Monday, 25 February 2013

Technology and sexuality: how we got where we are

I posted yesterday on the question of the involvement of the law in the institution of marriage. This has prompted a couple of replies, one of which observed (as, I think, did Professor Julian Rivers in his evidence to the Committee considering the same-sex marriage bill) that the abolition of marriage was tried (and failed) in the early Soviet Union.

There are, however, a number of things that have allowed a shift in our own national sexual practices which were unknown to earlier generations, including the early Soviet Union.

One is massive technological change in the field of medicine. Prior to the advent of antibiotics, gonorrhea and syphilis were not just potential consequences of sexual promiscuity but effectively untreatable and, in the case of syphilis, fatal. By contrast, the advent of effective treatments has led to a lowering of restraint, as we have also seen recently in the case of MSM (men having sex with men) and HIV (see here).

A second technological change is, of course, in the field of contraception, which undoubtedly increased the rates of extra-marital sex, particularly with the advent of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, by lowering the risk of an unwanted child. Actually this was precisely one of the reasons why the Church of England opposed the availability of artificial contraception and what it warned would happen, back in its debates around the 1930s.

The third technological change was the advent of legal abortion. I call this a technological change because although the technology to carry out abortions with minimal risk to the life and health of the mother was there before the 1960s, the fact that it was not normally legal kept the technology from public access. Once again, this added to people's sense of security when engaging in intercourse without a desire for conception to occur (usually, though not always, outside marriage).

To these three technologies must finally be added a change in the attitude to, and provision of publicly-funded financial support for, single mothers. Previously, a child would have been regarded as the financial responsibility of its parents. Where this provision broke down there was the extended family to help and, beyond that, charities including the Church. In the post-war years, the removal of a sense of 'fault' in bearing an illegitimate child was combined with a policy of providing aid through public funds raised by taxation.

That, of course, itself depends on three things. One is the presumption by those in government that this is a right policy to follow. The second is the payment of taxes. And the third is wealth - a society following such a policy must be generating enough wealth to pay for it.

So whilst some may appeal to a change in human attitudes as driving the current changes in social practice, I would venture to suggest it is at least as much changes in human technology and the social economy that have actually driven the process.

We are where we are because we can, in more than one sense, afford to be there for the time being.

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  1. Your thoughts and observations are interesting and I think largely valid. My addition would be to your comment on changing human attitudes. Surely this comment could be made a lot more forcefully? The extent of our rejection of God and failure to love and obey him have removed the moral framework which impact significantly our preparedness to enter into sexual sin and extinguish the possibility of human life from the embryo through abortion. These technological changes would not have made the same impact on a society with a greater influence on it from the Christian faith.

  2. John Richardson

    You are correct that technology has changed. But the principle impact of those technological changes has been to make it easier for men to refuse to take responsibility for their children. Plus, women can now simply opt out of child-bearing altogether, and a significant minority have done so. Our increasing technology has thus created the twin catastrophes of falling birthrates and rampant illegitimacy. There aren't enough children being produced, and those that are being produced are increasingly being raised in social chaos.

    You are correct that this is only possible because it is presently affordable. But it is all being financed on borrowed capital. And the ability to maintain that capital is dependent upon exactly the behaviors that are being systematically destroyed in the name of sexual autonomy. You need stable families to produce & civilize children to maintain a growing economy. Especially in a world where technology is opening up the labor market at the speed of light. So what happens when it is no longer affordable? What happens when the loss of prosperity collides with libertine attitudes and all these illegitimate children can no longer be supported n from the national purse? There won't be any family to fall back on. Family is what is being systematically destroyed.

    Marriage is not optional. It is the basis of civilization, and it needs to be both protected & enforced by law. People must pick up the obligation to the next generation. They must be channeled to do so even against their natural inclinations to indulge themselves. Otherwise, you are going to see severe decline as the impact of family dissolution is reflected in the economy & the population. And that decline will lead to the loss of liberty.


  3. Nick & Carl,
    I'm sure you're both right. I guess the point is that at the same time technology (plus a certain application of the welfare state) has facilitated those changes in attitude.

    I'd heard someone say the other day that the Romans had a very "libertine" view of sexuality, but then had to tighten up, because as a society they weren't producing enough babies to maintain their army (or society generally) and so imposed marriage. No reference, sorry, pub talk. But interesting.

    Darren Moore