Ernest Belfort Bax

Problems of Mind
and Morals

Chapter IX
The Problem of Sex and Sentiment

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 extirpated them. 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 “ethic 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 ethic 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 led astray 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.

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, two standpoints many persons seem to confound.

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 than the old ones. Thus some years ago a pseudonymous writer put forward the thesis that the sexual act was “wrong,” “degrading,” “a prostitution of woman,” and I do not 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.” I have quoted the above instance not on account of its intrinsic importance, but as an extreme example of the Introspective Ethics as applied to sexual matters. There is a mass of writing and thinking to be found not so logical and hence so obvious in its absurdity as the case quoted, but all tending in the same direction.

Another example of the attempt to smuggle in asceticism under cover of lofty ideals is furnished by a writer on the subject of sexual ethics in a Socialist periodical, also of some few years back. This writer, after giving a sufficiently good general sketch of the development of the sexual instinct, concludes with the thesis that in its highest development 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 what the writer evidently 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 recent development of morality which, as the writer alleges, “bids us divest ourselves of 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 our writer. 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, when I read this, was fain driven to the hypothesis that he had 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 the writer’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 prescribed 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,” our moralist rules out mutual consent, which to most of us would cover one of the most common “manifestations” of love. What he wants is, clearly, love a la Senta and the Flying Dutchman – the ich bin die dick 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 the writer in question 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 than myself to the fact that the idyllic love of the poets exists. But it is an exception, rather than the rule, 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 betoken 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. If my analogy be objected to on the ground that while we cannot live without food we can without sexual satisfaction, I would point out that this is only relatively true, since, as the anchorites and the Hindoo Yogis have taught us, we can do with a very exiguous minimum of food, and, moreover, I have never heard of even partial starvation being advocated by the modern Puritan as sexual abstinence has been and is advocated by the same individual. Again, when it is said we can live without sexual satisfaction, that is also only true very relatively. There are exceptions, I am aware, but for the average man sexual satisfaction is just as essential to a healthy life, i.e. to the mens sana in corpore sano, as food is to bare existence. “Continence” is, for the average man, I do not hesitate to say unconditionally, to be deprecated as directly producing an uncleanly habit of body, usually accompanied by an uncleanly habit of mind, if nothing worse. That the latter is the case has been proved ad nauseam by the history of religious movements. “Continence” may be conducive to a “virtuously” ascetic life, but it certainly does not conduce to a socially ethical life (at least for the vast majority of men). Hence, I can only again repeat that if you choose to seek for an immediate ethical bearing in the sexual act, you must find it in the duty of a man to be natural (for the sake of his health and usefulness in society), and natural in the obvious sense and meaning of the word of living according to his nature.

Our pure and lofty moralist 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 of duty what he has conceded under the name of right will not help him, since no clear ethical thinker will admit that it can be a ‘‘duty” to forego any “right,” i.e. as a matter of principle. (There may be, of course, special occasions on which, for exceptional and clearly defined reasons, it may be a duty to forego for the moment the particular exercise of a right, but never to surrender the right itself as such.) No, no, my worthy friend, 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 watchword 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 angel’s 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.” (2) It is also the duty of every human being to exercise this faculty in pro-portion 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 fairly satisfactory one, is what the writer terms “mutual consent” (be the marriage “free” or “legal”), which may also develop into the idyllic love in time, or, least-ways, into a very good imitation of it. The third condition mentioned by the writer – 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, and to recognise differences of constitution as severally having their own justification. He or she will further have to be taught that it is as wrong to hate those who differ from us sexually as those who differ from us in other matters. Let me adjure our aspiring moralist to take in hand the pure-minded man and woman of his acquaintanceship 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 “old Adam and the old Eve” – and let him think what a shocking thing that would be!

In the foregoing paragraphs I have dealt with an extreme expression of a form of introspective ethics which still lurks consciously or unconsciously in a good many minds and still colours the views of many persons on the subject of the ethical sanction of sex. Other aspects of the problem are here left untouched. I have purposely, in the foregoing, left the question of offspring on one side, in itself, undoubtedly, an ethical problem of deep import, and this for the simple reason that I hold it to be, per se, distinct from the problem of sexual conduct considered as such. There exists a vast mass of sexual intercourse into which the question of off-spring does not enter at all. The two problems, (1) love and sexual intercourse, per se, and (2) the procreation of children, should be clearly distinguished and threshed out apart from one another. After having done this thoroughly, we shall be in a position to consider clearly their mutual bearings. This we certainly are not when we incontinently mix up these two perfectly distinct aspects of the great problem of sex with one another, thereby hopelessly confusing the issues involved. The first is, per se, an aesthetic and personal self-regarding question; the second is pre-eminently an ethical and social question. The recognition of this distinction is for me the primary condition for adequate discussion of the subject. The sexual relation, as such, is a thing of purely personal taste. This is, as yet, not fully recognised. Time was when the notion of toleration in religious belief was unknown, when not merely Catholics but every Protestant sectary thought of nothing else than to impose his own set of dogmas and his own theory of church organisation vi et armis on the rest of the world. Then came the epoch when the doctrine of toleration appeared, and finally gave rise to a mutual resolve that, while each sectary might maintain the belief in the superiority of his own position, it should be regarded as “bad form” to “damn” his neighbour for thinking otherwise – in a word, when the attempt to obtain religious uniformity was abandoned. The world has yet to learn toleration in sexual matters; it has yet to learn that various temperaments must have a latitude of outlook in these things, that, however estimable the current sexual theory of Christendom may be, mechanical monogamy must be definitely abandoned, and freedom of choice, within at least certain limits, granted as just and righteous. The endeavour to enforce sexual uniformity has hitherto been productive of nothing but human misery, and has proved the seed-ground of the worst form of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy which has helped to sap the moral fibre of one generation after another. Whatever else may be natural, that is certainly unnatural, and not merely unnatural, but also in the highest degree immoral. These are thy fruits, oh, misnamed “purity”! When, I ask, will society learn the lesson of toleration in sexual matters as it has even now, as compared with past ages, learnt it as regards intellectual matters?<</p>


Last updated on 15.10.2004