Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Consenting Adults Myth (or heresy)

There is a popular and prevalent truism that what consenting adults get up to in privacy is nobody's concern but their own.

And like so many truisms, there is some truth in it - but taken as an absolute it is clearly fallacious.

Let us say that I choose to embark on an affair with a consenting woman, a wife and mother. The popular wisdom is that that is nobody's business but our own. In the sense that the late unlamented News of the World has no right to pry, that is largely correct. But the matter is not one of indifference to others. Obviously our respective spouses have a strong interest in the matter, as do our children. But so too should society at large. For such matters are not really private, however secret we may keep them. Actions have consequences, and bad actions tend to have bad consequences.

In this case there are several risks: that one or two families may be broken up - resulting in problems which others will have to live with or attempt to resolve; that one or both of our spouses will be depressed, suicidal, damaged emotionally - resulting in problems which others will have to live with or attempt to resolve; that we set an example to others that such behaviour is acceptable - resulting in problems which others will have to live with or attempt to resolve; and so on.

For this reason, civilised societies have always agreed that sexual relations are a legitimate matter of interest to society. At the societal level, marriage is the structure established to regulate them. By entering into a sexual relationship (heretofore marriage being the accepted way of doing that) one undertook certain commitments. Because sexual intimacy is principally about babies and bonding, the commitments reflect that: in particular the commitments to affection, fidelity and permanence. These are to ensure that children are brought up in a stable environment, and that neither party is abused and abandoned.

By turning its back on the need for such a contract to legitimise sexual intimacy, modern society is sowing the wind - and we are already beginning to reap the whirlwind: but it will get much, much worse.


Left-footer said...

Agree with you absolutely. Adultery and divorce are attacks on the family, and therefore attacks on society, or what is left of it.

Left-footer said...

Agree with you absolutely. Adultery and divorce are attacks on the family, and therefore attacks on society, or what is left of it.

blondpidge said...

I agree, Janet Smith is correct, the purpose of sex is babies and bonding.

I have used the phrase about consenting adults myself, specifically in the context of homosexual sex which I do not believe should be criminalised.

As you note, it is true in part, i.e. what consenting people get up to in the privacy of their own homes is no business of anyone else's, so long as they do not cause harm either to themselves or others. Whilst homosexual sex does cause physical and certainly spiritual damage, if fully aware of the risks, adults decide to embark on a certain course of action, that is entirely up to them. God gave us free will after all and legally enforcing sexual morality too strictly will prove counter-productive and will do nothing to help people attain true purity of heart.

blondpidge said...

Forgot to mention, you do answer the oft-posed question and retort to "what is it any business of yours" well however.

Joseph Shaw said...

In Catholic states before the Reformation, and to some extent afterwards, moral issues were dealt with by the Church. As the Church was taken over by the state in Protestant countries, so were these issues.

Saying that is not to say that serious sanctions should not be used in relation to these things. The Church was able to fine, imprison, execute, and excommunicate - only members of the Church, but then that was everyone except Jews, who had their own negotiated relationship with the state.

When Mill said that the state should not interfere with moral issues, he meant it was a matter of 'social sanctions'. In his day that meant that adulterers were forced out of public life, chucked out of their clubs, they had to move away from their villages and so on, because of ostracism. Again, even Mill didn't think these things didn't deserve serious sanctions.

When people today say sodomy shouldn't be criminalised, they probably mean it should be tolerated by everyone in every possible way. I'd be interested to know what blondpidge thinks: what sort of sanctions, if any, should be used to deal with people openly living an immoral life? Say, in a Catholic country, like Malta.

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks for all the comments.

The issue of ‘criminalisation’ is a complex one.

Whether we like it or not, there is a strong tendency in modern life to equate ‘legal’ with ‘right.’

Remember the recent unedifying sight of MPs queuing up to say that they had done nothing wrong with regard to expenses, when the most that could be claimed was that they had not broken the law (or the rules, which they had written...).

Thus to de-criminalise something (eg drugs, abortion, sodomy) is in practice interpreted as saying that something is (at least) OK.

On the other hand, criminalising particular sexual behaviour risks stimulating prurience, blackmail, abuse and assault, and other undesirable reactions.

But my point was not about legislation, nor (particularly) sodomy. It was about the more fundamental delusion that there is any such thing a behaviour so private that it has no effect on others.

blondpidge said...

Let me be crystal clear. I do not equate a lack of criminalisation with a moral right. Nor do I mean that it should be tolerated by everyone is every possible way.

I do not think serious criminal sanctions should be applied to those who commit acts of sexual immorality such as sodomy or masturbation, particularly if committed by consenting adults.

Toleration is an acknowledgement, it does not have to include facilitation or approval, quite the opposite, but it should not include persecution. Unfortunately the law is insufficient to deal with problems of sexual morality, this is due to attitudes. A don't ask, don't tell policy would seem ideal.

In medieval times masturbation was considered a mortal sin. Do I want to see people locked up for masturbation, sodomy or S&M? Absolutely not. Do I want these practices mainstream or part of accepted every day discourse. The answer is a no.

The Catholic Church provides the ultimate sanctions in that the Eucharist is reserved for those who are not in mortal sin. The pain of being unable to receive the Eucharist and the sadness of those close to you should prove sufficient to any genuine Catholic.

There is a difference between something being taboo yet legal (such as adultery) and passing legislation (such as the Divorce Reform Act) which facilitates and condones such behaviour.

I would posit that masturbation is a purely private act that in many cases affects no other, i.e. in the case of someone who is unmarried.

Ben Trovato said...


I thought that you coud be trusted to respond to Dr Shaw's atypical generalisation towards the end of his comment.

It is worth noting that it was not only 'In medieval times' that 'masturbation was considered a mortal sin.' It still is. (Subject to all the usual provisos about knowledge, free consent etc)

I disagree that it can ever be a purely private act. Any mortal sin damages the person perpetrating it, and that damage will inevitably have an impact on others. The impact may manifest later in life (in a subsequent marriage) or in other spheres (a failure in moral courage or of active charity in another area of life that affects someone else) but my contention is that we cannot damage ourselves without it having an effect on others.

To put it another way, in order to love God with my whole heart and soul, and to love my neighbour as myself, I need to be in a state of grace. And if I am not doing that I am failing not only myself, but my neighbour too.

blondpidge said...

Apolgies I didn't realise, half my paragraph was cut off mid sentence. Genuine error!

What I was attempting to say was that in medieval times, the mortal sin of masturbation was thought to be worse than that of adultery. Aquinas seems to think so anyway.

I suspect we agree substantially in that as part of the body of Christ, a mortal sin offends us all, which of course is part of the reason for confession, but in terms of society as a whole, there is a case to be made that a one-off sin of masturbation is a purely private matter. The problem with masturbation is that is habituative and unlikely to be a one-off.

Sadly society is full of w*nkers!

Joseph Shaw said...

You haven't answered my question, though, blondpidge.

Suppose we had a Catholic society. Should public sinners be tolerated in public life? Should they be excluded from the dinner parties of respectable people? Should be cut out of people's wills? Should they be stripped of their knighthoods, chucked off government advisory committees, all that stuff?

That kind of thing happened in England a very short time ago. These are not criminal sanction but they are very, very serious. Public disgrace led to emigration, despair, suicide. The debate about criminal sanctions is a red herring: non criminal sanctions can be far worse than a spell in prison. Are we in favour of them?

blondpidge said...

If we had a Catholic society such as Malta then the legislature would reflect Catholic ethics.

It's a tough call, I've been at the receiving end of social sanctions (disinherited and excluded from my family, we are now semi-reconciled) by virtue of the fact that I left and divorced an attempted ex husband. I will not re-hash in humiliating detail other than to note that I was supported by a parish priest, it was unsafe to continue to share a domicile and amongst other matters, it transpired I had unwittingly married a divorcé, who had a secret marriage of "convenience" some years previously.

Due to my "feckless" behaviour and reversion to Catholicism I am still considered as a social pariah. I have had friends disown me for my "illiberal and abhorrent homophobia and hateful bigotry". I've been barred from family gatherings and get togethers.

It has been incredibly painful and I would not wish to inflict that on others. Any sanctions, be they social or criminal, should be exercised with wisdom and compassion. Like Christ we meet the sinner half-way, we allow for repentance and rehabilitation, we don't permanently exclude.

Social sanctions often automatically follow criminal ones, therefore to criminalise could have a double whammy effect. Do we prevent a successful businessman from carrying out his trade because he is struggling with his sexuality, trying to be celibate but had a lapse? Do we ruin people because they may have personal failings?

The answer is that society can make its disproval felt by not applying harsh punitive sanctions for matters such as sodomy, but nor legitimising or encouraging them. After all we are all sinners are we not?

Joseph Shaw said...

It is a tough call. And it is true that faithful Catholics are more likely to be on the receiving end of social sanctions than dishing them out in today's UK.

However social sanctions have a bad name partly because they don't work well in a Protestant society. There is little understanding of repentance and no institution capable of making sensible and authoritative moral judgements - about invalid marriages, for example.

Nevertheless, the Church does impose sanctions on public sinners, the sanction of exclusion from the sacraments, and also of exlusion from certain jobs. Unless our disproval of immorality is demonstrated in our actions, as a society, it is empty.