by Randall S. Frederick
Also published on Sexuality & the City
For me, interest in ethical frameworks did not come from a freshman course in Philosophy, or even from the aspirations of the Protestant church I grew up attending. Rather, my interest developed as I, well, lived life. I realized that the certainty of childhood could not be sustained in an uncertain world. If any of us, myself included, were going to set right all that was wrong, we would need to rely on one another, even at times our own enemies.
I am, of course, speaking rather loosely here about roughly a three year overhaul of my worldview. Since September 11th, America has been facing the consequences of cavalier politics and seeking a better way forward and I began college, that period of critical thinking, in the haze of the fallen towers. When I say we are calling into question not only the actions we have taken previously but how best to move towards a better, ethically responsible future, I count myself not as an American in the strict sense or even as a (here’s this word again!) self-deputized “global citizen” but as one who looked around and recognized my culture, the country in which I was born and those I found myself travelling through, my belief systems and those I borrowed from (knowingly or unknowingly), even my aspirations and ideals, were infinitely short-sighted.
Admittedly, I wandered a bit. I tried on other religions. I listened to a lot of angry rap music. I volunteered at an outreach center for women with unplanned pregnancies. I hurt friends and was hurt by them in return. I had more wardrobe changes than Madonna and I made as many mistakes. A large part of moving across the country almost five years ago, in fact, was trying get out from the shadow of poor decisions. And during that period of lost wandering, I came across the Jewish maxim of tikkun olam – “repairing the world.” That’s how I came to focus myself towards ethical construction- by making mistakes, learning from the mistakes of others, and finding new aspirations.
In brief, tikkun olam teaches that we cannot change the world overnight or alone. Incrementally, by working together, we can undo the damage our predecessors have done in the hope that each step will bring us closer to what some might call “Heaven on Earth.” Quoting Gardner again, I came to see and believe that “there are no truly universal ethics: or to put it more precisely, the ways in which ethical principles are interpreted will invariably different across cultures and eras. Yet, these differences arise chiefly at the margins.” In other words, we might find our greatest ‘good’ outside of conventional thought. The hard task of discussing why we do what we do, of trying to get at the root of our issues, is not a popular, mainstream activity. But these fringe qualities that we might call ‘good’ are named when a person has done or said certain ‘right’ things. If their words and actions are congruent, when their intentions are ‘good’, then they are a ‘good’ person. Once you achieve a certain point or violate a certain border, the community rewards you. But in the same measure with which the community enables you, it is also ready to punish when you deviate. We are always accountable and, again, that can be uncomfortable even problematic because this accountability restricts us in ways that we would not wish for were we left to our own devices.
Perhaps it is clear by now that discussion of ethics can spiral off course quite easily. What would appear to be a strong digression on my part so far has instead been a subtle way of framing ethical construction paralleling an articulation of what, exactly, is behind this label that we think we each already know. While I might have some understanding of what ethics consists of, I do not, as they say “have the lock on it.” We each have had experiences that contribute to our personal formation. And in that way, we each experience and express “ethics” in different ways. But how we get to that place, that liminal space from precept to practice is uniquely different. Our ethics are comparable to a fingerprint or signature; while they change over time they are at all times uniquely our own even as they are similar in some ways to someone else’s.
Still, as we are speaking of parallels, I must briefly touch on the issue of “wrong” as it is where all discussion of ethics and morals begins to fall apart. When we begin to talk about the negative consequences of our values, terms like “wrong” or “unethical” make people bristle. Our friends suggest we keep our opinions to ourselves at the dinner party. It is not polite to talk about the injustices we commit every day; it is only when things have gotten so wildly out of hand that a national referendum takes place that we can speak publicly… if our voice is in the majority, that is. We feel more free to begin to speak of “evils” committed: Hitler is “evil”, the Rwandan genocide was “evil.” But our delayed vocalization belies our authentic self as there was a time when we – and I speak generally here so as not to make anyone too uncomfortable with the hint of accuation – were perfectly comfortable saying that both genocides began as “a distasteful matter of opinion.” No one wanted to step in and call it “wrong” or evil, so it escalated. That is, we allowed unethical, even “evil” people and practices to have the day because we were too afraid (or ignorant) to call things by their right names – ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ At base, our failure (because, again, ethics is communal so pronouns like “our” and “we” certainly apply) to address the great “evils” of our age is what permits us to live in a society compellingly out of synch with our ideals. The construction of our ethics then, in some profound way, is what constructs the world around us. Though I disagree quite sharply with my Evangelical heritage, I still imagine that this is what the New Testament means when it talks about bringing Heaven or Hell to Earth.
This seems a trite statement only because we are still unwilling or unable to address our exceptionalism, believing that our circumstance is both above and beyond these rules that bind everyone else. I admit, I am still continually guilty of unethical behavior. Or, more to the point, I am unethical. It is not simply my actions that define me, but the attitudes and meanings behind them. Admittedly, the coiled spiral of “yes, but” causes those still interested in ethical discussion to about-face. We want to believe that our identity is supreme, that our concept of ethics is right, and that we are “good” while everyone else is to varying shades not as good.
Which is why I believe having an ethical construct for our sexual activity is so important. While I am a sex-positive and certainly celebrate (even contribute to) “practicing” sex, I’m wary of the ways in which our laizze faire mentality provokes us to be casual about sex, sexuality, sexual expression, even experimentation. Putting some context to this statement, I find it curious that Reform Judaism (not to be confused with the other traditionally recognized “branches” of Judaism, and especially not to be confused with the differing, even competing interpretations of Jewish individuals and their rabbis) promotes abstinence even as it promotes respect for sexual partners. There is no true sense of “shame” or guilt attached to the Reform Judaism model of sexuality – yes, one should wait until they are mentally and emotionally ready to have sex, but whenever that might be, there is a priority even a responsibility towards one’s partner(s). Are they cared for? Are they satisfied? Are they comfortable with what each of you are doing during sex? That the priority of these questions might seem strange, even out of place in religion is the very thing I and many of my peers (religious and secular alike) are trying to confront.
Yes, we believe in a healthy sexuality but that doesn’t mean “you do you” and “I’ll do me” and wherever we might agree is “good.” Life is not, so to speak, a mathematical graph where we demarcate lines of intersection as “good.” Rather, sexual ethics is about something more – the promotion of a responsibility we have far too long set aside. Sex is not some casual thing. It involves caring for our partner as much as ourselves. Indeed, at the baseline of human decency is the ethical maxim to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
In this way, meandering as my point might seem, the construction of sexual ethics is important because it involves how we treat people and faces issues in that most intimate of space – relationships, private interactions, whether we feel concern for one another or are “just winging it” or whether we possess the turpitude to only be concerned with our own self-satisfaction. To be blunt, what my peers and I are trying to do is promote something other than masturbatory sex because, indeed, one can still masturbate by using another human being. What we are trying to do is expand the sexual experience, to expand the mind and heart to include another (or others, plural) in the sexual experience. And while yes, those old codgers religion and morality are present at times, they do not necessarily seek to promote abstinence. Religious understanding of sexuality is broad, diverse, and often complicated and while it is popular at times to decry the inhibitions and prohibitions of religion and “morality”, what happens more frequently is that we burn down the beautiful little by little. A singe here and there, and the tapestry is ruined. Put another way, as Niamh McIntyre writes, “The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalized groups.” Discussion of sexual ethics becomes, in this way, a reactionary defense rather than an actively expanding learning experience where we are, incrementally, repairing the world by becoming better, more considerate lovers.
Concluded in pt. 3 (coming soon)