Sex and Being Seen

Robert Wright (whom I recently interviewed in these pages) has an online essay at The New York Times today about what the world’s newfound Internetedness means for sexual infidelity. Some of the great sex scandals of the past year, including those of Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford, have been fueled by the discovery of emailed love letters (in the case of Sanford) and incriminating voicemail (in the case of Woods). Neither would have been so easy to discover a generation ago. Wright makes a little joke—then, true to his disposition, turns it serious:

There’s a lesson here for all of us: When you want to pay your illicit Argentine lover a compliment about his or her anatomy, do it the old fashioned way: pick up the phone and call; and if nobody answers, don’t leave a message.

Actually, there really is a lesson here for all of us. Though you have to be a celebrity for your digital footprints to go global, the footprints of mere mortals can circumnavigate their own little social worlds pretty easily. Any picture that any friend or enemy snaps of you with any cell phone can wind up on Facebook—or can be anonymously e-mailed to your spouse or boss. Maybe in the future everyone will be locally infamous for 15 minutes.

What are the consequences of this? After all, the idea that has gotten Wright so worked up in books like The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and The Evolution of God is that our moral ideas become enlarged by the degree of our interconnectedness. When two parties are economically intertwined, for example, they’ll usually end up crafting some religious or philosophical system that enshrines respect for one another’s rights. For an age where infidelity is both easier and more easily discovered, he foresees two opposing gradients:

On the one hand, there could be a drift toward Victorian uptightness. If people are scared that their transgressions will come back to haunt them, then presumably there will be fewer transgressions.

On the other hand, the new transparency could loosen the definition of “transgression.” In a 1993 essay called “Defining Deviancy Down,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worried that the more common social pathologies became, the more common they would become, because the recurring spectacle of them would render them more acceptable.

The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain used to say that to be human is to be seen by the gaze of God; the soul is that part of us which is aware of being watched. Among one another, we usually think of being watched as a bad thing; there’s always some kind of outcry when the government gives itself more surveillance rights. Yet, like the gaze of Maritain’s God, being watched also has something very basic to do with citizenship. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault argued that modern society is made in the image of the Panopticon—the prison devised by Jeremy Bentham in which every inmate could be observed totally and simultaneously. That idea can be terrifying, but it might also be a comfort. I’ve been moved, for example, by the account Jane Jacobs gave of how strangers in cities keep each other safe simply by being present to each other, by being potential witnesses. To be watched is to be protected—from others, yes, but also from oneself. We can’t always trust ourselves in private.

Sex is especially sensitive to these fears and fixations. It has been, since Eve and Adam saw each other’s nakedness, the defining principle of privacy. People do it in the dark, but they also get off by posting naughty videos of themselves on the Internet. Changing the balance of what’s hidden and what’s seen will also change what’s hot.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.