20 January 2010

Recreational Sex and Respect for Others

Dale Tuggy
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 20, 2010

My colleague Dr. Kershnar argues that there’s nothing morally wrong with “recreational sex”, by which he means sex “outside of marriage or a committed loving relationship.” (“The Tiger Woods Factor”, January 13.)

In the context of an intimate friendship, sex is not simply scratching an itch. It’s a social, reciprocal act, of mutual giving, vulnerability, the smoothing over of relational tensions, even self-sacrifice. It is, in biblical terms, two people becoming “one flesh”, as if they were one organic living unit, not two. Such a lovers act with a view towards the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefit of each other.

Kershnar argues that actions are morally wrong only if they cause great harm, violate someone’s rights, or exploit someone. This principle is false, and betrays a stunted, legalistic approach to morality. For example, it is wrong to curse out one’s own mother simply to let off steam, yet this arguably doesn’t cause great harm, violate anyone’s rights, or involve exploitation.

But suppose his principle is correct. Still, recreational sex often leads to great harms, such as the spreading of STDs, abortions, or women bearing the heavy burden of solo parenthood and children growing up fatherless. Again, rights violations are common, as when one or both are married to someone else. As to exploitation, in casual sex by definition both participants are using each other, as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant says, “merely as a means” to the end of pleasure. That is, each one uses the other in the way that one uses a tool, without regard 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 an exclusive and lasting intimate friendship. When humans are sexually intimate, they are “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. All in all, Kershnar’s claim that recreational sex is a mere matter of taste, like love of opera, is juvenile.

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’s plausible that God would not want us to treat each other as mere masturbatory tools. 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. In our sober moments, locker-room bragging aside, we pity those whose sex lives consist primarily of casual “hook ups”.

Speaking of God, let me address believers. 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, on this “natural law” tradition of moral theory, are the ones which tend to prevent us from being the sort of people we were intended to be.

Casual, meaningless sex does this. Having a habit of 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.

13 January 2010

Recreational Sex is Morally Neutral

Stephen Kershnar
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 5, 2010

On November 25, 2009, the National Enquirer broke the news that golf great Tiger Woods had an affair. He joins a long list of celebrities who have done so. The list includes historical figures (for example, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Baines Johnson), recent political figures (for example, Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, and Jesse Jackson) and other athletes (for example, Michael Jordan, Evander Holyfield, and Barry Bonds,). It is also widely reported that A-list actor Will Smith has an open marriage with Jada Pinkett Smith. Leaving aside issues surrounding adultery and open marriages, and I take no position on them, the issue arises whether recreational sex is wrong.

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 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 that natural acts are statistically common ones since deviant sex is fairly frequent 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 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.