I am not saying that all casual sex is loving any more than I would say the same about all marriages. Our society’s blind spots around sex are worse because we tend to trust customs and support these ideas with awkward feelings, including, but not limited to, fear, contempt and envy. If we combine our experience(s) of disappointment and a dread of disease into this mix, it seems, to some, to create a solid case against casual sex. A deeper look at the position that rejects the idea of friends with benefits or no strings attached (NSA) sex, reveals both doubtful reasoning and prejudice. Regarding the fear of STD’s, sex itself should never get the blame for errors of judgment. Such blame would be like faulting our noses for missing an exit sign on the freeway. Our genitals lack cognition, which is the job of our brains. If we refuse to weigh our alternatives, then we are mentally lazy.
Harmless casual sex is difficult to judge because it is an end, not a means. A means, we judge by its consequences. With an end, we either accept it as good on its own or not. I would suggest that harmless pleasure is a good thing. People advance arguments against sexual pleasure as an end without considering that they are assigning their lovers a value only to achieve another end. They point to usefulness to prove a value and even call this usury loving. I’m not saying that the deepest of affection excludes useful means! I’m saying that those means do not make a relationship loving.
The weakness of arguing against pleasure as an end often relies on beliefs about love, not what actually happens between people.
“It is easy for a false hypothesis to maintain some appearance of truth, while it keeps wholly in generals, makes use of undefined terms, and employs comparisons, instead of instances.”
David Hume, “Inquiry Into the Principles of Morals”
It is notable that some people treat their friends with benefits better then others to whom they have given commitments. To assume that humans cannot access their affections without uttering some magic words or planning a future is simply false. When we look at instances of both monogamous and polyamorous folks attempting to achieve a beneficent result relying on relationship commitments and rules, the various outcomes do not lead to a conclusion, but instead, to doubts. We tend to haunt ourselves when we compare our circumstances to a particularly good moment in our own lives, the lives of others or even compare our lives to what we imagine about other people’s relationships. These comparisons have a lot of room for error and delusion.
One flawed tactic often attempted in monogamy is the seeking of security through control (the illusion of control.) This control trip can become worse when adding more lovers. Instead of two people stuck in strategies that may not be adapted to real life, we now have three, four or more. This can be a mass grave for spontaneity. No amount of agreement, fidelity, sharing chores, promptly paying the rent or saying ‘I love you’ can make a relationship affectionate. A flattering con artist who steals and sells our identities can do those things just as easily. Most of us have witnessed people going, in a short time-frame, from sucking on each other’s body parts to trying to destroy each other in divorce court. Neither marriage nor commitment guarantees us anything! Expectations and routines become deadening because they assume an outcome leaving less room for discovery. Regardless of our beliefs, life often forces upon us circumstances beyond our expectations. The conservative will reject this experience, not because it is bad, but because it is something other than the preconceived idea. This includes conservative polyamorous folks.
The refusal to impose a role on others contributes to NSA sex as a precious end unto itself. The absence of demanding some exchange outside of mutual delight allows lovers more choices, not only for other partners, but in what they do in life beyond sexuality. An honest person with a kindly NSA attitude possesses a powerful virtue because he or she protects all the alternatives and refuses to mislead others. These merits are something that many in committed relationships cannot claim.
“I won’t ask for promises.
So, you don’t have to lie.
We’ve both played that game before.
Say I love you and say goodbye.
I’m not talking about moving in
And I don’t want to change your life,
But there’s a warm wind blowing the stars around
And I’d really love to see you tonight”.
Lyrics: England Dan & John Ford Coley, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”
I will counterbalance a popular argument against casual relationships that posits a ‘fear of commitment’ as an explanation. If we turn this bit of folk psychology that appeals to custom upside down the result will rest on a foundation just as solid. Before I tackle commitment phobia let’s remember not to turn psychology into an idol. Homosexuality and masturbation were both previously considered illnesses. That error led to the torture of LGBT people and children. I suspect the reason the psychology establishment has never apologized for that mistake is many of their diagnoses rest on similar grounds as the error with homosexuality and masturbation. This mistake is a flawed and over generalized idea of ‘normal.’
The reply to the fear of commitment argument is that the insistence on commitment is fear based, a lack of love and trust. The commitment limits or denies choices to others that are the birthright of having a body. In looser terms, it is fear of another’s freedom. The insistence on control rests on the assumption that people do better by limiting choices e.g. the fear of another’s capacity to feel benign sexual affection for others. Some may argue that some NSA sex can be harmful in some particular ways ‘as if’ we could not say the same about particular committed relationships. Surely, the people who advocate commitments or what I call relationship mythology will disagree with the argument I offer above. Regardless of the offense my suggestion may give, the ‘fear of commitment’ argument is not one bit more formidable than the ‘fear of being loving’ argument I just opposed to it. We cannot prove either of these positions. Each view involves an interpretation of subjective motives. These arguments should cancel each other out. If we prefer one argument over the other, the judgment does not rest on reason, but either preference or prejudice. If you prefer commitments, I have no objection. If you say, commitments are loving and alternatives are not then I have several arguments.
Human interaction involves a lot more trial-and-error than most of us are willing to admit. I say it’s better to recognize that you don’t really know something than it is to be full of shit. It would be wise to allow humans to try different things and see the variety of results. We adapt ourselves to the circumstances around us or we pay the price when consequences expose our delusions. The fact that many people agree with a belief is no consolation when it fails. Consider the once popular belief in a flat Earth. The Carthaginians, reasoning from earlier successes, sacrificed hundreds of children to protect their city from the Romans. Their plan failed. I have no reason to think people today have weaker powers of abstraction then the Carthaginians. We should ponder these kinds of mistakes before making sacrifices including sacrificing our own liberties or those of our lovers with the idea of something good as a result.
I have been in open relationships, which also includes a particular woman, for more than 20 years. Obviously, I am not against duration in relationships. I am against confusing means as ends and stultifying beliefs. Particularly, the belief that sex can only be loving if it conforms to some model.
By Todd Vickers
Footnote: Here’s a little tip about distinguishing between prejudice and preference. We don’t have to alter or distort any facts to prefer pizza to pasta. Those holding a prejudice will reject or reinterpret a fact contrary to their preferred conclusion to defend the preconceived idea.
Edit: 12.07.2014 Grammar + psychology criticism added