Stanley Siegel, LCSW, recommends casual sex ("In Defense of Casual Sex"; "Why I Advocate for Casual Sex"). But in casual sexual encounters the parties know too little about one another to avoid shallowness and exploitation. Clarity about your own and your partner's imaginative meanings should be a prelude to sexual encounters.

Siegel's justification for casual sex is rooted in what I call the Expressive sexual lens. Expressivists focus on sexual expression as a way of tapping into creative power. Seen through the Expressive lens sex appears empowering without necessarily being an exertion of power over another or at the expense of another. Philosopher Robert Solomon set forth the most literal version of the expressive view of sexuality in the mid-1970s. He called sexual activity "body language" and saw identifiable sexual gestures as the bodily equivalent of sentences ("Sexual Paradigms"). Solomon explicitly distanced his expressive view of sexuality from the romantic view by asserting that "Love, it seems, is not best expressed sexually, for its sexual expression is indistinguishable from other attitudes." In contrast, according to Solomon, tenderness, domination, trust, possessiveness, submissiveness and conflict are vividly conveyed through the gestures of body language.

Although Stanley Siegel talks up the advantages of sexual variety, claiming that it may be easier to uncover hidden parts of ourselves with varied partners, Expressivists differ over whether sexual variety is a plus. Similarly to Siegel, Robert Solomon claimed that sex with new partners was better sex because two people who are just getting to know one another sexually will have much more to say to one another. He claimed that couples who have been together for years "have probably been repeating the same messages for years" and their body-language has likely become "abbreviated ritual incantations of the lengthy conversations they had years before."


Photo by Benny Mazur

Philosopher Janis Moulton disagreed, pointing out that if sex really is body language, then casual sex is likely to be trite in comparison with sex within a long-term relationship, just as party chitchat with virtual strangers is thin in comparison with a heart to heart talk with someone who we know well ("Sexual Behavior: Another Position").

Seiriol Morgan, a more recent Expressivist, notes that sex is not just bodily but also "in the head" ("Sex in the Head"). She urges us to take into account what sexual desires trigger and convey imaginatively. What the participants are feeling and thinking while they are sexually engaged deserves evaluation from an ethical point of view as much as what they are doing with their own and another's body. Sometimes what sex expresses is eroticized contempt, eroticized domination, eroticized misogyny, and narcissistic delight in seducing someone. Such imaginative contents are so morally problematic that consenting to be party to their imaginative enactment shows a lack of self-respect.

In contrast to Stanley Siegle, I am convinced that bedding someone in order to delve into hidden parts of ourselves is a flawed and foolish way to find out about yourself or someone else.

About the Author

Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D.

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

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