Last part of a series in which I argue with John C Wright’s On The Sexual Nature of Man. Part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here.
5.5 The Investment of the Interest In Virginity
John C Wright argues that your partner has a right to you being a virgin.
To be clear, before I begin, one has a perfect right to any dealbreakers one chooses. If you, personally, don’t want to marry anyone who isn’t a virgin, good luck and Godspeed. And there are lots of situations in which I think it’s wise to only marry a fellow virgin. If you’re in a sexual relationship with someone, it’s important that that person share your sexual values; if your values say that sex is only to be shared with your life partner, or that God frowns on non-marital sex, then finding someone who shares those values will usually mean finding a virgin. (But not always! It is possible, after all, that someone made a mistake.) Nothing I write here should be taken to imply that people who have thought about it carefully and decided that non-virginity is a dealbreaker should not have this dealbreaker.
5.5.1. Economic and Prudential Considerations
If you fornicate with another before marriage then you bring to your marriage partner a diminished capacity for love. Merely on economic terms, your marriage partner now knows you have shared the most intimate moments known to you with another, and so the intimacy you have remaining has less value.
It is possible that I am expressing my diminished capacity for love here, but what? . My husband has held me when I cried, learned secrets I didn’t tell anyone else, brought me my favorite dish from our favorite Chinese restaurant, supported me through the ravages of an excitingly diverse collection of mental illnesses, and stood with me in front of our friends and promised to be together for the rest of time, and you’re telling me the most intimate thing we’ve done together is an exchange of genital friction and bodily fluids? I have to say, if I were listing off the most intimate moments in my marriage, sex would not be number one. It probably wouldn’t even make the top ten. (Admittedly, I’m cheating a bit, because most people don’t get two wedding ceremonies, but even so!)
Frankly, this strikes me as a very juvenile attitude towards sex, one more reminiscent of a teenager excited that she let me touch her boob!!! than an adult seriously contemplating a lifelong commitment. Sex is just one part of an overall relationship. Often an important part, and one that allows people to express their feelings for each other– the same way that they express their feelings through compliments, holding hands, spending time with each other, being on their partner’s side about how awful his fucking boss is, making mixtapes, finally cleaning out the garage, or killing the terrifying bugs.
(Tangent: I am definitely the bugkiller in all my relationships, partially because I have dated people with a strong aversion to touching bugs, and partially because I enjoy slaughtering them and saying “cower before me! behold my might! I REVEL IN THE LAMENTATIONS OF YOUR INNUMERABLE MANY-LEGGED CHILDREN!” …aaaaaand I’m pretty sure Brian Tomasik’s going to fire me now.)
while past behavior does not predict the future, she had a reason to suspect you have less ability to withstand the temptations of adultery, should those arise in the future, than perhaps other potential suitors for her hand…
He, your theoretical rival, can claim his physical affections are and always will be an outpouring of his noblest affections. He has never made love except when he has been in love, and he has been in love only with one bride.
Hey, wait. How do we know that he’s better at resisting adultery if he’s only been in love with one person? You have no idea how he’d respond if after long nights at work his mind turns slowly from friendship to love, or whatever, because he’s never been in love with anyone but you before! What you really want is someone who has been in love with other people but not had sex with them, or perhaps someone with a history of long-term relationships in which they did not cheat.
You, on the other hand, have two choices.
One: you can say that those other girls really meant nothing to me, baby. I was thinking of you when I was ejaculating into her! Or I would have been had I known you! That was before I met you baby, and my standards were lower back then!
Again, on purely economic terms, all this makes your protestation of true love less valuable (and less persuasive) then someone with no history of taking love to be a casual matter.
Two: you can say that you loved Rosalind (or whoever) with your whole heart and soul, and deep as the sea and as high as your heart could reach, BUT, that you did not love that other girl enough to marry her. This signals to your prospective bride that your capacity for love is limited, and, yes, self-centered, and that your prudence is wanting.
So there are two things here.
First: loving one person does not diminish your love for another person. As we poly people say, “love is infinite, time is not.” A father who has ten children cherishes each of his children as much as if he only had one. A woman with four friends feels as close as if she had only had a solitary friend. A woman whose father died before she was born does not love her mother more than a woman who was raised by two parents. Why is this any different for romantic love? Mr. Wright provides no such argument.
Frankly, if I adopted that sort of attitude, I would lose a lot of self-respect. Love is a good thing. Sometimes love has to be put aside rather than cherished– if the person you love doesn’t want a relationship with you, or if it’s romantic love and you’re in a monogamous relationship with someone else, or if you’re giving up a child for adoption. But that is always sad, and always a sacrifice. And I do not want to be the sort of person who says “I am angry at you because, breaking no promise and telling no lies, you loved other people”, any more than I wish to be the sort of person who is angry about the existence of food I don’t like to eat or sunrises I cannot see. I do not wish to be the sort of person who hates the existence of the good.
Second: you have a third option. You can say, “I have loved deeply and widely and well. I did not seek you out because I had no other option, because yours were the first pretty face and deep voice who stopped by my farmhouse door. I have loved many men, enough to compare them in all their qualities, and of all the men I could have married, the one I have chosen is you. Yours is the character I admire most; yours is the personality that most delights me; yours is the life I want to make myself part of; yours is the smile I want to wake up to every morning. My love for you was not something imposed on me from afar. I choose you.”
Personally, I think the latter is quite romantic.
5.5.2 I perfectly agree with: your partner is wise to expect that you will adhere to your and his values. My one quibble with Mr. Wright is that I don’t think there’s anything imprudent, uncourageous, unjust or intemperate about nonmarital sex. 5.5.3 and 5.5.4 point out the obvious fact that if one wishes for people to remain virgins, then it’s wise to have this expectation before they meet their spouses, and that social norms may help them do this.
6. Matrimony or Fornication
John C Wright argues that either non-marital sex is punished or it is not:
Fornication (including adultery) either is or is not against the law, and either it is punished or not. If it is either not against the law, or is against the law but not punished, then no deterrent exists, and the law is a dead letter…
Under these facts, the proposition that adultery is licit when all three parties agree and give their consent, and is otherwise illicit, cannot be carried into effect. In a society where the Libertine position is the consensus, If Arthur goes to the magistrate carrying a paper in hand, which purports to be the document where Guinevere vowed eternal fidelity, a contract she broke, the magistrate cannot condemn or punish her beyond what terms the contract stipulates. The magistrate cannot, in the long run, enforce the contract, because the contract does not follow the values and opinions of the consensus. A society that approved of adultery would be outraged that a mere legality, a flimsy piece of paper, would block her sacred right to commit adultery: the outcry would ring to the sky. But even if the outcry were ignored, and the penalty stipulated in the contract enforced (if there could be such a thing) such contract laws would only penalize the short-sighted, and the social utility of punishing adultery would be lost.
Under any practical consideration, adultery cannot be against the law in a Libertine society, even if the two individuals would have it so. The law reflects the consensus, not the individual will.
Likewise the opposite: in a commonwealth where adultery is illegal, the magistrate has no choice but to punish it, even if the three people involved agreed in writing not to complain, lest the law be no deterrent to others and hence of none effect.
It is literally the entire job of contract law to deal with contracts that are different from each other. If I went to the magistrate to complain that McDonalds was not paying me my $10/hour wages, the magistrate would not say “well, some people are making forty dollars an hour! How can I tell apart the wage theft of you not making ten dollars an hour from the wage theft of you not making forty dollars an hour? Truly, the only way we can have enforceable wage contracts is for everyone to be paid the same amount of money!”
This is clearly not the case. The law is perfectly capable of distinguishing the injustice of me not being paid the ten dollars an hour that McDonalds agreed to pay me in my employment contract from the injustice of me not being paid the forty dollars an hour that no one anywhere agreed to pay me. Judges are not, in the real world, confused by the fact that contracts are sometimes different from each other.
(“But Ozy!” you say. “All marriages in reality are the same sort of contract, and in practice in order for you to have no-fault divorce everyone else has to have no-fault divorce too!” I agree, that’s ridiculous, people should be able to customize their marriages much more than they currently do. Prenups are a step in this direction but frankly don’t go far enough.)
If fornication (including adultery) either is or is not rigorously and vigorously penalized by social opprobrium. In this, there is not much latitude for diversity of opinions: the society as a whole is either committed to the proposition, or is not committed. The minority has a veto over the majority. If the majority condemns adultery, but a sizable minority does not join in that condemnation, the condemnation has no real force or effect. Anyone suffering ostracism or mockery for his adultery can move to the neighborhood where it is not condemned. The society merely polarizes in this case, it does not form an enforceable consensus…
As the magistrate keeps the laws, so too does the consensus of public opinion keep the customs. The laws cannot bind if custom does not, and the keepers of the public opinion operate under the same restriction as restricts the magistrates: public opinion cannot track each individual contract, or carve out exceptions. The society that allows for adultery when a contract stipulating open marriage allows for it, will be at best lukewarm in its condemnation of extra-contractual adultery. It is simply risible to assume that a society could condemn the loss of honor involved in breaking a contract, but embrace the loss of honor involved in breaking a marriage vow.
Or public opinion has to switch its norm from “no adultery” to “no lying to your partners and breaking promises.” Public opinion already deals with lots of issues where the difference is consent. Public opinion’s support for having sex with your husband does not imply that it’s lukewarm about raping your husband; public opinion’s support for giving your friends money if they need it does not imply that it’s lukewarm about theft; public opinion’s support for boxing and karate does not imply that it’s lukewarm about assault. Therefore, public opinion can damn well condemn people cheating on their partners without condemning consensually polyamorous individuals.
The best a woman can hope for in a society like ours is to dump the guy before she gets dumped herself. If she goes from man to man, breaking hearts and hoping her contraception holds out, she can maintain her self-esteem. Or she can be lucky enough to snare the ever-shrinking pool of nice and decent guys who want to settle down and get married early on, before the lifestyle begins to tell on her.
7. Prudence Regarding Matrimony
All non-essentials forms of sexual gratification are unchaste in essence. The mock or impersonate the sex act with the same physical sensations as the sex act, but they are sexually by accident, not sexual essentially. This means that a proper concern for virtue (and virtue is based on habit) should permit, if at all, these non-essential sexual acts when and only when they are part of, or leading up to, or added to, the sex act. With apologies to my Christian friends, I see nothing wrong with unnatural sexual acts with your own wife, provided these acts increase the union and love of matrimony.
But care must be taken not to allow non-essentials to drive out essentials. There are people who suffer a neurosis (there are harder words for this, but I will not use them here) where ordinary sexual acts or sexual stimulations will not stimulate them. Their sexual attraction does not attract them to sex, but, rather, away from it. We call this neurosis sexual deviancy.
Here we must make a distinction between sexual deviancy and merely sexual difference. The extreme cases are easy enough to distinguish: a man who prefers redheads to brunettes merely has a difference of taste. He will say Ginger is more attractive then Mary Anne (and, of course, he will be wrong on that point!) but there is no accounting for taste. A man who cannot get an erection unless his love is dressed in a Nazi uniform with stiletto-heeled boots, on the other hand, is neurotic. Likewise for a man attracted sexually to creatures with whom he cannot, biologically speaking, have sex: prepubescent children, dogs or sheep, dead bodies, and so on. There are specific names for each neurosis: pederasty, bestiality, necrophilia…
There is a gray area where certain things that seem like mere differences of taste might be neuroses, or things that seem like neuroses are mere differences of taste. The touchstone for making the distinction is whether or not it adds to or subtracts from normal and healthy lusts for normal and healthy copulation.
If it is neurotic, the lust for the non-essential will grow over time, and drive out the appetite for the normal. It will be a substitute rather than an adjunct. Ladies, if your man looks at a racy magazine rather than at you before the loveplay so to encourage an erection, that is odd, but not unhealthy. If he cannot get an erection at all without the magazine, he is addicted to porn, and that is unhealthy. Such a man is powerless, addicted to vice.
His erotic emotions and appetites and passions not longer serve the purpose of erotic love. This is not a matter of taste. If I prefer beer to wine, that is a matter of taste. If I drink urine and it tastes like wine to me on my tastebuds, there is something objectively wrong with my tastebuds. My appetite for wine is objectively disordered: it no longer reflects reality; it is as illogical as a statement that is false.
I would like to draw Mr. Wright’s attention to a neurosis he has perhaps overlooked: kissing.
Kissing is connected with sexual gratification, but obviously not PIV intercourse. It is not a human universal. (About half of cultures do not have romantic kissing before it is introduced to them by the West.) And yet in the West this neurosis is so widespread that nearly all sex is proceeded by kissing. Many a woman, in fact, would refuse to make love to her husband unless she is kissed first! This unchaste form of sexual gratification which mocks or impersonates the sex act with the same physical sensations is endemic! Even worse, many couples make out– often for hours!– with no intention of the making out leading to sexual intercourse!
Now, you might say ‘non-essential forms of sexual gratification’ refers only to things that result in orgasm, but Mr. Wright has specifically stated that not being able to get an erection if your partner is not dressed as a Nazi is a neurosis, regardless of whether you orgasm from your partner dressing as a Nazi. By extension, needing to kiss before you have sex must also be a neurosis.
I am not saying that there are no differences between dressing as a Nazi and kissing. One might argue that incorporating Nazis into your sex is disrespectful to the victims of Nazism, or that bringing violence and oppression into the bedroom harms the unitive purpose of sex, or what have you. I disagree with these arguments, but they could be made. Mr. Wright does not make them. He defines a sexual neurosis as a non-essential form of gratification pursued for its own sake which eventually is required to appreciate the normal, and if you accept that argument every Westerner is sexually neurotic about kissing.
(Is this [porn gif] the most virtuous form of sex, as it contains the least nonessentials? Inquiring minds…)
If you were among the Tapirapé, a Brazilian tribe which finds kissing disgusting, needing to kiss before sex would seem as perverted as needing to dress up as a Nazi is to us. Among Americans, needing to kiss before sex is not perverted; if anything, needing to not kiss before sex would be. The difference is, well, that for Americans kissing is popular, and for the Tapirapé it is not. Which is, what’s a nice word for it… culturally bound? Subjective? Not relating to the fundamental nature of sex?
Human sexuality is diverse. It evolved for the production of children, and now involves actions as diverse as sublimation into art, getting sucked off at a gloryhole, and having sex with stuffed animals– just as our ability to make mental maps evolved to help us figure out where the water hole was and is currently used to make memory palaces, and our visual processing evolved to help us see predators and is currently used to understand Magic Eye pictures. I don’t think Magic Eye or memory palaces mock or impersonate waterhole-finding or predator-fleeing, and I don’t think that fetishes mock or impersonate procreation.
What I have learned from this essay is that Mr. Wright believes that every American who needs to kiss to become aroused is powerless, addicted to vice, objectively disordered, no longer reflects reality, and as illogical as a statement that is false– or rather than he makes an unprincipled exception for the fetishes which happen to be common in his own culture.
8. Closing Remarks
John C Wright is wrapping up his argument, so I think it is about time to wrap up mine. In this absurdly lengthy post series, one might have gotten confused about which points were incidentals and which points get to the meat of our respective arguments, so I will outline exactly where Mr. Wright and I differ, the cruxes (I believe) of our respective positions.
Mr. Wright holds that morality is objective, while I hold that it is subjective. Still, one may answer questions like “what allows the average human to best fulfill their values, reach their goals, and pursue eudaimonia?” While I don’t expect my arguments to be persuasive to serial killers, unfriendly AIs, or that nice German man who got eaten, and presumably Mr. Wright does, Mr. Wright and I could still theoretically come to consensus on how we prefer society to be set up and the best way for a normal person to live.
Unfortunately, Mr. Wright and I disagree very much on the issue of fundamental human nature. I believe that people are more likely to be different from each other than he does, and thus that their ways of pursuing their goals are more distinct. Thus our respective opinions on polygamy, divorce, children being raised by people other than their biological parents, parents having a high degree of control over the lives of their adult children, etc., as well as my investment in coming up with social norms in which people can choose different life paths and still have the promises they made to each other enforced by social disapproval. I believe this difference may be at the core of the difference between the Matrimonial and Libertine positions.
One specific and quite important way this difference manifests is that Mr. Wright believes that there is a single best way to enjoy sex and other ways are insulting or degrading the best way, while I believe that people can have different thoughts on sex without any of them meaning the other ones are less valid. Similarly, Mr. Wright believes that only penis-in-vagina intercourse counts as real sex, while I think that ‘real sex’ is a silly concept. Thus we get my approval of homosexuality, kink, and oral and anal sex, and his disapproval of same.
The second key difference between me and Mr. Wright is that he believes that birth control is significantly less effective than I do, and thus that all non-marital sex runs a significant risk of conceiving a child without biological parents. I, however, believe that this problem is best solved through nudging people into using long-acting reversible contraception.
The third key difference between me and Mr. Wright is our philosophies of casual sex. Mr. Wright does not believe in sex accompanied by positive emotions other than the various forms of romantic love, while I do. I believe it is romantic to be chosen out of many potential romantic partners and unvirtuous to declare the existence of love itself to be wrong (as opposed to breaking promises, murder, etc. that may be caused by the love), while Mr. Wright disagrees. These differences lead to all of our disagreements about nonmarital sex that are not the product of our disagreement about the effectiveness of birth control.
Mr. Wright believes that men are worse than women, while I believe that human evil is dished out equally among the genders. This leads to surprisingly little difference, since if I agreed with him on the other things I would merely point out that men need to be protected from women, and not just the other way around.
Mr. Wright is absurdly optimistic about the ability of alienation of affection torts to keep people from committing infatuation-motivated crimes.