There’s an unexamined assumption that lies at the foundation of the debate over pornography and obscenity and that is that sexual arousal is a moral problem.

Why is it a problem?

All life is dominated by two biological imperatives: survival and reproduction. Now, I’m not about to make a reductionist argument that this is the only thing that drives humans. We are far more complex than that, but for all our complexity, these two drives are constant. When our survival needs have been met, our brain is hardwired to think of reproducing. This is not controlled by our conscious mind. It is spontaneous. The only thing our conscious mind has control over is whether or not to act on this naturally arising arousal.

The eternal virgin

However, sometime in our distant past humans began to view sexual arousal as both a moral and spiritual problem. They began to talk in dualistic terms. Of good and evil, light and dark, and of a pure spiritual realm versus a corrupted material realm. Sex was perceived to be a spiritual problem because it caused souls to be born into the corrupted, material world. Some religious thinkers (including the Buddha in the east) began to argue that one could somehow enter this pure spiritual realm by turning away from the corruption of the material world.

At its most extreme they engaged in a number of ascetic practices designed to overcome the two biological drives of survival and reproduction. Some mortified the body and almost starved themselves. Others tried to repress all sexual urges. This was utterly futile. In fact it was insane. Many ascetics literally drove themselves crazy. Their divine madness wasn’t divine. It was just madness.

This world denying attitude made its way to the Semitic cultures of the Levant and found particular resonance amongst several Jewish sects loosely called Essenes, and thence into Christianity. I have already talked about the myth of the Fall and the particularly Christian notion that the actual method of corruption is sexual intercourse (although the Fall is really about disobedience). A number of early Christian theologians openly condemned sex and argued that a good Christian chose celibacy and rejected ‘the temptations of the flesh’. Pope Gregory the Great said:

Conjugal union cannot take place without carnal pleasure, and such pleasure cannot under any circumstances be without blame.

In imagining a pure spiritual realm, the religious mind turned our most basic and immutable biological impulses into sins. Now, it may seem that we ‘moderns’ have rejected the teaching of the church and accept that sex is a natural drive. This sadly is not so. Even though many of us reject the blunt teaching that sex is inherently sinful, all many of us have done is to modify Christian teaching. Whilst we may not accept that we will go to hell for having sex, we are still susceptible to the argument that sexual arousal is somehow problematic. We might not see it as a ‘major’ problem but we still treat it with suspicion and embarrassment, something to be avoided in polite company.

Of course, the church could not suppress human sexuality, so what it did was try and contain it within religiously sanctioned marriage. Church teaching has changed over the years. Yet the early theologians regarded sex within marriage as a necessary evil, some advising that it be performed without lust.

Our ideal is not to experience desire at all… We should do nothing from desire. Our will should be directed only to what is necessary. Clement of Alexandria

Today most Christian churches now accept that desire within a marriage is acceptable, even necessary. In many cases this change has only occurred as a reaction to the sexual revolution. Some churches now run sexual technique courses which teach the importance of orgasm.

However, there is a big BUT. Sexual desire can only be legitimately expressed within a religiously sanctioned heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Any arousal outside the bond of marriage is still a spiritual and moral problem.

We are still plagued by this notion. Even if we now accept that people can have sex outside marriage, we still express embarrassment over sexual desire. And even if we are an atheist or a secular humanist, we may still believe that sexual arousal is somehow a problem. This cultural meme runs very deep and it takes some work to pull it out from its roots. The indoctrination begins early in our childhood and is reinforced constantly by society.

But is arousal the problem it is made out to be?

Well, no. We have considerable evidence from societies in which sexual arousal is not considered a problem, where it is seen as a natural part of being human and nothing to be either embarrassed or ashamed about. In fact many cultures celebrate sex in their art; in music, dance, sculpture, poetry and painting. Some, such as India, have developed a sophisticated aesthetic theory that equally embraces sexual arousal alongside the other human emotions. In India it has been given an elevated status and is known as the shringara rasa, the erotic taste (or sensibility). And although the puritanical orthodox Hindus (the Arya) have sanitized the shringara rasa, the Indians of the pre-Islamic Golden Age openly celebrated human sexuality. And even though much of the art of the period has either been destroyed (by Muslims and Christians in collaboration with the puritanical Arya) or hidden, there is sufficient left to point a very rich, erotic culture.

Khajuraho Temple

Tibetan Yab-Yum statue

However, despite the evidence from other cultures, the Western world still gets bogged down with a very unsophisticated and embarrassed response to human sexuality. Rather than openly celebrate it in our culture and art, we instead have to face the continual attempt by Christian conservatives to remove any sexual imagery whatsoever from the public domain, simply because they consider any potential for arousal outside the confines of marriage as a significant moral problem.

But here’s the thing. There is actually no evidence that the public celebration of the erotic sensibility in our music, dance, film or any other art form will have any negative effect whatsoever. This is where the Judeo-Christian aversion to sex has had its most damaging and pervasive effect. Many otherwise intelligent people believe that the public acceptance of the erotic has a corrupting effect on society. This is completely irrational. Indeed, Christianity has been very effective in scaring us.

The ONLY negative effect is that people will begin to realize that Christianity has been completely wrong about this.

Ah yes, you say, but what about the growing problem of sexual addiction and the pornification of society? What about the effect on children?

I will answer these objections at length in future posts. For now I will suggest that it is actually the repression of natural sexual arousal that causes these problems and that they do not exist in societies that properly integrate human sexuality into the culture at large. I will also suggest that the problem of porn is actually caused by the erotic sensibility being driven underground and that a more open approach will allow a diversity of erotic expression that will make the ‘porn’ industry obsolete.

Indeed, I will argue that an open society will go a good way to solving a number of social problems caused by repression. We know this to be the case because other societies succeeded in creating a mature understanding of human sexuality – much of which has been tragically undermined by Christian and Islamic imperialism.

I will also argue that the real moral problem is not sex itself, but how we treat each other.