Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sex and Values

Avi Woolf, guest-posting at Hirhurim, has a veeery stimulating article up, entitled, "Does Modern Orthodoxy Not Believe in Fun?" In part, I found what he said very interesting, because, basically, yes, Modern Orthodoxy does not believe in fun, nor does any denomination of Orthodoxy. Oh sure, they all believe in the value of recreation, i.e. "letting off steam", but this is typically understood as only being allowed insofar as it prepares you for doing further mitzvos. In other words, it's the difference between having fun and being a robot who's instructed to initiate Fun Sequence Alpha.

But that's not my main point here. As the title of this post suggests, I want to talk about Sex and Values. The connection to Woolf is in the comments to his post, where all the Hirhurimites get into the question of television and movies, and the gratuitous sex they (frequently) display. Although the whole thing is being vigorously argued, everyone seems to agree that the sex and pritzus in modern media today is immoral, disgusting and not in keeping with Torah values.

It is this notion I'd like to push back against.

First, a simple question. What does sex, per se, have to do with morals? Sure, you can do sex morally, or immorally, but that goes for anything. I can assault people morally, and I can help little old ladies across the street immorally. So what do we mean when we say scantily clad women on the TV are teaching bad values?

Consider, if you will, that Modern Orthodoxy seems to be converging on the idea that homosexuality is not immoral. G-d made gays with homosexual urges, and that's not their fault. Similarly, gay sex is not really immoral, either. If a guy can't control himself and slips up, he hasn't committed an immoral act. There's nothing evil going on. No one is hurt. To the extent that he's committed any immoral act, it's that he has violated his own personal code of conduct (i.e., to observe the Torah), and this is really more of a derivative moral transgression than an actual one.

This is more groundbreaking than first appears. If we say that gay sex, neither the desire to accomplish it, nor the deed itself, is per se immoral, then why doesn't that logic extend to heterosexual relations as well? And if the act itself is not immoral, then neither is the desire to perform the act, I assume. Because, at bottom, sex is a really fun thing to do. Really really fun. In fact, if either of my readers have taken monastic vows of celibacy, I strongly urge you to reconsider. And because it's a rather fun and enjoyable activity, people want to do it a lot. I don't see anything immoral there, either.

Obviously, the Torah has imposed many limitations on the practice of sex, and that's fine and all, but where is the immorality there? The fact that the Torah prohibits something doesn't really make it immoral. The Torah forbids me to have sex before marriage, but if I did, how have I acted immorally, other than the fact that I have gone against the Torah? In other words, if I live like a character from one of those shows on the CW (sex-wise), where have I acted immorally, exactly?

And if there is no immorality, what exactly are we afraid of letting into our living rooms through our televisions? Are we afraid that Junior will see 90210* and think, hey, "maybe I should have numerous beautiful sexual partners?" There's nothing really immoral about this behavior, nor do I see anything particularly disgusting in it either. Provided Junior treats the various women in his life with the respect due another human being, what do we care? Obviously, it's true that the Torah probably proscribes such conduct, but the Torah also prohibits driving a car on Saturdays. We let Junior see that all the time.

Perceptive readers will note that I've kind of conflated morals and values. In other words, just because I believe something conflicts with my values, does not mean I must find it immoral. Fair enough, but let's drill down on this and see if we can find any useful distinction.

To the extent that values and morals are not the same thing, I think we would say that morals means having to do with basic principles of right or wrong, while values refers to those things that keep in accordance with a set of rules, or the spirit of a set of rules, by which we've decided to conduct our lives. So, while having sex with numerous supermodels who are clearly too old to believably act in overwrought dramedies may not be immoral, it still violates our rules, and we value those rules, and we don't want to be exposed to their continued violation, even if, admittedly, those rules are, from our perspective, somewhat arbitrary (by which I mean we don't know G-d's plan, or why He prohibited certain things and not others).

Which is fine, and yet, it's curious to me that none of the commenters at Hirhurim raised the objection that it was wrong to watch TV because of the gratuitious chillul shabbos. Nor did anyone bemoan the lack of ma'aser in contemporary prime time programming. Which suggests to me that, at bottom, the distinction between sex and chillul shabbos has very much to do with morality. Which leads us back to the original question. Where's the immorality with sex, even gratuitous sex?

* For the record, I do not watch 90210.

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