How Notions of Government Inform Sexual Morality

May 6, 2008 | 13 comments

This is my impressionistic take on how ideas about government influence ideas about sexual morality.

In pseudo-intellectualese “impressionistic” means I haven’t done any research at all or even bothered to think too hard about what I’m going to say. You are warned. This post is more “bloggy” than is normal here.

Somewhere along the line–probably reading Shakespeare, or talking historic Catholic natural law theory at Notre Dame–I realized that a certain antique attitude towards sexual morality and towards government overlapped. There was an idea that the passions, including the sexual passions, were unruly servants needing to be restrained by the wise rule of the will or the intellect. If there really is a connection, then you would expect a more democratic and egalitarian age, like ours, to have a greater problem with sexual morality.

Intellect: Don’t casually bed that girl!
Passions: Whatever. I didn’t vote for you.

What’s interesting about this is that you still hear Mormons talk about sexual morality in terms of “ruling” or “mastering” the components of one’s self that make good servants but bad masters. Is it just a coincidence that Mormons both advocate for and live sexual morality more than the population at large and also that Mormons live in a hierarchy that we take seriously? I dunno. Probably. These kinds of things of are hard to measure, but it probably doesn’t help the argument much that the peak of sexual morality was, say, 1850-1950, which was hardly the nadir of democracy and egalitarianism.

Anyway, I love this kind of stuff. Tocqueville on the democratic family, that kind of thing. Is it just a coincidence that I should be writing this post when I came across this article this morning?


13 Responses to How Notions of Government Inform Sexual Morality

  1. Douglas Hunter on May 6, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    “Intellect: Don’t casually bed that girl!
    Passions: Whatever. I didn’t vote for you.”

    Dr. Freud would put this in terms of struggle between the ID and the super ego.

  2. sister blah 2 on May 6, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    Adam, I think the tension you describe here: “you would expect a more democratic and egalitarian age, like ours, to have a greater problem with sexual morality…[1850-1950] hardly the nadir of democracy and egalitarianism” can be resolved by noticing that “unruly servants needing to be restrained by the wise rule” can go both up and down the power chain. By that I mean, you are correct that in the American political system (ideally), we don’t have rulers restraining the people. BUT, we do have a healthy does of unruly servants needing restraint–the servants are the government itself. We haven’t gotten rid of masters and unruly servants, we have merely reversed the roles.

    Also, small quibble with the idea that 1850-1950 was so great–black people might disagree. Granted, pre-1850 wasn’t so great for them either. But 1950 wasn’t the peak for everybody.

  3. mmiles on May 6, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Mr. Greenwood,
    Your skinhead link goes to expired email.

  4. Cicero on May 6, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    I don’t think they overlap, as there is a big difference between self control and controlling others.

  5. WillF on May 6, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Knowing TimesAndSeasons someone is going to correct me on the meaning of this scripture, but I think this concept is part of our doctrine (see Alma 38:12):

    Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness.

  6. Bookslinger on May 6, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    I’m thinking of the converse: “A man who cheats on his wife will cheat on his employer, and even on his country.”

  7. Candice on May 7, 2008 at 1:16 am

    In second half of the nineteenth century the West experienced Victoria’s reign. From what I understand, Victoria and Albert strengthened the dignity of the English crown and ideals surrounding marriage in ways their predecessors hadn’t. Victoria might be said in some ways to reflect older and even pre-modern ideals of sovereignty and chastity in England.

    I think you can partly explain how these issues work together through the rise of modernism and the Enlightenment. Shakespeare’s early modern plays criticize secular visions of politics, marriage, and sexuality that became more prevalent in the sixteenth century. A good example of such a critique is Measure for Measure. In this play there is a strong tie between the sovereignty of the good Duke and his power to hold his people accountable for their sexual behavior. The young, evil Duke loses his ability to govern (and becomes Machiavellian) when he gives way to his desires. I think the true correlation between sovereignty and chastity is linked by religion because of the way communal religion allows leaders to hold people accountable for sexuality morality. Leadership in the modern, secular world loses its ability to do this to some degree– especially in contrast to the medieval world, which was so religiously-centered.

  8. Kaimi Wenger on May 7, 2008 at 4:06 am


    Thanks for the heads-up. I inserted a link to one article on the skinhead beating; Adam may have another article in mind and may edit it in later.

  9. Adam Greenwood on May 7, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Candice, that’s a good point.

  10. Wilfried on May 7, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Interesting thoughts, Adam. I agree that we’re moving in impressionism and I am probing just as well, without much background on the topic. So just some reflections:

    - The definition of sexual morality, and the related openness to talk about and even visualize sex, seems for a large part culturally bound. Think ancient Greece (not the images you see in sheltered school textbooks, but erotic art & some forms of homosexuality and pedophilia). But was ancient Greek law not strict in the city-states democracies and strong in philosophy and ethics? Same with Rome under the Republic? (of course, democracy of the privileged, but still).

    - You mention: “the peak of sexual morality was, say, 1850-1950, which was hardly the nadir of democracy and egalitarianism.” Yes, but are possible conclusions based on a correct view of that period? See e.g. here : “We are well-accustomed to the ideas of the prudish, sexually-repressed Victorians, who cautiously guarded themselves against any temptation, no matter how slight. Critics have largely and successfully questioned this conception and proven it inaccurate.”

  11. ronf on May 8, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    the consequences of roe v. wade shed some light on how modern ideas about government influence ideas about sexual morality: the rate of fatherless children tripped after roe, after it had been declining steadily for more than a decade before.
    When the government says that killing unborn children is a valid ‘choice’, reluctant fathers feel more liberated to walk away from their parenting duties because hey… having the baby is her choice, not mine.

  12. Adam Greenwood on May 8, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I agree that government ukases on what is legal will influence private citizen’s notion of what is moral. Roe v. Wade is a prime example. But that’s not what I was getting at in this post.

  13. Blackadder on May 10, 2008 at 10:54 pm


    The analogy of person and government you draw here goes back at least to Plato, who in the Republic compared the good city to the good man (and quickly concluded that the good city would have to be strongly authoritarian). While I think there does seem to be something to what you are saying, I’m afraid that the experience of the Catholic Church over the last 2000 years shows that hierarchical authority and sexual impropriety are sadly all too compatible.


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