Sexual Disciplining

This post is from an email exchange between me and Freethinker (an ex-blogger, who had gained prominence through his blog 'notes of a freethinker') which took place in April 2009 (hence the reference to Swat flogging), in which he shares his valuable thoughts on sexuality and society:

Me: How do you respond to people who say that sexual liberation would lead to disruption of a society, and create a havoc of problems like teen pregnancies, illegitimate children, abandoned old people, destruction of family etc?

Freethinker: Well, there's a tough one to refute. Because the claim is put in terms that we're not allowed to question. 'Teen pregnancies', 'illegitimate children', 'abandoned old people', 'destruction of family' - they definitely sound like things we should prevent in all speed. And in a similar way, uncontrolled sex is made out to be an obvious cause of all these problems.

We can only examine and refute a claim like this by talking about the categories and assumptions the claim uses, questioning them, thinking about what it leaves out, and whose interests are served - and whose excluded - by a claim like this. And that would require a detailed essay to examine in full.

I think the reason why this is bothering you right now is because of the whole debate over the 'flogging'. There are people saying that the punishment itself isn't barbaric - just that it's applied without due procedure, without sufficient evidence that 'illicit' sexual activity has taken place. But you wanna tell them that the punishment itself is barbaric, period. If that's the case, then your question should be 'is sexuality to be disciplined through harsh universal punishments?' Now this question I have engaged myself with for years now, and over the years I've accumulated various insights over it...

Here's my case against disciplining sexuality through punishments. It is generally accepted that for criminality to be established, the person must be 'accountable'. But such accountability is difficult to establish if you haven't already assumed too much about the individual who has had 'illicit' sex, which would make the punishment rather arbitrary and unfair. Did the individual consent to it? And by consent I mean 'wished to see the sexual encounter through'. Was she/he otherwise manipulated? Was she/he depressed, felt unfulfilled and alienated, low on self-esteem, etc., making them easy targets for manipulation? Did anything else - like recent trauma - happen that clouded the individual's judgment? Maybe the individual was raised up in a sexually permissible environment, or there was something else that messed up his/her socially conditioned 'control' of sexual impulses? Maybe the individual is stuck in an oppressive situation and the sexual act is a desperate attempt to break free. And lastly, sometimes marriage, the supposed 'legal' outlet, isn't available to the person - for example, as is the case in modernity, the 'teenager' who had sex might have gone for marriage if it weren't for the socio-economic arrangements that discourage marriage at such 'young' age.

So in all these situations, a different picture of the sex 'offender' emerges: she/he is not accountable, maybe even innocent. Thus the morality of disciplining of sexuality is fraught with problems, not least because the very morality that gives rise to it is too rigid. If it's 'justice' that you're basing your morality on, then justice makes sure that the 'innocent' (abandoned illegitimate children and such) who haven't done anything don't have to suffer for the doings of others. But we've seen how this way, our sex 'offender' whose accountability cannot be established becomes an 'innocent' herself/himself.

What I said about the issue of determining whether someone is truly guilty of a 'sexual offense' in a conservative society is not an argument for sexual liberation, nor even a critique of Islamic jurisprudence. The point is that we'll have to abandon any notions of 'fairness' if we try to regulate something as complicated as sexuality with criminal law, no matter how much emphasis is placed on 'due process'.

It's also not so easy to talk about 'teenage pregnancies', 'illegitimate children', etc. What's a 'teenager' (the concept did not exist in early Islam - people married early), and what's wrong with a teen pregnancy that works out well for all parties concerned? We can think of a number of ways in which the current social and economic arrangements make pregnancy a pickle for 'teenagers'. Similarly, 'illegitimate children' as well as 'abandoned children' are a problem because the society has no place for even underprivileged children, let alone those born out of wedlock who not only are mostly raised by single women (who, in turn, the society has no place for - no economic security) but also have crippling social stigma (the children and their mothers) to struggle with.

'Abandoned old people' sounds like a bad thing when stated that way. But surely isn't it ridiculous to say that people are not taking care of the elderly because of their one-night stands? How much sex would I have to be having to become negligent in my obligations to my aging parents? Implicit in the claim that loose sexual mores lead to 'abandoned old people' is the support for the traditional family structure in which the elderly were catered to by housewives and children. That traditional family is horribly unfair to women, and in some cases, to children. The claim also takes for granted that putting the responsibility of the care of the elderly in hands of the family, and not, say, the State is a good thing. That can certainly be questioned, since the elderly can sometimes have no family for reasons other than abandonment (childlessness, death of offspring, never having married, etc.)

Another problem is that by bringing criminal law enforcement for disciplining sexuality you are underestimating the Enlightenment project of 'universal education': it not only promotes values of self-control and discipline in the individual, but also creates opportunities for the individual to seek other kinds of fulfillment than 'sexual'. (By the way, I hold that the sexual impulse is not as central to life as discourses of biological determinism make it out to be. Fortunately, those who you'll be arguing this problem with would be religious and be loath to biological determinism themselves.)

But those of a postmodernist persuasion (such as myself) who are not fans of 'the Enlightenment project' can go beyond all this and question why sexuality needs to be 'controlled' anyways. It can be argued that any attempt to regulate sexuality is to be suspected not only because it serves the status quo and all the power relations in it (heteronormativity, male dominance, etc.), but also because repression is unrealistic and only messes us up. They will tend to see the 'destruction of family' as desirable, and will advocate sex education and bodily sovereignty (that is, controlling reproduction rather than sexuality, through contraception and abortion).


captureuniverse said…
All just we need is awareness and Allah knows who will bring so and how....
Komal said…
I didn't find his insights particularly useful.
Aneeqa said…
sexual disciplining is important for there has to be some difference between fornicating animals and human beings but the discipline can't be forged into about sex at an early age would be necessary taking in account the amount of sex info media is providing to everyone unrestricted, incl. little children. so youngsters would know as they grow up what is right and what is wrong and they'd be open about expressing their wish to get married early if there is. and those who still choose to have illegal sex should be accountable for their consequences!
Komal said…
In fact I found his 'insights' rather nonsensical.
stumblingmystic said…
He's going too far. A postmodern sexual ethic will respect individual freedom and diversity (and include, for instance, gays and lesbians), while encouraging a general understanding of why sexuality needs to be *self*-regulated by emotionally responsible individuals (through monogamy, meaningful relationships, social integration, spirituality, etc.). Civilizations stabilize in part because they inculcate a moral culture that encourages the self-disciplining of the emotions and passions.

The sexual revolution in the West went much too far, with the result that extreme, hardcore pornography and misogyny have largely been mainstreamed in the United States. Please also keep in mind that the sexual revolution helped create a public health disaster. There is absolutely no need to repeat this experiment in other parts of the world.

I'm all for individual freedom, but not for a culture of sexual narcissism, which is apparently what nihilistic postmodernism seems to want to promote.

P.S. I'm post-postmodern. ;-)
Komal said…
You cannot have sexual liberation because sexuality is a key area where the patriarchy manifests/exists. This is why the 'sexual revolution' only mainstreamed and increased the intensity of misogyny in such things as pornography, which is nothing but the propaganda of the patriarchy. The 'sexual revolution' is not a revolution, but was merely an excuse for men whose subconscients still contained enormous amounts of misogyny, phallocentrism and phallus-worship (and still do) to unleash their misogyny and even increase the degree of it.

What is needed is not sexual libertarianism, but radical feminism.
Komal said…
There are deep problems in the human subconscient regarding sexuality, including phallus-worship, which is a deeply embedded collective subconscient bias. Only a long process of introspection, accompanied by an existentially courageous attitude, a commitment to women's humanity and a mind attuned to systemic oppression (and to the fact that the personal is political) can help an individual overcome this problem.

Very, very few people have the ability or desire for any of the above, let alone all of them. Thus, if you support sexual 'liberation' prior to an enormous spiritual change in humanity and a full acceptance of basic radical feminist tenets by basically the whole human race, you support the violation and destruction of women.
Awais Aftab said…
The focus of the post wasn't on sexual liberation (which is mentioned briefly and only in passing), but that sexuality should not be disciplined by society, especially by means of criminal law. And this is something, I believe, Komal and stumblingmystic, you both already agree with.
Komal said…
Yes :P.

I don't believe sexuality should be disciplined by a patriarchal society through means of criminal law, although I do believe in restrictions on certain things that are associated with sexuality, such as pornography.
Komal said…
Ok so I'll admit that I didn't find Freethinker's email nonsensical, but I said it partly because I'm annoyed that he's ignoring me :P.
stumblingmystic said…
Well, I obviously agree that you can't discipline sexuality through criminal law -- that's barbaric. But that doesn't mean that a general moral culture shouldn't be encouraged in a society and public policy measures taken accordingly (e.g. benefits given to married couples, couples with children, etc.).

And I was specifically reacting to this comment at the end of the post:

"They will tend to see the 'destruction of family' as desirable"

Good God! The destruction of the family is NOT desirable! Even the gay rights movement has wised up and realized this now. The demand for gay marriage and gay adoption is precisely a demand to get integrated into a family unit. My problem with sexual libertines has always been that they seem to have no conception of the protection of children.
F. said…
He didn't actually mean the destruction of the family as you understand it or as I wish it could be like. He meant the destruction of the 'family' as it is now, especially in some parts of the world. The kind of family that must have a father who's a mini Overlord and Grand High Master of the house, and a subservient mother who obeys the father and whose socially-enforced reason for existence is household drudgery; he meant the destruction of the family that bases itself on such conditions/roles. I support that.
Komal said…
I don't think Freethinker was referring to the patriarchal nuclear family only. He just said 'family' and not 'patriarchal family'. My guess is he means a defined family, because defining it supposedly excludes all things that are not in the definition.

This is the way postmodernists think, btw. They think that using words is oppressive, because after all words have definitions, and definitions are exclusionary! That's an exaggeration of course, but only mildly.