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Opinion | Has Liberalism Found a Coherent Sexual Ethics?

When the Huberman profile appeared, some social-media voices suggested that there’s a tension in publishing a takedown of a man juggling six girlfriends after celebrating the juggle just a couple of months previously. But in reality the two cover stories are entirely of a piece. The implied critique of the neuroscience cad isn’t just that he has sex with lots of different women but that he does so deceptively and selfishly — instead of following the kind of open, complex process of negotiation that’s ethically required to be the kind of person who has sex with six different people at a time.

That idea of sex-as-process, with the sexual act itself embedded inside a kind of “best practices” of dialogue and interaction, seems to be where social liberalism has settled, for now, in its attempt to create a post-Hefnerian sexual culture. Thus the general fascination with polyamory, manifest in trend pieces, books and essays too numerous to count, isn’t just about envelope-pushing and shock value. It also reflects a desire to maintain the permissive sexual ethic that men like Hefner turned to their own exploitative ends, but to make it healthier and therapeutic, more female-friendly and egalitarian, safer and more structured.

Polyamory isn’t being offered as an alternative to conservative monogamy, in this sense, so much as an alternative to more dangerous, irresponsible, and deceptive forms of promiscuity — a responsible, spreadsheet-enabled, therapeutic version of the sexual revolution, in which transparency replaces cheating, and everything is permitted so long as you carefully negotiate permission.

A glance at some actual human relationships should raise some doubts about how well this model really works. Whatever Huberman’s failures of honesty and communication, for instance, he appears extremely well versed in the kind of therapy-speak that’s supposed to tame libidinous excess — suggesting that predators and cads can work through this system as well as any other. Or again, the new mom-with-an-open-marriage memoir by Molly Roden Winter, “More,” reads more like a testament to marital suffering than any kind of guide to the good life.

But the depth of the problem with the attempt to establish “safe” forms of liberation is suggested by yet a third New York magazine cover story, the most controversial of the lot: the transgender cultural critic Andrea Long Chu’s recent essay “Freedom of Sex,” which makes a case for allowing kids experiencing gender dysphoria to undergo interventions like puberty blockers and mastectomies regardless of what medical or psychological claims are made about where the desire to change their sex comes from.

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