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New Worlds: The Morality Police

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Laws and policing aren’t only about damage to property or personal safety. There’s a whole subset of the enterprise which is devoted to safeguarding — or perhaps it would be better to say enforcing — the morals of society.

Of course, those who are interested in such enforcement would say that they, too, are interested in preventing harm. Even if no detrimental effects can be measured in the world, the harm might be to the souls of those involved — because as you might suspect, moral policing is often closely tied to religion. (Not always, though: the Soviet Union aimed to eliminate religion, and yet was as zealous as any in pursuing its notion of ideological and behavioral purity.) From an outside perspective this focus may seem laughable, but that doesn’t make it any less real to those who pursue it.

How far this reaches ranges from “fairly limited” in a relatively free society to “very little is beyond its ambit” in a more authoritarian one. It’s not that the free society doesn’t care about morality (though a more authoritarian neighbor might claim so); it just has a narrower definition of what constitutes harm and a greater willingness to let individuals look after their own well-being. But regardless of scope, there are a few categories of activity that tend to feature prominently in such efforts.

Drugs tend to be high on the list, but the extent of their control is highly variable. Some of them are completely illegal, while others are inspected and taxed, allowed to be sold only from licensed establishments and/or within set hours, permissible only to certain kinds of customers (often adults; historically, sometimes only men), or not allowed in certain circumstances, as with laws against public intoxication or driving under the influence.

So far, so practical — but which drugs get what level of control can be based more in culture than any medical concern. Even after its carcinogenic properties were known, tobacco enjoyed such a privileged position that for a long time the only regulations it was subject to were taxes and prohibition of sale to minors. Alcohol was even more normalized, until the temperance movement got rolling and attempted to ban it outright (with disastrous results). In the United States, cannabis is still officially a Schedule I drug at the federal level, placing it under the highest level of control and asserting it has “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use” — a flagrantly incorrect characterization that owes more to the cultural history around the drug than its actual effects on the body and mind. But cannabis can be somewhat psychoactive, and the backlash against the countercultural movement in the 1960s made the authorities deeply suspicious of anything that encouraged an escape from majoritarian thought.

Gambling is also a common target of vice laws, and as with drugs, the level of control can vary widely. Is it forbidden, permitted only in certain times and places, permitted only for certain (often elite) types of betting, taxed, capped, allowed to be a free-for-all? Once again, there’s a protective angle here; people have brought financial ruin on their entire families through unwise wagering, so the government might have a legitimate public interest in restricting how easily one individual can destroy the lives of those around them. Regulating private games, though, is easier said than done — which doesn’t stop legal systems from trying!

Speaking of easier said than done . . . sex is perhaps the pre-eminent area of concern. Prostitution will get its own essay eventually, but many societies have either regulated that highly or banned it outright — for all the good banning does them. The justification here can be public health (reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases), but it usually also encompasses protecting marriages by making it harder for husbands to stray, and protecting women by 1) keeping their husbands from straying and 2) keeping them from prostitution. (The fact that many prostitutes may be driven to that work by desperation, and the question of whether they’ll just starve instead, are rarely matters of concern for the moral police.)

The regulation of sex goes well beyond prostitution, though. Pornography might also be banned — and not just pornography that involves a model or actor, whose safety you might be trying to protect, but any kind of writing, drawing, or sculpture whose existence might tempt people toward impure thoughts . . . however that might work. The morality police have poured lots of effort into trying to define “obscenity,” often with the result that they seem to spend more time thinking about impurity than the people they’re aiming to protect. Homosexuality also tends to come under fire, or any type of sexual behavior the moral police consider deviant, such as oral sex — even when performed by a married, consenting heterosexual couple in the privacy of their own home.

Because the thing about policing morality is, that particular slippery slope quickly leads you past public behavior. It’s not true morality if people do one thing when others are watching, something else in private. So it’s not enough to legislate against public drunkeness; you have to ban alcohol. And if a ban isn’t feasible — it’s not like you can confiscate everyone’s genitalia and loan them back only when it’s time for procreation, though now that I type that, I wonder if anyone’s written that science fictional dystopia — then you have to start prying into what people do behind closed doors. We talked about citizen informants back in July; that can extend to reporting your neighbors for suspicion of home poker games or kinky sex or anti-revolutionary thought.

And especially once you get into the unofficial stuff, the targets of these efforts are often disproportionately women. Not all oppressive countries are also extremely sexist countries, but the overlap is high, and the notion is rampant that the most important component of protecting morality is controlling what women can do. Forget merely having laws against public nudity; now it’s about punishment for anyone who dresses with insufficient modesty. Women have been harassed and attacked for being seen with men (even when those men turn out to be their own husbands), for engaging in the wrong kinds of work (or for working at all), for participating in any kind of life outside the home. And while sometimes there are outright laws prohibiting that behavior, you also get quite a lot of vigilante groups who take it upon themselves to enforce their own notion of propriety — if necessary, with violence.

Which is why this aspect of worldbuilding is often used to signal an oppressive or outright dystopian society. But even when the interference is not quite so egregious and overt, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what types of behavior are counted as immoral, and what laws or measures are in place to discourage that sort of thing.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Morality Police”

  1. When I re-read _Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England_ recently, I was struck by the high degree of moral authoritarianism. You listed the big three categories of prohibited behavior, but there’s also compelled behavior, like fines for not going to church (and the proper church) every Sunday. The book also talked about second order prohibitions, like punishing people for helping a ‘runaway’ pregnant woman.

    “it’s not like you can confiscate everyone’s genitalia and loan them back only when it’s time for procreation, though now that I type that, I wonder if anyone’s written that science fictional dystopia”

    My thoughts flashed to Bujold’s Beta Colony! Though it’s pretty different in detail: everyone has their genitalia and can use them freely for pleasure, but they also have mandatory contraceptive implants, to be removed/deactivated only after obtaining parental license from the state. A character talks about Barrayar controlling women’s overall behavior, while Beta ‘only’ locks down their ovaries. Though the motivation is not morality so much as trying to ensure ‘qualified’ parents for the welfare of the children, plus controlling population growth on a planet where they have to tunnel out new living space.

  2. Periods in our nation such as the “Comstock Era” famously defined “obscenity” to include all forms and means of contraception, which then, as now, includes medical treatment for a variety of conditions that happen only to women. It also included intimate behaviors between partners, even married partners, as obscenity that was to prosecuted as law breaking.

    Insanity. It always returns.

  3. Sumptuary laws. They were justified in Elizabethan England on the grounds that many young men, who would otherwise be very servicable to the country, were going into debt to dress too flashy.

    (In case you were wondering why there were income limits on attire then.)

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