Teachers at De Paradijsvogel, a primary school in The Hague, send children home if they come to school in crop tops or spaghetti straps. This has resulted in a lot of fuss all over the Netherlands. What’s your opinion?
“First of all, I’d say that children’s clothes are the parents’ business. But of course, there are limits. And schools have the right to implement rules for this. Society has to be regulated in all respects, including sexuality and eroticism.”
Critics said that this was sexualising girls aged about 10, despite the fact that they themselves have no idea of their sexuality at that age.
“But this sexuality actually exists. Here in the Netherlands, we’d rather deny it and say that there’s something wrong with teachers who are distracted by underage pupils. But it isn’t as simple as that.”
“Because this conscious or subconscious tension actually exists. Sexuality can be very beautiful but it can also be very dangerous, as anyone who’s read Bataille knows. Sexual attraction makes people feel they want to have sex with each other all the time, even under unsuitable circumstances. We’ve learnt that we have to keep these feelings under control to a certain extent. Using violence or having sex with children or in public isn’t socially acceptable. That kind of social taboo has an important function, but it can’t eliminate our sexual urges. There are two sides to reality: what we actually do – which is generally acceptable – and what our libido might want us to do at times. The problem with today’s shift towards prudishness is that we’re desperately trying to align this duality. The suppression of our natural urges has been moralised in line with the idea that moral people in a moral society can co-exist in complete harmony. But I don’t think this is possible. And it’s not a good idea to pretend it is either.”
Nowadays, teachers are more or less accused of paedophile inclinations if they object to their pupils being scantily clad. Are you saying that children can be sexually interesting at a young age, to adults as well as to each other?
“Yes, of course they can. And we can’t eliminate this by saying that there’s something wrong with certain teachers. There’s only something wrong with them if they’re unable to control their urges. But this doesn’t mean we don’t need constraint to stop that kind of situation from arising. You can’t keep offering someone provocation time and again and then turn around and tell him that he is the only guilty party if he gives way to his feelings. All this can be described as the backlash from the 1970s, which was the era of more or less complete sexual freedom. Anything and everything was acceptable and even paedophilia was considered a form of liberation. But after a while, people realised that sexuality had much more of a dark side than they thought. They got in a sort of panic and imposed restraints all over the place. Nowadays, it’s the perpetrator’s fault if anything goes wrong. Sexuality isn’t to blame any more. The reality is that the ‘dangerous’ aspect is an irrevocable part of sexuality. We love doing things that aren’t really allowed. And we can try and banish orgies, prostitution, adultery and even paedophilia to the fringes of society, but immorality will always remain part of sexuality. The French have a good word for this: inavouable, which means anything that can’t be admitted, that requires secrecy, deceit and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is an extremely underestimated part of sexuality.”
What does that mean?
“Our bodies and our desires know no morality. Take adultery, for instance. It’s always existed and it always will. But you can’t talk about it. You can’t tell your wife at the tea-table that you’ve just had the most incredible sex with your secretary. But that’s the idea behind the happy sexuality that started back in the 1970s: that we can combine our natural urges with social standards in a morally responsible manner. The problem with today’s prudish attitude is that people have moralised human lasciviousness in its entirety, and they think they’ve got it under control. But this attitude merely ignores the duality of human nature and the fact that rational behaviour and self control alone can never dominate. Vice may have gone underground but it’s still the driving force. And sensible public morals acknowledge this fact. In other words, we can and we must impose standards on people by force. But we also have to realise that our natural urges will always remain stronger in the end.”
‘School uniforms avoid the problem instead of eliminating it’
To go back to the dress code at primary school: wouldn’t it be better if children simply wore school uniforms?
“This is a fairly frequent phenomenon in Belgium, especially at private schools. The reason for this is to remove social inequality rather than eliminate sexuality. But school uniforms avoid the problem instead of eliminating it. If youngsters go out in the evenings, it will be just as much in evidence if not more so.”
But surely each individual has the right to do whatever he likes with his sexuality? That seems to have been forgotten in today’s multicultural society.
“Each individual has the right to do what he likes in private life. But society has an equal right to be protected from continual and excessive provocation. Society demands that limits be set. We call this ‘civilisation’. Setting these limits is always a question of pushing and pulling that really has nothing to do with our multicultural society. One remarkable fact is that progressive citizens and conservative migrant citizens sometimes protest in the same way against what they regard as undesirable elements, even though their respective motives are completely different.”
During the past 10 years, we’ve been hearing increasingly often that society has been sexualised. Do you agree with this view?
“What I notice the most about that kind of statement is that the fight against ‘moral degeneration’ is often given a completely different name. Take prostitution, for instance. Today’s campaign against this is carried out under the name of human rights. Campaigners claim that it’s degrading for people – male as well as female – to sell their bodies for money. Their idea is that nobody does it voluntarily. But in actual fact, you can see the return of various bourgeois ideas on decency and indecency. It’s like those 17th-century paintings where charitable institutions are pointing an accusing finger. Only nowadays it’s the bourgeoisie that’s trying to impose its views on the fringes of society. The fight against human trafficking was officially at issue in the closing down of the Zandpad, Utrecht’s red-light district. Mind you, this fight was essential. But in fact, the people who were actually involved – the women who worked there and who didn’t benefit at all from closure – weren’t asked to give their views. This kind of ‘liberation’ was no use to them whatsoever. It was imposed on them in the name of some abstract morality, and it completely ignored the social consequences that these women were often worse off than before after the place was closed.”
Has prudishness in our society gone over the top?
“I’m not at all happy with the total moralisation of society. We have to learn to live with the fact that our ideals can never entirely become reality, that each type of society has a dark side and each individual person has less positive characteristics. We northern Europeans like to believe that we’re fully moralisable, but this doesn’t eliminate our dark side. What’s more, if we try and do this, it only makes matters worse. Look at that notorious sex scandal in Valkenburg in 2015, where a young girl of 16 was forced to work as a prostitute. And the Public Prosecutions Service took unprecedentedly tough action. The men in question were hunted down mercilessly – which actually resulted in a number of suicides – even before the start of any legal proceedings. Of course it was a very serious affair, but narrow-minded public morals only served to make matters worse. Morality is useful, but you can’t expect us to live up to it all the time.”
It sounds as if you had a good Catholic upbringing.
“I’m an atheist with a Catholic background, which has enabled me to realise that a healthy ability to put everything into perspective is essential to the well-being of any society. Let’s be honest, we’ll never be saints no matter how hard we try.”
Ger Groot (1954) is a senior university lecturer in Philosophy at the Philosophy Faculty. He obtained his doctorate on the works of the philosophers Nietzsche, Cioran, Bataille and Derrida. His academic and popular work both focus on all aspects of the human condition, from a bourgeois attitude to a sense of shame and from religion to politics. He also writes columns for Trouw daily newspaper.