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July 24, 2014

Inflammatory Debate Topic: Caring About Other People's Sex Lives

This article is generating a lot of weird commentary in the Blatherosphere:

Here’s a loaded question: Is casual sex immoral?

From Hester Prynne to Hobby Lobby, from our dorm-mates to our politicians, it’s an issue that’s sparked more than its fair share of fiery public debate (after all, we Americans are a judge-y people). A recent study done by researchers at Cornell and New York University summed it up this way: Casual sex is psychologically good for you if you if think it’s acceptable, but not if you don’t.

So the answer, clearly, depends on who’s being asked—but odds are that either way, they won’t feel tepid about it.

Your answer may depend, at least in part, on where your money comes from (if you’re a woman) or where it goes (if you’re a man). At least, that’s the argument of a paper recently published in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, which found that promiscuity—by both men and women—is more likely to be considered a moral violation in places where women are economically dependent on men.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but.... duh. But wait! There's more!

We’ve evolved to consider sex, the researchers argue, as a game of finite resources. For our ancestors, multiple sexual partners meant things could get knotty when it came to proving whose kids were whose. For women who depended on men for their livelihoods (and the livelihoods of their offspring), that uncertainty meant losing out on the support of their male partners. Bad news. For men, it meant investing in the well-being of children they hadn’t necessarily fathered. Also bad news.

The connection between sexual behavior and morality, then, may have come about as a way of keeping a gender-based social order intact. “Through moralizing,” the researchers wrote, “individuals can promote behavior which serves their own personal and coalitional interests.” Back in the day, judgment was a form of defense.

While religious arguments against casual sex still exist, the paternity justification for promiscuity’s immorality is of another time. Sex and pregnancy no longer have to be synonymous if we don’t want them to be (and most don’t—more than 99 percent of sexually active women in the U.S. have used birth control at some point in their lives, according to the Guttmacher Institute). Paternity tests exist. The idea that a man should forever be his family’s sole breadwinner seems more than a little anachronistic. The idea of family itself is changing in ever-expanding ways.

But when it comes to this particular area, we don’t really care. As the Archives of Sexual Behavior paper explains, “The beliefs may persist due to evolutionary adaptive lag, that is, because the environment has changed faster than the moral system.” In other words, our psyches are sluggish—and in a rapidly evolving world, they haven’t necessarily kept pace.

It's hard to know where to start with this idiocy, but because we are all about the giving, we'll try anyway.

First of all, money and paternity are far from being the only reasons everyone - male and female - rightfully cares to some degree about other people's sexual behavior. Let us count the reasons to care:

1. The spread of (sometimes deadly) venereal diseases, both in the single community and sadly, to married people whose fidelity doesn't keep them (and sometimes, tragically, their children) from being infected with STDs when their spouses cheat.

2. Male possessiveness and violence. When we were just a rosy-cheeked Editorial Staff we worked at the Navy Exchange. Most of our coworkers were women who were either married to or dating sailors.

And - the usual ludicrous assertions from conservatives that only women are controlling and jealous notwithstanding - incidents with possessive lovers and husbands becoming violent, controlling, or stalkerish were incredibly common. Young men in particular don't react well to jealousy or rejection by women they are sleeping with. As long as we live, we will never cease to be amazed (and amused) to hear so many men saying that (only) women are insecure and controlling. In our experience, both sexes are that way because that's human nature. Where we desire or love, we are vulnerable and easily hurt. And it turns out that men aren't nearly as casual about sex as they want everyone to believe. If you don't believe that, contemplate the PUA/MRA obsession with women who only sleep with alpha males, leaving scores of beta, gamma, and omega males free to fill the internet with their outrage and bitterness.

There's a lot of anger, pathos, and misery out there connected to caring very much about who other people sleep with (or don't sleep with). And it's not limited to the distaff half of humanity.

3. The burden unintended pregnancies and unwed mothers place on families and societies. The burden is financial as well as social: children raised in homes without fathers are poorer. But they are also less successful in life, more likely to get into trouble, and more likely to perpetuate the cycle of unplanned pregnancies and distressed children when they grow up.

4. Strained marriages and broken families. What kind of idiot thinks society is better off when marriages break up and children grow up in split homes?

People tell themselves some really bizarre fairy stories about sex, and one of the biggest of these fantasies is that sex is some kind of morality free activity that doesn't affect other people. That's nonsense. Most of us don't care too much what any particular individual does with their sex life so long as we don't have to hear about it. But anyone who says they don't care what other people - in the aggregate - do with their sex lives clearly doesn't have the sense the good Lord gave a grapefruit.

You can tell a lot about a person's character and intelligence by looking at how they conduct themselves sexually because sex can't be neatly separated from the rest of life. Our decisions and the way we treat others are a reflection of who we are. And by definition, partnered sex always affects at least one other person. Often, it affects many other people (think of the serial philanderer, or the unfaithful spouse whose conduct destroys an entire family).

It sounds so enlightened and tolerant and New Age-y to claim you don't care about other people's sex lives, but life would be a lot simpler if we all stopped pretending and admitted we have very good reasons to care.

Discuss amongst your ownselves, knuckle draggers :p

Posted by Cassandra at July 24, 2014 06:21 AM

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Comments

We're the products of billions of years of evolution selecting for traits that will survive in offspring, but after 50 or so years of moderately effective birth control we've suddenly become creatures for whom sex is not really that big a deal if you tell yourself consciously that it isn't. We sure can turn on a dime!

I'm always amazed by people insisting that it's rational to pretend that palpable emotions don't exist or aren't important, because they're not rational.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 24, 2014 03:05 PM

Most of us don't care too much what any particular individual does with their sex life so long as we don't have to hear about it.

I don't know. I could stand to hear a little more.

Posted by: Jayne Cobb at July 24, 2014 05:14 PM

We're the products of billions of years of evolution selecting for traits that will survive in offspring, but after 50 or so years of moderately effective birth control we've suddenly become creatures for whom sex is not really that big a deal if you tell yourself consciously that it isn't.

For progressives, human nature is infinitely malleable. People don't do bad things because we're flawed and fallible. The system makes us do them.

If we pass a law or change the system, that magically makes everyone wise, virtuous, hardworking, and responsible.

*sigh*

I'm always amazed by people insisting that it's rational to pretend that palpable emotions don't exist or aren't important, because they're not rational.

Yeah, me too. But then I'm never irrational. It's always the other guy/gal :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 24, 2014 06:19 PM

I'm always amazed by people insisting that it's rational to pretend that palpable emotions don't exist or aren't important, because they're not rational.

Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, sister.

Posted by: MikeD at July 25, 2014 08:53 AM

Oddly, though, the flip side of that attitude is that, if the emotion every is acknowledged to exist at all, it suddenly trumps everything. Caught plagiarizing your Master's thesis? It doesn't matter that it was dishonorable; all that matters is that you were grieved that week. Or you had PTSD. A momentary loss of concentration, and you did the wrong thing instead of the right one. It could happen to anyone, and no shame attaches to it. Because feelings are inexorable.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 25, 2014 01:00 PM

I'm shocked that somebody tried to claim only women are possessive. I've heard it from guys who just dumped a woman and want it to be her fault that he's a horndog user, but that's about it.... Lots of folks who claim that being "jealous" or "possessive" of the person one is doing the most intimate of activities with is bad, but... see prior statement, re, user.

Posted by: Foxfier at July 25, 2014 01:00 PM

Because feelings are inexorable.

I keep wondering whatever happened to understanding that feelings are normal but don't tend to help people act rationally? Wasn't it Hume who said reason is (and ought to be) slave to passion? I'm pretty sure he wasn't talking about women there, but rather all people :p

I'm not sure he's correct, though. I've always thought both were necessary.

I've never been ashamed of having feelings - that's just a normal part of being human. So I don't get the attraction of denying you have feelings or pretending they don't matter. I would probably amend Hume to say that reason is more often used to justify passion than to balance or temper it. But it's not exclusively used that way - we do have the ability to set aside emotion even though it's difficult.

Foxfier:

What I generally see a lot on the internet are two assertions:

1. *My* feelings are appropriate and healthy. The opposite sex's feelings are ridiculous and cause them to behave irrationally. I've seen both men and women make this argument, and it drives me nuts.

2. Women are jealous and possessive b/c they're insecure and controlling by nature. If men act jealous or possessive, it's because women can't be trusted :p

The common element here is that it's always the other person who has a problem - never the writer. There's no attempt to understand the other sex at all.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 25, 2014 03:25 PM

I'm not sure he's correct, though. I've always thought both were necessary.

Most philosophers disagree with Hume on this point, so you're not alone. There was a few years ago a school that interpreted Aristotle as making the same claim, but it's hard to defend: Aristotle does say that 'desire sets the end' and reason determines the means, but it is also clear that Aristotle (and the Greeks generally) don't think that desire is necessarily irrational. There's a kind of desire, boulesis, that Aristotle thinks belongs to the rational part of the soul -- and it is this part above all that is concerned with the good as good.

Posted by: Grim at July 25, 2014 03:56 PM

For that matter, even Kant -- who above all thinkers thought that reason was the font of morality -- goes on in the Doctrine of Virtue to identify several kinds of 'moral feelings' that are necessary preconditions for actual moral behavior. Reason can tell you what is right (he believed), but it can't make you care about doing what is right.

Posted by: Grim at July 25, 2014 04:01 PM

Pure reason scares me. I think I'm most likely to question strong emotion when it's urging me to do something I suspect I'll regret or that I'm pretty sure is selfish or wrong. I'm almost always suspicious of anger, for instance.

I'm least likely to question it when it urges me to give someone a break or try to understand their view of things.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 25, 2014 04:23 PM

Aristotle distinguished three forms of desire: (1) boulesis : a wish or rational desire for objects conceived as good; (2) thumos : an emotional or non-rational desire for objects that appear good. Because Aristotle frequently associated it with self-assertive feelings involving pride and anger, thumos can also be translated as “spirit” or “temper”; (3) epithumia : an appetite or irrational desire for an object believed to be pleasant. These desires are associated especially with basic biological needs, such as desires for food or sex.

Interesting - that's very similar to the "mind-body-soul or spirit" framing through which I view most things (I think they should be in balance most of the time, though one or the other might predominate in certain circumstances).

Posted by: Cassandra at July 25, 2014 04:27 PM

Why anyone would think we should be guided either solely by reason or solely by emotion is completely beyond me. We're neither computers nor animals. It reminds me a lot of the endless debate over nature vs. nurture, or phonics vs. whole language, or gradualism vs. catastrophism: the thoughtless assumption that one must be true to the complete exclusion of the other. Angels-on-pinheads nonsense.

I imagine we've all had the pleasure of dealing with someone who insists he has no feelings and is guided entirely by rationality--though he's obviously afloat on a simmering stew of passions that turn his rational premises into pretzels. We've also all dealt with free-spirit nature's children who treat every passing emotion as one of the Ten Commandments, without any regard for honor or duty. And then there are grownups.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 26, 2014 11:22 AM

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