I’ve been thinking about my colleague Grover Cleveland’s short post on Beyonce’s wardrobe (or, rather, lack thereof) at the Super Bowl. He started about by saying, “I don’t think I’m a prude, but…” Having known the real Grover for many years, I can attest he is very good man, but not much of a prude.
But I am definitely a prude. At least if the belief that most aspects of sexuality, including sexually provocative dress and appearance, should be kept out of the public sphere at the same time they are protected from interference in the private sphere makes one a prude, then I am a prude. And proud of it. And, if you are a libertarian, then you should be a prude, too.
There are many types of libertarians, and I’m not interested today in arguing about who gets to wear what labels, though words and labels are very important. But almost all libertarians hold to the axiom that people have the right to do what they want to as long as it does not negatively affect other people. Negotiating rules for appropriate behavior in the public sphere is always hard because people with different values are constantly bumping into each other, either literally, virtually, or metaphorically. One justification for a state is as a means to enforce regulations on those public behaviors that can negatively affect others.
Some people argue that how one dresses is a personal matter and should not be subject to public regulation. But this view is, at best, a naïve and inconsiderate self-indulgence. Imagine you teach in the academy and a student comes to your class dressed in a revealing or otherwise provocative outfit. She (although the same rules apply to males, let’s stick with the modal case here) may claim she is just being comfortable or expressing her personality or something equally as silly. But odds are that she is fully aware that such dress provokes deeply ingrained biological and culturally-conditioned responses among almost all the men in the room. Indeed, it is very likely her intent to provoke those responses. She has probably learned what most women are aware of: being sexually enticing brings them significant power over men. So, in short, this coed is purposefully using her sexuality to have a significant, uninvited affect on men and to gain power and influence over them. Can you see where I’m headed?
Now, most college boys in America would respond with some version of “Bring it on, baby!” But not all of them. And let’s not forget that the other females in the room may not appreciate the distraction, either. Furthermore, the professor’s academic objectives for the class are likely being undermined as the attention of much of the class is being drawn away from the academic subject under study. And, as they mature and have families, a non-trivial proportion of those college boys will grow up into men who do not welcome similar provocations in their lives, their places of work, or in their homes. Some of this may be due to religious or moral values, some may find such dress as demeaning to women, including their wives and daughters, and some may simply view such public enticements as an unwelcome intrusion on marital fidelity. On a personal note, as an ordinary man I am influenced by the same sexual enticements as others. But my goal is to celebrate such enticements within the privacy of my marriage, rather than being influenced by others. We are, indeed, harmed when others force those enticements on us in the public sphere.
The typical response by those who resent exhortations to public modesty is to say, “If you don’t like it, you can just look away.” Let’s look at this claim. Suppose I went to the middle of the public square and set up a machine that gave a small shock to everyone who walked within 50 feet of it. The shock is irritating to many people, but it doesn’t damage anyone’s health, isn’t extremely painful, and, indeed, some people sort of like it. Would I be able to say, “If you don’t like my shock machine, you can just walk around it?” Would I really have the right to infringe on the public space in such away? Do we not have the right to conduct ordinary public acts without being assaulted by unwelcome and unsolicited shocks, especially if we are not given adequate warning that we are about to be shocked or if the shock machine is set up in a place where we would not expect it? Does someone’s supposed right to shock and offend outweigh my rights to use the public space without being assaulted?
The idea that someone has a right to insert herself or himself in the middle of the public square and engage in some sexually provocative behavior is equally as absurd as my shock machine would be. But that is where we are. The really sad part of Beyonce’s Super Bowl strip show (thank heavens for DVRs and fast-forwarding) was not that it represents a “new low” in public indecency. The sad part is that it was so commonplace, unsurprising and so widely cheered. Before the unraveling of public decency wrought by the sexual revolution, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, since her performance would not have been acceptable in any public venue outside a strip club. But our social norms have become so degraded that many people do not give it a second thought and even promote it.
Those who champion freedom should also champion the right to be free from sexual provocation in our public spaces. I’m not arguing that we must all dress in public like characters from Downton Abbey—wait, that would actually be really cool!—but it is a shame that so many libertarians have stood with the amoral left as standards of public decency have eroded to their current state, rather with those whose legitimate rights are being infringed.
My argument thus far has not invoked the rights of children and our obligations to protect them. That (and more) is coming in Part 2!
* Addendum: I previously used the phrase “sexual assault” in the last paragraph, which I have changed to “sexual provocation.” What I’m talking about can be thought of as a type of assault (I’m not making a legal argument here), but the term “sexual assault” immediately rings bells in people’s heads that I had no intention of ringing. Most important, I don’t want to be insensitive to the victims of sexual abuse.