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There’s something wrong with sex and morality

I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but we have a big problem with sex and morality. If something is sexual, we seem to want to attribute a moral action to it even when one is not necessary.

There are some acts which, by whatever standards of morality you hold, most of us can accept are inherently ‘good’ – helping people who are vulnerable or suffering, for instance, or sharing resources when you’ve got more than you need. There are some we can label ‘bad’ fairly easily: hurting a person deliberately and without any reason, etc etc.

However, with sex we seem to want to label things ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when – at best – they’re morally neutral. Masturbation, for example. It can be good for your health (mental and physical) but is it morally good per se? Not really: it’s just a wank. Some sex acts are morally bad, but they’re morally bad because they have other characteristics which are ‘bad’ – they exploit or hurt people.

All this is to say that I don’t think ‘sex’ is inherently good or bad. Like eating, sex is just something we do. It can be good (a delicious doughnut to sate you after a hard day’s shagging) or bad (eating the flesh of an animal you’ve just tortured for fun). But food is a good example, because we frequently apply moral actions to eating, as we do to sex. You’ll have a ‘naughty’ slice of cake. Or ‘be bad’ and eat a second biscuit. Realistically, there’s no moral quality to these acts, as there’s little moral quality to the inherent act of sex: it’s just a fuck. The context is what gives it moral weight.

On that general foundation rests my default position whenever ‘sex things’ come up in the news. I’d always rather be extra careful when making moral judgments about sexual things, because of this tendency we have to leap towards ‘that sounds icky to me therefore it must be immoral.’

Brooks Newmark and the nude pictures

And so, the story that prompted this blog: Tory MP Brooks Newmark has resigned because he sent some nude pictures to someone who was not his wife. The pics went to an anonymous reporter who had explicitly requested the pictures, so there isn’t an issue of consent there. He did a sexual thing that someone had asked him to do.

I do not think that was morally wrong.

However, what was morally wrong is that he (from the sounds of it) did something that was not acceptable within his relationship. He and his wife did not have an agreement that naked sexting was OK. So that’s pretty crappy.

But I don’t think he should have resigned. I don’t think he should have been fired. And I certainly don’t think that his inability to resist the urge to send naked pictures of himself to someone who asked for them means he is incapable of being a politician. If we held politicians to high standards of morality in their private as well as their public life, based on the decisions of an angry mob/press, then the number of us who’d be qualified to be politicians would be vanishingly small. But it’s not just practical reasons that make me a bit uncomfortable with the torches and pitchforks that come out whenever there’s some sort of sex scandal.

It’s the fact that this argument is so often thrown out:

It’s about integrity!

Well, sure. We want politicians (and other people who work in roles that affect us) to have integrity. My doctor, for instance, should have great integrity. I expect her to be honest with me, to choose the right treatments, and not to sell out to Big Pharma for a fiver if she knows the better remedy is cheaper. Integrity is vital. But there’s a massive and overwhelming difference between saying to someone: “You are in an important job, and we need to trust you to perform your role with integrity” and saying “by the way this includes everything you do from now on even when you’re not on the clock.”

I’m sorry, but bollocks to that.

Allow me to clarify for those of you who’ll think I’m excusing any kind of immorality outside the workplace: I’m not. I’ll happily join in a bit of chit-chat calling someone a bastard if they cheat on their partner (and I’ll put my hand up and call myself a bastard too, for I have made myriad mistakes and cock-ups in my life) but there’s a big difference between saying ‘I don’t like that’ and extending it as far as ‘you’re fired.’

Here’s the thing: it’s the easy answer. I get that it’s far simpler and more satisfying to say ‘this guy sounds like scum, so he doesn’t deserve a job.’ But I’m suspicious of easy answers, particularly around sex, because I think with anything sexual we’re so desperate to assign morality to every single act that we forget what I said above: sex isn’t inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it’s something for which the moral consequences must be weighed up depending on the context.

Simple answers sound awesome, which is why they are often the best way to deprive people of freedoms. Saying ‘if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’ is a nice, simple, memorable way to get people to agree to quite drastic infringement of their liberties. Likewise saying ‘well, if you’re in a position of trust you need to be held to higher ethical standards’ may well be a great way to curb politicians who do things we find icky.

But ‘a position of trust’ is easily interpreted to include headteachers, teachers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, carers, anyone who leads a team of more than two people…. etc etc ad infinitum. We all have responsibilities, and we all need to have integrity in order to perform particular tasks in life. The issue I have is with treating people as if they cannot possibly distinguish between different areas. That if they’re dishonest in one area – that has nothing to do with their job – they will naturally be dishonest elsewhere. That if they spank people in their spare time they’ll be a sex pest in the office. People aren’t that misguided, and even if they were I can think of far better institutions to police it than their employers.

In conclusion, then: I don’t think we should sack people for doing sexual things outside of work. There are plenty of immoral acts for which I’d want a politician to be fired. Sexual harassment, for instance, is not only immoral but has genuine and serious ramifications for how that person performs their job (it implies a deep lack of respect, and often actual harassment, of people they are working with) – it’s also illegal. But unless a politician is going to make a cast-iron pact with their colleagues or the electorate to never send nude pictures of themself to another consenting adult, then holding them to account for a private promise they’ve made to their loved one makes no more sense than firing them for getting divorced.

I appreciate some of you might disagree vehemently with me on this, and please do feel free to: I’m particularly interested to explore the grey areas of this to see if my gut instincts hold up to scrutiny. So disagree, tell me I’m wrong, and get all angry in the comments if you like: just please don’t have me fired.