EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the June 14, 2004, issue of National Review.
Faced with the bad news from Abu Ghraib, we find ourselves reaching for old and distrusted concepts. Sexual humiliation, administered by women to men who have been stripped and bound, is tainted, we think, by perversion–indeed, it is a form of perversion. And then, having given voice to this idea, we find ourselves in forbidden territory. Owing to political correctness, nothing that adults do in private is now to be regarded as intrinsically disgusting. The idea that one person’s action may be a violation and desecration of another person’s body, even if the other consents to it, has almost slipped from our consciousness.
Almost, but not quite. For even the most polymorphously perverse among us will find acts and desires that disgust him. Even he will–if he has retained the capacity for love–recognize that the body of the person whom he desires is not an object to be used, but a subject to be venerated. Even he will recognize that there is such a thing, in sexual conduct and desire, as desecration. He may not use that word–for it belongs with terms like modesty, decency, and perversion, which drew the contours of those old restraints. But he will be aware, nevertheless, that there is more to sexual morality than consent, and that this “more” arises because desire is both a creator and a destroyer of human happiness.
Hence almost all of us, however emancipated from the old sexual constraints, retain a sense that certain acts are out of bounds, not to be performed, disgusting in themselves, whether or not consented to. This sense of disgust is malleable. Like every culturally generated emotion, disgust is minutely sensitive to changes in social expectations and in the perceived judgment of others. But it has survived the years of sexual liberation, and now roams unattached in our emotions, haunting us like the ghost of someone whom we failed to mourn.
This may help to explain some of our current confusions. The sexual revolution tried to sweep away all “irrational” barriers, all “prejudices,” all forms of “repression” or “taboo.” Indeed repression was identified as the only true sexual sin. For the advocates of liberation, the sins of sex were not, as we once had thought, sins of pleasure but sins against pleasure. And the most important sin against pleasure is the sense of sin itself: the attitude that misleads us with ideas of perversion and shame. Take away the sense of sin and the pleasure garden lies open before us.
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