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Sex and Using People
Immanuel Kant held as a moral imperative that one should never treat another person as a means, rather than as an end. That seems to mean one should never “use” people for one’s own goals or purposes.
However, that seems clearly to be false for certain kinds of acts which are not unfair and which do not take advantage of others or disrespect them, and which are in many cases reciprocal or willing to be reciprocated in some important way, but which nevertheless use or utilize the person as a means for achieving one’s own ends -- acts such as politely asking someone else to pass the salt or the rolls at dinner, or in paying someone a fair price for goods they have produced so that you do not have to produce those goods yourselves.. Free markets operate on the basis of trade, often with specialization that has people devoting much of their time and effort to producing things meant specifically for trade, not for one’s own direct personal use. In many cases, trade seems to be a fair and reasonable way for people to mutually utilize each other as a helpful means to get what otherwise neither could have. For it to be right though, the trade or pay for products and services must be fair, fully voluntary, and not take unfair or wrongful advantage of either party’s circumstances. If you are desperate for money and I hire you to work for me at a fraction of the value you help me earn because you are not in a position to bargain for a higher wage, then I am using you.
Of course, in some cases specialization based on voluntary division of labor can become tedious, too impersonal, and/or ‘self-alienating’, preventing someone from developing their fullest potential for achieving the most goodness, beauty, or truth in their lives or even daily emotional satisfactions of even a transient, but nevertheless important nature. But not all work is alienating or impersonal, and even work which is basically impersonal need not prevent co-workers or work acquaintances from interacting in personally and emotionally satisfying ways. But insofar as specialization is not fully voluntary (but a necessary natural ‘evil’ or inconvenience) and insofar as it is alienating even when voluntary, it can be problematic or important to prevent if possible because people are then being “used” or taken advantage of in at least the sense that they are working for others in ways that diminishes them or costs them too much in some personal way and benefits others disproportionately more than it benefits them.
So, on the one hand, it is okay for people to ask others for help, to trade neighborly or family favors (as long as no one is being unfairly burdened or disrespectfully taken advantage of), and even for markets to be impersonal, but, on the other hand, not when it is disrespectful, one-sided, coerced, or even perhaps voluntary but alienating and emotionally sterile, stultifying, or prohibitive of self-actualization. In some cases, such as people who are invalid or elderly, it may even be perfectly okay for them to ask for help from more able-bodied neighbors, friends, or strangers as long as they have contributed to others in the past themselves and ‘paid it forward’ and as long as what they are asking does not overly tax the person giving them help. The question regarding Kant’s maxim never to use people then really is about which sorts of ‘uses’ are reasonable, acceptable, and right and which are not.
And while I cannot address that about all aspects of work and life, I would like to consider it here about fully voluntary sex, especially, but not only, now that sex has become more or less obligatory or expected, perfunctory, and relatively routinely impersonally transactional in many ways (see “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse”), though in some sense mutually voluntary.
Rape or any coerced sex is obviously wrongly “using” people, as is knowingly and selfishly taking unfair advantage of anyone who is mentally, emotionally, or financially vulnerable. Some manipulative seduction, for merely selfish purposes is also to “use” people because one is taking advantage of a temporary, induced state, particularly one not intended to be emotionally reciprocated or reciprocated in terms of duration or commitment to the overall relationship. This is different from arousing flirtation that is mutually understood as merely sexual and playful, whether within a longer term or committed relationship or not. Such flirtation is a kind of foreplay to foreplay or an appetizer for something desired but which needs some added spice to make good or better.
Having sex with someone who is high or inebriated may be ‘using’ them or not, depending on whether or not they got high or inebriated in order to be able to have sex with you without unwanted self-conscious inhibitions that prevent them from doing or enjoying it. If they intentionally drink or take a drug to lower their inhibitions in order to have or enjoy sex, then their consent for sex is prior to that even if it could not otherwise be given or implied only after they are in that state.
But it seems to me that mutually voluntary sex can also be a form of people using each other or one person being used, or allowing oneself to be used even if the sex is rudimentarily physically satisfying, if it is nevertheless emotionally empty because it is too impersonal, detached, passionless, unsatisfactory, and demeaning, without special circumstances that themselves make it exciting (as in living out some fantasy for the first time) . That seems to happen, at least with some people some times, with casual sex, particularly of the kind that involves what is becoming in some circles conventional, routine hooking up for sex with a stranger through one of the social media hookup apps. Of course it does not feel good to be or feel used or taken unfair advantage of, but sensitive, good people also do not want to use or make someone else feel used either nor take unfair advantage of them.
While ‘the sexual revolution’ didn’t begin in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, it blossomed then, particularly with the introduction of oral contraceptives and other effective means of birth control (mistakenly thought to be 100% reliable) and then went on steroids with the advent of social media hookup apps where strangers meet for sex on the basis of superficial appearance or a catchy come-on. This is a very minimal level above totally indiscriminate sex, because there is some sort of selection process at work, albeit superficial, and I will refer to it as ‘min-discriminate’ sex; minimally discriminate sex. It is not only ‘casual’ sex in the sense of not requiring any sort of commitment (which can, even in a one-time occurrence, be meaningful and significant to both partners under the right circumstances and understanding of each other), but it doesn’t even require any real acquaintanceship, relationship, or knowledge of the other person apart from their appearance. But since the availability of casual and min-discriminate sex seems to be sometimes in inverse proportion to its fulfillment or emotional satisfaction, it seems to me Kant’s maxim has something to do with it -- that people sometimes simply ‘use’ each other as means to whatever sexual goals they might have, particularly those devoid of any sort of intimacy or even temporary passion for the other person other than a desire to satisfy their own and/or perhaps their partner’s physical or biological urge or lust in general. The other person is just a tool or means of (attempted) sexual pleasure, and nothing more. Moreover, one is allowing oneself to be used or is trying to ignore an important part of sexuality (passion, intimacy, personalness) to achieve the physical biological pleasure of it. On one level it is satisfying, but not on another (perhaps deeper or more important) level.
At the outset, let me say that I think in this day and age min-discriminate and casual sex that involves intercourse is consequentially risky and dangerous enough to be usually wrong, even stupid and irrational. Contraception is not 100% reliable or effective, so unless one is permanently infertile through age or known foolproof surgery (such as a hysterectomy or proven effective vasectomy or tubal ligation) intercourse unnecessarily risks pregnancy. But even apart from that, STDs -- particularly fatal ones -- and all kinds of other emotional and litigious consequences present risks that makes any reasonable and knowledgeable person question the value of casual or min-discriminate sex. This is particularly true since there are safer, and often more effective, ways to achieve both sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy.
Even in marriage with a reliable responsible partner, pregnancy can be such a devastating consequence that risking it through intercourse can be wrong. So I am not seeking to determine whether sex even in marriage is right or wrong or whether min-discriminate or casual sex is right or reasonable or not or right or not. My answer to that is that casual or indiscriminate sex involving intercourse is always unreasonable and too risky to be known to be right other than in hindsight if you survive it unscathed and have a good time. And even in marriage or a committed relationship with a reliable, responsible partner, sex that involves intercourse where pregnancy is possible and would be devastating (whether aborted or not), is also always wrong. If sex turns out to have only had good consequences or insufficient bad ones, it will have been right, but since that cannot be known ahead of time or at the time, it is never reasonable or rational to engage in it where physical or emotionally devastating consequences are possible, and particularly if they are likely. So my analysis in this essay is not about whether casual, min-discriminate, or even totally indiscriminate, sex is right or reasonable or not, or whether mutually consensual marital sex can ever be wrong, but it is about whether min-discriminate or casual sex has a problem even being satisfying or fulfilling or a likely good experience, and if that problem has anything to do with using other people or letting oneself be used for sex.
I will only address cases where the participants are sexually technically competent enough to physically satisfy each other, so that any failure of satisfaction is not simply because either or both are lousy lovers or don’t know what they are doing or how to get themselves or their partner physically satisfied. Obviously there are plenty of cases where one or both participants are incompetent or min-competent (minimally competent, or minimally above incompetent) in that regard, but those are not difficult to see the problem. The more interesting problem, I think, is what makes technically competent sex not emotionally satisfying when it isn’t, and whether that might have to do with one or both partners ‘using’ the other or allowing themselves to be used. There are people who use hookups and hookup apps as a way to find good relationships or at least good lovers or good sex, and when any given hookup fails to do that, they attribute it to having been with the wrong person -- having just kissed the wrong frog, as it were, who didn't turn into the hoped for prince. But it may be that the process itself is a flawed way to find a prince, since it may be that princes don't really come from frogs or dwell among them. Of course, an occasional prince might visit a pond where frogs live and so be found there, but it seems to me highly likely that there are better ways to find princes and recognize them, even at ponds, than by kissing frogs. It seems to me more likely that hookups are often disappointing and (emotionally) unsatisfying not because one is with the wrong person or kissing the wrong frog, but because the process is doomed to fail most often simply by its very nature and that it is the wrong way to find love or even good, emotionally satisfying, sex.
But the issue of using another person for sex is not just a problem for min-discriminate sex with strangers or casual sex with friends or acquaintances. Even in marriage (or these days even a long term, committed relationship) with a reliable, responsible mate, sex, for many reasons involves or can involve issues of “using” the other person, whether 1) interpreting Ephesians 5:22 “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” even when conjoined with the command in verse 25 that men should love their wives as Christ loved the church (since the experience of the person having to submit is not sufficiently different when the submission is to someone who loves her or doesn’t, if the act itself is the same or done in the same way), 2) examining the comment of an ‘advice columnist’ in the 1960’s or 70’s that “sex is the price women pay for marriage and marriage is the price men pay for sex”, 3) Matt Damon’s playful, joking line as the character Mike McDermott in the movie Rounders, when he wants to have sex with his girlfriend before she leaves for work but she says she doesn’t have time for it and he says: “I’ll be really quick; you won’t feel a thing” as if that would be some sort of inducement, or 4) just having sex with your partner to please them because you love them even though at the time you are not yourself particularly in the mood for sex, but are not unwilling. And this is besides addressing using prostitutes for sex by means of money (or prostitutes using clients for money by means of sex) or porn stars having sex with another actor for money paid to both of them by a producer and advertisers or viewers of the videos, which seems to be a roundabout, third party payment, form of prostitution (and is distinct from porn or attempts at erotic art that lovers make for themselves).
Now, I don’t believe that all voluntary sex is simply mutually using a partner as a sex toy or tool for what is essentially just masturbation using another person’s body, and I do not believe that even in the Mike McDermott case where one is doing that, it necessarily is taking unfair advantage of one’s partner or ‘using’ them in a selfish or mean-spirited way, unless they are totally disengaged or resentful and getting no pleasure even in giving you pleasure, particularly if you know that at the time. Also for it not to be using or taking unfair advantage of one’s partner, one must otherwise be a very ‘giving’ and sensitive lover, attentive to one’s partner’s wishes, perhaps in some cases being the one who makes love when one is not in the mood oneself but knows the partner is. And the Mike McDermott case cannot be frequent without being just using the other person.
But I do think that sex can be mutually voluntary in some important sense of ‘voluntary’, be uncoerced, be not deceitful or conniving, and still be using someone else or mutually using each other, or using one’s own body as an instrument somewhat detached from one’s own feelings. And I think there are at least the following ways that can happen:
1) if one or both partners’ entire purpose is to have a thrill for him/herself without any concern for the other person’s satisfaction ever (e.g., in the Mike McDermott case presumably there were times he wanted to and did satisfy his girlfriend sexually, so if she had acquiesced, it might not have been a case of using her in the sense of taking unfair advantage of her or having no intention of reciprocating),
2) if one’s or one’s partner’s entire purpose is to have a thrill even at the expense of the other person’s dissatisfaction (as opposed to mere lack of a thrill, but actual displeasure),
3) if the act is merely physical with no personal warmth, interaction, or passion, even if only temporary, for the other person,
4) if the act is merely out of curiosity whether about what sex in general is like or about sex with this particular person would be like -- again without any particular passion for the person or lustful passion in general at the time. Being an ‘outside’ observer of yourself during sex to try to monitor how you feel and what it is like, makes it almost impossible to enjoy or experience fully. If one is not immersed or fully mentally engaged, it is like trying to listen to someone attentively by concentrating on listening to them instead of just listening to them in an attentive, engaged way. It is almost impossible to concentrate on listening and also listen attentively. Your attention is being diverted from what they are saying to your own state of mind. Similarly thinking about trying to be witty makes it even more difficult to be witty. In many cases, experiencing a feeling is simply different from experiencing experiencing the feeling, and that can be good if one is trying to avoid an experience -- as in thinking about something else while undergoing what would otherwise be painful. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence explains to another soldier how he does something that seems too painful to be able do: “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” One can do that by thinking about something pleasant, but one can also do that by thinking about the feeling of the pain, rather than just feeling the pain. The problem is that for something enjoyable, one will miss most or all of the joy if one is trying to mind that it feels good. You cannot readily ‘mind’ what you are feeling and ‘feel’ at the same time. It is something of a paradox of consciousness -- a paradox of the mind if you don’t mind the pun.
5) if the act is for some ulterior motive or goal that is not achieved; e.g., starting a serious relationship or hoping the other person will want to see you again (or inversely -- having sex with someone who wants that but you know you will not comply),
6) if the sex is just terrible physically for any of a number of possible reasons (and this can be for the guy as well as the woman, though in general men can be more easily and readily physically satisfied than women, although there are exceptions), though perhaps in particular because one’s partner doesn’t seem to be trying to please you, rather than just because they don’t know what to do but would like to.
Also one would feel used or feel one is using the other person if one perceives any of those conditions apply, even if one is mistaken in that belief or perception.
With Tinder or other ‘hookup’ apps, I suspect that when the experience is empty or an unhappy or unsatisfying one, it is because of one or more of these conditions, or something like them, though the occurrence of some of these things does not necessarily make the sex unsatisfactory or empty, if for example, one is thrilled to have sex no matter who it is with or what it is like, as in doing something one had always wanted to try even if it is not something you would want to repeat after you do it -- basically an early onset ‘bucket list’ kind of sexual experience --, especially if one is too inexperienced to know it could have been and should have been much better.
There is one sort of case that I think requires separate consideration, given that lust or sexual passion is what might be considered an “appetite”, meaning a desire under some circumstances but not others, particularly once it is satisfied or satiated. There can be the emotional equivalence of ‘buyer’s remorse’ whereby one sooner or later regrets having done something one really wanted to do before the satisfaction of the desire terminated it and retroactively ‘poisoned’ it in, or erased it from, one’s mind. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen wrote of the heroine “It was long before Fanny could recover from the agitating happiness of such an hour as was formed by the last thirty minutes of expectation and the first of fruition.” Unfortunately the glow of satisfaction of some desires, such as ‘guilty pleasures’, does not long survive the first thirty minutes of fruition, if it even lasts that long.
And some people repeat the emotional yo-yo effect of giving in to appetites only to regret it and vow never to do it again -- only to do it again next time they have the desire, mistakenly certain each time they will not regret it afterward. They do not learn from their own experiences. This can be about sex or overeating ice cream or pizza or eating anything before going to bed, convincing yourself that you won’t wake up with indigestion this time, or even merely breaking a diet or breaking some other resolution you have made for yourself. Even mere satisfaction of a guilty desire can induce regret because it is easy to resist or think one should have resisted a desire that has now dissipated. Actual desire requires much more strength to resist than remembered ones now satisfied. And, of course, it is called ‘buyer’s remorse’ over having bought something one desires only until one has used it and wishes one had not bought it and still had the money instead, particularly if one knew or should have known better at the time of purchase. I consider this the way appetites or compulsions sometimes work, particularly when the desire is either irrational or when someone will satisfy it in an irrational or (perhaps overly) zealous, careless, or excessive way that leads to consequences one regrets.
Sexual cases of this sort can be difficult to characterize in terms of ‘using’ someone as a means. Certainly if one knows ahead of time the other person will regret it afterward, one should not have sex with them, even at the risk of hurting their feelings or angering them because they feel rejected -- though if you desired them and wanted to have sex with them, you did not reject them by refraining, but denied yourself (and them the pleasure and the potentially ensuing bad consequences) by doing what was right either for their sake or out of fear of worse consequences than their disappointment or wrath over feeling rejected. One of the ways I look at such cases is that if someone wants to have sex with you that you know they will regret afterward and you hate to anger or disappoint them, you have to ask yourself whether you would rather they later be angry with you and upset for having had sex with them or that they be angry and upset with you now for not having had sex with them. Given generally there can be worse consequences involved in their being upset and angry after sex than after being refused sex, it seems to me that knowing that can make it psychologically easier on you to just go ahead and anger them now by refusing rather than angering them later by complying. I think that having sex with someone you know or believe will regret it afterward, sex that you yourself want to have with them, is using the other person, and if you have sex with them now to avoid ‘a scene’ now, you are allowing yourself to be used, or in some sense using yourself.
I think that if both people know they will regret it afterward but do it anyway, they are both using each other to satisfy their desires. However, I think that unexpected or unanticipated buyer’s remorse or regret after the fact is not ‘using’ the other person (or each other), though it may feel like it later when either or both of you forget how much you wanted it at the time. Unexpectedly regretted sex is not necessarily sex where you were used or taken advantage of, nor sex in which you took advantage of the other person, although either or both of you may feel it was afterward. When unexpectedly regretted sex is wrong, it is wrong for the reasons you now regret it, not because either of you intentionally or knowingly used the other or let yourself be used. That doesn’t make it any the less regrettable, wrong, or excusable, but it helps put the focus of wrongdoing where it belongs -- on the act and its consequences, not your motivation for doing the act. Giving in to desires, even if it shows one has weaker character than one wants, does not necessarily signify one was also mean to another person or unfairly or meanly taken advantage of by them.
Sometimes one is not emotionally involved in sex because something on your mind is troubling you that has nothing to do with this person or sex, but one can also be emotionally uninvolved if one has trust issues or other qualms about having sex with this person -- fear of pregnancy, disease (particularly a fatal one), ‘Fatal Attraction’ syndrome, fear of being caught, fear of some ulterior motive of the person, fear of misunderstanding, fear of rejection, inadequacy, etc. That is one of the problems with trying to live out fantasy sex, because although fantasy sex is totally safe and really delightful in the imagination, real sex seldom is safe and too often not delightful, if not downright scary or disastrous, in reality or memory, especially with a stranger or too early in a relationship. Even in a good marriage, fear of unwanted pregnancy or a host of other intruding anxieties can make sex uncomfortable in a way that one feels used or like one is using the other person, even if one is not or not aware of the problem until afterward. But again, just because sex at a given time was not emotionally satisfying for one or both of you, that does not mean it was because either of you was using or taking advantage of the other. Feeling used can make sex disappointing but there are other ways and causes sex can be disappointing as well. And it is not true that bad sex is still better than most other things. Bad sex can be worse than no sex at all. And unfortunately, whether any given sexual act will be good or bad is not always known or suspected ahead of time.
I think it is also important, in the context of ‘using’ people, to distinguish different aspects or components of sex, e.g., heavy kissing, petting (with or without clothes, and what parts of the bodies), snuggling (again, with or without clothes), grinding/humping (with or without clothes), through intercourse of whatever sort. The reason it is important is that ‘lesser stages’ of sex (or what some might not consider to be sex at all) may more likely, in at least some cases, be more mutually acceptable for simple pleasure without a desire for some sort of greater passion, love, or long term commitment. I think one is less likely to feel used (both during and after) or to be used if both people are doing something they each reasonably feel is perfectly acceptable and safe to do just for physical pleasure -- something somewhat less personal in nature, in some way perhaps less requiring of intimacy or less personally invested (for them), or at least less risky (and which did not have bad consequences).
For example of a pleasure that does not necessarily have to involve intimacy for me, I love having my back scratched; always have as far back as I remember. And I don’t think it matters to me who does it, or whether it is the corner of a wall or the bark of a tree that I rub against when I have an itch. But I don’t consider that necessarily intimate contact, at least not for scratching a particular itch or for just a short amount of time. I think I once even asked a stranger to scratch a sudden itch I couldn’t get to on my back though I clearly tried to, and she complied and laughed about it in an understanding way. When barbers used to shave the back of your neck with a blade and warm shaving cream, that was often the highlight of a haircut -- having the warm wet towel and then shaving cream placed on your neck and shoulders and then feeling the dry towel rub off all the shaving cream afterwards. It was extremely pleasurable but not at all intimate. But, like hugs, there is a short time-limit beyond which it would become unseemly and uncomfortable if it were not at a time in which, and with someone for whom, intimacy is appropriate and desired. While it was okay for the stranger to give me immediate relief from the back itch I couldn’t reach, it would have been inappropriate to say “Oh that feels, great; don’t stop.”
I was in a mall one time, when some young, zealous, energetic, and enthusiastic, middle eastern guys, amiable and somewhat charming in their own way, working from a kiosk in the middle of the main traffic area, wanted to demonstrate their wares, one of which was a back-scratching gizmo of some sort, but the other of which I didn’t know what it did -- but it looked like a wire cooking whisk that was cut off at the curve of the wires. What it was for was to scratch or massage your scalp by fitting it over your head and moving it gently up and down. They demonstrated both at the same time, one scratching my back with the one implement and the other massaging my scalp with the whisk-like thing, in the main corridor of the mall as people walked by. It felt really good physically, but would have been self-consciously inappropriate to prolong past a few seconds, (even in my case if they had been women, since the discomfort I would have felt would have been about the false appearance of intimacy, even without the possibly added false appearance of being gay), though I think they’d have continued until I bought six of each gizmo. But I didn’t want to buy the things, so just letting them give me longer pleasure, seemed to be to take dishonest advantage of them, which also would have made me uncomfortable. So to get them to stop without seeming rude or unappreciative, I said pretty quickly “That feels great, but if you don’t stop, you’ll have to marry me, and that would probably upset my wife.”
However, I don’t think that I personally could enjoy kissing someone I had no particular feelings for, no matter how well they kissed from what might be considered a technique standpoint. Of course, finding out that someone you really like is a terrible kisser may not be pleasurable either and may even cause you to lose interest in them. I’m not sure. But, for me at least, I think for kissing to be pleasurable, it has to be personal and involve some caring and/or passion. I think it would be empty to kiss someone I had no interest in no matter how technically well they kissed. I don’t think I am alone in that feeling.
And I think that I and others could distinguish between wanting to kiss someone out of desire for them from wanting to kiss them because I could tell they kiss well by having seen them kiss someone else, even as an actress in a film. E.g., I can watch a woman kiss someone and think it would be great to have someone kiss me like that, but not be interested in kissing that woman. In watching a film actress kiss well and thinking she would be great to kiss, it is the character as portrayed by the actress I want to kiss, not the actress as herself whom I don’t know anything about. When I photographed weddings, there were some small percentage of brides who, at the alter kiss at the end of the ceremony, would linger a bit in a clearly tender kiss and who put one or both hands on the side or back of the groom’s neck and head as they kissed. When that happened, you could always hear an audible gasp from lots of the males in the congregation. Yet I don’t think they likely wanted to be kissing that girl themselves, but imagined kissing someone they did want to kiss, who kissed like that. I think this goes back to the difference between fantasy and reality in that one could perfectly well savor a fantasy one would not enjoy or desire at all as a reality.
And I cannot imagine having sex with someone I was paying to do it, not because it would be sex with a prostitute, but because you cannot buy intimacy and I myself don’t want sex without intimacy. Some of my students have told me they had sex with prostitutes they had hired and it was great. I just cannot imagine it being good or even interesting for me, though I could imagine having sex with a prostitute who was doing it, not for money, but for personal desire. There was a great West Wing episode, where Rob Lowe’s character, Sam Seaborn (Deputy White House Communications Director) meets a witty, vibrant, beautiful woman he ends up sleeping with, only to discover by accident the next day evidence she may be a hooker. (It turned out later she is working her way through law school as an escort or call girl, but at this point he doesn’t know all that yet). He really likes her but he knows his having slept with a hooker would provoke a scandal, especially if reported by someone else, so he tells the President and his boss, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), White House Communications Director, “I think I may have slept with a prostitute last night.” Richard Schiff, in his own inimitable way of portraying exasperated surprise replied something like “What? Did your having to pay her give it away?!” and then he is even more bewildered when Rob Lowe says he didn’t have to pay her. So then Rob explains what happened, now that he had their attention.
But even apart from paying for sex, I never even wanted to have sex with someone I actually found desirable if their interest seemed prompted by something impersonal. Money is only one sort of impersonal incentive or motivation. But other circumstances would do it too -- if she were aroused by anything impersonal, like the movie was great or the sunset and weather particularly beautiful, or I said something in perfectly ordinary conversation that just happened to be especially meaningful to her, or her wine went to her head, or the surroundings reminded her of a great romantic experience with a former boyfriend, or any of a zillion possible things that, like “Love Potion Number 9,” would have made her amorous toward almost anyone she would have been with in the same circumstances. I don’t want to have impersonal sex with someone who is aroused by something that is not a meaningful characteristic of ‘me.’ I want to be wanted for myself or for what I consider to be an essential part of my ‘self’, of who and what I am.
It is sometimes difficult to tell what people will consider being liked for their “self”, as opposed to being liked for something they find too impersonal, accidental, or unintentional a characteristic of them. A friend of mine’s mother when she was young and single broke up with a boyfriend she had one time because when she asked him what he liked most about her, he said her mind. That offended her, but, of course, many women would be offended if their suitor had said their body, because one knows that one’s body may not always be in the shape it currently is, and one doesn’t want to be loved for a characteristic one may lose and/or that is not in one’s control. One may or may not appreciate being liked for a talent or for being wealthy or famous, even if the talent, fame, or wealth result from hard work. Many people have a sense of what constitutes their inner essence that they want to be liked for if it is to be personal, but it is often difficult to know what that is, even for the person him/herself. And it can be risky business playing “What is it you like most about me?” or some variation of that, because even if you like them for something intensely personal and meaningful to them, it may sound too reductionist or one-dimensional to them at the time, or somehow superficial just because it is a descriptive trait when put into words. Or they may feel pigeonholed or liked for something they fear might not be a permanent trait that when it disappears you won’t love them any more. Or that if you meet someone else who has that trait to the same or greater extent, you will like them better. And if you say you like everything about them -- that you like them for everything they are -- you invite the response that implies that if anything changes as they age, you won’t like them any more.
There is also the very strange problem that people will often be flattered and appreciative about being liked for a trait that someone they like compliments them about but be offended by being complimented about it by someone they don’t like. So, for example, a woman may love that her husband finds her sexy and beautiful but find it offensive and shallow that someone she doesn’t like (or no longer likes) tells her how beautiful and sexy she is. A friend of mine’s ex-husband told her after they got divorced (after she found him flagrantly cheating on her) that she had always been a great lay. That was of course insulting to her at the time, though most likely if early on in their marriage he had told her what a great lover she was, she would have liked that, presuming it was not the main or only thing he liked her for then.
I tried to avoid failing being asked to say why I liked one woman who would periodically ask why I loved her, by joking about it, probably unsuccessfully, whenever she would ask whether I loved her because of some particular trait such as her (prestigious) profession or sometimes she would ask whether it was because of some aspect of her appearance, etc. None of those things were what made me love her, and I really thought she should have known from how we interacted which of her traits I found most wonderful as a kind of total person. And she should have seen that I didn’t love other women with some of those same traits. But my knowing that trying to answer that question honestly can stir up problems, and that even if you get it ‘right’ at the time and name something they feel important about themselves, you run the risk of that someday retroactively becoming the wrong answer if they on a different occasion don’t feel that is the essence of themselves for which they want to be loved and appreciated. So I would joke that I loved her because she had been head cheerleader in high school (though I did not know her then) a zillion years earlier and that I had always wanted to have sex with a head cheerleader (which never crossed my mind and was never a fantasy, and which, even if it had been, was not the way she looked when I knew her, even though I found her physically beautiful in a different way, and had no idea how she really was or even really looked as a teenaged cheerleader). If she was going to ask whether I loved her for some clearly superficial stereotypical trait, I was going to mock the question by saying it was for a different superficial stereotypical trait that I not only could not possibly care about because it was before I knew her and that she no longer even had, except as a past characteristic. Since that didn’t work (even though this woman had once given me a birthday card that did the same sort of thing by saying “The two things I love about you are… your great mind and your cute butt”), and since I know that honest answers don’t always work either, probably my advice now would be that if your love asks that question, you should just flee the relationship, no matter how good it is at the time. That question is one of the Kobayashi Maru tests for any relationship, and as with all such no-win tests, you are doomed to fail to answer it correctly. And if that failing ever becomes important to your mate, it is over.
However, it seems to me (and this is speculation on my part, which I will explain shortly) that even when physical contact or any sort of sexual contact is personal, there is a risk of its becoming self-alienating or too impersonal to you if it become more casually acceptable, less emotionally invested, more detached, or less intimate. This can be with a given person or with an expansion of the number of people with whom you serially have sex or are willing to when not in an exclusive relationship. I am not sure whether something is lost or gained by being able to enjoy the physical pleasure of contact if it has less emotional significance.
In regard to its being with just one person, I once had a student who was a single mother of a three year old boy, and she was dating a wealthy older gentleman at the time who was really good to her and to her son. The man wanted the relationship to expand to being sexual with her, and she asked in class whether I thought it would be okay for her to do that, given that she only liked him as a friend but would be willing to have sex with him since he was nice and was good to her and to her son, whom, besides the specific things the man gave or did for him, she wanted to have a good male influence. I said that, apart from possibly being abandoned by this man at some point if she does have sex with him, though given the relationship they had so far and given his character she was pretty sure about, she didn’t think was likely, I thought that her having sex with someone she was not passionate about might desensitize her to being able to fully enjoy sex with someone she might meet someday whom she really loved. And then I added for the benefit of the older students in the class “so if you willing to have meaningless sex, I think you should just wait till you are married.” The older women in the course cracked up, but the younger ones (one of them a fairly newlywed who was still having sex everywhere in the house even in the kitchen with her husband) couldn’t imagine that sex with a loved mate could ever be ‘old’ or meaningless. Unfortunately it can, even if you dearly still love the person.
(One old joke is that there are three stages of marital sex: anywhere sex, bedroom sex, and hall sex -- hall sex being when you pass each other in the narrow hall and you both think to yourself “screw you.” Another old joke is about three married couples who wanted to join a fundamentalist church -- a young couple, a middle aged couple, and an older couple. They had to have six weeks of instruction about the church’s beliefs and policies, and then after that they had to abstain from sex for a month. At the end of that month they had to come back to give a report about it. At that last meeting with the minister, the older couple said the abstinence was no problem at all; the middle age couple said the first couple of weeks was easy but the last week and a half was more difficult, but they managed to abstain. The young couple admitted they couldn’t do it because on the third day of abstinence, the wife bent over to get something off a lower shelf and the husband couldn’t take it any more and touched her and that triggered off their making mad passionate love right then and there. The minister was disappointed and angered and said “Then you are not welcome in this church ever again.” And the wife said “That’s okay, because they won’t let us back in that supermarket any more either.” These two jokes, of course stereotype people’s behavior by age, and are not necessarily representative, but there is a certain grain of truth in them, though even that may be less about age or sexual monotony than about 1) problems in the relationship that diminish sexual desire for the partner though there is still biological sexual desire in general, and 2) developing other sorts of familiarity and ways to express love that replace sexual desire. See, for example, my essay “Sexual Objectification and the Moment When Marriage Becomes ‘Incest’”.
But in this paper I am more interested in whether casual sex with different persons, by its very nature, tends to cause a loss of emotional satisfaction and intimacy while at the same time yielding a potential gain of physical pleasure from possibly greater variety and quantity. I am, however, not sure it requires that trade-off or if it does, where that trade-off begins to kick in. This is why I said above that I am getting into an area of speculation, though I will explain it as reasonably as I can. I do believe that many people can be passionately or romantically attracted to (or even in love with) more than just one person (certainly serially, as when a widow or widower falls in love with someone new, but even simultaneously -- for surely that same widow could have met and become attracted to that person while still married even if s/he does not act upon the feelings). I also know that many other people are by nature monogamous either when in a relationship or lifelong (even if the mate has died) and just do not want to have sex with anyone else or do not even find anyone else sexually desirable. But I do have the suspicion that, even for many/most people who are not monogamous by nature, that there is some quantity of partners which will dilute the significance, and diminish the enjoyment, of the experience of any sort of sexual activity. I suspect many/most people cannot get as much out of kissing (that is, ‘making out with’ or heavy kissing) lots of people as in kissing someone or two or a few people one thinks are special? I think there is the proverbial ‘point of diminishing returns.’ However, some people can find a fair number of people they think are special, so that even kissing lots of people is not the same thing as ‘casual kissing’ without intimacy. Some people can potentially find intimacy with more than others can. Same with petting, massage, snuggling, intercourse, etc? But I still think there is some limit how many others most people have the capacity to find special enough to really enjoy having sex with, particularly if there is a difference between sex with and without intimacy or a desire for the person as a person, as opposed to desire just for their body.
Do different people vary in their capability even to receive pleasure devoid of emotional intimacy or from someone whom they do not find special? Or does this vary with the form of physical contact itself? Or can some people find a different person special enough every month, week, or night? I don’t know, and I don’t know whether even if their is individual variance about this, that there still might not be some common parameters or limits. It seems to me that although some variety might be sometimes desirable for some people, that sex or physical contact with different partners frequently would itself get old or routine pretty quickly for most people, including even most men, though men are often thought to be min-discriminate and even totally indiscriminate generally more than women.
Diminished enjoyment of sex could be from 1) “sensory adaptation” -- diminished sensitivity to constant or repetitive stimulation (as when you can no longer smell a scent you have been near too long or you no longer want to go through the same sort of dating/mating ritual or conversations with new people in a clearly dating situation) -- from 2) human incapacity to find intimacy, passion, or even sufficient attraction beyond some number of people in a given span of time in one’s life (what might be called ‘temporal density tolerance’) from 3) lack of insufficient variety even in being with different people, in that there may still be a monotonous repetition of kinds of things that is not surpassed nor even compensated for by the differences among them, or from 4) sufficient bad consequences from past experience to temper the desire. Comedian and actor Kevin Nealon once said he has a roving eye for women, but he also has a lazy eye, and when his roving eye sees a woman he thinks would be great to have sex with, his lazy eye reminds him that will take a lot of work and probably be a lot of trouble, and his lazy eye now tends to be dominant.
But even without the problems of emotional entanglements, sexual interest can get ‘old’ and too monotonous to be interesting to pursue. I once contemplated the idea of trying to become a photographer for Playboy. I thought I possibly had the eye and photography skill to become successful at it, but even the idea of it became uninteresting as I thought more about how monotonous and disappointing to me it would likely become, just as viewing the magazine itself did. Playboy photos had an overall style of a certain sort about them, which I presumed was required by Hefner or his editors, and there were aspects of that style I did not think the best way to photograph people: there was no real sensuality in the facial expressions or body language. The women were beautiful but, with very rare exceptions, were or seemed aloof, detached, uninterested, unalluring over and above just being naked and staged or positioned artistically (but statically, not dynamically) balanced, in beautiful, often opulent looking, settings or environments. There was no zest or enthusiasm apparent in their postures, positions, or expressions. My feeling was they all looked like they were just waiting patiently for their paychecks.
And, in fact, I believe that for me it would not even be interesting to photograph anyone who was just posing so they could make money, and not because they at least also found it exciting in some way. I don’t even enjoy photographing people who hire me to take pictures of them because they are doing it for someone else who wants the pictures but they don’t like having their picture taken and cannot get enthusiastic about it during the session as they pose or see their pictures. I don’t even like when someone wants to buy the photos that I think are the least interesting or artistic ones of the batch. I want my subjects to really appreciate the pictures that have merit and not just accept anything or say something, as some people do, like “Well, I guess that looks like me.” In some of those cases where I thought I had got exceptionally good photos of them that no one else likely would have done, I wanted to say “Yes, it looks like you in your dreams maybe -- but no, this is not what you look like normally; this is you at your best, with the best lighting, the best angle, the best expression -- caught in the right 1/10,000th of a second. And you at your best takes a real eye to see or even to imagine and then the psychological skill to coax you into having and projecting, in the right way. It takes an eye, an imagination, the psychological insight, and the technical photographic knowledge to create these images -- a combination of characteristics and skills most people do not have.” So even in doing photography, I want do work that is deservedly meaningful to someone, not just perfunctory to them or me.
Moreover, even though each of the four, five, or six photographers Playboy used at the time had his own style, and I could identify the photographers by their styles just from looking at the pictures, there was too much sameness in regard to the lack of expressiveness and for the most part also the lighting style, to make most of the photos and layouts interesting for more than the initial look. There were only a couple of instances of photographs or women that I thought sensual, even though almost all the women were beautiful and the pictures extremely well-composed with great colors, textures, and balance, and often even creatively brilliant or unique. Still, there was a sameness to them that made them monotonous in some ways. And it was difficult to imagine that having sex with one of them would be significantly different from having sex with any other of them, if they were anything like their photos. Presumably that is not true for someone like Hugh Hefner or Bill Maher who seem to relish dating them, and I am not saying the monotony of profligacy (as opposed to the possible monotony of monogamy) would kick in immediately, but at some relatively early point, for I think most people. And there may even be a limit to the creativity of the most creative artist or photographer, at which point one starts to become or feel stale no matter what style one has or what variety of subjects one is able to portray. I said above that I want my photography to be meaningful to the subject, but I also want it to be meaningful to me in that I don’t want to just find some mere technique that might make everyone or most people look good automatically that has nothing to do with how I see them or have to work with them personally to help them appear. I want their pictures not only to be good, but also personalized, and as much as possible, unique. I can’t always do that, but my favorite photo sessions are the ones in which I was perceptive and sensitive in finding what best suits that person and being able to help them achieve that look in a way which I am then able to capture in the camera.
Of course, I realize that what I might be interested in with regard to sexuality or desirability may not be what other people are interested in, but from the Tinder article above, from similar complaints by people for decades (by people who had experience with it) about the fairly early-on lack of fulfillment of casual sex with many different individual partners, and from finding that even if sex with someone new might be very memorable, it also might not be, even if physically satisfying, it seems something about casual sex in at least some sort of abundance is not as satisfying as it might be and that it may have to do with lack of passion or the diminishment of passion due to excess. Or it may be that some partners are not particularly good or enjoyable or that they are the same in most ways as previous partners -- so that it is the ‘same sex, just different person’. Or it may be that there is a limit to the amount of stimulating variety possible of just sexuality without intimacy and without personal emotional attraction and attachment. Basketball star Magic Johnson said one time, if I recall correctly, that at first being able to have sex with different groupies individually was pretty exciting, but then for there to be the same thrill, he needed two women at once, and then more than two; nothing casual like that with strangers ever stayed good enough even though it was all with different women and in different ways.
Or it may be, as I think it is, at least for myself, that for any form of sexuality (from kissing to cuddling, to intercourse) to be sufficiently satisfying or even in some cases satisfying at all, there has to be some emotional intimacy or at the very least some sort of passion that is more than just lust for someone’s body, but lust for the person whose body it is. I am not trying to claim in this essay that casual sex cannot be good or that sex needs love; but I think it needs to have at least some passion and respect for the person as a person and not just as a physical object or 'sex toy.' And to avoid fear or regret, it also needs to have, and be perceived to have, no bad consequences. If so, then dispassionate casual sex with strangers as basically ‘appointments’ for it through hookup apps, is doomed to self-defeating failure unless there is also some accidental and coincidental sort of ‘spark’ between the people when they meet or during or following the sex. Without that spark, sex is just using the other person’s body, and even one’s own body, just to get off, but without the decency of not bothering someone else, or being bothered by someone else, that masturbation (or doing oneself) in private at least has. Auto-eroticism obviously does not require emotional intimacy with another person and is merely for physical (and fantasy) pleasure; I doubt anyone in the heat of self-pleasuring screams out their own name.
But sex with another person requires more, if I am correct. Otherwise it is using the other person’s body in the way one might use a vibrator or some other auto-erotic method or device. And I presume it is that ‘more’ which makes us want to have sex with others rather than just by ourselves, even though having sex with others takes more effort and has a lot more potential problems. If sex were about just having orgasms, for most people there would be little need for a partner; and for many women in particular, it would generally be better and far easier without one. (The old jokes about that are that women marry men because vibrators cannot mow the lawn, and that men marry women because sheep can’t cook.)
There are many things, non-sexual things, that it is good or great to do in private alone, but that if other people are around, you need to do or have more from the experience. E.g., one can practice a musical instrument or one’s tennis swing or baseball batting stroke or pitching technique or golf swing alone any which way one wants to, and find it satisfying, but you expect more from others, and anyone with you would expect more from you, if you are performing music for them or playing golf or tennis with them. Hitting tennis balls with another person or playing tennis with another person is different from hitting tennis balls against a wall; playing golf with someone is different from going out by yourself to play or practicing chipping or putting or using the driving range. Even inviting someone to go to a driving range with you requires interacting with them in some way, not just ignoring them while you each hit balls -- unless that is something you both really want to just work on alone and are only going together to share a ride. But even then there needs to be some interaction on the way there and back.
There is at the very minimum following golf or tennis etiquette, protocols, and rules, of course, but beyond that, normally one expects some conversation or meaningful reactions to the playing, whether good music or great plays or efforts in sports. If you played golf in a foursome with no regard for your fellow golfers other than following the rules, but just played as if you were playing alone, though at the same time and place as others, you would be both rude, and missing a lot yourself. Or although you might perfectly well enjoy doing nothing or sitting and listening to music when you are home alone, more is expected if you have company visiting whom you invited, even if you were to invite them to come listen to music or just ‘hangout doing nothing special.’ Some sort of responsiveness and mutually interesting or emotionally satisfying interaction is reasonably expected or desired. Although in some cases, just sitting around in proximity with someone else breathing the same air might be sufficient, normally that is not enough. Even if you go to a concert, play, or movie with someone else where you sit quietly and have your individual experiences privately, it is presumed you will talk about it with each other afterward, and if you do not, it will generally not be a particularly enjoyable experience, unless it is so moving as to render you both speechless and wanting to contemplate and savor it more fully before you talk about it at some other time.
And it seems to me that even all these non-sexual things are just better and more interesting to do with someone you like in some way or find interesting, not just another body to do them with. When I photographed weddings, there were nicer weddings and nicer clients that were much more pleasant, enjoyable, and meaningful to have worked for or with than others -- people who, though they were strangers, you formed a special bond with, even if temporary -- by the way you interacted with them in helping them get the pictures they appreciated and by helping them have their wedding be the way they wanted for them and their guests. The photographer is often the one other person besides a wedding director, if there is one, who has sufficient experience with weddings to know what sorts of things make it better for the participants and their guests. Many photographers don’t know or care, however, and neither do many wedding directors, since both often have their own agenda of mere efficiency, but competent, caring photographers and wedding directors can often make the difference in how a wedding and reception go and feel to everyone there. In the days of film when it took three or four days to get the proofs from the lab, brides or their parents often wrote me appreciative thank you notes, even before they saw the pictures, for helping them have a nice wedding. One bride wrote me a nice thank you note from the first day of her honeymoon in San Francisco and said I had helped her relax and that contrary to how it seemed to me, she had been really nervous. She ended by saying that if she ever gets married again, she wants me there; and I responded I felt the same way but I didn’t know who we would get to take the pictures.
One of my better moments at a wedding was one where I thought I had overstepped at first. It was an older couple getting married and the groom’s father was teasing me and others before the wedding and was happy and playful. But when we lined up to do the family pictures with him and all his grown kids and his ex-wives who were their mothers and stepmothers, I could not get him to smile and he seemed tense. So I teased him the way I do and that usually works, but it was not working with him. He finally asked why I was picking on him and I said “I am trying to get you to smile and it is not working and I don’t understand the problem. I would have thought that being here at the same time under the same roof with all the women you have ever been married to would have made you happy.” His children and the ex-wives all cracked up laughing. And the guy said “Where is your car parked?” And I said, “Oh, if you only hurt my car after that, it will be okay.” And then he smiled and I got good pictures. He came up to me at the reception and put his arm around my shoulder and thanked me for helping him get over exactly what he had been fearing and tense about by addressing it with humor.
The same is true, as I said at the beginning of this essay, for people who interact in almost any line of work. There can be special moments even in terrible situations. Bonds that form in war or natural disaster are perhaps the most extreme examples. But daily work offers opportunities for it. A kind word or gesture or a witty remark even of dark humor, can go along way to making a bad situation tolerable or even somewhat enjoyable. When I was more inclined to do what doctors said, I had a barium enema as a routine test one time upon reaching the age my doctor recommended it, and of course that is an embarrassing and frightening prospect. I went in for the procedure and before the doctor came in to do his part, it was just me (an older white guy) and the young black female nurse or technician. While she was getting the equipment ready, she explained how the procedure would work and had me put on the usual terrible hospital gown, then she looked at me and put on her gloves with an exaggerated loud snap and said “For the next half hour, I am going to be your closest, best friend.” That got me over all my fears and embarrassment because she confronted it head on and showed she understood my apprehensions and could make me laugh about them. (And I don’t think an older or a white nurse could have carried it off the way she did. She did it perfectly, and I wrote a letter of commendation praising her to her supervisors.)
That sort of thing can work even with children. When I was five I had a tonsillectomy and the surgeon, as they were putting the ether mask over me, said it would smell terrible but he bet I couldn’t count to ten backwards before it put me to sleep. I counted out loud as fast as I could and then said “I did it.” And he looked at me again and said “Oh, good; I’ll bet you can’t do it again.” I think I may have got to seven….
I worked at one point for a suburban weekly newspaper as a photographer and one morning was assigned to photograph three Brownies who had earned a cooking badge. They were in the kitchen looking like they were preparing pancakes or some such, and their mothers were hovering right behind me telling them what to do and how to look, and to smile etc. and basically just hounding the girls to death and making it impossible for me to get them to look relaxed and happy. I finally just said to the girls, after unsuccessfully trying to get their mothers to back off them, which I could tell they appreciated that I had tried: “Oh well, this is the ugliest group of Brownies I have photographed today.” [Being the only group of Brownies I had photographed, of course.] I got a great picture of them smiling perfectly, but, of course, the mothers had already phoned my boss before I even got back to the office to tell him how I had traumatized their daughters. I told him just to wait till he saw the picture and then tell me how traumatized they looked. They, of course, were not traumatized at all, though I suppose their mothers were. But they weren’t the ones who had to be in the picture. For me, my subjects came first, and the mothers were ruining it for them.
In short, intimacy or a bond, even if temporary, can happen any time or in almost any situation to make it better or even great. It seems to me that it should certainly happen in mutually voluntary sex.
Finally, I want to say here, but without giving my reasons, though I have reasons and have given many of them in other essays, that 1) I do not think that romantic love even requires sexual desire. There is a difference between romantic attraction and lust, even though many times the two coincide simultaneously and even though in much of Western society today, they are unfortunately mistakenly considered to be related in at least one direction -- the false belief that love and romance involve sexual desire, even if it is known and admitted that not all lust is romantic or that all sexual desire is love. 2) I think that circumstances and experience can foster a natural sense of monogamy, even in someone not previously susceptible to it or interested in it, and I think that the reverse can also be true, that a person interested only in one love for a long time can, by circumstances -- especially where a relationship has ended or never got off the ground -- meet someone else they love or more than one such person. 3) Or one might never find (another) romantic love, but turn to sex (or ‘settle for’ it) as the most emotional intimacy they believe they can or will experience. 4) I suspect romantic love fosters fidelity, but that mere erotic attraction and bonding does not. I state all this in this paragraph because I don’t want readers to think from the rest of this essay that I am cavalier about multiple relationships or think that monogamy is impossible or somehow less preferable. The question being addressed in this essay is not about whether profligacy is preferable to monogamy but about whether there is a natural limit, at least for most people, of the possible satisfaction and fulfillment from sexual profligacy or having many different partners, even if (only) serially.
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