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).