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.