We need to talk about sex, part 6

Sorry for the absence — been swamped at work. This is the sixth part in a series of posts I’m doing about the liberalization of sex laws throughout the West. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here. Part 4 can be found here. Part 5 can be found here.

If we establish mutual adult consent as the iron standard underlying our morals, ethics, and legal codes governing sexual behavior, it will eventually force us to loosen restrictions on a lot of currently-forbidden arrangements. It won’t happen overnight, because cultural inertia is still strong enough that people instinctively recoil from immediately … well, legalizing prostitution, for example. The idea of a Sex McDonald’s on every corner is still sufficiently nasty to enough people that they’re happy to keep it illegal without thinking too much about it.

But this cultural resistance is ultimately built on sand. Because it has no firm intellectual foundation that the vast majority of us can agree upon, it will collapse if enough pressure is applied. And the pressure will be applied, because while resistance is strong, it is diffuse. Meanwhile, the motivation to change is narrow but highly concentrated in a small group of people who are extremely motivated.

As we’ve seen with gay rights, this is usually all it takes to upend powerful customs whose roots have nevertheless withered away. When the modern gay rights movement first began to coalesce around the 1969 Stonewall riots, it’s probable that upwards of 90 percent of Americans were perfectly happy with society’s then-current arrangements regarding homosexuality. I think I can confidently say that almost no Americans in 1969 — probably not even most gay activists themselves — wanted a world with mandatory nationwide gay marriage, up to and including legal penalties for businesses and individuals who declined to participate in gay weddings. (It certainly wasn’t what I wanted, and I’ve been in favor gay rights and gay marriage for as long as I can remember.) They’d probably be horrified if you laid out such a vision of the future, and might have questioned your sanity. Yet less than 50 years later, that’s what we ended up with. Who’s to say we won’t see the same thing unfold with prostitution, polygamy, or incest?

Still, that “iron standard” of mutual adult consent still rules out a handful of particularly sick sexual practices, right? Bestiality, child pornography, and child sex are still off the table. Right?

Maybe. But probably not. Let’s examine each one of these in turn.

First, bestiality — sex with animals. Clearly, animals have little or no ability to either consent or object to sexual contact.

But here’s the thing: We already disregard the consent of animals in a number of different circumstances. We still kill and eat animals, for instance. We draft them into involuntary servitude, both for work and for simple companionship.

It’s true that as civilization has advanced, we have gradually become more sensitive to the treatment of animals. If our concern is with possible harm that might come to animals, this could conceivably form a neutral basis for banning certain forms of bestiality. (Though again, it’s hard to square this concern with the fact that we still kill animals for food and sport.) But even with this caveat, a blanket ban on bestiality based solely on consent would be hard to justify, at least when seen in the context of how we currently treat our animals. I don’t want to turn the reader’s stomach with too much detail, but I’ll note that with at least some types of bestiality, the animals involved do not seem to find the treatment objectionable. Some species, in, fact, seem quite enthusiastic about some hot interspecies sexy fun times. If the animals don’t care, why should we?

What about child pornography, then? Kids can’t consent to sex, after all.

True — although, as I’ve already pointed out, I don’t believe the insistence on “consent” will ultimately be enough to stop this from being legalized, at least on a limited basis. However, that’s a discussion for another post. Here, I’ll just focus on the problem of definitions when discussing child pornography.

Some child porn, for example, doesn’t involve sex — some of it is just nude pictures of children. (For serious pedophiles, even nudity is not required — just normal pictures of children are enough to arouse them, the same way a normal person can be sexually aroused by a picture of an attractive, fully clothed adult.) This poses a problem, because a blanket ban on all nude images of children is impossible.

michelangelo-david
Disgusting child porn or priceless work of art? You decide.

It would, for starters, criminalize a lot of famous works of art. It’s not immediately obvious that the male model for Michelangelo’s sculpture of “David” was older than 18 — he certainly can’t have been much older than his early 20s. It’s said that the statue depicts David at the moment he decides to fight Goliath — that would mean the statue is supposed to be a boy of about 16, though clearly he’s a 16-year-old who’s
been spending a lot of time at the gym. (Note: While this would have been an inaccurate depiction of the historical David, it might have been an accurate depiction of an active and well-developed 16-year-old of Michelangelo’s time. We know Michelangelo wasn’t going for strict historical accuracy because his “David” is shown as uncircumcised — which is comically implausible, if one takes the Old Testament more or less at its word.) If that example seem a little ambiguous, trust me, the world’s museums are full of nude paintings, sculptures and yes, photographs whose subjects clearly and unambiguously fall on the younger side of our modern rules about the “age of consent.”

I know, I know … maybe you’re not so concerned with faggot-sounding “artistic value” crap and would be happy to burn all those pictures and smash all those statues. Fine. But there are also scientific and medical uses for nude images of children — pediatric specialists have to learn the specifics from somewhere, after all. There are historical and cultural justifications — one of the most famous photos from the Vietnam war features a naked nine-year-old girl; meanwhile, anthropologists trying to document the lives of primitive indigenous societies cannot do much about the fact that those societies sometimes have relaxed attitudes towards child nudity. Candid family photos of children may also feature images of child nudity — yes, there have actually been cases of parents who’ve been hauled into court for possessing a snapshot of their babies in the bathtub.

All of this means that police and prosecutors who handle child porn cases can sometimes be forced to make tricky judgement calls. But why should they? If we are committed to a society in which the sexual pleasure and fulfillment of adults must always be maximized, why insist on a hard-to-define distinction about whether a nude image of a child is or is not “prurient” or “obscene?” If the child’s parents consent to allowing such images, and the results do not feature any obvious sexual elements, why does it matter if adults might use such images for sexual gratification? Is it because such images might “trigger” adults to molest children? That seems unlikely; normal adults are not inspired to go out and rape people after viewing adult pornography, even of a very violent nature, and child molesters can be motivated to go out and molest kids just from viewing non-sexual images of children. If we trust reasonable people to keep their impulses under control in one instance, why not the other? (I feel compelled to point out here that I am not endorsing this view — I am just pointing out that this is the direction we’re headed in.)

This being 2016, there’s a further twist with child pornography. In a few years, it will be possible for an amateur working with basic desktop computer equipment to produce fully synthetic hardcore child porn. It will be indistinguishable from the real thing, yet will feature no human actors. These images, or even entire movies, will be entirely produced by fully consenting adults. No non-consenting children will ever be involved. In theory, it’s possible to produce such material right now, though as I understand it, the level of necessary expertise and cost of equipment would require a Hollywood-feature-size budget — not something that could be easily whipped up by a random gaggle of perverts, in other words. This won’t always be the case, though — if Moore’s law continues to hold, eventually this technology will be within easy reach of pretty much anybody.

I ask again: What, aside from “tradition” (an argument with an extremely poor track record against the many changes we’ve undergone in the past several decades), will be the rationale for keeping such works illegal?

Will it be because such productions “simulate” an actual crime? By that standard, you’d have to outlaw nearly every video game I’ve played in the last 20 years — all of them feature “simulated” killings that, regardless of how they might be justified within the context of the game’s narrative, would undoubtedly qualify as first-degree murder in real life.

Suddenly the much-mocked “Hays Code” of old Hollywood doesn’t seem so unreasonable, does it?

This all sounds incredibly shocking to you, I know — but remember, it won’t come all at once. It will be a drip-drip-drip process, and at every stage, the people pushing for just a little loosening of this or that restriction will be the most normal, sympathetic people you can imagine. Not a single one of them will look like a creepy pervert driving around in a spooky-looking rusted-out van.

Still, sex with kids: That’s the ultimate taboo, right? There’s no way we’ll ever slip that far into the abyss, right?

Right…?

Well, possibly. But I remain doubtful. Before I delve into such a white-hot controversial topic, I’ll need to lay the groundwork with a diversion into philosophy.

Coming next: Let’s discuss boring academic stuff, kids!

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