A new morality: child death and suffering is the price we must pay for sexual freedom?

I just heard Andrew Marr’s BBC program “Start the week”, broadcast from the Charleston Festival which is celebrating the Bloomsbury Group. This was a group of artists and intellectuals–including, for example, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes–(in)famous both for their enormously influential intellectual output, and also for their complex polyamorous sexual relationships.

It was interesting (and tragic) to hear these statements at the end of the program (I’ve removed the repetitions, the “ums” and “kind ofs”, etc. to make the written quotations a bit clearer, but apart from that I’m quoting verbatim):

Grayson Perry: What strikes me about all these conversations about sex … I always think about the children in these situations. We talk about the women being victims, but of course, always the children seem to fall out of this thing, and of course, then they’re left with the emotional schrapnel from these “sexual revolutions”. They’re the people that end up in emotional hospital after this thing. And I think if you had a child in charge of sexual mores, I wonder what they would say.

Janice Galloway: They ended up in more than emotional hospital. Very wonderingly at the moment, I’m researching a lot of sex in the eighteenth century for a book that I’m just about to write. And that was when they opened the foundling hospitals. And there was a door. You could bring a baby to a door, put it in, turn the door round, and the baby went through to the other side. And if it survived till morning, someone would pick it up and look after it to a certain extent. The mortality rate in these places was, I think, one in four. Small children got the brunt. Small children always do, but then it’s been that way right through history.

Other participants (not announced): I’m very interested in this point Grayson is making about children. I’m thinking of somebody like Rousseau, the great proclaimer of “freedom” and “nature”. His children were just packed off to some kind of home.

He sent them to a foundling hospital.

Do we know what happened to them?

No we don’t, and nor did he. It is the flipside of sexual freedom and modern ways of living and thinking that many people get hurt, standards are never equal, but that’s what we grapple with.

Sometimes these revolutions are pitched as if they’re some kind of “moral good force.” Often, they’re like explosions that are thrown into stable homes. They’re very disruptive for people’s real, ordinary, “normal” lives.

All the Nicholsons and so forth seem to have come out of this kind of explosion rather well. Is that because it was a particularly well-off, wealthy, creative family?

You mean the Bells. No they didn’t all come off well, and actually my aunt Angelica Garnet, who died less than a month ago, who was the illegimate daughter of my grandmother Vanessa Bell and her gay lover, Duncan Grant, suffered appallingly actually, and was obsessed for much of her life with the fallout from her liberated parents’ ideas, who actually kept secrets from her but at the same time felt that it was necessary to go their own sweet way ideologically and have children out of wedlock and all the rest of it. But I want to say, we all mess up. We’re none of us perfect. But if you take a punitive attitude towards people who want to change things and push out boundaries, then I think there’s a certain amount of prurience and hypocrisy going on there.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala: We have to remember all these problems arise in the modern Western world where we think sex is a private matter and for us as individuals to sort out. And I still think that sexual freedom of that kind is better than sexual repression by the state and the church of a kind that used to persist in Western history until the eighteenth century and indeed still exists around the world in many places today.

So, here we have a rather stark expression of a new kind of public morality. According to this new morality, you always have to make a choice between:

  1. Mass death, suffering and ongoing misery for countless children, and
  2. Prudishly imposing limitations on the expression of adults’ sexual desires.

And, according to this new morality, you should always choose the suffering of children over prudishness. Far be it from anyone to suggest that sex is anything other than a private matter. The death and suffering of children is regrettable, of course, but it’s the price we have to pay for our sexual freedom.

It’s hard to imagine that this new morality is not feeding in to the current debates over the redefinition of marriage. We could ask: what kind of horrific child suffering will this new sexual revolution lead to? But according to this morality, that’s just a second-order question. What ultimately matters is not the suffering of children, but that we grown-ups are allowed to do whatever we want.

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