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 am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.