Who's trying to tell me what to do?

I like sexual freedom. I think that arises out of the fact that I don't like being told what to do. Being told what to do sucks, especially when people are trying to tell you what to do in the most personal area of your life.

Americans have a long history of hating being told what to do. It crosses the political spectrum as well as the cultural spectrum. I recently watched a documentary about Frank Lucas, the famous heroin-dealer of "American Gangster" fame, who is out of prison and interviewed in his old age. I was almost moved to tears when at one point he said that he just couldn't stand it when people tried to "tell me what to do." There was so much tragedy in that statement. Tragedy in the sense that anything can be so right and yet so wrong at the same time.

Frank Lucas is not alone. No one likes being told what to do. It's against our nature as free human beings, as Americans. I don't care whether you're a country music star like Van Zant. Or a rap star named "nas"

no one can tell me what to do. None of the black leaders, none of these motherfuckers, record companies, none of them can tell me what to do. Because you can't stop what I want to do, you understand?
Or a Nobel Prize winner like Linus Pauling:
"I don't like anybody to tell me what to do or to think, except Mrs. Pauling."
Or just a teenager trying to grow up, defying those who will not let you.

But it's tragic because not wanting to be told what to do can be a major distraction from life. Many of the mistakes I have made were a direct result of decisions I took based on the principle of not wanting anyone to tell me what to do.

In terms of politics, telling people what to do with their lives is authoritarianism. For some reason, "liberals" have a penchant for saying that "conservatives" are "authoritarian," and have said it so often and for so long that a lot of people just accept it as an article of faith. It is one of those big lies of politics, and you don't have to be much of a student of history to see not only that big government is primarily a left wing creation, but that the horrors of left wing authoritarianism far exceed anything perpetrated by the right.

Back to sexual freedom. There is a another common misconception that the left is "for" sexual freedom, and the right is "against" it. That's because the left loves to scream as loudly as possible that they're for it, and that the right is against it. Sometimes I fall into this stereotypical thinking myself, against my better judgment.

Glenn Reynolds linked a piece by Mark Steyn which reminded me that things are never as clear as they seem. The gist of Steyn's argument was this:

We've never had more personal sexual liberty. And less freedom of almost every other kind.
Steyn is absolutely right that we have less freedom of any other kind, but is there really more personal sexual freedom than before? I don't mean to disagree with Steyn here, because not only do I greatly respect him, but I think I understand the point he is making, although I'm not sure that personal sexual liberty is the same thing as sexual freedom in that more important sense of being free from being told what to do.

To understand this, I think it's important not to conflate government-granted sexual liberty and personal sexual freedom. If liberty is not the same as freedom, then neither would sexual liberty be the same thing as sexual freedom. Just as a slave who has been given liberty is not the same thing as a slave who has been given freedom, sexual liberty is more analogous to a sort of grant of license, usually by the government. It is not true sexual freedom. Being at liberty to do something is not the same as being free, because conditions can be attached to liberty, whereas freedom is a state of being.

A totalitarian state might grant citizens the right to have sex with each other in any number of ways, subject to government and social approval or disapproval, but this would not constitute sexual freedom. Being given a government approved course on masturbation along with a manual illustrating various techniques, while seemingly tolerant, and seemingly supportive of sexual liberty, is actually less free than simply being left alone. Yet many people, given the manuals and training, and told that they have the government's permission to masturbate, might be dumb enough imagine that the government has actually "given" them something.

[We're the ever so tolerant liberal government, and we have a condom for your banana that the authoritarian right does not want you to have!]

I have long believed that at heart, the so-called sexually tolerant left is at least as sexually intolerant as the even the sexually intolerant right, and maybe even more so.

A study Glenn Reynolds links which shows a higher teen pregnancy rate in more religious areas of the country provides a classic illustration. Headlined "Teen birth rates highest in most religious states -- Link may be due to communities frowning on contraception, researchers say", the study focuses on attitudes about contraception:

U.S. states whose residents have more conservative religious beliefs on average tend to have higher rates of teenagers giving birth, a new study suggests.

The relationship could be due to the fact that communities with such religious beliefs (a literal interpretation of the Bible, for instance) may frown upon contraception, researchers say. If that same culture isn't successfully discouraging teen sex, the pregnancy and birth rates rise.

Mississippi topped the list for conservative religious beliefs and teen birth rates, according to the study results, which will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of the journal Reproductive Health. (See chart below.)

However, the results don't say anything about cause and effect, though study researcher Joseph Strayhorn of Drexel University College of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh offers a speculation of the most probable explanation: "We conjecture that religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging the use of contraception among their teenagers than they are in discouraging sexual intercourse itself."

While there's plenty of discussion of the anti-contraception mentality, quite intriguingly, there is no mention of the anti-conception mentality. This certainly exists, and I think it is a major reason so many people in the Northeast and the West Coast recoiled in horror over the idea of a vice presidential candidate who cranked out babies and then returned to her job. You don't have to be a scientific expert conducting a study to know that having babies is frowned on in many liberal circles in much the same way that having an abortion is frowned on in conservative circles. These two opposing cultures simply do not react to "teen pregnancy" the same way. What might be an unforgivable horror to a Northern liberal parent might be a forgivable problem to Southern conservative.

Of course, as a way of lessening the horror, an abortion would be insisted upon by the liberal Northern parents. But that "solution" would be no solution at all to the Southern counterpart; it would be seen as a greater horror.

We all know that the question of whether pregnancy is a greater horror than an abortion touches on religion, but I don't think the religious issue involves solely the morality of abortion, or of contraception. The teen pregnancy study notes that religion may play a role, and while I think it does, I find myself wondering whether even that follows the standard narrative about religious people. Sure, if a girl gets pregnant, the religious view is that she sinned. But it was the extramarital sex that was the sin, not the pregnancy. Few devoutly religious people would punish the fetus for its mother's sin by aborting it. They might put it up for adoption, they might raise it, but by contrast, in the liberal home the most likely result would be an abortion.

As to having the child, that would be considered an absolute disgrace in many liberal homes. The expression the parents would use is "It will ruin your life to have an unwanted child!" Whether the girl wanted it would be irrelevant. There is a very unforgiving attitude where it comes to having a baby, and there is no religion to fall back on.

Despite my endless frustrations with politics, I'm endlessly intrigued by contradictions, and one of the reasons is because I believe that the more fearlessly contradictions are examined, the more the process leads to something resembling honesty. And I see a major contradiction where it comes to the issue of forgiving, which may touch on why the teen pregnancy rate is higher in religious homes.

You don't have to be religious to recognize that a forgivable error (a religious sin) is easier to live with than an unforgivable error (a non-religious sin). If a girl is told she has sinned, is not as hard on her as being told she has ruined her life. With the exception of certain harsh Calvinistic doctrines, most Christianity is noted for its ability to forgive, and many would argue that this goes to the very heart of Christianity itself. Take away the mechanism of forgiveness, and life gets a lot tougher.

The bottom line is that it would not surprise me to find that having a baby in a home where such a thing is an unforgivable sin would be a lot harder than having a baby in a home where the sex that led to the baby is a forgivable sin, and having the baby is not a sin at all.

Where does this leave someone like me who believes in sexual freedom? How is it "freedom" to tell people they shouldn't have children? We all hear about the cruelty inflicted on young gays by parents who try to tell them they can't be gay, and while I realize many liberal parents might support the right of their son to be gay, many of them would also absolutely freak out over their daughter having a baby, as if that was "worse." The visceral liberal fear of Sarah Palin having babies reminded me of the way some religious conservatives might have acted had a Democrats nominated a gay man to run for the vice presidency.

Isn't telling people not to have children is at least as oppressive as telling them that they should not prevent themselves from having children?

Isn't telling a girl she has to have an abortion at least as oppressive as telling her she has to bear a child?

So who has more sexual freedom? The girl in the uptight religious South? Or the girl in the cool, sexually liberated North? The answer is not as obvious as it might seem, and I think we are influenced by unquestioned cultural memes.

To carry this a step further, let's look at the nature of the relative "sin" involved. (I use the term loosely, for I realize that you have to be religious to recognize a true sin, but in both cases we are talking about morality.) In the religious home, the sin is having the sex that led to the pregnancy, whereas in the non-religious home the sin is not so much in having the sex but in allowing conception to occur. What is going on? It's as if when these two "sides" discuss teen pregnancy they are not talking about the same thing at all. Why not? Doesn't sexual freedom include what feminists call "reproductive freedom" -- which means the right to have children? (I'm assuming the term means what it says and is not code language meaning only the right to prevent pregnancy with contraception and abortion.) So why would one "side" think the sex is wrong but not the babies, while the other side thinks the babies are wrong but not the sex? If it's OK for teens to screw, then why is having babies being stigmatized?

And what about these mindless slogans?

There is nothing more tragic than an unwanted baby!


An unwanted child will ruin your life!

I'm sure that there are religious conservatives who would say,
There is nothing more tragic than an abortion!


Becoming gay will ruin your life!

But who decides what is tragic and what is wanted or unwanted?

I don't know how related this is, but I couldn't help noticing that both on the East Coast and in California, there's a growing antipathy to dogs having puppies -- to the point where laws are being passed right and left making un-neutered dogs illegal. Is it a coincidence that in the South where girls are allowed to have children, more dogs are also allowed to have puppies? And we say that the South is more uptight, less sexually liberated. What is "liberated" about a culture that regards people who breed dogs as akin to child molesters?

Anyway, I see many contradictions, and I am not inclined to make sweeping pronouncements about how conservatives hate sexual freedom more than liberals. It simply isn't true. Depending on how sexual freedom is defined, the opposite might be the case.

Who devotes more time these days to telling people what to do? I'm not just talking about been told to fix my dog. How about telling people -- and I mean adult American citizens -- that they cannot have sex with each other if one of them is a professional and the other a client. Or if one of them is a massage therapist. Or even a lawyer. Who created and facilitated the lynch mob mentality behind the false rape charges at Duke University, and more recently Hofstra? (And so many other places that many college students are afraid that having sex at all can open them up to rape charges.) What about the increasing trend to criminalize drunken sex? And how about the public outing of gays in the hope of ruining their careers?

Despite the chatter about conservative sexual uptightness, I don't see too many conservatives behind these things.

The idea that sexual authoritarianism is right wing may be the popular narrative, but it's another canard. It's amazing how many narrative turn out to be a canards if you take the time to look at them.

posted by Eric on 09.18.09 at 04:57 PM


What "everybody knows" is always wrong.

But I like your stream of consciousness way of saying it.

Veeshir   ·  September 18, 2009 6:36 PM

Wow, I'm glad you saw it as a stream of consciousness. It didn't feel that way when I was writing it.

(More like pulling my own teeth.)

Eric Scheie   ·  September 19, 2009 9:20 AM

I agree with your basic analysis and people who know how to read sciencey statistics tell me that income levels and abortion rates were "controlled" for in this study, but race was not considered.

Since those "religious" states were mostly in the south with high populations of blacks, perhaps it should have been.

Yet, blacks are generally quite religious, possibly more so than their white neighbors.

Anyway, if you haven't seen it already, there's a link to the full study pdf near the bottom of this page:


Myself, I'm not quite sure what to think about it. I used every argument and tactic I could think of to keep my daughters from conceiving before they finished college and married.

Now that my youngest has been out of grad school for two years, married for five, and still hasn't reproduced, I'm beginning to think I did that job too well.

Donna B.   ·  September 19, 2009 6:30 PM

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