Will the left turn on sexual freedom?

Why America's moral libertarianism may have peaked

Will the left regress?
(Image credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Remember the libertarian moment?

That was the brief time two summers ago, before Rand Paul began officially running for president, when some journalists convinced themselves that we were about to see the political mainstreaming of a consistently libertarian agenda — not just drastic cuts to taxes and regulations, but also drug legalization, a laissez-faire attitude toward sex, and a foreign policy of restraint. Then Paul announced his bid for president, ran a dud of a campaign, and the libertarian moment seemed to end before it had even begun.

At least until the past week. With the Libertarian Party ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld generating considerable media buzz and setting itself up to serve as a lifeboat for voters fleeing the listing major parties, there's a chance that 2016 could prove to be a libertarian moment after all.

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Or maybe not.

While a ticket featuring two former Republican governors might do a little better in this bizarro general election than candidates for the Libertarian Party typically do, 2016 has actually proven to be a singularly bleak year for libertarian policies both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Western world.

This was a year when passionate attacks on economic libertarianism that were once confined to the academy (where it tends to be denounced as "neoliberalism") spread out into the wider political world and gained a remarkable degree of traction. Bernie Sanders is an anti-libertarian candidate of the left, just as Trump (with his attacks on open borders and promises of protectionism in trade) is one from the right. From France and Denmark to Austria and Hungary, the same anti-libertarian dynamic is playing itself out across the globe.

But more interesting is the question of whether criticism of economic libertarianism will be broadened to encompass the moral libertarianism that both underlies it and inspires the parallel drive toward the liberation of sexuality from moral judgment.

Understood in this wider sense, we've been living through an extended libertarian moment since the early 1960s.

Moral libertarianism presumes that no authority — political, legal, or religious — is competent to pronounce judgment on an individual’s decisions, provided that they don’t negatively effect other people. Thanks to this assumption, a grand edifice of inherited moral and legal strictures on sexuality have crumbled over the past half century, leaving individuals free to live and love as they wish, as long as everyone involved gives their consent.

Religiously traditionalist conservatives have rejected moral libertarianism from the beginning, while losing just about every political and legal battle over its spread. But left-wing dissent has been selective and sporadic. In the 1980s, a subset of feminists (led by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin) made a tactical alliance with Jesse Helms and others on the religious right to fight the spread of pornography, which, in their view, contributed to the degradation and oppression of women. But the mainstream of the women's movement, cognizant of how much sexual liberation has benefited the feminist cause and skeptical about linking up with social conservatives, has resisted taking strong stands against porn and the sexualization of pop culture more generally.

That may be starting to change.

While in recent years there have been some moves toward mainstreaming and decriminalizing prostitution and other forms of "sex work," growing numbers of young women have been working to publicize the prevalence of rape on college campuses and the tendency of university administrators to go easy on the perpetrators. In terms of moral libertarianism, that sounds like a draw, with the former its latest advance and the latter a call to police its boundaries under Title IX.

But the discontent goes deeper. In Jessica Valenti's powerful and disturbing new memoir (excerpted here) and a recent Washington Post symposium on porn, one senses a broader dissatisfaction with the behavior of men in a world lacking norms of sexual restraint — and therefore an impatience with the social and interpersonal costs of unlimited moral libertarianism.

One distinctly un-libertarian response, favored by some participants in the symposium, would be to classify pornography (or at least some forms or uses of it) as a threat to public health. That would place the Department of Health and Human Services (or whichever government agency sought to oversee such regulations) on a collision course with established First Amendment law. The resulting debate would be well worth watching.

But I'm more intrigued by hints of an even more radical response.

In the excerpt of her memoir, Valenti doesn't so much fault law enforcement for failing to keep her safe as highlight the psychological consequences for women of growing up "in a culture that hates them." But of course it's not the "culture" that has repeatedly groped Valenti and exposed itself to her in public places, or masturbated and ejaculated on the back of her jeans while she stood, unaware, in a New York City subway car listening to music on headphones.

Men did those things. And the behavior is obviously already illegal.

If we hope to change that behavior — or break the fixation of tens of millions of American men on internet porn — the response will need to be extra-legal. It will need to be cultural, and moral, and perhaps even religious. It will need to involve notions of intrinsic right and wrong, and norms of propriety, and ideals of human flourishing and degradation, and fixed standards of acceptable and unacceptable male conduct. And all of this will need to be inculcated and reinforced from a very young age — by parents, but also by our culture and society.

Trying to advance that agenda while simultaneously affirming moral libertarianism makes about as much sense as trying to enact Bernie Sanders' economic program while upholding the highest principles and core tenets of neoliberal ideology.

Either we learn to limit our moral libertarianism — or we must resign ourselves to living with the consequences of refusing to do so.

Those are the options. There is no third alternative.

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