How to Have Sex Like an Egoist
Catholic dogma insists that masturbation is corrupt, that sex between gay couples is corrupt, that sex outside of marriage is corrupt, that sex within marriages is corrupt if the couple deliberately tries to avoid pregnancy.
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These dogmas are deeply rooted in Christian doctrine and history. Jesus condemned lust. Paul lionized virginity, only reluctantly recommending marriage for those unable to live up to the ideal of life-long chastity. The early Christian philosopher Athenagoras summarized the early Christian attitude when he wrote:
Since we have a hope for eternal life, we hold in contempt the affairs of this life, up to and including the pleasures of the soul. We consider her a wife whom we have taken according to our own laws, exclusively for the purpose of procreation. Just as the farmer sows his seeds in the earth and waits for the harvest without sowing again, so for us procreation is the limit of our desire.
Pleasure, all agree, is no part of the justification for sex. On the contrary, explains historian Kyle Harper, “The Christians had created a way of life indifferent to the lures of pleasure” (From Shame to Sin, 103-5).
Modern Catholics have attempted to soften this outright hostility toward sex. What they condemn is not sex as such—just sex as the vast majority of people pursue it most of the time.
But the Catholics don’t simply assert their sexual rules as a matter of blind dogma. They argue for them in secular terms—and their arguments are not crazy. Especially if you believe, as Catholics insist, that the alternative is to embrace sex without meaning, without standards, without ideals.
The Catholic Case for Purity
In the wake of the sexual revolution, argues Budziszewski, we have come to believe that sex has no particular meaning, that “hooking up” is no worse than settling down, and that “friends with benefits” are able to gain the benefits of sex without the “baggage” of a committed relationship.
It’s a big lie, insists Budziszewski. And young people are increasingly realizing it’s a big lie. Their sex lives are unfulfilling, their romantic relationships are undeserving of the name, they’re stuck in perpetual adolescence, and life has generally become meaningless and miserable for everyone (good Catholics presumably excluded).
But why? Because our sexual powers have a purpose, and this purpose determines the appropriate ways to use those powers. Budziszewski gives several analogies to illustrate this point:
If the purpose of eyes is to see, then eyes that see well are good eyes, and eyes that see poorly are poor ones. Given their purpose, this is what it means for eyes to be good. Moreover, good is to be pursued; the appropriateness of pursuing it is what it means for anything to be good. Therefore, the appropriate thing to do with poor eyes is to try to turn them into good ones. (22)
By contrast, what’s bad? Taking an action “that flouts” a thing’s “inbuilt meanings and purposes.” Lungs, for example, are designed for breathing. Someone who uses his lungs to sniff glue ought not sniff glue because that is not the purpose lungs were designed for. (23)
Our sexual powers, similarly, were designed for specific ends, and if we use them in ways that aren’t appropriate for these ends, we rob sex of its meaning and joy. What are those ends?
One is procreation—the bringing about and nurture of new life, the formation of families in which children have moms and dads. The other is union—the mutual and total self-giving and accepting of two polar, complementary selves in their entirety, soul and body. (24)
But isn’t sex pleasurable, and so can’t a natural purpose for sex be the enjoyment of that pleasure as an end in itself? Of course sex is pleasurable, says Budziszewski, but treating the body merely as a tool for pleasure is degrading. “[T]o think of pleasure as the purpose of intercourse is to treat our bodies merely as tools for sending agreeable sensations to our minds. They are of inestimably greater dignity than that, for they are part of what we are” (25).
To gain the pleasure of sex in a way consistent with human dignity requires that we respect its natural ends: that we only have sex with our spouse, and only in a way that makes pregnancy possible.
Mutual and total self-giving, strong feelings of attachment, intense pleasure, and the procreation of new life are linked by human nature in a single complex of meanings and purpose. For this reason, if we try to split them apart, we split ourselves. Failure to grasp this fact is more ruinous to our lives, and more difficult to correct, than any amount of ignorance about genital warts. It ought to be taught but it isn’t.
The problem is that we don’t want to believe that these things are really joined; we don’t want the package deal that they represent. We want to transcend our own nature, like gods. We want to pick and choose among the elements of our sexual design, enjoying just the pieces that we want and not others. (29)
We want this—but we can’t have it: “if we try to make use of the sexual powers in ways that thwart and violate this purpose, we thwart and violate ourselves” (32).
Let’s be clear about what this means. Budziszewski’s conclusion is not simply that it’s wrong to be a pick up artist or a slut.
He is arguing that if you have not found someone you’re willing to marry, and you seek sexual pleasure through masturbation, your action is immoral.
He is arguing is that if you fall deeply in love with someone, and they with you, but you are not married, making love is immoral.
He is arguing that if you are married, and you use birth control because you do not desire children, making love is immoral.
He is arguing that if you don’t use birth control, but choose to orgasm in a way not conducive to pregnancy, making love is immoral.
He is arguing that if your spouse ignores and mistreats you, and you divorce, remarry, and then have otherwise-proper sex with your new spouse, making love is immoral.
Even this paints too pro-sex a picture, however. In his seminal work, In Defense of Purity, Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand gives us more details on what moral Catholic sex consists of. According to von Hildebrand, even a husband and wife who fastidiously obey all of the obvious rules governing sex can still slip into impurity if they aren’t careful.
Any breath of levity, any even momentary self-forgetfulness under the influence of passion, any abandoning to the passive moment, contradicts radically the significance of this union, its ultimacy, its seriousness and irrevocability, and therefore always involves not only objectively, but subjectively also, a material impurity; indeed, in a certain sense, a desecration. (23)
This is a recipe for guilt—and for impotence.
Virtually all sex, by Catholic standards, is immoral and therefore not genuinely life-enriching. What’s not immoral? Virginity, chastity, sexual frustration.
The Egoist Case for Pleasure
Whatever plausibility there is in the Catholic argument comes from this: sex is an exalted value, it should have deep meaning, and to treat it lightly is degrading. But every evil doctrine depends on offering a false alternative. Purity—or promiscuity. Either we have sex like a Catholic—or like a whore.
Effective Egoism offers a third alternative—one that arises from its radically different analysis of why sex is a value.
The Effective Egoist doesn’t start by asking, “What was sex designed for?” Sex, like all human capacities, has an evolutionary function. But we are not slaves to biology. Reason gives us the power to radically reconceive the purposes for which we use our faculties and capacities. No, we cannot make sex serve any end we wish, but we need not slavishly carry out the breeding patterns of our ancestors, any more than we have to slavishly carry out the hunter-gatherer mode of existence that kept them alive.
The starting point for thinking about sex is precisely that it offers the most intense form of pleasure open to human beings, and we pursue it as an end in itself.
The Art of Understanding Pleasure
The fact that something is pleasurable doesn’t mean it’s good for you—the Catholics are right about that. Heroin creates euphoria, but it’s an empty euphoria that saps our ability to meet life’s demands. Nevertheless, the fact that something is pleasurable should not be taken lightly. Pleasure is how we experience the fact that our life is an end in itself.
Many of our activities are future directed. I study so I can pass the test so I can get the job that I want. I shower so that I can get dressed so that I can go to the store so I can buy the groceries so I can cook my dinner. But why bother to engage in these future-oriented activities? Only because some things are worth doing for their own sake.
Getting a massage, eating a delicious meal, visiting an amusement park, watching a baseball game—these kinds of activities may have practical benefits, such as relaxation and nutrition, but that’s not why we do them. We do them because they are enjoyable. Moments of pleasure are ends in themselves. They don’t have to be justified by appealing to some future goal they’ll help us reach: their justification rests in the fact that they make life enjoyable right here and now.
But a series of good meals and roller coaster rides doesn’t constitute a life. I love baseball, but a lifetime of ballgames would not be a life worth living. Certain pleasures, however, are so deep, so profound, so intense that they do make life worth living.
Creative work is one such pleasure. Yes, I write books to make a living but the main reason I’m interested in making a living is so that I can write books. When I finish a manuscript my reaction is not, “Ah, more money in my pocket,” but, “That was a mountain worth climbing.”
Similarly for art. Art serves no practical, utilitarian purpose, and yet most of us spend a significant portion of our lives consuming art. Some of our most enjoyable, memorable experiences come from turning the pages of a novel or listening to the notes of a symphony. To read Les Miserables or to listen to Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is to think: “I would not want to have lived and died without having had this experience.”
What’s distinctive about our most profound pleasures is that they speak to our deepest values. The pleasure of a great achievement at work rests in the enormous pride I feel in having brought something worthwhile into existence. The pleasure of my favorite works of art rests in the fact that they allow me to live in my ideal universe. The greatest pleasure life has to offer is the experience that I am good and the world is good.
And this is the key to unlocking the mystery of sex.
Sex as Celebration
Sex offers us the most intense possible physical pleasure, but it is not solely physical. If sex were solely a physical pleasure, then we would not care about the context in which we have it. We would be indifferent between having sex in a romantically lit bedroom or by the side of the road—with a partner we love or with a sex doll or with a sweaty drunk stumbling home from the bar. But we’re not indifferent to these things. We prefer some settings to others, some partners to others. There are many circumstances in which we would not desire sex at all.
So sex is a physical and spiritual pleasure. But what explains its spiritual pleasure? What gives sex, under the right conditions, its unparalleled meaning? The fact that it speaks to our deepest values in a unique, all-encompassing way: it allows us to experience both that I am good and that the world is good.
Work gives us the experience of our own efficacy. But that pleasure is usually in the background, tucked away behind the difficulty and effort of creative work. It is also delimited and specific: in my work the chief thing I experience is that I am a good writer, not that I am a good person. Art gives us the experience that the world is good. But it is outward focused and cerebral. I’m responding to my ideal world, not to my own mind and my own body in the world.
Sex, by contrast, gives us the experience that I am good as a person, mind and body, and that the world is good for me. “To a rational man,” writes Ayn Rand, “sex is an expression of self-esteem—a celebration of himself and of existence.”
The source of sex’s power can be hard to isolate precisely because the self-celebration at its core is experienced through our partner. We’re focused on their body, their movements, their reactions. And yet if we scratch beneath the surface, two facts stand out.
First, that we desire a partner who embodies our deepest values. The values I have cultivated in my character are externalized in the character of the person I love—my desire for her is not separate from the act of self-celebration, but its precondition and realization. When she looks at me she sees me and responds to me and values me—and what I see in her are the things I most cherish.
Second, that what we experience with our partner is: I’m giving her this pleasure, and she has chosen to give this pleasure to me. I am capable and I am worthy. The conviction that I am capable and worthy is the very definition of self-esteem.
This is what explains sex’s unique and profound place in human life—and it helps us identify the conditions under which sex is genuinely a life-promoting value.
How to Enjoy Sex
If the joy of sex is rooted in the expression of self-esteem, then that sets definite limits on when sex can be a value.
Self-esteem is the conviction that I am able to live and worthy of happiness. It is the product of living by a rational moral code. If sex involves the rejection of the virtues, then it will not be a value. To lie my way into bed destroys the meaning of sex at its very root.
In the same way, if I use sex to try to gain self-esteem rather than express it, sex will not be a value. Sexual pleasure depends on the experience, “She chose me because I’m good.” I delude myself when I pretend that, “I’m good because she chose me.” This is especially true because the “she” involved will inevitably be someone I don’t know, don’t admire, don’t respect. What I will actually experience is contempt for her and contempt for myself.
And if I try to divorce sex from self-esteem and pursue meaningless, casual sex purely for the physical pleasure, sex will not be a value. Sex is spiritual and cannot be experienced any other way. Either it will be experienced as a profound value because it is an expression of self-esteem—or it will be experienced as degrading because I have conducted myself in an unworthy manner.
These are not commandments governing when you are allowed to have sex without (too much) guilt. They are conditions for sexual joy. Not senseless prohibitions on pleasure, such as the Catholic Church’s baseless and cruel vilification of masturbation. Not heartless prohibitions on love, such as the Catholic Church’s baseless and cruel demonization of homosexuality. What Effective Egoism offers is guidance for how to achieve as much pleasure from sex as possible.
And because they are broad conditions rather than dogmas, they take thought and judgment to apply. For example, even if it’s true that sex is best with a partner you love, that doesn’t mean anything less than the best is bad. If you’ve found a partner you know, respect, and care about, and who knows, respects, and cares about you, then there is no rule declaring that you ought not sleep together. You have to decide what you want, and there is no mystic authority who can declare that your decision was wrong.
I have argued at great length in this newsletter that our culture’s moral code is poisonous and needs to be replaced with an earthly ideal. But if you ask me what the most powerful argument is for Effective Egoism, I would name this: that it liberates us from the view that sex is evil.
Christian moralists (however much they may protest) regard it as evil and so saddle sex with senseless prohibitions. The alleged champions of sex (however much they may protest) regard sex as evil and encourage us to roll around in the muck without standards and without dignity.
Effective Egoism is the only moral theory that regards sex as good and encourages us to pursue and enjoy it without guilt. What stronger case could be made for a moral code than that?
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
And if want the full case for egoism, you can buy my book Effective Egoism: An Individualist’s Guide to Pride, Purpose, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
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