Public And Private: Sexual Beliefs And Acts

With all the media attention going to the Anthony Weiner case, it’s an opportune time to think about the relationship between public and private sexual acts, and where beliefs about appropriateness fit into all of this. My atheist partner sent me some pieces by Richard Dawkins that address these issues (though not in the context of the Weiner case), so I’m using current events as a leaping-off point to discuss how people’s beliefs about sex play a role in their actions and responses.

In an essay on the sexual lives of political figures, Dawkins writes: “A censorious culture in which public figures are forced to answer impertinent questions about their past, or their private affairs, would lead to open season on everybody. Who, if challenged with a point blank question, could honestly deny some secret from the past that they know society would condemn?” The interesting point here is that our society has so many hang-ups about sex that we’re practically responsible for creating an environment in which any sexual expression could potentially be deviant. Some sexual acts are more harmful than others–such as sexual assault or cheating–but even fairly innocuous acts (which one could argue, taking pictures of one’s genitals counts as) are made out to be of huge significance because so many people are hung up on the idea that ANY sexual expression outside the norm is automatically inappropriate or gross or bad.

Dawkins goes on to ask why, if we’re so interested in the sex lives of public figures–which he believes is unwarranted, since pretty much everyone has some sexual indiscretion at some point in their lives, and should work it out privately–we will let private religious beliefs slide by without question. Why does it matter more where someone’s putting their genitals than where they believe their soul will go when they die? Dawkins asserts that it does matter what a public figure’s religious beliefs are, since those beliefs, far more than their sexual acts, may determine how they pursue public policy. He gives these examples: “But George Bush has publicly boasted that God told him to invade Iraq, and his religious faith obviously inspired his irrational stances on stem cell research, the Terri Schiavo case and many others. To push to an extreme, who would deny Congress’s right to ask whether a candidate for Secretary of Health is a Christian Scientist or a Jehovah’s Witness? Or take a Christian sect that fervently desires the Second Coming of Christ, and believes the key Revelation prophecies cannot be fulfilled without a Middle East Armageddon. Would you wish the nuclear button to be made available to a follower of such a creed?” This is scary stuff.

In a second (and more recent) article, Dawkins tackles the issue of whether employers should ignore the private beliefs of their employees. For instance, does a young-earth creationist’s beliefs prevent him or her from being a competent astronomer? Perhaps not, if the person can apply theories and equations that they personally do not hold to be true, but Dawkins regards such a person’s “equanimity in holding two diametrically opposing views simultaneously in his head as a revealing indicator that there is something wrong with his head.” Part of the problem, too, is the fact that employers are pressured to accept an individual’s religious beliefs as valid and to be left alone, whereas beliefs that are not traced to a holy book are open to scrutiny. As Dawkins summarizes the issue: “A law that encourages you to say, ‘If a candidate’s private beliefs are based on religion I shall ignore them, otherwise I shall take them into account’, is a bad law. It is a bad law because, while purporting to oppose discrimination, it is actually highly discriminatory: it discriminates in favour of religious foolishness and against non-religious foolishness. I prefer to discriminate against both.” Gotta love Dawkins’s straight-up anti-stupidity agenda.

Going back to the role of sexuality in public life, it seems reasonable to require of our public figures consistency in their private and public personas, beliefs, and actions. If a politician’s sex life is in some sense unconventional, it shouldn’t matter unless they’re publicly advocating for laws affecting people’s sexuality. I don’t think it’s great news if a politician turns out to have cheated on a committed partner, but unless they’re trying to pass laws criminalizing marital infidelity, I don’t really care. However, if it’s painfully obvious that a politician has acted hypocritically–such as promoting “family values” but cheating on a spouse repeatedly–then I think there’s a problem.

At the same time, we must grant people the dignity of privately pursuing things that oppose the sexual mainstream. Just because a politician likes unconventional sex doesn’t mean they’re going to try to force it on everyone through legislation. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t seem to be true of conventional sex. Despite fears of the “gay agenda,” we have yet to see a gay politician trying to legislate mandatory homoerotic acts, whereas straight politicians have done much to make anything that deviates from heterosexual monogamous reproductive sex a crime.

Dawkin’s final word on sexual acts in his first essay is to challenge the supposed naturalness of sexual jealousy and monogamy. He writes: “Just as we rise above nature when we spend time writing a book or a symphony rather than devoting our time to sowing our selfish genes and fighting our rivals, so mightn’t we rise above nature when tempted by the vice of sexual jealousy?” He evens goes so far as to say that just as it doesn’t seem unreasonable for a parent to love both children, or a wine-lover to adore both white and red, it oughtn’t be unreasonable or illegal for a person to romantically love two other people at once. I’m always pleased to see respected intellectuals acknowledge that non-monogamy is a viable option for living and loving in this world.

So when it comes to consistency in sexual behaviors and public policy, what do you think? Is consistency to be desired or, as the saying goes, is consistency the hobgoblin of little minds?

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.