No matter how enlightened your brain is, most of us have a lizard brain and decades of social conditioning that tell us that:
- Sex outside of a committed, monogamous relationship is dirty and defiling
- All sex is inherently meaningful
- Wanting to have sex with someone else necessarily signals a lack of love or desire for your partner
- Having sex with someone else cheapens the sex you have with your partner
- Your partner having sex with someone else is a sign and act of disrespect toward you
Most people will feel most those feelings at one point or another. I think that’s because they are all rooted in truth. I don’t know how and why and to what extent they are “true.” Because the answer to that question depends on your truth. It depends on how you decide what is true. I could explain the “truth” behind any of these ideas with tools including, but not limited to, religion, neuroscience, sociology, and intuition.
In my estimation and experience, the question that’s more useful than whether those statements above are true is whether they are useful.
The thing I love about sex-positive feminism is that it is less concerned with what is true about sex and more concerned with what is efficacious. It asks: Does this belief about sex help me achieve the things I want out of sex and out of life?
I like it in part because I have an empirical bent. As such, I will take the statement “all sex is inherently meaningful” and think, is this falsifiable? A religious person would ask what their religion says about it. An intuitive person would ask themselves what they feel is true about it.
The claim “all sex is inherently meaningful” cannot be falsified. You can falsify that most people believe that. But that doesn’t make the belief itself falsifiable. You can approximate it if you define meaningful in a way that can be empirically measured.
I strive to think and make decisions empirically because I do not trust religion or my intuition to guide my behavior. They’ve both really, really let me down too many times and in too big a ways, the bastards.
There are two major flaws with using empiricism to make decisions. First, the research is shitty AF. It’s conflicting. It’s designed poorly and incredibly biased. Especially when it comes to so-called “social science” questions, like, you know, how to live.
The other major shortcoming to empiricism is that it does not contain value judgements. That is to say, empiricism doesn’t tell you where to go, only how to get there.
In my relationships I often wonder what to do. For example, I wonder whether or not I should have sex with a person based on how it will impact my other relationships.
In the past week I got the same feedback from three different sources, but just now realized that all three people were saying the same thing.
The first person criticized my use of social science for lifestyle decision making based on the fact that it’s of poor quality and people aren’t averages. I’ve heard this criticism before. These are both true statements. Well, they’re statements that are fairly well empirically supported.
I believe that there’s no such thing as an average person. That makes sense to me. But, like, again, how decisions work out for most people is the best information I have on whether or not to do something.
The second person told me, in reference to polyamory, that I needed to let go of my little utopia. That I construct my ethics upon honesty. But, but looking back, I’m only as honest as I can be. And that in reality, that’s not very honest. And when I think back upon my romantic relationships, man does that ring true for me. I’ve perpetrated a whole lot of self-deception.
The third person told me, “You are too mature for your own good” after I explained the above bullet points to them. Which I take to mean, “You think pretty logically but also you come to very different conclusions than most people so it’s probably kind of alienating for you on net.”
When I need to decide what to do, and the literature isn’t there, I go back to the ideas I have found useful to me in the past. Because that’s my utopia. In my utopia, everyone knows and feels deeply that:
- Sex outside of a committed, monogamous relationship is nothing necessarily. Its impact and meaning is totally dependent on the context.
- Sex has no inherent meaning, only what our rational brains, our lizard brains, and our culture give it
- Wanting to have sex with someone else necessarily signals wanting to have sex with someone else, nothing more.
- It’s impossible to know how having sex with someone else will impact the sex you have with your partner and is mostly dependent, again, on context.
- Your partner having sex with someone else is not necessarily a sign or act of respect or disrespect toward you unless they intend it that way or you choose to interpret it that way.
Because that’s a better way to live, in my experience. To the extent that I believe and live all that, I’m happier and healthier. I’m less anxious. I’m less depressed. I’m less threatened. Those are things that I value.
But there’s a thing I value more than any of that.
The thing I value most is connection. I’m not sure why. I could point to neuroscience to justify it but I also think it’s arbitrary and I’m comfortable with my values being arbitrary.
In relationships, when I’m wondering what to do, whether to have sex with someone else or not or whatever, I’ve thought that there must be more to ethics than honesty. There must be more to treating people well than being true to yourself. And of course there’s affection and positive regard and self-sacrifice. But those don’t answer the question of whether to have sex with someone else if you believe the above points. Because in my utopia, they’re not in conflict.
But here in the real world, they are in conflict. In the real world, me having sex with someone else sometimes stirs up a whole lot of really uncomfortable feelings in my partners (and them having sex with someone else also stirs them up in me! Still!). And so, for that reason, maybe sometimes the affectionate, holding in positive regard, self-sacrificial thing to do is to not have sex with someone else. Or maybe sometimes it’s just more trouble than it’s worth.
Because I value connection more than utopia. Because love, at least the way I do it, requires more honesty than I can often muster. Because love, at least the way I want to do it, also requires more than just honesty. It requires affection, positive regard, and self-sacrifice.
I don’t know how to do that well yet. But I want to learn. From the research and also from experience. I want to learn to trust my partner’s love for me, and I want to treat my partner’s vulnerability with gentleness and care.
Because sometimes I’m irrational. Sometimes I believe things and feel things that don’t work out to my benefit. That are not efficacious or empirical. And I want my partner to be there for me in those feelings, to inhabit them with me without taking them on himself. And I want to do that for him.
It’s understandable that I want a utopia where all my feelings, actions, and beliefs are efficacious and rational. It’s wonderful to do the work to know and love myself in all my irrationality and self-defeating behavior, and to do the work to know and love someone else in theirs.