In parts I and II of this series, we considered two fundamentally different conceptions of the self: the expressive self and the value-responsive self. In part III, we discussed the implications of the expressive self for sex and gender. Today we explore the parallel implications of the value-responsive self for sex and sexual morality.
At a fundamental level, the value-responsive self accepts the existence of the moral order and seeks to respond appropriately to it. From this vantage point, moral truth is not an enemy but instead offers the possibility of transcendence, recollection, and true happiness. Humans are not undermined but are uplifted, enriched, and fulfilled by responding to moral truth.
What does this moral order have to say about sexual relationships? The topic is too broad to be treated fully in an article of this length, but hopefully, these cursory remarks (and links) can point to a different way of approaching these topics. I also concede that what I say here is one possible way of fleshing out the value-responsive approach to sex; I would need to write more to defend this view against other criticisms and alternatives.
Why sexual relationships are different. We begin with what everyone knows but what we sometimes like to forget—sex is different. Sex is an area of life that is in some way special and unique—we don’t treat sexual relationships the way that we treat other kinds of relationships. Our laws bear witness to this—rape and sexual assault are a unique kind of wrong, one that is not reducible to being physically assaulted in a particularly brutal way. Similarly, workplace policies that prohibit or discourage sexual relationships between coworkers acknowledge that there is something indeed different about sex. When we treat others this way, all sex becomes, essentially, masturbation, for the other person is only incidental.
When we treat others this way, all sex becomes, essentially, masturbation, for the other person is only incidental.
Not only that, but the kind of embodied union that sex seeks after has the potential to create new life. In sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, new human beings can (and frequently do) come into being, humans who will be in a condition of dependency for many years. Babies do not come into the world anonymously but with specific attachments to parents who are responsible for their existence.
The fact that more of the person is at stake and that more persons are at stake means that sex creates additional opportunities to deeply connect with others—or alternatively, to harm them. As Karol Wojtyla writes, “it would seem that the sexual relationship presents more opportunities than most other activities for treating a person—sometimes without even realizing it—as an object of use.”
Objects of our sexual hunger. Objectification is one way of naming the wrongs that we can inflict on people in sexual relationships. Rather than seeing sex as a special way to realize a profound and loving connection with another human person—a union that honors that person as a precious, intentional, and intelligent human being with the capacity to jointly create new human life—it is possible to see other people (and one’s self) as mere things or objects, as instruments of sexual gratification. To use the famous language of Martin Buber, it is possible to take an “I-It” approach to others in sex rather than an “I-Thou” approach which honors their full reality as persons.
To show how we can respond fully to the value of other persons (and ourselves) in sexual relationships, I’d like to talk about four different ways that we can either treat someone as a fully human person or fail to do so. I’ve disaggregated them to show that one could accept some of these arguments without accepting all of them. In several cases, I’ll call the failure to treat someone as a person “objectification,” a term that suggests we treat others as things rather than as persons. The value-responsive self aspires to treat all persons at all times in accordance with their true value.
1. Responding to the value of choice. The first way we can honor the value of a person in sex is by respecting their consent. Thankfully, there is a broad and deep cultural consensus on this point. A crucial part of what defines us as persons is our ability to choose, especially on a topic as sensitive and personal as whether we will have sex with another person. To deny someone the ability to choose is to treat them as a thing, as an inert object that does not deserve any respect for his or her own thoughts or choices. Forcing someone into sex without their consent also denies their self-ownership, suggesting that they are not ultimately in charge of their own lives and bodies. Another way of saying this is that ignoring or overriding consent treats others as if they do not have boundaries that ought to be respected, that they can be violated at the will or pleasure of another. There are many ways of forcing people into sex without their consent, including rape, sexual assault, groping, sex trafficking, having sex with someone who is underage, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to give true consent, and others. All of these offenses deny our capacity to choose, central to who we are as persons, and thus reduce us to mere objects for the use of others. All of them are morally wrong.
2. Responding to the value of individual personhood. The second way we can honor the value of people in sex is by respecting their thoughts, emotions, and viewpoint in sexual acts—their “subjectivity,” we might say. One possibility of sexual desire is that we come to use others as an instrument to get what we want. The other person is used as a means to sexual gratification, used as one would exploit some disposable item whose value consists in its ability to meet some need or want of ours before it is discarded. Here, the other person no longer appears to us as an independent center of meaning and action, an agent whose thoughts, feelings, and well-being matter just as much as our own. The beautiful complexity of another person is reduced to a flat and one-dimensional image that is gerrymandered to fit what we want from them. By definition, there can be no real union with another when we do this, for we are willfully blind to aspects of their being that would make it possible to be united with that person as a person. When we treat others this way, all sex becomes, essentially, masturbation, for the other person is only incidental, an alternative to a sex toy or robot. As Maggie Gallagher points out, “masturbation is the logical end of the sexual revolution; completely severing sex from Eros, desire from any possibility of the union for which it longs.” There is no transcendence towards another person, only the lonely and solitary scratching of an itch.
Another way of saying this is that we sometimes treat people as fungible in sexual relationships. John Finnis has poignantly written that “Women particularly are well aware when they are being taken by their husbands or lovers not for the person, unique and uniquely related to that person, but rather as a convenient, available instance of ‘desirable woman’ whose presence as an appealing figure in the man’s aroused imagination impels him towards her until the moment when his biological tension is released, the appealing figure fades in his imagination, and his failure to integrate his insistent words and actions with a common life of friendship becomes evident even to him.” This, of course, is by definition a depersonalizing way of treating another person, for it abstracts away that person, “unique and uniquely related” to a desiring other, and reduces them to what could be have with any other “specimen” or “instance” of the kind that the other person wants. The person is ignored and disappears within a body that could be anyone’s. John Crosby uses the word “incommunicable” to describe the reality that each person is unique and irreplaceable, that “each person exists as if he [or she] were the only one.” By treating others as fungible in sex, we suggest that there is nothing particularly important about this person’s presence in the sexual act, and thus we turn away from the deep disclosure and connection that is possible in sex.
3. Responding to the value of new life. The third way we can honor the value of people in sex focuses on the new humans who are frequently created by sexual acts. Since the invention of (fairly) reliable contraception, many people have tried hard to shut their eyes to the reproductive implications of sexual relationships. The creation of babies in sex is seen as an accidental (and often unfortunate) outcome of sexual encounters, something which (in this view) should always be under our control (for insightful analysis, see here and here).
What are our obligations towards the new humans we make? My response is simple, but I think it is an answer that many people would like to avoid. Because humans come to be under conditions of radical dependency and stay in a state of dependency for many years, it is fair to say that we ought only to engage in sexual conduct which could lead to the creation of a new life if we are willing to accept responsibility for the full implications of that human’s existence. Newborn humans are completely helpless on their own and remain in a state of vulnerability and dependency for many years. Though some exceptions are appropriate and required (e.g., adoption), there is no better general principle for deciding who should have the primary responsibility for caring for a child than the child’s actual parents, the persons who are responsible for bringing the child into existence.
But surely this approach is far too limiting, isn’t it? We can’t really expect people to be willing to take responsibility for a child every time they have sex. If contraception fails, many people believe that abortion should be seen as an acceptable response to the problem of an unintended pregnancy. But think of what a direct and unavoidable denial of the value of human life elective abortion entails. In most cases, the point of abortion is to end the life of a living human being—if the baby lives, then the abortion has failed. There is no other category of human beings that is regularly subjected to the level of violence and discrimination that unborn humans face. These, our tiny brothers and sisters, are regularly destroyed because they are judged inconvenient, burdensome, or unwanted. Of all the depersonalizing and objectifying treatment discussed in this article, the direct and violent denial of value involved in elective abortion is in a class of its own.
Of course, even if the child is not aborted, parents can still fall far short of providing the level of care that children need. A healthy culture will take account of the facts of human reproduction and seek to create institutions and norms that will promote the welfare of parents and children —including encouraging parents to jointly take responsibility for the children they create.
4. Responding to the value of interpersonal unity in marriage. This brings us around to the fourth way that we can honor the value of persons in sex. Notice that even though we have identified some ways we can honor or objectify others in sex, we don’t yet have an account of what sex is about. What distinguishes sex from other kinds of interactions? At its best, what is sex for?
One answer, which I can only sketch here, sees sexual relationships as creating the possibility for a unique kind of interpersonal union—what was once known as “marriage.” Marriage, in this view, is a multi-dimensional sharing of lives in a relationship that is naturally fulfilled by the coming-to-be and nurturing of children. In marriage, sex can be an actualization of the spouses’ loving and committed union with each other, one which honors each spouse as the unique, embodied, moral, emotional, and spiritual being that he or she is. There is no other category of human beings that is regularly subjected to the level of violence and discrimination that unborn humans face.
There is no other category of human beings that is regularly subjected to the level of violence and discrimination that unborn humans face.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that human persons somehow become an indistinguishable biological blob during sex, only that the reproductive parts of their bodies unite and coordinate to achieve reproduction. Just as the heart, blood vessels, and blood cells cooperate to form an integrated biological process—circulation—so too the reproductive organs of male and female unite to form the unitary biological process of reproduction. And it is not only when conception occurs that this biological unity is achieved—whenever a man and a woman fulfill “the behavioral conditions for reproduction,” they are united in a biological sense. Because human persons are embodied biological beings, there is a kind of interpersonal unity possible here that is not otherwise possible.
Of course, not every instance of biological unity forms or actualizes a marriage—biological unity can be achieved in adultery, but adultery is non-marital and even anti-marital. Marriage is a union of persons at many levels of personality, not just the physical. And I should emphasize that marriage, in this view, is not merely a means to the creation of children—a marriage (and the sex that happens within it) is valuable even when a couple has no children. However, the connection to reproduction structures the meaning of marriage. Because the task of raising children is open-ended and the parent-child relationship never dissolves, it makes sense for the union of spouses to be permanent. And because only two persons (a man and a woman) can unite biologically, and because (absent advanced technology) every child has exactly two parents, it makes sense for spouses to be sexually exclusive—sex outside of the marital bond cannot contribute to the multi-level union between the married couple and involves, in every case, a betrayal of the two-in-one flesh union that constitutes marriage.
Taking Pleasure in Goodness. And what of pleasure? Does this view welcome and encourage pleasure in sex? The answer is yes, though the question of value (or the good) is prior to the question of pleasure. Pleasure is not a basic good, for people can take pleasure in bad things. Sex in which people objectify each other is not “good” sex, even if it produces pleasure for one or both parties. Such pleasure can detach one’s perception of the good—understood as the life-long loving and committed union between husband and wife which would be fulfilled by the bearing and raising of children—from the disposition to affirm and pursue that good. As such, it is dis-integrating—it separates one’s ability to pursue the good from the development of one’s sexual experience and dispositions.
The goal of sex, in this view, is the affirmation and health of the marriage. Sex is about the union; it is fundamentally interpersonal rather than solipsistic. It is knowing and being known at a deep level. Should this be pleasurable? Yes, of course, and spouses should seek to give and receive pleasure. Nature has thankfully and graciously made conjugal love an inherently pleasurable activity.
But, again, the question of value is prior to the question of pleasure. As Aristotle taught long ago, it is good and even virtuous to take pleasure in activities that are genuinely fulfilling, for pleasure helps cement (for better or worse) our attachment to things, people, and activities. It is part of the full realization of virtue to take pleasure in goodness.
Following our discussion in Part II, however, we should note that the quality of sexual pleasure differs based on our stance toward moral goodness and truth. Pursuit of value leads to transcendence, freedom, recollection, and lasting joy; pursuit of mere pleasure detached from value leads to boredom, alienation, and imprisonment in the self. In the domain of sex, Hildebrand insightfully notes that “Sex is always extraordinary, but its characteristic extraordinariness assumes diametrically opposite forms.” He goes on: “Sex possesses the tender, mysterious, ineffably uniting and intimate quality only when exercised as the expression of something more ultimate—namely, married love.” On the other hand, when sex is pursued irrespective of such love, “The depth, the seriousness, the mystery disappear, to make room for a fascinating, exciting, and befuddling charm which excludes anything beyond … [when we pursue sex irrespective of love, we hear] something essentially incompatible with love.” Treating all sexual pleasure as essentially the same misinterprets the different qualities of sexual pleasure.
A distinction worth remembering. In sum, I hope to have shown, at the very least, that there is a serious discussion to be had about what the self is and how the self relates to gender and sex. The idea that we ought to affirm whatever sexual or gender identities people express or identify with already presupposes an expressive view of the self—one which excludes, in advance, other possible understandings. Likewise, adopting what might be called “identity libertarianism” (let each person choose what their identity means to them) presupposes that humans are not structured by a world of unchosen values which hold the possibility for joy and transcendence. This is philosophical anthropology that is fundamentally ambivalent about moral truth and which leads inevitably and inescapably to incoherence about gender, sex, and sexual morality.
Love does not require that we affirm dubious assumptions about what it means to be human or the place of sex in human life. Love does not mean that each person can define truth for him- or herself. Rather, love requires us to see each person for who they really are and to affirm the unique goodness and potential of each person. Love requires that we acknowledge the ways we are uplifted and fulfilled by responding to truth. The “law written in [our] hearts” (Romans 2:15) is neither a threat to individuality nor a divine fiat that we must blindly follow. By responding to value, we become who we truly are.