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Is Sex Ever Morally Unacceptable?

Two views of sexual ethics

Casual sex, hookups and friends-with-benefit arrangements have been on the incline for decades. But is this sort of activity morally acceptable?

In “Two Views of Sexual Ethics: Promiscuity, Pedophilia, and Rape” David Benatar offers a challenge for those who believe it is. He argues that the widespread view that casual sex is without moral significance is squarely at odds with the widely held view that rape and pedophilia involve extreme moral violations.

In his argument Benatar contrasts two views of sexual ethics: the casual view and the significant view. On the casual view, sex is not the sort of entity that can be subject to moral evaluation. When sexual activity is morally unacceptable, this is not due to the sexual nature of the activity but to some other aspect. For example, killing someone while having sex with them is wrong, but it is wrong because of the killing, not the sex.

On a different view, which Benatar dubs the “significant view,” sex is wrong whenever it does not involve love or commitment of a kind that fits the act, as well as a certain level of understanding of the relationship between sex and love.

Benatar believes that the popularity of sex with no strings attached suggests that many people agree with the casual view that sex is morally unproblematic and not something that needs to involve a special kind of love or commitment.

But most of those who think casual sex is unproblematic simultaneously believe that pedophilia and rape are moral violations of the worst kind. This, however, is an inconsistent set of views, says Benatar.

The significant view can explain why pedophilia and rape are extreme moral crimes. Sex between a child and an adult, though it may involve love, does not involve the right kind of love—it does not involve a kind of love that fits the act. Even if there are instances of pedophilia that involve the right kind of love or commitment, those instances do not involve the right kind of understanding, because children cannot understand the ramifications of sex.

According to Benatar, however, the casual view cannot explain the extreme moral nature of pedophilia and rape. Sexual acts between adults and children need not physically hurt the child. Depending on the age of the child and the nature of the interaction, it may not hurt the child emotionally either. Pedophilia does involve a level of force or coercion, but that by itself need not be problematic, Benatar argues. We coerce or force children in many different ways. We force them to go to bed at a particular hour, to eat nutritious food, to do their homework and to practice before their music lessons. So the advocates of the casual view cannot appeal to coercion to explain why pedophilia is as bad as it is.

Nor can they appeal to a lack of informed consent. There are things that children can consent to and things they cannot consent to. Children can consent to eat an apple but not to buy real estate, because the latter, but not the former, requires a type of understanding that a child is not capable of. But, Benatar says, on the casual view, sex is not significant. It is not something that involves a great level of understanding. But if sex is not significant, then it ought to be something that a child can consent to.

The casual view does not imply that rape is morally acceptable. Rape involves force by someone who does not have the authority, or right, to exert that force. However, says Benatar, advocates of the casual view cannot explain why rape is an ultimate sin. It would be bad to force your neighbor to eat an apple. But it wouldn't be an extreme moral violation and certainly not one that's on a par with raping your neighbor. Yet because the casual view does not attach significance to sex, defenders of the view cannot appeal to force to account for why being raped is so much worse than being forced to eat an apple, says Benatar.

During discussion of Benatar's article in Monday’s class on sexual ethics, which I co-teach with my colleague Eric Wiland, we were brainstorming ways that advocates of the casual view could reply to Benatar’s argument. Dr. Wiland argued that while sexual pleasure may be inherently good, displeasure or disgust during sex is at the other extreme. It is unbelievably bad. So, defenders of the casual view could say that while there is nothing wrong with sex between two consenting adults, there is something wrong with forcing someone to engage in sexual activity because it involves a form of displeasure or disgust that is extremely bad. This would allow the defenders of the casual view to explain why rape is so much worse than many other activities involving force.

Advocates of the casual view could perhaps appeal to similar considerations to explain why pedophilia is profoundly unacceptable. The pedophile cannot predict in advance what sort of consequences having sex with the child will have, and because a sexual encounter between a child and an adult may involve extreme displeasure, it is wrong to coerce a child to engage in that kind of activity.

Another way out for the advocate of the casual view would be to appeal to the special relation that obtains between a person and his or her body. It’s a relation that is similar to ownership but more intimate; we might call it "super-ownership." You own your car but you super-own your body. Even if I don’t care about my car, it would be wrong for you to steal it or paint it behind my back. Violations of ownership are wrong. Likewise, violations of super-ownerships are very wrong. So using another person's body without consent is profoundly morally unacceptable. This could perhaps partially account for why rape or other forms of sex that involve force or coersion and a lack of consent are extreme moral wrongs, even if the casual view is right.

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