This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Is public sex ethical?
Be forewarned: This isn't one of those pieces where I gas on about some sexual topic that I already hold a strong opinion about. This is one of those pieces where I gas on about a sexual topic that I haven't figured out yet; where I try to figure out what I think and where I stand by writing about it. So if I get this wrong, please accept my apologies in advance.
My initial reaction to the question I myself am posing is that public sex is at least borderline unethical. I think it creates a troubling situation where consent is concerned: you're making other people be voyeurs in your sex life, when they haven't consented to be. Even if you're in a public place where you hope not to be seen but might well be, where you're trying to be hidden but part of the excitement is the fear of getting caught... I'd say much the same thing. You're deliberately taking the risk of getting caught -- in other words, of forcing other people to be involved in your sex life. This was the essence of my earlier piece about how parents should deal with their kids being sexual and masturbating: I said that you could be a sex-positive parent, and still teach your kids to keep their sexuality private, since not everyone wants to see them masturbate.
But I realize that this is a complex question. And like many complex questions, it's complicated by one simple question: Where do you draw the line?
Not everyone has the same standards of sexual privacy. The standards for what constitutes appropriate public sexual expression, and what constitutes a violation of other people's right to not participate in your sex life, vary tremendously from person to person, and from situation to situation, and from culture to culture. (And, of course, they change over time.)
Examples. You might be fine watching your best friend grope her boyfriend; your English professor might not be. You might be fine watching your best friend grope her boyfriend; you might be less fine watching your father or your sister grope theirs. An outfit that would get you shunned in Salt Lake City might not even raise an eyebrow in Miami... and in some societies, it's considered a grotesque and indeed illegal breach of sexual privacy for women to wear pants. You might reasonably get squicked seeing a couple necking at, say, a law school graduation or an honorary dinner for the retiring president of the company. But at the Folsom Street Fair, if you see someone giving a spanking or a blowjob in broad daylight? In my opinion, you have no right to be upset. If you didn't want to see that, then what were you doing at the Folsom Street Fair?
But I'm not just going to punt this question to "be appropriate for the context." I'm not just going to say that you have to be culturally sensitive and do as the Romans do. I think that's a cop-out. I think cultures that forbid women to wear pants are misogynist and oppressive and fucked up beyond belief, and I will stand by that position firmly and passionately. As a matter of practicality, I'm not going to wear pants in those countries... but as a matter of moral principle, I'm not going to accept that they have the right to make or enforce those laws.
Which leads me to my next point. The stricture against public sex can and does get used as a serious form of political oppression. It gets used to restrain women, to silence queers and other sexual minorities, to censor sexual information. In the bad old days, gays and lesbians could be arrested for public lewdness simply for kissing or holding hands. (In fact, same-sex public displays of affection are still often treated as inherently sexual, when equivalent opposite-sex displays aren't.) Countries that force women to wear burqas are countries that treat women as disgusting fonts of sexual sin and shame. Some people consider the very act of writing about sex for public consumption, or selling books about sex in a public bookstore, to be a breach of public decency, a violation of their right to never have to encounter sexual ideas that they don't approve of. The idea that "you shouldn't express your sexuality in any way that other people find invasive" can all too easily translate as "you shouldn't express your sexuality in any way." Period.
But I still don't like SM couples giving spankings at dinner parties. I still don't like it when people I don't know very well tell me graphic details about their sex lives. (Unless they’re at porn readings, of course, or are writing to me for advice.) I still don't like opening my front door at midnight to take out the garbage, and finding a couple fucking on my front steps. It feels like a violation: like I’m being made to participate in their sex lives, without having been asked.
So what's the difference?
I'm tempted to say that the difference is motivation. Are you being publicly sexual to make a political or artistic point, to point out society's hypocrisies and inconsistencies about sex and to try to shift sexual mores? Or are you just doing it for a forbidden erotic thrill, or because you don't have the patience to get a room? I'm tempted to say that if it's the former, then mazeltov; if it's the latter, then get a room already.
But there's not always a clear, bright line between the two. What if the cultural more you're trying to shift is the one against dry-humping in public for fun? The difference is often in the eye of the beholder: a gay couple passionately kissing at the Pride Parade may see themselves as expressing their pride and their love, and yet may be seen by a homophobic right-winger as deliberately flaunting their sexuality in a flagrant act of exhibitionism and seduction. And I'm not sure it makes much difference anyway. Am I going to be any happier with the couple fucking on my doorstep if I think they're doing it as an act of erotic political rebellion? Not really.
So I'm not sure where I’m going here. It seems like there should be a line, or at least some principle that would help us figure out where that line is under which circumstances. I don't expect that we'd all always agree about how this principle should be applied -- even the clearest ethical principles are complex and have shades of gray in practice -- but at least we could agree on what the principle is.
But uncharacteristically, I'm drawing a blank. I'm starting to wonder if this desire for sexual privacy is one of those deeply-rooted, "hard-wired by millennia of evolution" moral principles that got shoved into our social-animal brains hundreds of thousands of years ago when were living in extended-family tribes. I'm starting to wonder if the desire for sexual privacy is irrational at its core... and that therefore any attempt to find a rational guiding principle behind it is just going to be a back-formation: not a genuine understanding of the core of the principle, but simply an attempt to rationalize a belief that's already in place.
I dunno. I'm coming up blank on this one.