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Where are we going with sex?

November 30, 2015

American society has seen some dramatic shifts recently in its attitudes toward sex.  Most noticeably, gay sex is gaining acceptability–so much so that the Supreme Court has given same-sex couples the right to marry.  There has also been much more public awareness and discussion of polygamy–a form of marriage that is illegal but persists among some religious sectarian groups.  And in the past decade premarital sex has expanded into new categories such as “Friends With Benefits.”

These various shifts have given some people the impression that when it comes to sexual morality, the sky is falling; there seem to be no moral norms or limits.

This, of course, is not the actual case.  Consider, for instance, rape.  Thirty-five to forty years ago I actually heard some church-going men describe rape as “no big deal.”  Date-rape was frequent and acceptable.  Date-rape and party-rape are still big problems today–especially on some college campuses–but society as a whole no longer condones it.  Without clear consent, engaging in sex, regardless of circumstances, is now considered rape and is prosecuted as such.  Our society has made significant progress in respecting the integrity of women.

Also, consider our society’s attitude toward adultery.  A recent Gallup poll reveals that 91% of Americans say adultery is “morally wrong.”  In the past forty years, adultery has become less acceptable, not more so.  (Interestingly, at least among upper middle class Americans, the divorce rate is also going down.)

So American society is not becoming morally relative when it comes to questions about sex; rather, it is shifting its understanding of what “moral” means.  Sex is immoral when it involves deceit or coercion or breaking promises, and sex is moral (or neutral) if it is consensual and safe and honest.  Rather than determining sexual morality on the basis of religious rules or secular law, sexual morality is determined by whether it harms people or relationships.

In my opinion, that’s not a bad basis for making ethical decisions.  It seems to me to be consistent with the ethical principle of “love your neighbor as yourself.”  I think the problem is that we are not being far-sighted enough about consequences, and realistic enough about our innate selfishness.

Sex is the ultimate expression of physical intimacy and vulnerability.  As such, it does something to us emotionally and psychologically.  It tends to be a powerful bonding experience.  So if the intimacy and vulnerability of the sex act is not matched by an intimate and vulnerable relationship, then there is likely to be a sense of betrayal and loss of self-esteem.  For our mental wellbeing, I believe sex needs to be in the context of genuine self-giving love and commitment.  But the joy of sex, combined with our self-centered desire for pleasure, clouds our judgment, and we fool ourselves into thinking sex is an innocuous game that can be played without consequences among any willing players.  Not so.

All cultures throughout history have regulated proper sexual expression, recognizing that sex produces children who will need intensive care from reliable parents, and also recognizing that sex is a powerful drive that our selfishness will otherwise misuse.  I think it is reasonable to conclude that this is why every culture has invented marriage.  Ironically, gay marriage is in many ways a conservative position; it supports the notion that sex bonds people together, and such couples are aided by a public commitment that helps nourish faithfulness.

When it comes to sexual morality in our culture, I do not think the sky is falling.  Some trends are actually strengthening marriage.  But I do think we need to be wiser in placing sex into a context that enhances our health and wellbeing, and that facilitates the nurture of children.

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5 Comments
  1. Randall Bowman permalink

    As always, a thoughtful discussion of a sensitive subject.
    I agree with your observations about the direction that some sexual relationships are viewed as compared to earlier generations.
    It is interesting to see the expanding descriptions of sexuality and even labels of asexuality.
    The populace of the US has the “luxury” of exploring some of these issues that wouldn’t be financially feasible in third world countries. I doubt many people in India, China, etc could afford a sex change operation even if they wanted one.
    Just food for thought.
    RJB

    • RJB, thanks for your additional input! I may have to add another blog post on the issues you raise. Our society is indeed exploring aspects of human sexuality in ways that were perhaps unimaginable before; and technology and money are partly what’s making it possible.

  2. Noah Denman permalink

    I’ll start with a side note: I’ve read (though to be honest I’ve not done the research or looked at any polls so this could be off base, though the logic of it makes a lot of sense) that a major contributor to the decline in divorce rate is; as divorce became less taboo people who would have otherwise gotten divorced, but didn’t due to social stigma got divorced. Now that the majority of those marriages are now no more the rate of divorce is declining.

    2nd side note: (I know there are a lot of these it seems) The term “friends with benefits” has been around for much longer than the past decade. While I’m not certain on this, I wouldn’t be surprised if it predates me (31yrs).

    I disagree with “So if the intimacy and vulnerability of the sex act is not matched by an intimate and vulnerable relationship, then there is likely to be a sense of betrayal and loss of self-esteem. For our mental well being, I believe sex needs to be in the context of genuine self-giving love and commitment. But the joy of sex, combined with our self-centered desire for pleasure, clouds our judgment, and we fool ourselves into thinking sex is an innocuous game that can be played without consequences among any willing players. Not so.”

    I think that there are many times where people already feel poorly about themselves and seek out physical relationships with anyone just so they’ll feel desirable. That certainly is what you are referring to when you say “There is likely to be a sense of betrayal and loss of self-esteem. Also, I think most people who are just trying to fill a void with casual sex aren’t fooling themselves, they know what they’re doing.

    There are people who are secure with themselves and have a lifestyle that doesn’t fit with the traditional idea of a relationship that can and do have sex with other willing players without negative repercussions. Furthermore, we are really not that far away from being animals that live in the jungle and if you look at our closest relatives, the chimp, the Lowland Gorilla, and the Bonobo they all exhibit mating structures that aren’t monogamous, hell the Bonobo’s practically say “Hi” by having sex. I’m not saying that we aren’t capable of monogamy I’m just saying that it’s a societal concept. Not because incidences of monogamy can’t be found in nature but, because there are plenty of incidences where it wasn’t practiced by other cultures. Yes, we also exhibit monogamy and yes many cultures have had the concept of marriage. Though my guess is that marriage stems from an ancient idea similar to what we see with other primates, where it’s one male and many females. This could have then been refined into our concept of marriage and would be a somewhat natural progression for most cultures. So I think it might be heavy handed to say that “we fool ourselves in thinking sex is an innocuous game that can be played without consequences among any willing players.”

    I like your take on same sex marriage and how it’s really a conservative principal. Next time I encounter someone who adamantly against equality I’ll try that argument.

    I agree that we should be careful about how we deal with sex. It’s a complicated subject and it should be used to enhance our health and well being.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “facilitates the nurture of children.” Would you mind explaining?

    Randall:

    There have documented cases throughout history of people dressing and acting as the gender they weren’t biologically.

    Most people here can’t afford a gender reassignment transition either, so are you trying to say that we have the luxury of having the discussion over a persons biological gender versus the gender that they identify with?

    • Noah, thanks for the extensive and thoughtful comments! Regarding “Friends With Benefits,” I’m sure this reality has been around a long time (forever), though I don’t think our society has given it its own name and category until fairly recently. A movie came out with this name in 2011, and an online “urban dictionary” defined this phrase in 2003. I didn’t become aware of the term until several years ago. Regarding why some people engage in sex–you’re quite right to point out that many people are looking for love and self-esteem (and that this is not likely to be a way to get it). Are there well-adjusted people who have emotionally healthy sex without commitment? I suppose so; but it’s probably the exception, and it does not make for a healthy cultural norm (in my opinion). My comment about “facilitating the nurture of children” had to do with the fact that sex–even in an age of contraception–still results in a lot of pregnancies; so fertile couples who engage in sex ought to be ready for this possibility; thus, sex within a committed and loving relationship (such as marriage) is the best context for sex.

  3. Always enjoy reading your thoughts on things. I did have to pause after reading ” Ironically, gay marriage is in many ways a conservative position;” as I wasn’t sure what you meant by ‘conservative’. I’ll take it as: a moving toward more traditional relationship structures. Again thanks for sharing.

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