Bringing Sex Into Focus

The quest for sexual integrity.

What's So Great About Sexual Integrity?

Sexual integrity allows us to be erotic without leering, vamping or exploiting.

When you meet people who have a truly integrated sexuality they are content. They aren’t all fidgety, restless, self-conscious, driven, on the prowl. Yet they are aware and appreciative of their own body and those of others. They are erotic without “making moves” or ogling, leering, or vamping.

In contrast, consider this comment by an adolescent male about what he would do if someone he was interested in said “no” to having sexual intercourse: “What I would do is carry on for a little bit by saying ‘come on, come on, are you sure?’ and I would tease them … and after about a half an hour or so, and they still say no, I would let up. I would say ‘don’t worry, give me a blow job or a hand job instead’” (Susan Moore and Doreen Rosenthal, Sexuality in Adolescence. 237). This young man’s perceptions of sexuality are so colored by his own quest for pleasure and power that he has no awareness of his own exploitive and manipulative strategies.  

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I was giving a talk at a college recently about sexual integrity and was explaining it in the context of what Aristotle, the philosopher, taught us long ago about states of character. Aristotle noted that states of character range along a continuum. Aristotle also emphasized that there is a difference between having an excellent character and being well-behaved.  A person may be well-behaved but have to struggle to do the right thing.  If we think of virtue as at the top of the spectrum of states of character, then being well-behaved is the next best thing.  Third best is suffering from weakness of will. Like the well-behaved, the weak-willed struggle to do the right thing; unlike the well-behaved, those with weakness of will fail.

But although struggle is painful and failure is even more painful, even unsuccessful struggle can be a sign of relative health. This is because at the bottom of the scale of states of character is the settled disposition to behave badly and enjoy it. A person with a settled disposition to behave badly doesn’t struggle. Their behavior comes so naturally to them that they hardly notice that there might be other ways of behaving—like the wheedling adolescent above.  

Seen in this context, sexual integrity is a state of character that a person can aspire to, achieve, stray from, regain. But many of us spend a lot of time vacillating between being well-behaved and weakness of will. We sometimes successfully struggle against lust. We realign our attention when we find ourselves objectifying others and we make every effort to keep our sexual behavior from exploiting or harming others. Or we have the same struggles as those who are well-behaved, but we are unsuccessful. We end up acting as if we are lustful and feel terrible about our actions.

Neither being well-behaved nor being weak-willed is anywhere near as comfortable as sexual integrity. Once sexual integrity becomes second nature, it gives a settled sense of joy. Sexual integrity allows us to take our sexuality with us wherever we go without treating other people as collections of sexualized body parts.

But how do we become people of sexual integrity?  By acting as if we have integrity. When we struggle successfully long enough, the struggle gives way to habit. We move from being well-behaved to internalizing integrity as second nature.

Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the author of Bringing Sex Into Focus.

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