Chapter 30 Learning Objectives

Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

  • Identify the criteria that make sex right or wrong.

Watch this video or scan the QR code to learn about the psychology of sex.

When ethics is mentioned, people often tend to think of very weighty or difficult kinds of problems that need to be solved. For some, sex is such an issue or such a problem. However, I think it is more accurate, and easier to look at all our intentional actions as either ethical actions or potentially ethical actions. Most of the things we do every day we do not think of in this way because we do not have to make moral deliberations about them at the time. We may know that it is okay to put our feet on a hassock but not on fine furniture, without thinking twice about it. We have already made (or someone else has and told us the results when we were children) the ethical analysis before and we know what to do now without having to think about it. We put on our left shoe before our right shoe (or vice versa) with no thoughts about the ethical propriety of that because there never was any reason to believe it mattered; and even the slightest deliberation would show it does not matter, so that putting on either shoe first would in general be (all) right.

Consider a man who gets ready to go play tennis on some given weekend. Is it an ethical decision for him to make whether to play tennis or not? I say yes, though, as above, it may not be one that requires any noticeable deliberation. In the simplest case, suppose he wants to play, his opponent wants him to play, there is a court available for them, and there is no reason for them not to play. Hence, the ethical decision may be that it is right for them to play. The decision is so easy to make that it seems hardly a ponderous enough problem to be considered an ethical one by those who think of ethics as involving only difficult or impossible questions about weighty matters. But now suppose one of the person’s has a bad knee and may further injure it playing tennis, putting him out of work for a while, causing certain disruptions in his family life, etc. Or suppose one of the person’s spouse wants him or her to do something else that day, or suppose one player has some other duty to do — maybe an exam to study for, a doghouse to build before inclement weather sets in, office work to do. Or suppose they always play tennis instead of spending time with the family, instead of babysitting so their spouse can have free time, or whatever. Now the ethical part of the decision whether to play tennis becomes more obvious.

Most of what we do, particularly that which we do routinely, can be thought of as having ethical aspects, but ones which are, or have been, so easily taken into account, that they do not seem to be actions involving ethics or involving individual moral deliberation. But they could easily take on the aura of an ethical issue were someone to challenge the rightness of our doing them, giving their reasons why we should not, and compelling us to give our reasons of justification.

Sex is not unlike other issues in these ways except that the situations in which there are opportunities or desires for sex are often ones that involve taboo, anxiety, or the possibility of various (kinds of) catastrophic consequences. But this is not always the case; some situations are not problematic. A couple married a long time with no reason to fear pregnancy, STD (sexually transmitted disease), or social ostracism, who still want to have sex with each other, can tell when each other is in the mood, or not unwilling to get in the mood, may have sex without any (new) ethical “deliberations” at all. This is not the case with those younger, fertile, unmarried, etc. people who are not sure whether it would be the right thing to do or not. Or sex between partners of the first couple might not be an ethical issue for either person, but it might be for one of them if they are thinking about having it extramaritally instead.

At this point I would like to explain the kinds of things I think should rightfully count as good reasons in deciding whether sex is right or wrong in a given situation or not. And the situations are important, for it can make a difference whether you are married or not, fertile or not, contagiously ill or not, or whatever. And it makes a difference at different times even in a given marriage, for example, in cases where both partners want to versus cases where one partner really does not want to at the time, let alone many cases involving questions of fertility, method (if any) of birth control, etc.

First, let me make a comment about the probability of some actions or consequences happening and the value (for example, desirability or undesirability) of their happening. Probability and value are two separate things, each of which needs to be taken into account in determining the reasonableness of an act. In deciding whether an act is right or wrong you have to determine its consequences, which is a scientific or factual problem, but you also have to determine what the probabilities are of its various consequences occurring and also what the desirability or undesirability of those consequences are, if they were to occur. Not all acts give 100% probability that they will yield particular consequences. If you hold all four aces in a straight poker game, you can safely bet the mortgage. If you hold three aces, there is a high probability you will win, but it is not a certainty, and if the mortgage is crucial to you, you perhaps had better not bet it. How much to bet in any case will depend on the probability of your hand’s winning and on how important winning or losing what you bet is to you. It will not be the same in different cases. In tennis, one must take into account not only the effectiveness of a given shot if it lands in the court, but also the probability that you can land it in the court. And the situation in the match will determine the value of winning or losing a particular point.

You might be more ready to take a riskier chance if you are ahead two sets to one and 5-0 in the last set or if you are exhausted and cannot afford a prolonged rally and this is an important point to win but not an important one to lose. But the probability of hitting the shot in is as important to consider as the consequences and value of hitting it in. It does no good to hit shots you cannot make just because if only you could make them, they would win points, games, sets, or matches for you.

Now there may be a mixture of consequences from a given action. These must all be considered in evaluating the overall worth of performing the action. Say you are thinking about trying a very difficult passing shot in tennis. The probability of completing it successfully may be low, but the exhilaration of doing it successfully may far outweigh the potential loss of the point. It may also serve to intimidate the opponent in his future attempts to come to the net even if it is just out in this instance. It may be something you just want to try regardless of the outcome of this particular (perhaps insignificant) point. The probabilities are different for each consequence. Unless you fall down or mis-hit or flatout whiff the ball, you will probably satisfy your urge to try the winner; that has a high probability. The probability of winning the point even if you make the incredible shot good is another question; the opponent may just as incredibly retrieve it. The probability of your making the shot good is another matter. The probability of winning the point even if you make an error in the shot is another (suppose you hit it out, but your opponent misreads it and nets it trying to volley it), as is the question of how intimidating the shot is whether you make it successfully or not.

To show the point of value versus probability is fairly easy in games. To bet one dollar to win a million, even at high odds, may not be irrational if the dollar does not mean much to you to lose. But to bet $10,000 to win a million, even at much better relative odds, may be foolhardy, especially if you need the $10,000. In college football, though the odds of successfully completing a two-point conversion may be much lower than the odds of completing a one-point conversion, it would be ignorant for a team who has just scored a touchdown with no time left on the clock and who is behind by two points to elect the one-point try. The points at this stage of the game are worth not only just one or two points but they are worth, if scored, a sure loss or a sure tie.

First I would like to point out the reasonable kinds of reasons or considerations to take into account against having sex in particular cases. All but some aspects of #4 below have to do with the value of the consequences (and are more or less utilitarian in nature, though in different ways).

(1)    The risk and harm (“disvalue”) of venereal or sexually transmitted disease of whatever sort, or of diseases likely to be contagious from close contact. The risk or probability may be known (say from blood tests) or unknown. Or, in terms of curable diseases such as some strains of gonorrhea or syphilis, it may not matter much to you. It may matter a great deal in cases where cures are not available, especially if the disease is harmful or fatal, or if it would do great harm to you to be discovered, because of your disease, to have had sex (that caused it). (At this writing, AIDS is the incurable, terminal sexually transmitted disease that the public focuses on; but AIDS was not the first debilitating, incurable, terminal sexually transmitted or contagious disease; and it may not be the last.)

(2)    Probability and risk of pregnancy, where pregnancy would be a bad or wrong circumstance. Pregnancy may be wrong or undesirable for a number of reasons. It may mean getting caught having had illicit sex. It may mean having a baby that cannot be properly cared for, or that cannot be cared for properly without the great sacrifice of innocent people who will have to care for it (grandparents, older siblings, etc.) It may lead to an abortion, which is sometimes dangerous for the pregnant woman, and which, even if the best alternative available, is never a good or happy situation.

The probability of pregnancy depends on the fertility of both people with each other at the time, and of the risk of failure of any contraceptive the two might use. Pregnancy is, of course, a concern only in heterosexual acts where the sperm can enter the vagina (generally vaginal intercourse). The known risk of pregnancy can be different for both partners. At this writing, when the female birth control pill is the most effective non- permanent form of birth control, a man might not know whether the woman is really taking it, whether she is taking it correctly or effectively, etc. Apart from vasectomy, at this writing the woman has more effective control over pregnancy than does the male, particularly if the male does not use a condom during vaginal intercourse. Certainly the male can use birth control methods if that is feasible, but until a male method that is as effective as “the pill” is invented, the male is not able to reduce the risk as much as might be desirable to him, short of vasectomy. For men who care about their children and who the mother of their children is, this is an important consideration.

The risks in (1) and (2) can be reduced or eliminated in some cases while still having orgasm, by means such as petting to climax, when that is mutually acceptable. When the remaining kinds of objections apply, they cannot be eliminated through technique or technology.

(3)    One or both partners not wanting nor being willing to have sex with the other at the time in question. Certainly not wanting to have sex with a particular person at a particular time is a reason against sex. I have also added the “not willing to”, since it may be the case, say in a marriage or otherwise serious or intended permanent relationship, that although a person is not in the mood for sex, he or she is not unwilling to get or be put into the mood. Hence the not wanting to at the time may be overridden by the willingness to at least make the attempt to get into the mood or to allow one’s partner at least the attempt to get you interested if the partner is already interested. That may be only fair in some cases. In the case of headaches, sex can sometimes even be a very pleasurable cure.

It should be fairly obvious that you’re not wanting, nor being willing, to have sex with someone (at a particular time) is for you a good reason not to. But it seems to me (and to at least some other men, as well as to women generally) that it is also a good reason for your partner, not just ethically, but emotionally as well. If the idea of sex is that it should be mutually satisfying, and this seems to be the idea of it for many people, it seems rather uninteresting and uncompelling to have sex with someone who does not want to have it with you. Part of the (emotional) satisfaction of sex, generally, is the aspect of being desired by and, if possible, satisfying to, the other person, not just of satisfying your own physical desires. Having sex with someone who is just “letting” you “have” them or who is only “letting” you for money, seems like it would generally be a relatively empty, and even lonely, experience.

(4)    If an innocent third party would be hurt (if they found out) and the probability of their finding out or being hurt. The “if they found out” part is only important for strict utilitarians or other “consequentialists” when one is talking about cases of breaking vows to a spouse or “breaking” convention and reasonable assumption to an intended spouse. To those who believe in obligations over and above those with just utilitarian or overall good consequences, breaking vows is wrong whether other people find out about it or not. (If it is parents or friends or strangers who would be hurt, vows are not a factor, and it only matters then if they find out, and then only in proportion to how much they have a “right” not to be hurt — that is how much of a legitimate obligation you have not to hurt them. For example, people are under no obligation to accommodate secret admirers or distant people who love them, but whom they do not love, by abstaining from sex with others. One of my college friends just had to bear up under the heartbreaking burden of knowing that his sexual fantasy idol, film star Elke Sommers, had married someone else, and was presumably having lots of sex with this someone else, her husband.) Vows are meant to be honored. But the notion of innocence is added in that it seems to me that some spouses release the other from the emotional and/or sexual part of the marriage contract by breaking it, or its spirit, themselves either by committing adultery first or by wreaking such havoc in one way or another on the other that the second person then is practically driven to find comfort somewhere else.

One other time this rather strong kind of reason might be overcome is by an extreme utilitarian case of the sort found in the movie Doctor Zhivago, where both partners were kind, principled, conscientious people, where the relationship even before sex was so good for so long, and where self-denial on both parts lasted over a period of years until finally passions and circumstances were so overwhelmingly in favor of Zhivago’s and Lara’s making love in spite of his loving his wife that somehow to most people watching the movie it seemed fitting Zhivago and Lara should be lovers.

Another kind of case where vows perhaps might legitimately be broken is where two mates’ sexual desires (or the their frequency of their desires) in general are so different that in an otherwise good relationship, one of them has to have sex outside of the relationship or virtually unfairly stifle reasonable sexual desires because there is no other remedy that does not require the generally less interested partner to have sex at times he or she does not want.

(5)    The probability of it being a somewhat unpleasant or bad experience. This is likely for anyone’s first time, particularly if they have a partner who is not especially experienced, understanding, or both. Stories about people’s first sexual experiences, particularly involving intercourse, tend to be about melodramatic, dismal, frightening, and at best, unsatisfying times. This can be worked out and joked about later, assuming sexual experiences improve, but it can also be something that helps destroy a budding relationship, particularly if it is not understood as something sometimes natural. Sex is not always wonderful at first, nor is it always even wonderful for experienced people who are with a new partner. New partners, and sex itself, often require learning about; and there can be mistakes or difficulty in any kind of learning.

A sexual experience can also be less than admirable if for some reason there is insufficient time for proper romance or for basking in the afterglow or if there is insufficient tenderness or an insufficiency of any ingredient that one or both partners feel is important to their making love. A lack of commitment in some cases can ruin sex between people, making it seem mechanical, empty, or emotionally unsatisfying though perhaps physically quite good. This can happen not only to the person who is not being committed to, but it can happen to the person who is unable to make the commitment. (Some people think marriage can take the fun out of sex with each other; but it can really take the fun out of sex with someone other than your spouse. You can feel guilty about not being totally and comprehensively committed to your extra-marital partner, whether or not you also feel guilty about having cheated on your spouse.) Also, the back seat of a car, the unpredictable, cramped quarters of a train’s sleeping car, a molded aluminum and plastic motel room, your parents’ house, or any number of other surroundings also often do not lend themselves to the most joyful of experiences or memories. Unfortunately frequently one has no idea beforehand that any of these things will bother or ruin the experience, but if one has any doubts about the experience ahead of time at all, there is good reason to discuss it if that is possible, and to wait for more appropriate circumstances; or, at least, through discussion to minimize the problem or harm.

(6)    Finally, I think one of the most important things to take into account is each others’ feelings and the understanding of what sex “means” to each of you — that is, understanding the important psychological circumstance and context you each require, desire, or expect from sex for it to be emotionally satisfying or meaningful. For example, sex can be hurtful and wrong when it means just fun to one and something indicative of emotional concern and long term commitment to the other. And this is whether such a misunderstanding is accidental or intentional. Or there may be genuine feelings of concern and attraction on both parts, but one person may view the experience as signifying long term monogamous intentions and the other person may see it as signifying “only” something beautiful you do with special people, of which there can be many. There are any number of sad misunderstandings that might occur about a sexual act. Some of these may be very damaging and sufficiently so to make the act wrong. Talking together beforehand about the meaning, to each of you, of sex with each other can help alleviate the possibility of harmful misunderstanding. And I think that is important, but talking is not the only key, since many times people might deceive themselves about what they really want or think important. (This is not only true in sex, but other areas of life as well. Many students major in subjects they think they like, but do not really like; many people think they enjoy classical music, but hardly ever go to concerts, watch them on television, listen to them on radio, or buy classical records; many people think they wish they could spend more time with their families but whenever they have the opportunity, they find some way to avoid it; people say they wish their life was less hectic and quieter, but keep scheduling trivial activities in an effort to keep from getting bored or restless while alone in peace; etc.) There are times when people will believe and honestly say they can handle a sexual relationship without any particular commitment, but their actions will show they cannot. They will perhaps be particularly fawning over the relationship, seek excessive companionship, attention, or signs of gratitude or being held in esteem, be hurt by seemingly small misunderstandings or trivial problems, and in general seem far more attached to the partner than they ought to be, think they are, or profess to be. Likewise the opposite case, where one or the other thinks they want a long- lasting, unbreakable, monogamous attachment but can be seen to be unable to settle down yet or be monogamous. Also, people, of course, can change and they may not be able to see the change coming. They may be correct about how they feel at the time of the discussion and not realize they will not continue to feel that way. It seems to me the responsibility of both new partners to seek honest discussion with each other before engaging in sex, but it also seems to me that each should also look beyond words to try to make certain the other is not deceiving themself or likely to change their mind.

There is at least one particular kind of case where sex that occurs too early in a relationship can be extremely disappointing and discouraging. For someone seeking a long-term relationship, breaking up is always traumatic, but being broken up with by someone you really have given yourself to — your time, your energy, your passion, your thoughts; someone you have really been your unpretentious self with, sexually and otherwise — is more traumatic than being rejected by someone who hardly knows you. It is, or seems like, a more personal rejection; your loved one does not like the “real” you. Sexual passion is a powerful force, but it can disappear in a relationship as easily as it appears. If one suspects a relationship is mostly sexual attraction, but one wants one that is more than that or that will outlast such an attraction’s demise or weakening (if that should occur), one might be advised to try to see whether other aspects of the relationship can be developed before the sexual attraction fades or before the relationship sours (if it does) for whatever reason. Of course, if even temporary sex is more important to you than, or is as important to you as, a long-term relationship, this caveat does not apply. I am not saying early sex kills a relationship; I don’t think it usually does that. I am saying if you would be devastated by a relationship’s ending sometime after you have had sex with your partner, you want to be sure to wait until it is more reasonable to believe there is a fuller, more substantial, and more likely enduring relationship than most relationships are likely to be at the beginning, regardless of how strong the sexual passions or attractions.

I used to think, and had read and heard in lectures on sex, that sex could only be truly gratifying in a long term commitment type of relationship where each partner truly cared about the others’ well-being as well as caring about each other sexually. However, I think there is enough evidence to indicate there are many circumstances in which many people can have fully satisfying, gratifying, memorable, and meaningful sexual experiences without a long term commitment type of relationship.

One kind of case is the case where one or both lovers are about to die or they are about to be separated, perhaps permanently, by some other cause outside of their control. Wars in particular often facilitate this kind of behavior, but any kind of long term separation — one person’s moving, going away to college, going on a long trip, or whatever — might. Less romantically, a sailor may have particularly fond memories of a particular prostitute he picked up (or was picked up by) in a port he had no intention of returning to. In Silent Night, Lonely Night the protagonists seem to make love for one night only, and each returns to their normal life, enriched and grateful for different reasons but for reasons they each understand about themselves and each other. There are many true accounts of the same kind of thing. A one night stand can have good (or devastating) emotional importance far beyond just the “fun” or physical pleasure it might provide. Temporary relationships can sometimes provide more than temporary reassurance, comfort, and confidence. There can be reassurance in being able to incite some passion and/or in being able to feel passion incited in you by someone. Further, if there is more than just physical pleasure, but some meaningful conversation and closeness in the relationship, however temporary that relationship is, it provides a kind of reassurance that at least some of one’s ideas and perspectives on life are not totally worthless or uninteresting to anyone else. Intimately sharing one’s innermost concerns with another — or even respectfully sharing (with compassion, understanding, and mutual concern) feelings, values, and beliefs of a less intimate nature that others seem to reject or scorn — can be very important and very comforting.

In sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat in New York, in massage parlors, in certain swinging types of lounges, etc. it is obvious what each partner (or group) is there for, and that is not a long term relationship or a commitment of undying love before sex that night. Such sex would hardly be gratifying to everyone, and it seems to me it would not even be gratifying to many if that were the only kind of sexual relationships they had. But it certainly seems for some at least to be, at least at times, very gratifying and exciting. Sometimes perhaps it can be very reassuring too.

There are many reasons for making love and there are many effects that may result from making love; one important thing for it to be right is for each to understand the others’ and their own motivation and the likely resulting feelings as much as possible. Then, whether each is seeking a long term commitment or short, a meaningful emotional experience, or just some temporary physical pleasure, there is less likely to be the pain and sorrow caused by misunderstanding.

Reasonable grounds then counting toward having sex in particular cases are the following:

(1)(Concerning cases of vaginal intercourse), where pregnancy is desired by both and warranted or reasonable, or at least not unacceptable to either or unwarranted or unreasonable. Or if pregnancy is unacceptable, unwarranted, or unreasonable, it is preventable or impossible.

(2)Both people want to have sex with each other at the time or at least are willing to.

(3)Each understands and accepts what it means to herself or himself and to the other person and the relationship; each understands and accepts the reason they want to have sex with that person; and each understands and accepts what the psychological consequence for each is, given various possible and likely kinds of consequences. And the meaning, the reasons, and the psychological consequences are in fact reasonably worthwhile and worth the risks there might be. This particularly applies early in the sexual part of the relationship; as the relationship continues, such as in marriage, general understanding will usually be long known and need no consideration, unless there is some drastic or specific change in the relationship.

(4)There is a high probability it will be a satisfying, good, and pleasurable experience rather than a dismal or anesthetic one.

(5)No innocent third person is being undeservedly or unfairly treated or hurt. Besides someone’s forfeiting the obligation of their spouse’s sexual faithfulness by abuse that drives the spouse to seek the comfort of another, there could be cases, I think, where the sexual desires of two mates are so different that one of them either needs to have sex outside of the relationship (even if it is self-masturbation) or to continually ignore or stifle his or her desires, or make unhappy sexual demands upon the less interested partner. In some of these cases, sex outside the marriage may be fair and warranted even if knowledge of it would be hurtful to the mate. If one mate continually spurns another’s sexual interests and also does not want them to satisfy those interests through masturbation or sex with someone else, there is a problem in the relationship (just as there would be if the same held true in some other area of importance). And if the relationship is overall worth maintaining, this problem needs some sort of fair resolution. In some cases, such a fair resolution may be discrete, secret sex outside the relationship (if it does not actually harm the relationship) if there is no other remedy (such as the willingness of the partner with the less interest in being sexually touched to at least be willing to sexually massage the one who does want sexual touching, and for that to be satisfying and acceptable to both). (6)The risks and consequences for health are reasonably acceptable.

None of these grounds alone is sufficient justification under normal circumstances for having sex, I think. Just wanting to have sex or a likely good sexual experience, just wanting to conceive a child, or just knowing what it means to each of you are not each sufficient reasons under normal circumstances for having it. Grounds 1 through 6 must all be true, barring some unusual circumstance (I will give an example of an unusual circumstance shortly).

Further, I do not pretend that either my set of reasons for sex or my set of reasons against it are complete. There may be further circumstances or grounds I have not thought of or remembered to mention. But these at least definitely need to be considered. Other principles or criteria might perhaps override these, but the point is that solid reasons and sound arguments can be discovered and must be considered for sex to be seen to be either justifiable or not. Arguments will include and take into account passions and emotions but they should not be based solely on passions and emotions. And to help facilitate that, those arguments should be concluded before passions arise that are so strong they block out the other reasonable and necessary considerations.

Now I have not included reasons like “two people should love each other” or “the two people are married to each other” or “at least intend to marry”, etc. Marriage does not mandate sex morally, though it may permit it legally even in circumstances where it is not morally right, such as when one partner forces or in any way coerces the other against that second person’s will. Second there simply seem to be too many cases where, even though it may not generally be true, sex outside of marriage meets our moral approval, where we know of the reasons and the consequences — where there was no harm done, a great deal of good resulting, and no vow undeservedly broken by the act.

I said I would give an example of an unusual case where some of the usually necessary principles do not apply. Moreover, I take this case from the Bible (Genesis, chapter 19), not only on its merit as an unusual case, but in order also to overcome any unargued objections by clergymen or others that God forbids, and/or punishes sex that is not licensed by marriage, or that breaks a whole host of the usual rules and principles (including mine) thought to pertain to sex. After Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot lived with his two daughters in a cave. They realized they would not meet any men while living in a cave and that they could not have children if they did not meet any men. Unless ….   On two successive nights one of them got Lot drunk and then had sex with him, each getting pregnant. God, instead of being wrathful — and this is God who just destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and everyone in them, including these two girls’ husbands or betrothed, for iniquity — is reported to have made these offspring the fathers of nations, in effect blessing or condoning the acts.

With regard to love being necessary for sex; to the extent love is a combination of attraction, satisfaction, and ethically correct actions, it is partially taken into account here, since my criteria requires sexual attraction and ethical behavior for sex to be right. Whether there should also always be other or more general attractions and satisfactions, a more committed relationship, or even more long lasting sexual attraction itself is something that would need to be argued, in the light of the many cases where those things do not seem necessary to satisfy most (reasonable) people’s moral intuitions and where the consequences, given my ethical conditions were met, worked out well for the people involved. Whether they are generally required, beneficial, or important for sex to be a good experience is another matter, one that sociologists and psychologists would need to answer.

On my analysis of love, (brief) sexual attraction alone and/or the mutual enjoyment of ethical sex is not sufficient for the relationship to be called love; but unless someone can show why (full- fledged, active, and enduring) love is necessary for sex to be right, empirical evidence and intuition seem to indicate it is not (always) necessary. Of course, any given person may (and many do) want to enjoy sex generally or only in the context of a fuller (loving) relationship; but such a context does not seem to be necessary for everyone, nor under all circumstances even for those who generally prefer it. It seems to me to be more of a personal value or desire and it is relevantly taken into account in determining whether sex is right or not under the circumstances by the (ethical) consideration of what each partner expects or wants from the relationship, what the meaning of sex is to each, what they expect from sex, and what psychological context or circumstances they require for it to be emotionally satisfying or meaningful to them.

Again, though I may not have covered all the good reasons for or against having sex at a particular time, my point is that whether to have sex or not can, and should, be decided rationally. It can still be spontaneous (as I explained in the previous chapter), and it can still be emotional, and passionate. Passion counts as a reason for sex, just as lack of passion or desire counts against it; but passion is just one of the aspects (and one of the reasons to consider) that make sex right or wrong. It is not the only aspect or reason to take into consideration. The other considerations can be taken into account at less passionate and less immediate times. Being moral involves moral reasoning, but moral reasoning can often be done ahead of time and the results “stored” for when situations arise that call for them. One should always be moral but one does not always have to be doing moral logic from scratch. One might need only to quickly and easily evaluate situations to see which previous deliberations apply. If previous moral deliberations at dispassionate times have shown sex in a particular relationship to be reasonable the next time passion arises, no real mental effort will be necessary when passion does then arise.

My discussion of sex applies not only to sexual intercourse, but to any form of physical affection. To a sexually inexperienced person in particular, but actually to any person, even hand-holding, kissing, petting, or whatever may be a serious moral and psychological issue. These things in themselves, of course, do not risk pregnancy (as long as they do not lead irrationally to uncontrolled intercourse), but even by themselves they may have serious psychological import and consequences for one or both partners. A kiss may not mean much to one person, but it might be a very intimate and meaningful act to another, who would be devastated to have it go poorly, treated lightly, or not receive the intended or desired response.

Since some of the conditions to take into account require biological and psychological knowledge (including self-knowledge) a less knowledgeable person is less likely to have correct information to consider. Fortunately one can learn without having to become a libertine. (Many libertines do not have the knowledge they should anyway.) Some experience is necessary, though unfortunately experience is often a harsh or at least embarrassing teacher. One gets some idea what sex might mean to oneself and others by kissing, hand-holding, petting, etc. — that is, by more limited and less potentially disastrous forms of sexual activity than intercourse, though even these forms of showing affection can sometimes be psychologically troubling and lead to difficult or embarrassing situations in a relationship. They can also be problematic by leading an inexperienced person to do something he or she ought not to and will regret. Introspection or reflection on past experience helps one figure out what kinds of things lead to other things. This is not only true in sexual areas but other activities as well. One person may be able to take a five-minute study break, but another may not be able to keep from extending that five minutes into a much longer harmful period of time. Some people have to learn not to take study breaks in situations likely to prolong them. Some people have to learn not to kiss passionately in situations conducive to more intimate activity (going “further”) if they do not want the more intimate activity to happen. Unfortunately, sometimes that kind of knowledge comes only with some pain or difficulty.

One can also learn a great deal about relationships by watching movies or reading books, not (just those) about technique, but about the psychological and emotional aspects of relationships — books and movies that show what different people expect from each other (in different situations), that show how different people behave and treat each other, and that show different outcomes of various kinds of likely situations. One can get some ideas about what is possible, what is desirable, and what is likely. The movie The Summer of ’42, for example, seemed to offer special contrasts say between the boy who was just out for sex and the boy who wanted sex only with the person he was greatly attracted to and cared about. It also seemed to allow for discussion of how the woman treated him, in what seemed to me to be a very psychologically hurtful way for him, given the way he felt about her, his state of inexperience, and the kind of person he was. All in all, it seemed to be a particularly good movie for showing to a teenager in order to generate discussion with him or her about some of the emotional and psychological aspects of relationships and sex.

Sexual behavior involves emotions and passions but these passions and emotions can be considered, discussed, learned about, and dealt with in a variety of rational ways, and they (and sex) need to be. And contrary to making sex less passionate or enjoyable, these kinds of considerations can make it far more enjoyable. Who less can enjoy sex and a relationship after sex than someone who is terrified of it or who is naive about it. For most people, sexual intimacy is a very powerful emotional and psychological experience, with behavior, expectations and emotions afterward that are every bit as powerful. Even people who become sexually intimate easily and quickly often have important needs and expectations afterward, which their early and easy intimacy may disguise and/or thwart. One girl I spoke with once had just spent a night with a fellow she had met during the evening in a singles bar and she said she would be really upset if the guy did not call her to take her out. You need to know about that kind of reaction in yourself and in your partner if you are going to be reasonable to yourself and fair to your partner. If she did not know how she would feel afterward and/or if she did not give any indication to her partner that she wanted this rather early sex to be just a part of something bigger, she may have acted prematurely for her own good or she may not have given any hint to her partner that this was expected to be anything other than a one night stand.

People have all kinds of different ideas about what they want and about what others want and expect. I cannot over-emphasize the problems possible if one does not know either what one’s self wants or what the other party wants, whether because of either person’s lack of experience or self-knowledge, because of lack of communication or perception, or because of misunderstanding. If A expects or desires something for the moment and B does also, and they both know this, their momentary relationship (whether sexual or not) might be both meaningful and good; but it will probably be neither if A expects or desires a kiss or a date or whatever to mean one thing and B expects or desires it to mean something else and neither realizes what the other means. Sometimes I think it simply not improper to ask someone why they asked you out or why they kissed you, or whatever. And it is not always improper to tell before you are asked. If the other person gets upset or angry, perhaps you did not ask them properly or tell them properly, or perhaps they are not quite so intelligent, rational, understanding, or nice as they might be, as you thought they were, or as you would want them to be. That too is important to know before, rather than after.

Certainly a rational discussion (with the object of one’s desires) about sex may cool one’s or one’s partner’s ardor at the time, but this is not likely to be a permanent condition. (And such discussion may actually incite your partner’s passions and desires even higher, since you are showing you care enough and are honest and sensitive enough to want to discuss your feelings and your partner’s with him or her.) If people discuss the sexual part of their relationship before they have it, and if they take into account all the factors they need to in some rational way, then once they realize sex is right for them, they can wait for the passionate moment and enjoy it without any sorts of reservations they may have otherwise had. Spontaneity outside of an ethical framework and understanding may be frightening at the time and may have disastrous consequences. Spontaneity inside a previously worked out ethical framework is not impossible and may even be far more enjoyable — especially afterward.

And in general, although this book may seem a cold, clinical view of human relationships and of sex, so might the analysis of a great work of art or of a protein molecule also seem cold or clinical; but this does not mean that the work of art will not be beautiful when you view it again or that you still cannot consider a protein molecule with wonder and awe. In fact, the contrary is often true — that the art or the molecule will take on new beauty and wonder once you’ve seen how complex and intricate it really is, and once you have seen just what makes it work or be so beautiful. Analysis and discussion might take some of the mystery out of personal relationships and sex; but it is not clear to me that the mystery is what causes the magic — the beauty, the wonder, or the value — in them. In fact, I rather think it is the mystery which causes the misery — the misunderstanding, the grief, the sorrow, the confusion, and the unhappiness — that so often occurs in relationships. And although a sex ethic developed solely in a monastery may not be very practical, neither I suspect, will be one that is developed solely in the bedroom. Passion and emotional closeness need to be experienced to be properly understood; but understanding needs to be exercised to guide passion and keep it in perspective.

Key Takeaways

  • Like any other act, sex is right or wrong, depending on the same elements given in the general ethical principle presented in Chapter 26.
  • Sex, particularly intercourse between fertile partners, just has different potential specific consequences from many other acts, but the kinds of considerations are the same.

Key Terms

  • It may be easier to view intentional actions as either ethical actions or potentially ethical actions.
  • STD is the accepted abbreviation for sexually transmitted diseases.

Chapter Review Questions

  • Question: What needs to be taken into account in regard to the consequences portion of determining the reasonableness of an act?
  • Question: Is the ethics of sex substantially different from the ethics of anything else? Why or why not?


Chapter 30 Ethics and Sex Copyright © 2017 by jhill5 and Richard Garlikov. All Rights Reserved.

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