Posted by: Ken Brown | September 21, 2008

Sex and Speeding Revisited

In my last post I made a comparison between speeding and promiscuous sex. Such a connection, however, leads to an obvious objection: Are not speeding laws—and by analogy moral proscriptions against promiscuity—fundamentally arbitrary? Well, no actually. Apart from a few draconian or libertine exceptions, most traffic laws are based on immutable physical principles which cannot be ignored without harm. You can try to take a hairpin turn at 100 miles per hour if you wish, but you are almost certain to crash. You can try to haul a trailer with an economy car, but you are liable to ruin both. You can try to cram 20 people into a pickup—you might even reach your destination safely—but if you do crash, a lot of people are going to die. The fact is, vehicles are built to serve specific purposes and can only safely operate within certain tolerances; to ignore this because “it’s my car and I can do what I want,” is to invite disaster, not just for ourselves but for many others as well.

The same is true of us as sexual beings. Just as certain uses of a car respect its design while others do not, certain uses of sex are appropriate to its design while others are inherently dangerous (and this is true whether the “design” in question derives from God or “the blind watchmaker,” or both). The figures given in the last post make clear that sex can go very wrong, and it is not hard to see when and why this happens. For even leaving aside the question of God’s intention for sexuality (though, if we are created beings, this question is vital), it is pretty obvious that the primary purposes of sex are procreation and pair-bonding. Though we all want to add another—pleasure—this is clearly a secondary purpose of sex that cannot legitimately be separated from the other two. Speaking evolutionarily, the pleasure of sex is meant to make us want to do it, precisely so that we will reproduce and pair-bond, for it is these two functions which ensure the survival of the species.

To seek to separate the pleasure of sex from these purposes is dangerous because it is not actually possible. Like trying to separate the thrill of speeding from the danger of car accidents and fuel costs, it is an unattainable goal which is used to excuse the risks involved. For try as we might to reduce the “risk,” pregnancy is virtually always a possibility when having sex, so to try and have it when you are not willing to accept that possibility is fundamentally irresponsible and often directly justifies abortion or abandonment. Similarly, to properly raise a child is a highly labor-intensive affair, which is trouble enough even for a loving couple, much less for one person to do alone. Nor is abortion a solution to this, for even leaving aside the moral question and (debatable) claims of psychological harm, abortion carries its own physical risks, including sterility or death. Finally, to have sex with multiple partners, even if not concurrently, opens one to the significant risk of getting and spreading STDs, which can themselves be not only painful but, at times, can lead to sterility or death.

In contrast, it is clear that permanent monogamy between two people who truly love each other and willingly embrace at least the possibility of children provides the best fit with the proper functions of sex. Monogamy almost completely eliminates the risk of STDs and ensures the most stable living situation for both the couple and any children they might have. It also teaches commitment, self-sacrifice and unconditional love, to name just a few examples. Thus, to separate sex from this context is risky at best, and at worst an invitation for disaster. Granted, not all abuses are as dangerous as others. Though “serial monogamy” is in various ways less stable and more risky than marriage, it at least maintains the connection between sex and committed relationship. Hooking up and prostitution, on the other hand, deny both primary functions of sex. If serial monogamy is like driving without a seat belt, those latter choices are comparable to driving drunk: You may get lucky and make it home in one piece, but many do not, and the life you take may not be your own.

And in point of fact, there’s no excuse for these behaviors. There are plenty of safer ways to get your thrills, and it’s simply a myth that we have some unalterable “need” for sex. I assure you, it is entirely possible to wait until marriage; I and millions of others have done so. Some people even go there who lives without sex and are not harmed by it, so there is no reason a person cannot go a few years. Don’t get me wrong, permanent abstinence is not nor should be the ideal for most people—just as cars are not made to be left in the garage—but to dismiss the risks and social consequences of casual sex because we are too impatient or want a thrill is no different than dismissing the risks of reckless driving because one’s commute is too long or the adrenaline rush too tempting.

So the next time someone suggests it’s “unreasonable” to expect people to be monogamous, why not try some safer alternative, like snow boarding, jet skiing or even sky-diving? They’ll give as much of a thrill as sex, and probably last longer as well.


Responses

  1. Ken,

    Monogamy does not, in fact, eliminate the risk of STDs, as some STDs can be contracted from parent to child, or by sharing needles, or by borrowing someone else’s jeans.

    What do you think about masturbation, Ken? There is no getting around its ubiquity and yet you’ve not even given it a passing mention–conspicuously so when talking about abstinence.

  2. The gist of your sermon, Ken, is that a happily married couple with be happy. This is not seriously disputed. Many a tear-stained divorcée, distraught recipient of a huge demand for child support and others unlucky in the lottery of love would agree. The point is that it is not helpful for the happily married to sneer at those less fortunate than themselves. The ‘promiscuous’ that undefined cohort of the damned are not much helped by your unreflective condemnation either. I would particularly take issue with the notion that the justification for copulation is procreation. We are human beings, not simply animals, and uncontrolled procreation would be a disaster. Even at the quite modest rates of 2 or 3 times replacement level, Africa and the Middle East are in terrible trouble.

  3. We are human beings, not simply animals,

    human beings *are* simply animals.

  4. N. Adam,
    Monogamy does not, in fact, eliminate the risk of STDs, as some STDs can be contracted from parent to child, or by sharing needles, or by borrowing someone else’s jeans.

    Parent to child transfer assumes that the parent already has an STD, which is almost never the case if they have in fact been monagamous. But the fact that a parent can transfer an STD to their child ought to be another reason to stay STD free, not the other way around. As for drug abuse, you’re appealing to one vice to justify another! And as for “borrowing someone else’s jeans,” that accounts for, what 0.1% of all STDs, if that? If you’re worried, wear your own pants!

    What do you think about masturbation, Ken?

    It is less than ideal, but it is, at worst, the least of all sexual sins. Now if done while watching torture porn, we have another problem….

  5. Hugh,
    The gist of your sermon, Ken, is that a happily married couple with be happy. This is not seriously disputed. Many a tear-stained divorcée, distraught recipient of a huge demand for child support and others unlucky in the lottery of love would agree. The point is that it is not helpful for the happily married to sneer at those less fortunate than themselves. The ‘promiscuous’ that undefined cohort of the damned are not much helped by your unreflective condemnation either.

    You mistake clarification of consequences with condemnation. My goal is not to condemn anyone (except in the sense that we are all sinners caught in a web of systemic evil), but to make clear that casual sex is not, as you have been claiming, a harmless activity, and yet it is one about which we have a choice.

    I would particularly take issue with the notion that the justification for copulation is procreation. We are human beings, not simply animals, and uncontrolled procreation would be a disaster. Even at the quite modest rates of 2 or 3 times replacement level, Africa and the Middle East are in terrible trouble.

    Since I have already stated that procreation need not be the (intended or actual) result of sex, your objection misses the point. Whether we like it or not, procreation (and pair-bonding) are the frequent results of sex. Denying this as though we can recreate sex according to our whims is like denying inertia so that we can drive however we wish. You’re welcome to try, but it’s not going to work.

    But again, I’m not interested in condemning those who screw up (I have been involved in enough auto accidents to know that the consequences are condemnation enough; one doesn’t appreciate a speeding ticket to add insult to injury). But neither will I allow it to be implied that such behavior is not really harmful at all. Which approach shows greater concern for the well-being of others: To clarify the real and significant consequences that are likely to result from the choices they face, or to pat them on the head as you send them off a cliff?

  6. As for drug abuse, you’re appealing to one vice to justify another!

    I am at a loss as to what exactly I was justifying. Perhaps you could fill me in. Furthermore, if you are in a third world country, needles might be shared in ways that have nothing to do with drug use.

    Anyway, the point is that STDs can be transferred in ways that have nothing to do with monogamy. Monogamy reduces the risk of contracting an STD significantly (abstinence and/or masturbation even more so), but it is wrong to say, as you did explicitly, that it eliminates the risk. I can see why you might want to believe that, though.

    It is less than ideal…

    How so?

  7. N. Adam,
    the point is that STDs can be transferred in ways that have nothing to do with monogamy. Monogamy reduces the risk of contracting an STD significantly (abstinence and/or masturbation even more so), but it is wrong to say, as you did explicitly, that it eliminates the risk. I can see why you might want to believe that, though.

    You are quibbling. In the developed world (which accounts for this blog’s audience) a monogamous couple who do not use drugs has virtually no chance of contracting an STD. Still, I’ve modified the post to read “almost completely eliminates” in deference to your objection. I don’t see how it changes the overall force of the argument, however.

    [Masterbation] is less than ideal…

    How so?

    Because, if only in a small way, it contributes to the attitude that we can divide sex from procreation and pair-bonding. It also, at least in some cases, does lead to other vices such as pornography addiction, etc. Still, on the scale of sexual sin, it is at the bottom, and sometimes it may be a necessary release.

  8. Ken,

    You use undefined terms with abandon. “casual sex ”

    What’s that? Is Bristol Palin’s pregnancy the result of ‘casual sex’? I suppose they were ‘dating’ over a period of time and they copulated quite intentionally and purposefully. Nothing ‘casual’ about it.
    ———————————–
    procreation (and pair-bonding) are the frequent results of sex. Ken

    Not very frequent. If they were, they population of the United States would be in the billions. What’s this stuff about ‘pair bonding’? Bonnie and Clyde were quite a pair.
    ———————————-
    Why do you think you have a duty to clarify consequences? Marriage carries risks and all relationships carry risks. You should be preaching for better sex education, more effective contraception and more accessible medical treatment for STDs.

  9. Anonymous was me.

  10. You are quibbling.

    Excuse me, Ken, but much damage has been done when the religious right gets their hands on this issue. The recently departed Jesse Helms actually tried to prevent resources to stop the spread of AIDs because he believed that homosexuals were getting what they deserve. Now, if you want to seriously talk about stopping the spread of STDs you should look at Helms and his kind or perhaps at abstinence-only education which, paradoxically yet predictably, increases the likelihood that teens will engage in unsafe oral and anal sex.

    Education is the only thing that can overcome such outstanding ignorance, and it starts with getting the facts right. So, do forgive if I seem to be nit-picking, but I take this matter very seriously. That said, I cannot say that I am particularly sorry that the truth does not conform to your ideology in this case.

    Because, if only in a small way, it contributes to the attitude that we can divide sex from procreation and pair-bonding.

    On what authority are you appealing to when you claim that sex can only be used for pair-bonding and/or procreation? It is evident that the long and haphazard process of evolution has left us males with an more than enough sperm and women with the only human organ which sole purpose is sexual stimulation. A young person might be pursuing his or her education. He or she does not want or have time for a meaningful relationship yet he or she does have desires. At this point, would you want to encourage masturbation since the two other options are casual sex or repressing one’s completely natural sexual desires? How is mastrubation not, in this case, the moral thing to do but a necessary evil?

  11. Hugh,
    You use undefined terms with abandon. “casual sex” What’s that?

    By causual sex I mean sex apart from a committed relationship. I gave two very concrete examples in “hooking up” and prostitution and freely admitted that there is a spectrum at work here, that serial monogamy, etc. are not in the same category (I compared the former to “drunk driving” and the latter to “not wearing a seat belt;” I hope you can see the difference).

    Not very frequent. If they were, they population of the United States would be in the billions. What’s this stuff about ‘pair bonding’? Bonnie and Clyde were quite a pair.

    It is frequent in the sense that anyone who consistently has sex, even using contraception, has a significant risk of getting pregnant one or more times. This risk approaches unity the longer one is sexually active, whether monogamous or otherwise. Thankfully, and despite your curious objections, sex does in most cases create something of an emotional “bond” between the couple such that, at the very least, if they do get pregnant they are more likely to stick together. The problem lies in intentionally trying to break that emotional connection: such is a direct cause of broken homes and all the attendent evils this entails.

    Why do you think you have a duty to clarify consequences? Marriage carries risks and all relationships carry risks.

    When folks like yourself use my blog to insist that activities like prostitution are harmless personal choices, because freely entered in to, surely it is appropriate for me to “clarify” the facts of the matter. If you think my facts in error, by all means point out where. If you think mariage carries significant risks that other sexual relationships do not, I’d like to hear what those are.

    You should be preaching for better sex education, more effective contraception and more accessible medical treatment for STDs.

    I suppose I did not spell it out, but I meant it to be understood that, as with “seat belts, airbags, crumple-zones, etc.” contraception, treatments for STDs, sex-education, etc. should be “developed and used.” The trouble lies in treating these things as an excuse for reckless behavior, which hooking up and prostitution most assuredly are.

  12. N. Adam,
    Education is the only thing that can overcome such outstanding ignorance, and it starts with getting the facts right. So, do forgive if I seem to be nit-picking, but I take this matter very seriously. That said, I cannot say that I am particularly sorry that the truth does not conform to your ideology in this case.

    Where you got the impression that I oppose education, treatment for STDs, etc. is beyond me, but I do not. That said, you do not appear to have raised any meaningful objection to my claim that permenant monogamy eliminates/greatly reduces various risks attendent of sexual activity, from AIDS to divorce (the latter of which most often, by the way, results from adultery or the desire for same, that is: non-monogamy).

    It is evident that the long and haphazard process of evolution has left us males with an more than enough sperm and women with the only human organ which sole purpose is sexual stimulation.

    Excuse me, but both the abundance of sperm and the female sexual organ are there at least as clearly, if not primarily, for the purposes of reproduction. Surely this is obvious.

    How is mastrubation not, in this case, the moral thing to do but a necessary evil?

    If the only alternative is casual sex (though this is a dubious claim), then it surely masturbation is the best option. I have not denied this.

  13. By causual sex I mean sex apart from a committed relationship.Ken

    Are Bristol Palin and her beau in a ‘committed relationship’? They had been dating (i.e. copulating)for a year.
    —————————-
    sex does in most cases create something of an emotional “bond” between the couple, Ken

    Of course. There is no reason why it should result in pregnancy. Maybe. Maybe not. What are your statistics on that?
    ——————————-
    activities like prostitution are harmless personal choices, because freely entered in to, Ken

    They would be a legitimate business activity.
    ————————-
    The trouble lies in treating these things as an excuse for reckless behavior, which hooking up and prostitution most assuredly are, Ken.

    They are not reckless if the risks are low.

  14. Where you got the impression that I oppose education, treatment for STDs, etc. is beyond me

    I was using the example of religious conservatives to underline the point that your error is not trivial and to point out that, (1) though you seem to have it out for promiscuous behavior, something like basic education is easier to attain than the reversal of human nature and that (2) when it comes to something like STDs, religious conservatives have a nasty tendency to treat them as though they were divine punishment for what they consider to be sexually deviant behavior.

    That said, you do not appear to have raised any meaningful objection to my claim that permenant monogamy eliminates/greatly reduces various risks attendent of sexual activity, from AIDS to divorce (the latter of which most often, by the way, results from adultery or the desire for same, that is: non-monogamy).

    Sorry, but if I have not raised any meaningful objections then why did you revise your article? The fact of the matter is that you were wrong to claim that monogamy eliminated all risks of acquiring STDs. On the point that monogamy reduces risk, re-read the my previous remarks and you might find that I have explicitly conceded as much.

    Excuse me, but both the abundance of sperm and the female sexual organ are there at least as clearly, if not primarily, for the purposes of reproduction. Surely this is obvious.

    Reproductive sex is simply not going to be an option for every person at every time, yet we still have sexual desires.

    If the only alternative is casual sex (though this is a dubious claim), then it surely masturbation is the best option. I have not denied this.

    That is a strawman, I am afraid. No wear did I say that casual sex was the only alternative. Instead, I explicitly said that, in the case of a young person perusing their education, where he or she might not have the time for a meaningful relationship yet still has their natural born sexual needs, masturbation is not simply a necessary evil (as you seem to think) but, in point of fact, the most responsible and moral act, considering the alternatives (which include casual sex or no sexual activity it all or, indeed, finding a pair-bonding for the sake thereof).

  15. Hugh,
    Are Bristol Palin and her beau in a ‘committed relationship’? They had been dating (i.e. copulating)for a year.

    How am I to know whether (before the pregnancy) they were committed to stay together long term? But they obviously were not married, and clearly their choice to have sex resulted in a pregnancy that they did not intend. Sounds like reckless behavior to me.

    Of course. There is no reason why it should result in pregnancy. Maybe. Maybe not. What are your statistics on that?

    No reason? Why do you think men produce so many sperm, if not because we are hardwired to get pregnant when we have sex. How’s this for statistics: In just one year of unprotected sex, 85% of couples will get pregnant; with “typical” condom use, 15% will get pregnant; with typical pill use, 8% will get pregnant. Sounds like a significant correlation to me.

    If you are going to have sex and don’t want to get pregnant, then by all means use contraception, but don’t pretend that you have thereby eliminated the risk of pregnancy (not to mention STDs). Therefore, if you are having sex with someone with whom you are not willing to raise a child, you are being reckless, not only with your own life, but with your partner’s and any child’s that might result.

  16. N. Adam,
    I fail to see how the difference between “eliminates” and “almost completely eliminates” (the latter admittedly being more accurate) has any bearing on the overall point of the post: that choosing to have sex outside of a committed relationship is reckless. You have done nothing at all to show that promiscuity is not as dangerous as I have argued; you have only insisted that marriage is not without risks as well. We agree on that.

    The fact that it is still possible to get in a car accident even when doing everything right, does not make it any less reckless to speed. But since we all seem to desire to speed, it must be ok, right? Never mind the millions that have died because of it.

    Reproductive sex is simply not going to be an option for every person at every time, yet we still have sexual desires.

    We have plenty of desires, but if we are not in a position to bear the consequences of pursuing them, it is reckless to do so. The connection between sex and pregnancy doesn’t disappear just because someone wishes that nature had not connected them. The risk of contracting STDs through casual sex does not disappear whether you think it “divine punishment” or simply an unfortunate state of affairs.

    We agree that education (including contraceptive use) is an important means of reducing the rate of unplanned pregnancy and STDs; where we seem to disagree is on whether that education ought to pretend that these risks can be safely ignored. They cannot.

  17. How’s this for statistics Ken Brown
    ——————————-

    Your link to Wikipedia showed 7 contraceptive methods with 99% success rate with ‘typical’ use and a further six with 99% success rate with ‘perfect’ use. It’s hardly reckless for couples married or unmarried to copulate using contraceptive methods which have less than a 1% risk of failure. You can’t get safer than that.

  18. Hugh,
    Your link to Wikipedia showed 7 contraceptive methods with 99% success rate with ‘typical’ use and a further six with 99% success rate with ‘perfect’ use. It’s hardly reckless for couples married or unmarried to copulate using contraceptive methods which have less than a 1% risk of failure. You can’t get safer than that.

    Several points:
    1. Apart from the Copper IUD (which has its own issues), and male and female sterilization (which are permenant), all of the 99% typical use contraceptives suspend the woman’s monthly cycle (and cause numerous other physiological changes). While many women consider this acceptable–even a bonus–the fact that condoms and the pill are vastly more popular suggests that most women are not willing to make that trade to avoid getting pregnant. Therefore, while those are options for any woman to consider, she should by no means feel obligated to use them.

    And even with a better than 99% effectiveness rate, that still means that for every 1 million users, up to 10,000 will get pregnant in a given year. If a couple does not want to get pregnant, this is certainly an improvement over the 150,000 per million who will get pregnant using condoms, but it is hardly negligible.

    2. That said, if we are talking about a monogamous couple (whether married or not), then they can certainly decide together what birth control method(s) they will use, if any, and thus–as I have agreed from the beginning–their risk in having sex need not be excessive. But monogamous or not, if you are having sex with someone that you are not willing to raise a child with, even this lower risk is not negligible. Thus I stand by my analogy: Serial monogamy is like driving without a seatbelt; if you don’t get in an accident, you’ll likely be fine, but if you are one of the thousands a year who do, you’re liable to be a lot worse off than you would have been.

    3. In contrast, sex outside such a committed relationship remains considerably more risky. Even with the availability of contraception, it requires a remarkable degree of trust in the contraceptive choices of a partner that you hardly know, much less are willing to spend your life with (I’m referring specifically to men here; obviously the case would be different for a woman, but none of them seem to be a part of this conversation).

    For apart from barrier methods (which are much less effective) or male sterilization, you can have no assurances about the contraceptive choices of the person you are hooking up with. Neither do you have any right to expect them to use certain methods for your sake, nor to deny your responsibility if a child does result, whether they use the most effective methods or not. This is, of course, entirely leaving aside the other risks of casual sex, such as STDs. In short, the mere availability even of highly effective contraceptives does very little to reduce the risks of casual sex.

    4. More fundamentally, and quite apart from the risks on a personal level (which can be quite unpredictable outside of a committed relationship), even very small risks can lead to major social problems when accepted by millions. That is my whole point about systemic evil: Our choices are not made in a vacuum.

    5. Besides all that, if instead of looking at sex in terms of risk, we ask what is best–what is most stable, fulfilling, life-affirming, loving, desirable, sustainable, etc.–there can hardly be any question that casual sex (much less prostitution) falls woefully short.

  19. “sex outside such a committed relationship remains considerably more risky. Even with the availability of contraception, it requires a remarkable degree of trust in the contraceptive choices of a partner that you hardly know” Ken said.
    ———————————–
    Why would you ‘hardly know’ somebody you had discussed the issue with? The assumption that you ‘know’ a person who has made some formal commitment is nonsense. Marriages are contracted beween people who find their partner is not the person they thought they were.

    I don’t think your sermon, warning people that there may be a pregnancy in the next hundred or two hundred years is going to be very effective, not even if you hide from them the possibility of using several methods of contraception together for greater security, the use of the morning-after pill, of legal and legitimate abortion and all the various possibilities of raising a child should one be born, once every one or two hundred years.

  20. Why would you ‘hardly know’ somebody you had discussed the issue with? The assumption that you ‘know’ a person who has made some formal commitment is nonsense. Marriages are contracted beween people who find their partner is not the person they thought they were.

    to be fair to ken, in the post above yours he was referring to married, monogamous couples, not just married ones. you’re right to say that a marriage contract, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily indicate that either party knows the other well. however, two people who have been committed to each other for a while would *probably* know each other better than casual acquaintances or ‘fuckbuddies,’ if you’d forgive me for the vulgarity.

    this isn’t to say there aren’t risks present in ‘committed relationships’ either. however, it’s simply irrational to insist the risks are the same in all circumstances. it doesn’t seem as risky to engage in intercourse with a single person I know at least somewhat well and in whom I can place some degree of trust in regards to contraception rather than multiple people I may not know quite as well and who I can’t be as sure will be prudent in their use of contraception. I mean, if i were a woman i’d rather have sex consistently with one guy who seemed loyal and provided me with evidence he had a vasectomy and was scrupulous about condom use, as opposed to a bunch of guys i don’t really know and who may well have varying levels of knowledge regarding condoms and other methods of contraception, not just permanent ones.

  21. er, forgive me, I meant “committed, monogomous couples, not just married ones.” pity named/anonymous commentors can’t edit their comments. Oh, well :-/

  22. Hugh,
    Why would you ‘hardly know’ somebody you had discussed the issue with? The assumption that you ‘know’ a person who has made some formal commitment is nonsense.

    Naturally, it’s pure nonsense that a couple who has loved one another for years would know each other better than two people who just met in a bar. What was I thinking?

    I don’t think your sermon, warning people that there may be a pregnancy in the next hundred or two hundred years is going to be very effective

    Tell that to the millions of women every year who face an unplanned pregnancy, at the first sound of which the man disappears. I’m sure they are very comforted that the odds were 100 to 1. Oh, but abortion, that will solve everything!

  23. Ken,
    Couples who’ve known one another for years may well have met in a bar in the first place. Abortion may, indeed, appear to be the best answer to a pregnancy in the circumstances whether the parents are in a long-term relationship or not.

  24. well have met in a bar in the first place

    there’s a difference between a couple that met in a bar in the first place and a couple that *just* met in a bar.


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