—Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island
Sexual innocence has gone to market.
In our liberated era, sexuality is increasingly valued, and modesty increasingly devalued (once was a person was a deviant if overly sexual; now if insufficiently so).
Sexual competition is now a laissez faire system, and sexuality is a commodity in a newly deregulated market. Sexual vigor and success combine to make the universal product, inherent in all products.
Sex is the value added, to be attained by purchasing the right car, clothes, beer, etc. Sex sells the products that promise to produce more sex. Sex is the Alpha and Omega of our new consumerist order.
Despite the tendency of the sixties generation to congratulate itself (or any generation, for that matter), sexual liberation owes far more to technology than to political action. Women first had to be liberated from toil. Only then could sexual equality become an issue. Political agitation always follows opportunity, just as patriotic rhetoric follows power. Activists need their heroic mythology as surely as militarists.
It is to the modern free market, and its ruthless efficiency in wringing productivity out of labor, that women owe their newfound liberty. Material progress and the advent of free time made women's liberation possible. I'm sure I'm not the first to suggest women owe their equality to masculine technological ingenuity, but not so long ago this would have been considered the raving of a crackpot, and perhaps still is in some quarters.
(I recall an essay by legendary L.A. Times columnist Jack Anderson, years ago, where he perused newspaper advertisements from the early half of the twentieth century, expressing disdain at the prevalence of ads for various innovative, time saving products for homemakers: washing machines, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc.--my how far we've come, seemed to be the gist of his import; here it was right before him, but it was too soon to recognize and acknowledge the true vanguards of women's liberation--household appliances)
Our new freedom is at once more liberal and less egalitarian, freer and more fascistic; unhindered sexual competition will make gilded age capitalism look like a support group. Sexual competition is nature's dismissive, mocking retort to humanity's endless prayers to equality and fraternity. We conquer man-made morality only to submit to nature's tyranny. The wheel of history turns: repression begets revolution begets repression.
Sexual competition now follows the amoral logic of the market, because sex is the market, always has been; we now see that all human economic activity is a complex superstructure built upon this substrate of sex. From here on the unfettered market of sex will proceed with the same inexorable and indifferent logic of any open market, to points unknown.
Unmodified sexual competition is a return to nature, transplanting the primitive world into the midst of modernity; a return which will likely disabuse us of yet another cherished myth, that of the primitive idyll. It is every man (and woman) for himself. The regulation of sexual behavior through monogamy and chastity were civilizational advances we haven't bothered to replace, but are merely leaving behind.
Sexual shame has been routed, electronic entertainment reaches ever higher degrees of technological sophistication, and the ensuing profusion of sexual imagery and titillation is already desensitizing us. Ever more stimulation is required; already we show signs of exhaustion. It may all end in a sexually spent society; ironically, sexual liberation may eventually destroy sex.
Procreation has already been cut adrift; is passion next? How will love be possible in the coming world? Will love itself become an artifact, a short lived thing in the span of history? Is it now revealed as no more than a dream? Romantic love, we hardly knew ye.
Now the very notion of a common sexual morality is illiberal. By unspoken assent it has become sufficient to ridicule one who speaks of such things as a prude; which under the new order is synonymous with enemy of freedom.
But this is all the bigotry of the present for the past, for morality as a personal matter is a modern invention. Subjective, individual morality is as meaningless as the conceit of a close personal relationship with God. It is no morality at all.
I don't know if it spells disaster; I don't pretend to know where it leads. I only know it represents something altogether new, a profound--and unprecedented--devolution of moral authority from communities and institutions to individuals, manipulated by a ubiquitous and sophisticated electronic marketplace. This we've come to accept without consideration, by default really, as the unavoidable result of a morally unassailable expansion of personal liberty (an increasing personal liberty accompanied by a decreasing political representation, as matters of war, immigration, and the terms of our governance are increasingly surrendered to corporations and political parties inured against the popular will--but that's for another time).
It does seem that something has to give, eventually. Perhaps when the professional classes and the wealthy have reached levels of illegitimacy and serial relationships previously confined to the poor. They have already acquired a taste for low culture that seems to presage a taste for low living. People are now expected to demonstrate their egalitarian piety by disdaining discernment, particularly in matters of a sexual nature. To be modest is to not be in on the joke, outdated, alien, not one of us. So, we are all vulgarians now. Or outcasts.
We have decreed the ideal of modesty nothing more than bourgeois prejudice; worse, it's a sucker's investment in the failing concern that is sexual morality, akin to putting one's money in savings while everyone else is getting rich on junk bonds. Morality, and community, always depended on the vast majority buying into it, at least in principle, but now the compact has been broken. We already have a hard time remembering its terms.
It's one more fight I haven't taken up, despite being sympathetic to defenders of tradition, who seem entirely more honest, brave even, in their willingness to stand their ground before the groundswell that lifts their opposite number. I too suffer from the cowardice of that craven sellout, the "liberal on social issues conservative", which is not a conservative at all, and a very dismal liberal at that. It is a cop-out, like calling yourself an agnostic.
I must confess, this is nothing more than a surrender to the way things are. Of the few things I'm certain, one is that sexual mores are not the means of patriarchal tyranny that some feminists would have, or mere accident, as the general apathy that is overtaking us implies. The prevalence of sexual morality in advanced societies is enough for me to prove its necessity to civilization.
Two modern historical anomalies uncomfortably exist side by side: the sexualization of children, and the idealization of childhood.
Many have pointed out that our time's extended, idealized childhood is a fairly recent invention. This too may prove short-lived. One consequence of the commodification of sexuality is that children are disabused of sexual innocence sooner and, like the rest of us, more thoroughly.
For a time we behaved as if there could be two separate societal spheres, one of adults and one of children. This was always a contrivance to get us past the transition from a communal morality to one determined by the individual and manipulated by the marketplace; now few even feel the need to offer the cliched and callous retort to those complaining about sexual content on television: just change the channel.
Now we know that children, and childhood, will not be insulated from the consequences of sexual revolution; the very notion that they should be is diminishing, surrendered to a "progress" we are incapable, and mostly unwilling, to arrest. The most profound result of sexual liberation may be the destruction of sexual innocence.
Is childhood to be surrendered to this new ideal of productivity, progress, and personal liberation? Are we now giving childhood back, not to the privations of a harder time, but to the libertine, dissolute excess of ours? Who will be left to mourn childhood when none have lived it?
An unspoken anxiety grips the populace. We are alarmed at the sight of tarted up thirteen year-olds (particularly if they are our relatives), yet we lack the will, acting alone now without the structure of community morality to support us, to offer a resistance. No one wants to be a prude; it has gone beyond a source of embarrassment to become a source of suspicion. The imputation is that one who complains about sexual morality would surrender other freedoms, or is secretly attempting to chase women out of public life, even as the debate, like that surrounding abortion, is inordinately waged by women on each side. Women remain more vested in chastity and sexual modesty than men ever will be, contrary to some feminist dogma.
Sublimation is still necessary, now more than ever, so we turn our fearful angst on the few remaining among us who are unquestionably out of bounds, the rapist and the child molester.
The New York Times reported earlier this week on a series of highly rated shows produced by Dateline NBC, filming police stings of alleged sexual predators seeking out minors online.
The stings are the creation of a website named Perverted Justice, that had been acting on its own for years before being picked up by Dateline. The sting operators pose as children in online chat rooms, waiting to be propositioned by adults.
For nearly three years, and even a couple of episodes into Dateline's involvement with them, the group did all of this without notifying the authorities (now they work in conjunction with the police). Originally they merely sought to identify online predators and then cause them as much harm as possible by publishing their names and informing on them to employers, family, friends, and neighbors.
Among the many problems inherent in this, the website had no means of confirming the identities of their targets.
A contra-site, corrupted-justice.com, was created to counter Perverted Justice, and claims among the concessions it's managed to extract (from their website):
1) We demanded that they cease performing their "busts" without the prearranged involvement of legitimate law enforcement, and;The "Follow Up Forum" seems to be a large part of the appeal of the site, publishing the lurid details of online chats; previously used to destroy alleged pedophiles who stood accused of no crime, now the site limits these to persons already convicted. Among the charges leveled by Corrupted Justice are that PJ has used minors in its sting operations, that it has in the past lured predators into residential neighborhoods and to public places without notifying police (and I can't help thinking that these close calls only made more careful predators), and of course that their methods constitute entrapment.
2) We demanded that they dismantle the "Follow Up Forum" - The primary tool used by their members to harass and terrorize those who had been accused only by anonymous vigilantes and had never been dealt with by legitimate law enforcement.
In the past I've seen a few of the Dateline programs, and I must confess that I was nearly as appalled by the actions of Dateline as I was by the alleged child predators. I have to ask myself, am I letting my natural revulsion toward sanctimony color my judgment of a worthy and necessary mission? I think not.
What appalls me isn't the sense that the innocent are being persecuted, though I'll never feel comfortable with the curious folk at Perverted Justice or the producers of Dateline NBC running about determining who is a criminal and who isn't (one PJ participant dismisses charges of entrapment by pointing out that civilians cannot be guilty of entrapment--accurate, but hardly reassuring to know that there are situations where civilians are more empowered than police); it is more the sense that they are in fact engaged in punishment, and that their motivations, imbued with an immature zeal, lead them to extremes. Extra-legal punishment, existing outside of the law, is an erosion of the law, and the law, not the posturing antics of the self appointed, is what truly protects us.
The aggressive pursuit of sexual deviants is designed to make us feel less powerless before the gut-wrenching pace of society's progress toward an uncertain moral abyss. Family and community once protected children from these people, who have always existed; but what is different now is the independence, and sexual precociousness, of our children, and the way we live. We are understandably on edge.
In the past activists have tried to create special category crimes with diminished rights for the accused. Feminists have done this with rape, lobbying to restrict the rights of the accused and expand its definition; law and order conservatives have long expressed impatience with constitutional restraints in general. The willingness of so many to surrender so much to the "war on terror" comes to mind. We get into trouble when we refuse to live with the limitations the law places on us
Often accompanying demands that the constitution be suspended is the insistence that we are in the throes of an epidemic; sometimes, as in the case of nationwide pedophilia panic of the early nineties, outright hysteria is allowed to take hold (in no small part because so few are willing to be seen as defending heinous criminals--leaving little resistance to an already powerful, emotion driven movement) resulting in fantastical claims and the persecution of innocents. Often there is a hostility toward patriarchy, and an underlying misandry. Perveted Justice's founder, a 27 year-old man who--shockingly--lives with his mother, has this to say, "I have a low opinion of men in general. The most heinous crimes in our society are committed by males."
Always suspect those so ready to denounce their kind.
What is striking about the Perverted Justice website is its strutting, self-congratulatory nature. Enthusiastic amateurs engaged in what should be police activity should always give us pause. And to think I began here bemoaning the collapse of sexual morality.
Something else I couldn't help but notice: the vigilantes of PJ resemble the child molesters they hunt (they post photos of both). There is an awful lot of venom, braggadocio, and chest-beating going on; but above all, as always, vanity.
The same issue of the Times reported on a public shaming of Chinese prostitutes and pimps (what does a Chinese pimp look like?) that drew a significant backlash from citizens who were concerned about the abuse of state power, and its troubling reminder of the Cultural Revolution.
One land's low ebb is another's high tide.