Monday 3/18




Quiz Questions

  • What does Halwani finally conclude is problematic about casual sex and promiscuity?
  • How does Elliston respond to the argument that promiscuity poses a threat to monogamy?
  • How does Elliston respond to the argument that promiscuous people are unfaithful, unreliable, and deceitful?


Today we continued our discussion of the hook-up culture, segueing into a discussion of promiscuity, by considering two contributions to the literature, above.

First, we noted that both Halwani and Elliston struggle to define the very behavior to seek to evaluate. For example, spelling out promiscuity as Elliston is an invitation to clever counter-examples. Thus Elliston writes,

First, promiscuity demands copulation-its telos is sexual intercourse...

Second, repetition is essential-the pursuit of a new partner must recur...

Third, both partners must be adults...

Fourth, the couple cannot be directly related through marriage...

Finally and most decisively, promiscuity is noncommittal sex...

We're given a set of individually necessary, jointly sufficient conditions on promiscuous sex, but (for example) one can imagine many scenarios in which we have promiscuous sex without, specifically, sexual intercourse. (To be sure, whether oral sex counts as sex continues, mysteriously enough, to haunt these discussions.) It may be that only the third condition is immune to criticism, except when we remember that the age of adulthood is defined different in different cultures, and, like it or not, lots of teenagers engage in sexual activity. Yet nothing they do can, by Elliston's definition, count as promiscuity, which seems odd, to say the least.

Elliston's strategy, of course, is to consider all the ways in which one might go about condemning promiscuity: It is contrary to western cultural norms; it violates the inseparability of sex between its purpose of procreation and its purpose of building the emotional and spiritual ties between a (married) couple; it is a threat to monogamy, which is a superior arrangement; it necessarily involves lies, deception, and exploitation; and, it threatens emotional security and personal growth.

We didn't go through each of these points, but it is pretty clear how the response will have to go in each case. By unpacking each of these criticisms, of course, Elliston is also developing a richer account of the ways in which promiscuity may be pursued so as to avoid these pitfalls.

To be sure, Elliston well recognizes that a robust defense of promiscuity cannot rest on meeting objections. It must also articulate reasons why one ought, should one so choose, pursue promiscuous sex. That is, he's explained why it's not morally wrong, but why might it be considered morally permissible?

To that end he offers a number of points: Respect for individual autonomy; sex as a kind of body language or social communion; and the expression of authentic sexuality. Regarding the social role of sex, Elliston offers a charming analogy:

Sex and eating are frequently compared, since both are appetites whose satisfaction is socially regulated. Consider a society where the following etiquette is operative. Each man is allowed to dine with only one woman. Before their first meal begins, each receives a solemn injunction: "Thou shalt dine with none other, so long as you both shall live." Their partnership is exclusive; no one may be invited to the meal ("three is a crowd"). Only the utensils already provided and accepted by others may be used; bringing a new gadget to the meal is an innovation attempted by many, though (curiously) condemned by all. Throughout the remaining meals the menu is fixed on the grounds that meat and potatoes are the most nourishing foods. The ways in which these meals are prepared and consumed is subject to strict regulation: one is not supposed to touch the food with one's hands; everyone must keep an upright position (it is considered an insult for one to stand while the other lies). Interaction is drastically curtailed: one is not allowed to exchange dishes; one must feed only oneself (for a man to place his spoon in his partner's mouth is a mortal sin). These rules prescribe that each person gratify his own appetite, but in the company of a select other (to eat alone is forbidden, though many do). During the meal a typical conversation consists of compliments-how good the meal is and how agreeable the company-regardless of their truthfulness.

If food and sex were only the satisfaction of appetites, these restrictions might be defensible-though the prohibitions against some changes would still be contentious. However, some innovations, at least for some people, not only could enhance the efficiency of such practices, but could add to their meaning as well. To "dine" with several different people can make eating not only more pleasant, but more enlightening too. To vary the "menu" is a safeguard against boredom that not only expands the topic of conversation, but also has nutritional value. To invite a guest similarly intensifies the conversation, which need not dissolve into monologues if considerateness is shown by all. People should be allowed to get their fingers sticky (sex is wet) and to eat alone (masturbation makes neither your eyesight grow dim nor your hair fall out). Sometimes it may be more convenient to eat standing up or lying down: the exceptions of one society may elsewhere be the rule. More interaction can make the experience more significant; for example, switching dishes when the desires are different (to the dismay of many, they frequently only look different) provides variety that, after all, is still "the spice of life." If the food is not well-cooked and the company is no longer mutually attractive, admit these shortcomings; such honesty may lead to better meals. Only recently have the stereotypes that determined who issued the invitations, and who prepared the meal and did the serving, begun to dissolve. Exchanging traditional sex roles by allowing the woman to show greater initiative (if not aggression) can enhance mutual understanding and respect by dramatizing what it is to be in the other person's place.

I suggested that the analogy between having sex and having dinner may not hit quite the right note: What matters about dinner is the conversation one has, not (entirely) the food one eats. Yet if the analogy is between having sex and having conversation, it seems Elliston's basic positive case on behalf of promiscuity is born out at least as well as with the analogy he uses between having sex and having dinner.

We did not, unfortunately, get to discuss Halwani's contribution on these debates. I'm not committed to particular pace for us--I for one am thoroughly enjoying our conversations (ha ha)--but Halwani draws our attention to a problematic feature of promiscuity Elliston largely ignores: The tendency one might gain in pursuing casual and promiscuous sex to objectify our partners. Since this is an important discussion for further inquiry into sex work (exotic dancing, prostitution, pornographic performance, etc.), I want to start there next time.