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22 September 2021updated 23 Sep 2021 7:59am

Why New Age puritans are the enemies of progress

From sex to Covid to climate change, some people just really like telling others what to do.

By Rachel Cunliffe

My first and only foray into student debating was Valentine’s Day 2013 when I was drafted in at the last moment (to fill in for Peter Stringfellow, of all people) on the motion “This House Believes That Sex Has Lost All Meaning”. I was for it.

It went about as disastrously as you’d expect throwing a beginner with no credentials but a few essays on sexuality in classical literature into the bear-pit alongside a former porn actor, the director of an adult film company, two professional lifestyle writers and a woman who’d launched her own erotic emporium. My side lost, and my main memory of the evening was getting drunk in the bar afterwards with the porn actor who enthusiastically suggested I rethink my career path.

But my point was that sex had lost all meaning – and that this was something to be celebrated. Throughout most of human history, the meaning of sex had been tied up with the consequences of sex: namely sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. It had associations with sin and danger, something disruptive and harmful that had to be tamed through strict societal codes that curtailed the human impulse for pleasure.

As soon as technology existed to lessen these consequences – reliable contraception and treatment for STIs – the social stigma began to evaporate. Now, I argued, individuals were free to impose whatever meaning onto sex that made sense for them, whether that was as a marker of a committed monogamous relationship or something else entirely.

[See also: Sex Actually with Alice Levine goes inside the pandemic sex industry]

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I was reminded of all this by a recent piece from the science writer Tom Chivers about innovations that make our lives better and the moral opposition they invariably spark from those who would prefer our behaviour to change. He talks about reports of a new weight-loss treatment that actually works, and also cites vegan meat, vaping, carbon capture and the HPV vaccine – all of which have provoked resistance from various quarters on the grounds that they are in some way “cheating”. Their critics say we should instead be encouraging more active lifestyles, persuading people not to like the taste of meat, boosting smoking cessation programmes, flying less and endorsing abstinence.

Chivers, like me, is of the view that if technology exists to give people what they want without the harmful side effects, we should embrace it. But not everyone agrees. He writes of the tendency to get muddled about why certain things are bad for us: “Like Puritans opposed to hunting not because the animals suffer but because the hunters enjoyed it, we think that because we sometimes need to suffer for noble purposes, that suffering itself is noble.”

In the pre-contraceptive world, I argued back in 2013, chastity was prized as a virtue because of the adverse repercussions of extra-marital sex. When those repercussions are no longer relevant, there is nothing virtuous about assigning a moral tag to how consenting adults choose to spend their time. Similarly, at present cutting down on driving is virtuous because it reduces carbon emissions. But if it were possible to continue driving at the same rate without those negative externalities, there would be no ethical grounds for trying to restrict motorists’ behaviour.

That there is pushback to this attitude (look at environmentalists’ virtual silence on nuclear power – a clean, cheap energy source which is far safer than fossil fuels) reveals that often the debate isn’t about what we think it is. Something else is going on that causes people to reject viable solutions to behaviour they don’t like.

No doubt there is anxiety that the quick fixes may not be as helpful as they first appear. The weight-loss pills could have their own side effects, vaping might be more harmful than the research currently shows, and what if there’s another nuclear disaster? And societies do have a tendency to sleepwalk into jeopardy by pursuing “technology first, regulation second” strategies (go find out about the national security implications of the encroaching Internet of Things if you want to truly terrify yourself).

But even when the risks are virtually non-existent, the opposition still comes. When the vaccine against HPV (a sexually transmitted infection that is responsible for 70 per cent of cervical cancers) first began to be rolled out to teenagers, critics branded it a “sex jab” and argued even if it saved lives it would increase teen promiscuity. (Spoiler: it didn’t.) And one major environmental objection to nuclear power, geo-engineering and other technological solutions to the climate crisis isn’t about safety at all: it’s that they don’t “dismantle” the structures of today’s world, but rather enable us to keep living as we currently do, without radically upending our lifestyles.

Essentially, some people relish consequences as a way to impose their will on society. If you don’t approve of how someone is acting, pointing out the harmful side effects of their actions is a good way to stop them from doing it. Use technology to take those side effects away and the moral high-ground evaporates – and with it the authority to police others.

[See also: Whose freedom?]

The Covid pandemic has provided this subsection of society with ammunition they could never have dreamt of. For 18 months the personal choices we make about what to do and who to see have presented a near-existential threat. Sunbathing in the park became an act of societal aggression; hotlines were set up for neighbours to inform on one another; people argued for masks to be worn outside where they have next to no benefit to “remind” everyone that we were in crisis mode.

As the risk has receded owing to the vaccine rollout, that power is proving hard to relinquish. An IpsosMORI poll published in June found that a significant minority of Brits would like certain restrictions such as closing nightclubs (26 per cent) and imposing a 10pm curfew (19 per cent) to be enforced permanently regardless of Covid risk. Even when the question specified there were no safety grounds for the restrictions, a quarter of people still wanted to stop everyone else enjoying themselves.

At the time of my lacklustre debating debut, I naively believed that the puritanism with which sexuality has been policed through the ages was on the decline. It took me years to realise that humanity has a thirst for repercussions: that some people really would prefer others to experience harm for their choices than to embrace solutions which enable them to continue their behaviour consequence-free. The object of judgement has changed, from hunting and casual sex to meat-eating and jet-setting, but the impulse has remained consistent. And that impulse is the enemy of progress – progress that can cut pollution and reduce obesity and stop women dying from cervical cancer.

We will always be bedevilled by puritans, and in moments of crisis or societal upheaval the sanctimonious spy an opportunity to push their own personal morality onto the rest of us. As we recover from Covid, it’s worth remembering that the most censorious among us do not hold the ethical high-ground they think they do. No one can claim virtue by making other people miserable. And if you really want to reduce human suffering, there are worse ways to go about it than passing out condoms and diet pills.

[See also: I thought I knew where I sat on the bookcase debate – but the random approach has taken me by surprise]

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This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age