Talking about sex is healthy

2008-04-17 00:00

Question: None of my friends read the ethics column but perhaps this is an age thing. What we do find ourselves talking about a lot is sex. Is there anything sensible to say about sex from an ethics point of view or is it just up to the individual and his or her beliefs (as long as there is proper protection)?

Answer: Ethics is often thought to be about rules: what rules should restrict my actions? How far should I go? What rules should I follow if I want to be moral?

But this is not a helpful approach. Ethics as a set of rules is appropriate for children, but when applied to adults it is simply “moralism”, an attitude dominated by the search for what or whom we can blame.

This is especially unhelpful when it comes to sex. If we think that a large part of our lives is devoted to ways of creating good community, then sexual attraction is the most obvious bodily aspect of this. We find ourselves not simply as human beings but gendered ones, guys and gals. To think that we are going to achieve a just and happy society without figuring out this dimension of our lives is simply a fantasy. So your friends are on the right track spending time talking about sex, because gender is not simply biological but much more as one’s gender is also a matter of the delicate early childhood process of acquiring an identity as a boy or a girl. And since for the little boy to acquire gender identity follows a different path to the little girl, we can expect the male and female approach to life to be, in general, somewhat different.

Aristotle’s approach to ethics is always to look for the middle way between two extremes. For example, you can have “too much” courage or “too little” courage, too much being a person who is rash, too little is a person who is cowardly. (Although this shouldn’t be applied unthinkingly, in the matter of adultery, he says, there is no “too much” adultery and “too little” adultery. Adultery is simply wrong.) What are the extremes here? Put crudely, the “too much” sex would be the playboy attitude, sex as recreation. The emphasis could be quantity. The more, and more varied, the better. The “too little” sex would be the attitude that sex is for procreation only, in the confines of marriage.

Both these views would seem too simplistic and also fail to understand how sexual attraction plays a central role in the maturing of one’s capacity to achieve friendship and build community. The “too much” approach thinks of sex as isolated from one’s personality, as something trivial. The “too little” approach thinks of sex as purely biological, again as isolated from one’s growth as a person. The “just right” amount of sex would acknowledge the community or friendship associated with sexual attraction and brings in the question of parenthood, the question of whether you are up to having a child.

This seems to be the only way of integrating one’s biological being with one’s identity as a person, rather than isolating it (and so stultifying its development) as something “merely” biological.

Sex should happen a lot, because it is the expression of the desire for community with someone radically other than oneself. But the maturing of one’s sexual identity looks towards actually becoming a father or a mother, whether biologically or not. And this does not apply exclusively to heterosexuals. (We are not talking about maturing as a person, as one’s sexual maturity is not identical with one’s personal maturity.) To fail to bring in this dimension to one’s sex life is to fail to acknowledge something that is really important for yourself.

So there are lots of sensible things to say about sex, as long as one avoids thinking that there is a tidy set of rules that is going to get you through. Let’s avoid the attitude that sex is “naughty, but nice”. That kind of thinking blocks further growth in understanding of oneself and of true happiness.

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