Picture credit: Alessandro Vasari/Archivio Vasari/MONDADORI PORTFOLIO via Getty Images

Sugar, sex and sacrifice

It would be foolish to casually abandon Christian ethics of restraint

Artillery Row

There are few things more contradictory than shouting “free love” in the same breath as “me too,” yet these messages are proclaimed by the same group of people. 

The first slogan prospered in the original sexual revolution with the goal to break free from Christian constraints of limiting sex to marriage to one person for life. It has more recently morphed into “sex positive feminism” which goes as far as to celebrate promiscuity, pornography, and prostitution. But these movements also stridently promote temperance. #metoo is their most recent campaign against sexual harassment and assault — crimes surely opposed by all decent human beings.

Therefore the feminist sex-positive movement has an expectation that those attracted to women should firmly restrain themselves in the name of equality, while approving of female liberation from all notions of modesty and chastity. Feminists in North America celebrate “Go topless day” to advocate for women’s equal right to bare their chests. On a darker level, women who insist that sexual behaviour is no excuse for rape defrock on “slut walks” to make their point. 

The principle that sexual liberality does not justify sexual assault is a noble one. A promiscuous woman should be able to retreat at any point in a lust-fuelled liaison, however excited the partner, even though the outworking of this is the need for libido-dampening “sex consent forms.” While the principle stands, in practice it is more of a challenge. 

Promoting both indulgence and restraint simultaneously ignores the reality that sexual self-denial is historically unusual, difficult, and requires practice. Encouraging unbridled sexual expression as natural and laudable, so long as it is between “consenting adults,” does not foster the powerful self-discipline needed to inhibit the sexual impulse. Over the past 50 years, as hardcore pornography was allowed to proliferate on grainy VHS in dodgy shops, then finally break all barriers on the internet, its content has become more and more extreme, as lust takes its natural course of demanding more stimulation for the equivalent hit of pleasure. 

For all the discussion of “rape culture”, there is little acknowledgement that historically speaking, Western societies were unusual in being, until recently, relatively chaste. Historian Tom Holland, in his book Dominion: the making of the Western mind, vividly describes the cruelty, brutality and sexual incontinence of Roman culture, in contrast with the assumed values of the modern West. “As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually — be it in the vagina, anus or mouth — were to the Roman man,” he wrote in Christianity magazine

It is Christianity, he argues, that did most to herd sexual appetites into the restraints of monogamous marriage, or even denied them completely in the case of the inhabitants of monasteries and convents. It was powerful libertines who fought against this, such as the rapist Marquis de Sade.

As Holland puts it in Dominion: “Generations of monks and bishops, of emperors and kings, looking to tame the violent currents of human desire, had laboured to erect great dams and dykes, to redirect their floodtide, to channel their flow. Never before had an attempt to recalibrate sexual morality been attempted on such a scale. Never before had one enjoyed such total success.”

Sexual revolutionaries and other progressives have succeeded in demolishing much of this painstaking work, but in the wreckage are the remains of dams that had contained the sexual impulse, evidenced by today’s legions of pornography addicts and the habitual sexual crime protested by #metoo. Yet, as Holland argues, the demand that women be treated as an equal and not as an unwilling sexual outlet, is a vestige of Christian morality too. In picking and choosing the more appetising morals from Christendom, the whole thing has come crashing down. 

Self-denial just for its own sake can be hard, and like the other virtues, improves with practice

Restoring them is easier said than done, even at an individual level, as anyone who has seriously practised self-denial will tell you. I’ve done some extreme Lenten fasts in my time, from a vegetable-only diet to giving up spending money. Yet, this year, the trifling sacrifice of having tea without sweetener has been more difficult and irritating than the dramatic fasts I’ve tried. Every disappointing savoury cup prompted a temptation to cave. “What does it matter?” the devil on my shoulder whispered, and perhaps most insidiously, “who would know?”

More substantial sacrifices can be bolstered by a sense of achievement and determination, or the less honourable virtue signalling of “aren’t I good?” The worthy drives of courage, compassion, chivalry and justice also support self-sacrificial acts of heroism as well as the desire to protect people from harm or abuse. Self-denial just for its own sake can be hard, and like the other virtues, improves with practice. 

Of course, an important incentive to prevent the horrors of sexual assault is fear of imprisonment. Vestiges of old-fashioned values remain, as do compassion and respect for others. But rape and Roman orgies are the despicable bottom of a long slippery slope of self-indulgence. The virtues required to prevent the descent from natural impulse and desire, to sexual objectification, to trespass, are subtle and hard won. Our society is weaker, more dangerous, and less beautiful without them.

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