As Valentines Day heaves its bloated, consumerist hide into view once again, I figured now would be a good time to drop the high-minded pretence and embrace the reason for this particular season: sex.
So welcome to Smutty February, where we’ll delve into the rights, wrongs and 50 shades of grey of the single greatest driving factor in human existence – which also happens to be one of the things we’re least comfortable thinking about, let alone discussing in public. Much like swearing, sex is one of those topics that many cultures have an automatic reaction against; we prefer everyone keep their sexuality private, and if it really must be discussed, then for god’s sake keep it down. And much like swearing, pipe up about your favourite sexual position in any ‘polite’, ‘decent’ or just public setting and you can expect to have everyone in the general proximity turn on you like a pack of prudish wolves.
If there happens to be children within earshot they won’t even leave a body.
And, just like with swearing, there is very little good reason for this sort of reaction. We’re talking about a 100% natural practice that we literally have to do to survive as a species here, right up there with breathing and eating on the list of ‘normal things human beings do’. Kinda strange then that we are more comfortable with discussing something as absurdly unnatural as skydiving, rather than sex.
Nothing demonstrates this schizophrenic attitude to sex than the concept of the slut. What is a slut, you ask? Well that is an interesting question. Ask pretty much anyone if they know what a slut is and you will always get a yes, but ask them to actually define the term and things start getting really murky, really fast.
Seriously, try it now with me; what is a slut?
- Someone who has a lot of sex? – since when is that a bad thing?
- Someone who has too much sex? – how exactly would you quantify that, and where’s the down-side?
- Someone who dresses ‘trashy’, wearing revealing clothes and showing off skin? – Which is fine at the beach, but not elsewhere, why?
- Someone who is too ‘easy’, or too willing to have sex with others? – Sounds like a good thing, frankly.
- Someone who doesn’t respect themselves when it comes to sex? – By which we mean what, exactly? That they do things we wouldn’t?
- Or is it someone who uses sex to get what they want? – which is different how from any exchange of goods or services?
The more you think about it, the weirder the entire idea becomes – what exactly is wrong with someone who enjoys a lot of sex, and is willing to have more sex than most people? Why is it exactly that we look down on people that act this way when their behaviour has precisely zero impact on us (remembering that cheating is a totally different issue here)? And why is it that these problems generally only apply to one gender or the other?
One was an intern, the other the most powerful man in the world. One was single, the other one married. One was shamed into hiding, while the other’s approval rating increased. Guess which is which.
But despite just the slightest critical thinking turning the whole notion into garbage, the concept of a slut persists quite strongly. Spend 5 sober minutes in your average-to-low-end nightclub and even the staunchest feminist is liable to start getting uncomfortable by the skankiness, lewdness, cheapness and shallowness of the behaviour on display. And maybe it’s because your average male in a nightclub has all the grace and creativity of a wacky, wavy inflatable tube man, but the majority of the people to attract your disdain are going to be women. It isn’t fair or reasonable, but that’s how it is.
We all know how we reacted to this. It wasn’t kind.
So what gives? What’s the deal with our culture-wide aversion to our most fundamental biological impulse? And why do we almost universally feel the need to criticise, belittle and otherwise judge people who are more comfortable with their sexuality than anyone else? Ultimately it all comes down to what we believe sex is for.
The natural reaction at this point is to ask why sex has to be for anything. It’s just a physical activity – why do we need to go and attach meaning to things where there is none? But this is less about declaring a purpose for sex based on our opinions, and more about figuring out whether its ok to do or not, based on its nature. Violence is very similar in this regard – it’s not a bad thing simply because we think it’s bad, but rather because we’ve seen violence in a lot of different circumstances, seen what it can achieve and suffering it causes, and decided that it’s generally something to be avoided based on that.
The same goes for sex; over the course of history various groups have looked at it, seen the pros and the cons, and decided that it is either a good or a bad thing, and under what circumstances it’s ok to do. And just like violence, different groups have come to VERY different conclusions.
Broadly speaking, there are three non-insane schools of thought when it comes to the question ‘What is sex for’:
Procreation – sex is a purely biological act, designed to create children AND NOTHING ELSE. From this perspective any sex that does not (or is not intended to) produce children is a perversion of the act, pointlessly self-indulgent at best, and at worst a destructive degradation of the act and the people involved.
Love – sex is not just about bearing children, but about strengthening a relationship as a whole. This school considers sex an expression of love between the partners, and while this greatly expands the boundaries on what is ‘acceptable’ sex, it still considers sex that has no love involved to be unjustified – an act of selfish lust rather than positive love.
Pleasure – sex is pleasurable, and that’s enough for this school of thought. So long as both partners enjoy what they are doing with each other, any sex is justified. Ultimately this means that the only bad sex is sex without consent, or just… bad sex.
Needless to say, there has been no shortage of debate over these three schools of thought. All three imply very different approaches to how we should live our lives, and how we should treat other people as well. If you believe that sex is purely for procreation, then concepts such as contraception (let alone government-funded contraception) is a travesty – actively encouraging and enabling people to have immoral sex. And if someone gets knocked up and is looking for an abortion, then you’d dig in your heel and fight with all your might against this utter perversion: turning the creation of new life into a death for your own interests.
Understanding someone’s beliefs can explain a lot of extremely bizarre behaviour.
If you’re of the Love school of thought, then contraception is fine, but you’re going to have a serious problem with a lot of the sexualisation that goes on in society today. Advertising that uses sexuality to sell completely unrelated products, events that use the chance of getting laid to attract people, the buying and selling of sex through prostitution or exotic dancing, and anything that promotes sex for anything other than the purpose of intimate relationship building (not necessarily marriage however) is going be perverse. Sex may indeed be a good thing, but it’s not to be encouraged.
Many Australians may remember a former Prime Minister saying something to this effect a few years ago:
“I think I would say to my daughters if they were to ask me this question… it [their virginity] is the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly, that’s what I would say.” – source
Tony Abbott, traumatising millions with a mental image they can never un-see.
The various reactions to this statement demonstrate these schools of thought quite well; those of the Procreation school were a bit huffy at the scandal of it all, but for those of the Love school of thought it was absolutely spot on – sex is for love, and therefore you should wait until you know for certain that the other person deserves it.
Those from the Pleasure school of thought however, were not terribly pleased. Sex from this perspective is not for anything except itself – sex is pleasurable, pleasure is positive, so pleasurable sex is a good thing. As such, there are no real limitations on what should be allowed when it comes to sex, so long as everyone enjoys (and, obviously, consents to) it. Prostitution? Fine. Sex is for pleasure, so why can’t it be traded like anything else that provides pleasure, like food or entertainment? Contraception? Of course! Reduces STDs, prevents unwanted pregnancy and makes sex a lot more accessible for those with new partners (which is of course not a bad thing from this perspective). And abortion? Well obviously it’s not good, but nor is it compounded by the sex being against the rules in the first place; as such government-sponsored abortion services are more a necessary evil rather than murder to bail irresponsible women out of their natural responsibilities.
These different perspectives go a long way to explaining our weird relationship with sex as a society. Anyone coming from the Procreation school of thought, or even the Love school, are going to look at that list of characteristics that define a slut, and consider them serious problems. Sex purely for enjoyment is unacceptable for both – it’s only if you genuinely believe that sex is for pleasure that sluttish behaviour becomes no big deal.
So which of these schools of thought is the correct one? They all conflict with each other, so they can’t all be right – which ones then are wrong? Well there are a few observations we can make right off the bat:
Sex is pleasurable – in the vast majority of cases, sex is an enjoyable thing (and if it’s not then you’re doing it wrong). And just as with other sources of pleasure, like food and entertainment, that pleasure is a positive thing in-and-of itself. Sure there are potential issues with over-indulgence, but that goes for any enjoyable activity – it’s not a criticism with the activity itself unless it’s addictive or destructive by its nature (say, heroin or self-harming).
We don’t need more children – there is no arguing with the fact that the biological function of sex is reproduction, and even the pleasure it involves is encouragement to that end. So from a purely natural perspective, the Procreation school of thought is correct: sex that doesn’t create kids misses the essential point. But as with all nature-based arguments, this is irrelevant. So what if a thing is ‘natural’? The entire course of human civilisation, including our vast improvements to health, sanitation, education and food, has been based on removing ourselves from our natural, animalistic state. Unless you consider an average lifespan of 38 and rampant cholera to be good things, ‘it’s natural’ is not a valid argument. And with overpopulation looming as a potentially catastrophic issue in the near future, having kids is likely the last thing we should be encouraging.
Love is a good thing – there aren’t many things that aren’t improved by love. Sure, mutual devotion is not exactly an easy thing to achieve, requiring as it does quite a long period of shared experience, trust and communication (or a shit-ton of hormones and naïvety if you’re a teenager), but once you have it, it tends to enhance the quality of pretty much anything. Taking a walk? How much more enjoyable with a loved one! Moving house? Much more enjoyable with someone you love. Filing your taxes? At least you have a loved one there to support you and make some tea. Sex is no exception to this – all things being equal, sex with someone you love is going to be better than a casual pickup.
Based on these observations, the Procreation school quickly starts to look ridiculous. Quite apart from the fact that we have more than enough children thank you very much, the idea that sex is purely for reproduction is nothing short of brutal when it comes to long-established loving couples who can’t have children, even though they may desperately want to. And what about parents who have already had all the kids they want? No sex for them at all from now on? And for an argument that is based on something being ‘natural’, the Procreation school of thought does a terrible job of explaining why teenagers are so sexually-charged when it’s hard to think of a worse time for people to be considering having kids.
Who would have thought a group of celibate old dudes would have a shaky philosophy about sex?
So that leaves us with the Love and Pleasure schools of thought, and Pleasure quickly gets a heads start thanks to the obvious point that pleasure is a good thing in itself. So what if you’re not in love with the person you’re shagging? So long as everyone is consenting and enjoying themselves, where is the downside? Everyone involved benefits from the experience and loses nothing – this is a rough definition of ethical behaviour.
But as I’ve said a dozen times before on this blog, ‘benefits outweighing costs’ is not enough to call something ethical – we also have to ask if there is a superior alternative we could go for instead. In this light, the Love theory of sex starts to gain some ground; if sex for pleasure is a good thing, then isn’t sex for love AND pleasure a superior option? And of course we’re forced to admit that it is.
But love is no easy thing to achieve, and when there are no down-sides involved, does it really matter if you’re going for a slightly less-superior option? In the end it’s the difference between ordering in pizza versus a 5 star dining experience: one is obviously better than the other, but on the scale of awesome to terrible, they all come out on the ‘good’ side of the scale.
So where does that leave our lovely sluts we were discussing at the start of this article? Well if sex for pleasure is good (though sex for love is better), then generally the issue stops being an ethical one entirely, and more a matter of taste. Sure, you personally might not enjoy seeing someone gets their mammary glands out in public, or find the amount of sex someone else has to be more than you would like, but your personal preferences start and end with you – just because you prefer a 5 star dining experience (or eating boiled celery, to stretch the metaphor for the Procreation crowd) doesn’t mean it’s wrong to order in a pizza. And yeah, people sharing a space should be considerate to the preferences of others, but at the end of the day the vast amounts of shame, anger and disgust our society currently sees fit to heap on those we label dirty, perverted, indecent sluts is nothing short of insane.
The next time you feel inclined to think of something as slutty, it might be a good time to check yourself and ask the question: what exactly do I mean by that and why is it a bad thing?