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Conflict Of Values

This pluralistic, diverse world is subject to an unavoidable conflict of values that can neither be wished away nor easily resolved by a resort to absolute standards, science, history, or tradition. In a world that is simultaneously globalized and challenged by emergent differences and new fundamentalisms, questions of values and ethics inevitably come to the fore. Sexuality may always have been an arena of moral and cultural conflict, but in contemporary societies sexuality is becoming an increasingly central and explicitly debated issue in mainstream cultural conflicts and political debates over values and citizenship. Debates about who and what we are, what we need and desire, how we should live, are to a striking degree also debates about sexuality. It is not surprising therefore that debates over sexuality display anxiety and uncertainty. The fear aroused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic was more than simply concern about a new and possibly incurable disease; it also underlined our uncertainty about contemporary moral stances. The "culture wars" that have been so prominent a feature of United States politics since the 1980s revolve around abortion, sex education, same-sex marriage, and the family—keystone issues on which views seem irreconcilable because they speak of the sort of society we are, and want. As sexuality goes, so goes society.

Advances in science, far from resolving our dilemmas, only serve to compound the general air of uncertainty. How, for example, should we react to the possibilities opened up by embryological research? What are the implications for sexual values and ethics of the Internet revolution? In a world where traditional sources of authority such as religion and the patriarchal family are under intense pressure, and heightened individualism is increasingly the norm, it is difficult to see how there can ever be agreement on a fixed set of values, or a categorical list of rights and responsibilities to which everyone can readily adhere.

It is perhaps for this reason that the language of human rights and of sexual or intimate citizenship has come to the fore. It provides at least one discursive form through which the necessary debates can be carried on in working out what is and is not possible. It provides an iterative framework through which we can try to agree to the minimum standards we need to attain to recognize simultaneously each other's differences and common humanity. This is a long way from the belief of the pioneering sexologists of the late nineteenth century and the sex researchers of the mid-twentieth century—that the truth of sexuality in nature could be discovered. It remains even further as a position from those prophets of the truth who would like us all to bend a knee to their insights, whether religious or moral. But it is in tune with a recognition that sexuality is a product of negotiation and choice as much as of revealed truth. And that, surely, is the only way forward that accords with the diversity of our sexual world.


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Jeffrey Weeks

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Semiotics to SmeltingSexuality - Conceptualizing Sexuality, Questioning The Concept Of Sexuality, Gendering Sexualities, New Subjectivities, Globalization, Conflict Of Values