A recent article in the Vancouver Province strongly attacked its province’s government for refusing to provide funding for the distribution of an educational video on sex. The government had refused funding because, in its opinion, the video promoted the use of the condom without sufficiently considering all the issues that surround its use. The article recorded a series of reactions from concerned and angry groups who argued that the government’s stance was rigid, prudish, simplistic, unrealistic, and dangerous. The government, they submitted, was acting irresponsibly and endangering lives since, if kids were going to have sex anyway, why not, minimally, try to protect them against its worst hazard, AIDS. It ended its condemnation of the government with the statement….“we are talking about mortality, not morality.”
I have no doubt that these groups are acting out of a good instinct. They’re trying to be realistic, lives are at stake. I am less impressed with their distinction between mortality and morality, and the consequences of such a separation. Mortality and morality, in the end, amount to the same thing. If young people are not properly educated about AIDS and do not, very practically, take the proper precautions, lives will be lost. That is simply a statement of fact. Conversely, however, if young people, and not so young people, are not properly educated about all the issues that surround the use of the condom (and that surround the issue of sexuality in general) lives also will be lost. That too is a statement of fact.
Mortality versus morality! That’s an illicit dichotomy. The former depends upon the latter. This needs more than ever to be said, given what is happening in sex education since the advent of AIDS. Given the concern about AIDS, people have a right to feel a panic and urgency regarding the need to act, and to act very practically, vis-a-vis educating people about the responsible use of sex. It is understandable, too given that climate, that people are tempted to abandon some wider concerns about morality in favor of the more immediately practical issue, mortality.
My fear, however, is that in succumbing to that temptation we are not going to accomplish what we are most trying to do, namely, save lives by educating persons to be responsible. What I fear is that we are going to produce a generation schooled in the idea that contraceptive responsibility is the same thing as sexual responsibility. That equation (proper precautions equal responsible sex) is bad algebra. Sexual responsibility implies a whole lot more than proper precautions vis-a-vis pregnancy and disease. It implies responsibility within a whole relationship.
Our society no longer understands that. We already have the expression, “safe sex,” as if proper safeguards against pregnancy and disease could make sex safe. “Safe sex” is an oxymoron. Ex officio, sex negates safety. There can be no safe sex, ever. With or without proper prophylactics, it demands first of all a certain relationship between the two persons engaging in it. For sex to be responsible sex, that relationship, first of all, must be a responsible relationship.
Sex is fire. It plays on deep emotions, sets loose, all on its own, a whole complex of psychological dynamics which demand certain responses and which scream for a certain commitment and mutual responsibility. When these things, intrinsic to the fire of sexuality itself, are not respected, people get deeply hurt, lives are ruined and ultimately lives are lost. The Victorian age, for all its hang-ups about sex, understood this more deeply than we do today. They knew there was no such thing as safe sex. They knew that sexual responsibility implied a whole lot more than proper prophylaxis. As Suzanne Britt puts it: “Great sex on a Victorian sofa is far more awkward than sex atop a Seally posturepedic, king-size mattress, but….these violently contorted Victorian lovers will know by their cracked skulls and bumped shins that what they have engaged in is something and not nothing; is hard not soft; risky not safe; productive of long and dire consequence, not immediately dismissed in a cloud of smoke from a cigarette ironically named ‘True’.” (Books and Religion, January, 1987)
Sex, all sex, is productive of long and dire consequences, for good and for bad. When we teach people that the use of proper safeguards makes for safe sex those we are instructing are less, not more, educated. In the long run the mortality rate will rise, not fall. In Milan Kundera’s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his heroine is upset with her husband, Tomas, because of his cavalier attitude towards life in general and towards sex in particular. For Tomas, life is light, sex is casual. His wife finds this lightness unbearable. In that frustration, she is experiencing more than jealousy. The lightness is unbearable because, inside of herself, she understands that morality is at the root of mortality, and that sexual responsibility implies a whole lot more than proper precautions against pregnancy and disease.