2.15 Sex, Relationships, & Marriage
2.15.1 This essay will focus on some of the ethical aspects of romantic relationships, sexuality, marriage, parenting, etc. Before going into detail, however, it is necessary to look first at the ethical aspects of relationships in general. This includes relationships with friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc.
2.15.2 It goes without saying that, in any relationship, there exists all of the moral parameters expected in interactions with others in society. This includes a general commitment to honesty, trustworthiness, respecting others as equals, politeness, and consideration for others to say the least. Unfortunately, we often forego many of these common guidelines when we become more familiar with the ones who are close to us. However, it should be stressed that all of these things are important when dealing with our closest friends, relatives, associates, and spouses and this takes personal vigilance and sometimes humility.
2.15.3 When we look at dating, all of the normal human decencies apply. This means that we should endeavor to be honest, forthright, and considerate at all times. One way this is not done is when we try to hide who we are or try to convey a false image of who we are when dating. This is deception and is inherently immoral, because it causes the other person to waste his or her time, and increases the chances of a hard break up later on (or worse - that the relationship might unfortunately last with both ultimately unhappy).
2.15.4 Also, when we use special tactics in order to get what we want, or to manipulate the other person (such as The Rules), then we are being dishonest and manipulative - also unethical. In dating, if there appears to be a reason we must pretend to be that which we are not, or to be manipulative, then we are probably dating the wrong person and both would be better off going their own way. There should never be any reason to be anything other than ourselves and to be honest and considerate when dating.
2.15.5 Many people date for various reasons but I tend to think of dating as being the first steps toward finding a mate, although a person may date many people before something of note develops. Other people think of dating as simply fun, and may never plan to enter into a serious relationship. Either way, this is something that should be discussed early on in dating, so as to minimize the chances of someone getting hurt later.
2.15.6 Once a serious relationship develops, we enter into additional obligations. If an agreement has been made of exclusivity, it is absolutely inexcusable to violate that trust by seeing another person secretly. This is every bit as immoral as if the two people are married. To an ethical person, every promise should be considered sacred, every word an oath. The difference between the serious relationship and marriage is not in degree of commitment to one’s promises. In an exclusive relationship, the partners usually agree to only see each other but duration is not mentioned. This means that either party can break up with the other, as long as they do it in a considerate and compassionate manner. However, with marriage, the promise is the same but with the added provision of duration - forever (with most people anyway). If you are thinking that you need to marry someone to ensure their faithfulness, then you are marrying the wrong person. The goal should be to find someone who will be faithful to all of their promises, with or without a ring.
2.15.7 What about sex? In thinking about the ethics of sex, one should start with two points. First, there really is no such thing as "sexual ethics" any more than there is such a thing as "cooking ethics" or "dancing ethics." Ethical principles are general enough that they apply equally in cases involving sex. Not needlessly hurting other people, being honest and considerate, and being responsible are all part of what one would include as sexual ethics. Secondly, it should be acknowledged that if there were no such thing as sexually transmitted diseases, and our biology worked in such a way that having unintended pregnancies from sex was not possible, then there would be no reason why people couldn’t have sex with any willing adult, any time, for any reason (provided that they were not violating a trust - see 2.15.12).
2.15.8 This being said, let us look at the facts. Sexually transmitted diseases are unfortunately a very serious reality. Nevertheless, we need not shy away from human sexuality, which is an important part of a full life. We are, however, morally obligated to take precautions so as to not put others at unreasonable risk. Does this automatically exclude premarital sex? Not in my view. For one, even married people put each other at risk. A person may accidentally catch a disease without having sex, but then pass it on sexually to their husband or wife. For another, a person may not know that their spouse is cheating on them and catch something sexually from him or her. I do not mean to suggest that marriage is not safer than unmarried sex. I do suggest that there is a gradation of risk with promiscuity at one end, and lifelong abstinence at the other. Placing the starting point at a wedding date is an arbitrary point that has been decided simply on the basis of cultural tradition, as opposed to logic.
2.15.9 There is a wide range of responsible precautions that can be taken on the spectrum between outright promiscuity and marriage.
a) Frequency: For one, we should limit our sexual activities in some way. Obviously, the less partners we have, the less chance we have of catching something. We could go by some sort of calendar schedule for dating, but since the most enjoyable sex comes from those we care deeply for, a good way to limit it would be to only have sex with those we are in long term loving relationships with. These sorts of relationships don’t come our way everyday so this would lower our sexual frequency, while retaining the most enjoyable instances.
b) Selectivity: Not having sex with just anyone who happens to turn us on is another good idea. When choosing a partner, it is good to consider his or her own sexual habits. How much attention do they pay to all the items listed here? This gives us a good picture of how much risk they may pose.
c) Protection: While no form of protection is fool proof, using a condom does in fact lower the chances of getting some diseases (but is not effective against all). Nevertheless, this is one more precaution that would be wise and ethical to employ.
d) Testing: If a couple decides they are ready for sex, or decide to be exclusive and want to lessen their precautions against disease, it would be a responsible thing to get themselves tested.
This is only a brief list but it serves to illustrate that there are several steps a person can take to have an enjoyable sex life without being married, but without being irresponsible. Some will say that the safest bet is to wait until marriage but they are wrong - the safest bet is to give up sex and never have it your entire life. The reason I point this out is to highlight that there is a range of safety, and a rage of enjoyment, and the two do not necessarily culminate at the arbitrary point of marriage. Many unmarried people lead sexual lives not unlike those who get married and remarried several times in their life - only minus the wedding expenses. Unlike many conservatives would have us believe, there is a difference between premarital sex and promiscuity.
2.15.10 There is also the issue of unwanted pregnancy. Many of the precautions listed above also serve to help lower the chances of unwanted pregnancy. For philosophic reasons explained in 3.14, I do not consider abortion in the first trimester to be unethical. In fact, an abortion at this point would be more ethical than bringing an unwanted child, or a child which cannot be cared for properly, to full term. In any event, because abortions often take a heavy emotional and physical toll on the mother and others involved, and because they are expensive, it is best to take steps to avoid abortion if one can. When tested under controlled conditions, the effectiveness of birth control is so close to 100% that failure should be an extremely rare case. Unfortunately, people seldomly use birth control in the manner instructed, nor do they use it consistently. Often, denial prevents them from accepting this fact and they will claim, and perhaps even believe, that they used birth control both consistently and correctly when, in fact, they have not. However, if an unwanted pregnancy does occur and adoption is not favored, then abortion in the first trimester is not only justifiable - it is a moral imperative.
2.15.11 Getting back to the more general issue of waiting until marriage to have sex; there are also a number of reasons why this may be particularly harmful.
a) Marriage at an early age: Often, couples are pressured into marriage at an early age, or at too early a stage in their relationship. Sometimes this is because the culture at large convinces some women that their life will not have "real" meaning unless or until they are married. Young couples may simply be eager to have sex and place this concern over their better judgment, causing them to marry people for whom they are not well suited. Many people throw away educational or career opportunities simply in the drive to become married, and this is almost certainly enhanced by the fact that they have not had experience with sexually intimate relationships, as normal human physiology would compel them to.
b) Sexual Incompatibility: Many couples may find after marriage that they are sexually incompatible, either because of the frequency they prefer, or the style they prefer, or because of other tangent preferences. They may be able to "make" it work, but they will forever be stuck in a relationship where their sexual needs are frustrated. It is not true that, if two people love each other as persons, this is all that matters. Sexuality, although not the only part, is a healthy part of an intimate relationship and care should be given that this aspect is not ignored. To jump into marriage without ever having experienced physical intimacy seems an act of cultural bravado that actually belittles the importance and seriousness of marriage; much like buying a car without ever having test driven it or sat in it, except that much more is at stake.
c) Sexual fulfillment: Having only experienced one person sexually can be a constant source of subconscious aggravation. How many people would buy the first home they looked at without ever looking at another? How can we know what sex can really be like with only one sample. How many people out there are not enjoying this aspect of their lives as fully as they could be, simply because of not knowing the other possibilities? If a person has had some sexual experience in dating, they might more often feel more content with their final decision and the temptations of others may seem easier to reject. Of course, this will vary for each individual. Some people may be just the opposite. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly people in the world who are frustrated in this way because of irrational cultural parameters forced on them.
d) Divorce: According to a 1999 study by the Barna Research Group, a Christian sponsored research entity, atheists have a lower rate of divorce than any other religious group. The study did not go into reasons why so I do not claim that my point her is directly backed up by the study. However, indirectly, one would expect that atheists would probably have the highest rate of premarital sex. This would mean a likely inverse correlation between premarital sex and divorce rates. This information isn’t solidified in a specific study to my knowledge so I leave it up to the reader as to the implications of the Barna study.
On a side note, born-again Christians, followed by nondenominational Protestants, ironically suffer the highest rate of divorce. George Barna, president of the Christian firm says, "...the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages." Yet another myth about the benefits of religion is cast in doubt.
2.15.12 Let us move on to the subject of faithfulness. So what, then, specifically defines cheating? Cheating is not simply "seeing someone else." What "cheating" technically is, is the betrayal of a trust. Let’s look at some examples...
a) Pornography: Some people have difficulty with their partner viewing pornographic material. They feel it is cheating and prefer their partner not to do it. If this is the case, the other person has two ethical options: 1) they can, whether they agree or not, pledge not to view the material and then truly not ever do it, or 2) they can state that the demand is unreasonable and that they do not see it as cheating and will continue viewing the material. However, stating they will not view the material and then view it in secret is cheating, regardless of any arguments for or against pornography, simply because of the lie. If the partner takes option 2, then the other must make a decision as to whether or not this is something worth breaking up over. This is why these issues should be discussed as the relationship is developing. If neither party has a problem with viewing the pornography, then they are not cheating, since no one is betraying a trust.
b) Monogamy: Monogamy is usually expected in most western relationships and such should go without saying unless otherwise specified. This means, if a person is married, there is an automatic implied agreement of exclusivity and they are bound by that ethically. If, however, other agreements are made between a couple, then those agreements are what each are bound to. If a couple decides that they will have an "open" marriage, allowing other partners under certain conditions, the partners are not "cheating" unless they violate a trust. This has nothing to do with the arguments for or against polygamous relationships or the morality of such. But it does mean that, although the couple may or may not be immoral for any number of other reasons, it is not because they are "cheating."
These are examples which show some of the parameters by which one can understand what cheating is and what it is not.
2.15.13 As stated before, marriage implies a more permanent commitment. Some secularists and other liberal-minded people have changed their wedding vows to accommodate the possibility of divorce by using phrases such as, "...as long as love endures" in lieu of, "...until death do us part." They probably see this as compatible with the open-minded, realistic, and flexible nature of freethought. Of course, I leave it to individuals to do as they please. However, I would disagree with this approach on marriage.
2.15.14 One of the purposes of marriage is to create a continuation of the family (even if only a two-person family). To do so, there needs to be a stability one simply does not get without a life commitment. Without this stability or commitment, a couple might as well save money on the wedding and simply stay in a serious but unmarried relationship indefinitely (which may suit both just fine). Furthermore, only such a stable relationship can provide the environment most helpful to raising children. Without lifetime commitments, there can be no mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. in the sense that a child most benefits from.
2.15.15 Such a life commitment need not preclude the possibility of divorce under the appropriate circumstances. However, those who enter into a lifetime commitment are morally obligated to try to make the situation work, unless there are cases of abuse, betrayal, or severe irreconcilable differences. This form of stability is necessary for the environment of raising children, but will commonly be desirable by people who do not have children as well. If we come at a marriage from the perspective of "staying together until we get tired of each other" then we are not truly married, in a sense that is any different from boyfriend or girlfriend. In any event, divorce should never be looked at as no big deal or as in, "I’m simply ready to move on now." While a divorce may be necessary or prudent in many cases, divorce should be viewed as a failure and thought of in a solemn manner - not a failure in the sense that the divorce should not have happened, but a failure in the sense that an attempted lifelong relationship did not go as planned. Nevertheless, we can learn from failures and move on.
2.15.16 When children are involved, the commitments of marriage become even more crucial. This is not to say that we necessarily must be bound by the nuclear family model. Too often, conservatives talk about the nuclear family as if it was a model handed down from on high (many believing this literally in fact). However, there are a number of cultures with vastly different family structures that work at least as well. In addition, the nuclear family model has it’s own particular share of challenges.
2.15.17 What I mean to stress is the importance of lifelong commitments in families in general. Children should be raised in an environment which assures that they will have their material, financial, educational, and emotional needs taken care of. An environment of role models who can be depended on in the long term is paramount. This means that, regardless of the family structure, the bonds of marriage (or some equivalent moral obligation) are essential to raising children. Single parenting can be difficult but if similar bonds exist in the form of support and assistance from other friends and family members, then all of the essential love and resources needed can be provided in alternative ways. This doesn’t give a free ticket to single people, who might have a child and then drag other family members into obligatory roles without their consent before conception, however. Two parents who both work can find it difficult to spend the time they should with their children but, if they are careful to set aside time and care is taken with the choice of a caretaker, then this situation can also result in the child receiving all it needs. In each of these cases, the main point is that the child is loved, cared for, and provided for properly. Hang-ups about the particular structure of the family are more important to adults than they are to the children themselves.
Continue to 2.16 Meaning of Life, Transience, and Hope