The eraser test.

To even the casual observer, it’s obvious that many people promote a sexual ethic from which they once deviated – often in spectacular fashion – when they were younger and exploring their own sexuality.  Yet these people aren’t usually labeled as hypocrites; youthful indiscretions are allowed.

My dictionary defines hypocrisy as “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.”  (American Heritage, 4th ed.) What’s notable here is that hypocrisy is not defined as “professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues from which one has deviated at some point in time.”  So, you aren’t necessarily a hypocrite just because your prior behavior deviates from your present ethical code.

To give an example:  A father with a cigarette habit isn’t a hypocrite if he tells his son not to smoke, so long as he sincerely regrets his own addiction.  And even though the father’s behavior appears to deviate from his own ethical code – That hypocrite smokes two packs a day! – the father’s ethical code actually holds that “smoking is unhealthy, and you shouldn’t risk addiction by beginning to smoke.”  So in this case, the father has issued an ethical proscription that deviates from his own past behavior – putting himself at risk of addiction – but does not deviate from his present behavior – continuing to smoke once addicted.

Of course, some people – say, the chain-smoking father’s teenage son – might still consider the father a hypocrite.  So let’s consider a second example:  A man smokes two packs a day in his teens and twenties, quits when he has children, and now tells his son not to smoke.  Very few people would call that man a hypocrite.  It’s an easy call.

But consider a third example, this time not about cigarettes, but sex:  A man has multiple sexual relations with women in his teens and twenties, then marries and commits to lifelong monogamy, and now tells his son not to have sex before marriage.  Is this man a hypocrite?  I would say yes, he probably is.  But why?  If the men in the first two hypotheticals are not hypocrites for telling their sons not to smoke, why is the man in the third example a hypocrite for telling his son to abstain from sex?

He’s a hypocrite because sexual exploration in youth is different from smoking cigarettes, shoplifting, skipping school, or spray painting graffiti on the side of a building.  Sex is, for most young people, a necessary and healthy part of psychological development.  Youthful sexuality is also, in itself, a beautiful part of life.  And so the abstinence-promoting father would almost certainly fail what I call the eraser test:

“If your prior behavior deviates from your present moral code, you are a hypocrite unless you sincerely regret your prior behavior and would be willing to have all advantages gained from your prior behavior erased from your life.”

The eraser test is especially important when considering hypocrisy in the context of sexual ethics because people who were highly sexual when young and now promulgate heavy restrictions on youthful sexuality are not only issuing ethical proscriptions that deviate from their own past behavior – youthful sexual expression – but are also promoting a sexual ethic that deviates from their present behavior – living with all the advantages accrued from living as a fully sexual person when young.  Now, that last part may seem trivial or a bit of nit-picking, but if it appears that way it’s only because such advantages are often disguised.

At the risk of sounding like a brochure from a sex clinic, I think it’s fair to say that sex lessens anxiety, builds feelings of confidence and trust, and reduces social isolation.  So a young person with a healthy sexuality will be less anxious, more confident, and less isolated than a young person with a repressed sexuality.

But what if a man wishes to disassociate himself from his past sexual behavior because he no longer approves of it?  In such a man’s memory, social connections, intimate knowledge, and self-understanding become unmoored from the sexual energy – now distasteful – that helped him to find these things.  He may have fond memories of love and friendship, and he may have knowledge of his own sexuality, gained through past sexual experiences, which he is now able to bring into a monogamous relationship with his wife to the benefit of the relationship.  Yet for all that, he may believe that these advantages could be easily disentangled from his colorful sexual past, that these advantages could still exist were he to re-live his youth and do so “less colorfully” this time, even though, truth be told, most of these advantages exist because of his colorful past.  But he doesn’t see this, because he chooses not to think too deeply.  Yet he is no less a hypocrite merely because the first person he deceives is himself.  And so to the definition of hypocrisy I would add:  “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues without honestly reflecting on their real-life implications.”  This is a different way to think of it, as hypocrisy is usually thought to stem from cynical, conscious deception.  But the inadvertent or unconscious hypocrisy that stems from lack of honest self-reflection can be just as destructive as the conscious variety, and is particularly pronounced in the sexual realm.

As for the chain smoking fathers at the beginning of this post, they would pass the eraser test with flying colors.

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5 Responses to The eraser test.

  1. humbition says:

    This is a very good post. What it reminds me of is conversations I’ve had with Christian missionaries, and how I understood them from an anthropological perspective.

    People think that the ideas they call patriarchal are (or at least used to be) the overt and open ideas of a society. But in our Victorian and post-Victorian Christian era, sometimes they are hidden under a veneer of different ones. Ask yourself, what is the typical life cycle of a Protestant Christian man?

    I think that a period of sinning in young adulthood is built into the patriarchal Christian life cycle. This is the period that is called sowing one’s wild oats. Then there is the point at which one settles down, and that is when one re-finds Christ or what have you, lives a moral life, and preaches to everyone else to do so. But is a young man ever really expected to live by such preachings? Not according to the covert message hidden in plain sight. Sinning is expected.

    A young man who does not sin, or sow wild oats — is he a full man? But this is not merely masculinism (though of course it is that). I began to fully understand this life cycle precisely from the point of view you describe in your post.

    Men are valued in society for the capabilities they develop under the cover of “sin.” They are asked, nay required, to have a capability for violence (though perhaps less so today in the middle classes), and of course for sexuality. They are also asked and required to control these things in society, when they become fully responsible members thereof.

    Can they develop these capabilities, in youth, and still follow the rules that are idealistically preached to them? Rules are for everyone, but there are winks and nods that are made in the cases of the male young. “Boys,” goes the patriarchal saying, “will be boys.” There always seems to be a time for finding religion — a man who always lives by the rules is not as valued as it would seem he “should” be.

    I have many problems with Christianity, though it inescapably forms part of the culture I come from. But this is a very serious problem I have with it. Christians love the reformed sinner. But sin then reform is a life cycle. Does one make sense without the other? In the (patriarchal) Christian life, is sin really avoided? Or is it required?

  2. John E. says:

    Interesting point – and an interesting contrast to traditional Christianity is the practice of of Rumspringa in what is arguably an even more patriarchal Christian society – the Amish:

    Rumspringa (also Rumschpringe or Rumshpringa, derived from the Pennsylvania German term “Rond Springen” or “running around”) [1][2] generally refers to a period of adolescence for some members of the Amish, a subsect of the Anabaptist Christian movement, that begins around the age of sixteen and ends when a youth chooses baptism within the Amish church or instead leaves the community.[3]:10-11 The vast majority choose baptism and remain in the church.[3]:14 Not all Amish use this term (it does not occur in Hostetler’s extended discussion of adolescence), but in sects that do, Amish elders generally view this as a time for courtship and finding a spouse.[3]:14 Wenger Mennonites youth go through a period of rumspringa between ages 16 and 18. They typically do not get into the type of serious offenses of the most disorderly of the Amish groups

    The difference here being that during this time, the youth are explicitly recognized as not being a part of the religious community. The time of sowing oats ends with joining the religious group.

    In the context of Miguel’s theme, this bit seems especially relevant: …but in sects that do, Amish elders generally view this as a time for courtship and finding a spouse. The young men acquire the skills needed for finding – and one might assume keeping – a mate during a time when they are explicitly living outside the social role assumed later in life.

    Which seems to go along with my own opinion that being ‘a good guy’ whose sexuality is overly-confined by social norms is not an optimal strategy for finding a mate. Miguel seems to claim, rightly I’d say, that this reality is allowed for both in modern Western culture – ‘youthful indiscretions’ – and in sub cultures informed by feminist though – his comments around the scene portrayed in the Vagina Monologues.

    I do wish that Miguel would be more explicit about what he views as the intersections among feminism, the origins of his internalized views about sexuality, and his experiences of attempting to form romantic and sexual bonds with women who may or may not themselves be feminists. I’m fascinated by his postings and find myself looking forward to learning more about his thought processes and also about whether or not he is still involuntarily celibate and if so, how he is doing in becoming not celibate.

    Finally, Miguel has not made reference to any specific individuals, so this next are my words, not his – the paradigm Miguel described here could be reference to the actions of Hugo Schwyzer as described in other posts by Miguel. I doubt that I’m the only reader here who has noticed this.

  3. Jim says:

    Rumspringa resembles something else that has very litle to do with sexuality, but a lot to do with adolescent exploration – the vision quest.

    And the rumspringa takes in more than youthful sexual license. It’s also the young person’s opportunity to decide about the whole amish lifestyle, if that’s what they really want for thier life.

    It’s pretty universal really. My very definitiely non-Amish son was raised good and Anglican, but for the past couple of years he has lost interest, seems to be wandering. It’s completely necessary. I did the same.

  4. Lynet says:

    The ‘eraser test’ is a good test. It doesn’t cover everything, though — my mother, I suspect, would gladly erase her early, somewhat traumatic, sexual experiences, but that doesn’t mean she was right to protect me quite as much as she did.

  5. Lynet says:

    Unrelatedly, have you seen The Consensual Project? It looks like an interesting blend of feminism and pick-up artist type dating advice — they even use the word “game”. The idea seems to be to find sexy ways of having consensual hook-ups. It seems fairly new, but I thought you might find it interesting.

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