Pretty much everyone would agree that some sexual behaviors are destructive and immoral and that some sexual behaviors are not. But that is where the global consensus ends. There are many disagreements over what is destructive and what is not, what is immoral and what is not.
What is immoral depends on what you base your morality on. If your only moral norm is…
1. …consent, then anything done against the other person’s will is immoral, while everything that everyone involved freely agrees on (without coercion, deceit or similar) is good.
2. …utilitarism, then anything that create more harm than happiness is bad, while anything that creates more happiness than harm is good.
3. …Culture or religion, then those who can enforce their own interpretation of the culture or religion on others get a free license do anything to anyone while condemning anyone for anything.
The principles of consent and embracing happiness while avoiding destructiveness are two very different principles, but they go very well together. As I have argued before, respect and maximization of outcome should always be combined with each other, and also with empathy.
As for culture and religion, they can be used to argue for good moral standards, not only for bad ones. But it is very important that actual morality comes first: That the interpretation of culture or religion conform to what is respectful and non-destructive. It is not okay to define something as a priorirespectful and non-destructive, no matter how it affects people. It is not okay to misuse culture or religion to justify oppression or abuse.
However. Culture and the social norms aspects of religion can greatly affect to what extent a certain situation is destructive or not. Three factors are fairly simple: Stigmatization, and two phenomena derived from stigmatization – internalized categorism and secrecy.
1. Stigmatization: It is harmful for a person to be viewed by others as being dirty, defiled, broken, sinful, worthless, or some shit like that.
2. Internalized Categorism: The above problem becomes much worse if the person internalizes such stereotypes and make the a part of his or her self-image.
3. Secrecy: To make something a secret is to make it dangerous. Lets say that two women are on a date. One of them have friends and family who knows about the date. The other does not. The first woman can discuss the date beforehand, get good advice and so on. If something happens to her, her friends know where she is. They can call the police or whatever the situation demands, and they can support her afterward. The other woman gets no support and no safety net. If she ended up with a guy who seemed nice but turned out to be a rapist, she can’t even talk with anyone about it afterward. She must keep it secret, thus adding to the trauma. In some cases, this even adds a risk of extortion: The rapist can threaten to expose his victim as someone who is no longer a virgin.
These problems are pretty straight-forward. But there’s also a more complex interaction between social norms and the effects of sexuality. When a sexual interaction (or other social interaction) happens between individuals, on what terms does it happen?
Yesterday, I read an interesting BBC article about a sexual minority organization in India. The article mentioned an Indian doctor who argued for an opinion that used to be popular among western doctors but is now rapidly falling out of fashion in the west. The opinion that it is inherently destructive if you need a certain form of sexuality to function sexually. In other words, it is destructive to be homosexual but not bisexual, or, as in this case, destructive to be a sadomasochist if it is an integrated part of your sex-life but not if it is just a little spice. Heterosexual man-on-woman intercourse was not mentioned, but one can assume that the doctor would not consider it unhealthy to need that particular sex act to be part of one’s sexual life.
If a certain couple live our their sexuality in a way they both enjoy… a way that they are happy with and have chosen together… why would this be inherently destructive, even if their particular way doesn’t happen to be mainstream? No good reason whatsoever. However, this doctor had some examples. And they were not that kind of examples at all.
His examples were of couples where one was a sadomasochist and the other was not. A couple where one was a sadomasochist who was trying to make his wife (or her husband) participate in sadistic sexual acts that this person really didn’t want to participate in. He didn’t say anything more about this. He didn’t say if there was coercion involved. He left this to our imagination. And my imagination is this…
A man and a woman gets married. They don’t know each other, they didn’t chose each other. It was an arranged marriage. A divorce would be a social disaster. The wife not getting pregnant would also be a social disaster. And so would her getting pregnant with anyone other than her husband. They are trapped. Stuck with each other. It suddenly becomes very important that they by pure chance just happens to be sexually compatible with each other. And their best chance for that is if they are both as mainstream as possible. Average heterosexuals who’s sexual needs are focused on the very act of producing children.
But lets say that one of them is an exclusive sadomasochist. A person who can only experience sexual pleasure through expressions of sadomasochistic sexuality. This would be horrible for at least one of them, most likely the woman. The culture does not value her pleasure and her needs as much as it values the pleasure and needs of the man. But more importantly, she can get pregnant even if the sex is joyless or outright traumatic. The man must experience pleasure. Without his erection, without his orgasm, she will not get pregnant. Without her lubrication, the intercourse is likely to be painful in a bad way for her. It might also damage her vagina. However, she can still get pregnant.
Therefore, they can just skip doing any BDSM if she’s the one who is an exclusive sadomasochist. The will just have to submit to “normal” sex that is boring at best and traumatic at worst. She is likely to become very unhappy and resentful, she is likely to start hating sex and sexual feelings. But she will have the child that society requires her to have. However, if he is the one who is the exclusive sadomasochist, her situation is even worse. She will have to accept getting whipped or whatever – If he doesn’t get it up, there will be no pregnancy and no child.
Of course, I he’s an exclusive homosexual then their situation might be even worse. The popular television series Game of Thrones had such a scene. A wife making futile attempts to seduce her husband. She’s doing everything right, and doesn’t show any resentment for the fact that he is gay. But there is really nothing she can do to solve this problem and get the pregnancy they both so desperately need. This particular scene is fictional, of course. But lots of similar cases are bound to have happened in real life throughout history. Many traditional cultures harbor a huge resentment against male homosexuality, while female homosexuality simply isn’t taken seriously. I used to believe that this was primarily because of the risk of venereal diseases that comes with unprotected intercourse promiscuity – combined with a society that doesn’t know about viruses and bacteria, instead interpreting diseases as evil spirits or divine retribution. I still think this is one of the major reasons for oldschool homophobia. But the impact male exclusive homosexuality has on the production of children in arranged marriages might be an even bigger source of resentment.
However, categories such as heterosexual and homosexual are somewhat artificial. A man who fits in the category of “exclusive homosexual” is still usually capable to make a woman pregnant. He can think about men while having sex with er, or he can have a threesome with her and a man he finds attractive. However, both these options depend heavily on how he view himself and how he view sexuality. The second option also depend on the social control in the society he lives in. In many societies, it could be devastating to his “honor” to invite another man to share his wife’s bed. Thus, when society regards sexuality and shameful and sinful, that is when male homosexuality really becomes the most problematic for reproduction. It is hardly surprising that the societies that are most repressive against sexuality as such also are the ones that are the most repressive against homosexuality.
When a person doesn’t fit into the social norms, this can be seen either as the norms being wrong or as the individual being wrong for not fitting in.
When two people doesn’t fit together, this can be seen as them being a bad match for each other. That they should both get new partners that they fit together with better. Or, it can be seen as one of them being a bad person who is wrong for not fitting together with the partner. You can assign one gender to be the good gender and the other to be the bad gender. So that it is always the woman’s fault, or always the man’s fault. Or, you can assign an arbitrary social norm, and blame the one who deviates the most from this norm. There will always be “deviations” to blame, since nobody is truly “normal”. So you will have to keep competing about who ca be the most judgmental, and who can establish the latest list of excuses for condemnation.
For a society to be healthy, it needs to be free and open. On all levels. What is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable must be built on reality and respect for each individual. Not on someone’s “right” to another person. And not on the idea that everyone must fit into the same mold, so that those who don’t fit must be squeezed into that mold by the force of social, psychological or physical violence.