Tripping Over the Bulges: What Really Matters Morally

by Tauriq Moosa

How should we tackle things we believe are wrong and should be illegal, when it seems their very status of being ‘illegal’ gives rise to the problems we oppose. It’s not drugs per se that bothers us, but the violence and destruction that can arise. It’s not sex itself that’s a problem, it’s how we consider sex and apply it to policy decisions. But using our emotions and knee-jerk reactions and letting it simmer within policies can have disastrous effects for us.

I’ve written before that I don’t quite understand the so-called inherent moral problem of necrophilia. Sure, the deceased’s loved ones might be upset, offended and so on. But aside from these interests, what else should we be concerned about? Health reasons, you say? Well, that’s a problem even for living and consensual partners in sex acts, given STD’s, trust, promiscuity and so on. What makes necrophilia particularly a problem?

The main thing about acts of necrophilia, it seems to me, is revulsion. What makes it particularly potent is the combination of ‘sex’ with death. Sex, for many people, is fraught with moral problems – but, as I’ve briefly highlighted above with necrophilia – it’s not particular to sex with dead bodies or sex with live bodies. Both are apparently problematic. It’s how people consider sex in general.

I don’t quite understand why sex should be considered morally problematic in itself. It is not. Just as driving a car is not problematic in itself: Sure, we can kill others and ourselves, and usually we have partners involved, but that doesn’t mean driving a car is automatically morally problematic. Sex offers pleasure and pain, like most of life. I think that many people are still caught up in absolute right and wrong ways to conduct themselves in and toward sex, instead of realising that like most human actions, sexual relations are dynamic and varied. The ways we approach sex more often has terrible consequences than the results of consensual sex between rational persons.

Consider recently a story in the M&G about prosecuting 12- to 16-year-olds engaged in consensual sex acts.

Recently, children's rights activists were outraged when it emerged that National Prosecution Authority head Menzi Simelane had used the Act to authorise the prosecution of at least two groups of children between the ages of 12 and 16 for having consensual sex — six learners from Mavalani High School in Limpopo and three pupils from Johannesburg.

Simelane did withdraw the charges, but compelled the children to complete something called a “diversion programme”. The problem is the Sexual Offences Act which “makes it illegal for any person to engage in ‘consensual sexual penetration’ with children between the ages of 12 and 16.” It has excellent justification of course: “This Act was designed to address the sexual abuse of children [my emphasis]” – but many of you will no doubt see the arising problem: “But in effect also makes it illegal for youngsters of those ages to have sex.”

Obviously, being the most vulnerable group, children require our protection, even to the point of paternalism – certain adults do, too, such as when we require people to wear safety-belts, but that’s not the point here. What matters is whether we should be prosecuting or treating children as if they’ve done something wrong. I think, and evidence also suggests, this makes the problem worse.

Already many people treat sex like a taboo subject, wishing it away from television, restricting it on their computers, not wanting it in their movies and so on. We see such views when people view monogamy – that is trapping one poor soul with the chains of sexual “fulfilment” (well, of at least one of you) – as the best way to conduct sexual relationships. This is hardly true.

Obviously, there are also religious motivations which are still confusing to me. There’s also the idea – also tied to religion but often not – that sex is for producing children. Of course, this is also mistaken since people have sex all the time “for” other reasons: fun, pleasure, and so on. Also people use contraception or other methods to deliberately not have children. If sex truly were only for having children, we ought to pull a Papal move and be restrictive on the distribution on condoms. Imagine what would happen if we did that in a place rife with, for example, HIV/Aids.

All these muddle-headed views come to ahead in our policies. This is true of how we treat prostitutes, drug-addicts, and, now, child sex-offenders. And by that I don’t mean adults who rape children but children who have consensual sex with other children. This disparity shows when, because we think it’s wrong, we refuse to give children access to contraception. Thus as the MRC notes: “a quarter of South African children of 13 and younger have sex,” BUT ONLY “a mere 10% of them [are] accessing contraception.”

The problem as Helen Rees, from the University of Witwatersrand Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, highlights is that children won’t access sex and reproductive health services “as they’ll fear being reported”. This leads to this disparity mentioned in the previous paragraph.

This is a clear example of what happens when we let our revulsion, our fear, or our intense dislike for an aspect of humanity obscure the best methods for its solution. Is sex the problem? That would be too broad a question. What kind of sex? Is it a problem that children are having consensual sex with each other? This is an empirical question and given the large amount of children that have had sex, and are now adults who do not appear to suffer from negative effects, it is unlikely that it is a problem.

Like many things we want criminalised or to remain criminalised, we need to clarify if the actual behaviour or action is the problem or the effects of criminalisation itself. For example, there is ample evidence that not criminalising drugs is better for all: health services are more effective since those who require treatment aren’t, like the children I mentioned above, fearful of getting caught; we gain income from taxing new businesses which has an established market; and so on.

By entering into a society with varied groups, there are behaviours and actions we must accept – though not necessarily condone – for the greater freedom and safety of all. I would rather live in a society where creationists and drug addicts can do what they do, without inflicting negatively on me, than one that banned or forced them into silence or jail-cells. After all, what stops that society from changing direction and focusing its silencers and jails on me who disapproves of those two groups? For the benefit of both myself and my opponents, it is necessary to accept the existence of groups we disapprove of and focus on the conflicting, negative problems that can arise from both: Not all people who take drugs are drug addicts, not all drug addicts are violent and, similarly, sober people are not perfectly innocent.

The point is instead of reacting with emotions and knee-jerk frothing at the mouth to things we hate, we must ask what the solutions are. For example, do we oppose people being addicted to substances, taking things that are bad for them, or horrible violence often linked to drug-use? It seems to me that we worry more about violence and similar crimes than some individual taking drugs. And, to put it further into perspective, who would you be more fearful of? Your violently drunk neighbour or your dope-head one? Which one causes more deaths from too much intake and road-deaths? Yes, it’s alcohol. As the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs reported last year in the prestigious medical journal Lancet, alcohol is, overall, more dangerous than crack or heroine.

What makes this an interesting study, as the abstract notes, is that they looked at which drugs were more harmful to the individual himself and which were more harmful to others. They found “that heroin, crack cocaine, and metamfetamine were the most harmful drugs to individuals”, whereas “alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine were the most harmful to others” [my emphasis]. So when we are deciding how to approach something like the violence as a result of addictive substances, we are usually more interested in the latter section. And there we find alcohol.

Now, it’s not simply that alcohol is inherently more addictive, but that more people use it. This is obviously a factor. But it doesn’t remove the important point that it is more dangerous than, say, heroine. The question that we have to ask is what is a better way to spend our resources: criminalising heroine addicts or finding ways to treat them? Will there be more or less violence if we remove laws against heroine and instead attempt to involve legitimate health authorities in their use and distribution?

I don’t know what the answer is, but from the evidence I’ve been reading over the last few years, our approach to things like drugs and sex is muddled because, it seems to me and according evidence, many of the problems arise as a direct result of criminalisation itself. It seems their very status of being ‘illegal’ gives rise to the problems we oppose. For example, the drug cultures and gangs which exist as a direct result of illegal markets – based themselves on demands which exist whether we like it or not – usually cause great suffering: through intimidation, forceful prostitution, gang-wars and gun-shoot outs, and so on.

Similarly, as we noted with the children in the sex “scandals”, because we want to criminalise children engaged in sex acts (or at least Simelane and the law at the moment does), it means we limit their access to the very centres they should be visiting and acquiring help from.

Making things illegal doesn’t make them disappear: it just pushes them under the carpet so we can walk safely around claiming we are happy to live in a society without drugs and children having sex. But we will keep tripping over the bulges. At some point we need to face up to our real problems instead of what just offends us. Our real problems are violence and other injustices done to people, not some random individual taking drugs because he wants to get high or two twelve year olds are having sex. What business is it of ours? Let them do so. We should be looking at whether people taking drugs is truly the problem or the fact that people have to act illegally in order to satisfy their urge, thus generating more crime because they are now already engaged in illegal acts.