Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ethics of Hooking Up

A few too many of us think that hooking-up is just kid stuff. While some people are justifiably worried about the behavior of their teenage daughters, the rest of us tend to imagine that hooking up is just a phase, a minor deviation on the path to adulthood.

I think we do better to consider it a cultural phenomenon, a place where the culture wars are being played out, and where social values are being transformed. It's one thing to denounce moral relativism theoretically; it is quite another to see it inscribed on your daughter's body.

Worse yet, hooking up is not just about bodies. More importantly, it is about minds. About young, impressionable minds that are being seduced into joining causes, movements, and cults.

Let's examine how it all works in practice.

Take a scene from Sunday morning campus life. A coed has embarked on a walk of shame. As she walks across the campus, dressed as she was for last night's party, she knows that everyone knows what she was doing the night before.

Does she feel shame because she has done something wrong or because society has a negative attitude toward the free expression of female sexuality? Does she feel shame because she gave it away for free, thus, devalued her sexuality, or because society suffers from a Puritanical intolerance of women's sexual pleasure?

Let's try a different angle. Is there such a thing as intrinsically right or wrong behavior? Are good and bad behavior just social constructs, only as good as the number of people who have been induced to believe it?

If everyone thinks that this coed has accomplished something great, if her fellow students are hanging out their windows cheering her on, does that, ipso facto, make her behavior right? Would it make her feel better?

If her shame is telling her the truth, a truth that surpasses all social constructs, then she made a mistake. It feels very bad, but it is hardly the end of the world. She is young and will have ample opportunity to correct it... mostly by changing the way she values her sexuality. If hooking up has damaged her reputation, then changing her behavior will repair it ... in time.

At the least, she ought to know that changing her behavior will gradually mitigate the pain of shame.

But what if a moral thinker steps forward and declares that she is wrong to feel shame, that her bad feelings simply show the extent to which she has bought into a social construct. Ethics is relative; it serves the power elite. She ought to reject her shame for lying to her and promoting the accepted social construct.

Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. But that does not make it impossible. She might find a kindly therapist who tells her that she has done nothing she needs to feel ashamed of. That might provide some comfort, at least until she starts noticing that her friends and classmates are looking at her strangely.

Consoling words do not really have much of an effect. Better would be a new group of friends, a new social nexus where everyone will hold her in high esteem for having mastered the art of the hook up, or better, for having fully explored and expressed her sexuality.

Is there such a group? And could this group provide her with a new and revised identity? If being a woman, according to society's standards, makes her feel ashamed of herself, why would she not transform her identity and become... a feminist. Some feminists do not look too kindly on hook ups, but still and all, feminists are not judgmental. They will welcome her into their midst and tell her that she has done nothing wrong.

They will tell her that she feels badly because society oppresses female sexuality. By becoming a feminist she will be able to renounce societal ethics. For a time it will feel like therapy.

Does this mean that, in fact, she did not do anything wrong? Has feminism cured her shame or has it simply masked her symptoms?

If her shame was telling her the truth and prodding her to change her behavior, then feminism is not helping her to overcome her shame. It is merely numbing her to the pain.

Consider this: now that she has discovered that she has behaved as an exemplary feminist, why would she not continue behaving the same way? Why would she not undertake further explorations of her sexuality, whenever, wherever, and with whomever she wishes?

If society disapproves; if her classmates look down on her; that is their problem. They are committing one of the great sins of the therapy culture: they are being judgmental!

Note also that this perspective has absolved the coed of all responsibility for her own behavior. Those who are at fault are the ones who look down on her. Now, the new moral thinking holds them responsible for making her feel bad.

What can they do about it? Simply, they can go out and hook up themselves. If your friend is suffering because she feels like a pariah, like an outsider, like some kind of deviant, you can make her feel better by doing the same thing yourself.

We might ask whether that makes the behavior normal or whether it makes you both feel like pariahs?

But let's say that our coed has now become a feminist. Still, not everyone is a feminist. Not everyone thinks that she has done nothing wrong. Some people still disapprove of her behavior.

What can she do about that? First, she can become a more dedicated feminist. By immersing herself in feminist ideology she can learn to think differently and to see things differently. She will detach herself, perhaps by her behavior, almost certainly by her way of thinking, from societal norms.

Second, she will learn to ignore what non-feminists think of her. She will numb herself to the regard of others. And "regard" is a nice word here because it means the way people see her and the way they esteem her.

Third, she will proselytize her beliefs. You only ignore other people for so long. Eventually the numbness will start wearing off. Therefore, our coed must work to transform the culture to make it more attuned to her values. She and her group will work to affect a cultural revolution, a transformation of cultural values.

All of this implies that if you can change the way the culture sees certain behaviors then you can transform the value of the behavior. But, how do you go about changing the way everyone values behavior?

You have probably guessed already, that this way of making our coed feel better about herself contains what I would call a totalitarian will to control the minds, hearts, and speech of everyone.

Cultural revolutionaries, in a belated homage to Mao's Red Guards, want to effect thought reform and to impose speech codes. If you disapprove of hooking up, then you are at fault for making our coed feel bad about what she did last night. She has done nothing wrong; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with her behavior. What makes it wrong and makes her feel shame is your judgmental attitude. Thus, your judgment must count as hate speech.

Clearly, the same principle would apply to behaviors that have nothing to do with sex. If you assume that the only thing that makes something good or bad, right or wrong, is that you have dared utter a judgment to that effect, then someone, somewhere is going to arrogate to himself the right to shut you up. Or better, to teach you how to speak the right words and to think the right thoughts.

Surely, this will circumscribe your freedom. It will abridge your first amendment rights. You might ask whether it is worth it to make this coed feel less shame.

Of course, the real problem, as has happened with every totalitarian dystopia, is that at some point people start thinking that cultural values are not simply a social construct. Values stick because they make sense and they make sense because they express intrinsic truths.

If society's values are not mere constructs, the moment that our coed realizes it is going to be a very painful moment, indeed.


Robert Pearson said...

Of course, the real problem, as has happened with every totalitarian dystopia, is that at some point people start thinking that cultural values are not simply a social construct.

Exactly. Your post put me in mind of the French Revolution and its attempt to radically shift cultural values dictated by revolutionary ideology. The Terror and up to one million dead followed.

It seems to me that de Sade's philosophy has no disagreement with the hook-up culture and some feminist's insistence on the right to do whatever, with whomever, whenever. The juxtaposition of these feminists and de Sade is a truth stranger than fiction.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Are you suggesting that the French invented Terrorism? That would be interesting indeed... I don't think it's possible to overestimate the influence of the French Revolution in certain precincts of leftist thought.

I agree with you about de Sade, though my recollections of his philosophy are vague to say the least. Certainly, his amoral precept-- at least he knew it was amoral-- lends itself to the notion that people have the right to do what they please, when they please, with whom they please.

I also recollect, again vaguely, that he would have approved of the notion that women have the right to consent to their own debasement.

But, he would have seen it as debasement and would not have praised it as a free expression of sexuality.

In a Sadean world there is no fun without debasement.

Robert Pearson said...

"The Terror" is generally the period when the the revolutionary factions slaughtered each other--roughly mid-1793 to mid-1794, I think. Different than modern terrorism but isn't the idea similar? AS for de Sade, I am vaguely remembering myself; I just recall something about how he thought the world would be a better place if anyone could use anyone for sexual gratification at will. You know, the end of "repression." That is the common denominator.

There's No Place Like OM said...

I'm not for "shame-based" cultures. I've grown up in one where normal adult behaviour, like simply having opposite gender platonic friends is a source of "shame".

Where do we draw the line?

Anti Money Laundering said...

If repression has indeed been the fundamental link between power, knowledge, and sexuality since the classical age, it stands to reason that we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost.