The survival of the sexiest

Is the priority given to sexual freedom just a sellout to free market liberalism?

As the votes came in for the recent same-sex marriage bill, it was no surprise to see this issue divide, more or less, along right- and left-wing lines. True, the vote count was more extreme because the conservatives voted as a block, and there were some surprise votes in the other camp, but we generally do expect the left side of politics to strive for a more sexually just society.

Against this presumption, which is set to be reinforced as the US Presidential elections unfold, I want to ask if some aspects of the Western sexual milieu really do reflect a concern for justice. Instead, they remind me more of the heyday of the pre‑GFC financial sector.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters surely had a point about the abuse of freedom that was the GFC. It is often forgotten that a well-functioning market system needs a set of social norms that limit freedom, including the freedom to trade.

When the norms lapse – or are actively dismantled by right-wing deregulation – the very freedom which makes the market system work allows any advantages to be ruthlessly exploited. Ethically‑challenged loan salesmen, ingenious financial engineers, and the ‘too big to fail’ institutions that held the whole financial system to ransom were all actors in the GFC drama who managed to cash in their advantages.

But maybe these protesters should take a walk to some other places. A quick stroll into a newsagency, a courtroom or a movie rental shop will display another outworking of extreme freedom in the West today. There is no single place – no Wall Street – that symbolizes the only enduring revolution of the C20th, but that only serves to underscore its near-universal acceptance.

Viva la Revolution

The sexual revolution sits within the West’s narrative of the past one hundred years as a pearl of liberation in an otherwise swine-filled century. The communist, anarchist and fascist pigs all had their day, wrecking a trail of horror, but at least the women were set free. And this, it is said, was an achievement of the left side of politics, motivated by social justice.

There is a lot of truth in this. Though sexism remains a powerful force in the world, women today in the West (and many other places) enjoy legal rights, social freedoms, conditions of employment, rates of pay, and status within their relationships that could only have been dreamt of at the dawn of the C20th. Viva la Revolution!

And the left side of politics has been there for the whole journey. Early communists saw male‑dominated society – the patriarchy – as a form of class oppression, where women were the underclass. The 1970s feminists located the origin of the oppression in biology and marriage. As Shumaleth Firestone put it, marriage is doomed to failure because it reinforces ‘a fundamentally oppressive biological condition we now have the skill to correct’.

She was of course referring to the sexual freedom generated by the contraceptive pill. The political genius of the 1970s feminists was to equate women’s liberation with sexual freedom. The pursuit of the latter required nothing too taxing from human nature except a desire for sex, and the upcoming generation of men could be brought alongside pretty easily.

Moreover, sexual appetite is susceptible to habit formation (and in the extreme, addiction), leading to even more revolutionary potential. Firestone, among others, saw this, and imagined a world without marriage where sexual joy and excitement was rediffused across the full spectrum of our lives, rather than ‘driven into one narrow, difficult-to-find alley of human experience’.

Despite its positive aspects, there is a right wing side to the sexual revolution, where human bodies become goods in a marketplace, and where survival of the sexiest promotes injustice and discrimination rather than fighting against it.

All that said, it is worth noting something very strange at this point. The fight against the patriarchy came to be associated with the removal of social norms that limited freedom in the sexual arena.

But doesn’t this observation make the sexual revolution sound like the right-wing financial deregulation that preceded the GFC? Or, to ask the question another way, does the sexual revolution lie to the left, or the right?

Despite its positive aspects, there is a right wing side to the sexual revolution, where human bodies become goods in a marketplace, and where survival of the sexiest promotes injustice and discrimination rather than fighting against it. If Marx went to a nightclub and saw all the revolutionary potential squandered under neon, he might even say that sexual freedom is the Ecstasy of the Masses.

Sexual Deregulation

An article in The Economist on the fall-off of marriage rates in Asia serves to illustrate the point:

'Can marriage be revived in Asia? … Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied – not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn’t work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes.'  Asia’s Lonely Hearts. August 20-26

Whatever you think of marriage rates in Asia, the argument being used here is the same as the argument that an economist might use for the deregulation of a monopoly. Economists don’t like monopolies because the lone producer can pull back production to get a high price. The hapless consumers have no-where to turn and end up paying a hefty premium. The solution is to make it feasible to go elsewhere – either through allowing foreign imports (trade liberalization) or by nurturing local alternatives (competition policy). The freedom to choose another provider of services forces the producer to match the deals available elsewhere to the consumer.

In the quote from The Economist, the consumer in mind is the wife – she is a hapless consumer who has nowhere to turn (‘monogamy’ means only one husband) and she ends up getting exploited. The solution proposed is to make it feasible to go elsewhere by allowing easy entry into other marriages (divorce liberalization). The freedom to choose another provider of services forces the producer to match the deals available elsewhere, keeping him ‘on his toes’. Wedlock turns out to be an enemy of economic efficiency.

This kind of sexual deregulation isn’t just about helping women in abusive marriages, though it is undeniable that women trapped in abusive marriages have been, and are, exploited. It also draws its strength from the intoxicating narrative of free market liberalism – the Western economic system where unfettered freedom to trade is paramount. The freedom to trade in sex is celebrated in Ayn Rand’s right-wing polemic novel Atlas Shrugged.

'Do you remember you called me a trader once? I want you to come to me seeking nothing but your own enjoyment… My way of trading is to know that the joy you give me is paid for by the joy you get from me – not by your suffering or mine. I don’t accept sacrifices, and I don’t make them.'

It is hard to discern the left’s concern for community and solidarity in these words.

Any right wing ideologue could presumably use the monopoly argument of the Economist magazine to applaud the widespread liberalization of female prostitution, pornography, and the progressive abandonment of most censorship for consenting adult eyes. After all, it’s all good for competition.

They could go further by claiming that sexual deregulation may have saved marriage in the West by keeping it popular among men. Reluctant grooms who might have steered clear of wedlock are assured, in the current sexual milieu, that marriage need never extinguish their right to a continual variety of sexual enjoyment. As consumers of sexual experiences, these men can look forward to a menu of alternatives ranging from affairs to Internet adventures. Not only can they get sexual experiences outside if the marriage doesn’t provide them, but their freedom to do so might keep their wives ‘on their toes’.

As a result, the daughters of the revolution have had to endure some pretty serious ‘market discipline’ as they have struggled to remain ‘competitive’.

Irreducible Market Power

Why does all this matter? After all, we have no difficulty deregulating commercial monopolies and subjecting producers to tough market pressure. Maybe we just need to loosen up a bit, swing with the times, and continue to deregulate the marriage monopoly?

But the monopoly justification for sexual deregulation doesn’t work on its own terms. Competition is desirable only when it is possible to create a ‘level playing field’. If you can’t, the freedom that free market liberalism affords allows any advantages to be ruthlessly exploited, as was so helpfully illustrated during the Global Financial Crisis. No matter how much makeup is used, or hours are spent at the gym, there are irreducible differences between the sexual attractiveness of people. So it would be natural to conclude that sexual deregulation has increased the ability of attractive people to exploit unattractive people.

There is some evidence for this. According to Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas, attractive people are more popular, more confident and get better jobs than other people. So Westerners, who normally cringe at discrimination, turn a blind eye when it comes to exploiting so called ‘erotic capital’.

For example, when sports writer Jesse Fink joined an online dating site after the breakdown of his marriage, it didn’t take him long to become a discerning consumer. Resembling Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr., Fink could afford to sift through his offers in the sexual marketplace. ’Women who had ‘tuckshop-lady’ arms didn’t get a look in,’ he writes, in Laid Bare: One Man’s Story of Sex, Love and Other Disorders. ’I was a bastard because I could be.’

Fink grants painful insight into the web’s ruthless criteria of attractiveness: ’a woman’s value is rarely judged beyond the most primitive currency: face, tits, arse, legs.’ Plus, in order to maintain interest (remain competitive), ’sex on the first date becomes a given. There are rarely second ones because what gullible women think is their dream guy (handsome, athletic, independent, sensitive) has already moved on to his next conquest.’ There are echoes of this behaviour in the ease with which one can 'trade in' a spouse or partner when they get a bit old, or difficult, for a younger model.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that in 2010, $10.1 billion was spent on 13.1 million cosmetic procedures

If sexual deregulation hasn’t increased the power of attractive people, then why do the children of the revolution go to almost any lengths to appear perennially sexy? Animals are mistreated for cosmetic research, despite a growing concern about animal welfare. Teenage girls starve themselves to death and the human body is enhanced and reworked in every conceivable way.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that in 2010, $10.1 billion was spent on 13.1 million cosmetic procedures – up 5 per cent on the previous year. Of these, half were for people aged 40-54 – the group most subjected to the market discipline of competition from the younger models. Breast augmentation continues to be the most popular cosmetic procedure. Nine out of 10 patients of all cosmetic procedures are women. Viva la Revolution?

It’s clear that a degree of attention to our presentation and maintaining health and fitness is desirable, but surely the obsession with sexiness speaks of a profoundly transformed relational landscape.

Knock on Effects and Addictions

Sexual deregulation also fails to meet the success criteria for free market liberalism in the area of knock on effects – what are sometimes called externalities. Every good student of economics can tell you that deregulated markets only work when all the consequences of actions are somehow taken account of in market choices. The classic counter example is pollution, where the buyers and sellers of a good ignore the pollution that occurred when the good was made.

Sexual ethics is full of these knock on effects. The unintended ripples of choices go far beyond children, who may experience them as tsunamis. They fan out to any other sexual partners, the community at large and, arguably, even future generations.

the idea that unfettered freedom will result in the greatest good for the greatest number needs to be assessed carefully in the light of all knock on effects, rather than just assumed.

Naturally, this has to be set alongside the positive knock on effects which the revolution has allowed. Many relationships have been enriched, and kept together, by the fruit of sexual research made possible in this era, and there is no need to gainsay it. But the idea that unfettered freedom will result in the greatest good for the greatest number needs to be assessed carefully in the light of all knock on effects, rather than just assumed.

Then there is the habit-forming, or in the extreme – addictive, nature of sexual experiences. In most countries, the use of highly addictive drugs is discouraged, partly because it undercuts the assumption of our economic (and political) system – that people have enough psychological health and freedom to make reasonable choices. Somewhat inconsistently, teen culture is set loose to celebrate the notion that continual sexual enjoyment is a human right, at the time when young brains are being hard-wired for family responsibilities later in life. The worst of the revolution may be yet to come.

The Good Ol’ Days?

The opponents of sexual deregulation are seen as unthinkingly conservative, since they refer to the past in making their arguments. What could be more stifling to human flourishing than a slavish reproduction (no pun intended) of the status quo?

But there are good and bad uses of the past, and there is a good meaning of conservative – namely holding onto what is worthwhile during change. People of widely different persuasions have good reason to cast their eyes back in history and increasingly they are doing so.

Human beings did not appear yesterday, with unlimited flexibility to flourish within the fulfilled dreams of any and every social visionary. We have interacted with our natural environment and our social networks for millennia upon millennia and this has affected us. For atheists, this is the ‘whole story’ for humanity, and it would be unthinkable to ignore it. They should be investigating the past with a view to ascertain the survival value of various family arrangements. High on their list of considerations would presumably be the effects on children of sexual deregulation.

Theists also regard the shared history of natural and social conditioning as a potential window into human flourishing, and support using the child welfare as one metric for the success of social change through time. But Christian theists relate to the past in an additional way through their belief in revelation via historical texts (the bible). The application of biblical principles requires interpretation of ancient texts, which can be challenging. But if God has in fact revealed himself in an interpretable way, sensible readings of scripture open up the possibility of ‘conservative radicalism’: being conservative in the good sense of preserving what ought to be preserved, yet radical in the sense of challenging current social arrangements that are antithetical to human flourishing.

Christian theists do not regard marriage as a monopoly needing deregulation, but as a context for care and respect that relies upon lifelong monogamous commitment. Women’s liberation and sexual deregulation need not be the same thing if the celebrated freedom to trade by a man limits the freedom of the woman.

The Full Circle

It is undoubtedly true that some aspects of sexual deregulation have had good consequences, especially by giving options to people in abusive relationships. But I am surprised that more people are not asking whether the high priority given to sexual freedom is a sell out to free market liberalism.

Perhaps this is about to change. Feminists, many of whom have been the vanguard of change in the sexual revolution, are now openly expressing concern about the trader mindset of modern sexual ethics, and placing it under the heading of ‘commodification’ – a view of life where everything from sex to babies becomes a tradeable good. Margaret Radin, a feminist scholar, writes:

'Universal commodification is itself a worldview – a conceptual scheme – that, if left unchecked, might threaten to vitiate competing ways of understanding and creating our world ……. speaking of everything from sex to babies in the market terms of goods with exchange value would coarsen our world, slowly chipping away at the non-monetizable aspects of life.' Rethinking Commodification

Seen for what it is, economic deregulation is about the self-interested production and distribution of ‘goods and services’. Not surprisingly, sexual deregulation transforms human beings – including women – into goods and services.

We accept the cut and thrust of deregulation for TVs and haircuts, which neither bleed nor cry. But after four decades of sexual freedom, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that right‑wing individualistic sexual deregulation rewards those with irreducible market power and oppresses those – including children, unattractive people and sexual addicts – who lack that power.

Dr Gordon Menzies lectures in Economics at The University of Technology in Sydney and is a Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics