Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The technology-dependence of sexual morality

From the distance of the present, especially for young people, the sexual morality of the past seems very odd. 

In particular, the idea of very strong and widespread norms against sex outside of marriage is something that is hard to actually conceive of.

Progressives find the idea repugnant, and can't imagine why anyone would ever have supported it.

Conservatives and reactionaries can be on board with the idea, but still, it actually stretches the imagination to think of what it would be like for everyone in Europe to agree with the idea.

But this is mostly a failure of imagination, albeit an understandable one.

What would be the minimum number of changes necessary in society that would reverse the change entirely?

You could rout all the current progressive institutions, and replace them with Islam, or the Catholic Church of 100 years ago, but these are not really minimalist changes. We want a societal Rube Goldberg machine, where we set off small changes somewhere else that get us the same outcome. 

There's an assumption buried there that the change might be reversible, of course, and perhaps it isn't.

But if it is, a good starting point is the set of things that might explain why the old regime got replaced by the new.

My suggestion - to understand pre 20th Century sexual morality, all you need to do is imagine a world without any good contraceptives, abortion, or birth control in general.

Which, by the way, was what it was like.

You can talk about the pullout method, or the rhythm method. But do you think these are going to be reliable for a teenage boy having a dalliance for the first time with a maid? Probably not.

And as soon as you do that, suddenly everything becomes obvious. 

Take away contraceptives, and sex leads to pregnancy with high likelihood. Take away reliable abortion, and everyone, rich or poor, has to deal with the the child. Take away modern wealth levels and the welfare state, and an unplanned child for a single woman is a catastrophe.

How would you, enlightened progressive, feel about your 14 year old daughter sleeping with her boyfriend if it meant a good chance of getting pregnant and needing to have the child? 

Suddenly the patriarchy doesn't seem like such a silly idea now, does it? Suddenly 'sex positive' messages to teenagers don't seem like society's number one priority, no?

But to reactionaries, the depressing flip side is also true.

Namely, if the absence of birth control was the the basis for monogamy and chastity before marriage as social norms, it's probably going to be quite hard to put that toothpaste back in the tube. You can't uninvent condoms or the pill.

This is like mass immigration - a social problem that's really a technological problem

So I predict that our current sexual free-for-all will go on at least until society degenerates to the point that it can't produce contraceptives anymore, at which point barbarism will restore chastity before marriage.

On the plus side, when this happens, it will also simultaneously solve the most difficult problem of our times, convincing rich, educated, civilised people to have more children. 

Give people the choice, and they will hack their own evolutionary reward systems and have a lot more sex and a lot fewer children.

Like Prometheus, we have stolen fire from the gods.

Like Prometheus, we cannot give it back.


  1. We have had reasonably effective contraception since the bronze age, for example the half lemon as a cervical cap.

    We have also had infanticide and non reproductive sex since forever. For example, sixty nine.

    And, of course, the sin of Onan which was not masturbation but was pulling out and coming on her face.

    I recall a porn. Actress is being filmed by her boyfriend, who is evidently less studly than the actor that is fucking her.

    Actress "pull out and come on my face"

    Actress "pull out!"

    Actress to boyfriend "Tell him to pull out and come on my face"

    Actor "aa aaaa aaaargh"

    So I don't think modern contraception has made that much difference. They banned the pill in Japan. No obvious effect.

    1. That's true, there have always been birth control alternatives. But a lot of them require some combination of
      a) Practice
      b) Discipline in the heat of coital moment
      c) Forward planning
      d) Health risks

      all of which limited their effectiveness and prevalence.

      The pill still needs c), but it's quite an advance in terms of a, b and d.

      As for infanticide, this is practically comparable to abortion, but psychologically very different. Most people's instincts are to love children once they're born, but not to love them to nearly the same extent when they're two month old fetus. So the psychology of getting rid of a potential child has become a lot easier.

      Perhaps it's more accurate to say that there were always options to get laid without risk of children, but they just became a lot cheaper, easier and safer.

  2. Your post raised a different kind of question for me. You nicely summarized the pre-birth control state of affairs as: if you have sex there is high probability of having a baby, having a baby without the resources to support it will likely cause hardship and suffering to all involved. It is a rather straight forward risk assessment.

    The interesting part, to me at least, is that this was not how it was communicated culturally. It was communicated within a context of taboo and myth. Sex before marriage is a "sin", it is "immoral", if you have sex before marriage you will go to hell, etc. In other words, people turned a factual statement about risk into a complicated set of non-factual cultural beliefs. Why?

    To be sure, the factual risk statement lacks rhetorical punch. Still, I find it interesting that we humans have a strong tendency to spin these complicated and often bizarre stories around a simple phenomenon. This particular genie isn't going back into the bottle, not only for the technology reason you mention but also because the old belief framework around it is less prevalent and isn't coming back.

    Finally, a quick note about your blog. I've enjoyed reading your posts. I find your point of view interesting and intelligent.

    1. You raise a really good point, and one I don't really know the answer to. But it's a common theme in plenty of other instances. The Kosher dietary laws are explained as being a response to the fact that pork used to carry a high risk of disease. But again, why not just say that? Why pretend it's a moral issue?

      One thing I can think of is just overconfidence. When things are phrased as a risk assessment, people are apt to think that the event won't actually happen to them, and thus do it anyway. This phenomenon still goes on, but now we deal with it differently - we just lie about how big the risk is (for instance with STDs - see here). It's easier to scare people with big headline reasons like 'you'll go to hell' or 'your dick will explode' than it is to get them to calculate risk properly.

      But again, it's still a mystery, especially as to why you can't do both. Perhaps giving a prosaic risk assessment somewhat undermines the idea of divine condemnation. I dunno.

      Also thanks for the kind words about blog. :)