In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Is Sex a Non-Moral Issue Like Eating?

On eating and having sex outside the home

"The main problem in marriage is that for a man sex is a hunger like eating. If the man is hungry and can't get to a fancy French restaurant, he goes to a hot dog stand. For a woman, what is important is love and romance." Joan Fontaine

The scientific dispute of whether sexual desire is closer to hunger than to emotions has considerable implications concerning our appropriate sexual and romantic behavior. In this post I examine Catherine Hakim's claim that there is no moral difference between sex and eating at a restaurant: in both cases, variation and change increase our marital happiness.

 Catherine Hakim's view

"Sex is no more a moral issue than eating a good meal." Catherine Hakim

In her recent book, The New Rules of Marriage, Catherine Hakim argues that an enduring marriage and extramarital affairs are the best formula for happiness. In this sense, she criticizes the "unforgiving, puritan Anglo-Saxon" attitude to adultery as having damaged married life in Britain, driving couples to divorce rather than strengthening the family. She advocates the French (and to a lesser extent, the Italian and Japanese) tradition which considers an extramarital affair as a parallel relationship that, when conducted discreetly, has its own value. She believes that a successful affair can make both parties happier, without hurting anyone. While the Anglo-Saxon tradition leads to serial monogamy and many divorces, in the French tradition affairs are simply ignored and marriages last longer. She further claims that "I have always been baffled by the sour and rigid English view of affairs. An existentialist, hedonistic, laissez-faire attitude seems to work better, in practice."

Hakim praises the French tradition in which marriage is a more flexible relationship that is essentially for life, while both spouses find friends and lovers outside marriage. This tradition rejects the common assumption that spouses must fulfill "all of each other’s needs, all of the time, exclusively." However, in order to avoid embarrassment, the affairs should be generally be "conducted with great discretion." Hakim believes that meeting a secret lover for a casual encounter should be as routine as dining out at a restaurant instead of eating at home. In this sense, Hakim is in agreement with those who do not consider sexual desire to be an emotion but rather a biological drive like hunger and thirst. In her view, "The fact that we eat most meals at home with spouses and partners does not preclude eating out in restaurants to sample different cuisines and ambiences, with friends or colleagues."

Is sex similar to eating?

"Sex is good, but not as good as fresh, sweet corn." Garrison Keillor

Hakim's general view makes a lot of sense and has gained more support at present. However, it seems that it overlooks the complexity of romantic love and sexual desires. In this post, I focus on her comparison between having sex and eating; in a next post, I will discuss other general claims underlying the Anglo-Saxon and French traditions.

There are indeed some similarities between having sex and eating. Thus, a change is significant for enhancing pleasure in both cases. The delight experienced initially when falling in love is difficult to sustain in the long term, and sexual arousal is more intense with new partners. Similarly, the pleasure of eating requires some variations. Thus, even if salmon is one's favorite food, eating twelve identical servings in twelve consecutive meals would not be enjoyable. Another similarity is that when one is deprived from eating or sex, one tends to lower one's standards and eat almost anything; if deprived of sex, one might have sexual relations with someone with whom one would not otherwise have sex.

Despite this similarity, the assumption that sexual desire is basically identical to hunger and thirst is mistaken. When considering the basic characteristics of typical emotions, sexual desire emerges as a most typical emotion, quite different from hunger and thirst. Like typical emotions, sexual desire is about a human being. Hunger and thirst are feelings expressing states of deprivation; they are not directed at emotional states. The role of belief and imagination in generating hunger and thirst is significantly smaller than in sexual desire and other emotions. You can imagine a good meal, but such imagination is no substitute for actual eating it. In this regard, it is said that Diogenes the Cynic was found masturbating in the public square. When reproached for his behavior, he explained: "I wish I could rub my stomach to satisfy its hunger." Since a sexual activity involves higher and more complex psychological activities (such as imagination) than eating does, it can be satisfied by an imaginative substitute.

One indication of the difference between eating and sex is the necessity of discretion in sexual affairs, as Hakim notes. The discretion does not merely concern the public view, which may still be filled with overly conservative hues, but also concerns the view of the spouse, who may become jealous or insecure. Yet we certainly do not need to be discreet about meeting a friend in a restaurant. Eating in a restaurant is an activity conducted in the public domain, whereas sexual interactions are private activities. In many places, it is a criminal offence to engage in sexual interactions in public.

 Sex and love

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

The major difficulty in comparing sex with eating is the close connection between sex and romantic love. Whereas eating is a preparatory activity that is sometimes associated with romantic love, sex is a constitutive activity of romantic love. Sexual activity can be pursued without romantic love (as friendship can be without romantic love), but romantic love cannot be without sex (and friendship). Romantic love is not a constitutive feature of sex, but sex it is a constitutive feature of romantic love. Concerning eating, romantic love is not constitutive of eating; likewise, eating is not constitutive of sex. As the object of sex is a human being while the object of eating is food, there are moral and psychological issues attached to sex that are absent from our attitude toward eating. Human beings have moral rights that food does not have.

It is true that like eating, also sex can be done in various places and with different people. However, the replaceable nature of sex (and romantic love) does not mean that democracy should be applied to it and that it is like linen—the more often changed, the sweeter. On the contrary, people who rapidly replace their romantic and sexual partners are often inadequate in their ability to form loving relationships. Many of them are addicted to destructive sexual relationships, and despite huge efforts on their behalf, they cannot achieve the stability and warmth of healthy, loving relationships. Eating is different and constantly eating at different restaurants is commendable and has no moral problems attached to it. Hence, we cannot be as unromantic about sex as we are about eating. This does not deny that there are cases in which sexual desire has nothing to do with romantic love. Many people think that love and sex can be separated, but would prefer to have them combined. Moreover, most people consider sexual involvement between their partner and a rival as a threat to their romantic relationship.

Sex does indeed have an important role in romantic love. A study examining long-term love found that among those individuals who reported no physical affection, not a single person 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. I am not aware of a similar study concerning eating and love. Good sexual interactions are essential for intense romantic love, but sex is not everything in romantic love; other aspects, such as caring and reciprocity, are significant as well.

Conclusions

"I always thought music was more important than sex—then I thought if I don’t hear a concert for a year-and-a-half, it doesn’t bother me." Jackie Mason

 The claim that having sex is similar to eating is mistaken. Sexual interactions are closer to romantic love than to eating. People indeed change their sexual partners more often than their romantic partners, but given the association between sex and romantic love, there are limits to such rapid changes. Moreover, the ability to have affairs may lead to the wish in one partner or in both to upgrade the relationship to a long-term romantic relationship, and not to be satisfied with merely sexual intimacy.

The issue of whether infidelity is moral or immoral is not part of my discussion here; I am claiming only that extra-marital sexual affairs fall within the realm of morality in a way that eating at a restaurant does not. Affairs can hurt other people and this raises moral issues; eating can perhaps hurt oneself but it does not necessarily involve a moral issue, as we have a certain right to hurt ourselves to some extent, but we do not have the right to hurt other people.

 

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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