10 December 2006

Recreational Sex

The Objectivist
NOT in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 4, 2006

Recreational sex is sex that is outside of marriage or a committed loving relationship. It sometimes is part of a promiscuous stage in which a person has recreational sex with several people in a short period of time. It’s not for everyone, but that’s a matter of taste not morality. This is no different than many other activities, such as golf, eating McDonald’s fries, and sex with the obese.

An act is wrong only when it wrongs someone or causes great harm. One person wrongs a second only if he violates the second person’s right or exploits her. If a couple has recreational sex no one’s right is violated because both participants voluntarily consent. Nor does it involve exploitation. Exploitation occurs when one person uses his superior position to get another person to agree to a terrible deal. For example, if during a winter storm tow truck operators charged $1,000 per tow to desperate and freezing motorists, the operators would exploit the motorists. Nothing like that is true of recreational sex. And ordinarily recreational sex doesn’t cause great harm. In fact, I’ve been told that it’s a lot more fun than reading my columns.

Religious critics of recreational sex often say that God wants people to engage in other recreational activities (e.g., cooking and book clubs) rather than recreational sex. They often invoke the divine command theory. This theory says that some acts are morally obligatory because God commands that we do them; others are wrong because he forbids them. This is silly. If it were true, then God would have no reason for forbidding certain acts (e.g., rape and battery) rather requiring them. If God has an independent reason for forbidding such acts, then it must be because they are wrong independent of what he commands. Hence, God isn’t much help here.

Others claim that such sex is wrong because it’s unnatural. This is usually followed up with the claim that sex is natural only if it’s for the purpose of reproduction in the context of marriage. Now this obviously takes away the fun away from infertile couples or couples in which the wife is already pregnant. This is absurd.

Furthermore, when we ask what makes an act natural, we shouldn’t be surprised if the opponents sweat as much as the ladies in Richard Simmons’s videos. By “natural,” they can’t mean what’s morally right since this is what’s at issue. Nor do they likely mean acts that are statistically common since activities such as anal sex are common (by age 24, one in three American women has had anal sex) and probably not on the natural-sex crowd’s list of favorites. By “natural,” they probably don’t mean under conditions in which human beings evolved since there is a good chance that human evolution took place in the context of polygamy. Opponents of recreational sex likely would reject any view that is opposed to monogamy. The opponents might think that natural acts are ones that are in line with human beings’ purpose, although they then have the daunting task of identifying what that purpose is. If you think that human beings came about via evolution, and you should, they don’t have a purpose.

It’s not even clear why unnatural activities are wrong. It’s not clear to me that doing chemistry experiments, running ultra-marathons (some are 50 or 100 miles long), or performing ballet is natural. We certainly didn’t evolve to do them, nor are they closely tied to our special purpose.

An opponent of recreational sex might claim that it’s wrong because it’s bad for the participants. He might claim that it leads to sexually transmitted diseases or makes participants less eligible for marriage and parenthood. Now it’s not obvious that acts that hinder the agent’s interest are wrong. Tailgating and watching the Bills might also make a person less eligible for marriage in so far as it makes him fat and bitter, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Even if acts that make a person’s life go poorly are wrong, the opponent must provide data in support of the claim that recreational-sex makes lives go poorly. He might try to show that participants who use contraception and are reasonably careful in their choice of partners run a significant chance of getting a STD or not getting a desirable spouse. I doubt he has data in support of these claims. On average, more educated women have had more sex partners and tried more sexual things (e.g., anal sex and active and passive oral sex) than their less educated sisters, yet are more likely to get college-educated husbands. This doesn’t show that recreational sex doesn’t hurt a person’s chance of getting a desirable spouse, but does show that the breezy claim to the contrary needs support.

In short, it’s a mistake to count a matter of taste as a matter of morality. Sushi, recreational sex, and opera appeal to some tastes and not others. That’s all there is to it.


The Theist
NOT in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 4, 2006

An infertile or “expecting” married couple can’t engage in “recreational” sex as we’re defining it, for although their sex may in some sense be “recreational,” it also occurs in the context of a committed relationship which is intended to be permanent. In this context, sex is not simply desire-satisfaction. It’s about mutual giving, vulnerability, faithful devotion, the smoothing over of relational tensions, even self-sacrifice. It is, in biblical terms, about two people becoming “one flesh,” in some sense one organic living unit, not two. Such a lover is acting for the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefit of the beloved.

The Objectivist argues that actions are morally wrong only if they cause great harm, violate someone’s rights, or exploit someone. Recreational sex, he argues, doesn’t always involve those. Now when recreational sex leads to the spreading of STDs, to abortions, or to women bearing the heavy burden of single parenthood and children growing up fatherless, then great harm has indeed been done. As to rights violations, casual sex in which one of the indulgers is married to someone else does involve the violation of that person’s spouse’s rights. As to exploitation, in casual sex by definition arguably both participants are using each other, as the great philosopher Kant says, “merely as a means” to the end of pleasure. That is, they’re using them in the way that one would use a tool, without concern for their good.

It may be harmless rutting to you, but to your co-rutter, what you’re now doing may be something which, after settling down into marriage, he or she will permanently regret. Sex is odd this way; our sexual activities are deeply imprinted in our memories, and shape all our future sexual thinking and acting. Further, sex is strongly habit-forming. A habit of casual sex, then, gives rise to an appetite for casual sex, and for sex with a variety of partners. And these things wreak havoc on our ability to get and permanently stay in a marriage, or in any relationship much resembling a marriage.

Why can’t we just sexually behave like bonobos, alley cats, or hippies circa 1968? It seems incompatible with human nature; sexual intimacy has a unique value, and we only want to “spend” it where it counts--that is, in the context of a unique and lasting intimate friendship. When humans are sexually intimate, they feel “bonded” in a unique way--each has “known” the other in a way that most of their acquaintances never will. This is why after a casual “hook-up,” both parties feel embarrassment. (“What was your name, again?”) When the lust has diminished, that bonding just seems out of place, given the lack of relationship.

My purpose in this debate isn’t to shame those who’ve engaged in recreational sex. Nor am I interested in outlawing promiscuity. My aim is only to persuade you that this sort of activity is unfitting--even when it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights or cause great harm. If you believe in God, of course, it is very plausible that God would not want us to treat each other as mere masturbatory tools for our own pleasure. Hence, belief in God tends to strengthen one’s aversion to recreational sex. But I emphasize that all ethically sensitive people, believers or not, find this practice to be unfitting.

Speaking of God, let me address believers and those who’ll admit they don’t know there’s no God. The over-arching purpose for the human race, according to Judaism and Christianity, is that there should be a vast and diverse community of people each of whom loves God and loves her neighbor as herself. Recreational sex is unnatural because it is incompatible with a lifestyle of loving one’s neighbor. Loving someone is defined as acting so as to promote their overall well-being. In casual sex, one doesn’t necessarily mean one’s sexual partner ill. Rather, one just doesn’t care what is good for him or her, beyond their immediate pleasure. The other person is just a body, a mere treat to be greedily consumed. What is “unnatural” is what is not specified by the design plan of the human race, and yes, not all such activities are wrong (e.g. balancing a spoon on the end of one’s nose). The ones that are morally wrong are the ones which tend to prevent us from living up to our natural function, activities which prevent us from being the sort of people we were intended to be. Casual sex leads to a desire for more.

Having a propensity towards engaging in casual sex means that you’re the sort of person who habitually ignores the well-being of others. I suggest that this sort of callousness extends beyond the sexual realm to how we treat people generally. If that’s so, this sort of condition is even more tragic than it first appears.


The Objectivist said...

Note that the fact that something is God's purpose for us doesn't provide a reason for us to do something unless it is already worth doing. That is, the failure of divine command theory undermines God's purpose arguments unless they are taken as mere evidence of how we ought to act.

The Objectivist said...

Why think that sex is about mutual giving, self sacrifice, smoothing over emotional tensions, etc? I don't see the argument for this. It's about whatever the participants want to use it for.

Analogously, is running about athletic excellence, getting healthy, staying thin, being able to wear cool clothes, or making friends? There's no answer. It's up the reason for which the person engages in it.

The Objectivist said...

Note our the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer has not yet published these posts. Apparently, there is some concern that these essays are too explicit for the paper's readership.

The Constructivist said...

Heh--it's probably that you actually had a couple of good lines in this column, O, and they didn't want to break your no-funny streak. (Or that you insulted Bills fans everywhere! BTW, you heard it here first that the Bills will win their last three games and by a miracle of divine intervention make the playoffs.)

It seems to me that if people approach casual sex as T describes it they're not going to get to the "sex" part, much less the "casual" part.

Have you checked out sitemeter lately? It appears sex sells, or at least drives google searches. Who knew?

Next we need a debate on pornography!

Any thoughts on a new blog title, O?

The Constructivist said...

Hmm, scratch the sitemeter comment. We had one big day of google searches and that's it.

The Constructivist said...

O, it just hit me that the DFO is balking at running this debate. What does it say about community standards in Dunkirk and Fredonia that they had no problem running your IQ piece but drew the line at your recreational sex argument? Have they reconsidered?

The Objectivist said...

I'm not sure about a new title. I kind of like the old one, but haven't thought about it much.

DFO apparently will run it but only after school is out.

I agree with you about community standards and sex. There is a real issue whether we are reducing political and philosophical discussion to levels that are appropriate for middle schoolers.

The Bills comment may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C and T:
The notion that recreational sex has a purpose is an odd one. Do other activities, e.g., singing or running, have only one appropriate goal. What as a metaphysical matter would explain this one appropriate goal? It can't be our design (see evolution) nor can it be the nature of the activity itself (how would that bind us). I'm at a loss to explain how particular activities have goals that should morally bind us.

The Objectivist said...

One more point. College-educated people have had more partners and tried more things sexually. Perhaps intellectual curiosity is accompanied by sexual curiosity. Even if that doesn't show experimentation is a bad thing, it might show that it springs from a valuable motivation.

The Objectivist said...

I wonder how many of the arguments against recreational sex could be used to show that masturbation, sexual fantasies, and sex toys used with a partner are wrong.

Also, I wish the theist had been a little more scathing about the notion (especially found in the Catholic religion) that sex is morally permissible only if it is for the purposes of reproduction.

Among the types of sex this rules out is sex when the wife is pregnant, sex when one or both partner is infertile, sex during the woman's period, oral and anal sex, and sex that is accompanied by birth control. This also includes masturbation and pornography.

Lastly, I wonder why God would allow human beings to be so strongly tempted to sex (fairly frequent sexual desire for men - see the University of Chicago studies) when he didn't want them acting on it. This does not strike me as a creator who wants his creations to be happy.

The Constructivist said...

O, do you think taste is a "to each his/her own" thing or can there be good taste and bad taste? Is taste an aesthetic category? Even if sex is a matter of taste or aesthetics and not morality, can't judgments still be made? And shouldn't they? Why not?