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Tuesday, March 12, 2013  

Rules and Regret

Item, on a "borderline assault" depicted on Girls:

On the other hand, [Adam] is no longer being “really nice” or taking things “kind of slow.” This time, no one is laughing. What was abundantly “clear” the first time is now muddied. The first time, Natalia communicates with Adam to do just what she wants; the second time, Adam wields her words against her to do what he knows she really doesn’t.

Item, Dan Savage responding to a question about a poly encounter gone very wrong:

I'm not trying to make you feel worse, WTFH, and I'm not saying it's your fault. But we sometimes we find ourselves in situations where ambiguous and/or misunderstood statements, our own powerful desires, and conscious or subconscious acts of self-sabotage result in us doing something we didn't want to do and we deeply regret.

Last month I participated in a roundtable discussion of Margaret Farley's book Just Love. The book is an attempt--an admirable one, I think--to bring ethical reasoning to bear on sexual relationships, including relationships that are formally "liberated" from the constraints of married heterosexual intercourse. Farley's major constructive move is to establish principles for justice in intimate life. Sexual relationships should involve no unjust harm, but be characterized by free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice. These are big ideas, and worthy ones, and I don't want to try to capture Farley's argument about them here.

But one thing I suggested to the group is that these principles for "just love," while they are meant to extract a sexual ethic from a traditional context of marriage and procreation, actually create a much higher burden for non-covenantal relationships than they do for covenantal ones.* When sexuality is embedded and expressed in the context of a lifelong, or least sufficiently long-term union, the daily variations in things like mutuality, equality, fruitfulness and so on can even out. When the sexual bond is surrounded by bonds of charity and loyalty, the inevitable messiness of lived sexuality can be endured and, ideally, remedied. This isn't to say that married people don't have to work on "just love"--they most certainly do. And it's certainly not to say that there is no such thing as sexual assault within marriage, which there most assuredly is. But the bad actions of Adam in the Girls scenario and the man (and really, the woman too) in the Savage letter derive a lot of their pain from the casualness and fragility of the relationships involved. There is really nothing to do in such cases but to break things off and learn to live with the regret.

And, you know, that's not the worst thing. Regret is part of life, and it's a big part of sexual life. People learn and grow, hopefully. What's so interesting about these stories is the acknowledgement, albeit not quite explicit, that all the rules and regulations of free, mutual, and consenting sexual activity get rather inevitably blurry in the moment. Dan is absolutely right to point out that our desires can create or interpret ambiguity, that we can consciously or unconsciously sabotage ourselves, and that what we want in one moment may be what we regret and feel dirty about later. As I've pointed out before, these moments of insight about the complexity of motivation cause problems for Savage's larger notion of sexual rules as sort of obvious, straightforward, and minimal. Having sex, especially with someone you don't know and don't otherwise care much about, turns out not to be very much like concluding a real estate transaction or buying a used car. As Auden put it (and pardon the gendered language), "man overvalues everything / Yet when he learns the price is pegged to his valuation / Complains bitterly that he is being ruined." Granting that these are difficult questions nowadays, I am fundamentally out of sympathy with writers who seem shocked that the world is holding us to our own miserable bargain when it comes to the ethics of sexual life. 

I am of course endeavoring to raise children who are nothing like Adam (in fact I find all the characters on Girls unbearable, so take that for what it's worth), who will not be thoughtless and cruel and vicious in sex or in anything else. But part of that includes teaching them, to the extent possible, that it is important to avoid occasions for "ambiguous and/or misunderstood statements," "strong desires" or "conscious or unconscious self-sabotage" to enable bad or dangerous choices. That means, in my view, that you probably shouldn't have sex with people you don't know or trust unless you want to expose yourself to these kinds of experiences. The alternative to uniting sex with charity, nobility, and some notion of restraint is to accept with a degree of resignation that these bad things are going to happen, and that there won't be any real remedy for them either in law or in love.

*I am experimenting with this term because I find "committed relationship" to be too subjective and "marriage" to be too undefined. Perhaps this alternative will be useful.   

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:16 PM
You're spot-on with respect to Farley's sexual ethic. It does set remarkably high - and remarkably helpful, in my opinion - standards on non-covenantal sexual relationships. Part of what I love about "just love" is how simple and obvious it is - simply apply the same standards to sexual relationships as you should to other relationships, more or less. It's astounding that something so obvious could be so powerful as a sexual ethic.

I'll add that I've long dreamed of getting Margaret Farley and Dan Savage in the same room together to talk sexual ethics. Each has an invaluable perspective and a wide and important (though very different) audience.

Oh, and thanks for giving me a reason to go on and on about one of my favorite books - I took Farley's sexual ethics course the semester her book was published, and then used her book as the basis of my work in three courses during my year in Chicago, actually.
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