Is it really moral
to limit sexual activity
among consenting adults?
by Jonathan J. Dickau ©'98 - all rights reserved
What determines that which is most civilized, in the area of intimate contact between people? When people feel a love for each other that is more passionate than a warm regard, what must they do to win the approval of our culture? Obviously, there should be some ideals expressed by society, but do we judge each other too harshly? Is our cultural standard for lovers too high, so that some adults are expected to do without any form of close companionship, even if there are willing partners? Does our culture demonstrate a higher level of morality, by limiting the number and kind of sexual relations which are acceptable between adults? What is the value of a query like that? The prevailing opinion where I reside, a little upstate, in the Hudson Valley region of New York, makes the question seem rather presumptuous, but I mean it quite sincerely. Are happily married people the only ones who deserve to have a sex life?
People have human needs, because they are indeed human. The giving and receiving of physical affection is pleasurable to everyone, in some measure, and the experience of sharing our sexuality is a most natural enjoyment. Even stodgy old Plato said that physical affection was the highest pleasure. The idea that sex is dirty was not the teaching of Jesus, Moses, or the Buddha, and most people have never heard of Manichaeism, where it probably originated, but this belief has become deeply ingrained in our cultural tradition. What is more civilized, however, about frustrating people's natural urges? Do we have a right to judge other people as sinful, because they enjoy bestowing pleasure on one another, often in the expression of love? Do most people really have something better?
I believe in caring relationships, and I've been too affectionate and devoted, at times, for the good of my own. I'm a romantic. I believe that almost any relationship between caring people can be made to work, with a little mutual effort, but sometimes things still don't work out. It must be pleasing to both parties, for any relationship to make sense, but there are other factors, as well. People differ in their ideal of when commitment is important, and on what level. Caring is necessary, for a romance to thrive, and nurturing is important, but we need to acknowledge that we are not alone, in our decisions. Neither are the ones we love. What role should society play, in our pursuit of relationships, and what role does it play, in everyday life? People have a need to establish an identity among others, in order to live with people at all, and we draw upon both our own experience and the norms of our culture, in the process of evolving our social identity. The question is, what is the basis of that identity, and what can we draw from our cultural tradition?
There are few well-defined communities, with a common and supportive culture, and the isolated pockets of community are becoming the exception, rather than the rule, in today's world. This leaves many individuals lonely and isolated, with no tradition of their own, nor a real culture to support them. Although the traditional roles for men and women, in the places where the culture of those traditions dominated, served our forebears well enough, and the traditional rules of courtship and marriage had their place, they leave most modern people somewhat frustrated, and this leads to problems for both the individual and our society. Part of the reason, of course, is that our world has changed. Life has changed profoundly, even over the last few years, and it is changing even more quickly, at least for many. As a result, people have been forced to adapt, and often struggle to evolve new ways of dealing with basic needs. There are no easy answers to these issues, either.
The traditional male and female roles have themselves been largely abandoned, or have become almost impossible to maintain, leaving many people feeling that they have fallen between the cracks, in terms of ever finding social acceptance. The lack of a socially- acceptable outlet for their natural desires also leaves many people without any real opportunities for the comfort of intimate relations. It is my opinion that this is one of the largest factors contributing to unrest in our society, and that related issues cause unrest, in other cultures, all over the world. It does no good to pretend that all people can simply do without, and should be expected to just deal with it. Abstinence is good! I really believe that, but I'm also far more understanding, about people's need for physical affection, than I would have been in the past. We should encourage self-control, and help to foster caring relations leading to commitment, but let others choose. Nor should consensual relations, that don't lead to marriage, be cause for alarm, so long as nobody is hurt.
The need to lie about sex, in order to maintain a posture of being moral, doesn't justify the trouble it has caused. Nor should healthy individuals be compelled to repress, and deny, basic urges, when sharing is welcomed. A basic truth seems to be that most adult humans need a certain amount of affectionate or intimate contact, with a suitable and agreeable partner, in order to remain in harmonious balance, or to be fully prepared for the demands of modern life. There is, of course, one obvious example, in current affairs, where lying about sex is apparently a perjurious offense for a public official. It is, however, a sad reflection on our culture that Bill Clinton, America's President is in such trouble for a sexual indiscretion. Admittedly, there is much more to it than this, but the question remains of whether it is really any of our business what he and Monica Lewinsky did together, so long as there was no coercion, and Hillary doesn't mind. There are more civilized ways to deal with this kind of problem than to wash our dirty laundry on national television.
Of course, this kind of logic opens the door to a much larger question, or a number of them, and I do think it's about time we re-think the guidelines of just what is reasonable to expect of people, or expect them to put up with, when you put them in a position of authority. They are still human beings! Do we really treat them that way? We need to expect responsibility of certain people, but how far should that go, in terms of intolerance of sexual indiscretions (between freely consenting individuals)? Does it really make sense that we force adherence, through legalized culture definition, to guidelines (in our government and/or military) which protect some people, but perpetuate outmoded sexual stereotypes people in the private sector have abandoned? Let me put it another way. Do you really need to know that the person whose finger is on the button of our nuclear arsenal is sexually frustrated, in order to feel safe?
How about the rest of us? Is the private sector better? Does our culture support what is natural and real, or do we expect too much of each other? The pretense that people can just get by, without companionship, or find loving companions without support from a caring culture, is of questionable value. They shouldn't be blamed for trying many things, or seeing many people, before settling on that one special someone, for whom they are ready to commit to a life of love. There are plenty of friendly people out there, but they're not all equally well suited for each other. On the other hand, why not enjoy the dance of romance, if you can? Romance is precious, and fragile. It should be appreciated, wherever, and however, it arises. Not every attempt at love will yield the perfect marriage, but that's no reason to stop reaching out to people who care, so long as you hurt noone in the process.
Many modern Americans are sexually frustrated because we've been looking for that one storybook fantasy romance, when life is far more varied, and more interesting. Why force every encounter into the same mold? Even if one's desire is for a life companion, and not merely to have fun, there is a need to remain in the game. Will you really be ready, when the right one comes along, if you haven't been in practice? For the French, romance is considered essential to life, and being open about sex is part of being civilized. What does modern American culture contribute to the world community, in the area of intimate relations, and how do we measure up to other cultures, in terms of civilization? Are we afraid of the idea that people need sex, or just embarrassed to admit it? The fact that Jocelyn Elders was dismissed from the Surgeon General's office, for suggesting that young people would be better off learning how to masturbate, shows that we are still too prudish to take the needs of those people seriously. Are we much more supportive of adults?
It is admittedly questionable to assert that every adult needs sex, in order to function, but it does make life seem far more worthwhile, when you are able to share the pleasure of it with someone you care about. People can get by well enough, without intimacy, but most of those who are truly thriving have found ways to satisfy this need. More importantly, those who do satisfy their intimate desires well are a lot happier, more balanced, more effective, and usually more thoughtful too. In my opinion, being satisfied sexually, and secure in the availability of ones intimate companion, tends to make a person far more even-handed, and a bit more tolerant, as well. In addition, the need to develop certain skills, in order to maintain an intimate relationship, the ecstatic pleasure of the sexual experience, and the very personal nature of intimacy itself, all tend to have a socializing influence on the individual. This tends to indicate that society benefits substantially from the sexual satisfaction of its members, in terms of reducing factors which promote violence.
On the other hand, some people have adapted to a life of celibacy, and they are just as happy to do without, rather than getting caught up in the games people play to get sex. This is something which should be totally a matter of choice, however. We need to learn to treat this choice respectfully, while not expecting it of others. There is an art to being alone, as well as a wide range of desires that are normal for people. Of course, this is an area where women have a pronounced natural advantage, especially in our culture. You see, most women can deal with sensory deprivation and loneliness far longer than men, and women are also better at perceiving the subtleties in the game of love. Men who have strong sex drives, and who have been compelled to repress their natural urges, are far more likely to become unruly than if they were satisfied, or if they were women. They can, however, learn techniques to re-direct hormonal flows, and channel sexual energies into other areas of life. There are advantages to a celibate life, but since it is demanding to undertake, especially at the outset, it should be entered into freely, not by default.
There are, of course, plenty of untimely deaths, and other tragedies, which can take away a lover, or spouse. In a way, however, the sadly uncaring manner people treat some things we can change is still more tragic. Both men and women are subject to rejection or abandonment, and it is not an uncommon thing for people to find themselves without the ones they love unexpectedly. Part of the reason for this is the fact that men and women are so abysmally bad at understanding each other, and interpreting each other's signals. What is worse is that we think we do understand, when we really don't. Women are more intuitive than men, and more patient about such things, as well as having better skills of social interaction, so it's no surprise they have fewer problems in these areas, and often a much lower level of frustration. Women without steady companions also tend to have a far higher level of material success, than companionless men. They are, after all, superior.
This doesn't mean that the difficulties, or the needs, of women are at all unimportant. The needs of a woman, and the challenges she faces, are every bit as great as those for a man, and sometimes tougher to deal with. Women have problems too, unfortunately, when they go without a loving partner for too long. For one thing, they tend to get depressed, feeling lonely and alone, and this causes self-esteem to be eroded. At times, only having a loving companion will turn a person around. There is no substitute for having someone care for you, and care about you. If that person can also give you the pleasure of sex, it tends to anchor the comfort and the love of sharing, giving the body directly the opposite of depression and loneliness, and this can raise the self-esteem immensely, by demonstrating deeply that you are loved. Perhaps our bodies need to be reminded of that (being loved), just as much as our minds do. Singles living alone, adult children living with parents, and even unwed mothers, all get lonely, and we all need each others' love to thrive.
This is, perhaps, the essence of my message. Our bodies have needs, regardless of our situation or beliefs. Our Souls too have needs too, and in my opinion, the Soul's greatest need is to give love. People have needs which go far beyond air, water, and food. The fact that people can do without for a long time, doesn't prove that they don't really need affection, or that their sexuality doesn't need to be expressed. Our bodies need to be reminded what it is like to feel really good fairly frequently, for our metabolism to be at its peak, and our sense of well-being to be automatic. Of course, good exercise, proper diet, and adequate relaxation, are necessary too, but physical intimacy has a unique way of bringing out the best in people, and making them feel good. It is unwise to claim that it's unnecessary, or optional, to express your sexuality, and to thus consider it a luxury. Friendship is good, but we need more. Without passion, life becomes dead, or virtually lifeless, and sex is a great way to keep the passion for life fully alive.
On the other hand, a healthy and proper expression of affection is the only sex worth having. When two people love each other, and they exchange affections willingly, it's a beautiful thing. Even if two people make love just for fun, this can also be beautiful. When someone mistreats others, however, for his or her own pleasure, that is quite a bit different. This is something which should most definitely be limited, whenever that is possible, and people need to have a variety of measures to protect both themselves, and those they love. The biggest question is "What constitutes mistreatment?". In some ways, we lack a clear consensus. Unwelcome sex, and unwelcome sexual advances, are far more of a problem for women, than they are for men. Most men are approached far less often, if ever, and they seldom get enough sex (or feel like we do), so many single men have a hard time identifying with women on this issue. Women are victimized far more often, however, and their freedom to choose should not be in question. So what do we do?
The best way to start is to accept our own desire nature, and honor the value of regular sex, as a way to increase joy, reduce stress, and even uplift the Spirit. This doesn't mean that we should pursue everyone who attracts us, but we should at least admit our attraction to ourselves. The next step is to honor the choices of others, both in how they treat us personally, or choose not to, and in how they relate to others. Whether they decide to have no companions, or three, whether they love someone of the opposite sex, or the same, we should give them our support. It is very hard to make love work, in our dizzy world, and people should be praised for trying, rather than criticized for doing it wrong. Let desire be OK; it'll happen anyway! Let passion be seen as a good thing, because it gives meaning to all the activities of life. If you want our society to send a healthy message, do it yourself, and start with your own life. Let your own relationships resound with love, and hold out your own ideal as an example to others, but don't deny them their pleasure.
Self-control and responsibility are a necessary part of any healthy relationship, but if these are the only reasons two people are together, they won't have much fun. In my opinion, unless there is a fair amount of passion in a romantic relationship, the people involved have no business being together. On the other hand, where there is passion it is a shame to keep two people apart. The story of Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, as well as a love story, and this kind of thing still goes on. In fact, we are taught to perpetuate it! People are often exposed to careful scrutiny, and they are taught to scrutinize others, as well. Is it really more kind to treat others with careful respect, in an attempt to be good, when what they really want is to be shown more affection? There are plenty of reasons to be careful, especially in today's world, but we need to be less harsh on each other, rather than becoming overly demanding and critical, as a result of our attempts to keep up an unreasonable, hypocritical, and often artificial sense of morality.
If humans are to survive on this planet, we need to focus on ways of getting along, rather than perpetuating reasons why we can't. We also need to be reasonable about our fellow man and woman, to support their human needs, and to accept them as they really are, not only as we would like. Men and women have been afraid of each other for too long, and we haven't confided in each other enough, over the years, to really understand each other. We've kept a lot of secrets, about our needs and desires, often without knowing that we were doing it. In many ways, we all want the same things, but men and women have greatly different approaches to life, as a rule, and they require something different from life, to be happy. It's important that we honor the differences which set us apart, rather than expecting women to be more like men, or men more like women. It's also important to honor desires that are fundamental to both sexes. The role of culture should be to establish an ideal, and to make it appealing, not to enforce it. In matters of romance, the goal of the individual should not be to satisfy society, but to follow their own heart.
©'98 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved
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