Liberal Sexual Mores

I devoured Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties when it first came out in 2020. I told myself, this is so good, I must reread it. So I recently bought it as an Audible book to savor its insights, such as this one:

You can call sexual morality a mythology constructed by life-hating prudes, but they, too, serve an erotic function. Without an external source of sexual morality, people who would behave in a civilized way must produce their own prudery and carry it around inside them. He must de-masculinize; she must de-feminize. As Ray Davies of the Kinks wrote in “The Good Life,” his 1970 song about the absurd glut of sensual gratifications offered to a rock star, “I got so many women that I wish that I wasn’t a man.” It was a disturbing thought: Hyper-sexualization might be a mask worn by de-sexualization. What is thrilling, fulfilling, and functional about sexuality might be wrapped up in the very “complexes” about sexuality that crusaders for sexual freedom and other reformers insisted on getting rid of.

In his work in progress, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression: On the Nature and Origins of Conservaphobia, Rony Guldmann decodes the philosophy behind this Caldwell passage. He writes:

* Whereas now eclipsed traditionalist hierarchies revolved around perceived differences in things like sexual purity, work ethic, religious affiliation, family pedigree, and ethnic bona fides, the new status hierarchy of liberalism is rooted in “cognitive elitism” and centers around a morally charged division between those who are “aware” and those who are not, those who possess the psychic maturity to accede to liberalism and those who lack it and must be reformed. This kind of identity politics will always take refuge in some pragmatic-sounding pretext—e.g., the dangers of firearms or the inadequacies of home schooling. But conservatives dismiss this pragmatism as an elaborate façade for a status hierarchy that liberals refuse to acknowledge. If this hierarchy can go overlooked by “thinking people,” by the “educated,” this is because thoughtfulness and education are themselves now defined by the liberal dispensation. These have become mere badges of honor to be conferred on liberals and withheld from others. Liberals’ near-monopoly on the means of cultural reproduction lets their own kind of identity politics pass under the radar screen, camouflaged in an aura of hard-nosed utilitarianism.

Conservatives believe they see through this camouflage, however, and that the threat represented by this insight propels liberals to denigrate, not only conservative thought, but conservatives themselves. Alan Groves writes that “[b]y nature, many conservatives are placid, compliant, and respectful toward others. For the most part, we are civil, patriotic Americans who simply want to be left alone to be with our families (and yes, Mr. President, our guns and religion).” And so conservatives are left speechless and stupefied by the “never-ending onslaught of personal attacks, lies, and name-calling” that the Left rains down upon them.9 Conservative claimants of cultural oppression are united in the conviction that liberalism’s rationalistic façade conceals what is a campaign of psychological warfare whose purposes is to undermine the self-confidence of the conservative culture and supplant it with the liberal one. Hence the profound incongruity between the good-natured innocuousness of ordinary conservatives and the venomous vitriol to which liberals would subject them.

In prosecuting these verbal pogroms, liberals reduce conservatives’ deepest convictions to outward manifestations of unconscious hostilities—not positions to be understood but symptoms to be diagnosed and diseases to be attacked. While liberals may characterize their antagonism toward conservatism as just vigorous disagreement with a set of failed ideas, conservatives believe that this antagonism bespeaks something more visceral and reflexive, a primordial animus toward conservative identities for the challenge they pose to liberal ones. The real target is not anything the conservative may have actually said or done, but his basic God-fearing and freedom-loving nature, which the liberal elites despise as vulgar and retrograde. Hence the ignominious regime of mockery, slander, and intimidation that bullies conservatives into silence and submission. Knowing that liberals will seize upon any pretext to slander them as bigots of one kind or another, conservatives and the ordinary Americans they champion have been gradually reduced to quiescence, rendered passive and deferential before liberals, who have been privileged to define the social identities of conservatives.

* * D’Souza explains: “Behind the innumerable examples of excess, immodesty, and immorality there is an ideology. Here are some of the ingredients of that ideology, which constitutes Hollywood’s understanding of how the world is, or should be. Children are usually wiser than their parents and teachers, who are often portrayed as fools and bunglers. Homosexuals are typically presented as good-looking and charming, and unappealing features of the gay lifestyle are either ignored or presented in an amusing light. As countless movie plots confirm, the white businessman in the suit is usually the villain. Prostitutes are always portrayed more favorably and decently than anyone who criticizes them. Small towns are the preferred venue for evil and scary occurrences, and country pastors are usually portrayed as vicious, hypocritical, sexually repressed, and corrupt. Notwithstanding the occasional appearance of the stereotypical Elmer Gantry, nobody goes to church. Religion is simply not a feature in the lives of movie and television characters. Lots of film and TV characters have pre-marital sex, but very rarely does anyone contract a sexually transmitted disease. “Prudes” are always the subject of jokes and ridicule. One of the central themes of American movies and television is the glamorization of adultery. Adultery is almost always portrayed sympathetically, so that if a woman cheats on her husband, the husband is generally shown to be vicious, unscrupulous, abusive, impotent, or in some way deserving of the fate that befalls him.”

* Given that their anti-gay stances cannot be disentangled from their religion and that their religion cannot be disentangled from their identities, the claimants believe that both homosexuality and opposition to homosexuality are entitled to equal respect. For opposition to Christianity is just as intrinsic to homosexuality as opposition to homosexuality is intrinsic to Christianity. Both can devolve into bare antipathy and should be condemned in those instances. But neither is as such intrinsically more hateful than the other. Since the heartfelt defense of any worldview always risks devolving into personal animus toward the opponents of that worldview, the charge of widespread homophobia is itself a form of animus, a kind of conservaphobia, because the objective is to specifically associate religious conservatives with what is a regrettable human universal.

* Justice Scalia observes: “When the Court takes sides in the culture wars, it tends to be with the knights rather than the villeins – and more specifically with the Templars, reflecting the views and values of the lawyer class from which the Court’s Members are drawn. How that class feels about homosexuality will be evident to anyone who wishes to interview job applicants at virtually any of the Nation’s law schools. The interviewer may refuse to offer a job because the applicant is a Republican; because he is an adulterer; because he went to the wrong prep school or belongs to the wrong country club; because he eats snails; because he is a womanizer; because she wears real-animal fur; or even because he hates the Chicago Cubs. But if the interviewer should wish not to be an associate or partner of an applicant because he disapproves of the applicant’s homosexuality, then he will have violated the pledge which the Association of American Law Schools requires all its member-schools to exact from job interviewers: “assurance of the employer’s willingness” to hire homosexuals…..This law-school view of what “prejudices” must be stamped out may be contrasted with the more plebeian attitudes that apparently still prevail in the United States Congress, which has been unresponsive to repeated attempts to extend to homosexuals the protections of federal civil rights laws………”

* Madonna could urge her followers to cast off their bourgeois sexual hang-ups. But whereas she could simply settle down with a husband and kids once she wearied of this, the “lower-middle-class girls from Jersey City who took her advice” were not so lucky.

* Bill O’Reilly laments that “the S-P [secular-progressive] crowd, especially the mainstream media, has glorified the gangsta world and, indeed, makes money from it. Those white, middle-aged, ponytailed music executives are no better than crack dealers. They know their product dehumanizes its constant customer and encourages awful behavior.”

* Like the callousness of nineteenth century capitalists toward the suffering of their workers, the callousness of today’s liberal elites toward the common people is facilitated by inhumanly abstract conceptions of freedom, a simplistic “my liberty ends at your nose” ethic that refuses to recognize the chains of social interconnectedness which give democratic majorities a legitimate interest in regulating their moral environments. If liberals believe that state regulation is a legitimate means of redressing gross inequalities of economic power, then conservatives insist that some forms of morals legislation may be required to protect those whose cultural influence is being unjustly marginalized by the media and Hollywood. The left, notes D’Souza, is “unfailingly vigilant in exposing business for polluting the natural environment,” but “when is the last time a liberal democrat denounced Hollywood or the music industry for polluting the moral environment?” Conservatives, then, are not as liberals would have it meddlesome moralists trying to foist their personal preferences on unwilling others, but socially-minded egalitarians who hold liberals accountable for the externalities that their liberalism inflicts on non-liberals—like Goldberg’s forgotten lower-middle-class girls of Jersey City.

* Conservatives are inclined to deny the right of transgendered individual—say, a biological male who self-identifies as a female—to access public restrooms designated for the opposite biological sex. And liberals typically dismiss this opposition as just another narrow bigotry. But conservatives’ opposition need not rest on bigotry, as they could make the following argument: A biological male is within his rights to self-identify as a female and assign this self-conception ontological preeminence over his biological status. But it is unreasonable for the transgendered individual to expect that others—for whom any such disjunction between biology and identity is entirely foreign—do the same and recognize him as a female. His sexual self-identification is an individual matter, but his biological sexuality is a public one, and others have a right to respond to what they can see and hear. His perspective is legitimate, but theirs is no less so. Both express equal but ultimately incommensurable frameworks of identity. He is on the losing end of this conflict, not because of prejudice, but because of a utilitarian calculus resting on 1) a social consensus that the sexes should be provided with separate restrooms, 2) the fact that he is in the minority and 3) the fact that the resources that can be expended on public restrooms are finite. Someone is going to be made to feel uncomfortable, and it is the greatest good of the greatest number that determines who this will be.

* The Bobos understand themselves as enacting internally-imposed codes rather than heteronomously submitting to external ones. Unlike evangelical Christians, they do not accept that sexuality exists to serve God’s transcendent purposes. Nevertheless, Bobo sex “can’t be just a fun thing between the sheets” but must also be “a profound thing between the ears,” must be something “safe, responsible, and socially constructive.” And the result is that the “most animalistic activities are now enshrouded with guidebooks, how-to videos, and magazine articles written by people with advanced degrees.”163 The Bobos aren’t ultimately any more libertarian than evangelical Christians. The difference is that their sexual strictures originate in a more thorough internalization of the buffered identity, which creates its own compulsions. For what was formerly understood as the transcendent purpose of sex has become compressed into sexuality itself, rendering it compulsively purposive.

* Central to this effort is feminism’s celebration of casual, meaningless sex. This kind of sex, observes Graglia, is fully compatible with women’s participation in the market. By contrast, “the meaningful sex that overwhelms, that transforms” threatens to make domestic roles more appealing to women.106 Feminists therefore sought to strip sexuality of any higher metaphysical meaning, reducing sexual intercourse to “the physical assuaging of a genital itch.”107 While feminism represented itself as liberating women from antiquated sexual ideologies that subordinate them to patriarchy, it was in fact instituting a new sexual ideology the purpose of which was to subordinate women to feminism itself. And this new ideology has served reconfigure gender relations in a way that socially corroborates the feminist worldview. Women could never have been drawn into the feminist fold were they not first deracinated of their femininity, which is what feminism has always endeavored to promote. By cultivating a dissatisfaction that it would then promise to relieve, feminism turned itself into a self-fulfilling prophesy, concealing all the machinations that have gone into generating the perception of feminism as obviously enlightened and liberating.

“Today, well-educated professional women, who are embarrassed to defend the unsophisticated concepts of virginity and chastity, are less competent to control men’s sexual advances than high school girls were in the 1940s. One result is the invention of concepts like “date rape” and an expansive law of sexual harassment in an attempt to provide the protection for women against seduction they once felt completely confident in securing for themselves with a graceful—and, we sometimes thought, even elegant—refusal.”

Whereas feminism interprets date rape and sexual harassment as lingering remnants of a patriarchy that was once unresisted and unabashed, Graglia sees these as the side-effects of feminist victories, which are now being exploited to secure further such victories. For the helplessness that some women may feel before male sexual imperiousness is the natural consequence of the erosion of traditional values at the hands of feminism. In reducing sex to the “physical assuaging of a genital itch,” feminism deprived women of any basis for refusing sex beyond bare disinclination. Not being grounded in transcendent values as are chastity and virginity, that disinclination cannot but seem arbitrary, something that might be overcome through male persistence. Liberals would ground the refusal of sex in autonomous choice. But autonomous choices can change and be changed by other people. And so feminism must plunge many women into perpetual sexual confusion and ambivalence, further inviting the male persistence for which expansive definitions of rape and sexual harassment are then offered as solutions. If there is a “rape culture,” this is a social construction of feminism itself, the natural consequence of the psychic conflicts that it necessarily inculcates. Having eviscerated the social understandings that would allow women to refuse sex confidently, feminism then represents the ambivalence and confusion that ensues as the subtle, psychologically coercive machinations of omnipresent patriarchal power, thus further galvanizing feminist consciousness and the desire for a far-off utopia in which genuine female agency will for the first time be conceivable. Only then will women finally rest assured that their ostensible desires are truly their own, and feminism holds itself out as the only path to this transformed world and state of being. But this never ending journey has in fact been necessitated by feminism itself, which has deprived many women of any other sources of human meaning. Here as elsewhere, the critical theory of the Right tells us that the dominant dispensation has succeeded in creating the conditions for its own social vindication, conditions under which it can recast its effects as its rational justification.

* feminism that molded women into the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity, repressing the “lax and disorganized folkways” of traditional femininity, integrating them into the extended chains of social interdependency presupposed by the buffered distance and implicitly acknowledged by the career-minded woman.

* The disenchantment of sexuality by feminism was, just like the disenchantment of the world generally, promoted in order to cultivate a disciplined and productive citizenry. For this is what the career woman exalted by feminism symbolizes, the milquetoast technocratic egalitarianism of the liberal culture, in whose service every last vestige of traditionalist sentiment must be uprooted. If feminism originated in the imperiousness of elite cadres bent on stigmatizing the housewife, this is just part and parcel of the civilizing process, whose norms always spread outward from elite circles through the badgering, bullying, and scolding of the unwashed masses, whose capitulation will then be paraded as liberation. Whereas liberals locate the meaning of feminism in the supersession of certain historic inequalities and the prejudices that sustained them, conservatives locate it in the disciplines and repressions of the buffered identity, for which feminism is a vehicle. And this is why they refuse to accept feminism at face value, why they believe that “women’s equality” describes feminism in “innocently thin terms.”

* Just as homophobia may be driven by an inner conflict with one’s own homosexual inclinations, which are disingenuously externalized and then opposed as an alien force, so the anti-religious hostility of liberals arises out of the buffered self’s need to deny its own underlying porousness—which anti-religious hostility allows it to project onto conservatives.

* If the counterculture of the Left called for sexual liberation, so the counterculture of the Right now calls for teleological liberation, for the right to relate to the world in a pre-modern fashion without legal penalty or social stigma. For those standing outside the disciplines and repressions of the buffered identity, secular liberalism is necessarily experienced as a narrow-minded Puritanism that maliciously targets our natural impulses toward teleological thought and feeling.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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