Part 2 of 3. Nothing will ever be the same!
Like a Neil Gaiman miniseries, this series has blown out to an extra part. Jesus, don’t the editors here do anything for a living?
Oh wait, I don’t have an editor. (Post your own cheap shots in the comments, kids!)
For those who claim in late, this is a series about sexual morality in comic books. Part 1 dealt with domestic assault, sexual assault and sexual morality. It claimed that sexual assault in the West is generally seen as a violation of sexual morality, and therefore highly morally charged.
But I mostly waved my hands about what sexual morality is: sexual norms that have been moralized. This raises several questions which I’ll answer in this part: what is a sexual norm, what it is to moralize one, and which norms get moralized? In Part 3, I’ll talk about sexual morality in funnybooks.
But today, the good stuff. Chicken-f**king. Uh, this post is borderline NSFW–but it’s all for science.
As I use the phrase, a sexual norm is just a norm governing sexual behaviour. Sexual norms can cover things like: what sort of physical contact is acceptable in public (kissing is okay, oral sex is generally not, at least not in my neighbourhood); what sort of behaviour is acceptable in the bedroom; and who has to sleep in the wet spot. Sexual norms differ from culture to culture. Public displays of affection between heterosexuals are generally allowed in the West, but not in some other cultures. Sexual norms can also differ from sub-culture to sub-culture. Public displays of affection between homosexuals are acceptable in some parts of the US but not, alas, in others.
Not all sexual norms are moralized. This is nicely shown in some lovely experiments by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. For nearly fifteen years Haidt has been investigating human “moral psychology”–the mental processes involved in our judgements of right and wrong. He’s one of the nicest guys you could meet, but beneath that lovely exterior lies a seriously sick mind.
Which makes him an excellent experimentalist.
In one of his early, now notorious experiments, Haidt described to subjects a series of scenarios, and then asked them some questions. Here is one of the scenarios:
“A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.”
Questions: (1) Is it very wrong, a little wrong, or is it perfectly OK for the man to do this? (2) Should he be stopped or punished in any way? (3) Suppose you learn about two different foreign countries. In country A, people have sex with chicken carcasses very often, and in country B, they never do that. Are both of these customs OK, or is one of them bad or wrong?*
If you’re like me, this is probably your reaction to the scenario: “Gross! That’s wrong. But, no, I wouldn’t say he should be punished. It’s f**ked up…but I guess it’s not morally wrong. And, yeah, if they do it all the time over in some other country, then that’s all right for them.”
Most of Haidt’s college student subjects had this kind of reaction, too. By contrast, subjects from lower socioeconomic status–poorer, less educated folks, basically–thought it was wrong, and that the chicken-f**ker should be punished. This was an especially common reaction in Haidt’s other subject population, in Brazil.
In other words, most of us–well-educated Western liberals–don’t moralize the sexual norm here. The norm being: don’t f**k chickens. We think it’s inappropriate to f**k them, but not morally wrong.
Unless you’re Gonzo the great. In which case, it’s A-OK.
One of Haidt’s interesting claims is that moral judgements in general–“murder is wrong”, “he’s a bad guy”–are driven by emotions, not reasons. And different cultures differ in which emotions they moralize, or the extent to which they moralize different emotions. That is to say, different cultures build their morality on different emotions.
In modern Western liberalism, there are just two important emotions: responses to suffering, like empathy and compassion; and responses to injustice, like anger. Western liberal morality is built around the domains of harm and justice, and the emotional responses to violations in those domains.
So we don’t generally moralize our disgust. But we do moralize compassion and anger.
This means that sexual norms invoking disgust won’t be moralized. Hence the norm against chicken-f**king isn’t part of our sexual morality.
But sexual norms invoking compassion or anger will be moralized. In fact, most of liberal sexual morality can be summed up thus: as long as no one gets hurt, then it’s morally permissible. It may not turn me on, hell it may even turn my stomach, but you can do whatever you want to do within the privacy of your bedroom, with consenting adults (or by yourself).
That’s why bestiality, necrophilia, rape and pederasty evoke extreme moral outrage even from liberals. For in those cases, there is no consent–they are unjust, and they cause harm. So the norms against them are part of our sexual morality, and indeed highly morally charged.
By contrast with liberals, Jon Haidt claims that conservatives in the US moralize their disgust a lot more.** That’s why they’re against gay marriage and why they were against miscegenation. Such acts, for conservatives, are seen as disgusting violations of sexual norms; and, moralizing their disgust, conservatives therefore see those acts as morally wrong.
Summing up: every culture has sexual norms. Modern Western liberalism is culturally unusual in that it doesn’t consider all sexual norms to be moral norms. We generally only consider sexual norms to do with harm and justice as moral norms, because harm and justice is all we tend to care about. So–for the most part–our entire sexual morality concerns only consent, autonomy and harm.
Next time: I unconvincingly shoe-horn comic books into this discussion. Yeah, I’m going to talk about Dr. Light. Deal with it. But I’ll talk about other comics too. Plus: consensual incest.
Hey, at least you got to read about a cool experiment, huh?
* Haidt asked a series of questions, of which these are the most relevant here.
** That’s not the only moral difference, of course