In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Is Junk Sex as Bad as Junk Food?

On healthy life and healthy romantic relationships

"Junk sex is like junk food – not bad enough to avoid, but definitely not good enough to make a steady diet of." The Urban Dictionary

The very use of the term "junk" implies that both junk food and junk sex are inferior to the "real thing" and are therefore wrong. But are they wrong in the same sense? The word "junk" refers to something of poor quality. But what is of poor quality in junk sex? Should we avoid junk sex, just as we are advised to avoid junk food?

Junk food and junk sex

Common claims about junk food include the following:

(a) Junk food has little nutritional value;

(b) Junk food is high in fat, sugar, salt and calories;

(c) Many foods are considered as either healthy or junk food depending on their ingredients and preparation methods;

(d) Consuming a limited amount of junk food does not usually pose an immediate danger to one's health and is generally safe when integrated into a well-balanced diet.

(e) Junk food can easily become addictive.

Nutritional value is the value of the food that keeps people healthy; junk food has little value in maintaining our health. The problem in junk food is not that it contains certain unhealthy ingredients, as these ingredients are also found in healthy food; the problem is that they are present in an excessive amount and that the food is prepared in an unhealthy manner. Junk food can be addictive, and eating too much of it puts the consumer at risk of long-term damage that can be life-threatening. In discussing the importance of nutritional food, we referred to the more general framework related to the agent's life, that is, the agent's health. Within this framework, junk food has no nutritional value as it does not promote, and can even harm, the agent's overall health.

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In comparing junk food to junk sex, intimacy might be considered to be the "nutritional value" of sex, while the agent's overall well-being is analogous to the agent's overall health. Intimacy involves a feeling of closeness and belonging, which are vital of healthy sex.

The importance of intimacy is expressed in the following confession made by a married woman: "Last night I had sex with my husband, but he did not actually touch me—just penetrated me. I was so sad, I could cry." Intimate sex does not merely involve penetration; it also entails positive, close feelings between the partners. In good intimate sex, like in a good meal at a restaurant, the atmosphere is important; in junk food and junk sex, there is hardly any time or need for such an atmosphere.Instant satisfaction is part of junk sex and food; the time dimension and the quality are of no importance.

Junk sex merely concerns the agent's own satisfaction; healthy sex is also, and often mainly, about the other. Therefore the experience of junk sex is over at the moment in which the agent is sexually satisfied. The experience of healthy intimate sex is not over when both people climax, but it continues with cuddling, talking, and just being together. Some people (more so women) claim that this is the most enjoyable part of intimate sex. Without intimacy, junk sex has no romantic value since it does not promote, and it even reduces, the quality of the relationship.

In light of the above, we can add the following features of junk food into the characterization of junk sex:

(a) Junk sex, which lacks intimacy, has little romantic value;

(b) Junk sex relies on wild, intense desires;

(c) Many sexual activities can be considered as either romantically healthy or as junk sex, depending on their "ingredients" and on the way in which they are implemented;

(d) Engaging in a limited amount of junk sex does not usually pose an immediate danger to one's romantic life and is generally safe when integrated into a well-balanced relationship.

(e) Junk sex can easily become addictive.

Romantic value is the value of an activity that enables people to maintain a healthy romantic relationship; junk sex, which lacks intimacy, has little value in doing so. The problem in junk sex is not that it contains certain unhealthy elements, as these elements are also found in romantic relationships; the problem is that they are present in an excessive amount and that they occur in a framework that is not well balanced. Junk sex can be addictive, and engaging in too much of it puts the agent at risk of long-term emotional damage.

Healthy life and healthy romantic relationships

"I see my extramarital affairs as a different nutrition. Just as I need extra minerals since I'm a mature woman, I need the affair as I am still beautiful and horny. Calcium for my bones and chrome and zinc… all of these are not provided in my regular diet, and so I need to take some additives to my food. My extramarital affairs are additives to my health, regardless of my activities with my husband." A married woman

In contrast to junk food, we speak about healthy food, which has been characterized as beneficial to health beyond the value of a normal diet required for human nutrition. Healthy food is an important element in healthy living. Similarly, in contrast to junk sex, we may speak about healthy sex, which is beneficial to healthy romantic relationships in ways that go beyond the normal healthy sexual relationship present in normal romantic life. Healthy sex is an important element in promoting a flourishing, healthy life.

Living healthily is not just eating healthily. It is a complex dynamic framework that has been influenced by many factors, some of them even related to a period before the agent's birth. Thus, a healthy life depends upon our genes and how our mother behaved during pregnancy. The latter includes factors such as her stress levels, alcohol intake, whether she smoked, and her diet. Healthy living also depends upon our upbringing; thus, happy people are more likely to live longer. There are also factors in our physical and psychological environment that determine healthy living; for instance, our outdoor activities, stress levels, how socially active we are, and eating balanced meals.

The notion of a healthy life is therefore complex and refers to various aspects, the way in which we engage in them and the extent to which we do so. Some of these factors are within our control, some are not, and some are only partly in our control. Although the concept of a healthy life is not without ambiguity, it seems that two of its major measures are longevity and well-being (or happiness). While longevity is a precise and clear measure, characterizing well- being is more complex. There is no one way to live a healthy life and no fixed characterization of such living. There may be some essential elements in a healthy life whose absence, or low degree, can be destructive; as to others, compensation can be found.

Like healthy life in general, a healthy romantic relationship is also a complex framework involving various factors, such as friendship, sexual desire, caring, and reciprocity. Like in healthy living, we can say that the two major measures of healthy romantic relationships are also longevity and well-being. Indeed, ideal romantic love, which is desired by many people, considerably increases both our well-being and the longevity of the relationship. People in love wish that their love will endure for a long time—at least for "forever and a day," as a popular song states.

Junk sex has very little to contribute in both senses. Junk sex is a very superficial experience that typically does not contribute to our well-being, but rather reduces it. Furthermore, since junk sex is likely to become addictive, as is the case with junk food, it may have a significant negative impact upon the agent's life. Junk sex is usually also very brief and may ruin more profound romantic relationships, impacting negatively on agent's quality of life and longevity. Profound romantic activities, like those that take place in romantic love, have a lingering positive impact upon our life and are essential for our development and flourishing. Superficial activities, like junk sex, have a limited impact: they affect only the surface of our lives; their impact becomes significant (typically in a negative manner) only if we frequently engage in them.

The characterization of junk sex as lacking in intimacy does not limit junk sex to extramarital sexual affairs. However, since junk sex involves intense sexual desires, it is more typical of affairs than of committed relationships. The passion and excitement is a kind of bonus to affairs, just as the alluring taste of junk food adds an extra dash of spice to our normal diet. In this regard Catherine Hakim argues that "affairs are about excitement, being alive, seduction, flirtation, love, affection, sexual bliss, lust, caution, eroticism, fantasy, recreation, games, imagination, role-playing, risk, danger, adventure, exploration, reinventing yourself, rediscovering the world, friendship, tea and sympathy, the expression of individuality, and the determined refusal to grow older gracefully." Many of these features are present only in romantic affairs and not in junk sex.

When people speak about junk food, they are often referring to eating at a fast-food joint. But one can also eat junk food at home—it is the nature of the food and not the place where we eat it that determines its negative nature. It is true, however, that when people are out and do not have much time, junk food is a tempting option. Similarly, junk sex is not limited to being out; however, it is more likely to take place out of the house when you have less time and your acquaintance with your partner is more limited. Junk sex, which lacks intimacy, can also take place at home, as indicated in the above quotation from the married woman whose husband penetrated her but did not touch her.

Conclusions

Love involves much more than sex, and sex alone with no drop of love, or even intimacy, is often quite harmful and can become addictive. I am not saying that every sexual experience should involve the love of your life. If this were the case, the population of the world would shrink considerably. I do claim that some aspect of intimacy, which expresses some kind of emotional closeness to the partner, is what healthy sex is all about. Healthy sex is not necessarily limited to your spouse or another person; however, it should involve some appreciation of the person you are with. Unlike eating, which is basically an activity you do with yourself to yourself, sex is an activity you do with another person (when you do it by yourself, it is like eating and has hardly any moral or emotional significance for other people.) And when you are with another person in intimate circumstances, some intimacy is required. It does not have to be profound love, but it should have some level of intimacy.

 

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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