I’m talking about sexuality in my CORE 350 ethics class at Felician. It’s a minefield. The subject is hard to talk about anywhere, but especially in a classroom–and especially in a classroom at a Catholic college. There’s the simultaneous danger of being so candid that you offend someone, or so anodyne that you sound out-of-touch and irrelevant. Never mind that the professor is himself a walking stereotype of some sort–a divorced middle-aged academic who manages to make everything he says on the subject either sound dreadfully abstract or else really dirty. But of course, that’s what makes the topic so much fun.
Our first text has been the Commentary on the Sixth Commandment (against adultery) from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’ve tried to impress upon my students the fact that I’m neither hoping to inculcate Catholic moral doctrine in them, nor discussing the Catechism simply to tear it down, but just using it a source of authoritative moral teachings on the subject so as to figure out what to make of what it says. Teaching it is a good exercise for me because I find so much of what it says so ridiculously implausible: I have to work a bit to make it plausible to them. But I’ve been surprised to find some scattered agreement as well. Of course, the same thing might be said about my students’ beliefs about sexuality, as the following conversation illustrates.
Today’s in-class discussion focused on lots of things–marriage, procreation, homosexuality, etc.–but ended with a free-wheeling discussion of adultery. Here’s what the Catechism says about it:
2380 Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire.170 The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely.171 The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.172
2381 Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union.
I was in a casuistic mood, so I decided to ask my students what counts as a case of adultery. I found their answers bizarre, but then, I find most people’s views on sexuality bizarre (except my own). The question was intended to elicit their views, not to to tease out the official view of the Church. Incidentally, some demographics: The class has 30 students in it, and consists predominantly of women aged 18-21, a few men of the same age, a few women in their 30s and 40s, and a few nuns in their 30s, I would guess. Since we’d discussed homosexuality earlier, and the Church’s definition of adultery presupposes heterosexual marriage, the conversation was about heterosexual marriage.
Here are their answers:
1. Is sexual intercourse with someone outside of the marriage an instance of adultery? –Yes.
2. Is oral sex….? –Yes.
3. Is phone sex….? –Yes.
4. Kissing on the lips…? –Yes.
5. Flirting without physical contact…?–Yes.
6. Ogling a member of the opposite sex…? –Yes (though there was dissension on this one).
7. Going to a strip club…?–No (?!)
I don’t know about you, but these answers make no sense to me. Or perhaps I mean that I can make sense of them–in the sense of figuring out the underlying rationale–but that they strike me as incoherent.
The most glaring incoherence seems to me the one between (7) on the one hand, and (5) and (6) on the other. Let me ignore the apparent incoherence between (6) and (7), since it’s not entirely clear to me that the people asserting (7) were also asserting (6). But the people (young women) most vehemently asserting (5) were also vehement about asserting (7), and that really does strike me as incoherent, or least as wildly mistaken. The claim here seems to be that if you flirt with someone, you are cheating on your marriage because it involves “thoughts or feelings” of an adulterous nature, thereby (I suppose) falling under Christ’s condemnation of the “adultery of mere desire.”
That seems to me an implausible conception both of marriage and of adultery, but let it go for now. I can see the rationale for it, assuming that one adopts implausible conceptions of both marriage and adultery–very rigoristic ones. What is hard to see is why the very person who adopted such a conception of flirting would then turn around to insist that strip clubs didn’t involve adultery.
But that is explicitly what they said. They believed that men go to strip clubs to “admire female beauty,” and that doing so is sexually innocuous, whereas flirting involves something like emotional attachment and lust, which is clearly adulterous. In other words, the average patron of a strip club patronizes, say, The Harem or Satin Dolls in the detached way that a hifallutin aesthete might go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to “admire the beauty” to be found in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner–or, maybe more precisely, in the portraits of John Singer Sargent. Put yet another way, the average patron of the average Jersey strip club is going there for an experience no different from the guy who goes to the Frick Collection to gorge his lustful eyes on Lady Agnew of Lochnaw:
Somehow, I doubt it. I have a sneaking suspicion that my female students have been fooled by their boyfriends into thinking that the strip club experience is more of an exercise in aesthetic formalism than it really is. Who knew that there were so many budding Nick Zangwills in the strip clubs of north Jersey? Let’s hope that the ASA is on the case.
Anyway, the dispute in question turns on a straightforwardly factual matter. If flirting is adultery because it involves the wrong thoughts and desires, then if going to a strip club either involves the same thoughts and desires (or more intense versions of the same ones), on this conception going to a strip club is (even) more obviously a case of adultery than flirting. I leave the rest as an exercise for the social psychologists or strip club enthusiasts out there.
Personally, I take the answers to questions (1)-(3) to be fairly obvious, though I’ve met people who would contest (3), and I suppose Bill Clinton in his own way famously contested (2), as did many of his defenders. It’s an interesting question what exactly ties (1)-(3) together, though I suppose the general answer is obvious: sexual activity (involving contact) by one married person with someone outside of the marriage.*
I don’t think (4) is obvious. I agree that kissing someone who isn’t your spouse is wrong, but personally, I don’t think it’s a case of adultery. (A small minority of my students agreed, but most disagreed.) Part of the issue here turns on turpitude, and part on–for lack of a better term–phenotypic dissimilarity. I think “adultery” should be reserved for serious offenses, and though I think kissing is an offense, it isn’t nearly as serious as having sex with someone. So it ought to be separated somehow. Further, though kissing is obviously sexual I think there’s an obvious phenotypic difference between an act that can in principle lead to orgasm and one that can’t. So I think the concept of “adultery” ought to reflect that. One student pointed out (correctly, I think) that there are cultures or contexts in which kissing on the lips is not thought to be a sexual act at all. There’s another reason for thinking that kissing and adultery are distinct.
I don’t think that (5) is either wrong or a case of adultery. This claim of mine set off a minor firestorm in class. But there’s a bit of an ambiguity here: you may not have realized this before (and neither, I think, did W.B Gallie), but “flirting” is an essentially contested concept. In other words, there’s flirting and then there’s flirting. Here is a standard definition of the term:
verbgerund or present participle: flirting
- 1.behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.
The last clause is the key to the definition. X flirts with Y if and only if X has no serious intention of being romantically involved with Y and (I would add) knows that the same is true of Y.
It’s a serious and interesting question whether people are psychologically capable of pulling off flirtation in this sense, and can have knowledge in the requisite sense under the relevant conditions. Maybe so, maybe not. It’s also a serious and interesting question whether, regardless of that, the activity of flirting has any justifiable rationale. Maybe so, maybe not. But if we assume that people can flirt in the defined sense, I think it’s obvious that flirting is not a case of adultery. I happen to think that flirtation has a justifiable rationale: it has essentially the same rationale that joking around has in non-sexual contexts. Flirting is a safe, and I would add, necessary way of acknowledging the presence of sexual tension in relationships that are (or ought) otherwise to be non-sexual, and a safe means of catharsis of the relevant tension. Done properly, flirtation is harmless. It’s just hard to do properly, and harder still in a milieu where no one understands what it’s about, and where it’s equated with adultery. Ultimately, it’s probably safer not to flirt, but better to learn how to do it right.
I won’t belabor the point, but “ogling,” like “flirting” is an essentially contested concept. But it would take a whole new post to get that issue right.
It’s unfortunate that we didn’t discuss so-called “emotional affairs” in class, but alas, we didn’t. The moral status of emotional affairs is increasingly one that we Americans have farmed out to mental health care practitioners, so that the most authoritative answers to questions about them come from sources like WebMD. This makes me wonder whether philosophers should be in the business of competing with rival websites of our own–WebPhD, WebPhil, something like that. But no matter what we say, we’ll never be able to compete with the MDs on reimbursement.
The underlying philosophical issue here is one common to Christianity and Aristotelian virtue ethics, but that involves more psychological complexity than one finds either in the Gospels or the Nicomachean Ethics. Every significant sphere of life, including sexuality, has to be governed in some way by the virtues. But the virtues can’t be understood in a superficially behavioristic or legalistic fashion as demanding conformity with a series of pat prescriptions. They involve acting for the right object, in the right way, at the right time, from the right cognitive, affective, and behavioral dispositions, etc. It’s an enormously difficult job to explicate the latter idea in an informative, non-banal way that’s fully responsive to moral complexity.
Contrary to the Catholic Church, I don’t happen to think that “chastity” is a virtue, and don’t think that “lust” is an offense against it. But some virtues–honesty, integrity, justice, pride–do govern sexuality, and when they do, they require the agent to adopt some beliefs and not others, and by implication, to have some attitudes and not others, and some forms of affect and not others, etc. So one danger is to think that sexual ethics is a matter of mere conformity with a list of behavioral-legal prohibitions. But there’s another danger lurking here: of thinking that full Aristotelian virtue requires suppression of anything that seems like it’s incompatible with observing obvious behavioral-legal prohibitions. In other words, if full virtue proscribes adultery (as I’m sure it does), there’s a tendency to think that full virtue requires the agent to suppress any thought or desire that is, in a vague sense, adultery-positive or adultery-proximate.
In other words, if adultery is wrong, there’s a tendency to think that if a stray thought of adultery floats through my head, that thought is wrong and must be suppressed in the name of virtue. I think that’s a mistake that derives from a mistaken understanding of the way the mind works, and a mistaken account of the nature of virtue. From suppression of that sort it’s a short hop, skip, and leap to repression in the psychoanalytic sense. But repression is a defense mechanism–an offense against honesty, and a subversion of self-knowledge. At a minimum, virtue ethicists have to be more alive then they seem to be to the possibility that virtues can be a means of repression.
Anyway, there’s a lot more to say on this, but I can’t say it all now. I’ve said a bit on the website for my class. I hope to say more in the near future. Our next reading is Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “Sexual Perversion.” Should be interesting.
Postscript: I edited this post for clarity after the initial submission.
*I rewrote this whole clause for clarity after the original post.