We need to talk about sex, part 3

This is the third part of a series of posts I’m doing about the liberalization of sex laws throughout the West. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 is here.

Was the Foundational Consensus I’ve described a good system? Well, it depends on how you want to look at it.

A recurring problem in the way many people look at the past is their tendency to believe, as I’ve put it before, that “ainchent peepul wur stoopid.” The thinking goes that up until, like, two weeks ago, all the people in the whole world were barely literate savages, scratching their butts and hooting in wonder every time there was a solar eclipse.

In fact, ancient people were pretty damn smart, and some of them were geniuses. Some were quite a lot smarter than about 99.999 percent of the people reading this. A lot of confusing things about history become much clearer if one takes into account that in most cases, the very smart people of the past were doing the best they could with the tools and knowledge they had at their disposal. Let me give you a clue here: If an objection to this or that rule can occur to your dumb-ass bovine brain, it’s almost impossible that the same objection never flickered up in the minds of the smartest people on the planet for thousands and thousands of years.

Let’s apply this reasoning to the Foundational Consensus. Underlying the Consensus was the assumption that sexual fulfillment was not a human right. Sex was recognized as an incredibly powerful, potentially destructive force, and governing authorities were assumed to have sweeping powers to regulate it, “for the good of society.” It was, from their perspective, no different from governments regulating guns or nuclear weapons, or establishing rules for a common currency.

Many of the tough restrictions of the Consensus actually make a lot of sense if you start from the assumption that we are living in a harsh, poverty-stricken world, where all but a very minuscule, very fortunate sliver of people will spend most of their lives just struggling to get by. Seen from that perspective, many of these seemingly-cruel limits on human appetites can be seen as reasonable tools for maintaining a tenuous grip on civilization.

If resources are limited, you want to make sure you get the maximum possible return on investment from every single baby born. All these rules that strike oh-so-enlightened moderns as stupid Sky God mumbo-jumbo — you shouldn’t have sex unless you intend to have a child; if you do have a child, the child needs two parents, and ideally those parents should be the child’s biological parents; in order to maximize investment in the child, the parents must be forbidden from separating and should focus their sexual desires exclusively on each other — are actually common-sense rules for an environment where there is only so much to go around, and life is just one major plague or war away from descending into chaos. Furthermore, restrictions on homosexuality make sense in a world where infant mortality is very high: You want to ensure that as much sexual energy as possible is channeled into sex that could potentially result in children.

From a purely utilitarian perspective, “sexual morality” is nothing more than an efficient rationing tool for a crucial resource in an environment where every resource must be maximized. (A super-utilitarian, with access to population statistics and powerful computers, could probably devise an even more efficient system — on paper. But it’s doubtful whether that system would fit comfortably with natural human instincts.)

People chafe at these restrictions, of course, because in a perfect world everybody would love to, as KISS memorably put it, “rock ‘n’ roll all night and party every day.”

In times of greater wealth and living standards — Restoration England, Renaissance Italy, America during the 1920s — rules are relaxed, and people are given more freedom to “cut loose” a little. (And as previously noted, the fortunate 1 percent at the very top have always been given much greater leeway in these matters than the common people.) It’s important to note, however, that prior to World War II, even during times of greater sexual license, the Foundational Consensus was still the “official” standard, even if a lot of people failed to live up to it.

Coming next: The Consensus crumbles.

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4 thoughts on “We need to talk about sex, part 3

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