When you study human sexuality, you inevitably study human morality systems. How and why humans value what they value. And I think this is part of the reason why studying human sexuality is so threatening to some: if we examine something like sexuality (that is so laden with values and has been for centuries) then there is the possibility of separating out each piece of that puzzle, re-evaluating each piece, maybe hearing new information, deciding what to do with that new information (i.e. allow it to affect our value or not), then there’s the possibility of those new conclusions not being in alignment with our current life, and the cognitive dissonance that comes with that situation. Eeek, a scary prospect indeed.
Thanks to the work of Bill Stayton, a psychologist, sexologist, and Baptist minister, what I’ve learned is how human beings have three different value systems:
- The combination of acts-centered + relationships-centered
So let’s break this down.
Acts-centered value systems place an emphasis on acts or behaviors and believe that behaviors are choices. Acts-centered value systems (ACVS) have clear delineations between what is “right” behaviorally and what is “wrong” behaviorally. This is a black-or-white, straight-forward value system and way of relating in the world; you know what the limits are and what the consequences are if you do that “wrong” behavior. It’s about rules and it’s all very clear.
Relationship-centered value systems place an emphasis on relationships: with yourself, with others, with society. Relationship-centered value systems (RCVS) focus on identifying the motives (your relationship with yourself) and consequences (on yourself, on others, on society) of acts or behaviors and those motives and consequences determine if something is moral or immoral. This value system requires some amount of gathering information and some amount of critical thinking skills and predicting. RCVS believe context matters and that in one situation a behavior may be “good” while in another situation that same behavior may be “bad”. This way of thinking is more gray and takes time to come to a decision.
A perfect example is Robin Hood. Was he right or wrong to do what he did? Yes he robbed, and with an ACVS this is “bad”. But he robbed from the rich to help the poor, and in a RCVS this is “good”.
The combination value system borrows from these two other systems depending on the issue and the comfort with the “act” or behavior in question. It’s even murkier than a RCVS. It is generally confusing and it ebbs and flows. On some issues you may be black-or-white while on others you explore the motives and consequences.
Despite what you may think about yourself or others, the combination value system is the value system held by most people. For example when it comes to sexuality most people, or so it seems, seem to be acts-centered on things like pedophilia and bestiality — they have clear, straight-forward opinions about it being “wrong” (whatever their reason). Laws have been created to support this way of thinking on these two issues. While at the same time those same people might be relationship-based on another sexual issue.
So now let’s apply these and take an example straight from current events…abortion. First, let’s all take a deep, deep breath. It’s a heated topic right now and one that, IMO, maybe we can work to bridge the divide if we slow down and better understand ourselves and our perceived opponents.
The ACVS approach to the issue of abortion is: those people that are anti-abortion believe that abortion is “wrong”. These folks are basing this on their belief that life begins at conception and therefore ending that life via abortion is an act akin to murder so therefore this act is “wrong”. Remember, to those with this value system acts are choices so you can choose to act or not act — meaning you can choose to have an abortion or not have an abortion. If you choose to not act, then you are not “wrong” but if you choose to act and have an abortion, then you are “wrong”. Those people who have a RCVS ponder the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy and look at the relationships with and consequences to those involved: what was the relationship between those two people who had sex and caused the pregnancy? Why is it an unwanted pregnancy (i.e. violence or trauma like rape or incest)? What are the consequences if the pregnant woman brings the pregnancy to term or terminates? What are the consequences if government bans abortion full stop? This is where factors like consent, ages of those involved, access to health care, financial means of support, the role of public school sex education, etc. come into play for the RCVS folks.
One “side” is focused on the behavior/act itself while the other “side” is focused on motive/cause and consequences. One “side” frames their position as “pro-life” because they value the life that they believe was just created while the other “side” frames their position as “pro-choice” because they value examining the consequences of a choice. These are two entirely different and separate aspects of the same abortion issue. They are not addressing the other "side's" assertions. Why aren’t the ACVS folks talking about the motives and consequences of an unwanted pregnancy? Some actually are: those who say abortion is permissible if it was caused by rape or incest. And actually, if someone believes that then I would argue theirs is a combination value system on abortion and solely ACVS. And why aren’t the RCVS folks talking about when life begins? No one is listening to “the other side”, that “other side” feels it, and when we feel not heard we usually talk louder, assert our position more unkindly, and get into a fight. On top of it all, emotions naturally run high on an issue like this. So things stay contentious, the divide between the “sides” remains deep and wide, and the impasse unfortunately calcifies.
This so reminds me of high conflict couples; it’s really not that different. Any good couples therapist would teach a high-conflict couple the importance of understanding. That understanding your partner’s “side” does not equal endorsing or agreeing with “their side” and it does not diminish “your side”. It simply means understanding their perspective, why they believe what they do, while holding on to “your side”. Unfortunately many people are defended against understanding their partner; it’s somehow threatening because it requires vulnerability (a.k.a. putting our shields down). But when we understand our partner it can lead to a more respectful dialogue and maybe, just maybe, finding a middle ground. This is what is desperately needed in today’s cultural and political climate. Acting — and listening — respectfully to our perceived opponent requires good self-management skills. I know that’s a big ask but I believe we can do it.
I’ve thought for a long time that Washington needs couples therapy. And so maybe this blog can help you look at this issue, and maybe other issues, and your so-called opponent, with a little more insight, understanding, and calm. IMO it’s the only civil way through this.
I usually write about sex and relationships, but on this sunny spring day I’m going to veer off that a little bit and write about technology with a little bit of sex thrown in.
I cannot seem to find a person who doesn’t have a smartphone anymore. Now I realize I live in northern California, one of the more affluent places on the planet and a mere 100ish miles from Silicon Valley and 50ish miles from San Francisco. Technology is what my region is known for (and on a micro level wine and weed too, but that’s another conversation for another time). People say that technology, and specifically smartphones, have radically changed our lives and our norms. True. Fifteen years ago would you have imagined you might willingly pay to sleep in a stranger’s home while you are on vacation or pay to get a ride in a stranger’s car?
(As an aside, I think it’s worth briefly mentioning how most everything we get from our smartphones is based on our own literacy. It seems lost in the conversation when we talk about technology. Last year I attended a conference where a speaker talked about the challenges her medical center had in providing care to patients who could not read or write *in any language* but who had smartphones. Think about that. It’s wild how quickly we take literacy for granted when it comes to smartphones.)
Back to technology. Lately I have been increasingly noticing the very language we use to describe what we are doing with our smartphones and other technology. We say we are “more connected” - but what we really have is more correspondence in the form of emails, texts, likes, and comments. We say we “go online” to look something up — but where are we going exactly? We are not going anywhere with our physical body - we are probably sitting on our couch or at our desk - and instead using the internet as a research tool or library. We say someone is “using porn” — when in reality they are most likely sitting by themselves viewing pornographic imagery. (Do you say you use walking? Do you say you use dinner with friends?)
I fully admit I am not a digital native. I remember when texting first really came into people’s lives. At the time I myself didn’t quite get it - why would I text someone but not call them? (Yep, I know I sounded a lot like “Get off my lawn!” and I own it.) Also at that time, I was a counselor at a middle school and of course the students had really grabbed ahold of texting with a frenzy. One day I asked one of my middle school-aged clients, “Why do you like texting so much?” And I will never, ever forget what that boy said: “Because there’s times I want to tell someone something but not have a whole conversation about it.” Aaaaaah, yes! From the mouths of babes. He described a one-way communication without a lot of risk or vulnerability. Ding ding ding! Ironically, soon after that conversation I was at a huge and loud outdoor concert and I was trying to find my friends…so I texted one of them and we found each other quickly and painlessly. Texting in that context made it so much easier to fulfill my goal. If I had tried to call my friends on the phone we probably would not have been able to hear each other, certainly not find each other in the mass of people, and just gotten more frustrated. Since then I have come to appreciate texting more and see the value to it as another means of communication/correspondence. But it is most definitely not connection.
IMO how we are thinking about and talking about the internet, technology, and how we use these two things is becoming increasingly problematic and inaccurate. The language we use to describe how we are incorporating the internet into our daily lives is sadly misleading and because of that our language is shaping our experience of it. The experience shapes our language and the language shapes our experience. It’s a peculiar feedback loop to observe. Now I also know that the same word can have different meanings based on a variety of factors. But I’m not sure we as a society get that when it comes to technology — certain technologies came into our lives so abruptly we adapted to it by using existing language to at best approximate what we are doing with that technology. We think we are connected when we are not.
We may have more easy access to other people and other information as a result of the internet but we’re most certainly not more connected. Most of the time we are sitting *by ourselves* having an internal-to-us experience with the technology in our hand or on our desks, several steps removed from real human-to-human interaction.
Technology is also a vehicle for our imagination and projections; it’s there for every flight of ideas we have without any limits. There is a growing body of evidence that tell us with the increased use of tech devices comes increased rates of dysphoric moods, not more euphoric moods. Using technology in certain ways makes many of us feel worse, not better. We think we are connected when we are not...and then we do not know why we feel bad. And when I work with couples and I ask them “What’s your goal in this therapy?”, it is quite common that I will hear the answer “To feel more connected to my partner during sex.” Connected - there’s that word again. If they are referring to that feeling we get when we are “connected” via the internet and technology, I don’t think that is what they are referring to; people don’t come to therapy to feel worse about their situation. Feeling connected from online activities is not even remotely the same event as feeling connected to another human being, in real life, who (maybe) loves and cares for you, and sharing a mutually pleasurable experience with them. Remember, while technology can make you cum it can’t hug you back.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.