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.


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