Some Secular Thoughts on Sex and Commitment

In December of 2002 I had a student who gave an oral presentation in class that since sex was biologically based it was not a moral issue at all. She claimed open sexual relationships are justifiable so long as both partners agreed to it. Here are my thoughts at the time about whether it’s ethical to have a sexual partner without some level of commitment to that partner. I used these notes to discuss the issue in class after her presentaion.

Sex is a moral issue if sex is not purely physical and/or demands some level of commitment. There are levels of commitment to everything we do; to a lunch date, a class presentation, a work schedule, to friends, relatives, etc. We also have a commitment to do no harm toward strangers. Therefore we have some level of responsibilty toward others about everything that affects them. In sex one must be responsible enough not to give or receive STD’s, we should not use people for our own selfish ends, we should not produce unwanted children. We should be responsible enough to have those kinds of commitments to ourselves and to others.

If sex is purely physical then I can treat my partner as an object--they don’t exist as a person. They are just a body, and I need not care for their feelings at all, nor do they need to care for me. It would completely depersonalize people to naked bodies. It would be to use people for my own selfish ends. I wouldn’t even have to care whether my partner climaxed.

Is anything purely physical? Everything we do is done in a mental and/or social context. Drinking beer with friends is a social/mental event. Eating lunch with someone develops closeness--you wouldn’t have lunch with just anyone.

What about prostitution? It’s wrong because it lacks a commitment as described above. Prostitution sex can never be safe sex with regard to STD’s, it uses another person (for money or sex), it might produce a child, plus you never know if you might get robbed or murdered by your partner while alone with them. That having been said, I cannot say prostitution is wrong in every case for everyone, especially in places where it's legal and men cannot get sex any other way.

Is it really possible to have sex with someone without getting emotionally attached in some way, leading to some level of commitment to that partner? I doubt it, since it’s one of the most intimate shared experiences one can have, especially if done repeatedly over several weeks and months. On the Jerry Springer show some guy came on to tell his prostitute that he was in love with her and wanted to marry her, which she in turn mocked him. This is why open marriages don’t work, because eventually there is tension and eventually one partner leaves his/her spouse for the other. The more intimate the experience the more intense the feelings of closeness, emotional attachment, and/or commitment toward that person. Guys in a foxhole during WWII shared an intense experience with each other, and as a result many of them would die for the others even today. Their commitment to each other is directly proportional to how close they were together in that foxhole, and how long they fought together.

BOTTOMLINE ISSUE: If sex is purely physical then why bother making a commitment to be sexually faithful to another person, ever? If sex is just physical then sex is no different than eating lunch together with someone beside your regular lunch partner. If marriage doesn’t demand monogamous lunches, then why would it demand monogamous sex? Even if you wanted the benefits of family life (children, shared income, life-long helper, etc), why would two people bother promising sexual faithfulness to each other? But if you don’t promise your partner sexual faithfulness, then how would you feel if he slept with his secretary, or your sister, or your mother? Why would you ever feel betrayed if sex is just physical?

21 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Oh, in case a Christian claims I don't have an objective moral standard for saying these things, keep in mind that this was in a secular college where I was teaching ethics. Also keep in mind this student did not believe the Bible (and neither did I, of course). Even a Christian professor would have to argue in much the same way. We can get our beliefs about such things from the flying spaghetti monster if we want to, but we must defend what we believe apart from the religious source in a secular college. Can you defend your ethical beliefs apart from the Bible? Then why do you need the Bible to defend your morals?

Anonymous said...

It is more than possible for nonbelievers to act morally and seek monogomous relations - Jesus Himself acknowledges this when He speaks about being able to enter into the sheep pen without going through the gate (the gate being the image of God protrayed by Jesus). In other words, we can act in moral ways without the aid or belief in God.
But He also says that those who do so are robbers and thieves because they collect people to themselves for their own purposes (ego, power, etc.)rather than connecting themselves and others with God who loves beyond superficial standards - who loves eternally. Afterall, it isn't a moral or legal code that saves people, it is a spiritual bond into a spiritual realm - that is not exactly a priority for those who are attached to and thrive in the "seen" world.

Randy said...

Just the fact that athiests discuss this question is evidence that something more than meets the eye is happening during sex. Humans have always connected this something more with the spiritual realm. What has made people do this? Is it perceptive or defective? That is do people perceive something real and invisible or do people perceive something false? If it is a false perception will you be immune from it? That is could your human nature cause you to hurt from this perception that something has been violated even if it is false? Is is worth the risk? How big a chance do you take with your family when all there is to gain is a little physical pleasure?

John W. Loftus said...

Randy, I can see how you would view it this way. But even as a Christian I could never understand what someone means when they say there is a spiritual dimension to sex. What is it? What exactly is this so-called spiritual union that takes place between a man and his wife during their first sexual experience on their wedding night? In what sense are they one spiritually? Divorce rates have clearly shown that married people are not one spiritual being (whatever that is) simply because they have sex, so has premarital sex, and even gay sex. So tell me exactly what it means to say there is a spiritual realm or dimension to sex. I never understood it even as a Christian.

Sex can produce babies, and prior to effective birth control that was always a concern, and still is. Sex can produce diseases. Sex can also bond people together emotionally. It's the most intimate experience when a man literally enters a woman. Intimacy like that can produce a long-term relationship with a bitch from hell, or an unwanted pregnancy, or a STD. That is all I need to warn people about doing it with anonymous partners

Anonymous said...

"I could never understand what someone means when they say there is a spiritual dimension to sex" -

I agree - that idea could potentially put pressure on people who are not overly spiritual - being "spiritual" or "unspiritual" does not disqualify us for the love of God, but might be a cutting off condition with other people.

Sin of any nature (including being a "bitch from hell") does not cut anyone off from the love of God, but can make it difficult for us to understand and see Him to respond back.

Anonymous said...

John one of the problems you got is you keep claiming the Bible is wrong. How do you know that John? What anti-christian literature written by one fallable author with bad reaserch did you get your ideas from? John see you're basing your beliefs based on those things you read in some anti-christian literature by one fallable author with bad reaserch. John you put faith in things that give you a very weak foundation. John the Bible is written over 1600+ years by 40 authors in different geographic locations and this was done before a printing press. John the other issue is your ideas of Biblical morality. It's clear you haven't really studied much on the subject you're trying to comment on. John the Bible teaches that you're not a good person. The Bible shows that you do a lot of evil deeds. Such as lying, covetousness, stealing...even your thoughts are abominable. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law, psalms and prophets(1600+ years of literature). The Bible teaches Jesus Christ made all things and all things are made for him. Jesus Christ is king of heaven and earth right now as we speak. Jesus Christ is head over all principalities and powers. There is no authority that exsist accept for those Jesus Christ has allowed to be established. John you are guilty of doing evil deeds. You do as the Bible says you will do. Such as mocking at amends for sins. Read some proverbs, you do as the Bible says you will do. John, on Judgement day you will be found guilty because of your evil deeds. John, that means you do deserve to go to hell forever. John, even in our society if a person is convicted of a felony or as a sexual preadator those crimes will follow them as long as they live. John do you know Jesus Christ has the power to forgive sins? Jesus Christ says if you humble yourself and turn from your evil deeds that he forgives your evil deeds committed past, present and future. John no longer does your conscience have to weighed down by the heavy burdens of all your evil deeds. John if you turn from evil and trust Jesus Christ then Jesus will accept you. John, Jesus Chris won't turn you away and you will have eternal life and righteousness. Please repent John, we do care about you and you should flee from the wrath of God that is to come. God's wrath is coming because of all the evil deeds done by man.

Anonymous said...

John the scripture says that you were never a Christian if you stopped being a Christian. The Bible tells us that you went out from us to prove you were never of us to begin with. That is probably due to false converts lying to you about the gospel. Decievers decieving you because they themself are decieved.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said: "Please repent John, we do care about you and you should flee from the wrath of God that is to come. God's wrath is coming because of all the evil deeds done by man."

First of all, Mr. Preacher, this topic was about sex, not Bible-thumping. I hang around here a fair bit and dislike seeing interesting threads hijacked by mobsters of God. Secondly, haven't we seen this kind of argumentum ad baculum way too often?

FYI, I was torn between Buddhism, agnosticism and Catholicism as a belief-system. I am most certainly NOT going to be a Catholic because I DID read the Bible. It's nothing more than an appeal to force - that's it. All this, "Jesus is King" and "Judgement Day" and "God's wrath" are just primitive threats eloquently disguised to evoke emotional and psychological intimidation. Is this a good ethic to follow? I think not.

Anonymous said...

raymond what you're saying shows you're confused and aware you're confused. Since you claim to be torn between buddism and catholicism. Then you claim to be agnostic. An agnostic is just someone who doesen't know. Catholics don't believe the Bible is their sole authority. Catholics follow the catholic catechism and believe the magesterium speaks for God. So I understand why you're confused. I have explained to you that according to the Bible you're a bad person who does evil deeds. On Judgement day you do deserve to be punished forever for your evil deeds. Deeds such as lying and stealing, covetousness. Right now as we speak Jesus Christ is king of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ has the power to forgive sins. That is why Jesus Christ came born of a virgin and died on the cross and is bodily ressurected. If you turn from evil deeds and trust in Jesus Christ you are forgiven your sins and are righteous in God's sight. If not you're already condemned because of your evil deeds. This thread is about sex and christianity.

Anonymous said...

"I have explained to you that according to the Bible you're a bad person who does evil deeds."

Being open-minded and studying different worldviews is evil?

I'm bad and evil and doomed to hellfire because I don't believe in a God who shall send unbelievers into eternal torment? Trusting in the Bible and God's word is sufficient enough to be good?

Why don't I place my complete faith in the Koran? And an answer that has ANYTHING to do with the Bible just proves you have no other proof than a circular argument.

It seems to me that God's will is always man's opinion.

Trinity said...

I’ve been reading this blog for a few weeks and this is the first time I disagree with you, John. We think that as intellectual humans we can’t possibly run around acting like animals as far as sex is concerned. But I think that’s pretty much what we do.

Of course sex is more meaningful and fun with someone you care about. However, prostitution is one of the oldest industries in the world. I don’t think Jerry Springer is an accurate portrayal of “normal” people! And I think it’s probably rare that a guy falls in love with his prostitute. Furthermore, many societies in the past have had men with multiple wives and concubines. I doubt he “loved” all of them. Their purpose was to satisfy a purely physical urge.

I know of many people in happy committed relationships that still regularly resort to viewing porn, viewing images of people they don’t know, and don’t care about just to “take care of it”. We like to believe we are above such things, but I’m not seeing that we are.

Anonymous said...

" Deeds such as lying and stealing, covetousness."

Oh.... and what about killing? The worst of them all? The one which the so-called one true God, and his followers throughout history, have no qualms about committing against those who were different from them.

Such bad deeds have been condemned in far more eloquent ways by philosophers before and after Christ. And they never had to resort to the threat of punishment to get their point across. Frankly I don't think you're going to be able to convince anyone if all you do is keep on referring to the Bible. I'd be more convinced if you told me about the "Golden Rule" (It makes much more sense than eternal punishment), and that's not even authentically Christian.

Anonymous said...

"I know of many people in happy committed relationships that still regularly resort to viewing porn, viewing images of people they don’t know, and don’t care about just to “take care of it”. We like to believe we are above such things, but I’m not seeing that we are."

Hey Trinity, maybe that's why sex is so troublesome for many people. There's something slightly "urgh" about thinking that we would happily make love to anyone of the opposite/same gender who looked and acted seductive.

Perhaps marriage is a reaching out for an ideal that many people think "should be", rather than the current situation of "what is" with many people.

Sometimes happy committed relationships might not always be what they seem, too, we have to take note of that.

Tommy said...

Darnit John, you beat me to it. I was going to do a post about an atheist case against adultery and promiscuity. I probably still will, because there will be some differences.

BTW, how good was that student's oral presentation? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that there are no comments on this topic (at least that i've seen so far) based on any of the research in behavioral genetics or evolutionary psychology in the last few decades, which clearly establish that, like all other species, human sexual behavior is an evolved, naturally selected phenomenon. The debate continues among scientists in the field about the CONTENT and limits or our evolved sexual patterns, but on whether human attitudes about sex have been developed thru sexual selection (Darwin's other theory) the debate is pretty much over. For a really fascinating examination of the evolutionary origins of human sexual attitudes (and the differences in them between the genders), I recommend the book "A Natural History of Rape" by Thornhill & Palmer. It's an ugly topic, but it very successfully takes apart the notion that human sexuality is a matter of "choices" or even of "cultural influences". For example, the idea that porn encourages the sexual objectification of women is very common, but you rarely hear anyone make the observation that virtually all males (even homosexual ones) find porn sexually stimulating, even if they find it morally repugnant (they may not like it, but it affects them, in other words). The same is not true of human females, most of whom can't understand at all why porn is so enthralling to men. This is clear evidence of Darwinian sexual selection in humans. I'm NOT saying that human sexual behavior (or any other behavior) is just "in our genes" - I'm not a biological determinist. But I am saying that the fact that human cultures, while having a wide variety of differing rules about sexual behavior, ALWAYS have some rules about it, and many of them (marriage as a sexual binding of the female to the male, for example) are remarkably consistent between them. Doesn't this seem to indicate that the content of our sexual attitudes and mores are innate, even if the framework is specific to the cultural environment? I am puzzled that no one else has really made this argument here so far (though trinity hinted at such ideas).

Anonymous said...

I think some of the theists arguements here shows a really myopic world view. Considering the fact that most of the world is not Christian, when you examine the different cultures of the world and their attitude towards sex, it is almost refreshing. This isn't to say that ignorance doens't exist, particularly in Africa, but it is very telling that the only thing that Christian theists bring to the table is a point of view, nothing more.

Many cultures in their own way recognize that sex is an integral part of life; it produces life, and it allows for people to express their feelings toward someone. I think it is much better to realize that at the moment, we don't have all the answers as to why these chemical reactions within us cause us to act the way we do. But it is stunningly arrogant to think that the Christian view on sex (which it has to be admitted, varies according to creed and denomination) is the one true view!

How does "Christ" feel about the over 5 billion or so people (for this arguements sake) who have barely ever heard of him, have been raised to believe in a totally different kind of spirituality, and are having all kinds of sex with different partners, and for different reasons? Are they going to burn in hell? Does that seem in any way fair to them? They never had a chance to believe!

Or rather, doesn't it demonstrate the limitation of religion, esp as it relates to world geography and politics. You simply are not going to get non Christians all over the world to have the guilt complex's regarding sex that are inherent in Christianity. These guilt complexes are also very responsible for some debilatating mental illness that results when a person believes that an unseen invisible god is going to punish them for eternity for an act that took 10 minutes of their time with a consenting adult!

Sex is a part of life. Christian theists add with it all sorts of psychological baggage that actually hurts a person mentally and emotionally. Ethics teaches us that consent for any activity involving another person, whether that activity is sex or something else, is necesarry and fair. I look forward to those arguements. Love is certainly involved. Those are the facts. Why this is so needs to be explored open mindedly without the contraints of a religious theory behind it.

Anonymous said...

Raymond the Bible doesen't say murder is the worst of all sins. The worst of all sins is your failure to humble yourself, ask forgiveness of your evil deeds, and trust in Jesus Christ. You are alienated to God but you can be accepted. Jesus Christ will accept you and he won't turn you away.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

Other then taking your word for it, where in the bible does it say that failure to humble oneself and accept Christ is the worst sin? Can you use the words of the bible to back this up?

Isn't the sin against the holy spirit the one that can't be forgiven? (Mt 12:32) How then did he sin against the holy spirit, and again, I ask you to scripturally back up your claim. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

'Sex is a moral issue if sex is not purely physical and/or demands some level of commitment. There are levels of commitment to everything we do; to a lunch date, a class presentation, a work schedule, to friends, relatives, etc. We also have a commitment to do no harm toward strangers. Therefore we have some level of responsibilty toward others about everything that affects them. In sex one must be responsible enough not to give or receive STD’s, we should not use people for our own selfish ends, we should not produce unwanted children. We should be responsible enough to have those kinds of commitments to ourselves and to others.'

New to the web site so maybe this has been covered elsewhere - if so please point me in the correct direction - but by what authority should I be responsible, what moral framework should I be following and why? I agree with the part "There are levels of commitment to everything we do), but that level of commitment is a personal choice and I live with the consequenses. Where does this commitment to do no harm to strangers come from. Why should I not use people for my own personal needs? If the only answer is to fit in with society, then I'm not interested. Why should I follow anybodies rules on how to live my life?

Playing devil's advocate here, because I really want to know how the athiest moral compass works - have been a Christian to long to remember what it was like not being one.

John W. Loftus said...

Curious? see what I wrote here, and especially here.

Anonymous said...

"Raymond the Bible doesen't say murder is the worst of all sins. The worst of all sins is your failure to humble yourself, ask forgiveness of your evil deeds, and trust in Jesus Christ. You are alienated to God but you can be accepted. Jesus Christ will accept you and he won't turn you away."

That's my point when it comes to morality. You cannot possibly think that a raging Crusader slaughtering heathens is more moral than some Joe Bloe on the street who doesn't believe in Jesus. Belief in Christ does not immediately equal a decent morality.