Are moderns less moral?
By Greg Spearritt
The trend in world politics might suggest we’re all off to hell in a handcart. Many folks, however – and not least among these are some who self-describe as ‘religious’ – take the view that right here at home the handcart has been gathering speed for many years. The cause? Moral decline in Australian society. 1.
I want to take issue with that view, at least with respect to the topic of sex.
Without a doubt, what is morally acceptable in terms of sex and sexual behaviour has been changing furiously over the last 50 years. Mostly, though, I would say, for the better.
Let’s consider some of the ‘signature’ issues.
I remember someone telling me about a sex-education booklet they’d come across in the 1960s which began with the words: “You may have noticed, between your legs…”.
Talk about sex was so hedged about in those days it’s a wonder anyone came out of sex education classes knowing what caused pregnancies. The 60s may have been the era of free love, but as a 60s child in a small Queensland town I suspect the efforts of my parents and the sex ed sessions I attended in Grade 6 merely raised me from ‘clueless’ to the lofty heights of ‘almost clueless’.
Teachers today who take early childhood classes continue to face the ever-present fear that some unsuspecting child will ask where they came from. But things have changed. A tale I heard, possibly apocryphal but definitely plausible, tells of the contemporary six-year-old girl who asks that very question. When the teacher begins to um and ah the girl immediately says, ”Oh, never mind, I’ll just google it.”
These days we have, arguably, too much information. To be sure, there’s also plenty of misinformation, but on the topic of sex that was always the case. Just because your best friend or big brother claimed to know what was what in the 60s, that was no guarantee what they said had any actual basis in fact. (Usually it didn’t.)
Masturbation is notorious in our history as a source of insanity, blindness and moral decrepitude. None other than the New England Journal of Medicine in 1835 declared that
No cause is more influential in producing Insanity, and, in a special manner, perpetuating the disease, than Masturbation… [T]he victim of Masturbation passes from one degree of imbecility to another, till all the powers of the system, mental, physical and moral, are blotted out forever! 2.
That attitude was still well reflected in the 1970s in the little devotional booklet I received upon my confirmation at the tender age of 12. It was pretty much just ‘avoid at all costs’ (though to be fair, that was probably for fear of my mortal soul rather than mere insanity).
Received wisdom in those days if you got sunburnt was to stand under the hottest shower you could stand. Now we treat sunburn with cool water and ice packs. Attitudes to masturbation have done a U-turn as well. Turns out it’s genuinely good for you and ought to be encouraged! Now we read about ’10 Reasons to make masturbation part of your wellness routine’. 3. (Don’t know what they are? Google it!).
A real sign of the times for me is the fact that of all the clergy I know, and I know a good number, I can think of just one whose children didn’t ‘shack up’ before marriage. In 1977 just 25 percent of all couples had lived together before marrying; now, the ABS tells us, it’s over 80 percent.
The ideal of the virgin on the wedding day (well, the girl anyhow: who ever cared if the boy was?) lives on in the wet dreams of folks like the American evangelical virginity ‘pledgers’. The Onion nailed this nicely in its 1999 article, ‘Horribly Awkward First Sexual Encounter ‘Worth The Wait’ For Christian Newlyweds’. The pledge doesn’t work, by the way – it typically just delays the onset of sexual activity by about 18 months. 4.
But wouldn’t this cohabiting trend be disastrous for the longevity of marriage? It seems not. In the 1970s and 80s the risk of divorce was indeed higher for those who’d cohabited before marrying, but once the incidence of living together passed the 50 percent mark, that declined. It’s now about the same as for couples who don’t cohabit. One analysis suggests the change has to do in part with what is considered normal, that is, it’s about social acceptance.
We know that even in Christian circles marital infidelity is far from uncommon. For the populace as a whole, the Sexual Health Australia website tells us that
Most estimates indicate that around 60% of men and 45% of women are willing to report that an affair has occurred sometime in their marriage and it suggests that 70% of all marriages experience an affair. 5.
70 percent! The figure may not always have been this high, but if so that may reflect the opportunities that social media, mobile phones and the internet offer rather than any great increase in a propensity to ‘stray’.
What is definitely different nowadays is that the issue of monogamy/non-monogamy can be more freely and honestly discussed. The press now commonly runs articles about ‘open marriages’ and polyamory. It’s an issue the churches ought to be dealing with. While it’s certainly possible to have a totally monogamous relationship, the statistics don’t lie: it’s not easy. We’re not evolved for it (or ‘designed’ for it, if you think that way).
At its core, this is an issue about ethics and honesty. If two adults in a relationship (married or not) respect each other enough to be honest about their desires and agree that non-monogamy is ok – provided they agree on the ground rules – where is the problem? It’s far more preferable, in my view, to the dishonesty of affairs.
This will be a controversial view. It will be objected that it’s likely to be unsustainable, that one party or another will grow jealous or someone will fall in love with another person, and that is indeed a risk. But it’s a risk in apparently monogamous marriages too. And love, the kind you have for a long-term partner, is not infatuation: it’s a decision and a commitment which requires work to be sustained. 6.
Gone are the days when Russ Hinze could tell reporters there’s no prostitution in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley while a crane hoists a spa bath into Bubbles Bath House behind him. The oldest profession isn’t going away, but the good news is it’s now legal and regulated, albeit sometimes poorly, in Australia. That means more respect and security for the women involved as well as better sexual health for both sex workers and their clients. 7.
We’re almost there. Gay marriage is now legal, despite the best efforts of Toowoomba’s David van Gend of the Australian Marriage Forum and his friends at the ACL to deny a basic human right arising from people’s sexual orientation. It goes without saying that morality has much improved on this general issue in recent decades, to the extent that we now have politicians and even the Pope apologising for past policies which saw LGBTI people treated as criminals.
It is decidedly unfortunate that pornography is now ubiquitous, and that it constitutes a significant part of sex education for many children. By all accounts it’s an industry where exploitation is commonplace, though it may be that there is some overstatement on this point.
Of course, there’s a great deal in the mainstream press – magazines and TV especially – that would have been considered pornographic not so long ago (and perhaps should still be). TV shows like 2017’s Undressed, for example, asks contestants who meet each other for the first time to strip to their underwear and spend half an hour in bed. Then of course there’s the Fifty Shades phenomenon.
Having porn closer to the mainstream of Australian life can’t necessarily be considered a moral advance. There is, however, the rise of porn that is touted as ‘ethical’ – the Australian site BrightDesire.com, for example (“Female-owned and operated”; ”we collaborate with our performers, pay them properly and treat them with respect”).
Of the 3,000-odd Catholic priests in Australia, one in 20 has been charged with child sexual abuse offences. It can only be a good thing that our overblown and unwarranted respect for authority has crashed over the last 50 years: the harm that so many ‘upstanding’ and ‘respectable’ members of society have done to children (and others) is astonishing. Outing the problem and providing strategies to reduce it is a great moral advance.
None of this is intended to trivialise the very real potential for harm inherent in many of these issues. On balance, though, I would argue we’re in a substantially better place than we were in the white-picket heyday of morality. A moral decline? No sir. Not perfection, but at the very least it could be called a moral incline.
- There’s good recent evidence that moral standards are not, in fact, declining – see ‘The illusion of moral decline’ (Nature, 7 June 2023)
- An excellent article addressing this topic is ‘On Being The Only Ones’ by philosophers C.S.I. Jenkins and Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa (https://tinyurl.com/z6flk7w); see also ‘I Have Multiple Loves’ by Carrie Jenkins (http://www.chronicle.com/article/I-Have-Multiple-Loves-/239077).
- Queensland has finally entered the 21st century with reforms to its prostitution laws. Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia are still behind the times.
Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA articles are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.