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Guest opinion: Changing our sexual culture starts with a focus on morality

A new study from researchers based at the University of Kansas looked into whether or flirting is real. Adobe Stock

Researcher Peggy Orenstein recently exposed some hard realities about the sexual world that adolescents and young adults grow up in. As her recent New York Times op-ed explains, in spite of “a new imperative to be scrupulous about affirmative consent,” young men are still “subject to incessant messages that sexual conquest — regardless of how they or their partner may feel about it — remains the measure of a ‘real’ man.” At the same time, readily available, free porn has become the “default sex educator,” bombarding young men with “images of female sexual availability and male sexual entitlement.” Add to that use of alcohol as the essential ingredient to create the “compulsory carelessness” needed to engage casually in intimate sexual acts — diminishing the capacity for boys to “hear no or notice a partner’s hesitation,” and increasing the likelihood of using “coercion or force,” to get what they want.

What we end up with is a deeply broken sexual culture that “urges boys toward disrespect and detachment in their intimate encounters,” leading them to see girls as trophies to be won or objects to be used. In the words of a young man she interviewed, “You’re going to be dominating. You’re going to maybe push. Because, it’s like the girl is just there as a means for him to get off and a means for him to brag.”

There is no question that a culture in which boys and girls can use each other so thoroughly and thoughtlessly is destructive. The question is what to do. For Orenstein the solution lies in teaching adolescents and young adults to talk about their feelings and desires more so they can “negotiate the terms of the sexual encounter,” and focus on mutual gratification. She suggests persuading boys and men to treat girls and women better by telling them they’ll get more pleasure out of it.

But this approach has an obvious problem. If pleasure is the ultimate measure of our sexual interactions, then those who find gratification in using or abusing others will have no reason not to treat them that way. But of course, regardless of whether a guy enjoys disrespecting a girl, he should not do it; it’s simply morally wrong. Focusing on our desires will not solve our problems if our desires are the problem.

Orenstein might respond that if we really took the time to understand our desires and pleasures, we would find that, in fact, we get the most amount of pleasure in connected and mutually satisfying sex. There is something to this idea, but it is liable to a variety of misunderstandings. On some accounts of pleasure, all pleasures are essentially the same, meaning that there is no meaningful distinction between the pleasure to be had in viewing degrading and dehumanizing pornography and the pleasure one finds in vulnerable and connected intimacy; it’s all just pleasure.

A simple focus on “how to get the most amount of pleasure” can easily be appropriated by people who see sex as a means to status, conquest and self-centered gratification. Without some moral premises, pleasure is not a reliable guide towards treating other people right.

But Orenstein doesn’t seem to have this amoral approach to pleasure in mind. Hers is a moral approach to sex, and we mean that as a compliment. What she seems to mean, but does not want to come out and say, is that guys ought to want a certain kind of intimate encounter, one that involves connection, vulnerability and care; that such sexual interactions are better than casual and thoughtless hookups. And we agree. But it is hard to make this argument in a culture that views sexual intimacy as an amoral natural urge, like thirst, that can, will and even should be explored and expressed, so long as it meets some minimal standard of consent.

Though Orenstein hides behind a fig leaf of pleasure, it is clear that she has strong views about what it means to treat others morally. Her approach needs to be seen for what it is: a moral claim about the value and inherent lovability of each human individual, underscored by the reality that sexual intimacy is something more than just a biological act. It is not just any pleasure that she promotes, but the right kind of pleasure: pleasure that comes from knowing another human person intimately. Therefore we are not surprised that Orenstein’s research repeatedly found that “most guys, in fact prefer physical intimacy with someone they know, trust and with whom they feel comfortable,” a finding that is almost law-like in its consistency for women. There is a reason studies consistently find that married men and women experience greater sexual satisfaction than other couples.

Though we would disagree with some of Orenstein’s views about sexual morality, there is no question that her approach is superior to the pervasive view that consent is the only morally necessary ingredient in a relationship. Indeed, we believe her insights suggest even further ways of honoring the full personhood of another person. Sexual intimacy symbolizes a revealing of that which is “innermost, deepest, most profound” in a person. As powerfully described by Nathan and Elizabeth Schlueter, it both models and enables real intimacy, “a state of being deeply known and loved by another person, and of deeply knowing and loving that person in return.” On the other hand, consent without total commitment to the person makes an act that speaks “love between persons” into an act of “use of persons.”

In short, we believe Orenstein is on the right track, but her insights don’t come simply from listening to pleasure. Pleasure, divorced from morality, is not a reliable guide either to how to treat others morally or even what is most fulfilling for us as human persons. Moral sex is not just pleasurable, but good — good for us as the kind of persons we are. And we can’t understand that good without a focus on morality.

Daniel Frost and Jenet Erickson are professors at Brigham Young University and fellows of the Wheatley Institution.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Public Square Magazine.