Sexual activity is about as private and personal as it gets. Yet, when you think about it, this is also the area of our lives religions are most keen to interfere with. The rhetoric of no sex outside marriage, no gay sex, no contraception, no sex for fun only for procreation, lust as sin, and so forth has a huge impact on countless lives around the world. The same monotheistically derived ideas underpin a lot of ostensibly secular laws as well. Who you can marry, whether you can access contraception and abortions, what happens if you have a child out of wedlock, whether rape can be legally deemed to occur inside marriage. If you live in a country where rape victims are punished as adulterous… you don’t have much ownership of your own body.
Underpinning this is a fear. You can hear its echoes in every right wing rant about ‘family values’ and the pretty irrational belief that somehow it is family units that make a state viable. The fear is that if we could all have sex with whoever we pleased, we’d run amok. Women especially. We’d be doing it in the streets, for Heaven’s sake. Anything short of a clampdown, is an invitation to licentiousness, orgy and depravity, according to some people. And they say it as though they think depravity is a bad thing. Which is ironic when you consider how often such vocal figures are caught out by their own hypocrisy, practicing what they preach against.
Sex is natural. It underpins nature, in fact. Very little would happen without reproduction. Yet as a species we’ve evolved in some interesting ways. We have far higher sexual drives than we have reproductive capacity, which suggests we’ve evolved a sexuality that is all about pair bonding, not reproduction. It could be argued our sexuality exist for social bonding. It takes a long time to raise a human child, and the pair bonding aspect of sex is an important contributor to that process.
Out there in the rest of nature, many models for sexual behaviour exist, and most of them find human parallels. The harem is much like the herd. Swans are monogamous, robins are adulterous, some creatures mate with whoever happens to be convenient at the time. Some males impregnate and depart, some stick around and help. Nature has no one right answer to sex and relationship. Human nature is the same.
Why are we so afraid that sexual freedom would equate to the breakdown of civilised society? Well, it undermines patriarchy, for a start. The ownership of women, control of fertility and thus traceability of male lines of descent is all very key here. Back before DNA testing, controlling your women was the only way to be sure whose offspring you were rearing. Listen to the right wing folk and you’ll think they imagine that, if our young people were allowed to find out about gay sex, they’d be so delighted by the wonders of it that they’d give up on being heterosexuals and the species would come to an end. I have to wonder what goes on inside some people’s heads.
Does all moral behaviour depend on carefully restricted and socially controlled sexual behaviour? I don’t think that for a moment. How many people you have sex with is far less a measure of your moral character than is how you have treated those people. How enthusiastic you are about sex is not a measure of depravity, just an aspect of your nature. Some of us are innately more enthusiastic than others, and none of the differences deserve to be stigmatised.
As a Druid it makes me really sad, listening to the new archbishop of Canterbury saying its ok to be gay so long as you don’t act on it. We need to get the politics out of sex, for a start. Anything that happens between consenting adults, is no one else’s business. Only when consent is compromised or harm done does the rest of society have a duty to intercede. We need to let go of these ideas about harming your soul, and sin. Fine if you want to apply it to yourself, that’s your own, private business. It is not an unassailable truth you have a right to force upon others.
Religions are as obsessed with controlling and regulating sexual behaviour as governments seem to be. And yet, none of these manifestations of power has managed to stamp out rape, or child abuse, or prostitution, or sexually transmitted diseases, or any of the other genuine ills that go alongside irresponsible and criminal sexual behaviour. Oh no. Internationally, religion seems more interested in stopping willing gay people from shagging each other than it is in stopping adults from abusing children, or women from being forced into sexual subservience. That’s so wrong.
There’s a power aspect to sex. Who has the right to do what, to whom, is a political issue and a power issue. Of course there’s religion muddled up in it. The whole thing needs a radical rethink, with the crimes that cause harm being taken a lot more seriously, and the ‘sins’ that arguably harm no one getting a lot less time and attention.