I discuss extra-marital sex with my other self

February 2008

An imaginary conversation between two sides of my self. The voices can be distinguished by the differing indentation.

The Bible seems to have a clear ideal of sex and marriage being the same thing; to have sex with someone is to be joined to someone.

Women are property; sex is an act of possession, according to the culture which gave us those laws.

Well, maybe later on, but early Genesis doesn't seem to have that assumption, and it still indicates that this joining happens, and is for life.

Okay. But is this a spiritual thing, or is it still about the survival of a tribe? Is it because some “magical joining” happens, or is it because it worked best in the setting of this particular group of humans?

I've always thought of it as spiritual. Why shouldn't it be?

Observation of the world around me would suggest that it is, yes, an important thing, but I'm not convinced that the evidence points to it being a magical, spiritual thing.

In the Bible, adultery is punishable by death. Surely sex has to be something pretty significant for that to be necessary?

In the Bible, adultery is an act of dishonouring someone else's possession. Note the difference between adultery and unmarried sex. In addition, the Mosaic laws were established over a nomadic tribe, living and travelling in the desert for an extended period of time. Such severe penalties for adultery were probably important to the survival of the tribe. This does not necessarily hold today, especially in urban settings.

So, you think these laws are pretty utilitarian, then?

Sure; why wouldn't they be? We're happy to say that about the laws around seafood, for instance, or mixing (or not) different fabrics. Should we treat sex any differently?

Adultery is in the commandments, though, not just the general law.

So is honouring the sabbath, and we're happy to take that as a general principle rather than an incontrovertible law, right? Anyway, I'd hold that the commandments aren't different, just emphasised more. Like “guys, these are the really serious ones.” Hence the death penalty.

Maybe. Still, sex seems a big deal, and I'd like to only ever have sex with one person. It just seems, you know, right.

Okay, that's a fair call; a little fairy-tale idealistic, all Prince Charming and Snow White, but appealing even so. But then, what about people who re-marry after being widowed? Are they then wrong? Because that sort of love seems equally right to me.

Okay, let's move on. Have you thought about how your tribe, your family, your friends will respond?

Yes. This gives me pause, but I can't pause forever. And I must act according to my conscience. Like any such decision, of course, all the potential consequences will need to be weighed, measured, and judged.

Still, it seems to me sexuality is a pretty large part of being human, and expressing our humanness seems like a moral imperative to me. Saint Irenaeus said “the glory of God is a person fully alive.”

Well, I'd say sex is more a part of being animal than human. The human in us can regulate it, control it. It's the animal that just wants to act on it.

Okay, let me reword that. It seems to be part of being a complete person.

So are many things. We're never going to be fully complete, though, that's just not what being human is about.

Okay, but this is a pretty big gap to leave, isn't it? Especially if it's unnecessary to leave it. Surely we should still be trying for completion, for ‘full life?’

Yeah, but you're not planning to leave the gap forever. Surely you can wait until you're married. Best of both worlds, right?

Well, maybe, but I'm feeling like the gap needs to be closed now, like I'm not yet adult, like there's some rite of passage I haven't gone through, and as a result I'm still just a big child. I feel like it's an unnatural gap.

And banking on some unknown future that may or may not come to pass seems pretty thin. It's a pretty big thing to play the ‘what if’ game with.

In both directions, I'd say. You only get to say ‘yes’ once, but ‘no’ can happen as many times as you like. Anyway, your desire for sex is just your hormones.

And? Are we not biological creatures, made of flesh and blood? You're not a gnostic, are you, or a spirit/matter dualist? Because I'm not; I think the physical, the body, the flesh is important.

I do get what you're saying; our flesh shouldn't entirely drive us, or dictate our actions. But it should still be listened to. To ignore our flesh completely is an act of abuse every bit as bad as giving into it completely. How can you judge between a mindless body and a bodiless mind? Neither is human.

And isn't having sex outside the laws of your tribe just giving in to your body?

It could be, sure. But it could also be that my mind and my body need to find some compromise, and that external factors need to be considered with this in mind. What's more important? The laws of my tribe, or the drives and messages and impulses left to me by thousands of generations of my predecessors?

Nato commented:

Hah, you get points for asking questions I've wondered how long they will take to be asked. It's interesting how people are quick to question the 'it's not ok to be homosexual' taboo, but then when the 'it's not ok to have sex before marriage' taboo comes up, everyone retreats into the corner. Perhaps because we're worried such an attack may be interpreted as a desire for sex, and so for self, rather a desire for equality for others (as is assumed to be the case with the homosexuality taboo).

A couple of comments; in your passage, it seemed like one of the Matts was winning... do you see it that way?

I also note the use of a dichotomy: either follow biological urges, or follow the traditions and rules of Christian culture. Have you considered this dichotomy may be false? I think there is something else we should be following. Because both of those seem like slavery to something.

KT commented:

You beat me to it :) I have a large post drafted on this topic but chickened out of posting it. I shall respond presently. (Though you probably know most of my thoughts on the subject anyway.)

Matt commented:

Nato: Obviously what I've written is only a part of the picture, but yes, one of the Matts is currently proving somewhat more convincing than the other. Regarding the biology-tradition dichotomy, I was trying to avoid that. My preferable approach would be some integration between mind, body, and tradition, but as far as I can tell the tradition is not so keen on negotiation or compromise ;-). While I'm not advocating a wholesale giving-in to biological urges, I do think they need to be considered as part of what makes us human.

KT: Post it anyway; I'd be interested to get another perspective on it.

Christina commented:

On the question of not feeling like you're a real adult yet, is that just because in our society we are expected to be sexually active to be considered adult? Is it taken for granted because of our cultural expectations, and our definition of normality? I think we are swayed far more by culture than we realise (even people who claim they are 'counter cultural' - which in essence, is just behaving in reaction to the mainstream).

I have noticed that even not being in a relationship, people automatically assume you are somehow less of an adult or a person; less mature, less capable of living a happy life.

Having said that... mmmm can of worms but in a good way. I would love to read Kat's post and see another take. Also, I suggest having a chat with people to contrast your purely theoretical ideas. Talking to people who have (or haven't), out of pressure or not, why and why not, etc. It's a bit delicate, obviously, but there can be surprising responses.

era commented:

Curious post, I don't really feel like either side was the you I know however. Surprisingly enough I've been having a similar internal dialogue over the last couple of months. Only the focus is whether it is acceptable to have sex with anyone, or whether you should only sleep with a single partner at a time. Again this seems to come down to biology and tradition, but this is where things start to look pear-shaped. Neither biology nor tradition seem to me like a good basis on which to decide how to live. But what else is there to really base these sorts of decisions on? The obvious respond is rationality, which I suspect would lead me to a brave new worldish view of sexuality. But for more practical reasons (most people prefer to stick to biologically or traditionally motivated practices) this doesn't seem like a real option. Which leaves me wondering, well, what should I think / do.

Aeonsim commented:

Interesting post! I'd agree with Nato, that such discussion is uncommon, partly because people often make the assumption arguing that sex is acceptable outside marriage, is simply a front for trying to justify a desire for sex.

I'd suggest many of the historical/biological/biblical reasons against sex before marriage, such as risk of accidental pregnancy, risk of pregnancy killing the mother, being left with an unwanted child and the inability to control the spread of STDs, are no longer relevant today. With the advent of modern contraceptives, modern medical care, the ability to diagnose and treat STDs, the realisation that nurture has a greater role in forming a child's behavior than nature, and the related creation of the adoption system.

With the removal of the biological issues it leaves the psychological and "spiritual" sides such as they may be. Leaving us to weight up the slight remaining risk of the biological issues, and the possibility of psychological problems resulting from such behavior against the biological and psychological benefits of sex. Thus making the decision much more of a personal issue than a religious mandate.

@KT: please post it, it would be interesting to see a view from the other gender ;-)

Also Matt With regards to the dishonoring/adultry I think once the link between sex and children was discovered that also became part of the issue in more primitive societies. So that it became more than about just the dishonor done to your "possession", especially in western societies where inheritance followed the Paternal line rather than the maternal line, but also a lot about family and the idea of passing on all that you had archived on to your own flesh and blood. While theres still the matter of honor and dishonor I think the idea that "your" flesh and blood would be more like you and thus could be trusted to carry on what your'd done and remember you. If it was some one else's child you couldn't be so sure about it especially in societies where it was thought behavior was strongly linked to the flesh/genetics, rather than upbringing. In a premartial case your also need to consider that historically if a women had a child she didn't want she was kind of stuck with it, as for the reasons above most people wouldn't want such a child and the risk it might have "bad blood". Unlike today where adoption is common and there is often an excess of couples that want children but can't have them.

Hmm hopefully this all makes sense 3:30am's not the best time to be typing something. :-)

Jim commented:

Who were you planning to have sex with?

and would they mind being used so that you can go through what your indented self views a "rite of passage"?

That self appears to have quite a selfish view of sex, viewing sex as a part of it's own desire for wholeness, it's own biological impulses etc, but largely ignoring the fact that sex involves another person, and that, that person exists for more than just the indented self's own pleasure.

Other than the comment about widows and widowers remarrying, neither self appears to consider love at all, either romantic or the self sacrificing kind, as part of the sex or marriage equation. That's kind of interesting.

Christina commented:

I'd suggest many of the historical/biological/biblical reasons against sex before marriage, such as risk of accidental pregnancy, risk of pregnancy killing the mother, being left with an unwanted child and the inability to control the spread of STDs, are no longer relevant today.

Yes. For guys.

Contraceptives aren't always reliable. People sometimes don't use them, or forget. Many forms of contraceptives put the onus on the girl, e.g the pill, diapraghms. Girls do still get accidentally pregnant, and are left holding the baby (because, lets face it, guys who stick around are rare), or with the decision of whether they should have the baby at all. STDs are still a problem, because knowing the sexual history of your partner is iffy - it's possible they have an STD, and just haven't told you (or don't know themselves).

To be honest, the majority of these things have never really been a problem - for guys. Women, most often, are left to deal with the consequences; emotionally, physically etc. That's one of my frustrations with conversations like this: it's a risk-free thing for guys, and so they assume it is for girls too. Or, just don't think about the girl at all.

/end feminist rant (sorry for the angry tone)

Aeonsim commented:

Christina, the change hasn't so much been for Guy's because as you've said they've always had the advantage in all but the STD's, and in that case they were probably more likely to be spreading them because of differences in the expect role between males and females. But for females going from a 1:50 or higher rate of mortality during pregnancy to 1:10000, and from no effective contraceptives to ones with a failure rate of 0.5% or less is a significant improvement, to the point where many seem to think the risk is adequately low (or at least so the stats suggest).

Sure the risk isn't zero, but there a very few things that have no associated risk. And sure the Ladies are left holding the short end of the straw of the biological straw if something goes wrong, and a certain percentage of the male pop would be quite happy to bail at that point. Not so sure why you think it's rare, though? Would you ever hear about those that stay? I doubt it, they after all become slightly hurried marriages or civil unions with a kid on the way. Emotionally I'm not so sure it's as easy to call as you suggest, in the case where a relationship is broken off with out a child, I'd suspect it's certainly not one sided, and I suspect gals dump guys as often as guys dump gals these days.

Also with regards to: "That's one of my frustrations with conversations like this: it's a risk-free thing for guys, and so they assume it is for girls too. Or, just don't think about the girl at all." I suspect that that's more likely to be the case with adolescents than those who are older, and teenage sex I think is a whole different and much riskier ball game than that for reasonably mature 20+'s.

Jim's: Who were you planning to have sex with? Is an exceedingly good point, doesn't matter so much what your view point is if no one else is interested and any one who is interested is likely going to have to have a similar view too you.

Any way though I got caught up with the technicalities I'd agree with the suggestion in the original writing that the bible's view on the topic is not by it's self a valid reason to completely reject extra-marital sex with out consideration. And it's certainly no ones place to go naughty, naughty, you evil, wicked, sinful people if such activities occur between consenting adults.

Matt commented:

Jim: yes, I'm aware those things are missing; they're somewhat outside the scope of this piece. If I was asking the question "should I have sex with X?" then definitely more things would need to be considered. However, I've left them out, because I was responding to what I think are the main Biblical points, and on the whole, the Biblical law doesn't seem to care whether love is involved, just whether or not you're married. On top of which, half of the love stories in the Bible seem to be adulterous or taboo ones.

era: interesting thoughts. Monogamy/exclusivity is interesting, and I can't decide whether we need it because we're possessive and jealous, or we just desire it as an expression of intimacy.

Aeonsim, Christina: Interesting points both; thanks.

KT commented:

Hm. Interesting though it is to speculate about this as an abstract ethical issue, I find it a particularly unhelpful approach to thinking about the rights and wrongs of sexual behaviour (though one I am inclined to by nature), since I guess I see it as a fundamentally personal issue. I think it's something you'll need to address and readdress throughout your life with whoever you become involved with, and you won't ever find a blanket rule that works 100% of the time, because people are different, and because you don't really believe in moral absolutes anyway... :p

Discarding absolutes means discarding the comfort of certainty, which means you might never know absolutely that you're making the right decision. But in place of that security you get the adventure of creating yourself and your relationships as you want them to be.

Basically what I'm trying to say is, I think you're wise enough to know when the time is right, with a particular person, and stout-hearted enough to deal with the consequences if you make mistakes. I've come to trust myself in this regard: “to weight, to settle, to gravitate” towards the most loving course of action, taking into account all the things you're asking in this post, including effects on friends and family and society, the views and wishes of the other person, various risks, my own needs – everything. Then, when the balance tips one way or another, one can proceed with confidence. Thus, so far at least, I have managed to live largely without regrets, because even when things don't turn out as I expect, or I or others get hurt, I know I acted in good conscience, and with the best information I had at the time.

Obviously this is putting a great deal of confidence in one's own ability to judge what's best, and to hold to that judgement in the heat of the moment. But, well, what else have we got to go on?


Christina commented:

Chad: yup, I get you. I should've said in my previous post, contraceptives and medication and such have made it much, much easier to have sex without side effects for the majority. Was just bringing up the other side cos I'm aware it does happen a fair bit (and also, I am an angry devil's advocate feminist :P)

I agree with both Kat and Jim on this, despite my earlier rants.

Also, while we're on the theory side of things, I do know people who slept with their mates and then found that they didn't actually like their mate as much as they thought they had (and thus could no longer be in a relationship with them), but also felt very possessive of and connected to them despite themselves. It led to a lot of awkwardness and angst, so I guess... think about stuff and the consequences first?

Actually, I am interested in the whole idea of sex being 'sacred': is it really the big deal we always make it out to be, and will sleeping with someone actually 'connect' or 'bond' you to them permanently in a weird spiritual way, or is it just a form of very intimate exercise with two people? Is it only significant because we make it so, or because it's inherently significant?

Nato commented:

A further thought; A month or so ago, when i was entering church, car full of young people drove past and yelled out 'Sex before Marriage!', no doubt thinking it was hilariously funny. I kinda got the joke, but it's that funny...

Anyhow, it got me thinking. Of all the things they could yell out the window, 'judgment by works!', or 'Mary wasn't a virgin!', or 'God doesn't exist!' or whatever, the thing they chose to yell was 'sex before marriage'. To me, this told me something about how non-Christians view Christians - to them, the ban on extra-marital sex seems to be the biggest issue that defines us.

I don't like that.

Nato commented:

Grr... meant to say '...It's not that funny...'

era commented:

Christina: Personally speaking, I strongly lean towards the very intimate form of exercise view of sex. And to be honest, my most intimate and pleasurable experiences with other people have not been during sex. I mean it is important that you trust the other person, are attracted to them, obviously, and that kind of stuff. But apart from a lot of cultural programming that hypes up the sacredness of sex and a strong biological drive to participate in it, I don't really see why everyone still makes such a big deal about it.

Nato commented:

Woah! Looks like someone is taking this a little too seriously: http://eonsimia.blogspot.com/2008/02/art-of-becoming-one-with-mat.html

What have you guys been up to???

Greg commented:

Personally I tend to think the sexual experience is probably whatever you want it to be-for some a metaphysical act of bonding for man and wife; for others another form of entertainment (plus the various shades of grey in between.) So in a sense neither side is wrong or right- however, its worth considering that holding the former view doesn't exclude one from the pleasure aspect. To me it seems like the best of both worlds...

Greg commented:

Also, I think the bit about wantiing to be 'whole' or whatever is bollocks- there are plenty of people in the world who for one reason or another never have sex; this doesn't condemn them to somehow being less of a person. It's this sort of thinking, along with lust, that leads young Christians into premature marriage.