The Words of the McCarthy Family

The Search for New Sexual Ethics

Kevin McCarthy
October 17, 2009

The Search for New Sexual Ethics (and what it means to be free)

Probably there could be no more illustrative example of the present confusion of values then the recent episode involving late-night TV host David Letterman. In having been found using the power of his position to engage in sexual relations with subordinates, it seemed the outcome would be certain. No business executive anywhere in America, under similar circumstances, would have been able to maintain their executive position. Yet, Letterman not only survived, it could be said he survived with flying colors.

Contrast that circumstance with that of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. His violation of his wedding vows was dealt with in an entirely more strident, unforgiving and critical tone. Why the difference? Theories abound but the fundamental lesson is that these two circumstances illustrate the extreme conflicting signals that add to our confusion of values. As a predictable result, people are increasingly unclear about what should be the values that guide our relationships. We are also, subsequently, unclear about what are boundaries around which men and women can and should maintain committed relations.

All humanity shares a common longing for both freedom and lasting relationships of love. Yet, it seems that our understanding of what constitutes the moral basis of freedom and lasting love is increasingly obscure. Some say that in free societies a degree of unseemly behavior is inevitable. In other words, the price for freedom requires the tolerance of a degree of repugnant behavior. If so, it also seems that freedom inevitably leads to moral decay and the resulting decline of society as more behavior is tolerated in the name of freedom. Today, the pace of social decay appears to be accelerating. Is this happening as a fundamental dynamic of a free society or is it a manifestation of an incremental disengagement from the values that provide cultural stability and longevity? Does freedom mean, as many take it to mean, that we can do as we please?

In fact, freedom is easily turned on its head to become licentiousness or selfish individualism. Actual freedom is not “doing as I please.” In a Biblical sense and, certainly, the perspective of the founding of America; freedom is a gift, an endowment from God and thus, will only be maintained within the transcendent values by which God authored the universe via the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” In the view of the Founders, freedom was only possible for a virtuous people. To promote a common public virtue was, ultimately, the vital importance of religious freedom. They saw clearly that a people without virtue would need more laws, government regulation, policing and control. Freedom would not be possible to such a lot. Freedom could only be maintained if people willingly applied virtues to their own choices.

Humanity’s greatest potential can only be manifested within that environment of freedom, including and especially within the life of loving relationship. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are indelibly linked in the American psyche and are one course. Thus, happiness in love, without liberty, is not possible; nor is liberty, without virtue.

We should now pose another question as we consider the present confusion of values. We turn toward the present status of Judeo-Christian values and begin to assess their present impact on society: If a civilization is to progress and be free, what type of controls, laws, morals or regulations if any, are needed to generate a virtuous people? Where is the dividing line of too much or too little? In the 19th century, for the first time, that very question, which had been exclusive to religious contemplation, had now become a question for the new fields of social science. It had, for example, sparked Freud’s pondering. Research had shown him that the repression of sexual desire through moral / religious standards was somehow related to the progress of a civilization. Anthropologist J.D. Unwin was intrigued by this idea and researched over 80 cultures that had existed over 5000 years of history. He discovered an incontrovertible truth: Societies that exerted regulation over pre-marital sex and contained sex within marriage, were societies that displayed, what he termed “expansive energy.” Societies that could not were usually gone by the third generation.

In most all cases, abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage were driven by guilt-based religious moral systems. It seemed that shame of sex was the only mind-set that had the wherewithal to constrain that strongest of all desires. However, Freud also observed that people controlled by guilt could not achieve happiness in life. Nor could anything stop the tendency for corrupt ecclesiastic power to magnify guilt as a tool of social control. Societies could progress but its people could never find happiness. He also observed that when a life revolved around feelings of shame, it produced its own host of other problems, phobias and pathologies. It seemed an unsolvable dilemma. To progress, we had to labor under guilt and shame and forego happiness. If, on the other hand, we chose happiness and threw off the shackles of the guilt-producing moral systems, we stumbled down the road of rapid social collapse. The experimentation of the sexual revolution and its consequences would seem to bear that out.

New thinking, such as Freud’s, was emerging in the 19th century with regard to this dilemma. It was characteristically anti-religious in tone and sought to define a human in largely non-spiritual terms. It sought to cast-off the “chains” of church-defined morays and replace them with a biological naturalist parameter that asserted natural desires should not be shackled by theological or ecclesiastic constrains. In this way, they hoped, humans could pursue happiness, without shame or the religious ideas that, in their view, generated shame inordinately.

The Moral Climate of the Late 19th Century

What were the circumstances that spurned this secular reaction to the church-dominate moral climate of the late nineteenth century? Although the reaction was misguided and ultimately destructive, as it fomented the trends that would later flourished in the 1950’ and 60’s “sexual revolution,” it must also be said that, sometimes that which triggers a social reaction must also bear a portion of the responsibility. In other words, it isn’t enough to merely point toward the shortcomings of secular, humanist thought or to the destructive outcomes for society of the sexual revolution. We must also examine that which gave rise to that reaction. We must examine and scrutinize those traditional values, rooted in theological assertions; especially those that define human sexuality. We must assess the, so-called, traditional values themselves.

We can catch a glimpse from the field of 19th century medical science. There were many Victorian era scientists that attempted to resist the secular materialist trends and the scientific advances that were leading to secularism, at least in outlook, among their colleagues. They set out to prove that rational thought and scientific advancement didn’t necessarily negate the Christian moral system.

They argued that based on purely scientific medical grounds they could prove that the morality status quo needed to be maintained. Their argument, however, was based on entirely pseudo-scientific theories of human anatomy and medicine, ones that were already considered dubious even in the 1870s.

However, what is insightful is the window they provide for us to observe the “morality status quo” of that era. It was established by nearly 1900 years of church history and theological ponderings about human sexuality. Their central scientific findings displayed a morality status quo that viewed the human sex drive and sexual relations in the most pessimistic light. Most significantly, this view was applicable irrespective of the commitment of the marriage bond. Sexuality, in all its forms, was seen as an issue of shame and human frailty. This reflected the general mentality of the era. Thus, after nearly 1900 years since Christ, there was no known moral definition; no example of what could codify sexual relations as purely virtuous. Sexual relations, inherently, were debased; worthy of guilt and shame. Simply put, after 1900 years of Christian thought there had not emerged a clear ethic to define human sexuality and guide it toward its ultimate purpose.

For example, in the 19th century, it was considered a medical fact that every orgasm a man had, whether in a married relationship or not, in his entire life placed such extreme demands on his metabolism that it trimmed months, maybe years, off of his life each time.

They also considered it a scientific fact that healthy human males had no sexual feelings of their own before age 14 or after age 16 or so. They believed that any man who experienced any sexual desire any other time had something medically wrong with him. They also held that it was scientifically proven that healthy human women had no sexual desires of their own, but that it was possible for men to “infect” them with sexual desires.

And these were thought to be improvements upon the “superstitions” represented by the church institution. What were the typical attitudes of the church of that era toward sex? We can see the same “status quo” of shame and pessimism toward sex even within the commitment of marriage. It was the wide-spread mind-set of believers. Noted anthropologist Nigel Davies, in his book The Rampant God, comments on the reality of the Christian experience resulting from this confusion:

“No one can ever quantify the mental anguish inflicted upon Christian believers through the centuries, an anguish beyond comprehension of other people; accepting in their minds [as] divine truths that every fiber of their body impelled them to ignore, they were forever haunted by fear of the fires of hell and thereby even suffered the torments of the damned during their life on earth.”

In fact, it was this very oppressive, even tyrannical religious domination over the most powerful human desire that was the main catalyst that gave rise to the secular reaction. Materialist ideas arose not only to break the chains of such oppression but to then declare the illegitimacy of religion itself. It was what gave the new fields of social sciences its anti-religious subtext.

Typically, we shine the laser light on the reaction. We document its indulgences and marvel in its hopeless debauchery. We wring our hands at the magnitude of its destructive skullduggery. Yet we never come to terms with the more fundamental lessons: that it is a reaction, albeit illegitimate in of itself, but triggered by a flaw within the sectarian perspective of human sexuality that has been imposed for centuries.

There is something amiss within the so-called traditional values themselves that gives rise to its “evil-twin,” the anti-religious, secular reaction. We must come to terms with the genesis of that circumstance and, finally, define what gives rise to that humanist reaction. I will say it boldly: the Moses and Jesus of theological construct and the Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner of secular humanist construct, are like two opposing pistons that are, at the same time, connected to and are turning the same crankshaft. These two trends are the inner, hidden dimension that has defined the ebb and flow of western culture, economy and politics not only in our time but for generations. In a very strange sense, they have needed each other much in the same way the people of Israel were in need of the rise of Nebuchadnezzar and the oppressive ways of Babylon. Those two opposing forces, like pistons, turned the crankshaft of God’s providence. Today, however, the engine is about to blow apart.

Next issue: We will examine the theological roots of the Christian perspective of human sexuality. We will find a most stunning secret that will bring us to the very core of the issue: the extreme alienation between the theology regarding Jesus and the human sex act. Could this be the theological flaw that has made human sexual ethics obscured? Don’t miss it! 

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