No creature needs to be threatened with death to act in accord with its own nature.
–Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn
This comes at the end of a section in Sex at Dawn about the ardent, ceaseless and often violent efforts to curtail women’s sexual autonomy throughout history, up to the present-day practice in Iran of stoning female adulterers to death. The point of this section–aside from just acknowledging the horror of it all–is to call attention to a fundamental contradiction. Supposedly monogamy is the only natural way for people–particularly women–to conduct their sexual lives. But if this is so, why is the coercion necessary? Ryan and Jethá leave this as an open rhetorical question, a kind of reductio ad absurdum for monogamy, but I have an answer: it’s not a taboo until someone wants to do it.
Ostensibly coercion is about stopping behavior. As a society we devote a lot of effort towards capturing, prosecuting, and punishing burglars. Why? Because none of us wants to have someone break into our house and steal our stuff. If we could wipe out burglary once and for all we would, but since we can’t we’ll muddle on through with cops and prosecutors and neighborhood block watches. They are a means to an end.
Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
–George Orwell, 1984
This is the answer Winston Smith gets when he asks his Party interrogator why, if Big Brother is omnipotent, life in Oceania is so shabby. Orwell’s knack for unsparing bluntness is the reason why 1984 deserves its reputation. If inflicting punishment is the goal, you don’t want to eradicate the behavior you are punishing, because then you’d just have to start all over. Imagine if Saudi fundamentalists succeeded in converting every single human being to their particular brand of Islam; how long do you think do think it would take for the global ummah to splinter into sects, each one claiming they are the true believers and all the others are just sniveling apostates? Two years–three years tops? If we woke up tomorrow and the homosexual instinct had magically disappeared, universally and forever, does anyone believe the current crop of homophobic pundits would quietly retire and congratulate themselves on a job well done? No, they’d have to cast around for some new group to hate. If you want a picture of puritanism, imagine a smug ideologue shouting into a human face–forever.
Orwell has things to say about sex too–basically that when you’re having sex you’re not thinking about loyalty to the Party–but doesn’t put these pieces together. If the goal of prohibition is to fight but never win, you want a tenacious opponent. Sex fits the bill perfectly. The drive towards sex in general–and for specific people, specific sexual acts–is so powerful that there will always be someone willing to risk breaking a taboo no matter what the punishment. Which is great news if you are a self-hating closet case who feels the need to play out his personal hang-ups on a national stage, or a monster who uses a display of piety to cover up for the fact that he enjoys torturing women to death.
As depressing as all this can be in the short term, it is ultimately cause for hope. Puritans are parasites who build their whole identity around the groups they condemn. They need us. We don’t need them.