*The Quest for a New Vision of Sexual Morality*, Ross uthat

Ross Douthat

March 27, 2024

Opinion Columnist

The death of Hugh Hefner and the dawn of the #MeToo era, coinciding in the autumn of 2017, seemed to mark a turning point in the history of social liberalism in America.

Out, at last, went Hefner’s sex-positive utopianism, the no-prudes-here giddiness and aspirational promiscuity that linked his “Playboy philosophy” to 1980s sex comedies, 1990s lad magazines, liberal excuses for Bill Clinton’s priapism and the sweeping cultural triumph of pornography.

In came #MeToo feminism, founded on outrage over rape and sexual assault, but inclined more broadly to regard hookup culture as a zone of danger, male desire as a force in need of correction and control, and bare consent as an insufficient criterion for sexual morality.

From the start the #MeToo movement was criticized, usually from a libertarian or classical liberal perspective, for reviving socially conservative or even Victorian impulses under a feminist and progressive guise. But it was precisely that remix that made the movement interesting: #MeToo took what had often been a conservative-coded critique of the sexual revolution — one that emphasized the ways that Hefnerism made life easy for pigs and libertines, forcing young women to accept male sexual expectations in the name of liberation — and promised to make it serve a more progressive and egalitarian vision.

The question seven years later is whether that vision actually exists — whether social liberalism can find a standard for sexual morality that’s better for human flourishing than bare consent, and a mechanism to constrain sexual misbehavior that’s more effective than the traditional emphasis on monogamy and chastity.

To illustrate where the quest for this vision stands, consider three recent cover stories in New York magazine.

The first is a profile of Andrew Huberman, a pop neuroscientist, podcaster and all-around male influencer. The author, Kerry Howley, does a lot of work excavating Huberman’s manifold limitations — as a lifestyle coach and medical guru (don’t trust the effectiveness of the supplements he endorses!), a friend and colleague (don’t expect him to make good on his promises!), and especially as a boyfriend and lover (he controls, he lies, he cheats on six women at once).

The portrait of a figure like Huberman would be interesting under any circumstances. But the special focus on his sex life, the detailed testimony from allegedly mistreated girlfriends, marks this as very much a post-#MeToo profile. Huberman is not accused of any sexual crime; he’s seemingly just a creep, cheat and control freak. But that kind of misbehavior is treated as essential to any judgment of his public career. Whatever the new rules of sex might be, it’s clear that we’re supposed to judge the cad’s lifestyle as regressive, deplorable and wicked.

So what kind of lifestyle might be preferable? Well, here we can turn back a few issues to a New York magazine January cover story on polyamory, featuring both a profile of a specific polycule and an extensive guide to “opening” your relationship or marriage.

When the Huberman profile appeared, some social-media voices suggested that there’s a tension in publishing a takedown of a man juggling six girlfriends after celebrating the juggle just a couple of months previously. But in reality the two cover stories are entirely of a piece. The implied critique of the neuroscience cad isn’t just that he has sex with lots of different women but that he does so deceptively and selfishly — instead of following the kind of open, complex process of negotiation that’s ethically required to be the kind of person who has sex with six different people at a time.

That idea of sex-as-process, with the sexual act itself embedded inside a kind of “best practices” of dialogue and interaction, seems to be where social liberalism has settled, for now, in its attempt to create a post-Hefnerian sexual culture. Thus the general fascination with polyamory, manifest in trend pieces, books and essays too numerous to count, isn’t just about envelope-pushing and shock value. It also reflects a desire to maintain the permissive sexual ethic that men like Hefner turned to their own exploitative ends, but to make it healthier and therapeutic, more female-friendly and egalitarian, safer and more structured.

Polyamory isn’t being offered as an alternative to conservative monogamy, in this sense, so much as an alternative to more dangerous, irresponsible, and deceptive forms of promiscuity — a responsible, spreadsheet-enabled, therapeutic version of the sexual revolution, in which transparency replaces cheating, and everything is permitted so long as you carefully negotiate permission.

A glance at some actual human relationships should raise some doubts about how well this model really works. Whatever Huberman’s failures of honesty and communication, for instance, he appears extremely well versed in the kind of therapy-speak that’s supposed to tame libidinous excess — suggesting that predators and cads can work through this system as well as any other. Or again, the new mom-with-an-open-marriage memoir by Molly Roden Winter, “More,” reads more like a testament to marital suffering than any kind of guide to the good life.

But the depth of the problem with the attempt to establish “safe” forms of liberation is suggested by yet a third New York magazine cover story, the most controversial of the lot: the transgender cultural critic Andrea Long Chu’s recent essay “Freedom of Sex,” which makes a case for allowing kids experiencing gender dysphoria to undergo interventions like puberty blockers and mastectomies regardless of what medical or psychological claims are made about where the desire to change their sex comes from.

Against liberal doubters who emphasize the gap between our understanding of gender dysphoria and the extremity of the treatments being offered to minors, Chu insists that the right to choose your sex (which implies a right not to go through puberty) is as inalienable as any other, and cannot be subordinated to some kind of rigid medical-therapeutic conception of what’s really in the best interests of the dysphoric child or adolescent.

“It does not matter where this desire comes from,” Chu writes of, say, a 12-year-old’s preference to have a male body rather than a female one despite having two X chromosomes. Whether it reflects a tidy therapeutic concept like “gender identity” or simply the unique desires of the individual, whether it leads to happiness or regret or both, in a free society the personal choice must be honored, the unwanted puberty prevented, the right to choose one’s sex preserved.

What Chu is attacking, in the name of a more radical liberation, is the way that youth transitioning has been presented to the public across the last decade: as a matter of certain, “settled” science, as a therapeutic best practice backed up by careful study and trustworthy expertise, in which the fraught, life-altering desire of a teenager can be granted so long as the right safeguards are in place. This runs in parallel, tellingly, to the way that polyamory is often presented: as the safe kind of liberation, the therapist-approved form of promiscuity, with the potential risks and regrets more limited than they would be if the individual libido were simply given rein.

The problem with this presentation, in the case of transgender issues, is that institutions of liberal expertise, in Western Europe especially, are increasingly doubtful about the scientific-therapeutic structure in which transitioning is taking place. The science isn’t actually settled, the safeguards aren’t necessarily effective, the decision to stop puberty or proceed to surgical modification carries all kinds of unsurprising risks.

In which case social liberalism cannot simply promise what it’s been trying to offer since the #MeToo shift: an absolute form of individual freedom wrapped in a protective carapace of expert management and therapeutic process. You can have a culture of hard moral constraint, a conservative order that imposes norms that intentionally limit human freedom — remain faithful to your chosen spouse, live with your given body. Or you can have the kind of freedom-maximizing culture that removes limits and strictures but creates new regrets, new kinds of suffering, new dangers for the vulnerable and weak.

What you probably can’t have is the world where Judith Butler links hands with the American Medical Association in a stable regime of permissive safety, or where “ethical” polyamory transforms the impulse to cheat on your spouse into a pro-social act. At the very least that world remains an undiscovered country — fervently theorized but thus far out of reach.


Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” @DouthatNYT Facebook