In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Many Complicated Reasons We Have Sex

Pity sex, charity sex, and other hookups with people we don't love.

Pity sex happens:

"In college I knew a guy who was very nice, but physically unattractive," one woman says. "We became friends and I found out he was a virgin and had never had a girlfriend before. After seeing him get snubbed by several girls at a party, I decided to 'cheer him up.' It was the saddest sex of my life and it was unfair to both of us, but it was by no means hard to fake. All it takes is a little genital stimulation."

Pity sex happens when people have sex with other people because they feel sorry for them. Is it worth the effort? Do people on both sides feel good during such sex? How they feel afterward? And what is the difference between pity sex and "charity sex"?

One thing seems certain: Sex is usually more than a simple physical activity; it is often a highly emotional interaction.

Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock
Pity (or mercy) sex is an experience in which a woman (or a man) is not particularly attracted to someone who is in love with her (or him) and wishes to have sex with her. She sleeps with him because she feels sorry for him. Many people have sex because they think they "should" rather than because they actually want to. This can be a kind of guilt-induced sex.

Consider the following description, again by a woman, of her pity-sex experience: "I've been friends with this guy for five years. He is the sweetest guy and I know he would treat me like gold, but I'm just not physically attracted to him. He's not attractive at ALL....After confessing his love to me...I had sex with him...pity sex. I just wanted him to be happy and I do really care about him...

"I WISH I NEVER SLEPT WITH HIM."

A similar description of a pity sex experience was provided by another woman: "I would say my sex drive is about 0 right now. Last night we had sex. I couldn't wait for it to be over. Even kissing made me nauseous."

We should distinguish here between pity sex and charity sex. Like a one-night stand, pity sex is an isolated occurrence; but unlike a one-night stand, pity sex has an altruistic element intended to give pleasure to the other person but not necessarily the one who pities—after all, pity is not a pleasant emotion. In charity sex, you love your partner, and while you don't feel like having sex at that moment, you do it anyway. Charity sex is a very common part of an ongoing relationship that has lasted several years, and is in fact intended to enhance the relationship. Charity sex can be seen as a kind of investment in the relationship. Like other investments, you might not see the benefits at the moment, but you increase the prospects of reaping these benefits later on. Charity sex may not be enjoyable, but it typically does not involve suffering. It occurs during an ongoing intimate relationship and is a superficial, isolated activity that, as in pity sex, may be at odds with the current relationship between the two partners. It seems that while in pity sex it is better to receive than to give (the pitter is in the worse situation), in charity sex it is better to give than to receive (the one who gives is in a better situation).

In both scenarios, sex is intended to meet the needs of another person, but in charity sex it takes place in a more profound and enduring relationship. In pity sex, the pitying partner does not want to have sex with the one she (or he) pities, as she (or he) is not physically attracted to him (or her). In charity sex, you do find your partner attractive and generally enjoy having sex with him or her, but at this specific time you do not feel like having sex; you consent because you believe your partner wishes it or will benefit from it because, for instance, he is feeling somewhat low and the moment and sex will boost his mood. It seems that as time goes by, people (mainly women, seemingly) become less willing to have charity sex on a permanent basis.

Faking an orgasm—that is, pretending to derive pleasure to make your partner feel good—is somewhat similar to pity sex. However, faking an orgasm is more limited in scope, as it involves merely one aspect of the sexual act, while the rest of the experience can be enjoyable. In pity sex, the lack of enjoyment is more pronounced, and involves the entire activity—consequently, unlike faking an orgasm, pity sex can be entirely unpleasant for the pitying partner.

Other Scenarios

  • Drunken sex is another type of sex that in normal circumstances would not be desirable, but the difference here is that whereas in pity sex the pitying person does not enjoy the sexual activity, in drunken sex he or she might. The conflict in pity sex is between what you do not want and what the other person does want; in drunken sex, the conflict is between what you would not want in normal circumstances and what you want when you are intoxicated.
  • In the case of expedient sex, people may have sex with someone, not out of love or pity, but in order to derive some material benefit, such as money or status. The classic scenario would be an attractive young woman and a much older, wealthier man. In this case, the altruistic element is replaced by the element of greed.
  • In the case of sexual friendship (or "friends with benefits"), where the connection between the two partners is based on sex and perhaps casual friendship, mutual pleasure can be derived. But since such a relationship does not involve love, it is more superficial and less meaningful. Sometimes, however, people greatly enjoy superficial experiences, particularly when they do not impose much obligation on either side.

In analyzing the attitudes in the above scenarios, we should discern the attitudes before, during, and after sex. In the optimal circumstances prevailing in genuine love, the three attitudes are very positive: the person is pleasantly excited before sex, is joyful during sex, and has a positive, calm mood after it. In drunken sex, a one-night stand, and sometimes extramarital sex, people might enjoy themselves before and during sex, but not feel good about it afterward. This is the "morning-after effect." Others might feel bad both before and after illicit sex, but enjoy the sex itself.

In pity sex, however, the bad feeling often prevails throughout—before, during, and after sex.

It is obvious that the best situation in which to have sex is that of partners feeling genuine love in which a pleasurable mood predominates before, during, and after sex. But not everyone has the privilege to enjoy such love. Does this mean that those who don't should not have sex?

It certainly does not—not having everything does not mean that you are not entitled to have something.

Pity sex seems to be the worst situation, as the pitying people do not enjoy themselves before, during, or after sex. However, from a moral viewpoint, pity sex has some value in providing sexual enjoyment to the person deprived of it. The problem in this respect is that at the end of the day, the pitying partner is likely to feel miserable about his or her altruistic, but ultimately fake sexual pleasure.

To sum up: In all these cases, various degrees of enjoyment are derived before, during, and after the sexual activity. There are only a few circumstances—genuine love being the most prevalent—when there is profound satisfaction all along, and other circumstances when there is profound dissatisfaction all along (as for the pitier in pity sex). Psychological dilemmas are scarcely present in these two circumstances; such dilemmas typically arise when satisfaction and suffering are mixed. In any case, sex is very rarely a simple physical act. It is typically loaded with many emotional attitudes that involve issues beyond the present moment. In such circumstances, pity sex, charity sex, expedient sex, and faked orgasms become more common.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express:

"Darling, I desire you so much that I am ready to have sex with you, even if you might consider it pity sex, charity sex, drunken sex, or merely a one-night stand. Nevertheless, I would much prefer to have dinner with you at a fine restaurant, while we hold hands and rub our legs together."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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