It’s probably just me, a personal quirk, but I can’t seem to write about main characters who take traditional monogamy seriously, or if they do initially they stop sooner or later. Angée in The Star Mages at one point had three lovers, one of whom had three of his own: Angée, another woman, and a man. Falcon and Dolphin became polyamorous as well, although they didn’t start that way. In A Tale of Two Worlds, the same applies.
Polyamory is a back-burner sexual morality issue in our culture (the front-burner issue at the moment is same-sex marriage, of course), but it serves as an illustration of the way we are changing. We’re not becoming an anything-goes, no-rules culture as some might fear, but rather a culture with a new set of rules that we’re still evolving. Strictness is actually increasing in as many areas as it is loosening; we no longer tolerate marital rape, for example, or regard a rape victim’s promiscuity as a defense, and we put up with far less in the way of sexual harassment than we once did. In other areas of sexuality, though, such as homosexuality or having more than one partner, we are loosening the rules, while applying new ones that are more appropriate to our changed circumstances.
It’s interesting to me the way that our evolving sexual morality is finding its way into fantasy fiction. Even when the story is set in a somewhat primitive world as fantasy often is, the writer manages on many occasions either to craft a society with a sexually modern perspective (such as Diane Duane‘s The Door Into Fire and its sequels, in which everyone seems to be bisexual), or to provide a critical view of traditional sexual mores from a foreign culture (often quasi-human) or a particularly insightful and self-willed individual within the main culture (usually female). Of course, contemporary fantasy presents no such difficulties.
This illustrates once more the mythic character of fantasy writing and its connection to spirituality and religion. A fantasy storyteller crafts myth and so crafts religion, well or poorly, but always with touchstones to our own world and time and the ways in which we are ourselves evolving. It’s also the case, whether they like it or not (and many don’t), that religion itself is evolving and changing.
Sexual morality is a powerful component of the changes we are going through. I believe that’s so because sexual morality is strongly connected to two other things that are also changing: reproduction and the status of women.
As we cease to be a warrior culture, as machines do more and more of our grunt work and thus we lose the premium that was once placed on upper-body strength, and (most of all) as the agrarian-age imperative to maximize our birthrates is replaced by a modern-era necessity to control them lest we breed ourselves into extinction, the conditions that once justified and facilitated the subordination of women to men have changed into ones that demand gender equality. That’s especially true when it comes to female sexuality, traditionally under the control of men (so that women would bear more children, whether this was consciously acknowledged or not — often it was), today under the control of women themselves (in part so that they will not bear so many children, again whether this is consciously acknowledged or not — usually it isn’t).
Male control of female sexuality and the promotion of high birth rates underlies all traditional sexual morality. Marriage traditionally was a relationship in which a woman became the property of a man, who had rights both to enjoy her sexual services and (more importantly) to make use of her procreative ones. Homosexuality was discouraged or condemned because same-sex matings produce no offspring. A married woman having sex with another man besides her husband was usually condemned strongly because this violated her husband’s property rights; a man cheating on his wife was not similarly condemned until relatively modern times unless he mated with some other man’s wife and so committed the sexual equivalent of theft.
All of these things are changing today. These changes to sexual morality are part of the larger-context change to our gender status balance and our breeding patterns.
And yet our sexual morality as it evolves into something new isn’t centered around these issues overtly. As usual, it isn’t consciously tied to any principle before the fact, but emerges from feelings, and principles are applied afterward to express or explain where the feelings are coming from. This doesn’t invalidate the principles, however. It’s worth examining what principle ties together increased acceptance of homosexuality, uncommitted sexuality, sex purely for pleasure, and multi-partner committed relationships on the one hand, with increased condemnation of rape, deception or pressuring of someone into sex, pederasty, and sexual harassment on the other. Any such attempt will increase our understanding of who we are and what we are becoming. “Consent” has been suggested as a defining feature, and that comes close, but I would suggest that respect comes closer still.
Respect means treating a person as a person, someone with rights and a will of her or his own. Respect means honoring the rules by which another person chooses to live his her her life, even if they are different from one’s own rules. Respect means accepting absolutely another person’s right to say no — and another person’s right to say yes. We can perhaps reduce the sexual morality into which we are evolving to a single commandment: In all of your sexual relations, you will have respect for one another. It doesn’t matter if you are mating with the opposite sex or with your own (or both). It doesn’t matter if you have a single partner or half a dozen. It doesn’t matter if you do or do not want to create and raise children. But it matters absolutely that you treat others with the respect due to another person, who has every right to make his or her own decisions.
I believe that’s where we are going. The convulsions we are seeing happen because it isn’t all that easy to get there.
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