Published in the Courier Mail 14 March 2007
TALKING about sex can make some people feel uncomfortable but not for the reasons you might think. One of the most uncomfortable things you can talk about these days with regard to sex is, ironically, not having it.
Bob Geldof recognised this when he was discussing the effectiveness of abstinence-based approaches to combating the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Late last year he said: “It works. It’s uncomfortable for people to speak these unspoken truths but a lot of that stuff is working.”
We’re a highly sexualised society. We like to think of sex as a badge of our maturity and freedom. We don’t like to entertain public discourse about not having sex, or the benefits of sexual fidelity. It makes us feel uncomfortable, as it means we have to challenge the prevailing norms.
These norms are revealed in our public conversation about sex.
The interestingly high numbers of reports on the legal prostitution industry lately are almost always vigorously attempting to dignify this arena of sexual activity.
Another recent report tells of Patrick Stuebing and Susan Karolewski, a brother and sister in Germany in an incestuous relationship. Several groups are defending the relationship, arguing that people should be given the right to “freedom of choice and sexual determination”.
A South Australian Government website, educating young adults as to how to avoid sexually transmitted infections, includes the interesting advice: “You could choose not to have sex at all and this is OK for some, but not realistic for all people”.
What is the social norm that these reveal? It’s the underpinning assumption that we cannot “not have sex”, as we cannot control ourselves and are merely slaves to our sexual whims and desires. That assumption can make us feel a little powerless.
So we drop any notion of self-control from discussions about sexual activity and dress it up instead in the idea of self-determination.
The lawyer who is taking Stuebing and Karolewski’s incestuous relationship to the High Court of Germany gave a stark illustration of this when he said: “Everyone should be able to do what he wants as long as it doesn’t harm others.”
However, as much as it can make us feel uncomfortable, we must remind ourselves that unrestrained sexuality can be costly.
Prostitution is harmful. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Australia, reveals that “state endorsement of prostitution intensifies the commodification of women’s bodies and greatly expands the illegal, as well as legal, sectors of the industry”.
Dr Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program for the University of Pennsylvania Health System, labels prostitution as sexual abuse for money.
Incest is harmful. The four children produced by Stuebing and Karolewski are now all in care. Two of them are severely disabled and unable either to walk or talk.
The rampant sexual lifestyle we encourage our young people to indulge in is harmful. Sexually transmitted infections are endemic, along with unplanned pregnancies, abortions and emotional harm.
So why do we feel uncomfortable speaking these unspoken truths?
We have embraced the idea that man is the measure of all things, and that we are our own arbiter of right and wrong. We determine morality, ethics and acceptable behaviour.
We want to be our own masters – to be free.
But do we really know what freedom is? Lord Acton said it well when he stated: “Liberty is the prevention of control by others. This requires self-control and, therefore, religious and spiritual influences; education, knowledge, well-being.”
If we so desire to avoid being controlled by others, then we must be able to control ourselves. However, we have excused morally questionable behaviour with the idea that we can’t help it. We eschew the idea that we can discipline our many appetites to be satiated at appropriate times and in a correct way.
Hence, our advice to our young that abstinence, or self-control, is “not realistic” for all. Just a question though – why do we expect self-control from them in other arenas?
Can being over the limit at a random breath test be excused by “not drinking and driving is OK for some, but not realistic for all”?
After all, this is what government is teaching us. By ridiculing the idea of self-control in regards to sexuality, yet demanding it in other areas, we have exposed ourselves as hypocrites.
That, more than anything, should make us feel uncomfortable.
George Washington said: “Confirm thy soul in self-control.”
It’s time we started to restore the soul of our society – and embrace the idea that we can be more than what we’ve settled for.
Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer