Final Fortnight
Zenarchist Cantrip

Sexual Beliefs

Img_6227_perfect_butterfly_450 Sex has long been established as a first rate means of getting people’s attention, yet very little discussion takes place about sexual beliefs. Different ethical traditions, both religious and nonreligious, have diverse attitudes to sex, drawn in each case from different underlying beliefs about sexual relations. Some individuals even believe simply talking about sex in public is inappropriate – to such people, I advise not reading onwards, for here I intend to talk quite candidly about this delicate subject.

In the United States, sexual beliefs represent a particular volatile battleground where bitter conflict occurs between a traditional Christian approach, and what may be called Liberal sexual beliefs. (I shall treat the Liberal position as if it were a coherent tradition, while in actuality it is, at best, just a generalisation of certain opinions). Of course, a great many Christians support Liberal sexual beliefs, so these two camps should not necessarily be seen as disjunct, so much as distinct. Both belief systems have problems worth discussing.

The Liberal sexual belief can be summarised by saying: do what you like, with who you like, as long as it’s consensual. In other words, the Liberal sexual belief permits having sexual relations with anyone irrespective of their gender (or indeed any other factor), and in no way limits the options for allowable sex acts. I am a great supporter of some aspects of this belief system – especially since I believe where consent exists between two people, anything that does not cause significant harm is perfectly acceptable.

But the Liberal sexual belief system has a savage downside, which can result in the degradation both of sex acts, and of sexual partners. When people view the Liberal stance on sex as freedom to rut without consequence, it damages our society at a fundamental level, as anyone who has been a victim of involuntary sex can attest. By this I do not necessarily mean rape (which is inherently non-consensual), as one may find oneself unable to halt a sexual act already begun, even though it is not one’s conscious choice to be having sex, especially when drunk or a youth incapacitated by rampant libido. That the Liberal stance may also lead to a greater incidence of abortion is another mark against it.

However, there are equally problems with the traditional Christian sexual beliefs. These can be generalised as: have sexual relations only when you have formed a permanent relationship, and only with a partner of the opposite sex. Or, more tersely: no sex before marriage (often accompanied by the assumption that marriage is only allowable between partners of different genders). The essential problem here is not with the belief system itself – I happen to think that it is a wonderful thing when two people forge a strong bond, cement it with a commitment ceremony, and only then give their bodies to one another (although, that said, I see no reason at all to follow ancient Jewish customs vilifying homosexuality in the light of Jesus’ ministry of universal love). The problem is with the attitudes towards sex education that result.

Many people who ascribe to a traditional Christian stance on sex are vehemently opposed to the teaching of contraception (or, for that matter, masturbation) in schools. The logic proceeds on a line something like the following: to teach contraception is to encourage sex before marriage, therefore we must not allow it. There are three serious problems with this view. Firstly, it denies freedom of belief by assuming that the traditional Christian sexual belief can be imposed upon everyone, even against their will. Secondly, it assumes that teaching the knowledge and skills of sex increases the incidence of sex, while in fact countries with restrictive attitudes towards sex education have been demonstrated to have a higher rate of incidence of both sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. Finally, it assumes that married couples shouldn’t use contraception, an issue we shall examine shortly. 

When a prohibition on non-procreative sex is linked back to the Bible, the story of Onan (Genesis 38) is quoted as justification, although interpretations of these verses vary considerably. In the tale, which is mentioned only in passing, Onan must fulfil his obligations under Levirate marriage customs – namely, he must marry his brother’s widow and give her a child who will become his brother’s heir – but instead he “spills his seed on the ground.” Religious conservatives use this story as evidence that any break from sex-as-procreation is against God, but it is well established that Onan’s sin was a selfish failure of his duty under the marriage customs of his people. Thoughtful Christians cannot help but wonder in this respect: if God had intended non-procreative sex to be sinful, why reference the subject in the Bible solely in such an ambiguous context, especially when the Ten Commandments provided apple opportunity for a more explicit directive?

Catholics have much clearer rules to accommodate. Through the Papal mechanism of a single interpretive voice for its doctrines, the Catholic Church has greater potential to adapt than Protestant churches (which must generally ground their beliefs in the Bible), but in practice the Vatican usually lags behind popular culture by about a century. It has tended to set the stage for modern Christian sexual beliefs, since having a single Pope as spokesman allows it to take a firm stance where Protestant Churches often must either remain silent, or at least be unable to make a collective assertion of any significance. With regards to sex, the current point of doctrine is the Humanae Vitae encyclical, written by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth”, it not only establishes the Catholic Church’s position, it has been vastly influential in Protestant sexual beliefs as well – as indicated by the fact that many Protestants follow this teaching even though it is Papal and not Biblical in origin. 

Crucial to this doctrine is a prohibition on the interruption of procreation, except when this happens tangentially (for instance, a hysterectomy to prevent cancer). Sex is allowable for pleasure – it is seen as a great gift from God – but it is expected to occur within the sanctity of marriage. However, the encyclical claims that sex must “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Only one form of birth control is permitted: the rhythm method (in which intercourse takes place when a woman is least fertile), and this is justified as being a natural faculty, and therefore God-given.

It is important to be clear that the Catholic Church’s position is not that people must breed constantly, like demented Christian rabbits. As Pope John Paul II clarified in 1994: “when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary.” It is solely artificial contraception which is denied, and this prohibition is accompanied by the assertion that allowing such measures results in a lowering of moral standards as a result of sex without consequence, and a danger of a man reducing a woman to being “a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his desires.” 

The Catholic Church, of course, holds its position within the general framework of the traditional Christian sexual beliefs, formulated mostly by the apostle Paul, that marriage should precede sex. Many Catholics view artificial contraception, therefore, as in effect encouraging adultery. While the idea that reducing the consequences of sex can be demeaning to women may have its merits, it completely omits the fact that many people will be engaging in sexual acts under the Liberal framework – not everyone believes that sex should be constrained to being between married couples. In this context, to not use contraception can be seen as demeaning to women. However, it is not unreasonable that the Catholic Popes constrain their concern to the behaviour of their followers, and not to alternative belief systems beyond their purview.

Since the Catholic Church cannot allow for extra-marital sex at all, it can have no viable position on the use of contraception in sex acts that occur outside of marriage (beyond considering it to be sinful). It follows that – even within Catholic doctrine – anyone engaging in extra-marital sex is free to use a condom or other form of artificial contraception – since they are already sinning in Catholic terms, they “may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb”. The Pope may be unable to say “if you’re going to sin by having sex outside of marriage, use a condom”, because to do so would be to endorse matters the Papacy opposes, but this is a logical conclusion in terms of integrating Liberal values into Catholic sexual beliefs (although not, needless to say, the position of Pope Benedict XVI).

Furthermore, I believe the Catholic Church’s position omits an important aspect of the facts of the matter, that once included would provide the basis for a reinterpretation of its doctrine, and a significant shift of position on the subject of contraception.

Tantra is a diverse collection of beliefs, including sexual beliefs, found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. The sexual component of this system – known as Tantric sex – is a set of meditative practices by which a married couple can deepen their emotional connection. Tantra in this context is practiced exclusively between couples, and its goal is purely spiritual. However, part of the benefits that Tantric couples experience is heightened sensual pleasure and, in the case of men, a method of muscle control that permits more intense and sustained orgasms without ejaculation. 

Ejaculatory control, like the rhythm method, is entirely natural – it is, in Christian terms, a God-given faculty – and it can be found in many cultures throughout history, including the aforementioned Tantric traditions, Taoist “sexual kung fu” and the Cherokee “fire breath” technique. By exercising conscious control of ejaculation, practitioners experience deeper, longer and more numerous orgasms (as can their partners), and also take conscious control of the procreative process; some Taoist commentators also claim the technique leads to longer life. (Of all these different practices, only Tantra is explicitly practised between couples, and thus Christians interested in Tantric sex should probably approach the topic from this angle.)

If God-given sexual faculties are allowable under Catholic doctrine, and they are as we see in the case of the rhythm method, then it is allowable to practice a form of “Christian Tantra” to serve God’s purpose (in Christian terms) of deepening the relationship between couples – and indeed there are many people who practice just such a system. But if “Christian Tantra” is permissible in Catholicism (which it certainly could be, although no Papal ruling exists that I know of) then it must follow that conscious control of ejaculation is allowable. At this point, can it seriously be contended that barrier-method contraception such as condoms are not permitted for married couples, when all humans have within them the capacity to perform “self contraception” by way of ejaculatory control? We are no longer talking about an artificial capability, but about enhancement of a natural one, which is usually allowable in Catholic doctrine concerning medicine.

Roman Catholic Christians must wait for new Popes to change the rules of the Catholic sexual game, but Protestants are under no such restriction. I can see no reason to presume that contraception is against God, given that (in Christian-terms) God provided us all the capacity to conduct contraception as part of a divine process for deepening the spiritual bond between couples. I suggest that Protestants give up their use of Papal doctrine in this respect, and focus on promoting those moral values they do care about – the formation of strong, loving couples, who may choose when and if to bear children according to the capacities given to them by God, the greatest of which are love and free will.

The rise of Liberal sexual beliefs has in part led to a tendency for Christians of all denominations to condemn “free love”, and this has in part made it easier for non-Christians to avoid thinking about their own beliefs and behaviour in respect of sex. While I deny that contraception has lead to the denigration of women in the terms claimed by the Catholic Church (oral sex already provided a non-procreative option so why would contraception be the critical factor?), I do recognise that the rise of sexual liberalism has created an epidemic of shallow, empty sex that has hurt the self-esteem of both men and women, and also increased the rate of incidence of abortion (something no-one wants to see). 

I suggest that the Liberal sexual belief system could also use something of an overhaul. Instead of focussing on mere consent, perhaps people should consider entering into sexual relations only when there is mutual respect? Instead of pursuing sex as conquest, seeking to engage with as many sexual partners as possible, perhaps people should consider entering into fewer relationships but of greater quality? Most importantly, since those who hold Liberal sexual beliefs have no restriction on masturbation, shouldn’t all such people learn to be the master of their sexual urges through direct, personal action, rather than being a slave to their uncontrolled passions? 

We don’t talk about sexual beliefs often, if indeed ever, perhaps because we disagree so wildly about them, but as we go forward into the twenty first century we can’t afford to maintain this conspiracy of silence any longer. There are serious issues to be addressed, and we will not resolve them by trying to stifle discussion under a veil of ignorance. Let us teach sex education, and contraception, in schools – it need not be (as some Christians fear) against God’s will to do so, and the proven benefits of doing so – including fewer teenage pregnancies, and thus fewer abortions – far outweigh any prudish prohibition on doing so.

The opening image is Perfect Butterfly, by Kazuya Akimoto, which I found here, and whose website and blog are here. No copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


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A few random points...

(Assume Christian POV)

- How do you know what is, or is not, againt any God's will?

- Could Tantric and similar knowledge not be planted by (say) Satan, given that it's coming from a non-Christian source? After all, this entire world was created by God, along with its temptations and distractions - Christians need to pick their way around the temptations, including those of the flesh.

- John Paul II stipulated that there must be a reason not to procreate before the choice becomes allowable. The default position, therefore, is that Catholics should procreate unless there are reasons not to. The question, then, is around the allowable reasons for not procreating. Which of the following might be allowable? a) there's a chance that a pregnancy will kill the mother; b) the family can't afford the food for another child; c) the family *can* afford the food but doing so will cause other Catholics to starve; d) ditto but causing non-Catholics to starve; e) we need to quarter the population of the planet if we want to keep the resource consumption sustainable and allow future generations of Catholics to exist at all.

(Remove assumtions about Christian point of view)

- Since we're already challenging assumptions here, let's examine another one: there's a repeated statement in this piece that Abortion Is Bad (although it may be the least bad action in some cases). With my stirring spoon firmly in hand... is this necessarily so?

Why can't everything be stupid-proof? I just killed my really long comment, so here's a synopsis.

Liberal view: do what you like, with who you like, as long as it’s consensual.
Problem: how many people are really affected by the act, and thus need to consent? If no one that you are responsible for is affected, should you take responsibility for your partners' responsibilities - should you cuckold someone you don't know, or even worry about it?

The Pope: an old man, with no life experience combarable to that of his flock, and no chance of knowing every scientific and societal fact pertinent to his decisions.
There is the potential to change, but not in a timely fashion or with sufficient foresight.
This system causes grevious harm with its prohibition on condoms. It is unrelenting and unrepentant (how many priests have spoken out about the medical necessity for condoms? I'm curious). There is the potential to change, but hardly the will.

"since those who hold Liberal sexual beliefs have no restriction on masturbation, shouldn’t all such people learn to be the master of their sexual urges through direct, personal action"

Boo hiss, Chris. I call that poor insight.
Masturbation almost certainly already does as much as it can for the sexual liberal. Who doesn't masturbate? People who think its a sin.

Besides (and more importantly), sex isn't even the point. It's more about the game that's played on the way to the sex. The process is the point, not the goal. It's an ego trip, but in the best possible way. It's a validation of oneself as a human being, and forcing that to be a constant search for long term partners isn't necessary.
High-achievers have often been (wo)manisers, not because they need an extra hit of ego-stroking, but because it's hard to maintain a stable process of mutual validation with just one person when your ego is so large to begin with. I would say...

The degenerative cycle of liberal sexual relations is, I think, really more about lack of insight into, and respect for, other people. It's the idea that someone is less worthwhile because they agree to sleep with you within hours or days of meeting (minutes may or may not be pushing it :D ).

If I had to, I'd point the finger for that tendency at deep-seated conservatism clashing with surface liberalism, so deep-seated that the person in question isn't even aware.

If I had to, I'd say just gnothi seauton.

Hey Chris,

It's not often that I post on your blog for once! I like your consideration of sex beyond Christian bodies of belief. I have these points:

1. We were raised Catholic; they told us in sex education that 'this is the Catholic view'; they said that if we decided otherwise it is ultimately our choice, but either way, we must always accept responsibility for the consequences. Responsibility for sexual conduct is important; consider here the underlying power relations between subjects in sex.

2. Your conceptions and intuitions about sexual expression seem quite limited to: marital vs. nonmarital sex, contraception, adultery and emotional relationships enacting sexual relations. You need to think wider, my friend...

(I'm not giving you any hints to made you think wider...I might scare your readers)

Sexuality is a very wide concept. Perhaps even wider than my intuitions about sex. Perhaps problem cases or irregular cases will highlight this:

i. Feeders
ii. BDSM
iii. Male mutual masturbation (circle jerking)
iv. Snuff
v. Fantasy enactments
vi. Fuck buddies

Better still, consult S. Morgan's "Sex in the Head" sometime. It has quite interesting insights on our construal of sexuality.

Sex is far beyond morality; for some, it is life itself (not for me unfortunately, Kant is life itself... :()

I like this post. It reminds me of our own writing at NR.

Michael and Sinistre

I'd like to challenge your claim that a liberal stance results in more incidences of abortion. Studies suggest that abstinence campaigns have no effects on sexual behaviours, which implies that there is the same amount of sex being had on the liberal and christian sides of the fence.

I don't have the study link to back it up, but I would suggest that a liberal sexual perspective would result in better uses of contraceptives, and less (not more) need for abortion, due to fewer unwanted pregnancies.

Also, you seem to argue that if you're going to sin, you may as well sin big, which seems a rather weak argument in favour of contraception - clearly there are gradiations of sin - I can't imagine any sane human, religious or otherwise, agreeing that taking the lords name in vain is really comparable to murder or rape.

Overall, yet another thought provoking article, though I fear that reason and religion are like oil and water.

Also, you seem to argue that if you're going to sin, you may as well sin big, which seems a rather weak argument in favour of contraception

That's assuming you consider contraceptives to be a worse sin than having sex outside of marriage. I would put it the other way around -- if you're going to murder someone, you might as well take his wallet, too. Not like he needs it.

On another topic, a lot of what we have is people with liberal views wearing conservative t-shirts -- or, I think more likely, we have people with no particular views (but various t-shirts) who want to have sex. There's no logic or reasoned morality behind it, just want.

Hmmm... lots of interesting comments, but light on feedback from the Christians, to whom this piece spends most of its time considering. Anyway, here are some quick responses.

Peter: while obviously you could dismiss other religions as "satanic" - and some ignorant people do - I think it would be a waste of my time to try to fight this battle here. Some Christians do read me, and I clearly have a syncretic attitude to religion, so I'm assuming any Christians who read this will at least accept the premise of this attitude (which of course, I like to link to the Sufi, but it exists in many different religious traditions).

I liked your "reasons not to procreate" and have nothing to add here. :)

As for "is abortion necessarily bad?" - in strict comparison between not becoming pregnant in the first place and having an abortion, clearly yes! Even if you only take into account the woman having the termination procedure, it is a physically and emotionally distressing process - no one likes it, as I've said before.

Thanks for getting the ball rolling!

zenBen: nice commentary on the consent issue - liked that.

"Boo hiss, Chris. I call that poor insight... Who doesn't masturbate? People who think its a sin."

You are mistaken, my friend - there are many, many people with Liberal sexual values who do not masturbate because they consider it dirty, or weak, or unpleasant or just simply not as good as sex. There are many people who engage in casual sex more often than they "need" to because they do not masturbate. It is a grave error to assume that everyone who is not a Christian masturbates.

"The degenerative cycle of liberal sexual relations is, I think, really more about lack of insight into, and respect for, other people."

Nice observation.

Sinistre/Michael: thanks for sharing this perspective - much appreciated!

"Your conceptions and intuitions about sexual expression seem quite limited to [list clipped]"

I assure you, they are not. This is a post about Christian attitudes towards contraception, therefore I have focussed on what was necessary to approach this issue.

I could waffle on about the many strange sexual beliefs I have encountered in my time, including but in no way restricted to the list you provide, but it wouldn't serve my purpose here. ;)

Thanks for the book suggestion!

Jules: "I'd like to challenge your claim that a liberal stance results in more incidences of abortion...."

Nice catch! Yes, I remember this report. However, consider this: how many people under the Christian sexual beliefs would even *consider* abortion? That sexual behaviour doesn't significantly change between the two sexual beliefs is only half the equation in this case. ;)

Trevel: "That's assuming you consider contraceptives to be a worse sin than having sex outside of marriage."

This is definitely the point here. Adultery is in the ten commandments; contraception is not.

"There's no logic or reasoned morality behind it, just want."

Yes, I agree with this. There is a certain point of view that says that the Liberal sexual belief is simply a post facto justification mechanism.

Anyway, out of time for now.

Thanks for the comments everyone! Very thoughtful.

"You are mistaken, my friend - there are many, many people with Liberal sexual values who do not masturbate"

That's as may be - I was over-stating again. Nevertheless my contention wasn't really to do with who does or doesn't practice masturbation anyway. I'm addressing the whole paragraph:
"I suggest that the Liberal sexual belief system could also use something of an overhaul. Instead of focussing on mere consent, perhaps people should consider entering into sexual relations only when there is mutual respect? Instead of pursuing sex as conquest, seeking to engage with as many sexual partners as possible, perhaps people should consider entering into fewer relationships but of greater quality? Most importantly, since those who hold Liberal sexual beliefs have no restriction on masturbation, shouldn’t all such people learn to be the master of their sexual urges through direct, personal action, rather than being a slave to their uncontrolled passions? "

The first point is valid enough - respect is vital, and again I think its the ghosts of conservatism in the liberal that deny it (hence implying the liberal can't truly respect themselves either).
The second kind of misses the point of sexual conquest. Its not really just about getting regular sex, and the term conquest skews the implication anyway. It could be seen as a meeting of minds, unless there is a denial of respect, so back to point one.
But then saying that masturbation could possibly take the place of sex in satisfying sexual urges is what strikes me as ridiculous. I've explained why in the comment above - it's not just about the sex!

zenBen: thanks for clarifying your case here; I take your point, although I'm not wholly convinced that sex can be reduced to conquest in this way. There are may other motivations behind sexual proclivity including sexual addiction, and compensation for loneliness.

But your general point, that the psychology of sex goes beyond the act itself, is well taken.

Best wishes!

What a wonderful insight. In my career as a relationship coach and tantrika, I have often had clients who were concerned that the study of Tantra might in some way be counter to their Christian religious beliefs.

I have always felt that any study or training that is helping the couple to intensify their intimacy and strengthen their bond is supporting their marriage commitment, and so is not conflicting with their religious commitment, especially since the practice of tantric techniques does not require worshipping any deity.

Thank you for adding this wonderful explanation.

Found this entry (oddly enough) from a post about Mario Galaxy. Since you wanted to hear from more Christians, I'll bite;

You give the Catholic Church a fairer shake than most non-Catholics I've heard speak on this subject, but you are somewhat mistaken about the reasons for the Church's teachings on sexual ethics.

I'm going to take a Catholic POV here (because I am Catholic), so in order to aid reading I'm going to phrase the following as fact rather than belief:

The sexual faculty is sacred. It is the physical process through which new lives are created - in other words, through which new immortal souls are created. While man and woman provide the physical components (sperm and egg), God provides a spiritual component - if a new being is created in this exchange, the new being receives at that moment an immortal soul. This is, to understate it, a Very Big Deal.

The sexual faculty is created by God with both a unitive and procreative nature. It's a sacred gift given to us for those purposes. To strip it of either its unitive or procreative nature is a violation of the natural law: it abuses the gift by using it in a way other than it was created to be used.

This handily sums up a lot of the Church's teachings on sex. Non-vaginal sex strips the gift of its procreative nature; artificial insemination strips it of its unitive nature; masturbation strips it of both.

I pause here to mention further describe the unitive nature of the act - sex is intended to be a complete gift of oneself to the other, holding nothing back. This includes a complete giving of the body to the other. One of the natural traits of the body is fecundity, the ability to reproduce. Whether or not the woman is actually fertile (able to conceive at this very moment) does not change the fact that she is fecund (possesses the ability to conceive within her.) Similarly, the male's fecundity represents his ability to impregnate a woman, whether or not he actually does so during a given session of intercourse. To use artificial contraception is to deny one's fecundity to the other - it is not a complete giving of the self, but rather the holding back of part of oneself. (Indeed, how ironic that the trait that is withheld is one of the traits that defines our very sexuality!)

The reason that sex during the woman's natural nonfertile period is acceptable is because it does not change the meaning of the sexual act at all. Every sexual act is supposed to be accompanied by the sentiment "I wish to become one with you, and if this act results in a child, I willingly accept it." This message is written into the act itself by its very nature; the hearts of the participants are expected to match it. The fact that sex is reserved for times in which the woman is least likely to be fertile doesn't change this sentiment. If either spouse is unwilling in their heart to accept a child, or seeks to avoid children for selfish reasons, then intercourse itself should be refrained from (as it would conflict with the natural language of the body.)

In light of all this, it would appear that, although the Church (to my knowledge) has no official statement on it, tantric sex would be considered unacceptable by Catholic teachings. Orgasm is a use of the sexual faculty, and to deliberately avoid ejaculation would be not only to withhold the procreative nature of sex but also deny its unitive nature (as the male deliberately seeks to withhold his fecundity from the woman.)

I hope this clears up some points.

Carla Tara: glad this was of interest to you!

E: thank you so much for the comment! I really appreciate getting this detailed perspective from a Catholic angle... Shame I only get to call you by a letter, but I can live with it. :)

On the basis of what you say here, I still think Tantric sex is acceptable between married Catholic partners (at least, unofficially - obviously I am not a Catholic Pope and can't change doctrine!)

"Orgasm is a use of the sexual faculty, and to deliberately avoid ejaculation would be not only to withhold the procreative nature of sex but also deny its unitive nature (as the male deliberately seeks to withhold his fecundity from the woman.)"

Tantric sex isn't deliberate avoidance of ejaculation, but conscious delay of it. Tantric practictioners can and do still ejaculate on occasion. But, and this is key, Tantric sex is *orgasmic* even when it is not *ejaculatory* - which means, Tantric sex does not deny the unitive function.

In fact, I would go further: the unitive function of sex between a loving married couple is *heightened* in Tantric practice. I believe this is spiritual, and a God-given faculty.

The procreative function is not denied, per se, so much as it is downplayed - I still think there is a parallel here with the rhythm method, but there's sufficient ambiguity for it to be open to interpretation - especially in the absence of a Papal ruling.

Once again, thanks for expanding the Catholic position here. I appreciate it!

I have one thing to say to the Pope (and, for that matter, to the any other celibate cleric of whatever persuasion):

"You no play-a da game, you no make-a da rules."

Sorry, guys.

So, good news for heroin addicts, since only politicians who have taken heroin are allowed to make laws about it. :D

And how will we legislate suicide? ;)

A flippant reply that exposes deeper ugliness.

What's wrong with the notion that only those who have been addicted (and maybe recovered from) heroin are the ones best placed to decide what's needed about the issue?

What's wrong with the notion only those who have attempted suicide are the ones who can understand best what a suicidal is experiencing? (on the other hand, a relative of one who has committed suicide is best placed to consider issues faced by those people, etc).

So we see here the idea that these acts are a failing of a person that instantly disqualifies them from any kind of credibility.

But we dont stop generals from making war plans, and we dont stop sportsmen from becoming coaches? It's judging what people say by "sin" rather than "knowledge" - not a new thing to religious thought.

zeech: "What's wrong with the notion that only those who have been addicted (and maybe recovered from) heroin are the ones best placed to decide what's needed about the issue?"

What's wrong with this idea is simply that no aspect of any existing legislature is set up to work this way. It would require a radical reconstruction of the state apparatus. I'm open to the idea that such people could consult on such issues, but this still blows apart the jokingly-asserted argument that Ernest was making.

All I wanted to do was undermine the idea that one has to have direct experience of something to legislate (morally or legally).

I have no intention of participating in a democracy that, for instance, only allows murderers to make the rules concerning murder, and this was the (absurd) extension of Ernest's claim.

I think you jumped to some kind of conclusion here that wasn't warranted - I never said that heroin addicts or suicidal individuals were not credible, I merely pointed out that it's not the nature of our legislative bodies to require direct experience of something to rule upon it.

And why should it be?

does anyone know the name of the religious belief system that promotes sexual activity for spiritual growth and harmony?

Jay: are you thinking of Tantra, a Hindu/Buddhist/Jainist meditative practice, expressly intended to build a stronger spiritual bond between couples by enhancing their sexual unity?

If so, it would be odd, since this is a large part of the subject of this post. ;) If not, I'm not sure which belief system you mean.

I think Ernest's argument, taken more seriously, is the notion that you want the person legislating on an issue to have good knowledge of it.

Or conversely someone ignorant of a topic has no business legislating on it.

I dont think you can argue against that.

zeech: Well there's a boundary here: if we are talking about good knowledge, then I don't see why the Pope (say) can't have good knowledge about sex - there's no shortage of study materials. :)

You can claim that he doesn't have this knowledge if you like (although this is far from clear), but there's a limit to how far you can push the claim that he can't get access to good knowledge concerning sex without experience of it.

The direct thrust of Ernest (joking) assertion was that direct *experience* is needed. And this is clearly farcical, as I hope my prior objections have made clear.

In fact, in modern science, we value the ability to evoke "the view from nowhere" - direct experience is in fact sometimes considered suspect. Modern scientific knowledge is supposed to be valid independent of experience, and this being so, I see no reason to block the Pope from being a moral legislator on subjects about which he has no direct experience on some kind of epistemic claim - to do so would be to disqualify a large part of the scientific endeavour from validity (I can't understand quarks because I have no direct experience of them, say).

But I'm open to this kind of argument to a certain mischievous degree, since it would amuse me to block, say, Dawkins claims to speak authoritatively on the subject of God on the grounds that he cannot speak about something for which he, as someone who has never had a numinous experience, has no direct experience. >:)

I think the thing is (and I may have misread you), that you want to disqualify the Pope because you don't believe he has the requisite knowledge - you believe he is mislead by notions of sin, say, the validity of which you reject.

Well that might be an accusation against the current Pope's knowledge (although this is less than clear), but it's not an argument against the Pope being able to morally legislate on these subjects (at least to those people for whom he is a moral leader, who are the only ones who count here). For that, you would need to show the impossibility of this being a valid approach to moral legislation, and this does not appear to be the case.

Thanks for the discussion!

Well, you're framing it in discrete terms of yes/no, allowed/not allowed.

But if you think of it as a continuum, then it can certainly be argued that direct experience is a big booster to knowledge/qualification, indirect experience also a booster, and learned opinion only a small plus.

You say the Pope's lack of direct experience does not disqualify him from morally legislating on it, in the eyes of Catholics. Well, that's probably because, in those eyes, his various other qualifications push him "over the line". But I doubt his celibacy is considered a valuable source of knowledge on the topic.

You can find seeds of when lack of experience causes such figures to fall short of the "legitimacy acceptance line", in topics like when certain hardline priests forbid abortion under any circumstance, even if the mother is underage and pregnant from rape etc. You'll often find people who would fail to recognise moral authority here, due to the priests' lack of understanding on the issue. (the implication being that, if they had direct experience of such a thing, they could not hold such a position.)

However, I wont argue too hard against you, since I'm a person who loves to comment on things I have absolutely no experience or knowledge of, and have no wish to undercut my own moral authority :P

And of course, when it comes to these things there's always the disconnect between perception and some sort of imagined higher truth. Catholics might be perfectly fine with a celibate Pope giving decrees on sexuality, but "should" it be this way? Is this morally correct, as decided by logic, science, philosophy, the laws of all the Gods, the feelings of Gaia and other such sources of Ultimate Truth? A rainy-sunday-discussion indeed ;)

zeech: I enjoyed our discussion here, but I feel (and you seem to sense it too) that we have run our course without another interlocutor to re-energise debate. (If we wait a few months, someone may well pipe up!) ;)

I'll just end with the point I make quite often, which is that the great majority of modern Catholics do not follow all the moral imperatives stated by any given Pope. Taylor comments on this in "A Secular Age", and sees no contradiction in this state of affairs. More on this later in the serial, I imagine.

Best wishes!

Just to jump in where I don't belong. (I don't belong because I don't have the time, education or brain power to duly consider all the fine points in this blog, although I'm here because it's very valuable to help me charge up my dim bulb to focus on interesting questions. Thank you for that, and for presenting philosophical questions for that even dim bulbs can follow.)

To respond to E a bit. As an ex, I very much appreciate the sacramental spirituality that Catholicism brings. But I can't make much sense of the idealization of sexuality into procreative and unitive functions. Why?
Because I spent the better part of my life watching a woman, suffering from a debilitating neurological conditions, suffer relentless episodes of illness. The problem with so much of the idealization of procreation is that the actual PERSONS involved are made invisible in practice. Invisible, as her experience and her desires are completely unacknowledged. This is always accompanied by a lack of respect for the objectified personification of that ideal.
So my mother was expected to procreate, and she did. Fortunately she wanted children, but nobody wants numerous pregnancies and Five children and numberous life-threatening miscarriages, which continued until she was told that she would die if she got pregnant again. Even then her condition, her experience, was not counted for much, compared to the ideal she was expected to sacrifice her life to fulfill.
I watched this, and watched the ramifications that scoured her life. So people can go on about the cognitive dissonance of our beliefs, but the experience of real women who are often so powerless they do not have ownership of their own body (no man would ever accept such a condition) is the greatest dissonance of all.

Carolyn: many thanks for your thoughtful comment, and for revisiting this piece from six years ago. I must object, however, to your claim that you "don't belong" - anyone who can read belongs here. You are more than welcome here!

I doubt E. will respond to your comments - I have no idea who they are, or where they went - but I would like to reiterate a point I made above that there is a disconnect between Catholics and the Vatican that is not stressed often enough (especially by the Vatican!).

Although I am not and never have been Catholic, I favour reforms of the kind suggested by Charles Taylor, which amount to replacing centralised Vatican 'law-making' with virtue-ethical Christianity through a focus on Saints as examples of Christian life. This change may seem like a small step, but it could radically reform the 'powerlessness' of women who, as you suggest, do not seem to be in command of their own bodies.

However, I do not agree that 'no man would ever accept such a condition' - you are perhaps forgetting 'non-practicing' gay Catholic men who it seems to me are also not in control of their own bodies. I suspect it would not be hard, by examining taboos on masturbation, enforced sports training regimes, and several other 'masculine' activities, to find other examples of men who did not feel their bodies were their sole possession, both religious and secular.

But beyond this, I am not wholly convinced that our bodies can or should be our sole possession. When I see my wife breast feeding our four-month old son, I am acutely aware that her body is currently not entirely her own. When I have to rock my son to sleep, so my wife can get some much needed rest, I am also giving my body for others, although in a more trivial sense, of course.

The problem, I am suggesting, is not total autonomy (which can be a misleading moral ideal), but in finding a balance between using our bodies to support our families, our chosen communities, and ensuring that we are not slaves or surrogates to them. This balance is, in practice, just as hard to find as 'total autonomy' - but it is, I would suggest, worth the pursuit. We are not alone, and cannot afford to live as if we were.

Finally, may I ask (if you manage to see this comment): how did you find this piece?

All the best,


Thank you for the response, and the welcome, Chris. I didn't pay attention to the date. Oops, 2008 was 6 years ago.
I don't remember how I found your blog, certainly when nosing around many different places. Occasionally one finds gold while looking for intelligence and insight. Thanks to the "internets" we can actually listen in to the conversations of educated and inspired thinkers.
I am very grateful for your efforts to make philosophical discussions accessible here. So often philosophical explorations go into incomprehensible distinctions a layperson cannot follow.

So when I found the blog, I was impressed and jumped around reading this and that, wishing I had the time to really absorb everything. So I wandered around, perused some of the archives around abortion and sexuality, and tried to get a feel for perspective. I began to feel some concern that something was missing.
Which brings me to your point that men are also not in complete control of their own bodies. That is so obvious and yet it never really occured to me. Certainly men are coerced every which way by identify pressures and necessity. So I found in myself a blind spot regarding men's lived experience of life.(That is why I call myself a dim bulb, as I must admit my brainpower is merely above average, compensated by curiosity and hubris.)

The point I was trying to make is that ideology around women's reproductive roles has an enormous effect on women's lived experiences, which can cut deep.
The traditional perspective identifies women almost solely by desirability and reproductive capacities rather than her full inner humanity.

(I do not accept that gender determines the shape of one's humanity. I see a person's humanity as a fundamental existential condition - but one's humanity is necessarily embodied, channelled by gender, but manifested within a wide diversity of individual expressions. We are more alike, in our inner lives, than we are different, no matter our sex, race, creed.)
I get so tired of the predetermined assumptions one faces every day from race, class, gender.

Because women are traditionally believed to achieve "fulfillment" solely through child rearing, we have historically been systematically excluded from entire realms of human endeavor. Men in lower classes and demeaned races experience similar exclusions; women in subjected races experience it from both directions.

We name coerced motherhood as sexism, because it makes many people blind to the actual lived consequences. Real people who endure real suffering must never be dismissed, made invisible, or subjected to involuntary conditions. They must become visible to challenge their relative powerlessness over their own destinies.

We have recently come to understand that control of one's body is fundamental; slavery is an outrage to us beyond enforced labor; it is an assault upon the humanity of the one coerced. Coertion can be hard via enforced law or soft via familial & social pressure.
Both can be devastating to one's inner integity, since coercing forces violate the fundamental freedom we say we hold so dear: individual rights and individual freedoms. Surely freedom from reproductive coercion cannot be excluded from our definition of freedom.
Necessity always has a role in how we think of freedom. We are no longer so sparsely populated that every woman must bear multiple children for the greater good of the community. The arguments for the necessity of large families no longer convince people to willingly submit to that ideal.
So in our overpopulated world, when a woman feeds an infant, or a parent goes to work and labors, or mows the lawn, or cleans the house, s/he has chosen to give his or her body for that purpose.

Agree there is no such thing as total autonomy; that is a libertarian illusion advocating harmful forms of selfishness before the common good. Yes, there has to be a balance between autonomy and sacrifice, with wide latitude for individual ability and willingness.
I agree we are inextricably connected, and live or die contained within the whole.

I would love to see a decentralization of the Vatican, or at least the Curia defanged. I don't have any skin in that game anymore. When we left, we took the church with us. What is left is the fossilized remains of a once vibrant spirituality, which was a hidden river anyway.
Have to look up what Charles Taylor means. There are saints, and there are saints: Athanasius or Dionysius, Origen or Augustine, Isaac of Nineveh or Bernard, Bede Griffiths or John Paul II, Catherine of Siena or Therese of Lisieux. The last “saint” is perhaps most authentic, per the biographies written by Thomas Nevin: an ordinary person whose faith was lived in the darkness of uncertainty. A modern saint for a postmodern era.

Thanks for coming back, Carolyn, and for this thoughtful extension to your earlier comment. I don't have a great deal to add beyond suggesting that you may be undervaluing your own "wattage". ;)

I fear that intellectualism is all too often a game of words; specialist terminology keeps it a fairly private game, but at the cost of narrowing who can be involved. Perhaps to some, this might be a gain. But I think in philosophy there is a great need for people like Mary Midgley who can 'cross between worlds'. I aspire to the same, but I don't know how well I succeed sometimes! :)

Regarding large families, we seem to have hit an awful phase whereby we have lost the benefits of the extended family (e.g. sharing the childcare, immediate and personal support) in pursuit of (laudable) individual freedoms that have the unintended cost of isolating and breaking up communities and replacing them with singletons and duos... I wonder if there is any way to get back the benefits of the extended family (or something like it) without losing the gains in individual autonomy, and better (while still imperfect) gender relations. The essential experience of humanity is to pursue one vision of the good, and to fail to see how that pursuit introduces its own problems.

Anyway, as ever, your comments are always welcome, and on any post - no matter how old! I enjoy watching the old material come around again, and encountering fresh perspectives on things I had forgotten writing!

All the best,


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