Sunday, April 16, 2006

Dr.B. on Sexual Ethics

Bitch Ph.D. offers a list of her old posts on open marriage and related topics. It's really thought-provoking stuff. There are four posts in particular I'd like to highlight:

The first one describes how she and Mr.B set up the terms of their marriage. Their conversations sound admirably honest and non-possessive.

The second argues that prostitution isn't necessarily wrong. It usually is, due to the exploitation and lack of agency suffered by prostitutes. But "it is not true that all women doing sex work lack agency." And there's nothing wrong with someone freely agreeing to have sex in exchange for money. (Of course if circumstances force them into it, the problem lies with the circumstances, not with the prostitute -- the stigma imposed by middle class sensibilities notwithstanding! The appropriate moral goal is not to abolish all prostitution, but simply to ensure that no-one is in such desperate circumstances that they are effectively forced into doing things against their will.) Compare Dr.B's perspective:
It's flattering as hell that someone is actually interested enough in sleeping with me to cough up a chunk of change, and as I said before, I won't deny that it's fun to think about and will, I suspect, be fun to do, if I do it. But fundamentally it's a way of having a little adventure and making (as someone said) some free money, and I don't, in the end, see anything wrong with that.

Third, her piece on feminism and open marriage puts more clearly one of the central points I saw in favour of open relationships. She writes:
This might sound strange, but it makes perfect sense: ever since we have known one another, Mr. B. and I have agreed that the biggest problem with monogamy is that it preemptively cuts off one possible avenue of growth. You are not allowed to explore this set of feelings, this person, what you can learn here, because it is "wrong." To me, that seems deeply fucked up and inimical to love. I love Mr. B. (even though he is pissing me off this weekend), and he loves me, and therefore why in the earth would we want to put limits on each other? Fooling around, getting crushes on others, or (as I'm doing now) really pursuing relationships and/or fucking other people is a pretty profound learning experience.

And the related point:
The truth, I think, is that it is impossible for one person to be "everything" to someone else. Impossible and, I think, cruel: setting the other person (and, incidentally, yourself) up to fail. In part, this is the answer to the "why open marriage?" question in a nutshell: because I think it is loving to deal with your fear in order not to limit the other person's growth... Now, surely there are people who have such issues with jealousy and fears of betrayal that it is best for them and their partners to agree that there are limits: here, monogamy has its uses. But I think that for most people, garden-variety jealousy and fear is, or can be, or should be, a way to learn: what is it you are afraid of? What is it that you are not getting (or giving)? What does your crush on this other person, or your partner's crush, say about who they are that they didn't know before? In other words, as my friend asked: "what do you get out of 'cheating' that you don't get at home?"

Finally, Dr.B. argues that dishonest cheating isn't always wrong or 'dishonourable'. I'm inclined to disagree. Not because there's anything intrinsically wrong with extra-relational sex, but simply because of the dishonesty involved. If you really want to sleep with someone else, that's cool, but if you can't be honest with your partner about such things then that really casts doubt on the relationship. If they're reasonable, they should be okay with it. And if they're not, then they have the right to make the informed choice to end the relationship. Dishonesty deprives them of this choice, and so reduces their agency, and is disrespectful of them as a person. So again: sleeping around is fine, but lying about it isn't. Do what you want with your body, but don't go deceiving your partner about it.

(We can always imagine exceptions, of course, e.g. if your abusive husband has threatened to kill you if you have an affair. But if things reach the point where your partner doesn't deserve honesty, then it seems to me this is a "relationship" in name only, so the usual normative principles don't apply.)

I didn't disagree with everything in the post, though. Here's one especially challenging idea:
I think sex is, among other things, a form of communication. I presume that anyone who has ever had good, loving sex, knows this. I think that we learn things not only in the generally accepted brain-on-a-stick way, but also through our bodies and our emotions. I know I do. The problem I have with the presumption -- as distinct from the conscious, informed choice -- of sexual fidelity is that I think it closes off one way of learning.

Now, this may be fine. It may be a valid trade off. No one can read every book, no one can study every subject, and no one can learn everything. But I think it is very important, absolutely vital, not to assume on someone else's behalf that they should forego reading books. I'm not talking here about people who want to scold me for my sex life. What I am saying -- and it is polemical -- is that I think that assuming that your partner must remain sexually monogamous to you, assuming that without talking about it, is not a loving thing to do. It is selfish. I reject it. Because, not in defiance of, the idea that partnership and marriage are meaningful acts. This does not mean that I look at people who are monogamous and think they are wrong, or that I am not (do not try to be) understanding of those who find examining these things threatening. It does mean that I think that what we should strive for when we love is acceptance, openness, trust, and understanding. This is why my partner and I agreed, when we married, that infidelity is not grounds for divorce.

And, indeed, one could remain neutral on the relative merits of open vs. monogamous relationships whilst still thinking there's something pernicious about the standard presumption that the norms of the latter apply to each relationship. Really it's something that the couple in question should discuss and decide for themselves.



  1. Regarding prostitution, let's say we have two women - both have a couple kids and are in dire need of money to feed and clothe them. The first can find absolutely no job but prostitution. The second can find absolutely no job but waitressing. Both hate their jobs. Both feel like they are forced into doing their jobs. We (society) would tend to feel sorry for both of the women because they are in a bad situation, forced to do things they don't want to do. You are correct that a moral goal would be to prevent women from being in situations like this. But we would also tend to tell the waitress to suck it up, stop thinking about herself and think about her kids - sometimes you have to do things that you don't want to do. I'm sure all our fathers have said this to us before. But we would never say this to a prostitute, though. We'd never say "Tough luck, sometimes you just have to do things you don't want to do."

    But what you seem to be saying is that in a slightly better world than the one we live in now - one without middle-class sensibilities - we would treat both of these women the same. While we'd ultimately like neither of them to be in that situation, we'd tell both women that they have their kids to think about and they can live with doing a job they don't like.

    So am I just being blinded by my middle class sensibilities in thinking that being forced to sell your body is worse than being forced to serve people food?

    BTW, is the opposite of "middle class sensibility" "non-middle class sensibility" or "middle class non-sensibility?" :)

  2. No, I don't mean that -- I agree that a deeper personal violation occurs in sexual exploitation than labour exploitation. The "middle class sensibilities" I deplore are those which stigmatize the prostitute rather than her exploitation, and which would even condemn a free choice to engage in sex for money, e.g. for someone in Dr. B.'s position.

  3. You may be interested to read these pre-conditions imposed by a computer scientist on any person wishing to marry him:


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