In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

How Deep Is Your Sexual Desire?

Explaining superficial casual sex

“How deep is your love, I really need to learn, Cause were living in a world of fools, Breaking us down, When they all should let us be, We belong to you and me.” Bee Gees 

"Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home; I'm tired.” Mae West

Casual sex, which consists of sexual encounters outside committed relationships, is common in modern Western societies. Such encounters range from a one-time experience to ongoing sexual relationships. The different types of casual sexual activities can be located along the profound-superficial axis. Another feature distinguishing the various sexual encounters is whether sex is done for its own sake. Discerning the various types of casual sex may shed light on such prevailing experience.

Casual sex as a superficial activity

Aristotle distinguishes between extrinsically and intrinsically valuable activities. An extrinsic activity is a means to an external goal; its value lies in achieving that goal. Examples of such activities are building a house, paying bills, cleaning the house, and attending job interviews. The value of an intrinsic activity is found in the activity itself, not in its results. Many instances of intellectual thinking, moral behavior and listening to music are examples of intrinsic activities.

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Both intrinsic and extrinsic activities can be either profound or superficial. Profound activities are essential for our development and well-being. They have a lingering impact on our life and may also shape our personality. Superficial activities affect only the surface of our lives—they are more limited in their scope and immediate impact. Their impact on our life can become significant if we engage in them frequently.

The notion of profound satisfaction is related to Aristotle’s notion of human flourishing (eudaimonia). Human flourishing is something essentially dynamic, and fulfilling praiseworthy activities are its actual constituents. Aristotle takes intrinsic activities to be the most important constituent in human flourishing, though he also acknowledges the importance of extrinsic activities in human flourishing. Such flourishing is not a temporary state of superficial pleasure; it refers to a longer period involving the fulfillment of the human natural capacities.

In addition to profound intrinsic activities, there are also superficial intrinsic activities, such as casual sex, watching television, going to a movie, or having dinner, in which for a brief period of time people enjoy the activity for its own sake, even though such activities may not contribute much to the development and flourishing of the agent’s capacities. Superficial pleasure is an immediately rewarding, relatively short-lived experience requiring few or no profound human capacities; such pleasure merely sustains the individual’s interest and joy, but does not profoundly satisfy it for the long-run. This is the difference between a fleeting pleasure and a lasting treasure.

In characterizing a profound, intrinsic activity, two main criteria may be used: (a) the agent’s attitude is that of considering the activity to be valuable for its own sake; (b) the activity involves optimal functioning and development of the agent’s essential capacities and attitudes over a sustained period of time. The first criterion is subjective, as it refers to the subject’s attitude; the second criterion is more objective, as it refers to the nature of the given activity. A profound intrinsic activity is one that fulfills both criteria. A superficial intrinsic activity is one that fulfills the subjective criterion only. An activity that merely fulfills the objective criterion is a profound but not an intrinsic activity.

Intrinsic activities characterized by merely the subjective criterion are typically pleasant. When we consider the activity to be valuable for its own sake, we can perform it in a pleasant enjoyable manner. Often the only value of such activities is simply that they are pleasant. Watching television typically has no other benefits except for the pleasure associated with it. However, intrinsic activities are not necessarily pleasant. Thus, writing and painting are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur—some writers and artists experience a lot of agony in the process of creating their work. In such cases, the value of the activity does not stem from its pleasant process but from its profoundness—it utilizes the agent’s most distinctive human capacities.

A sexual activity can be intrinsically valuable in the superficial sense of providing fleeting pleasure to the participants. It can be intrinsically valuable in the profound sense when it is part of the more profound attitude of romantic love.

The difference between the experience of profound love and that of superficial, casual sex is not merely limited to the length of each experience but is also expressed in other features. Thus, it was found that when in love, people typically focus on a long-term perspective, which enhances holistic thinking and thereby creative thought, whereas when experiencing sexual encounters, they focus on the present and on concrete details that enhance analytic thinking.

In addition to superficial, intrinsic sexual relationships, such as casual sex, we may also speak about superficial, extrinsic sexual relationships, such as mechanical sex. The agent is involved in such sex in order to gain an external goal, such as pleasing the partner or gaining money. The agent does not enjoy the sex and often even suffers during such sex.

Consider, for instance, pity sex, which is an extreme example of mechanical sex. Pity sex (which is sometimes called, “duty fuck” or “mercy fuck”) is not an intrinsic activity as we do not enjoy it, nor does it satisfy us. It is an extrinsic activity that is performed in order to please someone else. Mechanical, superficial sex is often compared to literal death. We speak about “dead marriages,” “cold husbands,” and “frigid wives” (see here). And after romantic separation, “Love seems dead and so unreal, all that’s left is loneliness, there’s nothing left to feel” (Dusty Springfield).

Pity sex clearly illustrates the extrinsic nature of mechanical sex. Pity sex is an experience in which a woman (or a man) is not particularly attracted to someone who is in love with her and wishes to have sex with her; she sleeps with him because she feels sorry for him. Many people (probably more so women) have sex because they think they “should” rather than because they actually want to. This can be a kind of guilt-induced sex. Like in other extrinsic activities, people suffer while engaging in pity sex. Consider the following description by a woman who had just had pity sex: “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.”

Types of casual sexual relationships

The various types of casual sexual relationships can be arranged in light of the extent of their superficiality. Jocelyn Wentland and Elke Reissing discern four major types of casual sexual relationships: One Nights Stands, Booty Calls, Fuck Buddies, and Friends with Benefits. The degree of superficiality of each type is an essential feature in distinguishing each experience from another.

Wentland and Reissing suggest that out of those types, one-night stands are the most superficial encounter. They involve the least emotionally intimate experience and often take place between strangers or after brief acquaintance. One-night stands occur only once and the relationship usually ends when the individuals part company. Booty calls refer to a communication initiated with the urgent intent of having a sexual encounter. Unlike one-night stands, the purpose of booty calls is to engage in repeated sexual activity with an acquaintance. Despite the acquaintance, individuals participating in booty calls do not consider each other to be friends, they typically do not stay overnight, and they share minimal affections. Booty calls are not planned in advance. Their unpredictability and spontaneity are one of their characteristics. When booty calls become too regular or frequent, the participants are considered to be fuck buddies. Fuck buddies are already friends but their friendship is largely limited to sexual interactions. Friends with benefits involve the most profound activity from among casual sexual relationships. In this type, the partners are first of all friends and then add the bonus of the sexual benefit.

A study examining long-term love found that among the individuals who reported no physical affection, not a single individual reported being intensely in love. However, couples with marital problems sometimes report excellent sexual interactions and strong feelings of love. Despite the great sex and physical attraction, their overall level of marital satisfaction is not particularly high. Good sexual interaction is often an expression of profound love, but sex is not everything—other, more profound, features are significant as well.

Like the ladder of intimacy that characterizes casual sex, one can propose a similar ladder within committed relationships. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss such a ladder here. It seems probable that in this realm we would find a more gradual slope rather than distinct steps. At the top we would place profound passionate love that has maintained its intensity over many years. At the bottom we would put a couple who are living together without any apparent surge of feeling. In between, we would find a companionate love with no passionate sex, passionate desire with no profound caring, and a comfortable living arrangement.

Conclusion

A Latin saying has it that every creature is sad after coitus. This may be true concerning superficial sexual relationships. In such a case, once orgasm is achieved, there is no value in being with the other person. If the relationship with the other person is that of profound love, after orgasm you still remain within a loving framework. Accordingly, lying naked in the arms of the beloved after orgasm is of great pleasure only in the case of profound love; in superficial sex, such post-coital intimacy offers little if any pleasure.

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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