. We need to be aggressive about exposing the ways that people’s actual abilities to substantively thrive in their potential and their liberties are undermined by bad values and bad speech.
If we don’t collectively take responsibility for the values we create, or merely reinforce, and if we don’t deliberately remake people’s moral consciences so that they’re maximally liberty-respecting without legal coercion, then eventually people will abuse their liberties so badly that the powers that be won’t be able to trust them with individual case by case decisions and will subject them instead to reactionary restrictiveness. Legally enforced sexual restrictiveness for everyone is the consequence when people can’t be trusted morally to not violate each other with their long leash of sexual freedom.
So, extremists aside, feminists are usually pro-liberty and relatively pro-sexual-utopianism when they interrogate our sexual norms for how they undermine women’s true autonomy. Of course it’s an excess when fringe extremists say things like that all instances of men penetrating women with their penises is inherent violation and rape. Clearly that’s excessive nonsense. Most feminist criticism is asking the vital, serious question, “How can we make practices and representations of sex not all focused on a particular kind of male interest that wants women to be mere pliant objects to be consumed, but instead reestablish a robust sense of women engaging in sex for their own sake and for its own sake rather than oriented around men’s interests?”
The recent internet release of nude photos of celebrities has foist this conflict between excessively libertarian and feminist ideals of sexual utopianism into my attention in a new way. The response from the excessive libertarians has been to focus on the violation of property rights but minimize that any particularly sexual harm is being done to the women in the photos. The logic, as best as I can reconstruct it, goes like this. “All that matters is the violation of autonomy involved in stealing. The fact that these were nude photos doesn’t make it any worse and not an intrinsically sexual violation and so the nude character of the photos or the potential uses for masturbation add no compounding violation. Nudity’s not a big deal. It’s not inherently sexual. And sex itself is not inherently a big deal. As sexually progressively minded libertarians/sexual utopians we know better than to freak out over some nudity or to get all hysterical over people fantasizing to naked photos. Sex is overly moralized by Christianity or traditionalists. It’s not in reality such a big deal. So, we’re not going to go reinforce all this sense that nudity or sexuality are these big sacred taboo things in the first place by acknowledging that any kind of special violation occurs for these women when they were seen naked or seen engaged in sex.”
The argument goes even further. “Currently sex-workers and nude models live in terror of being found out and having their lives ruined. ‘What if their nude photos or their sexual videos leak?’ ‘What if the wrong person comes into the strip club?’ If we put special emphasis on these women who had their photos stolen and mass distributed being violated sexually then we’re just reinforcing this idea that nudity and sexuality are Big Deals. The kinds of things that if you’re found out engaging in you should be ashamed of. The kinds of things you should be overly agitated to keep absolutely secret. And that will make these women all the more feel unnecessary feelings of dirtiness and fear of exposure.”
So, the logic goes, “if feminists insist that people looking at these private nude photos released against their subjects’ wills is a sexual violation then you’re somehow saying nudity is inherently sexual and sexuality is inherently shameful. And somehow this will mean that the women who are afraid of having their sex work or nude modeling found out are right to be ashamed.”
So the idea is to say, “We should just focus on how these celebrity women were violated by the theft but not make a big deal out of their nudity or sexuality since that only reinforces the regressive idea that nudity or sexuality should be hidden, private, and repressed for being dirty and that only bad women take such pictures.”
It seems as though the worry is that “if we say that stealing, exposing, or masturbating to people’s private nudes against their wills harms them, we’re validating the idea that they had something to be ashamed in the first place. The idea is that if they’re not doing anything wrong in being in a nude photo, then they should feel no sense of being wrongfully exposed by having that photo released against their will. And saying that they are violated by such exposure just reinforces the idea they were doing something wrong.
“So, as good sexual utopian, progressive, libertarian challengers to irrational traditionalistic hostility towards sex we should stand up and say, ‘Nudity is no big deal! Theft is a problem but these women are doing nothing wrong and so exposing them for taking sexy pictures (which is not at all wrong) is not at all harming them any more than exposing them eating a sandwich is. Making it a big deal means implying nudity or sex is a bigger deal than eating a sandwich when it’s not. The women were wronged as victims of theft, the nudity doesn’t compound the wrongness or violation at all.'”
Now, I strongly disagree with this entire line of reasoning. And it’s an excellent case to use to make clear distinctions that have far reaching implications.
Let’s say that I agree, as a sexual utopian, that it would be awesome if no one judged any one over their nude photos or sex tapes. Let’s say I thought it would be a perfect world if we could each freely exchange tapes of each other having sex and enjoy each other sexually as much as humanly possible. All of us. With no shame. Let’s say I go that far in my hopes. Were that the case, my first priority would be to make it so that everyone feels maximally comfortable with control over when they’re seen and how they’re seen. Because only if they feel maximally in control of their sexuality will they be comfortable sharing it so openly.
Like, imagine I loved sharing my home with friends. So I let people visit, use my stuff, party, and stay over frequently. But in order to maintain my own comfortability in my own home, I set some boundaries. The stuff here is still mine. I can still determine these things you can’t use. Or you can only use them under these circumstances. Or you can’t go in certain rooms. Whatever.
If people abuse my hospitality and throw me forcefully out of my own bed or take over the house when I’m on vacation and I didn’t give them permission or make their own keys so they can enter and use my house even when I’ve locked the doors (clearly signaling I don’t want anyone to come in) then I’m going to be actively discouraged from being so hospitable. And, in fact, they’re removing my chance to even be hospitable when they deny the right to my own house. When I assert the right to control my own house and my own things, I’m not anti-sharing. I’m not inhospitable. I am defending my fundamental autonomy. But eventually, to stop these abuses of privileges, I’m going to have to turn inhospitable for real. Because people who can’t be trusted with privileges morally lose the right to them. And I’m especially going to adopt this restrictive policy when I get blamed for having trusted people so much. I’m really going to resent that. And, with every right, become much more protective of my stuff since I can’t even get moral sympathy but instead get blamed when it’s exploited against my wishes.
And it’s because people fear all these kinds of outcomes that we have already set very strict boundaries on violating personal space and appropriating others’ things. There’s basic social distance and respect for people’s property.
Now let’s say you want a more communal society. You’re a utopian about communal property. We would all be happier if we could share with each other more freely. If we opened up our homes to each other, shared our stuff more regularly, etc., we would save money, be drawn closer to each other. Private property is not such a big deal. In order to impress on me that I should adopt your system, I need to know I’m still going to be able to draw some basic boundaries around myself that others can’t violate against my will. I need to know that I will have the ability to say no, for whatever reason–whether capricious or legitimate–to uses of my stuff, even if I share more of it liberally and own more of it in common.
The wrong way to convince me that in your coming utopia you will respect me and my boundaries and my stuff is to take the occasion of a home invasion to tell me that “I shouldn’t be so possessive of my stuff” or “if only you realized that your stuff is communal property in the first place you wouldn’t be feeling all this anguish over having it taken against your will”.
So, similarly, if you want people to be more comfortable with willingly sharing their nudity and sexuality then you can’t convince them of that by refusing to acknowledge their distinctly sexual violation when these things are stolen from them. You cannot say “because you shouldn’t care about nudity so much I won’t acknowledge your moral right to feel violated when seen naked against your will”. If you want them to voluntarily show themselves, you need to honor their right to not want to show themselves as a distinct right of privacy and self-determination. Otherwise it’s not free, it’s coercive. If you want them to feel comfortable with full sexual openness then that has to be on their terms.
Because if you treat their having their private photos exploited for other people’s sexual purposes as something they have no moral right to complain about as a distinctly sexual violation then you are signaling to them a disrespect for their sexual autonomy over who gets to see them naked and use them for sexual gratification. You are not fundamentally supporting their full sexual control over their sexuality. You’re trying to force them to feel like their body and sexuality can be seen and used however others want and that it’s invalid prudery if they complain. If you will treat their concerns over how their images are used so dismissively, why shouldn’t they fear that you will treat their physical bodies themselves as communal property too?
If a woman knows that her boyfriend is willing to steal access to the private nudity and sexuality that an actress doesn’t want him to see, why should she trust that he will protect her own images? Why should she risk sharing nude photos with such a boyfriend? In fact, if her boyfriend does not care about the wishes of the people who he uses for sexual gratification in the case of the actress why should she assume he cares about her own assertions of autonomy either?
You can’t force women to not feel afraid and like they’re being sexually violated when their photos or sexual videos are stolen by telling them “Think as though we already live in the future sexual utopia and ignore the real social and political and moral scoldings and judgments and exploitations you will actually suffer in our current culture. See if you just pretend we’re in that future, you can’t be harmed!”
They’re being exposed to real, existing repercussions in the real world right now. And they have every reason to feel disgusted and objectified by a culture that is more willing to blame them for their expression of their sexuality or discount their feelings about how their images are being used than to stand up and assert their rights to control who has access to their nudity and sexuality (even remotely).
If women are sent the message that men will exploit any opportunity to get intimate access to women’s bodies and sexuality even if it is against their consent, why would women trust these men in situations where these men could rape them? If we care about women being sexually empowered to only have sex that is conducive with their thriving and not merely as reduced to objects for men’s use, then our total and complete focus should be on what it means to not commodify and objectify women against their wills. That means cracking down on this attitude that “if you can get away with it, it’s okay”. There’s not a qualitative difference between the attitude that if you can get away with masturbating to a woman’s private nude or sexual pictures or videos against her will, you are morally in the clear, on the one hand, and the attitude that if you get away with using that same woman’s body because she’s sleeping or too drunk to resist or afraid to struggle or afraid to complain, you’re in the clear too.
Women need to demand that we recognize that you morally harm someone when you invade their privacy. We need to make control over who has access to our own bodies and sexuality (even in images and videos) sacrosanct if we are to empower people to enjoy sharing their own bodies (even in images and video).
Saying “it’s just nudity” is as bad as saying to a rape victim, “don’t be a prude, it’s just sex.” Rape victims deal with feelings of defilement that are stomach churning even for me to think about, let alone for them to experience. It’s maddening. There is no “metaphysical defilement”. It’s awful to hear a loved one who has been raped describe herself as sexually impure, spoiled, broken, when they’ve done nothing wrong. And yes you want to take away the feelings that she’s dirty, stained, defiled, or has done something wrong. But the way to do that is not to say “she’s overblowing the importance of sex”. Because while she certainly has not been “defiled” in some metaphysically tainting way, she has real rational justifications for feeling like she’s been abused. The problem is not some overestimation of the meaning of sex but her right estimation of the moral right to her own boundaries. And the way to disabuse her of the insidious defilement myth (if it’s even possible and not too primal a part of her psychology to remove) is not to deny she is right to feel violated. And no I’m not trying to increase in the mind of women whose images or videos are stolen the fear that they’re defiled by emphasizing that what happened to them was a sexual violation. Violation does not “defile” the violated. The wrong is wholly with the perpetrators. I’m calling for us to take the violations seriously because they’re real. They’re real violations of autonomy. They’re real sexual exploitation. And they can really be stopped if we all take moral responsibility not to exploit others for sexual gratification. Pointing all this out is not encouraging the mistaken and destructive interpretation of violation as “defilement”.
And for as long as women (or anyone) sets their boundaries sexually they should have those boundaries respected. Even if they have prudish boundaries. Even if they have an unhealthy belief in defilement that is only hurting them. Even if they have an outright regressive sexual ethics. It does not matter why they don’t want to be seen naked or engaged in sex against their will. In our culture people don’t want that and that desire, even were it 100% baseless, must be respected if people are going to have sexual autonomy and empowerment. If we want liberal sex laws and sexual utopia, it doesn’t start with invalidating people’s fears for their boundaries. It starts by scrupulously respecting them. If some of those boundaries are irrational and too tightly drawn the only way people can be rationally induced to loosen is if the culture first respect their rights to have them that tight if they want.
Only in a culture where women aren’t punished for sexuality, aren’t commodified and treated like objects to be traded, and don’t see men trying to sexually exploit them around every corner will they be empowered to choose sexual utopia. But so long as rapes are excused and so long as sexual exploitation of their images is dismissed as irrelevant (and only theft is acknowledged as a real harm) and so long as their feelings about sex are going to be disregarded in moral calculations involving them, they have every right to become protective and restrictive. Women will and should only expose themselves to more risks of sexual openness when men prove more responsible not to regularly exploit them, dismiss their feelings, and blame them for all the consequences.
For more of my moral analysis of the nude photos leak please read my post How My Personal Sexual Evolution Makes Me Loathe Slut Shaming and Blaming. If you like my philosophical explorations into morality and social justice, I recommend you read my systematic series of posts on ethics calledEmpowerment 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 onwhy we need labels like “gay”, “bi”, “cis”, and “trans”, and my article on how I wish arguments about homosexuality would go.