Sexual intercourse began, according to Philip Larkin’s famous poem, in 1963. Four decades have elapsed since then, and these decades have seen a growing recognition that sexual liberation is not the answer to the problems of sex but a new addition to them. Traditional sexual morality reinforced the society-wide commitment to marriage as the sole legitimate avenue to sexual release. It is easy to understand such a morality. It has a clear social function — ensuring stable families and guaranteeing the transfer of social capital from one generation to the next. And it has an intrinsic rational appeal in making sense of love, commitment, jealousy, courtship and the drama of the sexes. The problem is that, by impeding our pleasures, it creates a strong motive to escape from it. And escape from it we did, with a great burst of jubilation that very quickly dwindled to an apprehensive gulp.
The condition in which we now find ourselves is novel in many ways. Perhaps the most interesting is the enormous effort that is now devoted to overcoming or abolishing shame. The Book of Genesis tells the story of man’s fall, caused by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Until eating the forbidden fruit, the Bible tells us, ‘they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed’. No sooner had they eaten, however, than ‘the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons’.
When you do something wrong and are discovered you feel ashamed of yourself. This kind of shame is a moral emotion, founded on the thought that someone else is judging you. But it is not what is referred to in the verses quoted, which are about sexual shame. Sexual shame differs from moral shame in two ways. First, it is not a confession of wrongdoing: on the contrary, it testifies to the reluctance to do or suffer wrong. Secondly, it is not troubled, as moral shame is troubled, by the thought that you are being judged as a self, a free being, a moral subject. On the contrary, it arises from the thought that you are being judged as a body, a mechanism, an object. Hence the German philosopher Max Scheler described sexual shame as a Schutzgef