George Bernard Shaw had this to say on the subject of immorality: "Whatever is contrary to established manner and customs is immoral. An immoral act or doctrine is not necessarily a sinful one: On the contract, every advance in thought and conduct is by definition immoral until it has converted the majority. For this reason it is of the most enormous importance that immorality should be protected jealously against the attacks of those who have no standard except the standard of custom, and who regard any attack on custom—that is, on morals—as an attack on society, on religion, and on virtue....
"It is immorality, not morality, that needs protection: It is morality, not immorality, that needs restraint; for morality, with all the dead weight of human inertia and superstition to hang on the back of the pioneer, and all the malice of vulgarity and prejudice to threaten him, is responsible for many persecutions and many martyrdoms...."
In the February and April installments of The Playboy Philosophy, we examined the extent to which our own society has attempted to control sexual "immortality" by governmental edict; we discussed in detail the degree to which the United States perpetuates, through its laws, the extreme antisexualism of our Puritan religious heritage.
In addition to the legitimate statutes established to protect the individual from uninvited and unwelcome acts of sexual abuse, aggression and attack, there are laws in all 50 of the separate states prohibiting—under penalty of fine and/or imprisonment—various forms of sexual intimacy between consenting adults, even within the privacy of a person's own bedroom and when the intimacy may reflect the considered wishes of both partners.
Our democratic government, dedicated to the doctrine of individual freedom and the establishment of a permissive society, nevertheless invades out most private domain and dictates the details of our most personal behavior. The government boldly asserts that our very bodies do not belong to us—that we cannot use them in our own way, and at our own discretion, but only when and how the state permits. In matters of sex, we have already reached Orwell's world of 1984!
The legislators, judges and minor minions of the law are allowed to lurk in the shadows of our bedrooms, to pull away the covers—revealing our nakedness—and to direct the very kisses and caresses we may and may not use in our lovemaking.
Though we are free citizen in most other respects, in sex we are the slaves of among the most restrictive of any country's in the world; and they have helped in sustaining what is surely one of the most sexually repressed societies of the 20th century.
Drs. Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen wrote, in a concluding chapter of their book Sex Histories of American College Men: "We cannot help but feel that the present state of sexual confusion and its resulting miseries which most of us in the Western world have grown accustomed to enduring are not necessarily the most desirable and certainly not the only possible experience of which humanity is capable."
Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his associates of the Institute for Sex Research of Indiana University, in a summarizing statement in their comprehensive study Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, observed: "The law specifies the right of the married adult to have regular intercourse, but it makes no provision whatsoever for the approximately 40 percent of the population which is sexually mature but unmarried. Many...unmarried females and males are seriously disturbed because the only sources of sexual outlet available to them are either legally or socially disapproved. Kinsey added, "In nearly every culture in the world except our own, there is at least some acceptance of coital activities among [the] unmarried...."
The late Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan, who has been described by others in the field of social science as one of the foremost clinicians of our time, commented, in The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry: "Our culture is the least adequate in preparing one for meeting the eventualities of sexual maturity, which is another way of saying we are the most sex-ridden people on the face of the globe."
Sex and Marriage
A majority of U.S. sex laws are predicated on the religious dogma that sex is immoral outside of marriage. The marriage license thus becomes a church state sanction to engage in sex. Without it, in most parts of the country, a couple that engages in coitus is committing a crime.
The sex-in-marriage concept is related, in turn, to the religious belief that the purpose of sex is procreation. Since children are best raised, in the framework of our society, as a part of a family unit that includes both a mother and father, there appears to be some rational secular justification for the prohibitions against nonmarital sex. But in order to be something more than the governmental enforcement of a religious morality (which is totally inconsistent with the American doctrine of religious freedom), legislation should properly be directed against the secular aspect of the problem—prohibiting conception of children out of wedlock—rather than indiscriminately outlawing all acts of nonmarital intimacy; and the inconsistency of this argument is compounded by our society's willingness to dissolve marriages, though state-sanctioned divorce, where children of even tender years are involved.
The religious origin of these statutes is especially obvious when one considers the unusually severe penalties prescribed for acts of nonprocreative sex. If the actual purpose of the laws was to assure offspring the benefits of being raised in a family environment, with both parents present and accounted for, the legislators would have been most concerned with prohibiting those forms of unsanctioned sex that could result in illegitimate births. But Judaeo-Christian moral tradition has, for 2000 years, stressed taboos against nonprocreative sexual behavior, and so it is nonprocreative sex—marital and extramarital, heterosexual and homosexual—that our lawmakers have proclaimed as the most serious crimes, and for which they have prescribed the most extreme punishments.
The religious taboos surrounding noncoital sexual activity may be considered consistent with the moral view that the purpose of sex is procreation. But the person who accepts such a sexual morality for himself should still oppose any attempt on the part of the state to force these religious restrictions upon those in our society who do not wish to accept them. By establishing a specific sex ethic as the law, our government deprives each individual of the free choice that our democracy is supposed to assure. This separation of the interest of church and state is one of the fundamental principles upon which this country was founded; it is one of the most important guarantees of the U.S. Constitution; it is what set American democracy apart from the suppressive church-state rule of the Old World.
The laws that govern our land are supposedly created out of a rational and humane concern for each citizen—to protect his person and property—and to keep secure his inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The statutes that place coercive controls over the personal sex behavior of the adult members of our society are, however, quite clearly no more than the reflection of a particular religious code that is unrelated to our secular interests and welfare.
The state's intrusion into the private religious-moral conduct of its citizens would be improper even if a relatively few members of society were adversely affected. But U.S. sex laws are so irrationally conceived, and so unrelated to the actual moral conduct of the community, that they make criminals out of almost everyone.
The most authoritative studies of U.S. sex behavior indicate that most American males (over 85 percent) and approximately half of all females (ranging up to 60 percent among women with some college education) have sexual intercourse prior to marriage. And almost all men and women (well over 90 percent) who have been previously married, but who have lost their spouses through death or divorce, continue to engage in sex on a fairly regular basis, with partners to whom they are not wed. But this sex activity is listed as the crime of fornication in 36 of the 50 states, with penalties ranging from a $10 fine in Rhode Island to $1000 and/or one year in prison in Georgia, Missouri and Nevada.
In addition, approximately one out of every two married males, and one out of every four married females, have sexual intercourse with someone other than their respective spouses at some time during their marriages. This behavior is prohibited under adultery statutes in 45 states, with penalties including both fines and imprisonment in most, ranging up to five years at hard labor in Maine, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Vermont.
The Sin of Sex
Even though many of our society's present attitudes on sex are a direct outgrowth of the period, it is difficult for most of us to conceive the extent of the extreme antisexualism that existed in America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, when most of our sex statutes were written.
We devoted the previous installment of this editorial series (The Playboy Philosophy, July 1964) to a consideration of this time of suppressive Puritanism in America, which had its parallel in the Victorian Era in England a few years earlier. Our grandparents grew up in a society so ashamed of the human body and its functions, and so generally guilt-ridden about sex, that it was not considered a fit subject even to be discussed in polite company; it was clearly understood that a "nice" girl did not possess any sexual desire; and sexual intercourse, within the bonds of marriage, was looked upon as a necessary evil for the perpetuation of the human race.
The notion that sex is inherently evil has been a part of the Christian tradition for centuries, but it has received greater emphasis in some periods than in others, and we have previously examined the complex codification that the medieval Church brought to all sexual activity—both within and outside of marriage. The Puritans further reinforced this antisexualism after the Reformation and eventually almost all leisure was considered ungodly.
The sin of sex was primarily in its pleasure, and any sexual act that was not for the purpose of procreation, but engaged in for pleasure alone, was necessarily and especially immoral. Thus masturbation, sex play with animals and sexual intimacy between members of the same sex were all forbidden by religious law and called for the most severe penalties, sometimes including death. In the more extreme periods of religious antisexualism, nonprocreative sex was also forbidden between members of the opposite sex, even within marriage, since it frustrated the moral (religious) purpose of sexual congress.