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Sex and evil

A schism without a name runs through the world. People are supposed to be divided by race, class, gender, religion, education, or wealth, but the biggest division cuts across all those. A fundamentally different sense of good and evil is the biggest rift. It’s been there a long time, but technology is making it huge.

The realization that a different concept of evil exists first struck me when I was reading an article by George Packer about post-occupation Baghdad. A well-educated doctor doing the best job he could under impossible circumstances was showing the journalist around the hospital and the morgue. “An entire subspecialty of forensic medicine deals with virginity,” Packer notes, and before the war there was an examination room at the hospital that did nothing but perform female virginity tests. “These days, the morgue overflows, but the examination room down the hall is usually empty.” The doctor “was appalled by this inversion of the normal order. In his view, a fragile moral relationship existed between the two sections of the Medico-Legal Institute—as if the social control of virginity offered a defense against the anarchy that led to murder.” (Caught in the Crossfire, New Yorker, May 17, 2004.)

And yet, absurd as it sounds, on some fundamental level that is precisely what that doctor and like-minded people think. Looked at from a different perspective, it is not absurd so long as you feel that sex is evil. If sex is the thing that makes the center lose its hold, that corrupts society, and that has the potential to destroy everything you hold dear, then virginity tests really are vitally important.

I’m obviously in the other camp, the one that thinks damaging others constitutes evil, because the doctor’s world view struck me as new and bizarre. That’s one of the biggest problems when bridging world views, which is that it can’t be done. The closest approach is to gain some intellectual insight, but on the level of actual understanding or empathy, the other viewpoint will always feel insane.

Take one example: the vaccine for cervical cancer. The incidence of that cancer increases with the number of sexual partners. For me, that’s irrelevant. But if sex is the source of evil, increasing the amount of sex in the world will have horrible downstream consequences, and guarding against that by scaring women away from sex with the fear of cancer is a small price to pay for goodness. People in this camp can’t understand how I can be so blind to the destructive forces I’m unleashing on civilized society. I can’t understand how they can think that sex should warrant the death penalty.

Take another example: violence and sex on US television. Children can, apparently, watch any amount of violence without warping their minds. Nudity, on the other hand, or worse yet a visible erection, would cause perversion. Likewise, guns are sold under clear glass in general stores, whereas sex toys are sold wrapped in plain paper in their own part of town. This makes sense only if sex is the prime source of evil, and damaging others is a distant second.

It’s vitally important to see how large a gap in understanding separates the two sides because we expend vast time and effort trying to convince each other to be reasonable, while not even realizing that neither side understands a word the other is saying. We can’t hope to reach any mutual peace–nor can we avoid or implement manipulation–unless we have some clue where they’re coming from.

A tangential point here is how women fit into the sex-is-evil world view. The tangle at the core of that view is that you can’t live with sex, but you also can’t live without it. The party line is generally to tolerate sex only for essential reproductive purposes, which, theoretically, applies to men as well as women. However, it’s a drag to fight your hormones your entire adult life, so the tedious enforcement function gets laid on the less-powerful gender. The sex-is-evil crowd do not, in their own minds, see themselves as anti-women. It just happens to work out that way.

The difference between being anti-women and anti-sex may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is a significant aspect of the other worldview. It explains, among other things, how so many women can hold that view even while it’s doing its best to cripple them. It also explains why gays are consistently hated by that group. If the attitude was primarily anti-female, gay males, at least, ought to be getting a free pass. Instead they get killed. If, on the other hand, the attitude is primarily anti-sex, then gay sex is about as unnecessary as you can get. Add to that the potential “ickiness” factor of any biological function you’re not personally involved in, and you have a truly toxic mix.

I mentioned that technology is enlarging the gap between the two world views. The separation of sex and reproduction is the main factor. When sex leads to children, uncontrolled sex can cause harm to others, and there is some overlap between the two concepts of evil. When sex is just sex, it becomes much harder to make the case that it’s hurting anyone–unless, of course, you set up social rules to make sure that it does. The anti-sex folks reject technologies that make sex easier or less dangerous. Since a lack of control of reproduction is the linchpin on which this definition of evil hangs, any technologies that increase control over reproduction are also bad. Abortion, cloning, and stem cells all become targets. (Note that other technologies are acceptable. Anti-sex advocates are happy to use medicine, satellite dishes, guns, and computers.)

Being anti-sex is a minority stance in Western nations, so the people who feel sex is bad don’t always label themselves as such. They talk about “family values” or “pro-life” issues instead, but they’re easy enough to spot because the only effects of their policies are to make sex a more fraught experience. “Family values,” oddly enough, are coupled with opposition to parental leave or actual aid to real children. “Pro-life” attitudes tend to be found with pro-gun, pro-death penalty, and pro-war politics.

So what do we do? Is there a point to understanding these blighters? To be honest, I’m not really sure, except that we can stop wasting energy on reasoning with them. Changing concepts of good and evil are realignments of the soul, and reason justifies them after the fact. It doesn’t create them. They happen only on an individual level, they can’t be legislated, and they can’t be bridged. There is no way for the two to live side by side. Tolerance breaks down because it’s a logical impossibility. To take one example, there is no way to simultaneously legislate both against harm to others and for honor killings. The struggle can end only with annihilation of one side or apartheid. The latter solution has already been (semi?)-facetiously suggested in a post-election map that shows the states voting for Bush in a new country called Jesusland, while the two coasts and some of the north Midwest are happily part of the United States of Canada. All I want to know is where do I sign up?

Separation of beliefs and state offers a partial solution. “They” would have to stop trying to control anyone’s sex life except their own. “We” would have to make it easy for them to avoid sexuality they feel is offensive. It would take a real willingness to let other people live by their beliefs for that solution to work, which is why it’s only a partial solution. It is (almost?) impossible to let other people live by beliefs that one is convinced unleash evil on the world.

If we were sensible, we’d avoid murdering each other, wait for the changing of the gods to end, and then the struggle would be over. But what are the chances of that?

Postscript: I can’t stop myself from looking at the whole thing as a biologist’s joke. Label the two viewpoints using the conventions of fruit fly geneticists. On one hand you have harmless–or is it Mostly Harmless? On the other hand is sexless. The only interaction between the two seems to be that they can’t coexist. Expression of one silences the activity of the other.

Technorati tags: sex, evil, culture wars, morality, pro-life, family values, morality