Sexual Ethics
Part III
A Modern Debate about Sex:
Sodomy, Fornication, Promiscuity, Marriage, and Vows
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Sexual Ethics
Part III
A Modern Debate about Sex: Sodomy, Fornication, Promiscuity, Marriage, and Vows
23 March, 2008

A Modern Debate About Sex: Sodomy, Premarital Sex, Promiscuity, Marriage, and Vows
"Well," some irate traditionalist might object, "I ain't too sure about how right your definition of sexual morality is. You say that any kind of sexin' is okay as long it's done by competent consentin' folk, but if that's the case, it'd mean that a whole lot of sins are just fine. Frankly, your definition don't seem useful at all for figurin' out what to consider moral or immoral. We ain't all into free love and wild livin'. Some of us still have values, and we think there are some things that just ain't right. What about sodomy? What about premarital sex? What about adultery? What about women who go a-whorin'? You've got to admit that those are all things that just need to be condemned."

Let's look at these behaviors in the light of what I've said. Maybe that'll help to determine if they're ethical or not.

Is sodomy wrong? If the act is performed by two or more free, uncommitted, competent, and roughly equal partners who both or all have consented to the act, then I'd have to say that the act is perfectly moral. I suppose there are those who will claim that the use of certain body parts is just innately unethical, but I don't know how they could justify this rationally. Maybe there are tiny invisible devils living in certain human organs, and these nasty little fiends sprinkle those organs with "devil dust" to make them impure. Since such a claim is complete make believe it does not, fortunately, need to be addressed. No part of the human body is more or less pure than any other. If someone thinks certain parts are more or less pure than others, then his opinion is based exclusively on inherited prejudice, not on any empirical evidence. For that matter, his belief in purity itself is based on such prejudice. It's a completely made up concept. Even if he appeals to the actual presence of bacteria in or on particular body parts, he's going to be in trouble, especially since he'll never be able to use his hands or mouth again. Actually, I wouldn't complain if some traditionalist did make such a claim. It would be good for those of us devoted to reason if he did. Since this individual wouldn't thereafter be using his hands or mouth, he wouldn't be able argue his position in writing or verbally. That would keep him out of a good deal of mischief.

"That ain't it all," my traditionalist snaps. "It just ain't natural to have sex with the mouth or the anus!"

I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure what my old fashioned friend means when he says that something isn't "natural." I suppose that there are really two possibilities. It could be that he believes that something isn't "natural" if it doesn't serve a biological function. However, if that's what's intended, then my traditionalist must oppose religion, literature, education, and engaging in business. Because none of these things serve a biological function, they must not be natural, and, not being natural, they must be condemnable. The second possible intended meaning of the word (that I can see) is as a label that allows us to make a distinction between things that are devised by human beings and things that are not, the latter being "natural" and the former being "unnatural." Of course, if this is what is meant, then, since it's not natural to wear clothing or build houses, I assume this person is also a nudist living under a tree.

"That's different," he answers. "We have our intelligence. We can learn how to do new things."

Now that's a relief! The traditionalist agrees with me. He concedes that we can employ our intelligence to learn how to do new things, like using the mouth, the anus, the elbow, the foot, the ear, or anything else to do what we want, namely, to fulfill our sexual desires.

"That's pretty nasty. Still, at least you ain't sayin' it's alright for two men or two women or a man and one of them trannies, or whatever you call them, to go at it."

I thought I had said exactly that when I mentioned that any sexual act performed by two or more free, uncommitted, competent, consenting, and roughly equal partners is morally acceptable. I completely fail to see how the genders of the persons involved would be relevant. To tell you the truth, the claim that the genders of the persons involved is relevant is so nonsensical and so arbitrary that I don't even see why it needs to be addressed. I might at well address the relevance of the shape of the participants' eyebrows, the number of moles they have on their ears, their ethnic backgrounds, or their religious or political affiliations.

"Okay, you perverts do what you like, but you still have to admit bumpin' uglies before you're married just ain't right."

Why should I? I've laid out pretty specific conditions for determining if an action is unethical, and I don't see how engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage violates any of those conditions. If a person wants to have sex, then he should have sex.

"Okay, you have your sex before you get married," my traditionalist now hoots, "but you better not say it's right! Just look at the risks. You go around havin' sex with different folks, and you're sure gonna catch some kind of sickness."

I'll grant that, for both pragmatic and ethical reasons, every person should be aware of the risks of having sex, but being aware of such risks does not mean that he shouldn't have sex. Certainly, any person ought to know that there will be a risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease if he has sexual contact with another person. He has no ethical obligation to himself to be so aware, but it would be prudent to know this and to act in accordance with this knowledge. What is more, every sexually active person does have an ethical obligation to his partners to be aware of the risks of sexual activity. If an individual engages in unsafe sex with multiple partners and infects one or more of those partners with a sexually transmitted disease, his negligence makes him at least partially responsible for the suffering that other person or persons will endure.

Acknowledging that there are risks involved in an activity does not, however, mean acknowledging that the activity is unethical. It's risky to walk down the sidewalk. If I close my eyes, I might run into a pole or another pedestrian. I might, if I jump too merrily along my way, stumble and fall in front of a car. I might even knock someone else in front of that car when I fall. Since I acknowledge that there are dangers involved in walking, am I to think that walking is unethical? No. I just admit that I should walk in a responsible way that takes those risks into account. The same is true with sex. There are risks involved, but having sex isn't made unethical because of their existence.

"You are a sick thing!" the traditionalist now shrieks in disgust. "You just don't know how good it is to wait for somethin' special. Now, that's why some of us save ourselves till we get married."

I'll admit that there's no ethical reason why a person should have sex before getting married. Doing so is entirely a matter of personal choice. Nonetheless, waiting does strike me as being rather foolish. A pleasure deferred is a pleasure missed. I guess there are also people who forgo eating until they encounter that special dinner that will mean something extra to them. I cannot, however, understand how anyone would be so blind as to think this would be a fulfilling course of action. As someone once said, chastity is as much a virtue as is starvation. That is true. Both are equally pointless self-deprivations.

That said, there are legitimate reasons for forgoing a pleasure. It might be dangerous, like indulging in hard drugs is. It might, if experienced, prevent one from experiencing another greater pleasure, as might eating some snack just before being served a nice meal. It might require that a person ignore his responsibilities, as might some activity that prevents a person from going to his work to earn a living. It might be illegal, like gambling is in many places. In all of these instances, a person is probably wise to forgo the pleasure in question.

However, if there is not such a reason and a person passes on experiencing some joy life has to offer simply because he feels that the pleasure is wrong, when it is not, then he inevitably diminishes the quality of his life. He reduces the bliss he might have relished in his days upon this earth, and deliberately missing out on life's pleasures by devaluing these is just being foolish. Now, let's be honest, this is usually why a person forgoes a pleasure. The person who is celibate has, more often than not, chosen to be so because he has been deceived into thinking that certain or all sexual acts are wicked. This said, I will not try to prevent any person who has so been deluded from renouncing sex. I won't even prevent the most extreme hater of the flesh from living naked in a cave, eating nothing but worms and moss, and flagellating himself every day. If that's how he chooses to live his life, he's free to make that choice. Nonetheless, in all likelihood, his desire for this ascetic existence was aroused as a result of his being deceived, and I will hardly claim that he is being wise when he fails to see this. He is, after all, wasting his chance to experience the wonders of this incredible world and, in particular, sex, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest joys of life. I would, instead, tell him to seize the pleasures this world has to offer. Do not reject them. Of course, when I say that, I am telling that person to have sex.

Admittedly, as I already said, there can be reasons to forgo a pleasure, and a person might find a reason to forgo sexual pleasures at some time. In fact, brief periods of celibacy can be useful for various reasons. For instance, periods of celibacy can create such sexual tension that a person's mental state is so affected that he is able to immerse himself deeply in activities involving extreme emotions, such as certain ecstatic religious festivals. If the positive consequences of periods of celibacy are desired intensely enough to justify the loss of sexual pleasures during those times, then I would not argue that such celibacy is foolishly adopted. The fulfillment of one desire, that for sex, is simply sacrificed for the fulfillment of another desire that happens to be greater. Nonetheless, such instances are of limited scope and do not affect my general assertion, that a person is diminishing his existence by willingly adopting a celibate life. To put things simply, if he doesn't have a good reason to be celibate, it's just silly for a person not to have sex, even if he's not married.

"You nasty dog!" my traditionalist howls. "I guess you ain't capable of knowin' how good it is not to experience some pleasure. You just sink into your mire of fleshly delights and wallow there. I'm happy to atone for Adam's sins by mortifyin' my meat. I'll bet you even despise the holy bond of matrimony. You probably think folks ought to just ignore that sacred chain and go stickin' their gooey dipper in every honeypot that looks sweet to them."

Well, I have to admit that if we're talking about some supernatural institution that imposes certain taboos on any person that involves himself in that institution, then I don't see how it could really bind anyone. Is this some magical rite that's being talked about? Is it some enchantment that will bring down curses of boils and plagues of toads? Let's face it, no such transcendent entity exists. Consequently, this institution cannot impose anything on any human being. If people are guided by the belief in such an institution, then they have been deceived. It's the same as being afraid of a witch's spells or the dangers of stepping on cracks.

However, if my opponent is referring to the oaths people make to one another, then I fully agree that those who make such oaths should honor them. We have obligations to one another, and if we make promises, we should keep them. If two free and competent people enter into a relationship and promise one another to remain monogamous for the duration of that relationship, then, if either of them violates that promise, he or she is behaving unethically. After all, each person freely made this oath in exchange for a relationship with the other, and, by violating his oath, he is violating that agreement. Specifically, he is impinging upon the expressed desire of the other person to continue the relationship under the terms agreed upon.

Of course, it is quite possible for two, or even more, people to enter into a committed relationship with one another without agreeing to limit their sexual partners. If such is the case, then a person, though married, need not remain monogamous. There are an endless number of possibilities here, but these need not be elaborated.

"Wait a second! Hold your horses!" my traditionalist interjects. "Are you sayin' what I think you're sayin'? Are you defendin' wife-swappin' or somethin' like that?"

In effect, I am. As I've already said, marriage is not some mystical institution that imposes itself upon human beings. It is simply that relationship existing between particular human beings who have agreed to enter into such a relationship, especially, in the context of the Modern West, when this relationship is defended by laws that differentiate it from other types of relationships not so defended. For the sake of ethics, these legal elements of marriage can be ignored. What is relevant is the commitment that one human being has made to another.

"There you go. Now you're talkin' sense. That's what marriage is all about: one man and one woman together till they die."

Actually, that's not what I said. Certainly, one man and one woman can make a commitment to one another and promise to remain monogamous. There are other possibilities, however. Two men could make such a promise, or two women could. Three men could do so, or three women could. The list could go on and on, although I suppose that there are practical limitations. Still even more complex arrangements could be made. One man could take multiple wives or one wife multiple husbands. A group of people of both genders could even form a communal unit.

"By gosh! You are raunchy! Still, at least you ain't advocatin' wife-swappin'."

Who said I wasn't? Actually, I thought I already said I was. While the persons in a given relationship might have made an agreement not to have sexual relations with persons not in that relationship, there is no reason why they have to do so. It's possible that married persons might want to be in a relationship with each other but still have sexual relations with others. If the married persons agreed to this, then there's nothing wrong with their acting in accord with that agreement.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the variety of possible restrictions that might be agreed upon is infinite. I'll give you a hypothetical example just to illustrate this. Let's imagine that four people, two men and two women, enter into a relationship. According to the agreement by which this union is formed, the first man can have sex with any person willing to have sex with him, whether this person is in the relationship or not; he just can't enter into a contractual relationship (a marriage) with that other person. The second man can only have sexual relations with the first man and the first woman. The first woman can have sex with any of the other three in the relationship, as well as with any other man (though not any other woman). The second woman can have sexual relationships with the first man and the first woman and can form a marriage with any other person so long as that person agrees not to have sexual relationships with anyone other than her and the first man.

Obviously, it's unlikely most people would form such complex unions, but any union, whether simple or complicated, is just an agreement made by its members to behave in certain ways in exchange for the perpetuation of a relationship with the others. What the terms of this union are depend entirely upon what the individuals involved decide upon as free agents, but whatever these terms are, they do bind those who make them, at least ethically, if not legally. What is relevant here is not the precise organization of a relationship, but that a person keeps any promises he has made to another.

"Well, I can't say I like your ideas of marriage. You're gonna let perverts have all kinds of dirty fun. Still, I'm glad to hear you say that promises are important. That's why, when my daughter turned eleven and got afflicted with Eve's curse, I made her promise me she'd stay pure till she got married. Now she's got a promise to keep, and if she don't keep it, I'm gonna whip her in this life till she gets a feel of what the devil's gonna do to her in the next."

That sounds like a nice way to raise a daughter. Unfortunately, children are not competent to enter into contracts. Because they don't have the knowledge or the experience to make reasonable judgements, we can't hold them to any agreements. Now, I'm not saying a child shouldn't be punished when he makes a promise and then breaks it. He should be. However, his punishment is an attempt to teach him. It's not being imposed because he's behaved unethically. Until a person is old enough to make rational decisions, he is outside the scope of morality. What that means is that your daughter is under no moral obligation to keep a promise she wasn't competent to make in the first place. Even if she was mature enough to understand the agreement, since you have such power over her, I can't see how she could possibly freely consent to any contract with you. It's quite likely she agreed simply to avoid being punished in some way. Contracts made under duress, sadly for you, are never valid.

"Okay, okay. It doesn't matter anyway. If she goes and acts like some hussy, I'm gonna knock her upside her head so hard her eyeballs are gonna pop out of her skull. That'll keep her in line. I'm a lot bigger than she is, and she knows I can whoop her. Yep, that'll keep her in line. I don't need no promise from no puny little girl. It's the promise of my wife that really matters. I'm sure you agree that since she promised to stay with me 'till death do we part,' she can't leave me."

That is quite a commitment. I assume, of course, that you have treated her the way that she expected to be treated when she made that agreement with you. If you did not, then you might have voided the contract yourself. In that case, she would no longer be bound by its terms.

"I always treat her right. I hardly ever whoop her."

Even if you have treated her right, I suspect that she might have agreed to stay with you until one of you died without thinking about what that entails. If that's the case, then she was wrong to make the agreement in the first place, but maintaining a relationship only to avoid violating a contract that shouldn't have originally been made is going to do nothing but bring about unhappiness. Bringing about such misery is far worse of a thing than voiding a contract, especially a flawed one. Let's face it, feelings and circumstances change. We should acknowledge that fact by acknowledging that relationships can be ended. We should not, consequently, enter into contracts the terms of which are unreasonable by their not conceding this reality. Of course, it is wonderful when two people stay in love with one another their whole lives. Nonetheless, we have to admit that many people are just being unrealistic if they are absolutely certain that their feelings for another person will not change. Relationships, even when sanctified as marriages, can always be dissolved.

By Keith Allen

Sexual Ethics, Part 4
Sexual Ethics, Part 1 / Sexual Ethics, Part 2

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