I first had sex in 1996, when I was 18. It happened in a Columbia University dorm while my roommate was sleeping. A girl from down the hall crept into my bed, took off her shirt and gave me head. I remember being very pleased with the experience. After that, my sexual journey in life took off, soon encompassing men as well as women. Before long, I was having sex with dozens of people a night at sex parties in New York and Berlin. Eventually, I decided to become an escort and performed in porn.
Despite my unconventional experiences, I have never felt bad about my sexual life, nor have I felt “out of control” or ashamed. Quite the contrary, I have felt proud to live my life this way: It has expressed my desires and impulses as an individual who makes his own choices. It has not inhibited my intellectual development, regardless of conventional rhetoric equating promiscuity with ignorance. Indeed, it has been a source of great happiness over the years.
Yet, sexual promiscuity always attracts moral and social criticism. Just about every Western religion rails against the “evils of the flesh.” Newspapers feast on sex scandals, relishing every opportunity to call out “sluts.” Even within New York’s very sexually permissive gay community (in which I’m a very active member), those who enjoy themselves a bit “too much” can’t escape the “slut” label.
Well, I’m a slut. No question about it.
I don’t think being a slut is a bad thing at all. In fact, my sluttiness over the years has made me happy, and it’s expressed who I am through the desires I’ve followed. It hasn’t been the only facet in my character. It’s simply been an important one that has combined with other parts to make me a harmonious–and happy–totality.
I think John Stuart Mill, one of the 19th century’s leading philosophical voices on the nature of human liberty, would have approved of how I’ve lived my life. In his famous 1859 essay, On Liberty, Mill outlined the proper balance between social control and individual freedom. Often cited as the genesis of the libertarian movement, Mill’s individual liberty theory is extremely expansive:
“The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Mill goes on to say that individual liberty extends to any “combination among individuals; [the] freedom to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others.”
Put another way, conduct that concerns “only ourselves”–like our voluntary sexual choices–is completely beyond social control. And as long as sexual encounters involve voluntary, “free combination” among individuals, society has no right to control or condemn them.
Mill’s essay does not directly address sexuality. But it addresses something that is critical to both sexuality and happiness: Individuality. In the essay’s third chapter, “Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being,” Mill voices timeless principles. He praises those who dare to live their lives differently from the way in which custom, religion or public opinion admonish them. He even says that daring eccentrics drive human progress.
What makes an individual? According to Mill, and the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, whom Mill repeatedly cites, man’s “end” is to develop into a “complete and consistent whole” through “individual power.” That “power,” in turn, requires both freedom and a “variety of situations.” When those two things combine, Mill says, there follows “individual vigor and manifold diversity.” And that combination results in something exceptional: Originality.
Mill goes on to outline what separates original individuals from the rest. An original chooses his own plan of life without fear of what others will say. “He who lets the world choose his plan of life for him has no need of any faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” He then sketches his progressive view of human nature, calling it an “organic” process that changes with time and circumstance. Most importantly, he says that human nature has as much to do with “desire and impulse” as it does with “reason.” In fact, “desire and impulse” give man “energy.” Finally, Mill reasons that an individual, who makes his own choices by following his unique desires, impulses, feelings, and energy has original character. And original characters drive society forward.
Mill quickly points out that individuality faces constant antagonism from countervailing social forces. In fact, societies rarely tolerate original characters because they resist the two things that societies require to maintain social control: custom and tradition. Original characters rebel against customs and traditions, seeking new ways to live and to make themselves happy. This represents a threat against the mass, and that is why original characters often face repression, derision and scorn through public opinion. Society requires original characters to move forward tomorrow, but does all it can to repress them today.
Mill is careful to point out that no two originals are alike. In fact, original characters grow best in an atmosphere of freedom that allows for diverse “modes of life.” Only by choosing a “lifestyle” fit for his unique needs can a person be “happy” and achieve the best development that his nature allows him.
In this sense, the true individual chooses his path and that path makes him happy. That might sound easy, but society does all it can to frustrate those choices. According to Mill, “The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.” This “normalizing tendency” expresses itself through “public opinion,” which Mill excoriates as mere “collective mediocrity” for “the mass.” Public opinion, in turn, speaks for the “general average of mankind,” which, not surprisingly, has “no tastes or wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have.” It is no wonder, then, that public opinion harps on two major refrains: custom and morality.
Mill repeatedly criticizes both custom and morality in On Liberty. “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement,” he writes. Custom and morality stand as the antagonists both to individuality and happiness. Where individuality requires free choice, vigor and strong personal desire, morality and custom require that a person “desire nothing strongly…[their] ideal of character is to be without any marked character.” On Christian morality in particular, Mill reserves bitter comment against its “horror of sensuality,” “idol of asceticism,” and tendency to enforce “obedience to authority,” rather than the energy that lies within each of us.
In short, customary morality–and the public opinion that sustains it–retards vigor, energy, desire and individual development. And by restricting that, it restricts character, progress and human happiness.
Mill, of course, does not directly address sexuality in his argument for individuality. But it is undeniable that free sexual choices fall squarely into his conception both of individuality and liberty. Like few other forces in individual life, sexual impulses and desires define us. They express our vigor and “manifold diversity.” Our fantasies are uniquely personal, with deep psychological roots tied to our development. Acting upon our urges and desires reflects the truest expression of who we are, and Mill would fully embrace our liberty to do just that–so long as our expressions harm no one, and so long as all our partners voluntarily consent to act with us. To use Mill’s analysis, individual sexual liberty is tantamount to energy, and energy means we have character.
Sexual liberty alone will not make us geniuses or the harbingers of social advancement. But I would argue that it is a key ingredient to individuality, and thus a key ingredient for both happiness and custom-busting character. It is no accident that social forces in today’s world continue to pillory “sluts” as people with “loose morals” who deserve scorn. Yet Mill teaches that these are reactionary voices, voices from the mass of mediocre people who war against human vigor and human advancement. Public opinion has always used morality to damper original characters, and it continues to do so in its campaign to shame “sluts.”
There is no shame at all in being a slut. In fact, it is essential to reclaim the word and redefine it as a concept for freedom, not shame. Being a slut means making free sexual choices, unhampered by morality or public opinion. It means experiencing a “diversity of situations,” expressing our desires, impulses and energy in ways that lead to growth and experience. When we cultivate these things–and when we tell public opinion to mind its own business when it criticizes them–we lay the groundwork not only for originality, but also for happiness.
I’m proud to be a slut and I’m damn happy being one. I’m assured in my life choices and I don’t give a fig what popular moralists say about them. Being a slut is part of the totality of free choices that make me who I am, and those free choices give free rein to my own thoughts, desires and impulses. These are the things that make me human. In all these choices, of course, I scrupulously ensure that I harm no one, and in that sense I think I have well lived up to Mill’s liberty standard.
Will I be a force for social progress? I lay no claim to that. But I do know that I am happy in my choices. And I take heart from Mill’s ode to eccentrics, as applicable today as it was in 1859: “In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend a knee to custom, is itself a service.”
In that light, I welcome moralists’ attacks for my sexual choices.