Sex and Relationships, By Diana Mertz Brickell

This essay was orginally published on 3 Oct 1996 on

This essay on sexual ethics is meant as an *exploration*, not a definitive statement, of some of the issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and sex that I find interesting. Being a philosopher, the aim of this essay is particularly philosophical. Those interested in a more psychological perspective will find Nathaniel Branden's _The Psychology of Romantic Love_ of interest.

In this exploration, I'm taking for granted some understanding of why sexual ethics is important. Sex is the driving force behind much of human behavior, and the way that individuals approach sex has a fundamental impact on their lives, particularly on relationships. Ethical principles that guide our choices related sex are thus are required if we are to live self-directed and self-aware lives.

In _The Psychology of Romantic Love_, Branden cites the intense pleasure that [sex] offers human beings as the reason that sex is extrordinarily important to humans. (PRL 86) Branden is using pleasure broadly here, to encompass psychological states such as joy and efficacy, as well as the physical sensation of pleasure. Branden states that this pleasure allows us to experience the sense that *life* is a value and that *we* are a value. . . in the vividness of direct experience. (PRL 87)

Branden very briefly touches on the fact that directly experiencing these very abstract values though sex involves an integration of mind and body that is not found in other pleasures. It is this capacity for mind-body integration in sex that I think serves as a touchstone for developing moral principles related to sex.

Through sex, we experience ourselves (and our partner) as both physical and spiritual beings. Through the sensuality of perception and the reactions of our bodies to our partner, we are able to physically express our emotions and very abstract value-judgments about ourselves and our partner. We are able to perceptually celebrate our existence and experience ourselves as ends, worthy of pleasure for its own sake. And through the physical intimacy of sex, we are able to experience a fuller sense of psychological intimacy with another person.

I do think that sex *necessarily* involves both a physical and a spiritual component, and thus always has some bearing on an individual's view of the relation between their mind and their body. In the case of those that are looking for the meaningless physical experience in sex, the fact that they can't get what they want alone, from masturbation, indicates that they are seeking some sort of psychological value. In Objectivists, however, the tendency seems to be to overemphasize the spiritual aspect of sex, to the detriment of the physical. Given that the psychological values arise out of the pleasure in the physicality of sex, to degrade the physical aspects of sex as base or animalistic is to drop the context in which the spiritual values of sex arise.

Given the importance of both the physical and the spiritual elements in sexual interaction, mind-body integration can serve as the guiding principle for healthy sexual relations. To that end, each of the four necessary (but not sufficient) conditions that I will discuss, namely attraction, respect, openness, and trust, has a both physical and a spiritual element.

These four conditions are virtues, in the sense that they are the means of achieving the values of sexual relations. But they aren't virtues of the *individuals* in the relationship per se, but rather virtues *of the relationship itself*. They are emergent properties out of the interactions of the two people in the relationship (and thus ultimately dependent upon the actions of each individual).Attraction:Physical attraction, being drawn to someone because they have a certain constellation of physical characteristics, is essential to motivate sex. Many attractive physical characteristics are simply out of a person's control. For example, a man is either born with the deep-set eyes that I like or not, and his having them says nothing to me about his character.

There are, however, other physical characteristics that are under a person's control to a large extent, such a muscle tone, hair style, and facial hair on men. These qualities convey information (although not knowledge)

about a person's character. For example, a well-muscled woman is one who probably rejects the ideal of feminine weakness. These attractive qualities aren't exclusively physical or psychological. They are physical traits with psychological import, although they are probably most often experienced as purely physical attraction.Finally, there is spiritual attraction, being drawn to a person because of their values, virtues, habits, method of approaching other people, vision of the world, etc. The power of this type of attraction is enormous, since it dictates not simply whether someone is worthy of a sexual relationship, but also grounds any love in a relationship. This psychological attraction can often override some considerations of physical attraction. For example, in the TV show _Law and Order_, the (now former) assistant DA Ben Stone had a quality of thoughtfulness, combined with a personal caring, in his work which I find extremely alluring, despite his not-so-exciting physique.Respect:Respect is the acknowledgement of another person's autonomy and self-established boundaries. To respect others on a physical level entails recognizing their political and moral right to self-possession, to use their bodies as they like and to give their bodies to whomever they wish. On a spiritual level, respect requires a recognition that the desires and values of another person are not negated by your own. The resolution of disagreements (particularly about non-universal values) about must be through a process of mutual accomodation, not pressure or intimidation.

It is equally important for an individual in a sexual relationship to positively exercise his/her autonomy, not to accept the will of the partner as determining the values for both of them. For example, there were men that I became romantically and sexually involved with, particularly in high school, because they were interested in me, not because I had a genuine interest in them. In certain cases, there was a lack of respect for my autonomy on their part, but in others, I simply didn't think about my own feelings independent of theirs. The inevitable result was a very unhealthy relationship.Openness:Openness is a willingness to expose your body and soul to another person. In order to be relaxed enough to enjoy the pleasure of sex, you must feel comfortable in your body and think that body worthy of the sight and touch of another person. Additionally, you must know that your body is capable and worthy of giving your partner the physical pleasure of sex, and willing to allow your partner that pleasure.

On a much more spiritual level, openness requires being up front about the limits and depths of your feelings for your partner. From what I've seen in my own life and with friends, the greatest disasters come from hidden disparities in the feelings of the two people involved.

Trust:Trust, like openness and respect, is an element in every relationship, but the physical and psychological dangers of bad sexual relations warrant particular carefulness in sexual relationships. A partner not being honest about past relationships and the possibility of disease can have life-threatening consequences.

It is also necessary to be able to trust your partner's good intentions and word, such as when he tells you that his parent's disapproval of you isn't important or when she tells you that she isn't attracted to the new guy at work.

Additionally (and this is more tricky) you must be able to trust a partner's powers of introspection, i.e. to trust their level of honesty with and self-awareness of themselves, so that you are not blindsided by out-of-the-blue revelations about their true feelings.A few notes before I close:There is definitely an interplay between these virtues, so that, for example, one cannot really be open with another person if the expectation is that that person will use that knowledge maliciously against you. Or, for example, just as respect demands that you recognize your partner's body as his/her own, openness asks that, when the necessary trust is present, that you allow your partner to use it for his/her own pleasure.

I'm sure that those who were involved in the MDOP discussion of sex noticed that I didn't list love as one of the conditions for healthy sex. I don't think that it is, and, in fact, I think that there is a serious danger in refusing to be sexually involved with anyone unless you are in love. The danger is rationalization, that you will convince yourself of being in love in order to have sex. To destroy the sanctity of one's view of love and to cloud one's judgment in the matter would do more violence to the concept of love than the most meaningless sexual relationship could.

But it is clear from the four virtues of a relationship that I discussed that I am not advocating the meaningless sexual relationship, but rather the *validity* of sexual friendships, in which both the virtues of friendship and the added requirements of sexual intimacy, are taken into account.

I hope that y'all found my essay of interest and that it provides something worth commenting on!



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