E. Belfort Bax

Sexual Ethical Twaddle

(June 1899)

E. Belfort Bax, Sexual Ethical Twaddle, Social Democrat, June 1899, pp.165-68.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are every day reminded of the vitality of survivals in habits of thought no less than in ways of life. With the insidiousness of black-beetles in an old house they return again and again to the charge after you think you have finally routed them out. What I have elsewhere termed the “ethics of introspection” as opposed to the ethics of social utility seems to have a most astonishing vitality. Now the ethics of introspection finds its sanction in some traditional sentiment, or mayhap in some catch phrase, or abstract formula, which has probably had a meaning once, but which has degenerated into a “canting motto.” The ethics of social utility, on the other hand, finds its sanction solely in the definite and obvious demands of the welfare of the social body, and recognises the greatest possible free play of the individual in all matters not directly conflicting with social interests as a whole. The object of the introspective ethics is to erect asceticism into a standard of conduct. Though it will equally attack any of the wants of the flesh, its special and favourite hunting ground has always been the sexual impulse. Here it takes the most specious forms calculated to deceive the very elect. We must not, however, be taken in by the sweet reasonableness it may assume. Let us remember that we have to do with a Melusina – that the fair-looking exterior is but a metamorphosed serpent – the old serpent, asceticism, the subtle enemy of human rights, father of hypocrisy, and of every violation of nature – the accursed thing which to recognise should be to strike down.

The latest illustration of the vitality of introspectivism and of the virulent character of the ascetic virus which usually accompanies it is to be found in the article of our friend Rothstein in last month’s Social-Democrat on the Ethics of Sex Relationship. Rothstein, I believe, is of Russian nationality, so possibly the Bacillus Tolstoianus may have played its part in bringing him to the ethical condition in which we find him.

Now the touchstone of the ethics of Socialism is that the “ought,” though necessarily concerned with motive, as opposed to mere outward act, is none the less only concerned with it in so far as its object is definitely social and not where its subject-matter merely concerns individual taste. The latter belongs not to ethics, but to aesthetics. These two standpoints Rothstein seems to us to confound. This, however, for the present, by the way.

Believers in the old theological sanctions have no difficulty in finding justification for asceticism. Those, however, who, having abandoned the old ethics of supernaturalism, still possess a hankering after an ascetic ideal, are driven to forage about for a new justification which has a semblance of being based on rational considerations. I say a semblance, since at bottom these considerations are not one whit more rational. Thus, about a year ago a pseudonymous writer in the Neue Zeit put forward the thesis that the sexual act was “wrong,” “degrading,” “a prostitution of woman,” and I don’t know what all else, when not followed – or at least not engaged in with the object of being followed – by offspring! Now, if he had been in a position to inform us that God Almighty, Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin, the angel Gabriel, or other personages we in divers times and places have been taught to love and reverence, had miraculously revealed this ethical dogma to him his position would at least have been intelligible. He made no pretensions of this sort, however, so what remained was this pseudonymous gentleman’s assurance – his ipse dixit – that it was so, “even as he had said.” (After having been considerably “sat upon” by repliers, I am bound to say that in his rejoinder he considerably hauled down his flag.) Similarly with our friend Rothstein. After giving a sufficiently good general sketch of the development of the sexual instinct, he concludes with the thesis that in its highest developments in man it is bound up with a complexity of psychological states “which is covered by the term love.” This is all right. But now comes the extraordinary non-sequitur of the article. Obviously no one objects to the high idyllic sentiment which from the context is clearly what the writer understands by the “complexity of states” termed love. This may always remain the highest ideal of sex-relationship. And I have yet to learn of any “fin de siècle morality” which “ bids us divest ourselves of a [this] most important element of our spiritual nature.” If there be such, it must be so rare and sporadic a development of “degeneracy” as not to be worth serious consideration.

But here, as just said, comes in the extraordinary logical gymnastic of friend Rothstein. From the above unimpeachable propositions, to which we can all subscribe, he draws the astounding conclusion that love (in his sense) “alone can supply the necessary ethical sanction,” etc., for sexual connection. Now, how by any ordinary rational method he has succeeded in reaching this result I submit is enough to puzzle the celebrated lawyer of Philadelphia, I for one am fain driven to the hypothesis that he has been interviewing the angel Gabriel or some other distinguished character from above as to the sexually right and wrong. The sexual act viewed on mundane principles, like any other animal function, per se belongs to the domain of aesthetics not of ethics at all. In order to be brought within the sphere of ethics it must be connected in some way with a distinct social relation outside the persons immediately concerned. Otherwise it is what Mill would have called “a self-regarding action.” We all admit that the idyllic love sexual relation is the most beautiful. But according to Rothstein’s own showing there are a number of persons who, from temperament or circumstances, are condemned, to remain outside it. All these poor creatures whose “complexity of states of the psychological order ... covered by the term love” do not reach the Rothsteinian sixth-form standard with respect to each other are to be sent away howling into the wilderness. This is clear, since, in spite of his talk, about “Love in its manifold manifestations,” Rothstein rules out mutual consent, which to most of us would cover one of the most common “manifestations” of love. No, what he wants is love à la Senta and the Flying Dutchman – the ich bin die dich durch ihre Heil erlöse sort of thing. Now, I should much like to know the percentage of married couples in England, who, supposing “the great white throne” were set, the books were opened, and Rothstein acting as heavenly attorney-general, would not quail before his searching eye as he rose to indict their morality on the principles of his “ethics of sexual relationship.”

No one is more alive to the fact than myself that the idyllic love of the poets exists. But it is a rare exception, and will, so far as we can see, remain so for a very long time to come. To require of a man, to whom circumstances have not granted this idyllic love, sexual abstention, is about as reasonable as to require him to stop breathing in the courts and alleys of Whitechapel, where he cannot obtain good air, or to tell him that since he cannot get the highest class of French cookery his “clear line of conduct” ethically is to abstain from eating altogether. For even in the affairs of the stomach there is a higher and a lower, just as in those of other organs. And more by token this higher and lower has its influence on character. Feeding on “cagmag,” London “fried fish,” or such-like abominations, under the filthy conditions that prevail, future ages will probably recognise to have defiled the men of to-day as much as what is deemed the most degraded form of sexual indulgence has ever done. The influence of food and drink (apart, of course, from the well-worn subject of excess in alcohol) has been far too much neglected as a factor in the making or marring of character. There is a sentiment in cookery as well as in love.

Let our friend Rothstein beware. He wants to be an angel, and with the angels sing. That is all right. But then he should not wish to force his neighbours to be angels also, and to make them sing too whether they want to or not. The illogical attempt to take back under the name duty what he has conceded under the name right will not help Rothstein, since no clear ethical thinker will admit that it can be a duty to forego any right, as a matter of principle (although, of course, there may be special occasions on which, for exceptional and clearly-defined reasons, it may be a duty to do so). No, no, comrade Rothstein, the attempt to force the angelic wings on unwilling recipients has been tried too long and too often throughout history, and has uniformly resulted in failure, asceticism (i.e., a false introspective view of duty), has invariably proved the parent of hypocrisy and corruption. Socialistic morality must once for all break with it. Our watch-word must be, “Let us be natural!” If we are destined to become angels the wings will grow in their own good time. Surely ever so small a growth of true and genuine angels’ wing is of more worth than any amount of the great flapping stage-property wing with which Asceticism would adorn us. Applying what is here said to sexual ethics, what results do we obtain? Clearly these: – (1) Every human being has a complete ethical right to the physical exercise of his or her sexual instincts apart from anything else whatever. This moral right is per se “full round and orbicular” (as Hyndman would say). (2) It is also the duty of every human being to exercise this faculty in proportion to the needs of his or her physical constitution in order to ensure a healthiness of mind and body. (3) The ideal of sexual exercise may be that it take place under the conditions of the “love” of the idyllic poet. But the most usual condition, and for most men and women a highly satisfactory one, is what Rothstein terms “mutual consent” (be the marriage “free” or “legal”), which may also develop into the idyllic love in time or leastways into a very good imitation of it. The third condition mentioned by Rothstein – prostitution – must be regarded as a pis aller of capitalistic society, a deplorable necessity sometimes within the limits of that society, but in all cases the most undesirable form of sexual relation – though, perhaps, intrinsically not worse than the marriage for money.

It is necessary to come back from heaven to earth in sexual matters, to recognise that the “physical basis” has its own concrete rights apart from aught else. By all means seek the highest form of sexual relationship, but let us recognise the ethical right of every man – that he is not immoral – when, if he cannot have what he likes in this connection he makes himself content with what he has.

As to the “pure-minded man and woman” (a cold-blooded human entity unfortunately oftentimes apt to degenerate into the insufferable prig), he or she has a good deal to learn and will have to be educated. First of all, he or she will have to be taught to clear his or her mind of cant, sexual as well as other, to recognise differences of constitution as each having its own ethical justification. He or she will have to be further taught that it is wrong to hate those who differ from us sexually (as in other matters). Let me adjure comrade Rothstein to take in hand the pure-minded men and women of his acquaintance in this sense, lest a worse thing happen. For if the “pure-minded man and woman” be allowed to rampage too much in their wild state, the average sexually-minded man and woman may eventually rise in riotous revolt, calling for “three cheers for the ‘burning stain’” – and think what a shocking thing that would be!


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 31.3.2005