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?