Tag Archives: childraising

Two girls kissing with a placard telling a story about gay acceptance.

“But What Will I Tell My Kids?”: Sexuality and Authoritarianism

One question often asked when issues of gay marriage and transexuality come up is “What will I tell my kids when they see ___________?” The story in the picture shown above is a response to that, sometimes sincere, concern. It also reflects my own experience over a lifetime of being bisexual and polyamorous; kids are surprised and interested in novelties, but beyond that, they integrate the new knowledge with the rest of their worldview just fine.

Kids never seem to be the ones with the expectations regarding this. They seem to have very few or no moral intuitions on the issues of gender, romance, and sexuality at all. Their parents, when this is a legitimate concern, should be reassured; your child will simply accept and integrate the truth: “some people are homosexual/transexual/whatever”. But what else can we learn from this lack of moral intuitions on this issue?

Especially compared with their other moral intuitions, such as “no fair” and “don’t hit me” and “be nice to me” taken together with their abilities to empathize (the studies on this have been fascinating…babies care about the shape trying to climb the hill and get upset at the other shape trying to stop it) developing as a function of brain development, it seems unlikely and remains to be shown that there are any prescriptive moral intuitions about romantic and sexual relationships. In the absence of active teaching about such norms, they simply aren’t established nor seen as necessarily requiring norms in the same way as other behaviors. Not only are there no apparent moral intuitions, it seems that we don’t really have moral intuitions about the category as a whole.

This could be due to romance being a human creation, but pair bonding is present in many other species and there are too many brain structures that seem to be devoted to it for me to be convinced that romantic relationships are invented by humanity.

However, all available data does suggest that there is an authoritarian impulse to control other people, and that one of the best methods–used in everything from religious monasteries and the Manson cult to most militaries and the Patty Hearst kidnappers–is forcing sexual behaviors, such as celibacy or promiscuity, and generally taking sexual/romantic agency away from the people you want to control.

Taken in this context, it seems more likely that such sexual and romantic norms have historically arisen due, not to any ethical principles or moral intuitions, but due to authoritarians wishing to control populations.

So ask yourself…are you the authoritarian benefiting from the power over others granted through such social control over sexual behaviors? Most likely the answer to this is “no”. You are most likely part of the population that the authoritarians want to control using this technique. Since this is the case, why should you help reinforce or reify ANY PART of these norms? Why help those who want to control and manipulate you? If you aren’t merely an opportunist about these things and if you value freedom, then you should oppose any such attempts to control and manipulate anyone, and since it is clear that these sexual/romantic norms are about control, you should oppose them on those grounds.

So don’t worry about your kids; their moral development isn’t going to be stunted by seeing people demonstrate their romantic connections in public. They will simply update their worldview to include a new set of facts.

What you might want to worry about, however, is how many beliefs like this–alleged issues of morality and ethics–will turn out, upon inspection, to be the manipulations of authoritarians trying to use certain tendencies of humanity to control people. I know I have spent most of my adult life dismantling the mass of ideas handed to me by my culture and family, and thanks to the prevalence of these false, controlling ideas in our era, I will never really be able to stop actively working to keep them from governing my mind. This is one of the reasons I have dedicated myself so intensely to philosophy, rationality, logic, and–above all–truth; without such a commitment, false and destructive beliefs would have destroyed me, on just about every level you can imagine. I truly believe that a similar commitment by the majority of the population is necessary before any real reform or politically just world exist. We must care more about truth and freedom–all truth and everyone’s freedom–than power over others.

How many false or destructive beliefs do you have that were put there by other people trying to control and exploit you? How many false or destructive beliefs ideas are you basing your life on that only benefit political, religious, economic, and social “leaders” trying to maintain their control? How many false or destructive beliefs beliefs have you passed on to others in an attempt to control them? Be honest with yourself, if not me…how many things that you know the evidence or reasoning behind are a little–ahem–shaky–have you passed on, retweeted, or taught to others? How much evidence have you ignored because it didn’t fit your agendas? How much evidence have you been convinced to ignore because it fit the agendas of others for you to do so?

How can we know if our beliefs are of this suspicious type? One way is to use our emotions as a guide. Simple matters of fact (i.e. 3 squared is 9) have no emotions attached and are generally taken for granted and uncontested. While this isn’t a sure test, it’s a good place to start: if a belief has a lot of emotion attached and is contested in the public sphere, it is probably a good idea to be skeptical about it and start looking for evidence and arguments before forming a belief. If the issue is one that is immune to such inquiries, such as self-report (i.e. “I feel a pain in my toe”), is by its nature anecdotal (i.e. “I ate lunch with an alien yesterday”), or metaphysical (i.e. “Realism about numbers is true”), then you are left with reason alone as your guide, so you need to be extra careful about accepting false premises and should learn about the various cognitive and logical fallacies that may mislead you.

And finally, if all of these things still leave you undecided, ask yourself this simple question: “Who benefits from me believing this claim?”. Try to look at the question in as many contexts as possible and in both the large and the small, the political and the personal. If the person or group that benefits the most from you believing a questionable claim is the same person or group who told you about the questionable claim in the first place, then you should be very suspicious of that claim.

Such honesty can be a burden. Attempting to ferret out all the false, manipulative, and often dangerous beliefs in ourselves and the messages we receive from the world around us can become overwhelming. But I believe it is absolutely necessary. Not only must we place guards between our senses and our minds, testing every single idea before accepting it, we must resolutely rip out the traitorous ideas we find already established. If we want a free world where each and every one of can both be moral and demand morality in return, then we cannot allow such beliefs in ourselves, nor can we indulge the temptation to instill those beliefs in others, no matter how good the “cause” may seem. There are “bad tactics”, no matter how good the “target”; our allegiance to each other and ourselves must begin with an allegiance to truth.

I know, I know, those of you with teenage daughters out there might be pained, but just explain the real consequences of irresponsible sex and leave out the lies (no one needs a Pillow Pants in their lives). Statistics show that the best outcomes arise from actual education about sex, relationships, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, and pregnancy. Some very limited discomfort now can save a lifetime of suffering later for everyone involved.

I also realize that the religious people out there may believe that my ethical arguments are meaningless because their theology dictates their ethics. To the theist, moral intuitions, facts about the world, and logic are not up to the task of answering the questions of ethics, and are either supplemented or replaced entirely by an entire framework of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics provided by their religion. To the theist, I ask the same question: “who benefits from you believing these things?” So long as it is you and those you share that belief with, that’s wonderful; enjoy your religion. But if it’s a pope living in his own country, a pastor buying himself jets, an imam who wants to make a political point out of the deaths of his followers or a secretive leadership following in the footsteps of a science fiction writer of questionable ethical history, I think you might want to reconsider those beliefs.