I have no objection to anyone’s sex life as long as they don’t practice it in the street and frighten the horses. ― Oscar Wilde
There’s this problem I have with snacks, especially late in the evening. Part of the problem is that, from a young age, I realized that I didn’t have to let the feeling of fullness prevent me from eating. When I ignored that signal, nothing could stop me from gobbling up everything in sight.
I’ve gotten better about it over the years — it helps that I’m an avid exerciser — but I could have sent a kid to college on the money I spent on late-night nibbling.
Recently I got to wondering: What if a society decided to ignore signals telling it that a social behavior had gone too far? What would stop that society from descending into a pit of depravity? Without the signals, there’d be no halting the downward spiral.
Take sex, for example. For centuries, the only acceptable sexual behavior took place inside marriage. There were some good reasons for this, among them the proper care and feeding of children by parents who knew that those kids were their progeny. But then things changed. Society became industrialized and fragmented and lonely; children morphed from labor assets on the family farm to costly liabilities in the urban world; birth control removed most of the risk of illegitimate offspring.
—Sex between unmarried adults was permitted
—Sex between members of different races was permitted
–Cosmetic surgery to augment sexual features was accepted
—Sodomy was permitted
—Sex between consenting teens was tolerated
—Sex acts in film and TV were legitimized
—Nude public bicycling was allowed
—Sex between gays was permitted
—Marriage between gays was permitted
—Catering to gay weddings was mandated
—Armed services admitted women to combat duty
—Transgenders were legitimized
—Transgenders were welcomed into the armed services
—Transgenders were permitted in public bathrooms of their choosing
—People who objected to these changes were shamed and ostracized
That brings us roughly up to date. As we can see, a lot has changed in the past several decades.
Don’t get me wrong: I really don’t object to many of these changes. (I’m fairly open minded on the topic.) My question is: are there no limits to what might constitute permissible sexual behavior? If not, where do we go next?
—Will we legalize everyday nudity in public places?
—Will we legalize sex acts in public places?
—Will we legalize prostitution?
—Will we legalize polygamy?
—Will we legalize bestiality?
—Will we legalize sex between adults and teens?
—Will we legalize sex between adults and children?
—Will we legalize incest?
—Will we legalize snuff films?
(I’m willing to guess that most of these will become licit within thirty years.)
Now that we have permitted sexual behaviors banned in the Bible and formerly punished by prison and/or execution, what’s to stop us from “going all the way” and permitting every form of sexual activity?
The point of all this isn’t to complain about our current louche sexual standards. I really don’t care that much. (I’m much more concerned about violence than weird sexual practices.) But if a society tosses away its moral compass and replaces it with nothing, what can prevent it from wandering all the way down paths that lead to pain and sorrow?
I might add that this process is already well underway in another arena, the growth of government. With certain limits against unbridled power stripped from the American Constitution during the past eighty years (removal of restraints on Congress’s clout; massive increases in presidential Executive Orders and Signing Statements; no-limit spying on citizens), there is nothing to stop the reach of government from growing without end. Already, about half of U.S. income is commandeered by federal, state, and local authorities. How long before the other half gets swallowed up?
But I digress. Again, the point is that, without any sense of limits, what can stop any and all behaviors, good or bad, from taking place?
We have largely torn up the old rulebook on sex, a moral code that in past centuries worked well enough but today fails to function effectively in our high-tech urban world. Yet sex — like guns, drugs, and alcohol — can be dangerous in the wrong hands. If we have no light to guide us through the sexual maze, we’ll stumble around in the darkness and hurt ourselves.
A good universal rule is: “No attacks against others or their resources” — or, in the case of sex, “Consenting adults only”. But with no standards at all, we put ourselves in danger.
Absent rules, there’s nothing to corral those dangers. There’s nothing to prevent the downside. There’s nothing to stop us.
I need a snack.