Anal. Orgasm. G-spot. Recently you may have seen these bright posters spring up on campus, advertising events hosted by the Women’s Center. One of the highlights of that week was the guest lecture series by Ellen Heed, who spoke on three consecutive days about self-pleasure, human genitalia, and “all of life’s erotic possibilities.” Sexual pleasure is often a stigmatized topic of conversation, and on many levels Princeton students aren’t comfortable openly discussing what constitutes good and bad sex. These events provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on this.
There is a coherent view of human sexuality underlying the self-pleasure programming at the Women’s Center. In the minds of its adherents, it seeks to throw off the inherited shackles of a repressive sexual culture that often demonized female pleasure and enforced old-fashioned norms like monogamy, heterosexuality, and prohibitions on premarital sex. It encourages people to be comfortable with their own bodies, unashamed to explore new possibilities for pleasure and self-discovery. It seeks the goods of communication and respecting boundaries in relationships, to keep sexual relationships positive, pleasurable, and consensual.
This is certainly one view of sexuality, one that I respect. A large, and probably growing cohort of people hold it dear, often motivated by good impulses. Intelligent people can disagree regarding the pluses and minuses of its premises. Under this new framework, non-consensual sex is obviously completely illicit, but as long as sexual activity is consensual, the options are limitless. Restraint makes sense only in the context of the boundaries of a partner; practices are informed by desire and curiosity rather than by prescriptive moral codes. You invest in a relationship to the degree that you feel comfortable, no more – nobody can force vulnerability from you, and you always have the option of walking away from sex and wiping your hands clean, separated from unwanted intricacies.
There is an alternative view of sexuality that looks at sex from a completely different angle. It sees sex as an act that has as its goal the comprehensive, total, and self-giving union of two people. Under this framework, consent is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition; indeed, not all things are permitted. This view of sex takes into account not only the subjective experiences of the partners – their desires, pleasure, and enjoyment – but their objective capacities as sexual beings. According to this ethic, the sexual act cannot be detached from its inherent orientation towards the creation of new life. For this reason, sex is viewed as something existentially relevant and of great moral weight, and is seen through the lens of an ideal: an exclusive and monogamous relationship of a man and woman, open to children. Sex becomes much messier: you have to deal with whatever consequences of sex come your way – dirty diapers, stretch marks, breastfeeding, and the gradual depletion of your bank account. You have to tie yourself down to non-sexual expressions of love, from showing your affection during a chaste courtship to doing the dishes at the end of an exhausting day of running a family. You are forced to pick one person and commit to them, regardless of your doubts and insecurities, embarking on a journey of growth even while running the risk of failure, betrayal, and suffering. And speaking of non-sexual expressions of love, this alternative view means potentially grappling with loneliness when relationships do not work out or materialize at all. Finding an identity and personal fulfillment completely separate from sex, whether through platonic friendships or service or devotion to one’s work, is one way of living out one’s nature as a sexual being.
The view I am referring to is often portrayed as conservative, or a matter of religious foibles, or even as backwards and repressive. But it has little to do with conservatism or liberalism; it is a product of a different way of looking at human beings and human actions. Good sex, under this logic, is sex that is honest and pure and self-giving. There are no guarantees about pleasure. For adherents of this ethic, it is inherently wrongheaded to place pleasure on a pedestal. Yes, pleasure is a good thing. Yes, sex creates opportunities for self-discovery and the discovery of another that speak to a natural human longing for intimacy and physical delight. Yet the moral metric for gauging actions is ultimately not one of pleasure. It demands answers to tough questions. Does sex signify something beyond our control, or can we freely choose what it signifies? Do we merely inhabit our bodies, or are our bodies inseparably fused from who we are? How do I struggle with myself as I flutter between restraint and temptation? How do I come to grips with the flaws in myself and in my partner, and the seemingly crushing reality that no intimacy is ever complete? There may be moments of failure and deep dejection that require learning to trust again, to invest in people again. And, no doubt most jarring to the previous view, this ethic acknowledges the concept of shame – not shame in the sense of stigma or judgment by other people, but in the sense of a personal regret at one’s own actions, how I may have hurt other people even in consensual sex, how I may have taken a relationship full of vulnerability and trust and turned it into nothing, into lust.
I subscribe to the alternative view of sex not because I think it’s easier or it’s more pleasant. I do this because I do not want to enter a relationship having trained myself to see pleasure as “my body’s birthright” (as claimed by Sinclair Sexsmith, another guest lecturer last year). I do not want to look at another person’s boundaries as merely the limits to my curiosity. I do not want to separate my sexuality from a calling to parenthood. I do not want to take easy, no-strings-attached delight in what for all of human history has been the coming together of humanity’s greatest creative force – the capacity to bring new life into the world. It is difficult, but I want to train myself to look in a person’s eyes and see the human being on the other side, not the reflection of my own eyes, my own desires. Especially relevant to this past week’s theme of self-pleasure, I want to reject the inward turn, the notion of ultimate self-reliance and the illusion of sexual pleasure as a proxy for fulfillment.
Living out this alternative can be difficult in what is often a post-sexual-ethics environment. Programming like “yoga for better sex” or workshops on self-pleasure assumes that the moral aspect of sex is a non-issue and that participants are motivated by a desire for a qualitatively “better” sexual experience, not to reflect upon what should and should not be done. A post-sexual-ethics world is one in which pornography can be streamed consequence-free over University wi-fi, in which a condom is literally handed to each freshman during orientation, in which sexual abstinence is seen as a private observance that one doesn’t really talk about. People are tired of yelling at each other about sex, and the amicable solution is to agree to disagree and move on. But we leave important conversations by the wayside when we do this, and we knock the legs out from under issues that could be pressing and life-altering. We can treat recycling cardboard as an ethical issue and discuss it seriously, but we rarely have the same luxury with our sexuality.
I acknowledge that I do not have all the answers, and that there are many more visions of sex than the two I’ve laid out here, but I want to keep pursuing the truth. To that end, I encourage you all to join the discussions about love and sex, regardless of your vision of sex. Feel free to point out holes in my view of sexual ethics or correct a mischaracterization of the other viewpoint. Having this conversation requires people of all beliefs to suspend some of their assumptions and be willing to self-reflect. I hope that you will find this is worth it.
By the members of the Anscombe Society. They can be reached at email@example.com.