A Reply to David Benatar on Sexual Ethics

A couple of months ago I came across a provocative article by David Benatar, entitled ‘Two Views of Sexual Ethics: Promiscuity, Pedophilia, and Rape.” It argues that a certain position – that promiscuity is morally fine, pedophilia is always wrong, and rape is a very serious crime – is inconsistent.

I think he’s wrong, but I’ve been surprised at the apparent failure of other philosophers to refute him (such as the instructor of the course I was in at the time), since the argument doesn’t seem all that difficult. But it’s interesting and so perhaps worth blogging on.

Benatar’s essential point is something like this: either sex is a big deal, or its not. If it is, then you shouldn’t do it with random strangers the cuts of whose jibs you liked, so promiscuity is wrong; if it’s not, then raping someone, although wrong, is no worse than forcing a tomato into their mouth. Moreover, if it’s no big deal, then why not do it with children, as long as they want to?

More precisely, he distinguishes a view on which “for sex to be morally acceptable, it must be an expression of (romantic) love”, and a view on which “sexual pleasure…is morally just like any other pleasure.” These two views conflict, and neither of them can support the common set of modern intuitions that says that rape is a very serious crime and also that promiscuity is morally neutral. Even having an intermediate view (e.g. you don’t have to love them but you should at least like them) won’t work, since it will either be too strong (and rule out promiscuity) or too weak (and fail to make rape a distinctively bad thing).

Now, one big weakness in the way Benatar presents this choice is that even the position which he says “provides an explanation of the special wrong of rape”, doesn’t: ‘the significance view’, that sex should be an expression of love, carries the suggestion that rape should be mitigated, made less serious a wrong, if it’s performed by someone who loves you, or even who does it out of some sick sense of love. But that seems wrong, at least to me.

Nowhere in his article does Benatar use words like ‘power’ or ‘control’ – but surely the most natural way to support the different beliefs Benatar lists is to say that sex is morally neutral when under both party’s control, but seriously morally wrong when it’s taken out of their control?

Benatar, judging from the other things he says, would probably respond by asking why – what is it about sex that makes control so important, since it’s not similarly important with things like standing up or playing the guitar. But I don’t think this question is too hard to answer.

Sex deals centrally with our embodiment, the persistently baffling and latently disgusting connection between person and flesh. It seems very likely that our feelings on this subject play a big role in our self-concept, in our ability to distinguish ourselves from our surroundings, at quite a basic level. That is, it seems quite likely that sex deals with feelings and ideas which play a ‘psychologically load-bearing’ role, that form part of the sacffolding for our fundamental psychic organisation.

This doesn’t mean (contra Benatar’s ‘significance view’) that it’s a big important deal that should only happen in very specific circumstances, because as long as that psychic scaffolding isn’t disturbed or de-stabilised, it can support perfectly casual, unimportant activities. But if something does de-stabilise it, the psychic effects can be huge – can constitute trauma. And there’s nothing implausible about saying that these ideas and feelings remain stable and secure as long as the individual is (and feels) in control, but can be seriously undermined if they feels a loss of control.

Consider, by analogy, the techniques of psychological torture, which alongside sexual abuse include things like sleep deprivation, or loud noises. These techniques are effective – they do serious structural damage to the mind, they undermine and destabilise its organisation. But that doesn’t mean that sleep or quiet is something specially meaningful and emotionally important, that we shouldn’t engage in casually.

Similarly, one might defend conventional taboos around sex with children on the grounds that their developing minds are still forming this necessary psychic foundation, and that premature sex would interfere with this ‘construction’ process.

Benatar’s whole argument seems to proceed in complete neglect of any plausible model of how the mind is organised or what is required to maintain its equilibrium. What’s surprising to me is that this hasn’t been more obvious.

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2 Responses to A Reply to David Benatar on Sexual Ethics

  1. C-dog says:

    I see nothing inherently wrong with child-adult sex. I think it should be discouraged on the basis that children are emotionally vulnerable and might not be as equipped to deal with negative consequences (like regret). There are circumstances when child-adult sex would be harmless but we can’t accurately predict how likely it is that the children will come to regret the act or enjoy it. There’s nothing morally wrong with sexual promiscuity and it tries my patience to no end that most people believe there is. Forcing a tomato down somebody’s throat is abusive and degrading so I don’t see how a sexually liberal philosophy views rape as ‘no big deal’. It is a big deal because somebody is using your body for their own benefit without your consent.

  2. Rarara25 says:

    Hi. I read this article for a paper im writing and I’ll make sure to cite your response to it, because I think it was insightful and an interesting point for critique. I definitely agree with you that Benatar narrowly focuses on two supposed “extremes” on sexual ethics and fails to capture the more complex nuances of sex and its potential harms (like most analytic philosophy does :/ ). While I do think that acts like rape and pedophilia are psychologically destabilizing events for most people, I think Benatar would respond with the question of whether that destabilization is caused more so by the sexual acts themselves or by the social implications such acts may have due to the taboo nature of sex in our society. I myself would posit that response anyway, because I think it is just as safe to assume that promiscuity can destabilize people psychologically due to social taboos just as pedophilia and rape can, albeit in different ways. Promiscuity, pedophilia, and rape all involve the intimacy of the physical self, and therefore the potential harms of physical engagement, and the psychological stability contingent on that physicality, are present in all three instances.
    My problem stems from the way moral value is placed on certain kinds of sex over others. Under the romantic view, rape, pedophilia, and casual sex usurp those involved of romantic engagement in sex, and therefore they are morally wrong. The casual or liberal view, however, posits that promiscuity is somehow morally neutral and pedophilia and rape are somehow morally bad. I would argue that promiscuity actually has the potential to be morally bad, in the sense that it can induce harm to people’s psychological stability like rape and pedophilia can. Overlooking the negative potential of casual sex can indeed be very harmful, and I would argue that it is exactly the idea of casual sex as morally neutral that allows many perpetrators of rape (date rape, for example) to argue that no serious harm was meant or caused. Rather I think that changing the intelligibility of sexual desire in our society is of utmost importance. Fostering a culture of respect and understanding regarding people’s desires surrounding sexual activity is needed in order to reduce the social harms induced by instances of rape, pedophilia, and promiscuity. In all cases of rape and some cases of pedophilia, where the intelligibility of a person’s desire regarding a sexual situation is overlooked or warped to benefit the perpetrator at the expense of the victim, such violations of expressed desire (or non-desire) constitute a harm because the ability to express one’s desires and have that expression understood has been undermined. In regards to casual sex, the intelligibility of one’s desires is undermined by social institutions that cause harm to self-concept in the lives of so many individuals labeled as promiscuous. Not to say that all desires should be protected from socially harmful repercussions, for there are certainly desires that limit or warp others’ ability to have their desires understood and respected, but rather to say that desires (sexual and otherwise) should have avenues of social intelligibility that allow individuals to interact in society in a way that respects their own and others right to have their desires understood and fulfilled.

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