The Meaning of Human Sexuality: A Philosophical Query

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a former regular here at Ordinary Times who lives in a small rural town about two hours southwest of Portland, Oregon with his wife, kids, and dog. He enjoys studying and writing about the world of employment, which is good because that's his job. You can find him on Twitter.

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264 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    The biological meaning (or purpose) of sexuality is obvious. There is no one sociological impetus for sexual activity that has any more “meaning” than another. The usual goal is pleasure. What is seen as the object of that pleasure varies greatly. Even with biology, that sex gives pleasure is the hook. But, in addition to pleasure, sex can give the agent a feeling of power, dominance, intimacy; it can be generous or greedy; it can be casual or almost sacramental. It is very subjective. That it has any universal “meaning”–other than continuation of the species–is very doubtful, to my mind.Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to Rodak says:

      Is there any objective basis for “right” and “wrong” sexual behavior?Report

      • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        “Exploitive or harmful” does it for me.Report

        • Can you define these? Sex has health risks, even putting aside the transmission of diseases. Pregnancy, for example, can be harmful, but I imagine you wouldn’t call procreative sex “wrong.”Report

          • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            By “exploitive” I mean coercive, in any meaningful physical or emotional sense, or dependent upon large disparities in resources, power or information.

            And by “harmful”, I mean predictably causing harm, of any type, on either party. So: having a transmittable disease, and having sex with someone who is not, is harm. Pressuring someone to have sex is harm. Having sex with an intoxicated person whose consent would be dubious is both exploitive and harmful.Report

            • A scenario: Fred and Wilma both desire to have sexual intercourse with one another, knowing that Wilma has a medical condition in which pregnancy would be predictably dangerous for her. They also have reason to suspect Wilma is fertile. They do not have access to birth control or to means of terminating a pregnancy. Would it be wrong of them to have sexual intercourse?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                This took a dark and unexpected turn.

                I disapprove.Report

              • Kyle Cupp in reply to Jaybird says:

                Welcome to sexual ethics, Jaybird.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                I’ll try to have a handful of paragraphs for you tonight.

                At this moment, I’m thinking about using the “market” analogy and discussing how the biggest problem, as in the real world, is “price discovery”.Report

              • Kyle Cupp in reply to Jaybird says:

                Oh myyy. Thanks, Jaybird. Look forward to it.Report

              • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                In a word, yes.

                In two words, yes yes.Report

              • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Perhaps that was a bit glib.

                This clearly falls into my second criterion, of predictably causing harm. It is ethically wrong for them to have sexual intercourse. Which is not to say that coercion is appropriate to prevent them.Report

              • No, not too glib. It was consistent, which is good.Report

              • NewDealer in reply to Snarky McSnarksnark says:

                But only one form of sex is ethically wrong in this case.

                If they had oral or anal sex, Kyle’s hypothetical becomes moot.Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Yes. But happily, there are ways and ways.Report

              • NewDealer in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                I don’t think so. It might be stupid, risky, and dangerous, but not wrong. Here are my reasons:

                1. Fred and Wilma are presumably consenting adults.

                2. They are both working with full knowledge of Wilma’s condition and what the risks are.

                3. And to use tort terminology, both are “willing to assume the risk”.

                Though I can see your point. Fred is potentially using his desire and putting Wilma at risk but he can also be accused of being paternalistic and denying Wilma her agency for denying her desire. Wilma is being a bit hard on Fred by giving him knowledge of her condition and putting him at potential grief.

                I will need to ponder the above.

                In this scenario: I’d like to think that I would avoid PIV intercourse.Report

              • James Vonder Haar in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                No. To consenting adults, acting in full knowledge of the facts. Like smoking, it is unwise but not immoral.Report

              • James Vonder Haar in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

                That should be “two.” I can’t believe I made that mistake!Report

              • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

                To the previous two: I am most emphatically not saying that there should be a law enforcing the standard, but I would once again assert that it would not be an ethical act (by either party) to place a woman’s life at risk, regardless of mutual consent.

                To heighten the contradiction, a bit, read this story about a German man who sought out someone willing to kill him and eat him. He found his “consensual” partner, who then did precisely that. Is this a moral act? There’s no question of consent here.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Snarky McSnarksnark says:


                We place our lives at risk every time we get in the car.Report

              • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Kazzy says:

                I’m talking about predictable risk. And, the proposition as Kyle proposed it posited risk that was highly predictable.

                I’m coming mostly from a Buddhist ethics standpoint here, but I agree with it completely. We weigh our moral decisions by the importance of the goal we seek, and the likelihood of harm. And if we used a standard of possible risk, none of us could get out of bed in the morning.

                Mutual consent does not render an act moral.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                Mutual consent does not render an act moral.

                That may explain why I don’t like morality.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

                If mutual consent does not, and I’d be cool with saying that it does not, what would?Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                Suicide has a predictable risk. Is it immoral?

                Ftr, does it matter what the risk/danger is? Are we saying she absolutely will die? Will have poor health and might die? That might magger, I suppose.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Has Wilma recently become friends with Aaron Burr’s granddaughter?Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                They have the technology to know her pregnancy would be dangerous but not latex dong-wraps?

                Seems a bit silly to me.

                But if we imagine your insane hypothetical, her actions would be dangerous like drinking too much, or doing too much drugs, risky behavior.

                Thankfully, in the real world, we have birth control, and STD protection and sex is reasonably safe. So sex in the real world has nothing to do with your hypothetical.Report

              • Ramblin' Rod in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                This question hits kinda close to home for me…

                Many years ago my wife was 8 1/2 months pregnant with our first child. She’s a kidney transplant patient, so the pregnancy was, if not risky, at least unusual. Everything had gone well until she developed pre-eclampsia, a crisis condition involving blood pressure that Russell could explain a hell of a lot better than me.

                I was in the Navy at the time and deployed half-way through a 6-month Mediterranean/Indian Ocean cruise. Literally halfway around the world somewhere east of India. Got evacuated by helicopter and then military transport back to Norfolk just in time for the crisis to pass. A week later I was officially a father.

                Upshot is the docs advised us that we probably shouldn’t do that (get pregnant) again. So we didn’t. Faithfully and joyfully exercised our marital prerogatives with the aid of modern contraception. Until… about nine years ago, my wife had quit BC pills out of cancer concerns and, well… we had a particularly passionate and impromptu encounter and didn’t “wrap that rascal.” A couple weeks, maybe a month, later she walks up to me holding a plastic test strip and says, “Guess what… Dad??”

                Here’s where it got dicey. I reacted positively. Like this was an unexpected and cool thing. She interpreted that as being insensitive to her health and safety concerns. I don’t think it’s that she really wanted to terminate; I think she just wanted a different reaction and to have a different conversation before buckling down to the business of having another baby. She held it against me so bad that she wouldn’t sleep with me for over a year. Including our twentieth wedding anniversary. She basically treated it like something close to a rape; that I did something to her against her will. Which sure didn’t match my recollections of the blessed moment. That really hurt.

                Anyway, it eventually all worked out. The kid’s in third grade this year and our relationship is healed. But it was dicey and these things can be complicated, even in the context of a long-term, loving, marriage.Report

        • Roger in reply to Snarky McSnarksnark says:

          I love the way liberals sound like libertarians in the bedroom. snarkys comment on “exploitive or harmful” is stated perfectly.Report

      • Rodak in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Of course. But they are the same objective bases that pertain to any human interaction, each one predicated on not harming, or making an object, of the Other. I don’t know that there are any in categories which are specific to sexuality.Report

  2. Kazzy says:

    I think this is something that is very contextual. Going back to our hunter-gatherer days (or before or after but somewhere thereabouts), procreative sex was a primary method of ensuring the survival of the species, far more important than it is now. Non-procreative sex (including but not limited to masturbation, oral, anal, homosexual, and sex involving contraceptive use) could have had a dire effect on the species as a whole; if everyone was running around and wanking off, there would have been less overall procreative sex and the species would have suffered.

    That is not the case any more, at least not in many parts of our society. Humanity will go on whether or not I choose to reproduce. As such, the specific emphasis on my engagement of procreative sex is less. I can spend my days wanking off*, not reproducing, and humanity will be unaffected. (Of course, if EVERYONE took this approach, we run into the same problem as our ancestors did, but it simply takes a much larger group of people, both absolutely and relatively, to see this happen.) That means that prior sexual norms might not be as important anymore, because the purpose they serve has largely vanished.

    * I apologize to anyone who now has this visual burned into their retinas.Report

    • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

      Wanking off and having non procreative sex is a good thing. It builds relationships, and strengthens communities. Having fun builds good feelings between people.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kim says:

        It might be now, but I doubt it always was. There was a time where life expectancies were low, infant mortality rates were high, and we didn’t have all the newfangled science to help everything along. Wasted sperm and time were a legitimate issue.

        That’s why teh evil gaes invented masturbation in the 40’s. Wait… what?Report

        • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

          Humans in general have a 1:1 ratio of men to women. Even with childbirth killing half the women (numbers pulled completely out of thin air), you’ve still got a LOT of time when a man does not have access to a woman (assuming lack of orgies, which were reserved in general for times of plenty).
          Combine that with an alpha’s tendency to monopolize females (more on the level of 5-6, not 50), and you’ve got an awful lot of frustrated guys out there, and a lot of wasted sperm.

          Further combine this with the inability of certain guys to tell whether a woman is in estrus, and you get a lot of non procreative sex.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Kim says:

            “…numbers pulled completely out of thin air…”


            I don’t doubt that masturbation existed way back when and that non-procreative sex did. My hunch is that non-procreative sex was more of a problem then from an evolutionary-survival perspective than it is now.

            Many of our social norms, particularly those based on religious traditions, grew out of very real, practical issues of survival. As I’ve read, many pork and beef prohibitions are based more on historic sustainability efforts than on spiritual or religious beliefs. I’m guessing much is the same for sex.Report

            • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

              Hetero Guys tend to break down into thirds, with about a third actively avoiding procreative sex, a third actively seeking it, and a third just looking for fun (and procreation happening just ’cause).

              Humanity’s norms have basically been “how to do we suppress sexuality at all times” and “how do we deal with the dam breaking, which it inevitably does”. This comes from societies needing to limit the amount of procreation, because too many babies breaks society.

              Just basic facts.Report

        • Johanna in reply to Kazzy says:

          Every sperm is sacred
          every sperm is great
          if a sperm gets wasted
          God gets quite irate.Report

        • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Kazzy says:

          Do you have evidence that wanking off or non-procreative sex actually reduces birth-rate? What is the evidence that in the absence of birth control that this reduces the birth rate?Report

          • Kazzy in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

            I have none. This is more hunch/unsubstantiated theory than hard scientific proposal. More broadly, I think many of our social taboos and norms are borne out of practical matters that might be antiquated than actual objective evidence they are universally right.Report

          • Kim in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

            “Rape-like” sex — sex between strangers, often of a somewhat non-consensual nature, is much more likely to result in pregnancy than normal relationships. (and depending on the boy, much, much more likely. We’re sometimes talking the difference between 10% pregnancy versus 50+% pregnancy, for an ovulating female).Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

              [Citation needed.]Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to M.A. says:

                You demean yourself by doing Kimmi’s homework for her.Report

              • M.A. in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Whatever you say. I knew where it was easily found. If it’s “demeaning” to participate in a discussion, there’s really no point in anyone talking here.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to M.A. says:

                If you’re looking for the door, surely it’s not that hard to find.

                But I would prefer to see Kimmi in particular actually cite a few sources, for once in her commenting career. She has a habit of just making stuff up.

                For what it’s worth, I’m not arguing the science at all, nor would I prefer to, if it were in any way ambiguous.Report

              • Russell M in reply to M.A. says:

                you forget Jason us liberals are dirty pinkos so we make research a community project.

                mostly snark. but you do seem a little miffed that M.A. turned in his paper first.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to M.A. says:

                He’s stepping into a feud with Kimmi that I’ve had since long before either of you were commenters here.Report

              • Russell M in reply to M.A. says:

                Ok. Did not mean to step on toes.

                still huffing at someone else who gave you the cite you asked for seems wankish.Report

              • M.A. in reply to M.A. says:

                I’d rather there not be feuds getting in the way of discussion, and I’m not going to see as valid anyone’s claim to turf rights and say “well those two have a feud so I’ll not enter the discussion.”Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to M.A. says:

                Kimmi’s proclivity to just randomly make up so-called facts leads me to ask her very often for citations. It’s become sort of a running joke around here, because she absolutely never honors my requests.

                Perhaps you’d like to try to substantiate some of her other claims on this thread, including….

                “Wanking off…builds communities.”

                “Orgies… were reserved for times of plenty.”

                “Hetero Guys tend to break down into thirds, with about a third actively avoiding procreative sex, a third actively seeking it, and a third just looking for fun (and procreation happening just ’cause).”

                Might make for some interesting reading.Report

              • Roger in reply to M.A. says:

                I’d love to read a Kimmipedia.Report

              • Kim in reply to M.A. says:

                Didn’t i give you some citations from Calculated Risk, or was that someone else? (about LIBOR, as I recall…)
                I’ll freely admit that a good deal of what I say on here will not be cited by me, as some of it is industrial/military research, and hence hard to find sources for.

                Orgies were reserved for times of plenty? That’s simple game theory, Jason. If you don’t have anything to trade, you don’t get together with your neighboring tribes (which is when comparatively stranger-sex happens).

                I don’t expect that I generally need to cite things that were cited already on this blog (thanks MA for helping me out, I do appreciate it!).

                As for wanking off, it certainly works with bonobos. (I suppose they’re easier to study…).

                some of it is on Encyclopedia Dramatica ;-PReport

              • Kazzy in reply to M.A. says:


                See my comment at 10:36 and the preceding one by Kimmi.Report

              • Roger in reply to M.A. says:

                Two historic events in one post. First, Jason gives the best two paragraphs ever. Then Kim follows it up with the best sentence ever written on the league site….

                “As for wanking off, it certainly works with bonobos.”Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to M.A. says:

                Wanking bonobos? Aha, that’s the “industrial/military research” she gets up to…Report

        • Alex Knapp in reply to Kazzy says:

          Studies and historical accounts of hunter-gatherer societies both show lots and lots of non-procreative sex, without much concern for monogamy. Complicated sexual mores tend not to arise until post-agriculture.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

          Wasted sperm and time were a legitimate issue.

          Hunter-gatherers had more free time than we did. Unless the lack of cleanliness was a turnoff (and it probably wasn’t), they may very well have had more sex than we did.

          And wasted sperm is never an issue. Your body produces vast quantities of that stuff. It’s kind of a mystery where it all comes from, like how your body can possibly produce so much snot when you have a cold.Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to Kim says:

        Wanking off is moral.

        What possible reason could there be for thinking it is immoral that isn’t a joke?Report

    • Fnord in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think assuming that there’s a strong evolutionary reason why non-procreative sex is or was harmful and hence justifying traditional sexual taboos is begging the question.

      It’s obviously true that procreative sex is necessary for the continuation of the species, and that that’s the primary purpose of sex. But that it’s the only purpose? We know bonobos practice non-procreative sex, and that it it plays a role in their social interaction. And non-procreative sex is not only purposeless but actual harmful?

      With concealed ovulation, even much penis-in-vagina sex is non-procreative. Non-procreative sex is impossible, or at least not trivial, for humans to avoid. Why exactly humans have concealed ovulation is not a settled question, but it does seem inconsistent with the idea that non-procreative sex is a significant problem.Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to Kazzy says:

      Kazzy – What in your view would have been acceptable social consequences for non-procreative sex during the hunter-gatherer days?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        My guess is that the primary social consequence would have been difficulty finding someone to engage with in non-procreative sex. A female might avoid a non-procreating mate if engaging him in a relationship meant less likelihood of finding a fruitful relationship.

        If folks did pair up and engage in non-procreative sex, I’m not sure I can imagine an acceptable social consequence. The whole, “Screw to save the planet,” idea is one I think ought to be unenforceable.

        And, as noted above, this is a speculative hunch, not something I can provide any evidence to. I might be (and probably am) wrong.Report

        • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

          Women tend to grade mates by how well they are at being providers. After all, while he’s out hunting, she can always cheat. Cheating is a fact of human sexuality.Report

        • Rodak in reply to Kazzy says:

          It’s not clear that non-procreative sex in all hunter-gatherer societies was available to all hunter-gatherers. There were certainly power hierarchies to deal with and the “alpha-males” certainly had more access than others. And the females probably had little-to-no choice in such matters. I think talking about sexuality today with reference to “primitive” cultures is probably not that productive in terms of discussing what Kyle has brought up.Report

          • Kim in reply to Rodak says:

            Lesbians always have a choice 😉
            non-procreative sex was always available, if sometimes homosexual in nature.Report

          • Roger in reply to Rodak says:


            The coercive hierarchies that you mention definitely exist with chimps. Hunter Gatherers tended to be substantially more egalitarian and libertarianish.

            Coercive and domineering behavior by alpha males tended to be carefully controlled by the rest of the group. Continued coercive dominance was extremely hazardous to the alphas health.

            “what happened to that domineering jerk, Og? ”

            “hunting accident.”

            My views were influenced by reading Christopher Boehm.Report

            • Rodak in reply to Roger says:

              @ Roger — Yes, but you are just talking of one alpha-male being knocked off the hill by a younger, stronger alpha male. Potentates still have harems today in some cultures. And women still have little to no say about with whom they will be having sex. I know that some “primitive” societies were more like the free-love oriented Bonobos, but I don’t think it was some kind of norm.Report

              • Kim in reply to Rodak says:

                All due respect, but do you REALLY think people sleep with the woman who rolls in shit? In short, it’s rather easy to make certain no one wants to sleep with you. Just being low enough on the totem pole is good enough (look at high school)Report

              • Roger in reply to Rodak says:

                Christopher Boehm studied dozens of anthropological records of Late Pleistocene Appropriate foragers and came to dramatically different conclusions. The people collectively worked to suppress coercive alpha dominance. The details are in his two books and various summary articles on the net.Report

          • Fnord in reply to Rodak says:

            If “non-procreative sex” is defined broadly enough to include masturbation, as Kazzy did, I’m pretty sure it was available to just about everybody.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        What in your view would have been acceptable social consequences for non-procreative sex during the hunter-gatherer days?

        A post-coital cigarette.Report

    • Matty in reply to Kazzy says:

      I can think of a counter argument.
      Evolutionary ‘success’ requires not just reproducing but getting your offspring to reproduce, that means maximising their chances of reaching sexual maturity. Because humans have an extended period of dependence it is hard to raise a child without help especially in a hunter-gatherer situation. Selection should therefore favour humans forming social structures so child rearing can be shared, with pair bonding being the obvious but not the only example. Non-procreative sex is one of the ways of encouraging these kinds of social arrangements and so increasing the likelihood of children reaching reproductive age.

      I suspect (and no I will not be researching it this has already taken longer to write than I meant and I have actual work to do) that the benefits of raising the kids together and getting the occasional ‘useless’ orgasm in return outweigh the costs of not taking every chance at fertilization.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    I draw the line at M.O.D.O.K./Voldemort slashfic.Report

  4. Jason Kuznicki says:

    I believe evolutionary biology explains why sex is. Sex allows two or more useful traits that are encoded by different genes, possibly arising in different parts of the breeding population, to all eventually be expressed in the same offspring, perhaps with multiplicative gains in reproductive success down the line.

    That’s why so many multicellular creatures all have sex in one way or another: The ability to share useful genes is itself a useful trait, so it tends to get passed on.

    For primates, sex certainly has this function. But for them it also has lots of other functions; it’s an example of what Stephen Jay Gould termed an exaptation — a trait that was initially preserved because it did one thing, but then got used for, and turned out to be adaptive for, other things too. Primates commonly use sex for a wide variety of purposes in addition to procreation — notably to express affection or solidarity, as well as dominance and submission.

    It’s my belief that for humans, the good life is the examined life — the one that is full of thinking about meanings, narratives, stories, arguments, hypotheses, and causes and effects.

    In an examined life, virtually all of the traits given to us by merely evolutionary biology are subject to a special sort of exaptation. This type of exaptation isn’t necessarily conducive to reproductive success; it may simply be conducive to a meaningful and thoughtful life.

    And that’s really what it’s all about: We have hands that evolved to their present form because they can grasp many edible things in the east African plains. But our hands can also grasp violin bows, or chess pieces, or spatulas. They can type or perform surgery. And so on.

    What we do with sex will either be reproductive, or exaptive, or both. And that’s only understandable. It’s a part of human life, much like all these others.Report

    • Jason – What, if anything, is the relationship between evolutionary biology and morality?Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        A difficult question, and one on which almost any response seems likely to be misunderstood, particularly when you’re someone like me, with some unorthodox ideas about metaethics.

        As you probably know, I am a religious skeptic with a basically naturalistic worldview. For almost all definitions of God, I am an atheist; I can only think of one definition for which I am not, and there I’m an agnostic.

        I believe evolution is sort of like geology. It did essentially all of the heavy lifting long before we arrived. We just live in the world that it made, more or less.

        Any heavy lifting that evolution may do in the future will be in response to ecological pressures that we cannot begin to imagine. Do you care to bet on what environments humans will live in 10,000 years from now? No? Then don’t base your reproductive decisions on it. And besides, you’re probably not going to live to see the results anyway. So don’t imagine that you have any ethical duties that arise directly out of evolution. You just don’t.

        In part, that’s because your role in the story is infinitesimal. If you are placing more than an infinitesimal amount of weight on passing along your genes, and on making sure the “right” genes get through — whichever ones those are — you’re taking yourself way too seriously. As I told Bryan Caplan:

        Your genes are not little avatars of your Self. They are not post-theistic souls on which to pin your dashed hopes for immortality. They are not even alive, for crying out loud. Want to save your genes for all eternity? Build a fifty-foot granite monument and inscribe them. It would work about as well for your purposes.

        Your genes are codified ways for building proteins, nothing more and nothing less. These different ways of building proteins play out an intricate mathematical game across some infinitely vast, unpredictable, and constantly changing dimensions of fitness. Just as with prices in the spontaneous order of economics, you cannot possibly know what makes one gene or set of genes better or worse in all possible circumstances. Nor should you try. Trying just shows that you don’t really understand the nature of the game that you are professing to control.

        The genetic heavy lifting has so far happened all but entirely through undirected natural processes. No consciousness directed it. As a result, neither “it” (evolutionary biology) nor any other part of the natural, non-human world even remotely comprehends what humans think they’re going on about with regard to sexual or biological morality. Aside from us, no one is watching. Not only do you have no affirmative ethical duties arising out of evolution, you can’t win merits or demerits on its basis, either.

        The only place where biology enters into ethics, in my view, is at a point similar to where chemistry enters into ethics, namely in means-ends fitness testing.

        Suppose I want to give my daughter a gift, because I’m a nice person, and because playing with her will bring joy to us both. Wouldn’t a flask of mercury be fun? It might be, but it’s a very bad gift for a three-year-old. And so forth. Some means are a bad fit for the ends that we envision, and biology certainly can tell us that.

        But biology is a lousy method of finding the proper ends or goals in life.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Enh, this is all mixed up and not particularly coherent in my mind, but I’m going to give it a go anyway.

        As an evolutionary biologist by training, I agree soundly with Jason’s summary (although he didn’t really get into the muddy and miserable bits).

        I don’t seen any particular relationship between evolutionary biology and morality, except maybe that it can free us from incoherent sets of rules (or rules that we otherwise feel are harmful) by providing non-moral, coherent explanations for things. (Which maybe fits in with Jason’s second point about the examined life?) Well, and of course as a biologist-by-training-though-not-practice I do figure we’re *constrained* in our moralities by our biologies – there are moral sets that, while coherent, are not particularly likely to persist (eg Shakers), though they may recur.

        I would say that human sexuality is subject to the same forces of morality as other human social behavior – no more, but equally not less. For me personally, mostly that means informed consent, but also care for existing relationships, harmony with one’s inner truths, deep wariness of the warping effects of power dynamics, etc. On a larger social scale, I believe that morality is historically informed, and culturally determined. (Which doesn’t make it less *personally* / experientially an absolute, or mean that I would judge any historical person less vehemently for behavior that falls short of my this-place-and-time moral standards. I just don’t think my judgment is particularly relevant to their lived reality, as fierce as I may be.)

        Because of the particular social beliefs that my own culture generally shares at this particular time, there are certain sexual behaviors that, beyond doing harm to someone else in and of themselves, also very effectively communicate that a person is beyond the pale of society and will not rein in their asocial behavior no matter how much harm to others it causes. That makes those immoral actions more upsetting, and more threatening, to victims and bystanders, than other immoral behaviors – even if those other immoral behaviors are more concretely harmful. I think the signalling involved is culturally inflected, and that in another time and place other harmful behaviors might more effectively communicate the same utter social brokenness.

        Hm, reading this over I suppose I do have one biologically-based belief about sexual morality. Impregnating someone, infecting them with a murderous disease, or causing violent physical damage places a huge physiological demand on their system. So if someone is non-consensually subjected to any of those things through sex, I believe they have been done wrong in an absolute sense. Whether or not the person doing them *did* something wrong absolutely (rather than in a culturally specific way) would depend on what that person knew – but if they knew they were placing a huge physiological demand on someone else without consent, I would be comfortable saying that is an absolutely wrong act.

        My basic problem with “absolute” vs. “relative” morality is that I feel there’s a hierarchy involved in the terms, a suggestion of (yes, relative) worth that doesn’t correspond with my actual feeling about them. I have a few personal moral standards that I would live or die for. They are *absolute* in my life, even though I am quite clear that they are not universals.Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:


        What is natural has nothing to do with what is moral. So biology tells us nothing about morality.


    • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I believe evolutionary biology explains why sex is. Sex allows two or more useful traits that are encoded by different genes, possibly arising in different parts of the breeding population, to all eventually be expressed in the same offspring, perhaps with multiplicative gains in reproductive success down the line.

      Jason – you should write porn!Report

  5. Kim says:

    You are using meaning in a way that I’m unfamiliar with. Meaning, in my terms, means definition. In that case, yes, there is a meaning to human sexuality, but it’s more defined by what it isn’t than what it is (e.g. performing certain sexual acts with -children- is not actually sexual for the child). And many things that are intrinsic/natural to human sexuality, are considered morally inappropriate (a 30yrold interested in a 13 year old, for example…). Many things that Hollywood tells us are a part of human sexuality … are really unnatural (hollywood’s version of rape, where the woman is kicking and screaming…).

    Yes. Human Sexuality has meaning. And then we warp it by pretending it doesn’t exist. Hell, some of us *cough* Rose *cough* would prefer to tell us to suppress and repress natural human sexuality. Others of us (say, me) call those people “party-poopers”.Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to Kim says:

      In asking about the “meaning” of human sexuality beyond what definitions have historically been given to it, I’m asking if it has an objective, morally-binding nature or essence and/or intrinsic value.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Considering that much of human ethics has focused on suppressing human sexuality, and for good sociological reasons…
        Yes, it does have some sort of morality, and it does have some sort of intrinsic value (in so much as much of human progress stems from people’s sexual drives).Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Does pooping?Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        1. Sex makes babies in some cases. (We now can control this. Yay!)

        2. Sex is enjoyable aesthetically.

        3. For most people, sex can be used to increase feelings of intimacy with a significant other.

        4. Conversely, some people have psychological problems that are connected to their attitudes towards sex, e.g. people who only get self-esteem by being sexual desired, or by sex acts.

        Facts 2. and 3. do mean that sex needs to be treated with caution. People can be and are psychologically harmed by the wrong sort of sexual relationship and people can be and are grealty benefitted by the rght sort of sexual relationship.

        So, exploiting a sex addict is harmful amd immoral. Sleeping with someone who is making bad decisions who you know will regret it os immoral. But loving sexual relationships (even outside of marriage or maybe even open relationships) can be a way of being good and helpful to your partner(s).

        This is all sort of obvious.

        There is nothing special about sex. It is something humans do together that can be harmful or beneficial. If it is harmful it is bad. If it is beneficial it is good. That is to say, we should all be utilitarians about the morality of sex.Report

    • M.A. in reply to Kim says:

      Others of us (say, me) call those people “party-poopers”.

      Others are just calling it a debasement of science because they don’t get invited to “those” sorts of parties. 😉

  6. dhex says:

    “Does human sexuality have inherent, normative meaning to which all human sexual acts ought to accord?”

    i’m confused – i may just be slow, however – what does “meaning” mean in this sentence?Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to dhex says:

      I’m asking if it has an objective, morally-binding “nature” or “essence” and/or “intrinsic value.”Report

      • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        I can’t answer that question because I don’t thinking meaning exists outside of a mind that is ascribing it.Report

      • dhex in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        thanks for the clarification. this is probably above my pay grade but my general instinct is to say no.

        well, not on a moral level. it has intrinsic value as one of the main drivers of human action, but as for a nature or essence, i can’t really think of any.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Only whatever such meaning you, or your culture, ascribe to it.

        “Meaning” is in the mind of the beholder, so to speak. There is no meaning, no morality, outside of human conciousness.

        We make it ourselves. It’s part of the story we tell ourselves, the way we not just make sense of the world around us but pattern the world. Morality is saying “This is how things should be”.

        As such, it’s rather individual.Report

      • Roger in reply to Kyle Cupp says:


        “I’m asking if it has an objective, morally-binding “nature” or “essence” and/or “intrinsic value.””

        No. Before the big bang, and before there was life there was no intrinsic value in the missionary position. Sex solves problems for fragile organisms in an entropic universe. It solves the problem of PERSISTENCE, which is at the bottom of every problem since the universe began. For us, sex solves our problems of perpetuation, of acquiring pleasure and of forming relationships.

        I believe the illusion of intrinsic meaning and morality comes from our evolved tendency to view some activities and beliefs as sacrosanct rather than instrumental. It is a really, really useful strategy to adapt some actions as sacrosanct when living among a band of thirty or forty people your entire life and depending upon their cooperative allegiance for your long term survival. Some things should almost never be done, as doing so will backfire long term.

        The details of what is considered sacrosanct are somewhat plastic. In different cultures, different aspects of sexuality are considered sacrosanct. The big illusion is to leap from those things which seem sacrosanct to believing rationally that they really are intrinsically sacrosanct.Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        It clearly doesn’t as anyone who has masturbated to minimize the effects of a hangover knows.

        Sex can be harmful to bodies (STDs, e.g) and minds (exploitation, sex addiction, etc.), but as long as it isn’t harming anyone, there is nothing immoral about sex. To think otherwise is to hate being human.Report

  7. “Does human sexuality have inherent, normative meaning to which all human sexual acts ought to accord?”

    I think my answer is no, perhaps because I endorse, mostly, Kazzy’s “contextual” analysis. I do think human sexuality implicates certain norms about autonomy and respect for others’ autonomy. But I’m not sure I’m willing to say this is an inherent feature of sexuality as much as it is (or ought to be) an inherent feature of being human, having a soul, or whatever qualifies us as objects of moral concern in a way that, say, is not applicable to an inanimate object.

    So I don’t really have an answer as to why. Just an a priori just-so statement.Report

    • This, I take it, would be the line of thought of those who would propose “mutual consent between adults” as a basic norm. The question I have, though, is whether respect for autonomy applies to human sexuality in an absolute manner. If so, why?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Do you mean their might exist times/places/manner in human sexuality where it would be justifiable to ignore respect for autonomy? Circling back to above, would it be okay to force people to mate to save the species?Report

        • Ahunt in reply to Kazzy says:


          Thank you, Kazzy…for the brain tailspin.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Ahunt says:

            Hey Ahunt,

            Not sure if your ‘thank you’ is a sarcastic one or not. Hopefully the ‘brain tailspin’ is meant to imply thinking about something you hadn’t otherwise considered in a new way. If it’s something else, don’t hesitate to let me know if I need to clarify my point.

            For the record, I would not consider it acceptable to force people to mate to save the species.Report

            • Ahunt in reply to Kazzy says:

              “Hopefully the ‘brain tailspin’ is meant to imply thinking about something you hadn’t otherwise considered in a new way.”

              Yes…imagine I’ll be wrestling with this for awhile.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Ahunt says:

                Hmmm… Do weigh in. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Kazzy says:

                I remember back in high school, we were given a thought experiment in high school. Memory is nebulous, but essentially we were required to choose seven out of ten people to travel to another planet to “repopulate and save the human race.” Oddly enough, there were only three women: a committed nun of child bearing years, a postmenopausal scientist and a mentally “challenged” 20 odd year old.

                The class consensus, sans me…was that the nun would have to be “raped” if she would not consent to breed. I just couldn’t see it, (still can’t) idealistically arguing that basing the survival of the human race on the repeated mental, emotional and physical violation of this nun probably meant we were not worth “saving.”

                The class also rejected the philosopher artist over my objections. ;-*Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Ahunt says:

                should read…”thought experiment in eng comp”Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Ahunt says:

                I’m with you on rape being unacceptable, no matter the circumstances. I think of “28 Days Later”.Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

          ….would it be okay to force people to mate to save the species?

          In a Battlestar Galactica or Children of Men kind of scenario, I’d say yes. Those who can’t make the babies themselves need to do things to support the ones who can. But those are some pretty extreme scenarios.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Would rape be an acceptable method of enforcement?

            This makes me wonder about the scientist with the cure for cancer memorized but uninterested in sharing it. Acceptable to tortue him to get it?Report

            • Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

              Since I’ve bought in to utilitarianism for a penny here, I might as well be in for the whole pound. “Forcing people to mate” does not necessarily imply sex imposed by way of violence, though.

              Cure for cancer guy? My rule is “no torture, ever.” But I’ll short-circuit the back and forth to explore the limits of “ever.” You’re going to have to push me to “survival of the species” territory with the specifics of the scenario. Curing cancer does not seem necessary for the survival of the species — we’ve made it this far without curing cancer. But having bought in to some degree of utilitarianism for the premise of the question, yes, I’ll eventually soften as you change the scenario to become more and more extreme. As would, I think, pretty much anyone.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:

                I don’t know how you force a woman to mate absent some form of violence. Or a man, for that matter.

                And I’m not sure how you apply utilitarianism to forced mating. What benefit do people currently alive garner? You’d be weighing the folks alive versus potential lives.Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Kazzy says:

                Well, back in high school, there was no conception of modern reproductive technologies. Today, we would be talking about harvesting eggs from the unwilling nun, and implanting them in the mentally deficient young woman, and the scientist…Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Ahunt says:

                I still think that “harvesting eggs from unwilling nun” is a form of rape. At the very least, it is a form of violence.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                This just might be the harshest League thread ever. Not for the faint of heart.Report

              • Fnord in reply to Kazzy says:

                Call it what you like, but it’s obviously different than the sort of rape envisioned when Mr. Ahunt called it “repeated mental, emotional and physical violation”. And the idea that violence of some sort can be justified by circumstances, while not universal, is widely held, so merely noting that it’s a form of violence tells us very little.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


                I think that “harvesting eggs” from a woman who takes seriously her solemn oath to remain celibate in accordance with her religious beliefs can easily cause “repeated mental, emotional, and physical violation”. Now, we could argue whether her insistence on refusing to participate in breeding to save the species is truly consistent with the religious tradition she seeks to uphold but… that is not the conversation here. The conversation, as I understand it, is whether it would be appropriate/acceptable/moral/ethical to harvest eggs from an unwilling participant in order to save the species. I argue no.

                You point out that it is widely held that some violence can be justified. Why this violence? I generally subscribe that the only justifiable use of violence is in defense of life or limb. If you’re trying to harm me, I can respond with violence.

                But who is the nun harming? The species? All the people who COULD live but are not even conceived yet? She is harming no one. There is no justification to use violence against her.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


                I’m actually curious where you weigh in on this. This might be as hardcore libertarian as I get… but I don’t even know if what I’m advocating for is actually libertarian… but I do know I believe it.Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Kazzy says:

                Oh Yes Kazzy, but I was merely responding to Bruce’s point about modern technology.

                “The question I have, though, is whether respect for autonomy applies to human sexuality in an absolute manner. If so, why?”

                Getting back to the question, I’m still not sure what Kyle is getting at…I think we all understand the Fred and Wilma will have PIV sex if Fred and Wilma so choose.

                Are we talking some sort of state sanction for the PIV sex that I personally do not think that Fred and Wilma should be having?Report

              • Fnord in reply to Kazzy says:

                If it’s done as a one-time medical procedure, it’s trivially false as a matter of fact to call it “repeated…physical violation”. You’re sensationalizing. I think you know as well as I do that the “repeated mental, emotional and physical violation” was meant to invoke the violation of actually being raped. Surely you don’t intend to claim that involuntary egg harvesting reaches that level of harm.

                As for the fact that the “survival of the species” justification balances harm to actual humans against the the “harm” caused by the non-existence of potential future humans, you’re the one who suggested that traditional customs suppressing non-procreative sex might have been justified in the ancestral environment by the need to maximize fertility.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


                Perhaps the physical trauma would be mitigated by it being a medical procedure, but I don’t know about the mental or emotional (or the spiritual, for that matter). I know women who feel incredible and continued loss at learning that they are infertile. Reproductive freedom, including the freedom NOT to reproduce, is hugely important to a great number of people, such that any violation of it could feel just as violate as a violent sexual assault.

                To your last point, I suggested that as a possibility for how certain sexual norms might have come to be (though I think my theory has been largely debunked); I was not offering it as how things ought to have been, but how they might have been.

                For me, I can’t imagine a scenario where harvesting the eggs (or sperm, for that matter) of an unwilling participant would be justified. I also can’t imagine a scenario where torture is justified. Call it autonomy absolutism but that’s where I stand.Report

        • Kyle Cupp in reply to Kazzy says:

          Not so much ignore, but maybe limit? I don’t have absolute autonomy in non-sexual matters of my life, following laws and so forth, so should I have it in my sexual life?

          In answer to your question, I would say no, because I believe sex ought always to be freely chosen.Report

          • Ahunt in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            Legal limits? Such as?Report

            • Kyle Cupp in reply to Ahunt says:

              Laws prohibit me from doing as I please. If I drive 1oo mph on an empty rode with a speed limit of 45, I can and should get pulled over.Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                But under what circumstances are you proposing legal limits on sexual activity between consenting adults? I mean, creepy as it is, incest between consenting adults is essentially ignored here in the US.

                So I am still at a loss.Report

              • Kyle Cupp in reply to Ahunt says:

                I’m not proposing legal limits. I’m questioning whether autonomy as a moral principle applies in a special way to matters of human sexuality.Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Okay…I think I’m following, and yes, I do believe there are moral limits on sexual autonomy, and that we do have moral obligations to one another AND to the pregnancy we might be creating.

                (Full disclosure: Fred and Wilma touched a nerve, because we experienced two consecutive stillbirths, after 3 healthy pregnancies and fairly easy births. Though this was long ago, I will always have strong feelings about cavalier attitudes regarding sexual activity that, as in your scenario…has the stronger possibility of pregnancy.)Report

              • Kyle Cupp in reply to Ahunt says:

                Very sorry to hear this, Ahunt.Report

              • Ahunt in reply to Ahunt says:

                Answering here, Kyle…cuz the reply function is not showing up below your comment.

                Thank you. Your reply is kindness many years after the fact, and I appreciate it

                My concern was that my personal experiences would disqualify my opinion, here on LOOG.

                But I get it now. So yes, we do have moral limits on sexual autonomy, starting with keeping our genitals out of the marriages of others and aknowleging that our sexual behaviors impact our children and our communities and our wider families.

                For starters…out of breath.Report

              • Kyle Cupp in reply to Ahunt says:

                You’re welcome, Ahunt. We lost a newborn in 2009, so I sympathize. All the best to you.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        The question I have, though, is whether respect for autonomy applies to human sexuality in an absolute manner. If so, why?

        A Kantian would say that the categorical imperative doesn’t take holidays. Respect for autonomy doesn’t stop when you close the bedroom door.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        It does not. Human sexuality is capable of operating in modalities that are disrespectful of autonomy.
        These are not moral modalities, to be clear, nor are they ethical, in my way of thinking.
        I know of others who would argue otherwise.Report

      • Kyle, I guess I don’t understand your question fully.

        I do think respect for autonomy applies in an absolute manner insofar as I believe any third party has a positive obligation to respect that autonomy.

        Whether there’s a higher moral “oughtness” that normatively limits that autonomy but need not be enforced by the the state, or me, or any other third person against an actor, I’m open to the possibility. For example, I am open, in theory, to the notion that one ought not masturbate, or that a consenting adult couple ought not engage in non-procreative sex, or that I and my partner ought not engage in relations until we’re married (we just got engaged, by the way). Even though I am theoretically open to those normative possibilities, I don’t endorse them, in fact I disagree with all three.

        To put it more simply, maybe human sexuality imposes duties and obligations on us, but I’m reluctant to endorse laws that might compel us to perform them. I am, I hope it’s needless to say, in support of laws that prohibit us from violating others’ autonomy, up to and including any sort of compulsion against anyone to procreate for the “survival of the species.”Report

        • It seems to me that autonomy is never absolute when living with a society. I’m not able to do as I please. So, if autonomy ought not be limited in matters of sex, what about sex makes that so?Report

          • My reflexive answer–although I’m not certain if I want to swear by it in all cases–is that there exist the following limiting principles upon autonomy:

            1. One shall not impede others’ autonomy without a good reason. (Of course, “without a good reason” just kicks the can down the road, doesn’t it?)

            2. One has certain positive obligations to one’s family / community / society / world. I know a lot of libertarians (and others) would lodge principled objections to this claim–and they’d be good objections worth considering–but in practice most of us acquiesce to and sometimes even accept as legitimate some of these obligations, which can include taxes, jury duty, etc. (I’m not insisting it’s a clear case of where to draw the line; I suggest only that I think such obligations can and do exist, and they limit my and others’ autonomy.)

            3. One has certain obligations to take responsibility for what one has created or for what has been created through one’s actions. The most obvious, and most defensible, would be one’s obligations to one’s children. However, if I were to invent a super-weapon just for the fun of inventing super-weapons, I oughtta be willing to take responsibility for that decision.

            I think 1 and 3 apply to human sexuality, and therefore there is, I concede, a limitation on autonomy. For number 2, there is a limitation on autonomy that starts out relatively strong (one’s obligations to one’s family) and gets weaker as we expand out to “society” and “the world.”

            So I guess I must revise my claim a bit and suggest that that the autonomy I speak of is not intrinsic to human sexuality, but intrinsic to our natural (loaded term, I know) autonomy. (I think I intended to say as much in my original comment, when I wrote “But I’m not sure I’m willing to say this is an inherent feature of sexuality as much as it is (or ought to be) an inherent feature of being human….,” but I also admit that’s quite a bit of opaque writing on my part. I don’t do philosophy well.)Report

    • I’d see respect for others’ autonomy as an ought, not a must. It’s certainly yet to be a norm and I’d find it hard to argue that it’s intrinsic to sexuality in any way.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

        It actually is intrinsic to secondary female sexuality (aka the sort that peaks in the mid-30’s), what with the orgasm and all… (intended as a carrot to get autonomous and powerful women to bear more children).Report

  8. NoPublic says:

    I think that if we accept that evolutionary biology has had a strong influence on our species (and I do) the answer has to be a definitive “maybe”.

    It goes something like:

    1) Most other mammals have a strong indication of estrus and are aware when sex may or may not result in offspring
    2) We do not have this indication
    3) There is therefore an evolutionary advantage to non-procreative sexual activity.Report

    • M.A. in reply to NoPublic says:

      3) does not necessarily follow.

      It’s entirely possible that the indications of estrus aren’t really an advantage to start with. Seriously, if you’ve ever seen a dog humping something’s leg, it’s a pretty good indication that estrus itself as an indicator is a bit overrated to the idea of species reproducing.

      It’s also entirely possible that estrus is a great indicator and advantage for relatively solitary species (face it, if a female predator isn’t advertising, she won’t find a male!), but not for herdbeasts or other gregarious species (including primates) that remain close together. Since humans are a gregarious species, the need to advertise “hey you, right now” kind of goes away.

      Standard misstatement/mistake of most people about evolution; the idea that every change, every time, MUST be the result of an advantage. Sometimes, it’s just that something isn’t the advantage it once was and therefore wanes. Sometimes, it’s tagging along on the gene with something else that rose to prominence.

      Sometimes, it’s just fishing random.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to NoPublic says:

      The biological success of human beings does not appear to be linked to the reproductive “design strategies” resulting from evolution. It appears to have happened quite in spite of those strategies.

      Our domination of other species and ability to expand our habitable living environment to nearly every square inch of the Earth is the result of our brains developing very high levels of cognitive ability, our hands developing very high levels of tool manipulation capability, and the confluence of those two biological capabilities in communication, particularly writing, so as to transmit accumulated survival knowledge trans-generationally. In this fashion, survival enhancement techniques such as agriculture, metallurgy, meterology, and medicine may be transmitted from individual to individual and the amount of time needed for particular individuals to acquire these skills is substantially reduced and the effectiveness of those techniques is enhanced over time. It’s fundamentally no different than momma bear showing a cub how to catch salmon in the stream (different bears learn different strategies and some try out different strategies over the course of their lifetimes to teach their cubs), but it happens a whole lot faster.

      Obvious or concealed estrus seems quite irrelevant to this. I think Kazzy was on to something in that pursuit of non-procreative sex serves the end goal of either individual or collective survival in decidedly non-obvious way and indeed may have more obvious kinds of costs to them — time and calorie consumption, vulnerability to predators or enemies, addictive patterns of behavior. The pleasure to the individual from non-procreative sex, it seems, outweighs those costs, and as we become better and better at survival those costs become trivial.Report

  9. Richard S. Arndt says:

    It seems to me that we need to make several distinctions before we can hope to answer this multi-faceted question. The first one would be to distinguish between sexual intercourse and sexual stimulation. The former is ordered toward reproduction. Reproduction does not figure in the latter. Although both involve genital stimulation, and thus share something in common, the norms for each action could be different. Whether or not they are is a question for debate. The second distinction would be between the significance of an act in reality and the significance of an act in the human mind. I may associate any number of things with an action without my associations corresponding to the reality of the act itself. (If I can’t be wrong about what sexual intercourse actually is and what it means, then we don’t need to have an argument at all, because it is pointless.)

    So we need to answer the questions: What is sexual intercourse? To what end is it ordered? What does the act mean in reality (and thus how should one think about it)? How should human beings act in regard to sexual intercourse?Report

  10. Kyle Cupp says:

    I raised this scenario in a thread above: Fred and Wilma both desire to have sexual intercourse with one another, knowing that Wilma has a medical condition in which pregnancy would be predictably dangerous for her. They also have reason to suspect Wilma is fertile. They do not have access to birth control or to means of terminating a pregnancy. Would it be wrong of them to have sexual intercourse?Report

    • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      PiV is contraindicated.

      However there are so many other ways of having sexual intercourse. I presume that they both have hands and mouths.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      Wrong? No more wrong that it’d be for someone with a heart condition to eat a bacon-double cheeseburger. I wouldn’t advise it but if they view the value gained from having sex as greater than the value lost from her pregnancy, such is their choice.Report

      • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

        I’m with Kazzy. The choice of having sex has pros and cons. Risks and benefits. It is not a matter of right or wrong for Wilma, it is a matter of good or bad outcomes and tradeoffs.

        For Fred, there is a moral dimension. This is because he has the potential to harm her in a win lose type of way. He gets off and goes on to marry Betty, while Wilma dies.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:


          You are right that the players are not on equal footing. Good point.

          Personally, I’m a little shocked that more folks seem to be taking the stance that it would be wrong for them to do it. That seems paternalistic, no? Am I missing something?

          We all make decisions that have negative consequences for us, largely because we view the positive consequences as worth the negatives. These choices aren’t always well-informed (we might underestimate or be ignorant of certain costs), but I don’t think we should view risky sex any differently than we view drug use or smoking or alcohol or eating habits or the decision not to join a gym.Report

          • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

            Yeah, I view it as an instrumental decision on Wilma’s part, but with a bit of a moral dimension on Fred’s. I think we could argue it is wrong for her to talk her into it, or pressure her into it, or seduce her when drunk, for example. Indeed, I think the high ground for him would be to try to get her to carefully consider the ramifications.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

              Well put. I almost said, “The decision is entirely Wilma’s.” But, of course, it is not entirely so; if Fred objects than that is that.

              Of course, things can get squishy fast. Fred might grow upset, irate even if they don’t have sex. He might leave Wilma. And perhaps justifiably so; the meeting of physical needs is an important part of a relationship. But these quickly become costs for Wilma, costs that some might argue are exploitive (I can’t make hay right now of if they are or aren’t).

              But, regardless, I don’t think it is in any way wrong for them to do it if that is what they want to do.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

        I think this is the correct result. Fred and Wilma should understand what they are doing, but if we’re going to respect their autonomy, then they are the ones who get to decide whether they should engage in sex or not.Report

        • Shazbot5 in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Yeah, and there is a question about whether a person can act immorally by harming themselves.

          I’d say yes, but clearly Kyle seems to think sex is somehow a special case. He isn’t just interested in cases of self-harm or risking self-harm. Alcohol, heroin use, sky-diving (especially combining the three) are risky and can self-harm, but it is unclear if they are moral. But none of them is special in the way that Kyle seems to be suggesting about sex.Report

          • Matty in reply to Shazbot5 says:

            “Alcohol, heroin use, sky-diving (especially combining the three)”

            How did you find out my plans for the weekend?Report

          • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Shazbot5 says:

            Well, sex is an entirely different matter ethically: it involves another person, and because it’s something we’re strongly driven towards, we are tempted to satisfy our own needs by diminishing those of our partner.

            To me, it’s a ripe and interesting avenue for ethical exploration.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      Oh, okay, I thought you meant objective basis as meaning a basis for characterizing things as sex or non-sex; as opposed to right or wrong! Whoops! I’d still say no here though- I wouldn’t consider it ‘wrong’ in any sort of objective, trans-historical sense for them to have sex. I’d probably not do it myself. But it’s hard to say, no, this is objectively ‘wrong’ always and forever. We should, of course, mention that Wilma has a terminal illness that will kill her within a month’s time and desperately wants to connect with her soul mate, Fred, for one last time. Or, you know, maybe not.Report

    • Richard S. Arndt in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      Is it literally “sexual intercourse” if they “use hands or mouths” or any other means of stimulation? What is indicated by the term “sexual intercourse” such that we need two words to specify the action? Seems to me that there are many means for stimulating the genitals, and we casually refer to all of them as “sex,” but it would seem that only the act that results in an exchange of gametes is sexual intercourse.

      In the question about Fred and Wilma, then, we should exclude all sexual activities that are less than sexual intercourse from the equation and focus only on the act of sexual intercourse itself.

      My answer is that it seems that Fred and Wilma ought to abstain from sexual intercourse in the situation Kyle describes, because abstaining promises better results for their life together than engaging. This is not to say, however, that it would be wrong, absolutely speaking, for them to engage.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Richard S. Arndt says:

        So if it’s PiV sex, and the man is wearing a condom that works as intended, is it not really sex in your view?

        Is it not sex if the couple doesn’t use a condom, but the woman isn’t ovulating?

        Is it not sex if she’s past menopause? Or if the guy’s had a vasectomy?Report

        • Russell M in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          as all of those do not run the risk of wilma getting preggers they would be ethical sex.

          any sex which could result in wilma getting pregnant would be unethical in my view.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Russell M says:


            Is drug use unethical? Drinking? Smoking? All of those are predictably dangerous for the user.Report

            • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

              We might say that it’s ethical to use drugs, or smoke, or drink, because those are predictably harmful to oneself, but for the man, the sex is predictably harmful to someone else. This is where the problem is difficult, I think. She should be able to make a choice for herself, as she would be able to do with drugs, but should you go along with that choice, knowing that your actions could contribute to her death?

              I suppose a better analogy might be smoking in the house with an adult non-smoker living with you. Second hand smoke is predictably dangerous, and even if that person chose to live there with you (knowingly exposing themselves to the risks of second hand smoke), is it ethical to continue smoking while they’re living with you?Report

        • Shazbot5 in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          If a man puts his willy in a robot that has what looks like a lady’s hoo-hoo, but is actually a cybernetically altered man’s bum, is it homosexual sex? Would God be mad? If so, why?Report

        • Richard S. Arndt in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Yes, no, maybe, yes.Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Richard S. Arndt says:

            Not to be rude, but I can’t even begin to figure out how you made those determinations. In NO case was there an “exchange” of gametes, either because a barrier prevented them from mingling, or because they just weren’t there to begin with.

            Going by your definition, how can any of these acts be sex, if the gametes are either sidetracked or absent?Report

      • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Richard S. Arndt says:

        Today I learned that a) Bill Clinton was right. b) gays and lesbians cannot have sexual intercourse 😉Report

    • Kyle,

      My inclination is to say that given certain assumptions–some of which I think I share and some of which I don’t think I share–it would be wrong for them to have sexual intercourse.

      But I believe it would probably be wrong for me to say so (even though I just did). This, to me, is one of those kinds of ultimate judgments that belong only to the person or entity who creates right and wrong to begin with, not to someone who “recollects” them from a plane of pure ideas.

      On a more practical level if I would Fred or Wilma, those would be considerations I’d have to take into account, just as I personally would have to take into account any action that, say, indulges my pride, that is, “pride” in the sense of “self-idolatry.”* But I would not be the ultimate judge of even my own actions, and assuming to myself the prerogative of ultimate judgment is also succumbing to the idolatry of the self that I claim is so harmful.

      So in short, my true answer is that I must punt and not really answer at all.

      *I’m purposefully using what I understand to be Christian language here. In part, that’s because it seems to be the language you’re trying to speak. But it’s also because even though I profess to be an agnostic, I do think self-idolatry is something that’s dangerous, that leads to suffering, and that is to be avoided and “anti-doted” with humility.Report

  11. wardsmith says:

    TL;DR, but have been waiting /days/ to post this from Washington State:

    Passing two laws that condone gay marriage and marijuana is only biblical.

    You see Leviticus 20:13 clearly states that if a man were to lay with another man (as with a woman) they must surely be stoned.

    Clearly there has been a long time misinterpretation of these verses.Report

  12. scott a. says:

    Dunno about essence, but it is fun. I call that good, especially when no humans, animals, or furniture were harmed in the process.Report

  13. Steve S. says:

    “Does human sexuality have inherent, normative meaning to which all human sexual acts ought to accord?”


    “If you answer in the negative, I’m interested in why”

    Why does X not exist? Sorry, no idea how to answer that question.

    “and what, if anything, you would submit as an objective basis for sexual norms.”

    I’d love to submit myself but I don’t think that’s gonna fly with anybody else. So I guess I have to say nothing, that sexuality is like everything else; we cobble it together from biological imperatives, personal experience, cultural norms, and intellectual reflection.Report

  14. James Vonder Haar says:

    Rape is the only sexual crime. If you cannot restate your moral objection to sex in some way that isn’t “one party isn’t consenting,” or “one party isn’t fully informed,” you are acting immorally. You hinder the ability of people to have fulfilling sex lives, and, more importantly, victimize potentially vulnerable sexual minorities.Report

  15. Jaybird says:

    I wish I could rub my stomach and avoid hunger. – Diogenes

    Wait, no. That’s not where I want to go. Maybe we should start with a disclaimer…

    Disclaimer: I will be using outdated stereotypes in this comment. In an effort to blunt that, instead of references to “orgasms”, I will be talking about “sneezes”. I understand that the human brain lights up with almost as much activity from a sneeze as from an orgasm. On top of that, Pope Urban VIII issued a Papal Bull against snuff tobacco because, yes, it caused sneezing. Given that the Catholic Church and I are in agreement on this issue, let us move forward.

    Adolescent dudes like to sneeze. A lot.

    Hrm. Maybe this isn’t going to work out as well as I had hoped when I began.

    How’s this? A key that can open many locks is considered to be a useful key. A lock that can be opened by many keys is, um… you know what? Let’s go back to the sneezing.

    Sneezing is one of those things that just feels better when it’s caused by an external cause than when you just stick a hair up your nose or something. I mean, sure, it’ll get the job done, but if someone else makes you sneeze? That’s the stuff. Anyway, since getting someone else to get you to sneeze is kind of a weird thing to ask, you pretty much have to negotiate it. “If you help me sneeze, I will help you sneeze” is generally considered a fair enough tradeoff. Win-win, right?

    Well, there are some people who are better at helping a person sneeze than others. There are some people who look like they’d be better at helping a person sneeze. Heck, there are some people who you just look at them and you just think about sneezing. You can’t help but think about sneezing… but there’s also a dynamic where it’s nice to sneeze with someone who says “gezundheit” afterwards. Heck, it’s nice to sneeze with someone that you don’t only sneeze with. If it’s just someone that you sneeze with and then, immediately, you feel disgust or regret or some other variant of “what are you still doing here?”, you’re doing it wrong. On top of that, there is the problem where everybody likes to sneeze. Nobody, however, wants to get *SICK*… and you can get sick by sneezing with too many people and while that can be dealt with by getting some saran wrap and put that over everything and then sneezing, but it’s not as good as a good, nice, wet sneeze.

    With this in mind, there’s a bit of jockeying when it comes to sneezing negotiations. If all you want is someone who will help you sneeze, you can find that… if that’s all you want to find. The issue, however, is that lots of people want more than just sneezing. They want gezundheits, they want enthusiastic hair up the nose, if not feathers, if not fizzy drinks. More than that, they don’t want their sneezing partner putting hair or feathers or whatever up anyone else’s nose. Or, at least, not in public and not in a way that makes anybody look like a chump for having a sneezing partner that’s all over everywhere. But there are also people who have tons of people in line asking them for sneeze exclusivity and others who don’t…

    Which, generally, means that the people who have a lot of people jockeying for their help with sneezes can be choosy and people who have fewer people jockeying may have to offer more enthusiasm, or more obscure kinds of allergens, or better gesundheits.

    On top of that, there’s the issue of how one person can easily make 10 or 15 other people sneeze in a day, if sneezing is all they’re looking for. If sneezing isn’t an issue for a lot of people out there, they may not look for a partner at all, if they can just get their sneezing taken care of in one stop… so the people who help many people sneeze can, effectively, reduce the bargaining power of the people who don’t have a ton of folks jockeying for their sneeze facilitation resulting in sneeze facilitation effectively being depreciated across the board.

    So, generally, there is a stigma created in any given society against people who help a lot of people sneeze. They come up with contemptuous names for them, pass laws about it, and make big deals about how sneezing should be between TWO PEOPLE and ONLY TWO PEOPLE which would increase the bargaining power of sneeze providers and weaken the bargaining power of the people who wanted to sneeze the most. The focus is on how much better a sneeze is between two people who also say “God Bless You” and also

    The problem is that the sneeze market is dynamic with many uncertainties. The negotiated prices for sneeze facilitation change on a whim. Today they’re higher than yesterday, tomorrow they could easily be lower.

    Given all of these things, society will always try to compensate to keep prices stable. The problem is that culture changes attitudes. It’s not fair that this group of people who bargain less when it comes to sneeze facilitation are shamed for it. It’s not reasonable to expect that sneezing happen between two people ONLY. It’s not fair that more resources aren’t pouring into unwanted outcomes from sneezing. And so on… but the main thing to notice is this:

    Society will say that things that make the price unstable will be immoral. Always and across cultures… until a new equilibrium is found at which point the old price equilibrium will be mocked and the new one will be upheld as the new and improved moral stance.

    Until, of course, the price becomes unstable again.Report

  16. LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

    “Does human sexuality have inherent, normative meaning to which all human sexual acts ought to accord?”

    I say yes.
    Starting with the premise that our bodies are sacred, our relationships are sacred, and that even private acts between consenting adults have powerful ramifications for all of society.

    Going on to the idea of the “pre-existing lien” that society has upon our selves; that our ownership of our bodies is not total, but limited and shared with society, and our actions are allowed only insofar as they conform to the “right use” expected.

    All of which of course sets libertarians teeth on edge. Sorry.

    As to Fred and Wilma, there is room within this framework to argue that their dilemma is immoral, but allowable.Report

    • Yeah, we didn’t hear enough of that argument from the anti-gay marriage folks. It’s good to hear it from the left as well as from the right.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

        You got the left channel playing the funky base line, the right channel playing some nasty Mick Jones-style rhythm guitar, and the lead bouncing back and forth.

        It’s headphones-only, now, Jaybird.Report

    • Good lord, it’s both sacred and owned by society. Leaves precious little left over for the individual. I’m happy to let you live in a communitarian Christian compound, but can you all please just leave the rest of us the hell alone?Report

    • You know, Lib, what really bothers me about this “we’re , partly, owned by society” claim is that within it is a claim that you, partly, own me. To which my first instinct is to say, go to hell. Not because it’s you claiming ownership of me but because someone, anyone, is claiming ownership of me.

      My second instinct is to try to strike a deal. Your claim implies that I, partly, own you. I don’t want that, so I freely relinquish my share in you, and ask that you reciprocally relinquish your share in me.Report

      • My inclination is to see the “we are partly owned by society” idea as part of the tragedy of existence, we are bound in a compact with others, and that compact is partially of our own choosing and partially not and almost completely inexorable and inescapable. (I do admit there might be the possibility of exit, but exit comes at costs so great as to make it (exit) effectively impractical.)

        I get what you’re saying, though. If I were to carry my notion into any sort of prescribed, positive obligation that can be imposed on you by someone who is not you or not God, then we risk getting into all kinds of mischief and creating all kinds of harms and violations. In my view, that’s one of the strongest arguments for what I understand libertarianism to be. But for me, it doesn’t rescue us from the compact even though it puts limits on the compulsion inherent in the compact and if implemented well maximizes individual autonomy within the compact.Report

        • Roger in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

          Riffing on James… My third instinct would be to say that if we are owned by society, then society has a collective action problem to solve. When everyone is responsible, in effect nobody is. This is like the first rule of management responsibility .

          Therefore the logical next step is to assign responsibility to individuals for individuals. The logical solution is to assign everyone responsibility for themselves first and foremost. Your first responsibility is to your self, then family and this extends outwards.

          Thus we get back to collective ownership implies individual responsibility.Report

        • How has it tended to work out in practice?

          “I own you. You don’t own me. People like me and mine run the place and we decide who needs to change for the benefit of all of us. So my obligations to you are being met without my changing at all. Your obligations to me? Here’s a list.”Report

          • Oh, I agree, and I agree with Roger, too, about the problems that my view can entail.

            I think we ought not justify any coercive action against others only by citing some “compact” such as I posit. We need some principle of respect individual autonomy as our starting point, which is where I agree with libertarians assuming I understand them.

            But I do believe that society has a moral claim on me. Believe me, I resist or ignore that claim very often in my personal choices. And I don’t think that claim is at all, by itself, a sufficient basis for justifying using coercion or the threat of coercion to compel people to do something.

            I don’t think we necessarily disagree on much.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        James, this is why ownership of property is fundamentally problematic. 😉Report

  17. Shazbot5 says:

    Again, I think it’s important to distinguish the physical act of sex from people’s psychological states regarding sex.

    There is nothing special about the physical act of sex. It is like eating or drinking or pooping or talking or walking. Neither moral nor immoral, just what your body does.

    However, sex acts can cause people to feel great distress and causing distress (especially without consent) is always wrong. Rape is the simplest example. But sometimes sex can cause distress in other ways, e.g. it can cause people to have lower self-worth, or to feel guilt. All people should aim at having sexual relationships that do not contribute to causing distress in others, in the same way that they should follow the same rule in conversations and friendships. And sex can improve (but not create on its own) feelings of intimacy which are joyful and good, and all people should aim at having those sorts of relationships (gay or straight and maybe even serial relationships or open relationships, depending on what really does make people happy.)

    So im short, sex is good when it leads to happiness. Bad when ot leads to suffering.

    Case closed.Report

    • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      My wife is dying of cancer. She passes away at home. I call the coroner and proper authorities to report the death.
      While I am waiting for them to arrive, I have sex with her corpse, which makes me happy.
      Stipulate that she gave consent prior to dying.

      Is this acceptable? Should it be legal?

      If you find this revolting, why?Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

        It is not immoral.

        Not my cup of tea. Maybe a little gross, but not as gross as lutefisk or anything from Denny’s.

        Also it could be deeply beautiful and sacred if you imagine the situation a little differently. Maybe it is something you both promised to each other (crazily, I think, but that’s me) to be together in eternity or some such.

        The ancient Callatians ate dead bodies (sons ate fathers, I think). Gross, to us, but not immoral.

        Gross is a matter of taste. Morality is objective.Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

        It’s a good case, BTW. I feel it is not immoral at all, though I do not find it sexually appealing at all. But what is gross to me is not a guide to morality.

        I wonder if Kyle thinks this is immoral and why it is immoral?

        I suspects he tthinks it is immoral and I am very curious about his reasons for believing it to be immoral.


        • Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          Grossness isn’t a sure guide to morality, but it may be suggestive.

          I’m old fashioned in believing that sex ought to be an expression of love between persons, which rules out necrophilia, as there’s only a person and a corpse.Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            Also masturbation.

            Is that immoral?Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            When something is gross, how do you determine that it is moral or immoral? How does grossness suggest what is moral?Report

            • Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              Not directly from the grosses, which is an affective rather than moral response. However, immorality can be (but isn’t always) ugly, which is why we sometimes use words like “horrid” or “horrible” or “disgusting” and such to describe something vicious.Report

              • Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Well sometimes moral acts seem gross and sometimes immoral acts don’t seem gross at all. So there is no real connection between grossness and immorality that I can see.

                Surely violence is horrid and scary. But it is horid and scary because it is immoral. It is not immoral because it is horid. If it were immoral because it is horrid or gross, then morality would depend on how things seem to us, which would be a kind of extreme moral relativism.

                What is the connection?Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                I’m strongly in agreement with Shazbot.

                It’s not at all clear why we should look to grossness as an indicator of morality, what with so many vastly better indicators all around us: Violation of autonomy, the inflicting of needless pain, the self-reported experience of degradation… none of these are perfect indicators, but all of them are better than grossness.

                Incidentally, even those who say they support grossness as a useful indicator clearly don’t mean it: A morality built on grossness ought to forbid surgery, or at the very least look at it as more problematic than sex. Because surgery is fishing repulsive. Watch some YouTube videos if you don’t believe me.

                That the reverse is true for most grossness-supporters, and that they generally find sex more problematic than surgery, indicates that their supposed support of grossness is ad hoc and intended only to support their preexisting prejudices.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Hell, for me it would mean that cleaning fish is immoral.

                As would be any work involving sewage.

                Disgust seems to be a pretty deeply ingrained moral emotion (here Haidt is on firmer ground than in his political work, if for no other reason than that experimental confirmation has come from labs other than his own). For that reason, the relationship between disgust and moral judgment probably corresponds pretty closely to that of sex and its biological purpose: sure, there might be a good evolutionary reason for disgust and immorality to track each other closely, but you know, part of the reason we have a culture is because it allows us to move beyond that sort of thing.Report

              • I wouldn’t call grossness a useful indicator of immorality. My point is merely that sometimes what is immoral we recognize as ugly. Not always, perhaps not usually.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                But sometimes it is banal and sometimes it is appealing, too.

                Grossness is entirely irrelevant to morality.Report

              • Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                There is no necessary connection. We can’t say “X is gross; therefore, X is immoral.” On some occasions, however, there is a correspondence. Not always, perhaps not typically. You know the old saying, the devil takes a pleasing shape.Report

              • Chris in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                There’s actually a fair amount of research on the seemingly innate connection between disgust and moral judgment. In one experiment, fart spray caused people to make more severe moral judgments. The problem with using disgust, as studies like that show, is that it allows irrelevant information to impact our judgments without us really being aware of it.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Not only is there no necessary connection, but it’s also predictably irrational. My three-year-old thinks it’s gross when sauce touches rice on her plate. Kids very commonly think foods touching each other is repulsive — should we be listening to them more?

                If not, why not? And if you’re using something else to modify the grossness standard, then you need to try to articulate it. And maybe, when you have, you’ll find that it stands alone pretty well, which grossness clearly does not.Report

              • I don’t disagree, Jason.Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            Also. if someone finds homosexual sex to be gross, should that “suggest” to them that it is immoral?

            Finally, why should sex always be in a loving relationship? I mean, I gave a reason for why it is good to aim at sex that maximizes feelings of intimacy, as intimacy yields a kind of happiness. But casual sex can be a happy thing, too. My principle is sex is good in so far is it leads to happiness and so sometimes sex outside of a loving relationship is good.

            Do you disagree? If so, why.Report

            • Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              People make arguments against homosexuality on those grounds, but I wouldn’t typically say that an experience of grossness *should* ever suggest immorality. Ugliness or grossness can be suggestive, but that doesn’t get us to any principle or necessarily connection between an experience of grossness and an experience of immorality.

              In answer to your final question, I have this strange idea that sex is a holy and sacred act, worthy of reverence, so while I don’t deny that casual sex can produce happy people, my religious beliefs rule out casual sex as morally permissible. I have no interest in forcing my religious views on others, if you’re wondering.Report

              • Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                So people are often wrong to think that grossness is suggestive of immorality, as in the case of someone grossed out by homosexual sex, or older people having sex, or masturbation, or anything and everything?

                Yet you believe that grossness is suggestive of immorality?

                Isn’t this a contradiction?


                I really don’t want to offend here. I’m curious. Feel free to tell me off at any point.

                But why can’t occasional causal sex be holy and sacred? It can bring people together and make them happy and joyful.

                I get that a long term relationship is more holy, more sacred because it involves more happiness and joy.

                But why isn’t causal sex (done in a way that leads to human happiness: occasionally, consensually, etc.) not holy?

                I’m not a religious man, but casual sex seems like a holy thing. It certainly isn’t non-holy. I mean eating or having a party are non-holy. So you could think of the occasional causal sex as like eating or having a party, too. Why not?Report

              • Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                No, I think that grossness can be suggestive of immorality, but it isn’t necessarily suggestive. “Suggestive” is a fairly relative relation, owing a lot to perspective and where one stands. I’m not positing suggestiveness as an indication of a connection. More like a gut feeling, that may or may not correspond to reality.

                I thought we were using “casual” to mean not intimate or not expressive of love. Since I believe that sex ought always to be an expression of love, and that sex that accords with this purpose is holy, then casual sex, by definition not an expression of love, would not accord with this purpose and therefore not be holy.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                But as Jason points out the vast majority if really gross things are not immoral: surgery, pooping, nose-picking, lutefisk. And I’d argue that the vast majority of immoral acts don’t seem gross (certainly to the people doing them, but really to people un general). Lying and stealing and manipulating and breaking promises and cheating on your significant other and cheating on an exam are all immoral but not gross. Even immoral killing isn’t really gross: most of our entertainment is based around thinking about killing.

                Thus, I posit the overlap (if we drew a venn diagram) between things that are gross and things that are immoral is so small that one is not suggestive of the other. The fact that something is gross does not make it more likely that it is immoral.

                Evil is usually banal. Evil is sometimes seductive. It is gross only rarely.

                So, we can say if something is gross, not gross, or the opposite of gross, that suggests it is immoral. But that isn’t very useful. Indeed, it is empty.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Ad I do mean “casual sex” to refer to sex outside of a long term relationship where deep feelings of intimacy occur.

                But causal sex can still be an expression of love, just in a much lesser way than sex within a marriage or long term relationship. Imagine X has no wife or husband, but X meets a partner Y whom X finds beautiful. X and Y like each other but they know they can’t be together (maybe X will go off to war or Y lives ina different country or they just can’t be in a long term intimate relationship). One night they get excited and have sex consensually and they carry on fr a few weeks before parting. Later, both of them look back and feel that it was a period of joy in their life that connected them to the other person, where they loved that person, not like a husband or wife, but as a friend whom they appreciated and someone they shared joy with. Maybe they even keep in touch occasionally as friends, being better friends because they shared a short term sexual relationship. This sort of thing happens.

                That is holy and awesome and all that and a bag of chips. But it is also causal sex.

                Admittedly, some causal sex (and masturbation) has nothing to do with love. I would say that sort of sex is like eating or pooping or having a nice glass of wine. It isn’t morally good nor morally bad, just something human beings do that makes us human. It is just fun and not immoral (unless people are coerced or someone gets hurt, because coercion and harm are wrong everywhere). And there is nothing wrong with being human.

                Is being holy the opposite of being human? Is being holy the dislike of being human? Is it being grossed out by being human. (I think this is a theme in Nietzsche: holiness is a self-hatred that humans aim at themselves.)Report

              • M.A. in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                Is being holy the opposite of being human? Is being holy the dislike of being human? Is it being grossed out by being human?

                I sometimes get the feeling that being “holy”, in terms the religiously observant tend to define it, is a function of getting sanctimonious to others about the fun things that the religiously observant would really like to do but are too scared to try for fear they’ll find they like it.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                Indeed, I might suggest you invert your thinking Kyle. Holy means above human. To be holy is to be more than human, better than human. And so people who aim at holiness look at human things as getting in the way of being holy. So they aim at an aescetic life, abstaining from sex and fine food and conversation.

                But maybe there is nothing better than being human. Maybe aiming at holiness is pretending there is something better than being human, because the people who aim at holiness secretly don’t like being human.

                But being human is great! So embrace it. Revere all things human: sex, food, friendship, literature, music, not because these things offer a hint of the divine, but because they are human.Report

              • Ramblin' Rod in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                I thought we were using “casual” to mean not intimate or not expressive of love. Since I believe that sex ought always to be an expression of love, and that sex that accords with this purpose is holy, then casual sex, by definition not an expression of love, would not accord with this purpose and therefore not be holy.

                I’ve been married now for almost 28 years. But we lived together for two… three? years prior to tying the knot.

                So here’s the thing… even if I were to provisionally accept your definition of “holy” sex as an expression of love, the operational reality is that your religious heritage defines that as “between one man and one woman after marriage in our Church”. Was our sex really any more holy after the ceremony than the week before? And even within our marriage, sometimes sex was a beautiful, tender, expression of our love. But other times we were just horny and needed to f***. I could easily classify much of the sex I’ve had with my wife as casual in the sense that we engaged in it purely for pleasure. There was no deeper or higher purpose in it. Not terribly different from dating sex or even a one-night stand apart from a certain aspect of trust.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Ramblin' Rod says:

                In it’s highest form, it’s a sacred act of spiritual communion and holy surrender to the heterosexual other.

                Let’s just set aside all the other things it actually is for simplicity’s sake.Report

      • Just spinning this off the top of my head…. My body is my property. When I die all my property automatically becomes property of my wife. My wife can do as she wants with her own property.

        The one thing we can be sure of is that the deceased doesn’t give a damn.Report

        • Shazbot5 in reply to James Hanley says:

          Well, but the dead have rights (sort of) according to their wishes expressed prior to death. So someone might say that necrophilia with stranger’s dead bodies is immoral because the people would’ve expressed that they didn’t want that done to their body after they die.

          In a way, your body remains your property even after you lose consciousness permanently, and even after you die. This is why we require that you bequeath your body to science or that someone who knows you tell us what your wishes for your body were before you died/lost consciousness.

          It may also be that you still owe duties to the dead that you promised while they were living. That’s a tougher case, IMO.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Shazbot5 says:

            All true in our current system. But, and perhaps I’m weirdly materialistic, I really don’t care what’s done with my body after I’m dead. I think it would be dumb to waste space by sticking it in a hole in the ground, so I’d encourage folks not to, but, really, the me that matters in any significant way will be gone. So if I’d make a good piñata stuffed with candies, I just hope everyone has a good time.Report

            • Shazbot5 in reply to James Hanley says:

              Maybe donating your body to science or organ donation would be cool, too.

              Don’t get me wrong, the pinata idea is awesome, though. I will beat your body senseless while angrily yelling “Now what counts as a market Hanley!”

              Hopefully, you arrange to have your body donated to science. I’m tempted to as well, but some kind of subconscious superstition keeps holding me back. That and laziness. And the stories I hear from doctors about cadavers in med school.Report

        • “The one thing we can be sure of is that the deceased doesn’t give a damn.”

          At least that’s the working assumption. I do wonder if a materialist (not necessarily in the sense you use it above, but more in the sense that all existence is “material”) conception of the world might suggest that our consciousness is bound up with our physical being, and thereby continues with our body in what we call “death,” so that the deceased itself does care what happens with him/her.

          I’m being uncharitably nit-picky, but I see this assumption or something like it occasionally asserted, and when I have too much time on my hands (like now), I let it bother me.Report

  18. Shazbot5 says:

    Note that the following syllogism is valid but unsound:

    P1:All things that are gross to me are immoral
    P2: X is gross to me
    C: X is immoral.

    P1 is obviously false.

    Nonetheless, I think people who believe there are absolute moral claims about sexual morality that aren’t based on harm and benefit end up relying on something like this argument.Report

    • Richard S. Arndt in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      Actually, Shazbot, P1 is only false if the referent to “me” has poorly formed sentiments. A person with proper sentiments and good taste would find immorality to be ugly, distasteful, repugnant, and the like. If that’s kind of what “gross” means, then the syllogism works for some people.

      To be sure, however, we wouldn’t want to use “grossness” as the determinant of what is immoral.Report