sexual morality

I think it’s really interesting how we as a society think about sexual morality. Here’s an overheard conversation.

“Well I don’t want to date her, I just want to have sex with her.”

“So you’re using her.”

The implication of the second person’s statement being that something is morally amiss here. However, it seems to me that not wanting to date a person one is having sex with is a necessary component for the exploitation of that person, it does not seem at all sufficient.

Take this example. I want to play tennis, and so I call up my friend to play. We play and both have a good time. Imagine then this conversation:

“Well I don’t want to be her standard doubles partner, I just want to play tennis with her.”

“So you’re using her.”

The idea that this constitutes some sort of exploitation is hard to believe. It seems like my tennis partner plays willingly with me and, under the assumption of this example, has fun to boot. Sure, I call the person partially to satisfy my own desire for a game, but I don’t call me friend in the same way that I order a pizza. In the second case, I just want my desire for a pizza satisfied, but in the tennis game, I’m anticipating a jointly entertaining activity that will involve a “togetherness” element to the fun.

There is no reason such a sentiment needs to be lacking in sexual encounters, and it seems that many people approach casual sexual relations with just this vivaciousness: “I’m not in love with you, but I will love you tonight.” In a Soldier of the Great War, the main character, Alessandro, has sex with many many women in the course of the book, but each time, he dedicates himself to the encounter and to the woman, even if he is not dedicated to the particular woman for all time. He engages in sex with a compassionate intensity. He loved each woman he was with, even if he does not, at the end of the book, love any of them.

Someone might protest: this is just a defense of a degrading approach to sex. Obviously sex is different than a tennis game.

I agree that sex is different than tennis, but the difficulty is in showing just exactly how. Is it that we expect sex to be a prelude to a longer relation so that a one night stand dashes our prognostication for a fulfilling and deep relationship? That’s hard to believe given the “hook up” culture I constantly hear decried in media and conversation. How could anyone be so foolish as to take sex as an automatic entry into a fulfilling and deep relationship? If not, then the problem with casual sex is not that it dashes expectations.

Again, I want to reiterate the positive suggestion of this article, which is that encounters take on significance not just in relationship to the long term, but also to the very short term. The sex between two people does not take on its meaning and value purely in reference to the relationship within which that act takes place. This would be a dreary and reductive way of viewing the world according to which things can never shock us, move us, and exhilarate us except in reference to a set pattern. Sometimes, the shortness of the overall relationship with a person enhances or provides the grounds for the deepness and significance of a particular moment. And this is not just true for sex, but the myriad ways that we interact with other people all the time. The point is that our actions and interactions might in some cases be judged by their intensity rather than their duration.


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