Having an open mind doesn’t mean thinking all possibilities are equally likely. To understand and be open to the universe, we have to accept what’s not true about it as well as what is. And the fact that the God hypothesis can’t be absolutely 100% disproven doesn’t make it likely. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Does (X) count as having sex?
And does it matter?
I recently read a letter to Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” sex advice column recently, on the topic of whether a particular activity counted as “having sex with someone” or not. Because of my slightly- famous Are We Having Sex Now or What? piece, I always feel a little proprietary when this topic comes up, and I often feel called upon to gas on about it a bit.
Now, I don’t really agree with Savage’s “Of course that counted as sex” reply. It’s true that, for me personally, if I’d done what this letter writer did, I’d call it sex without hesitation. But I also think — as I’ve written before, in Are We Having Sex Now or What? and elsewhere — that “sex” is a slippery and difficult concept to define. Among other things, there are plenty of activities that many people will adamantly define as “having sex,” and that many other people adamantly won’t… and that still other people will respond to by saying, “Hm, that’s an interesting gray area.” There are plenty of specific activities that most people would firmly define as “sex” in some contexts, but not in others. (Having someone stick their fingers in your vagina or anus is a fine example. If your lover does it to make you come, then that’s sex; if your doctor does it to palpate your cervix or your prostate, not so much.)
So largely because defining “sex” is so difficult, and so slippery, and so personal, I definitely think that nobody has the right to define it for anyone else. Unless they’ve been asked to do so. Which, to be fair, Savage was. But even then… well, if someone had asked me this question, I’d be very clear right upfront with my “Sex is hard to define and you have the right to define it for yourself” bet-hedging, before barging in with my “Yes, according to my personal definitions, you definitely had sex” opinion.
But I do think Savage was moving in the right direction here.
And that right direction was his “What would you think if someone else did this sex act?” response.
Savage didn’t just reply, “Yes, that was sex.” He replied, “Imagine if someone else engaged in this activity. Imagine if, say, your boyfriend engaged in this activity. Would you call it sex then? Would your ‘He didn’t take his clothes off or his cock out, so it wasn’t sex’ definition hold up then?”
And that, I think, points to an important principle in this fuzzy topic.
That principle being:
“However you define sex — whatever you think of as Definitely Sex, Definitely Not Sex, and Gray Area — it’s important to be consistent. It’s important to apply those definitions the same way to yourself as you do to other people. And it’s important to not be completely self-serving in your definitions of sex: to not have those definitions be solely based on convenience, on what allows you to think of yourself, and other people, the way you want to.”
If it gives someone comfort and lets them feel good about themselves to define sex in whatever self-serving way they choose, what difference does it make?
Well, anyone who’s read my writing about atheism knows that I am almost never going to come down in favor of, “Tell yourself whatever pretty story you like, who cares if it’s consistent with itself or with reality.” But in this case, because we’re talking about subjective questions of “How does each person define this thing for themselves?” (as opposed to objective questions of “Does this thing actually exist in the real, observable world?”), the “Why does it matter?” question becomes a little less obvious. And I have to think it through a little more thoroughly.
And it matters for other pragmatic reasons as well. If you’ve convinced yourself that oral and anal sex aren’t “real” sex, for instance, then you may not protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections when you’re having this purported non-sex. How we define sex affects how we behave sexually — and for obvious reasons, that matters.
But I think the Consistency Principle is important for less obvious reasons as well. And I think those reasons, while more subtle, may be just as important in the long run.
And that’s just as true for sex as it is for anything else. When we know that, however we’re defining sex, we’re defining it consistently for both ourselves and for others, and are defining it that way for solid, non- self- serving reasons… it lets us live with our sexual selves more comfortably. It lets us know that our assessments of our sex lives and our sexual history — and of the sex lives and histories of other people — are based on reality, not rationalization. It lets us make our sexual decisions with some degree of confidence that we’re not lying to ourselves about what we’re doing.
All of which, of course, are valuable goals in themselves. And all of which also bring us back around to pragmatism and ethics. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re more likely to be honest with other people.
Sure, when I think back on my relationship with David, it’d be easier to think of myself as the faithful martyred girlfriend, and it’s a little hard to remember that I did, in fact, cheat on him that one time. But it was harder to always be dodging away from that memory, to always be juggling my rationalizations, in a slippery attempt to cast myself in the role of the Perfect Patient Girlfriend Who Got Shafted. In the long run, I have more fun with sex, and am more relaxed and comfortable with sex, and make better decisions about sex, when I’m honest with myself about what I think sex really is.
Here’s the skinny on the Purdue gig:
Atheism and Sexuality
Hour lecture followed by Q&A
Free, open to public
The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?
Friday, February 5, 2010
5:30pm – 7:00pm
560 Oval Dr
West Lafayette, IN
The Indiana University gig is happening on Thursday, February 4; but the details are still to be determined. I’ll announce the when and where as soon as I have it. If you’re in Indiana, I hope to see you there!
There is not one scrap of good, rigorously gathered and tested evidence suggesting that consciousness comes from an immaterial soul. And there is a large and growing body of evidence strongly suggests that, whatever consciousness is, it’s a physical process of the brain. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Weird question, I know. Here’s why I’m asking it.
In my last column, I talked about porn in relationships. I asked, “In a monogamous relationship, is it reasonable to expect your partner to not watch porn?” And I concluded that it was not. I argued that, for the same reason people don’t have the right to expect their partners not to watch reality TV or read true crime — on their own time, when they don’t have any obligations and their partner isn’t around — people don’t have the right to expect their partners not to enjoy porn. I argued that people have some basic rights to privacy and autonomy — yes, strangely enough, even when they’re in serious committed relationships — and that the things people do on their own time, in ways that don’t have any significant impact on their partner, are entirely their own damn business.
But when I was writing this, I realized that some non-monogamist hard-liners would say the same thing about any sort of sexual activity outside a relationship. Some non-monogamy advocates — not many, but some — would argue that the right to make your own decisions about how to spend your own time extends to having sex with other people. I wrote that people had no more right to expect their partners not to watch porn than to expect them not to watch reality TV… and as I wrote it, I could hear voices in the back of my head saying, “But how is sex different from porn? If watching porn is no different from watching reality TV, then how is having sex with someone outside the relationship any different than seeing a basketball game with someone outside the relationship?”
Thus begins my new piece for the Blowfish Blog, Is Monogamy Fair? To find out whether I think sex with other people is different from porn when it comes to monogamy agreements — and if so, how — read the rest of the piece. (And if you’re inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!
“Religion explains what science can’t” is a terrible argument for religion. Yes, we have gaps in our scientific understanding of the universe — but why does that imply that those gaps are best explained by the supernatural? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Any religion that asks people to stop asking questions and just have faith is a religion without good answers. Atheists don’t tell people to have faith in God’s non-existence: we encourage people to ask questions and think about their beliefs. If your religion is telling you to stop asking questions, ask yourself: Why would they ask that of me? Pass it on:if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
I’ve been in a lot of discussions and debates with religious believers in the last few years. And I’m beginning to notice a pattern. I’ve been noticing the ways that believers put atheists in no-win situations: the ways that, no matter what atheists do, we’ll be seen as either acting like jerks or conceding defeat.
Like so many rhetorical gambits aimed at atheists, these “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” tactics aren’t really valid criticisms of atheism. They really only serve to deflect valid questions and criticisms about religion. But they come up often enough that I want to spend a little time pointing them out. I want to spell out the exact ways that these “no-win” situations are both unfair and inaccurate. And I want to point out the general nature of this “no-win” pattern — in hopes that in future debates with atheists, believers will be more aware of them, and will play a little more fairly.
Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why It’s So Tricky for Atheists to Debate with Believers. In it, I spell out some of the ways that religious believers frame their arguments against atheists in such a way that, no matter what we do, atheists can’t win: no matter what we say or do, we’ll be seen in a negative light. To find out what some of these untrue and unfair rhetorical moves are, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!
There was a recent letter to Scarleteen, the sex advice and information site for teenagers and young people. In this letter, the querant was upset because her boyfriend (a) watched porn, and (b) would soon be going on a road trip with his buddies in which he might be getting lap dances. The querant was upset about this — partly because she was a feminist who thought these activities were sexist, and partly because it triggered insecurities about her own body and made her feel inadequate.
Scarleteen’s reply? Feminism doesn’t automatically mean you’re anti-porn — there’s a wide range of feminist views about pornography — and enjoying porn doesn’t automatically make you sexist. When it comes to the details of your relationship and the agreements you make about sexual activity outside it — from porn/ lap dances/ other sexual entertainment to flat-out non-monogamy — you need to decide what would be your ideal, what would be on your “absolutely not” list, and what you’re willing to compromise on. And you need to recognize that your partner has as much right to their version of this list as you do to yours — and then see if you can negotiate a common ground.
Which sounds perfectly reasonable at first.
And then I started thinking about it.
Thus begins my latest piece on the Blowfish Blog, Can Watching Porn Be Cheating? To find out why I think watching porn doesn’t fall into the category of “sexual practices you can reasonably expect your partner to give up,” read the rest of the piece. (And if you’re inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!
It is not anti-diversity for atheists to argue against religion. Religion is a hypothesis about the world, an attempt to explain why things are the way they are. And it is no more anti-diversity to argue against that hypothesis than it is to argue against global warming denialism, or the theory of the four bodily humours. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.