Why is it that sex is such a central part of American political life anyway? Why, when The New York Times reported on the influence of “values” voters on the 2004 Presidential election, did the Times name only two “values,” both of them reflecting a conservative sexual ethic: opposition to abortion and opposition to “recognition of lesbian and gay couples”?
This conflation of values and sexuality is particularly important because the polls on which the claim was based did not name any values, but just asked people to rate values in relation to other issues like the economy. In addition, the number of voters choosing values in this poll had actually fallen from a high point in 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected. But, the Times was willing not only to accept and promote the idea that values voters had swung the election, but also to promote the idea that the values these voters cared about were sexual in nature and conservative in force. Although there was subsequent criticism of the Times’s conclusion that voters in 2004 were more concerned with “values” than were voters in previous elections, there was little to no criticism of the presumption that “values” equals “sexuality,” and conservative sexuality at that.
Here, then, is another echo of the concern Taylor raises. The Reformation makes sexuality a matter of intense ethical concern, standing in for—and sometimes even blocking out—other concerns about the ideal moral life, such as whether it should be lived through a commitment to poverty. This concern with sexual life is refracted through the Counter Reformation, which emphasizes sexual purity such that, as Taylor puts it, “[t]here were mortal sins in…other dimensions as well (for instance, murder), and there were many in the domain of church rules (such as skipping Mass); but you could go quite far in being unjust and hard-hearted in your dealings with subordinates and others without incurring the automatic exclusion you incur by sexual license.”
Thus, for all their differences in what constitutes the ideal of sexual life—marital sexuality or monastic celibacy—both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation produce sex as an overburdened site of moral worry and regulation. And we are not done with this burden; it is carried forward in the secular political life even of the United States, which is supposed to value individual and religious freedom.
As a way to ameliorate this burden, we propose a broad re-envisioning of sexual ethics. This new vision imagines a world in which sexual ethics has meaning for sexual practice, but is not burdened by having to account for the health of the nation, the status of a civilization, or the state of the world (all things which American politicians are happy to connect to sex). We also imagine a sexual ethic in which the question of sex is not one of whether we go “way beyond” or stay within certain “limits,” as Taylor suggests. Rather, we would suggest that we could think more capaciously (even more catholically?) about sex as a site for the production of values. Such a view of things—the possibility that sexual relations are practices through which values emerge and communities are made—is in sharp contrast to the current commonsense: to wit, sex is a moral problem, and conservative religion is the solution, for the sake of the individual and the community. We beg to differ.
Contemporary activists and critical theorists of many stripes—queer, feminist, womanist, gay and lesbian, for example have understood that sex, precisely because it is embedded in interpersonal relations, can help constitute new forms of social life. Paradoxically, then, the extraordinary moral pressure placed on sex—up to and including the fact that these pressures bear down especially hard on those whose sexual practices fall outside what anthropologist Gayle Rubin calls the “charmed circle” of a monogamous and reproductive heterosexuality—may also offer opportunities for reimagining the good life. This paradox helps to explain why some of the same people who are leery of moralizing (because they have so often been on the receiving end of conservative sexual moralism) also want to articulate sex’s values. Crucially, we cannot decide in advance what new forms of social life and ethical relation alternative sexual praxes might give rise to. (These “alternative sexual praxes” include homosexuality; in a culture that values marriage above all, they also include celibacy). What we can decide is that we are committed to freedom and that this commitment includes the realm of the sexual.
Such a project well may appeal to Charles Taylor, not because it is in any way Catholic (the capital “C” kind) or because he would particularly agree with most of the goods and values that such a project might produce. Nonetheless, this project could provide for an opening in secular imaginaries so as to admit into view the value of Catholic sexual ethics, a recognition Taylor currently sees as missing. However, such recognition does not require agreement. If the recognition Taylor seeks is currently “so hard to grasp” (at least for secular public life—we cannot speak for “the Vatican rulemakers”), this may be because we do not have a public life that values either religious or sexual freedom. Ironically, there might be more religious freedom if there were more sexual freedom. One of the ways in which Protestant dominance is maintained in American political life is through the constant invocation of rhetorics based on Protestant sexual ethics.
To accomplish this vision of a broader sexual ethic grounded in a broader notion of freedom, the secular state would need to step back from the business of policing sex (both in public bathrooms and in the courthouses of marriage certifications). And all of us—religionists and secularists—would need to break the stranglehold on our imagination currently exercised by a sexual ethic in which one is either committed to marriage or has no sexual ethic at all (or, at least no recognizable or worthwhile sexual ethic).
The sexual ethic we call for values not just freedom, but multiple forms of freedom— including religious and sexual freedoms. In so doing, it opens the door not just to different ideas about sexual practice, but also to a different vision of the practice of democracy.