by Saikat Guha
The three components of sexual gratification are the physiological component, the aesthetic component, and the erotic component. We will consider these in turn, with a view to discerning their moral significance and the moral significance of the sexual act. I warn the reader in advance that we will have occasion to consider the sexual act in somewhat explicit detail. This material is not suitable for children–not that a child could have much understanding of it anyway–and it may unsettle especially squeamish adults. However, just as the physician gains knowledge of anatomy by dissecting corpses, and other such distasteful things, so we may gain greater understanding of sexuality by an unflinching and detailed philosophical analysis of its elements. In this connection the reader should note that the pursuit of understanding often does require one to speak of things unsuited to our conventional tastes, and ignoring convention in this regard is justified because knowledge and truth are higher values than conformity to custom.
A. The Physiological Component
Physiological sexual gratification is relief of physiological sexual arousal/tension, primarily the arousal of the genitals and the sensations associated thereto. This is not a pleasure at all, properly speaking, but a release from pain or discomfort. I owe this crucial point, and much of what follows, primarily to Plato, who in The Republic distinguishes real and merely apparent pleasures in this manner. Plato shared my negative assessment of physiological sexual gratification, including my recognition of lasciviousness as a vice, as does much of the ancient, medieval, and early modern tradition. As late as the early 20th century, G.E. Moore in the Principia Ethica recognized lasciviousness as self-evidently evil. Thus I will not be saying anything new or original here, but simply clarifying and expounding old truths in a more explicit and timely manner. Therefore, if anyone, blinded by the present Zeitgeist, regards these claims as incredible or thinks I am a fool, they should consider how many of the great moral philosophers from Plato to Moore (many of the greatest moral thinkers in Western history) they are willing to dismiss so readily, and with what qualification on their own part. This is not to say that I am therefore correct, but only to urge a fair consideration of the arguments and views to be presented here.
Physiological sexual tension is a discomfort analogous to hunger, thirst, or the need for excretory relief (urination or defecation). In all these cases, a need of nature (to eat, drink, excrete, or have sexual intercourse) is indicated by a certain discomfort, which when acute is distinctly painful. Anyone who has experienced orgasm can see this clearly by reflecting on the acute tension or stress that exists in the genitals immediately prior to the sexual climax; if this tension, which is the highest physiological sexual arousal, were indefinitely prolonged–if, say, one were kept “on the brink” of a sexual climax for an hour or two–this would be an acutely painful, indeed horrific experience, akin to having a full bladder, desperately needing to urinate, and being unable to do so for a similar time, albeit perhaps more painful because the tension or discomfort is greater in the case of sex. When the relevant need is satisfied, the discomfort rapidly diminishes, physiological stress or tension is released, and this reduction in discomfort or release from pain is apprehended by the subject as relief. Release from pain is not itself a pleasure, properly speaking, but merely a cessation of suffering; pleasure is a positive good, while cessation of suffering is good merely in a negative manner. The orgasm, therefore, is an abrupt release from acute suffering, and is not as such pleasurable at all. The phenomenology is formally the same as relief from suffering induced by some physiological malfunction–for instance the relief experienced when an analgesic takes away the pain of a headache. The physiology differs, however, in that, like hunger and thirst, sexual arousal is an expression of a normal appetite in accordance with the proper functioning of the body, and ordered to a physiological end (reproduction), unlike a headache, which indicates some injury or malfunction.
Relief is frequently mistaken for true pleasure; thus people often think that there is pleasure in satisfying hunger, or in drinking water when acutely thirsty. If one will carefully attend to the phenomena, however, one will perceive that what happens is simply that, at first, one is acutely hungry or thirsty, which is a form of suffering, and that as one eats or drinks the hunger or thirst diminishes (which constitutes relief of hunger or thirst), until at the point of satiety one is no longer hungry or thirsty. Other things being equal, relief is desirable when one is suffering, of course, but it is better still not to suffer; it would be stupid to induce a headache in oneself in order to have the relief of curing it, or to induce itching for the relief of scratching. Insofar as one realizes that relief is not real pleasure, moreover, to do these things is perverse as well as stupid. Assuming that it is wrong to induce suffering for no good reason–and that inducing suffering is not justified by the intention to relieve it later–it is also morally reprehensible, wrong, to pursue any form of relief as if it were a true pleasure, by inducing first suffering and then release from it. This applies to sexual release as much as to any other, so it is plainly stupid, perverse, and immoral to seek physiological sexual gratification for its own sake, as if it were a true pleasure, by inducing (in oneself or another) sexual arousal or discomfort and then release from it. It is true that, insofar as one fails to realize what one is doing and mistakes relief for real pleasure, one may be less than fully blameworthy for such acts, but their objective wrongness, perversity, and foolishness remain. This vice, the pursuit of physiological sexual gratification as a pleasure, for its own sake, used to be called lasciviousness. (Obviously, one can perform the sexual act for other purposes, such as procreation or as a vehicle of emotional bonding or intimacy. We will consider these later.) Those who are in the grip of this vice are akin to people who imagine that it is enjoyable to bang their heads against a wall and then take aspirin, or to put itching powder on the skin so as to scratch. If they do this to themselves, they are of all people perhaps the most miserable and pitiable, since there is no genuine pleasure whatsoever in what they do; they simply inflict discomfort or pain on themselves repeatedly and imagine that they have gained pleasure when they take away from themselves the misery which they have inflicted. Hence the vice of sexual self-stimulation used to be called self-abuse. And if they do this to others, they are, objectively speaking, wicked and cruel, since they abuse others to no purpose, though they may imagine that they are doing good to others. (It is worth noting that, like a pathological scratcher, people in the grip of this vice may pursue sexual gratification so violently as to cause physical damage–tearing of the skin, bleeding, and the like.)
The illusion that physiological sexual gratification is pleasurable is encouraged by the manner in which sexual climax is achieved. For, first, there is the discomfort of unfulfilled sexual need, which is designed to motivate sexual intercourse. This may be induced by an external stimulus, such as the presence of an appropriate sexual partner, but it may also simply build up over time. When, in response to this discomfort, the genitals are stimulated, there are initial “pleasurable” sensations associated with the relief of this initial discomfort, but this immediately gives way to a heightened state of arousal and increased discomfort. It is as if an itch gave one a sensation of relief when scratched before becoming yet more acute. If stimulation continues, sexual arousal continues to increase (though not in a linear manner) until the supreme excitement prior to the sexual climax, which suddenly releases the tension. (This is the ideal case, though of course the process may fail or be interrupted in any number of ways.) Up to the point of orgasm, this process has the character of a positive feedback loop–the more you “scratch”, the more it “itches”, thus building higher and higher levels of discomfort. It is easy to see how such a process presents us with the powerful appearance of pleasure and how it can, absent reasoned reflection, take on the aspect of something desirable. Those who fall prey to this illusion are, as such, perhaps more to be pitied than blamed.
Moreover, sexual relief differs from other forms of relief in at least the following three ways, which together facilitate lasciviousness. First, the genitals themselves, especially the male genitals, are very durable, capable of taking a great deal of repeated stimulation-and-release without permanent harm, though they do have their limits. (The female genitals can more readily suffer damage because the vaginal lining can tear and bleed if used too often or too roughly.) If one scratches the skin on most parts of the body for several minutes at a time, the skin will soon tear and bleed; infection is then liable to set in, a clear bodily warning that one is doing harm. Likewise, banging your head against a wall will soon cause concussions, brain damage, and the like. But sexual vice can continue to a very considerable extent without permanent bodily harm; we have, as it were, thick skins when it comes to this vice. Second, the sexual appetite grows by that upon which it feeds, not only as to quality but also as to quantity, and to a degree far beyond the other normal bodily appetites. A man who eats too much can, in extreme cases, eat two or three times what is appropriate for him, but not much more than that. In any case, eating by itself has no strong tendency to increase one’s appetite for food; one generally has a certain natural appetite, and one tends to eat until that is satisfied. But one’s sexual appetite, if it is not restrained (by reason, by temperament, or by circumstance) but given free rein, often tends to grow more and more demanding, until it reaches astonishing levels. Hence there is a huge variety in how frequently a person engages in the sexual act; some may do so only a few times a month, or not at all, while those who give themselves up to the appetite without any restraint may do so several times in a day or even in a few hours, for weeks or months at a time. Hence, some people have an appetite twenty or thirty times greater than others. Such a raging appetite destroys good judgment, prevents those in the grip of vice from reflecting on their condition, and encourages a quasi-bestial pursuit of immediate gratification. This is similar to the way in which other addictions–for instance, to narcotics or gambling–tend to create self-enhancing appetites that destroy the good judgment of those in their grip. Third, although physiological sexual gratification is not itself a real pleasure at all, there are real sexual pleasures, as we shall see below. Because these pleasures are closely associated with physiological sexual gratification, it is easy to transfer to the physiological gratification the positive status actually possessed by other sexual pleasures, or to confuse certain genuine pleasures with mere sexual relief, and this encourages lasciviousness, because true pleasure is, other things being equal, worthy of pursuit for its own sake, as the concomitant of whatever good’s possession it signals.
Before we proceed to consider the other components of sexual gratification, we should note one further point. Since the genitals are reproductive organs, physiologically ordered to procreation, their function is not to provide any bodily benefit for the organism to which they belong. Hence, refraining from their use does no harm to the person who refrains, unlike a person who starved himself or denied himself water, or other bodily needs. To be sure, if one has been in the grip of lascivious vice, regaining one’s equilibrium will be a painful process, just as it is painful to cure oneself of drug addiction or alcoholism. One will suffer the sexual equivalent of “withdrawal symptoms”, and sometimes these symptoms may feel as if one were coming to some grave harm. But, in point of fact, nothing bad will happen. In the long run, if one simply refuses to give in to vice, the sexual appetite returns to normal, and the “withdrawal symptoms” disappear. The effects of the vice are permanent, unfortunately; just as an alcoholic remains one his whole life, even if he has sobered up, so too a person who has once been deeply in the grip of sexual vice remains forever damaged and weakened by it, and must always remain vigilant to avoid a relapse. But this damage can to a degree be healed and one can regain equilibrium and a normal life. Obviously, since the sexual appetite is itself a normal bodily appetite, it is not as such wrong to indulge it, but equilibrium requires that it be indulged in accordance with right purpose and right judgment, from which follows moderation in its use. (What this means will be made clearer later.) And for those in the grip of lasciviousness, this means that a normal sexual life may seem, in their imaginations, and perhaps at first even in reality, to be miserable and unrewarding, since they cannot indulge the appetite nearly as much, in general, as they would like, and must exercise considerable self-control. There are, however, rewards which not only compensate for this “loss” (no real loss, but only a felt loss, since one loses only a disorder), but greatly outweigh it, so that the normal sexual life is much richer and more fulfilling. We will consider this in greater detail later.
B. The Aesthetic Component
There are two quite different sorts of gratification inherent in any good meal. First, there is the relief of (i.e. from) hunger, which we have considered. Second, there is the pleasure of taste, or more exactly, of the taste, smell, texture, felt temperature, and the other desirable sensuous characteristics of the food. The latter is a kind of aesthetic pleasure, which good cooking aims to enhance as far as possible, and which requires for full appreciation an aesthetic judgment like that involved in the fine arts. Hence we refer to cooking as an art. That these are distinct forms of gratification we can see from two considerations. First, a hungry man, if he had no other choice and were hungry enough, would content himself even with a tasteless bowl of gruel, so long as it filled him and supplied him with sufficient nutrition. This would relieve his hunger, but would afford him little or no pleasure of taste. Second, people sometimes chew gum, eat sweets, or taste a food (wine, for instance) just for the taste and flavor, with little or no concern for hunger. Here there is little or no relief from hunger, but appreciable pleasure of taste. This aesthetic component of one’s meal is, unlike the satisfaction of hunger, a genuine, positive pleasure, a delighting in the good qualities of the food. It is akin to the pleasure one gets from smelling flowers (or any other good smell), or from the visual enjoyment of some beautiful view, or the auditory enjoyment of a good piece of music. As such, it is, other things being equal, desirable for its own sake. It is true that “hunger is the best sauce”, meaning that one gains much more appreciation for the taste of one’s food when one is hungry; this is because hunger motivates appreciation of what one eats, if it is good, even though this appreciation is quite distinct from the satisfaction of hunger itself.
Now, this applies to sex as much as to food. There is a genuine, purely positive sexual delight in the desirable sensuous qualities of one’s lover or sexual partner–in the person’s visual beauty, smell, taste, skin texture, and so forth, to the extent that these are judged as good. This is indeed why such beauty is prized in the object of one’s sexual desire. There is also a subtler and more spiritual delight in the good inner qualities of the desired one–for instance, intelligence, kindness, fidelity, and other (typically) desirable “personality traits” of one’s partner. This is why these traits are prized, not only in general, but especially in prospective sexual partners. No one wants an ugly person for a lover, whether that ugliness be outward or inward; even if (or even especially if) beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what we all want in our prospective sexual partners is beauty as we understand and appreciate it. The appreciation of this beauty is a key part of sexual gratification, far more important, in general, than physiological sexual gratification. The intensity of this appreciation is such that the details of a lover’s visual appearance, smell, taste, and so forth can be imprinted in one’s memory of a passionate sexual encounter years after the fact. Again, the imagination can conjure fantasies of such desirable qualities either out of memories or unsatisfied sexual longings. There is a deep and oft-noted connection between sexuality and creativity as it is manifested in art. At least one important reason for this is that art can also summon up, with near-hallucinatory intensity, the remembered or imagined impression of some situation (of whatever sort) in rich sensuous detail. Both art and sex are vehicles of intense aesthetic appreciation.
Nonetheless, it is morally reprehensible, wrong, to pursue aesthetic sexual gratification for its own sake. This is not because there is anything inherently wrong with pursuing aesthetic pleasure generally–quite the contrary!–but because sex is directed to persons in a special way. Consider the possibilities. If one pursues aesthetic sexual gratification for its own sake, one must do so either in another person, or in oneself, or in sexual fantasy (including pornography). (I leave aside the distasteful case of those who attach sexual feelings to animals or things yet lower; I will take it as obvious that human sexuality has to do with persons and ought to remain on that level.) If in oneself, this is narcissism, a form of self-absorption that is plainly selfish, perverse, and damaging. There is hardly anything so unlovely as someone in love with himself, or his own mirror image; to imagine someone else who is like this is to see immediately everything that is wrong with it. Sexual longing tends naturally outward, and finds its fulfillment in others; to twist it inward is to maim oneself, to destroy one’s capacity for genuine fulfillment and happiness. Much the same is true with regard to fantasies; they are immature and inadequate substitutes for real gratification. They stunt one’s sexuality rather than developing it, for we grow by feeding on real food, not imaginary feasts; they foster cowardice, in one’s withdrawal from real encounters and the anxieties they bring; they envelop one in an atmosphere of self-delusion and unreality, and destroy or at least damage one’s ability to develop healthy, mature, other-regarding relations with real people. To fantasize is to see the world through the lens of one’s fantasies; to see one’s lover through the lens of fantasy is to see one’s own lies in place of the truth. Because fantasy partners do not exist, they can make no demands on one. They “exist” only to serve one’s needs. This kind of sexual expression is, therefore, little different from narcissism, since one’s fantasies are merely projections of one’s own needs, and therefore of oneself. Such behavior is childish (if not infantile) and solipsistic. The more it is indulged, the more dangerous it is, for the more it tends to cut one off from real fulfillment, and even from the ability to appreciate anything beyond one’s own conjured-up hallucinations. To pursue sexual fantasies instead of people is like living in dreams instead of in life. (There is nothing wrong with pursuing one’s dreams–but they must be pursued in life, not in the dream-world. And one must have sense enough to distinguish good dreams from bad ones, if one does not wish to end up living a nightmare.) To add pornography to enliven such fantasies is simply adding fuel to the fire, which if it rages out of control will likely destroy one’s ability to ever have true sexual enjoyment. Finally, this sort of pursuit either produces, springs from, or accompanies and encourages the vice of lasciviousness, and it is tainted by this association.
If, on the other hand, one pursues aesthetic enjoyment in another person–as opposed to finding aesthetic enjoyment in a person whom one pursues–then one degrades another person to the level of an objet d’art, or a slave. We speak of a man putting a woman on a pedestal. If this means that he admires her just as he might admire a statue, he is reducing her somehow to a statue, without concern for her as an individual or for her own interests, which degrades her. It is not permissible in this context to regard a living, breathing human being as a mere vehicle of aesthetic delight, like a figure in a painting. No-one with any sense wants to be regarded in this way, as if one were of no more worth than a talking doll, and to regard someone in this way is to be perfectly prepared to abandon that person as soon as a more appealing prospect comes along. For after all, what one appreciates is the person’s beauty, and such purely aesthetic appreciation does not bring in any element of goodwill or concern for the person, except perhaps as something precious to be kept, like a china figurine. Such a “concern” is quite compatible with enslaving someone else, like a harem girl, to gratify oneself; indeed, insofar as one seeks to reduce a sexual partner to a mere object of aesthetic enjoyment, one has already looked upon that person to enslave her in one’s heart.
Of course, there are interactions in which one quite permissibly regards others in a more or less purely aesthetic light. If I see a performance of Hamlet, I may not care much at all about the actors, for I may regard them simply as vehicles of aesthetic enjoyment, of the characters and the play. I do not thereby wrong them, for that is the whole point of watching the performance. But for the most part, it is wrong to take this attitude to people who are intimately involved in our lives, to any significant degree, and even towards strangers. There are a few special contexts where we can legitimately disregard the individual for the sake of aesthetic enjoyment, but all the world is not a stage. A person who truly regarded it as such would be criminally indifferent to the sufferings, joys, and interests of others, just as one does not care to save Hamlet from his fate and does not really grieve at his demise (as one would at the death of a loved one). It goes without saying that we would regard such a person as a very contemptible character indeed; he could watch a little child drown before his very eyes without feeling the least urge to help, as if he were watching the event on a stage, or on TV. And so too, when it comes to anything as serious and intimate as sexual involvement with another person, someone who regards the whole thing simply or mainly in an aesthetic manner is contemptible. It is his good fortune if his contemptible attitude has no significant bad consequences; but this good fortune does not excuse the act.
Just as the sexual appetite is a normal bodily appetite, so aesthetic sexual gratification is a normal part of aesthetic appreciation and also of sexual activity. There is much that is good about it. It is one of life’s great and genuine pleasures, and the goods in which it delights are worthy of delight. Obviously, then, there is nothing as such wrong with indulging in such pleasures, but, as with the satisfaction of the bodily appetite, this pleasure may not be pursued simply for its own sake, and must be indulged with right purpose and judgment. This too leads to a kind of moderation in its indulgence, which however is perfectly compatible, in the right circumstances, with exceedingly frequent and perhaps even continuous indulgence in this pleasure. How this can be the case, and what moderation in sexual indulgence means, we will see from a consideration of the third and most important component of sexual gratification. (I have kept the best for last.)
C. The Erotic Component
Eros is the love in which one “falls” when one “falls in love” with someone. It is the inspiration for all so-called “love poems” and “love stories”, from Romeo and Juliet to the trashiest romance novel on the supermarket checkout aisle. It is a unique kind of interpersonal love, for it is the only kind of love inextricably tied to a particular sort of bodily activity. The activity in question is, of course, sexual intercourse, towards which Eros tends and in which it finds its consummation. Hence Eros is sexual love. Sexual love is the lowest form of interpersonal love, because it is the most self-centered and the most prone to selfish distortion; it brings with it a powerful urge to own or possess the beloved, as well as tendencies towards jealousy, rage, and violence. Above it stands the love of friends and family, sometimes called “brotherly love”, though it extends to filial and parental devotion as well as love between siblings. Unlike Eros, this love is more benevolent, self-giving, self-sacrificing, especially in its highest form, which is parental love. (Consider what sacrifices good parents make for their children–up to and including grave suffering and death.) Nonetheless, it is self-centered in a subtle manner, for it attaches only to our near and dear–that is, those who are close to oneself. Our “loved ones” are, in a certain way, extensions of ourselves, at least from our own point of view; we tend to identify with them and thereby to care about their sufferings, joys, and interests, because they are our own in some way–either our own flesh and blood, or at least our own friends. So even brotherly love has in it a component of selfishness and possessiveness, and can degenerate into a tool of emotional manipulation or abuse. Moreover it can distort judgment and lead to injustice, when one wrongs the stranger or outsider out of an exaggerated regard for one’s near and dear.
Above both sexual love and brotherly love stands spiritual love, which is love of a purely disinterested and unselfish sort–love for a person based not on any special tie to that person, but simply from a recognition of his or her dignity as a person. This love is exemplified by those who volunteer to help the poor, the stranger, the sick, or others in need out of compassion and the simple recognition of their duty towards others. I call this “spiritual love” because it springs from conscience and from the intellectual recognition of personal dignity in others, in other words, from one’s mind or spirit, with no prompting from the body; unlike the other forms of interpersonal love, it is not based on a bodily urge or on personal affection or sympathy, nor does it have to serve any need of one’s own. (Insofar as it does serve one’s own needs to help others, one’s benevolence is impure.) It can be bolstered by the imagination, if we put ourselves in another’s place and imagine their suffering, yet this effort of imagination must often be deliberate, and it is quite different from the spontaneous promptings of sexual imagination and from the imaginative sympathy one has with friends or family, based on long acquaintance. Love in this sense may also be called “goodwill” or “benevolence”, since it consists in wishing good to others and acting accordingly. It is only after the model of spiritual love that one can imagine (in some feeble measure) the love of God for His creatures, or the love of any such pure spirit, unattached to a body and unhindered by fleshly ties.
Eros is not purely selfish, even if it is largely selfish. It borrows or imitates certain elements from the higher forms of interpersonal love. From brotherly love it borrows friendship with and affection towards the beloved; that is why one normally likes the company of one’s (erotic) beloved. From spiritual love it borrows goodwill towards the beloved, concern for her interests and pleasure in her well-being and happiness. (Brotherly love itself borrows this element of goodwill from spiritual love, albeit to a greater degree. People walk out on their spouses far more often than they abandon their own children.) Eros retains its own identity even while borrowing or imitating the higher loves; it never loses its possessive, self-centered character and its phenomenology remains quite distinct from the other loves, as anyone who as ever been in love can attest. Nonetheless, it is only insofar as Eros imitates the higher loves that it becomes something more than selfish desire or longing, and it is only to this extent that the satisfaction of Eros constitutes a genuine, positive pleasure. If it is stripped of the higher elements, Eros becomes mere infatuation, a childish or adolescent obsession with the “beloved” (or more accurately, the desired object) that is in fact a form of stress or emotional tension, and as such constitutes a form of suffering. This suffering is temporarily alleviated by the intimate sexual possession of the desired one, and the relief thereby engendered parallels, on the emotional plane, the physiological relief of the genitals at the sexual climax. As we have seen, relief is not a genuine form of pleasure. Therefore, while the relief of this tension is desirable, other things being equal, while one is in the state of suffering and tension, it is wrong, perverse, and foolish to seek this relief for its own sake, as if it were a form of pleasure. One should not seek to become infatuated and then to relieve the infatuation (temporarily, to be sure) by sexual possession of the desired one. This vice, which is perhaps less common than lasciviousness, still does occur; we may call it the vice of romanticism, the pursuit of romance for its own sake. Romanticism is to real sexual love what sexual self-abuse is to real sexual intercourse–a self-centered, obsessive and unreal form of gratification, which the subject unreflectively mistakes for pleasure or fulfillment. Apart from its own taint, it tends to be tainted further by its association with lasciviousness. The two go hand in hand, because the same confusions underlie both.
I spoke before of the role hunger plays in encouraging aesthetic appreciation of one’s meal. Eros plays a similar role in motivating aesthetic appreciation of one’s beloved. This is why it seems that the beloved simply looks different to the lover–somehow more radiant or more suffused with beauty. What happens is simply that Eros motivates the aesthetic faculty to appreciate to the full whatever beauty the beloved has, and simultaneously distorts aesthetic judgment to suppress one’s recognition of faults or defects in the beloved. (Hunger does this too; if one is hungry enough, one will simply not care if the food is not properly cooked or seasoned.) There is a reverse influence as well, in that Eros is sparked by aesthetic appreciation of others, both of their outward and inward beauty, if the person appreciated is of the class of persons to whom one can feel sexual attraction. (Thus, typically, the person must be an adult of the opposite sex, not a blood relative, single and unattached, and roughly in one’s own age group. Other factors vary depending on social context and circumstance.) This also has analogues to bodily appetites, for the smell and appearance of a favorite food can spark hunger even when one is not antecedently particularly hungry. Eros is involved in some small way in all sexual attraction, and no sexual encounter, however casual, would hold much fulfillment (even apparent fulfillment) otherwise. (It is possible for a sexual encounter to hold no fulfillment whatever for one or another of the parties to it; this is the typical experience of prostitutes, as they will readily attest.) This is why the aesthetic impact of a passionate sexual encounter can be so strongly imprinted in one’s memory, even years after the fact, though one may not have been truly in love with one’s partner at the time. But since neither infatuation nor aesthetic sexual appreciation may be pursued in their own names, they may not be pursued jointly either, for their own sake. One cannot make a virtue out of two vices–or three, if one adds lasciviousness. That is what is wrong with “casual sex”, or with any sort of sex directed primarily at self-gratification. The consent of both parties to such self-gratifying sex is no defense of it, for if two people pursue vices together with the aid and consent of one another, this does not justify their acts, but merely makes them co-conspirators. (One cannot morally justify greed on the grounds that greedy people can make wonderful profits by being business partners with one another; co-operative greed is just as reprehensible as competitive greed.) We have canvassed all the self-centered aspects of sexual gratification, and found that none of them is appropriate to pursue for its own sake. Yet sexual gratification is a normal part of human life, including these self-centered aspects, and at least the aesthetic component constitutes a genuine pleasure, a good in its own right. If so, then, if they cannot be pursued in their own name, they must be obtained in the pursuit of something else. Properly speaking, they are merely instrumental values, or possibly even side-effects of the proper object of sexual pursuit. But what is this pursuit?
The answer lies in the other-regarding aspects of Eros, which Eros borrows from the higher loves, and which differentiate genuine and mature sexual love from mere infatuation. What is appropriate to pursue for its own sake is the friendship, company, and welfare of the beloved, of which the sexual gratification of the beloved is one element. Aesthetic appreciation acquires instrumental value in serving this pursuit, for we delight in being admired just as we delight in admiring others. Therefore, if I delight in the beauty of my beloved, she gains happiness and pleasure from being thus admired, and Eros can inspire this appreciation to greater heights than is normally possible, thus enhancing the pleasure of the one admired. Another aspect of the aesthetic component consists in making oneself beautiful (inwardly and outwardly) for the sake of one’s beloved. This results in a kind of benevolent feedback, for each party is delighted by the admiration of the other and seeks to improve in order to be further admired–not selfishly, but out of a desire to please the other. Such a pair of lovers is like a pair of mirrors, reflecting one another’s light endlessly. Likewise, sexual intercourse with the beloved should be directed to serve the needs of the beloved, not of oneself. If both parties do this, both are fulfilled without selfishness on the side of either. This means that to pursue my beloved properly, I must be loved by her in turn. For if I pursue her to possess her for my sake, I am selfish. But if I pursue her to fulfill her longing for me, I act for her benefit rather than my own. I must not seek to produce longing or desire in another, however, in order to fulfill it. This is to seek suffering in someone else, which is a vice as we have already seen. But if I know of someone else’s existing needs and seek to relieve them, I am acting benevolently. It is the difference between bringing food to one’s beloved when she is hungry, which is virtuous, and making her hungry in order to feed her, which is vicious. This extends to the “feeding” of both the physiological and emotional (i.e. erotic) sexual needs/desires of one’s beloved. However, it is necessary to be careful here, since the object is to relieve suffering, not to further inflame it. It is no service to another to feed her appetites excessively, to her detriment. Likewise, right judgment is needed to ensure that one does not degrade the beloved, even with her consent, by feeding these appetites wrongly. (It goes without saying that one is not to degrade her for one’s own gratification.)
Aside from the aesthetic element, what positive good is served in this process of serving another? There are two such goods. The first is the good of intimacy, that is, of friendship and company on life’s way and amidst life’s adversities. For not only do we human beings derive enjoyment from admiring one another, but our enjoyment of any other good is enhanced when the experience is shared. Even a simple meal between two lovers becomes something infinitely more enjoyable than a meal by oneself. This is all the more so for greater goods. Moreover, there are many goods that can only be gained co-operatively–for example, conversation and advice. Further, having a close and loyal companion at one’s side obviously helps greatly in facing the difficulties of life, and whatever talents each one has can be pooled together. There are many other details of this sort, that do not need much elaboration. Were this the only sort of good obtained by means of Eros, one would wonder why nature had furnished Eros at all, since one may have intimacy and friendship with a friend, sibling, parent, or child as well as (or better than) with a lover. But the second good, which is unique to Eros, is the creation of new people, the gateway to parenthood and family. This goes far beyond the physiology of procreation. Parents infuse a child with its identity, not only by giving it their genes in the very act of procreation, but by raising the child together in their home. They do not merely “make babies”, they make new people, new individuals, by raising them. Eros comes into this from the fact that the bringing-up is done best when it is done by both parents together. But for this to occur, the parents must be together, and they must co-operate. That is why there is such a thing as Eros in human beings; that is why the sexual act is associated with a peculiar kind of interpersonal love, since it is this act that naturally begins (but only begins) the process of bringing new people into the world. That is also why there is a physiological component to sexual desire and gratification. The discomfort and tension in the genitals, itself of no value, urges us physically towards sexual intercourse, just as romantic longing, itself likewise worthless, urges us emotionally in the same direction.
D. Eros and New People
It is commonplace to refer to the sexual act as an “expression of love”, and so it is, insofar as one seeks to meet the needs of one’s beloved and to strengthen one’s bond. But this bond is not meant merely to exist as one peculiar form of intimacy and friendship; if it were, it would not be linked so closely to the creation of new people. Likewise, procreation and parenting are not meant to be separate from the intimate friendship of lovers. Sexual love leads naturally towards pregnancy and thence towards parenthood, while parenthood suffers without love between the parents. Therefore there is an undeniable, intimate connection between these two goods; they are, as it were, of a piece with one another. Nor is it plausible to suppose that the two goods may be neatly separated and the one pursued without regard to the other, since to do this is to ignore a natural reality, namely that the two are inextricably linked in nature. But to live in ignorance of one’s own nature is to live a lie. One cannot be fulfilled without perfecting oneself, and one cannot perfect oneself without realizing the potentialities latent in one’s nature, and one cannot realize one’s nature without attending to it. That is why the first dictum of antiquity was, “Know thyself”. We have already seen how those who fall prey to lasciviousness and other selfish vices fail to find true fulfillment, even as they mistakenly suppose themselves to have done so. So too, those who try, in whatever way, to separate sex from its natural fruit deny themselves that fulfillment which is the complete fruition of Eros. If they try to have sexual love and intimacy without offspring or family, their love is sterile, barren, and so incomplete. (Couples who are unable to bear children often understand this, and give witness to it in their acute desire to be fruitful.) If they try to have family and offspring without sexual love and intimacy, their family will be joyless, unhappy, and probably a failure.
It is possible to make adjustments to unhappy situations. Thus, a sterile couple who are unable to cure themselves may take consolation in adopting a child, or content themselves with living without children. Nor is there anything necessarily wrong in a union between two people who are (individually or collectively) sterile; if they have no better alternatives, their misfortune should not be held against them, by one another or by outsiders. Likewise, though the ideal lover is beautiful, there is nothing wrong with taking as a lover someone who is lacking in beauty or other desirable qualities, if one wishes to do so. (Outward beauty is far less important, in such considerations, than inward beauty, and the latter may well outweigh the former.) In such cases, sterility, like ugliness, is regarded as a misfortune and overlooked, or it is hoped that it may one day be cured. Adjustments of this sort are an unfortunate fact of life. But it is one thing to adjust to circumstances in this way, and quite another thing to prize and value barrenness. A couple who chose to unite in order to avoid having children, so as to enjoy sexual intimacy without its natural fruit, are acting unnaturally, perversely, and wrongly, just as if one had married someone, not in spite of a bad temper or callous disposition, but in order to abuse or be abused by ill temper or callousness.
It is no answer to say, “This what they want”, in either case. For not everything we want is good, either for ourselves or for others. To desire to be abused is bad for oneself; to desire sexual union without fruit is bad both for oneself and for others. It is bad for oneself because one fails to fulfill one’s potential as a parent, a potential written into one’s nature, while availing oneself of the enjoyment which naturally leads to parenthood. (Here it is the couple, collectively, who are being selfish, making a mutual admiration society out of what ought to be a vehicle for creating new people.) It is bad for society because one fails to enrich one’s community with new individuals, as sexual love is meant to do. It is plain enough that if people generally failed to enrich their communities in this manner, the communities would wither and die. I do not mean anything so tedious as replenishing with fresh bodies the ranks of the dead. The point is not primarily to maintain our numbers. The point is that each individual brings something fresh and perhaps unique into the world, a new perspective and a new set of skills and talents with which to contribute productively to society–quality, not quantity. Pretty nearly every human accomplishment in history derives, ultimate, from the decision of some man and some woman to have a child. (I leave aside the cases of unintended pregnancy.) They did not know what their child would do when they made this decision; neither will you. But unless you think it would have been better if the species had gone without all those wonderful individuals, you must admit the good people do whenever they bring a new one into the world, since each infant is the possibility of a lifetime of human achievement. Of course a child can turn out badly too–but surely it is better, if one is not a coward, to take that risk rather than settling for nothing. Nor can one argue against this on the basis of overpopulation. Overpopulation is a reason to have fewer children, no doubt, but if no-one had any children the species would go extinct in a few generations.
It is against this backdrop that we can raise the question of homosexuality. Granted that homosexual unions can, in principle, supply the same intimacy and friendship as a heterosexual union, and granted also that homosexuals cannot derive any such fulfillment from members of the opposite sex–and this is the best case for supporting such unions–are they morally licit? One might think that this is analogous to a licit union of a sterile heterosexual couple; just as the sterile couple do not wish to be sterile, but make the best adjustment they can to this unhappy fact, so a homosexual couple does not wish to consist of two people of the same sex (that is either regarded as irrelevant or unfortunate), but are simply adjusting as best they can to their situation. And if so, what reason can there be to forbid their union?
The analogy fails, however, when we consider that sex is a matter of nature, while sterility is a matter of accident. We might put it this way: if a sterile couple were able to cure themselves of sterility, they would remain the same couple, with a newly gained ability, which they ought then to exercise, in due time. But if one member or another of a homosexual couple were to change sex–to change biologically, down to the genetic and physiological level–then this would simply not be the same couple anymore. Any homosexual couple who reflect on this can see immediately that the change would be as great as night from day. If some demon or god waved a magic wand and sex-changed one of the couple, what would the other do? They would have to either abandon their partner, or cease to be homosexual. In the first case, the union would dissolve, and in the second case it would become a completely different union. Therefore, it is, in the first place, simply never the case that homosexual couples don’t wish to be homosexual couples. It is not possible for them genuinely to regard homosexuality as a misfortune to be overlooked–it is the soul and substance of their union, which is meaningless without it. Therefore, homosexuals must seek sexual love and intimacy (if at all) in a manner guaranteed to be sterile and without fruit. To be sure, they do not typically seek these unions in order to have sexual love and intimacy without the hassles of procreation, but they are drawn to unions of a type that, by their very nature, and not by accident or misfortune, are barren. Even though one does not seek the union for its sterility, to seek a union that is guaranteed to be sterile by its very nature is to deny one’s potential to bring forth new people. That seems to me just as unnatural, or nearly so, as seeking a union precisely for its sterility. In either case, one’s actions guarantee that one’s love will fail of fruition, and thereby will always remain incomplete. In either case, one thereby fails in one’s duty towards society. And unlike a licit union of two sterile people, this failure is not accidental or a mere misfortune–it is the very point, or necessarily linked to the very point, of the union itself.
To this, there is the rejoinder, “What else are they supposed to do?” By hypothesis, they cannot derive fulfillment from the opposite sex. Are they to go their whole lives completely unfulfilled? Would not at least a partial fulfillment be preferable to nothing at all? But this argument proves too much. If a person were so addicted to pornography and sexual self-abuse as to be unable to have a meaningful relationship with another person, would it follow that that person should stay in this unfulfilling and unnatural lifestyle on the grounds that some fulfillment is better than none? If a man sexually desired his own (adult) daughter and found himself unable either to desire anyone else or to cease desiring his own child, would it follow …? I think these questions answer themselves. I am not unsympathetic to those in such disturbing predicaments. I have, indeed, sympathy both where it is fashionable (i.e. for homosexuals), and where it is unfashionable (as with the porn addict or the father with incestuous inclinations). Life has indeed dealt them a wretched hand. Nonetheless, I can think of no legitimate policy for them but to withdraw from their unnatural lifestyles (if they have indulged their unnatural inclinations), hope for a cure, and try in the meantime to live without sexual fulfillment. I fully understand the difficulty of following this course, for I did not always hold these convictions on sexuality, and in order to conform my life to them I have had to go to much trouble and hardship, and have endured much shame and guilt along the way, since my habits did not change as readily as my beliefs. But duty can exact difficult sacrifices of us, here as elsewhere.