Morality. I grew up thinking I knew what it meant, only to learn in college it’s not so simple. Ironically, “morality” forced me out of school to become a fulltime prostitute. My troubles began in mid-1985 when I came out as a trans woman. My existence offended the “family values” of the world around me. So-called morality gave the vast majority of people license to ridicule and ostracize me.
Was I bitter? As an honors student who was kicking ass in my Computer Science major, did I resent being ostracized and driven into the squalid arms of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, into a life of sexwork and hard drugs? Was what happened to me moral? (Damn—still a bit steamed about it thirty-five years later.)
Psychology 101 taught me about Dr. Kohlberg and his Stages of Moral Development. Kohlberg described three levels of morality: Pre-conventional (a child’s), Conventional (a teenager’s) and Post-conventional (an adult’s). More than a few books on behavioral psych have been penned on this topic, so let’s attempt to simplify things.
The first level is based on the threat of punishment: “What will happen to me if I do ____?” This could be anything from a spanking to the death penalty. The second level is mostly about peer regard: “What will people think of me if I do ____?” The third level is based on your own values of right and wrong in a more-or-less absolutist sense. If your role models did a good job, you’ll have solid personal values on which you base morality. Kohlberg also noted that many adults never make it to the Post-conventional level. Color me Unsurprised.
Most grownups base their moral decisions on multiple levels, so there is some overlap between them. Let’s explore this dynamic with a practical example. My immersion into the Life altered my perspective, so I shall set my hypothetical in that world of sexwork of which I am so fond and of its lovely denizens.
So here we go…
Meet John Q. Public. John is horny. He wants to get laid. So let’s posit a safe, legal environment: a licensed brothel with rigorously enforced health precautions. Now, should he visit this cathouse to get his rocks off? Kohlberg’s level 1, “what will happen to me?”, is of minimal concern in this case. After all, it’s a legal brothel, he won’t contract an STD, and the prostitute won’t call up in a pique of jealousy when John’s wife is serving dinner. No direct consequences, right? No pre-conventional morality shit.
But what if other people learn about John’s carnal encounter with the Sisterhood of the Towel? Now it gets complex, because it deals with public-facing versus privately held values. Many if not most men will sympathize with John: the locker room will absolve him if not embrace him. But—and here’s where hypocrisy crops up—because of “morality,” society will force these men to condemn John for visiting a whorehouse.
Sadly, there is nowhere near enough feminist solidarity with sexworkers, so far more women will roundly disapprove of John as much as they do the sexworker. If our hypothetical John is married, engaged or otherwise in a Relationship, the condemnation will grow by an order of magnitude. “What will people think of me?” is of far greater concern to our dear John, because the chances are that he now faces “what will happen to me?” consequences in his marriage, his family and friends, and maybe his job.
Poor John. And all he wanted was to get laid.
Moving on to the relative aspects of morality, we find many perspectives based on location and time. The USA is hopeless in this respect. America was founded by Puritans and continues to be a religious, conservative land. At least, we’re religious in the sense that legislating “morality” is often the expedient course; they must cater to the prudes. Ironically, radical feminists seem to shame sexual women almost as much as Christians and Muslims do. What’s up with that?
Overall, there is still a huge ambivalence about sex in the USA. What about elsewhere? People in most European countries are far less hypocritical about sex. Sadly, in lesser developed countries, “lewd” women are mutilated or even put to death. In terms of history, if we turn back the clock about 500 years to the time of Malleus Maleficarum, we note that “loose” and free-thinking women were tortured or burned as witches.
However, 6000 years ago, before patriarchal religions had stomped out Goddess worship—thanks a lot, assholes—sex and femininity were regarded differently. Back in the Neolithic Age, women were not the chattel that patriarchal religion reduced us to. Sex was considered a sacred act. Back then there were temple prostitutes—a completely different social morality.
Morality is relative according to place and time and social convention.
So what do I base my morality on? Ultimately, unless a person is harming someone else, their decisions should be their own to make without the judgment of other people’s derision, censure or exile. As a transsexual women, a subclass still largely misunderstood, hated, discriminated against and treated wrongly, I try to extend to others the same lack of judgment I wish for myself.
Now that’s a morality I can get behind.