Final Concept Analysis: What’s Sex Got to Do With… Morality?

Throughout the run of this course we have touched on a multitude of concepts discussing sexuality and gender across the national and global communities. As we’ve discussed topic after topic, I’ve found that there is one key topic that I find ties all of the concepts together. They are all tied together through the policing of sexual and gender related norms. Across all lines of culture and community, sexuality is policed by a set of norms that often are enforced by moral discourse. This affects all aspects of sexuality, morality dictates what society holds as “normal” when it comes to the gender of one’s chosen partner, how many partners one has, where one chooses to be sexual, what age one chooses to become sexual, and even what sexual practices are considered sexual.

In her article, Purity and pollution: sex as a moral discourse, Nancy L. Fischer discusses this idea of sex and morality. To begin, she counters this idea that the morals surrounding sex are set in stone because, as she says, “sexual acts have no meaning in and of themselves — it is only the surrounding culture which gives sexual practices or the people who engage in them particular meanings.” In this statement Fischer points out a truth that is often intentionally hidden, the truth that sexual morals change. Many acts that were considered sexually deviant in Victorian times (such as sex before marriage) are considered to be fairly normative in current times. Fischer continues on to question what the point of sexual morals are, suggesting that there is a two-fold purpose. Sexual morals serve the dual purposes of controlling the sex lives of others and giving people a way to make themselves feel better by putting another down. It is here where the idea of purity and pollution come in; American culture is huge on creating binaries, good or bad, right or wrong, etc. and sexuality is just another place in which one can establish a binary. Sexual practices are either good or bad, pure or impure. Morals are symbolic, so who maintains control over them? In our culture the general public maintains control over what is sexual pure or impure. Think of girls calling other girls sluts, and we see society enforcing and maintaining sexual morals; shaming people into behaving the way the rest of society wants people to behave.

I find this topic so important, and so relatable, because sexual morals have such a heavy influence on how people on college campuses behave. When a community is as small as a college is, somehow people seem to know everyone else’s business. This creates the opportunity for judgment to take place and moral discourses to control the social and sexual scripts. When girls on college campuses are slut-shamed for having sex with too many guys, that is sexuality being influenced by moral discourse. When guys on college campuses are praised for getting with many girls, that too is sexually being influenced by moral discourse. We are told what is acceptable behavior for our gender, sexuality, race, and religion and through that many of us, though certainly not all, act accordingly. Those who don’t may face ridicule or exclusion from certain social circles. Moral discourse about sexual behaviors is everywhere, especially on college campuses.

How have you seen sex play out as a moral discourse at Vanderbilt? Do you think the morals surrounding sex at Vanderbilt match up with the morals surrounding sex on other college campuses and the United States as a whole? Where does the moral discourse differ?

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