The Virtues of Sexual Generosity in Relationships
Research reveals the role of generosity in a variety of complex relationships.
Posted August 30, 2016
“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” — Buddha
Generosity is very valuable for our well-being and health. Is this also true when it comes to sexual generosity? And should we aim to be more sexually generous?
Many religions and moral traditions praise generosity. This praise is not unjustified: Scientific studies show that generosity is beneficial to our physical and mental health. Generosity can decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, help you live longer, boost your mood, promote social connections, and improve the quality of your marriage.
Generosity is the virtue of giving to another without expecting anything in return. It is characterized by a willingness to give the other person good things freely and abundantly, and by giving more than expected—beyond the call of duty.
The object of generosity can be an unfortunate or a fortunate person. Generosity toward the unfortunate is more frequent and usually expressed in compassion. Moreover, generosity usually involves the fortunate giving to the unfortunate and not vice versa. This kind of generosity typically lacks reciprocity. The prevailing emotional attitudes toward those who are fortunate are negative emotions, such as envy, jealousy, and resentment. Indeed, most languages do not have an appropriate term for a positive emotional attitude toward fortunate people. This attitude, which can be termed in English “happy for,” does not merely lack negative emotions, but also involves the positive attitude of encouragement.
These considerations indicate the obvious: It is easier to be generous toward the unfortunate, or to admire, rather than envy, those who are well above us or far away from us. These people are less likely to demean and threaten our self-image.
Generosity and Marital Quality
Romantic, and in particular, marital relationships should encompass each partner’s autonomy, and respect their equal status. In this case, generosity includes reciprocity. However, this should not be a superficial reciprocity involving mechanistic calculations about what one gives and gets in a relationship—the "tit for tat" mentality. A complete absence of reciprocity is incompatible with profound love. This is not because we need equality in giving and getting, but because such lack implies the absence of profound generosity.
Generosity is positively associated with marital satisfaction and negatively associated with marital conflict and perceived likelihood of divorce (Dew and Wilcox, 2013). It is disputable whether generosity in marital relationships stems from merely altruistic motives or from a wish to be treated generously in return. It is probably associated with both—kindness and reciprocity are high on the list of desired qualities in a romantic partner. On the other hand, when people are asked to name three negative qualities that would make them shun a prospective partner, stinginess appears on most lists. Generosity is an essential positive framework for prosperous marital relationships: It is natural to be generous toward the one you love.
There are two major types of sexual generosity within a committed relationship—actively involving oneself in undesired sexual interactions with one’s partner, and passively allowing one’s partner to get sexual satisfaction with someone else.
The first type is present when one is ready to engage in sexual interactions with one’s partner, even though she—it is more often she than he—does not really want the interaction and is unlikely to enjoy it. In a previous post, I discussed three major types of such one-sided sex: (a) pity sex, which takes place when people have sex with other people because they feel sorry for them (this often occurs between people who are not in a committed relationship); (b) charity sex, which is common in long-term committed relationships and which manifests an effort to maintain or enhance the relationship; and (c) peace-inducing sex, which is instrumental sex intended to maintain industrial peace in the relationship.
In the second type of sexual generosity, the agent is more passive, allowing the partner to be active in seeking sexual satisfaction somewhere else. This can occur, for example, in open marriages or when one spouse is unable or unwilling to have sexual interactions.
As in the case of general emotional generosity, the first type, in which the generous person tries to alleviate the unfortunate spouse, is more common than the second, in which the fortunate spouse is allowed to be even more fortunate. Somehow being kind to an unfortunate spouse is easier and feels better than being kind to a fortunate spouse; the first is less threatening.
The moral evaluation of the two types is complex. The positive and negative consequences of active sexual generosity are more limited. It might temporarily alleviate the situation, like an aspirin, but it does not substantially improve the overall state of affairs. The negative impact is also minor. As a married woman who, like so many other women, is involved in active sexual generosity, said:
“The charity (and sometimes, pity) sex with my long-term spouse is not a big deal—a few hugs, some kisses, a very brief act of penetration, and it is all over. So little to sacrifice for so much to gain (by making my spouse happy). And then after a few such experiences, it becomes easier and (surprisingly) even somewhat enjoyable.”
The positive and negative consequences of passive generosity, in which the partner is sexually more active, are greater. The “passivity” of the agent significantly increases the positive horizons of the partner. Such an increase is not merely an aspirin but a major operation in the attempt to cope with the basic difficulties of a dull relationship. If your partner can enjoy certain positive experiences, you should, as a generous and solicitous lover, be happy about this. It might seem to follow that you should enable and even encourage such experiences (provided they are not harmful in other ways). Making our partner happy is, after all, what underlies genuine love.
The greater prospects of such generosity are closely connected to bigger risks: Opening the romantic field can result in the partner abandoning the primary relationship or reducing his or her attention to it. These prospects undermine an essential aspect of love—the unique connection between the two partners. Passive sexual generosity is associated with moral and emotional complications due to the traditional sacred status of marriage and the (probable) increased risk it poses to a long-term romantic relationship.
Generosity and Reciprocity
I have suggested that generosity has two major characteristics—giving the other good things freely and abundantly, and doing it in a manner that is beyond the call of duty. Prostitution, for example, does not include giving things freely and is not part of sexual generosity. In the same vein, being sexually generous should not be identified with having sexual affairs. Generosity is giving good things to others, not to oneself. In having sexual affairs, the main concern is one’s own pleasure, not the well-being of others. Such behavior is typical of egoistic, not generous, people. Generosity involves recognizing the other person's uniqueness and enhancing it while protecting them from becoming a mere object of one’s own will. So the issues of sacrificing and caring for the other are central to generosity.
All of these concerns are obviously absent in the hearts of those who focus on engaging in sexual affairs. Indeed, it is said that Picasso, who seduced many women, declared that he would prefer to see a woman dead than see her happy with another man. Needless to say, this is not a generous attitude.
Alongside the virtue of generosity, moderation—the avoidance of excess or extremes—is also regarded as an important virtue. A lack of moderation in sex is often considered to be sex addiction, rather than sexual generosity. The main concern of polyamorist relationships is that of a few stable intimate relationships; on the other hand, at the center of open marriages, or between swingers, are casual sexual relationships. Polyamory typically involves profound sexual generosity while open marriages and swingers often lack this and can become sexual addictions.
The major benefit of generosity in romantic relationship is not that you get something from your partner, but that the two of you have established a positive atmosphere that can nurture profound loving relationships.
Sexual Generosity in Elderly Couples and Those Coping with Alzheimer’s
I turn now to discuss sexual generosity in the even more complex circumstances of aging and Alzheimer’s. Such circumstances can perhaps indicate future ways of coping with sexual generosity in less stressful circumstances as well.
In his excellent book, The Ethics of Sex and Alzheimer’s, John Portmann claims that both aging and Alzheimer’s can transform a romance in the direction of increasing sexual generosity. The unaffected spouse is often required to exhibit the aforementioned active and passive sexual generosity.
Active sexual generosity consists of having sexual interactions with the Alzheimer’s spouse. Portmann cites research indicating that many ill spouses make incessant sexual demands. However, healthy spouses are often disturbed by the idea of having sex with someone who cannot recognize them. They can feel guilty about withholding sex from their spouse, but feel conflicted about granting it. This is a variation of pity sex.
The second type of sexual generosity required from healthy spouses is the passive one of letting sick spouses having sexual interactions with other patients—a common phenomenon, as sick spouses no longer recognize their partners. This sexual leeway is more acceptable in the case of Alzheimer’s sufferers because they are not what they used to be and are not responsible for what they are doing. It is harder, and more risky, to be generous in such a manner towards a healthy spouse who is fully aware of what she/he wants.
Portmann rightly indicates that the notion of sexual generosity does not impose obligation: It refers to favors freely granted, as opposed to earned. Earned favors, he writes, indicate a commodification of sex—the sort of transactions associated with prostitution. Generosity, which is a kind of toleration, must always be voluntary.
The notion of “sexual self-generosity,” which is associated with the recent popular notion of “self-compassion,” is relevant to Alzheimer’s circumstances. Self-compassion implies self-kindness—being kind to and understanding oneself in times of failures and problems, when harsh self-criticism might seem natural. In the same way that you treat another person who experiences difficult times with compassion, so you should treat yourself while experiencing difficulties.
In the case of an Alzheimer’s sufferer's spouse, sexual self-generosity means allowing oneself to find romantic and sexual fulfillment outside the marriage, rather than waiting for the death of the sick spouse. Portmann argues that this type sexual self-generosity is far superior to two other major options available to the healthy spouse—i.e., deserting (or divorcing) a sick spouse or precluding oneself from romantic satisfaction. Portmann contends that the sexual generosity required in circumstances of aging and Alzheimer’s should be praised and should lead the way to a redefinition of “fidelity” in regular relationships. Such circumstances could encourage all types of generosity.
“For it is in giving that we receive.” — Francis Assisi
Emotional generosity, like other positive attitudes, is often valuable for the good life and for enhancing the quality of a committed relationship. Is sexual generosity valuable as well? All types of sexual generosity, active and passive, have value in certain circumstances. In others, the value depends on the dosage: Too much sexual generosity can make a relationship toxic, but a moderate dosage can be an antidote.
- Dew, J., and Wilcox, W. (2013). Generosity and the maintenance of marital quality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 1218-1228.
- Portmann, J. (2013). The Ethics of Sex and Alzheimer's. Routledge.