Liberty and public decency (part 2)

Click here for Part 1.

What I think I know about human sexuality is this: it is complex, powerful, beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, intertwined with a variety of biological, mental, and emotional processes, and deeply imbedded in countless ways into our society and culture.  Two implications (among many) of this characterization are:

  1. Sexuality is a social concern with high ethical relevance
  2. It is virtually impossible to develop simple rules governing sexuality, (even though virtually all societies attempt to govern it in some fashion.)

I’ll get to the second implication in a bit, but let me say at the outset that no set of ethical rules or laws are going to extract sexuality from public life. Nor would it be desirable to do so, since that would be dehumanizing and oppressive, in addition to nonsensical.

The first implication isn’t easy to grapple with, either, though there are a range of issues that do not seem that challenging to me.  Few argue that children should not be protected from sexual contact with adults and from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation.  And most support the idea that children should be protected from sexually explicit materials (images, videos, etc.), though, sadly, our laws often do little to see that that happens, especially in cyberspace.

Of course children have to go about their lives interacting with each other and with adults and with members of the opposite sex.  Little boys and girls are attracted to each other, and they go through a sexual development process that begins soon after conception.  As a parent, I want my children to develop healthy attitudes about sexuality, to be well-informed, to respect themselves and others in the way they act, speak, and dress, and to establish permanent, monogamous relationships that will bless their lives forever.  Those are big goals.  I would like others to respect those goals, as I respect the goals that they have.

Many commentators (conservative, liberal, feminist, etc.) have decried the increasing sexualization of children in society.  Children are bombarded with sexuality in popular culture to an extent that is often unhealthy.  For example, eating disorders and other psychological problems often arise from girls (and increasingly boys) developing poor body image fueled by media images that are both unrealistic and hyper-sexualized. Many have noted the negative impacts of this on children, and parents of all political stripes try to shield their young children from a popular culture that is increasingly sexualized.  The more this happens, what was once indecent becomes commonplace, and then the margins are pushed again.  Dance and music and art have always had a sexual element because sexuality is an important part of human existence.  But now our culture is dripping with overt and often explicit sexuality.  The margins to push are fewer and fewer, and it is harder and harder for families to find safe space where they can be entertained without being inundated with sexual stimuli and sexual messages.  This is not a good thing.

This culture is particularly damaging in some parts of our society.  I’m thinking particularly of girls in poor, minority communities.  These girls, a few of whom I’ve known well, live in a world with little beauty, with a constant threat of violence, with little ability to hold on to their personal belongs.  Furthermore, it is a world where girls face intense, incessant pressure to be sexually active and to service the sexual urges of boys and men.  The astronomical teen pregnancy rates in those communities are hardly surprising given the pressures these girls face.

Performances like Beyonce’s at the Super Bowl are shameful if for no other reason than the perverse, destructive message she is sending to young African-American girls.  Here we have a talented, beautiful black woman with enormous potential who chooses to drench her performance in overt sexuality.  Why?  Is she saying that is what a black woman should do to make a mark, to achieve success?  What are young girls watching her learning about what it takes to be successful in America?  (Moreover, what message are the boys learning?  Her lips might be saying, “put a ring on it!” but what is her body saying?)  Imagine, in contrast, what the effect might be if she chose a different route, say a performance (with her all-woman band) with more modest clothing, without the sexual gyrations, but still lots of good music and dynamic dancing.  What would girls learn from such a performance?  Beyonce would still be attractive and entertaining, but the message would be entirely different.

So, I don’t find it very controversial that a society would want to carve out safe spaces for children.  But I think we are rapidly losing ground in this regard, as every aspect of our culture becomes more and more sexualized.  We have to realize that children are among us and try to behave accordingly.  Most communities create zones for “adult” entertainment  and TV stations typically broadcast mature content at later hours and have warnings attached to them.  These kind of actions are appropriate. We could, however, do a lot more in terms of creating more safety in the internet without placing undue burdens on adults who are seeking sexually explicit content.  But, more than anything, we need a more robust public ethic geared towards protection of children (in the area of sexuality and many others).

But children should not be our only concern.  Many adults also want safe spaces where they are generally free from unwanted sexual provocation as well (though, as I said, no space with people in it is going to be free from some aspect of sexuality).  The libertarian ethic is that we do what we want as long as our actions don’t harm others.  To apply this in practice requires some agreement on what is meant by “harm” and in some cases our right to a particular actions (some types of speech, for instance) exists even if others are harmed.

There are clearly individual notions of harm that we would not respect.  If someone is bothered by my red car because they are offended for some strange reason by red cars, tough!  I’m still going to drive it.  But I think there are common-sense norms governing sexuality that most people know intuitively (at least until their sense of decency becomes so dulled by sexual overload that they can’t tell the difference).  These norms are, to be sure, culturally dependent and contextually dependent.  A swimsuit is perfectly appropriate on the beach but not in the office staff meeting.  But these contextual dependencies are not an argument against having ethical norms, just that they have to be nuanced and (because of the inherent complexity) will always be contestable at the margins.

Consider my shock machine (from Part 1).  It is relevant here not because it causes some objective measure of physical harm.  The “shock” could be simply an odor that some people find unpleasant.  The point of that example is that, in the public space, people should have the right to move around without being confronted by unexpected nuisances that they would rather avoid.  The “walk around it if you don’t like it” argument is analagous to the “look away if you don’t like it” argument, and both are insufficient.   Clearly, I should set up my shock machine in places where it isn’t a nuisance.

Dress and public comportment are naturally very different from the shock machine in some important ways.  For starters, we all have to go about our daily business, and we need to respect that people have different standards and values.  Both men and women deserve the right to be comfortable in their daily routines.  Yet most people easily recognize when someone is being sexually provocative.  We might not be able to define it very well, but we “know it when we see it.”  The law may allow (indeed, should allow) broad latitude in what is publicly acceptable, but legality does not imply decency or appropriateness.

In the workplace, there is a body of sexual harassment law that protects people from unwanted, unwelcome sexual advances and from sexually-related conduct that creates a hostile work environment.  Harassment can exist even if no physical contact is made and no violence occurs or any kind of threats are made.   I am not going to comment, nor could I, on that whole body of law and what parts of it make sense.  But the ethical norm I am talking about is not conceptually dissimilar to the ethical norms against sexual harassment that under gird that law.  Sexually provocative dress and behavior that is contextually inappropriate are types of harassment. We could even think of them as exhibitionism (affronting people with that which they do not want to see).  People have a moral right to be free from harassment and exhibitionism. I am NOT making a legal claim here based on current law, nor am I proposing laws, but conceptually the comparisons are entirely appropriate.

As a libertarian, I’m highly averse to state regulation of people’s behavior, whether private or public.  That aversion extends to this arena as well.  The state should be very cautious sticking its nose into such matters.  But there will be inevitably some legal norms regarding sexuality.  Somewhere between Taliban-style requirements for women to wear burqas and performing explicit sex acts in the middle of the town square is a line that the law has to draw.  I would draw that legal line in a way that gives individuals a lot of latitude—indeed, far more latitude than I would be comfortable with on a personal or ethical level.  This is not where we want to insert a lot of state power, even if a majority of the community are behind it.  Current law may be entirely sufficient.

But this does not mean libertarians should ignore the ethical concern.  We should stand up for public decency.  We should assert that a legal right to behave in a sexually provocative way in the public sphere that makes some adults uncomfortable and can be harmful to children does not imply a moral right to do so.  What I’m asking for is simply human decency and consideration, a regard for others rather than self-indulgence.

Before our public standards of decency go completely down the tubes, a little more prudishness is definitely in order!  Those who do shameful things ought to feel some shame.  Ultimately, being libertarians means we want to respect private spaces and to act respectfully and carefully of others’ rights in public spaces.  We should be leading on this issue.

[Let me add that even though I sharply disagree with many (all?) of the commentators on Part 1, I appreciate their engagement.  They helped me clarify my thinking.  I probably need a lot more clarification (hey, like I said, it’s a complex issue!)  Should people like to comment further, I’m hoping we can go in a different direction from the “Sven wants to empower the modesty police, put women in burqas, and blame women for the illicit thoughts and actions that are really the responsibility of men.”  Hopefully Part 2 resolves some of those issues.  Maybe not.]

5 thoughts on “Liberty and public decency (part 2)

  1. You say that “we know it when we see it,” but in fact different people in our society disagree about what clothes are appropriate. To use your original example of a college lecture, we can all agree that you shouldn’t show up to class in a bikini, but young or more libertine people would think a short skirt and sleeveless shirt are perfectly okay, whereas older, more conservative or religious people would expect women’s shoulders and legs to be covered.

    So there is no consensus, as I think the comments on your previous entry make clear. You might prefer women to dress modestly–I prefer men to wear suits and avoid shorts. But neither of us has the right to impose that opinion on others, either via legal means or social sanction.

  2. As I said, the margins are always contestable. But if we “can all agree” that the bikini is unacceptable in the classroom, that sounds like common-sense standard that makes sense, doesn’t it? (though I would maintain the ethical standard would be a little tighter, depending on the context, of course).

    There was a recent discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how professors should respond when students dress inappropriately to class. I didn’t follow the debate that closely, but I don’t recall anyone saying there wasn’t such a thing as inappropriate dress.

    Though I do remember from several years ago about the “Naked Man” at Berkeley who went everywhere wearing nothing but shoes. Sounds like a bit of a public health hazard. But, you know, Berkeley….(or maybe was it Stanford, can’t remember).

  3. Self-restraint used to be considered a virtue. Self restraint – in all areas, not just sex – is necessary to civilized human relations. Tolerance is not possible without self-restraint. As a society, we no longer wish to accept any limits on our behavior – the “culture of narcissism” as Christopher Lasch described it.

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