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in category Family, Gender and Sexuality

Western attitudes changed based on liberal tolerance, are Muslim attitudes stuck in the 7th century?

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Western attitudes towards different sexual practices have changed over the past 300 years, from the Enlightenment, through the Sexual Revolution and now culminating in the legalization of same-sex marriage. But that change is based on liberal tolerance and moral progress. Muslims, in contrast, appear to be stuck in the 7th century.
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The Western progressive narrative has it that, through the light of reason and science, Western civilization has been able to transcend puritanism as well as all other forms of sexual taboo and barbarity. This keen sense of triumphalism is dripping from, for example, the recent US Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which is seen by many as the culmination of the Sexual Revolution or even the Enlightenment. Accordingly, the belief is that we live in a sexually liberated age: Everything goes! Do what feels right (so long as it's consensual. Depending on one's outlook, whether "liberal" or "conservative," this state of affairs is either a utopia or the End of Times. Whether it is cause for celebration or consternation, however, both sides of the political spectrum agree that moral inhibitions and taboos have been collectively chucked.

A closer look, however, shows that this progressive myth has little basis in reality. It may sound strange to our culturally conditioned ears, but plenty of sexual inhibitions and taboos still stand in the West today, even though they are typically not conceived of in those terms. Contrary to popular belief, Western society is as judgmental as it ever has been on matters pertaining to sex, just not about exactly the same things and not in exactly the same ways. This stridence can be seen in how liberal secularists react to certain features of Islamic sexual ethics, e.g., polygyny, the age of 'Aisha when she married the Prophet , divorce (back when divorce was still taboo in the West), even marriage itself (back when liberal theorists were more forthright about their belief that marriage is tantamount to slavery), . Obviously, liberal secularists believe they have good reasons for these reactions and as hard as it is for them to see beyond those feelings, the fact remains that from another perspective, from another set of normative assumptions and beliefs about the world, Islamic sexual ethics are perfectly reasonable and morally sound. Beyond Islam, there are also plenty of other cultures and religions that have sex practices and rituals the average liberal secularist would be squeamish and outraged about if those practices were common or prominent enough to show up on the West's radar in the way Islam and Muslims, as subjects of colonialism, have over the past 200 years.

Beyond the cross cultural, further stringency can be seen in other areas of Western sexual morality. Consider views on voyeurism, indecent exposure, public masturbation and sexual harassment. An imposing legal system with severe consequences for offenders enforces these points of Western sexual normativity. The question of legality aside, we see further sexual restrictiveness in the ever expanding realm of gender identity politics and policing, where even the most insignificant perceived slight is met with abhorrence and swift, harsh rebuke. To use "non-gender neutral" language, for example - simply using the impersonal pronoun "he" more than "she," "he/she," or "he" in one's writing - is a grievous crime tantamount to rape in the eyes of some. Offenses of this nature typically do not have legal consequences, but anything not caught in the legal process is handled in the court of public opinion, where one's reputation, career and livelihood are all on the line.

These examples show that there are many entrenched norms and taboos that continue to govern the sexual morality of Westerners, even though these restrictions are not experienced or conceived of as taboos or restrictions on sexual expression and autonomy. From a certain perspective, however, these could be seen as precisely that: overbearing restrictions on how individuals can express themselves sexually. When, for example, a person has to worry about something as seemingly small as pronoun usage in their writing, that is an indication of how objectively expansive and imposing the regime of modern Western sexual morality really is, as opposed to the free-for-all it is caricatured as. So this Western triumphalism, sense of superiority and notion of progress toward more freedom and sexual autonomy are misplaced.


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