I am a child of the 60s, a period known in part as the sexual awakening and culture revolution. To some extent, that label is inaccurate. The actual sexual revolution of the 20th century began earlier as a strong push on hygiene reduced the occurrence of venereal disease, opening the door to more liberated opinions especially among women. From flappers to bohemians to so-called “butch” lesbians, the early 1900s laid a necessary foundation for the open exploration that grandchildren would explore. [Source]
By the early 1970s, names such as Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler (NSFW), and Andy Warhol were all associated with the liberalization of sexual attitudes. Tossed into that mix, “the pill” gave women more control over their own bodies, igniting a debate that, sadly still continues. This led to an array of Supreme Court decisions that opened the doors to personal freedoms. Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965) established a right to privacy within married relationships. Eisenstadt vs. Baird (1972) extended the right of privacy to any procreative sexual intercourse, regardless of relationship status. Those two decisions were critical in the court’s decision on Roe vs. Wade and also came into play in 2003 when Lawrence vs. Texas established a fundamental right to consensual homosexual activity.
Courts during this period were a critical part of opening the doors to not only sexual awakening but sexual understanding and exploitation. 1969’s Stanley vs. Georgia set forth a right to private possession of “obscene materials,” and a unanimous decision in Hustler vs. Falwell in 1998 secured the right of sexual parody by a publication.
Music from the latter half of the 20th century echoes the new openness in talking, at least euphemistically, about sex. Paul McCartney isn’t talking about the diner menu when he mentions “finger pies” in Penny Lane. ZZ Top’s Pearl Necklace barely concealed its fluid reference. Starland Vocal Band left little to the imagination in Afternoon Delight. Then along came Madonna’s Like A Virgin, Prince’s Little Red Corvette, and topping it all off, George Michael’s I Want Your Sex. Each step of the way, politicians, mothers, and preachers around the world, from Tipper Gore to Jerry Falwell, denounced the music. As a result, the popularity of targeted songs grew exponentially, furthering the whole open sexuality movement.
Mainstream movies from major studios got in on the act. I remember distinct conversations denouncing The Graduate, American Graffiti, Roger Moore as James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me, Bo Derek in 10, Fast Times At Ridgemont High made household names of its main cast. They even did a three-movie series around an unlicensed strip club named Porky’s. At the same time, video rentals allowed people to take home the movies they might be reluctant to view in public, making additional millions of dollars for their producers. By the 1990s, late-night cable was showing softcore porn after the kids had allegedly gone to bed.
By the time we turned the corner into the 21st century, there were few sexual taboos left untouched. While that doesn’t mean they were all socially acceptable, attitudes had changed and for all the yelling and screaming of those in dissent, we’re not inclined to move backward in our opinions on everything related to sex.
With all this commotion, though, do we really have a better understanding of what sex is and how it contributes to the value of human life? Sure, there’s the reproductive aspect that’s still critical for now, but IVF and other medical advances may soon make sex obsolete as a means of generating babies. When that happens, what is the lingering value of sex and being sexual? There are no hard and fast definitions here, but there are at least some general attitudes to consider.
Sex, Pleasure, and Desire
I find it a bit sad that if one is looking for positively focused literature regarding sex prior to the 20th century, you won’t find it. The fact is that prior to the 20th century, most scientific, philosophical, medical, and definitely religious literature all took a pessimistic glance at sex. Plato discounted sex because, in his opinion, it didn’t lead to anything better. Augustine gave us the misconception that the pleasures of sex can be overwhelming and take control of us. Oh, and then good ol’ Thomas Aquinas saddled centuries of guilt-ridden souls with the rule that sex only exists for procreation.
Not that the subject fares much better when we step out of antiquity. Kant said that sex fails to satisfy the Categorical Imperative because that’s what’s at the top of our minds when we’re aroused. Sarte, bless his little heart, worried that the sexual desires of one prey on the freedom of others. With talk like that, one might question whether all these philosophers we study and trust ever got laid. If they did, they make it sound as though they didn’t enjoy it at all.
Thankfully, fairly early in the 20th century, Bertrand Russel and everybody’s favorite shrink Sigmund Freud weighed in on the topic. They were among the first to urge people to look at sex as a generally positive thing, which a lot of their non-philosopher acquaintances were already doing. In breaking away from what had been the conventional wisdom, their writings, and lectures gave much-needed credibility to the sexual awakening that was taking place. Despite the pushback from Sarte and a few others, the conversation went from a flat denial of anything good to more of a persistent questioning of how do we make this better.
As we try to improve sex by improving our attitudes toward sex, we find ourselves easily getting tripped up on shared language that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in one circle as it does another, leading to massive amounts of confusion as everyone reads someone else’s work. For example, what are the distinguishing differences between sexual desire, sexual activity, and sexual pleasure? In certain circumstances, they could all share some common aspects as they contribute to, or in some cases hinder one’s drive to have sex. If one were making a ven diagram of their traits, there would certainly be points of overlap. At the same time, though, they are each a distinct piece of the whole.
With sexual desire, there are questions to ask such as whether the desire is strictly a biological yearning or is it a mental state that one willingly engages? If person O desires sex is it because there is something about another person or group of people that is appealing? What if the object of O’s desire doesn’t return the same affection? Does that invalidate O’s desire or make it wrong in some way? Desire often comes off as a driver, the engine if you will, that pushes one to action, but does not invoke the action on its own.
Sexual activity is the thing one can only hint at on television before 9:00 PM in a given time zone in the US. However, there is plenty of disagreement as to what actually constitutes a sex act. Does sex only occur when penetration is involved in one form or another? If so, then how do we categorize things such as masturbation, oral sex, sexting, or voyeurism? Traditionally, sexual activity must be capable of resulting in procreation. However, that would mean that same-gendered couples are never actually having sex and I’m pretty sure most of them would disagree with that definition. Behavior, intention, contact between body parts, and other criteria factor into whether one is engaged in sexual activity, and what applies to one set of circumstances that may be inappropriate for others.
This brings us, hopefully, to sexual pleasure. Procreation is obviously not necessary to get that euphoric feeling one wants from sex, but is it still sex if we don’t derive a satisfactory level of pleasure? Achieving orgasm is kind of a gold standard in terms of sexual pleasure, but it’s largely common knowledge that not everyone is capable of orgasm from every sexual activity, Pleasure can take place in other ways, though. There’s a good feeling that comes from lying next to someone you care about. Certain touches ignite feelings of pleasure. We want pleasure, and that pleasure feeds our desire which motivates us toward activity.
One of the more recent additions to the conversation is the matter of consent. For centuries, men assumed that their gender and dominant position in the family structure gave them inherent consent. What we understand now is that consent must be mutual or it doesn’t exist. Neither is consent permanent and it can be withdrawn at any moment for any reason. For many, the absence or presence of consent is a game-changer and increasingly courts have ruled that without consent, sexual activity becomes sexual assault. The consent issue has the ability to interrupt the manner in which one responds to sexual desire. O cannot assume and cannot act on the assumption that the one they desire has a mutual desire for them. Conversation must take place and any resulting sexual activity must be the result of the verbal affirmative response from all involved parties.
If those were the only issues around sex, we’d be ready to move on, but they’re not. Preferences, orientation, and identity await. Don’t worry, this is an important conversation to have.
Sexual Preference, Orientation, and Identity
Minefield alert! The topics of sexual preference, orientation, and identity are hotly debated and their definitions are fluid. Because no one bothered to study the topics until 60 years ago, or later in some cases, we’re just now beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the intricacies of these matters. What we look at as critical for today’s society has been deemed irrelevant until courts finally decided that people who identify as something other than straight, whose sexual practices were outside antiquated norms, have the same rights as everyone else.
To put the shortest possible definition on things, sexual orientation is the base, the foundation of our sexuality. Any preferences one might have is built on top of one’s orientation. Identity is the manner in which we communicate our preferences and orientation. [Edward Stein, 1999, Ch. 2] If that sounds overly simplistic, it is. Understanding sexual orientation is possibly the more difficult concept as the questions raised affect both one’s preferences and identity.
Massive amounts of research regarding sexual orientation and whether it is determined by biology has taken place over the past 20 years. That might sound like a long time, but what that means is that if you were born prior to 1995 or so, you likely were raised with a different perspective of sexual orientation than those born more recently. My younger children consider its biological determination to be given and would likely challenge any alternative view. My older children had to grow into and accept that understanding as different from what they originally understood.
William Wilkerson wrote an extensive paper on the subject in 2013 that is often cited and referenced when discussing sexual orientation. In it, he makes the argument that basing our concept of sexual orientation on heterosexuality is, at best, misguided. He asserts that there is no logical reason to assume that heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual are the only possible orientations. There are plenty of people whose attraction is for pre- or post-operative transexuals. They fit neither homosexual nor bisexual definitions. Men in some cultures are attracted to younger men and more mature women at the same time. Labeling them all as bi fails to appreciate the intricacies of their orientation. There are myriad additional possibilities compounded by the reality that one’s orientation can change over time, refined to a more narrow position than was evident at a younger age.
What has also become evident is that emotional attraction is just as important as physical attraction. The American Psychological Association (APA) sets that standard in their definition for sexual orientation:
“Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”
The APA also raises the concept of identity and philosophically that’s stepping into a whole other mess of mines. We have enough challenges trying to determine whether personal identity is possible or not. The modest disambiguation of placing the word ‘sexual’ in front of identity does little to resolve those issues. For example, if our friend Lola tells you that she’s gay, one might make the assumption that she’s a lesbian. But what if Lola is a gendered male whose preference is to dress as a woman? Her identity is, must be, what she claims regardless of any third part perceptions. Even if Lola is a gendered female, her identity as a gay woman does not mean that she has to accept any social, political, or cultural markers of being gay. The matter might be wholly irrelevant to her and something she defines based on her own preferences rather than those established by outside idealogues. The most simple rule to follow here is that a person is what they claim to identify as based on their physical, romantic, and emotional preferences. To press them into any kind of mold is inappropriate.
Good Sex, Bad Sex, and Oh, That’s Kinky
Almost everyone wants good sex. I say “almost” because there is always someone who is so desperate for any form of sexual interaction that they don’t care about the quality of the act or the nature of the act itself. For the greater majority of people, a significant part of their sexual desire is that the quality is sufficient to leave them with some sense of euphoria not found through other means.
While good sex has an emphasis on pleasure, there’s also a matter of aesthetics. [Source] Being visually attracted to the person(s) and/or the act they are initiating factors strongly into the pleasure factor. The challenge of aesthetics in some cases may contribute to why some people prefer the room to be dark when they’re having sex. Even if they find their partner(s) attractive, they may be repulsed by their own appearance and body issues. One’s sexual preferences may include the visual aspect of watching a person performing fellatio or the way certain body parts move and respond during a given sex act.
Education is also a contributing factor to what might generally be considered “good” sex. This is especially true when one is new to sex (which we all are at some point), about to have sex with a new partner, or trying something new. Sex education before marriage has long been a recommendation among both clergy and sex therapist, and in some cultures, it is a requirement. One can easily argue, however, that the presence or absence of a long-term relationship is irrelevant to the value of education. The more we know, the more we understand, the more likely we are to help our partner(s) achieve pleasure as well as facilitating our own.
Bad sex, by contrast, is more than simply the absence or diminishment of pleasure. If such were the case, then a simple act of bad sex might not be so concerning as to be worth mentioning here. However, bad sex also includes those acts that are performed without consent or consent obtained improperly, the objectification of another person, and those acts intentionally resulting in physical and/or emotional harm.
For example, a student approaches a teacher about the two of them having sex, and the teacher consents. In this case, the consent is misplaced because the teacher, all fantasies aside, has an obligation to protect their students. This is especially true in secondary education where the underaged student almost certainly has not developed emotionally to the point of understanding the ramifications of their request and emotional harm is inevitable. [APA]
Objectification goes back to a fundamental argument of treating people as a means rather than an end. Kant was convinced that all sex is ultimately objectification of whoever we’re having sex with. However, Allen Woods argues that there is more to sex than the use of another person’s body in a degrading manner. Specifically, that the presence of other emotions eliminates the argument for objectification. Still, objectification does exist in our fantasies, obsession over a person’s specific body parts, expecting a person to excel at a specific sex act because of their gender, and the misuse of other sexual desires. Such objectification diminishes a person’s humanity, reducing them to play things for someone else’s enjoyment.
Using sex as an act of violence or harm against another person appears to be obviously bad sex, but there have been moments in history where various forms of violence have been acceptable. Most notably, the Marquis de Sade charged that sexual acts of torture, pain, and even rape were pleasurable. This raises the question of whether the definition of ‘harm’ is cultural and to what extent consent makes some forms of violence (such as spanking) permissible. While contemporary culture might not condone all the acts de Sade endorsed, there are elements that many find enjoyable and a vital part of their sexual experience.
Historically, any sexual act that falls outside the purpose of procreation has been considered a perversion, which would also fall under the label of bad sex. However, many things that a mainstream audience might consider perverted are looked at as merely a kink by those of a more Libertine philosophy. While the list of kinks and their near relative fetishes is long, and the number of people who find them enjoyable is likely larger than anyone admits, deliberate care must be taken to prevent them from falling into objectification or harm for harm’s sake.
All this makes what is good sex or bad sex somewhat of a moving target. While social and cultural mores don’t move quickly on such matters, they’re still far from permanent and that means being more understanding that what is good sex for one might be incomplete or perverted for another. That lack of firm definition, however, can make it difficult to prosecute some valid acts of sexual assault when the act is committed within the framework of an ‘alternative’ lifestyle. As much as we might enjoy a broad range of sexual activities, we must be mindful of not only what we’re doing but why we’re doing it to avoid venturing into negative territory.
The Value of Sex
As we’ve noticed in every other topic in this series, assigning value to anything isn’t easy, and when it comes to pedestrian opinions on things such as sex, justifying those values becomes almost impossible. With every claim of “X makes sex valuable” comes the caveat of “except in these situations.”
The natalist point of view insists that sex is valuable because it is the primary means of procreation. The caveats here come with a certain level of fury. What about couples incapable of conceiving? Does their sex still have value? What happens when technology becomes the primary means of procreation? We’ve headed in that direction already. Does all sex stop having value when we reach that point? And then, there’s the argument that the planet already has too many people. The value of procreation itself is debatable. If we’re basing the value of sex on having babies, that value is likely temporary at best.
Some are of the opinion that the value of sex is linked to its role in helping to cement love between a couple. [Bertocci, 1949] Making the value of sex contingent on love or any other emotion seems precarious. Such a valuation would infer that any casual sex one might have is meaningless from its outset and potentially objectifying, making it bad sex. There’s also the possibility that even the best sexual performance possible might not be able to congeal a love damaged by other factors.
Bertrand Russel [see previous reference] suggested that the value of sex might benefit from us treating it more like our relationship with food, as something good because of its necessity, rather than something to obsess over. Laurence Thomas makes the argument for an intrinsic value of sex when he says, “it defines a most significant moment of goodness between two people, where each achieves a most profound moment of affirmation and satisfaction that is inextricably tied to the endeavor to please the other.” Yet, they both look at sex as an act between two people, something that’s a problem for those who are polyamorous and engage with multiple partners at a time.
I tend to agree with Alan Soble, who’s written extensively about sex and sexuality, when he says “we should construct a theory of human dignity based on our sexual capacities … instead of looking for something ‘finer’ beyond or above the sexual.” The value of sex is not a single point, but a combination of all the positives involved with sex. Sex makes multiple aspects of our lives better, more enjoyable, and perhaps worth tolerating. As such, the value of sex becomes an immutable part of the value of life, a piece that diminishes our lives when it is absent.
There’s a new German-language movie titled I’m Your Man that explores the concept of an artificial life form that is programmed specifically to match the desires of the woman to which it’s assigned. The point is far from being that the antagonist needs male companionship, but more that the relationship, including the sex and regardless of gender, makes her life better. The premise is interesting enough to be worth sitting through the subtitles.
What is brings to question, though, is whether the value of sex, that “goodness between two people,” requires one’s partner(s) to be human? If, in the future, sex with another human, which can often be difficult to obtain, can be sufficiently, and possibly more efficiently replaced with an artificial partner, does that diminish the value of sex?
We can use the movie as a point of argument but ultimately we can’t know until we get there, can we? So, perhaps we do better to live in the present and enjoy what we have now.
We Need Your Help
We’ve hit a snag and desperately need your help more than ever. Specifically, sending charles back to school isn’t going smoothly as his request for financial aid was declined. That means if he goes back to school, everything has to come out of his own pocket. Everything. Total cost: about $7,000 per semester at least for the first two semesters. After that, we’ll have to re-evaluate. That’s not going to happen on what little charles makes.
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