Sex as a Hobby, Perhaps in the Lobby

By Merrill Ring

In the Hobby Lobby case there are larger cultural issues than the those the majority’s decision rested on.

This piece isn’t another analysis of the supremely warped decision in what has come to be called The Hobby Lobby case.  What I’m interested in is what Cultural Conservatives took the case to be about and what they think the decision accomplished.

The best expression of what those people thought was at issue and their praise of the decision come from a major right-wing blogger (Erik Erikson):  in his eyes the decision established that “my religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer subsidized consequence free sex.” There were also friend of the court briefs filed that argued that the Court should rule in favor of Hobby Lobby because it would constitute an impediment to the practice of what they call consequence free sex.  

Note:  there may not be any such thing as ‘consequence free’ sex (or consequence free anything for that matter).  What is hidden behind that phrase is sex without the worry of pregnancy.  Pregnancy, of course, is what contraception is aimed at preventing – to not be able to employ it makes the serious consequence of pregnancy a major problem.

I don’t believe that the Justice Alito’s majority opinion made any reference to what the amicus curiae briefs and the Cultural Conservatives took to be that issue. A concern with consequence free sex is thus not part of the legal issues but expresses a broader cultural theme: how do and should we regard (human) sexual desire and activity?

More narrowly, it is fairly clear that the conservative crowing about the decision is focused upon its presumed effect upon females, on their sexual activities.  Even more narrowly the Cultural Conservatives are referring to unmarried women (and though possibly also adulterous married women) as now having, as a result of the decision, a hobble placed upon their sexual activities.

Of course, the hobble is not, given the claimed restrictions of the decision, as extensively applicable as the Cultural Conservative would like.  But it is satisfying to them because it is at least a tiny victory in their objection to the historical drift in our attitudes to human sexuality.

For what this talk about consequence free sex reveals is that still lurking in the minds of the Cultural Conservatives are the ancient ideas that sex is disgusting, to be indulged in for procreation only, and that women are the tools of the devil in tempting men to have sex outside the bounds of marriage and familial procreation.

But we progressives, social democrats, left liberals, also have our views of the broader cultural theme – we are not just into more narrow economic, political, legal issues.  (There is a long standing joke that American liberals want to win the economic argument but are pulling ahead only on the cultural issues – while the conservatives really want to win the cultural matters but end up on top only the economic issues.)

The ancient ideas still residing the minds of the Cultural Conservatives have long since been rejected.  But in light of the re-appearance of topic of human sexuality in the good life, it is worthwhile for we progressives to remind ourselves of what our thinking on the topic is.  

We have come to see that human beings are a kind of animal (let’s settle for mammal now to avoid all kinds of problems), brought onto earth through evolution.  We are not an agglomeration of a non-earthly psyche or soul hooked for some brief and disturbing period of time to a piece of matter.  

Animals, including ourselves, are generally constituted to have an deep interest in reproduction, in creating future members of their species.  We do this by sex, an activity which is central to our being animals and which consumes lots of our attention.  

One way in which we human beings are different from most if not all other mammals (whether we are unique in this I have no idea, not being a biologist) is that females of the species are sexually receptive even when not capable of becoming pregnant.  This opens the possibility of ‘recreational sex’.  (One of religious bent might even say that that is an activity God thus intended.  By the way, all of this could be located in a religious context:  many progressives are religious and subscribe to these views stated in secular terms here.)

Since sex is central to the kind of being we are and sex for both males and females can take place without aiming at procreation, it follows that sex without the aim of reproduction is natural for the kind of creature that we are.

Of course one of the further differences between ourselves and other animals is that we are capable of creating and do create, maintain and develop a very complex culture (a culture that is so complex that it can lead people to deny that we are animals.)  As sex is a powerful force in animal lives, including our own, the culture we have created has to deal with it.  Ways of dealing with it are highly various but typically include restraints on its expression.  Historically, in our particular culture the chief way that it has been dealt with is by severe constraints on its expression.

These constraints, however, are fading, breaking down.  That is what the conservatives want to stop.  They think of human beings’ sexuality, especially female, as needing to be tightly controlled.

We progressives, however, thinking of people as biological creatures living within a culture, think that it is a good thing to have sex without the possibility of pregnancy.  And whatever devices are invented to further that expression of our humanity are to be appreciated.  And whatever cultural, legal, barriers there are to sexual expression need to be carefully monitored to see that they satisfy only appropriate ends and are not a denial of our nature.

The Hobby Lobby decision is a legal barrier to sexual expression and thus, rather than being welcomed, is something to be overturned for that reason among others.