In a post on his blog, Ferrett Steinmetz wants his daughter to have awesome sex. Is that a good or a bad thing? In my view, it depends entirely on what one means by the phrase “awesome sex”.
There is a lot that I like about Steinmetz blog post. First, Steinmetz is no hypocrite. He enjoys sex; he wants his daughter to experience the same joy that he experiences from sex. Why would wish to deny something to our sons and daughters that we hold to be dear? Wouldn’t we want our children to enjoy the pleasures of such experiences?
Second, as a parent, Steinmetz’ does not see his role as that of producing carbon copies of himself. He is aware that his daughter is her own separate person, and must therefore find her own way. Steinmetz is committed to helping her to forge her way, and primarily on her own terms, and not his.
I am more critical, however, of the Steinmetz’ advice regarding sexuality – not because I think that his daughter should be deprived of “awesome sex” – but instead because I disagree with Steinmetz’ conception of what constitutes good sex. Steinmetz is quite clear in his post:
Look, I love sex. It’s fun. And because I love my daughter, I want her to have all of the same delights in life that I do, and hopefully more. I don’t want to hear about the fine details because, heck, I don’t want those visuals any more than my daughter wants mine. But in the abstract, darling, go out and play.
Why is sex good? Because it is fun. And because it’s fun, darling, go out and play. But is this true? Is sex good because it is fun? Is “good sex” – indeed “awesome sex” – sex that produces awesome physical sensations?
As a nation, we are terribly confused about sex. Yes, indeed, sex produces pleasurable sensations; it can be fun. But sex is not simply a desire for pleasurable sensations. Sex is about intimacy. It is not simply a contract between two people who agree to exchange their private parts for personal pleasure. Sex is a form of intimacy. Sexual desire is not simply the desire for pleasurable sensations – it is the desire for another person. And that is what makes the shared surrender of sexuality vulnerable, tender, jealous, evaluative, and intimate.
Where is the Good in Good Sex?
What is “good sex”? In the early part of the twentieth century, the dominant message was a moral one: Sex was the proper province of the marriage bed. Good sex was morally right sex. Many forms of Christianity adhered to a strict morality about sex. The proper purpose of sex is procreation, and that monogamous sex between a committed man and a woman is the only type of sexual activity that can be both moral and fulfilling.
With the rise of the sexual revolution and development of “the pill”, the likelihood of pregnancy upon intercourse was dramatically diminished. With the threat of pregnancy out of the way, the argument that sexuality has a moral dimension became more difficult to make. The decision to engage in sexual activity came to be seen as a matter of personal choice and private morality. The purpose of having sex became the experience of individual or mutual pleasure. As long as we’re not hurting anyone, as long as we consent, what we do behind closed doors is our choice.
At this juncture, the problems of sexuality were no longer moral, but merely practical: How do I avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases? How can I increase my pleasure? How can I enhance my partner’s pleasure?
The pendulum has swung away from the authoritarian morality of the Church toward an amoraland pragmatic conception of sexuality as an uncomplicated private pleasure. However, both of these extremes fail to capture the nature of sexuality as form of intimacy between two people.
Good sex involves pleasure, but is not primarily about pleasure. Good sex is about intimacyand union with the other. What is sexual desire a desire for? Sexual desire cannot simply be a desire for a certain physical sensations. If it were, then there would be no need for a sexual partner. Sexual desire is a desire for union with another person. In sexual desire, we desire union not simply with a lifeless body or piece of meat; instead, we desire union with another person’s body as illuminate through the light of his or her subjective consciousness. Sexual desire longs for other person, but does so through his or her body. In so doing, it includes as part of its longing the other person as a conscious, evaluating, desiring, feeling agent. Imagine sex with a beautiful but indifferent and unresponsive body; desire immediately dissipates.
Sexual activity is an intimate act. It requires exposure, vulnerability and surrender. It involves exchanges of the deepest and most private aspects of one’s person and personhood. It involves a vulnerable offering that one hopes the other will both desire and accept. If sexual desire is a desire for union with an embodied person, it can never be morally neutral. The moral dimension of sexuality includes but extends beyond simply respecting one’s partner’s right to say “no”. Sexual desire is jealous. Jealousy occurs when a third person violates physical and emotional intimacy shared between partners in an erotic relationship. Sexual jealousy says: “I wanted you to want me exclusively, and now our intimacy is no longer special.
The emotional fallout of promiscuity and casual sex often comes as a surprise to young people. I often ask the students in my college class on “Love, Sex and Relationships” the following question: “Imagine you find the person you want to marry. That person tells you, ‘You are the 28th person with whom I have had oral sex.’ How do you feel?’ The answers are always illuminating. Students immediately begin to see that engaging in casual sex cheapens the intimacy that sexual desire seeks to attain.
So, what does it mean to teach good sex? Good sex is not simply more skillful sex, more pleasurable sex, or even safer sex (all of which may be good things). Good sex is that which fulfills what sexual desire is a desire for: intimate union with another person.
Sex is Not a Game
Sexual awakening is a part of the experience of being a teen. If you have a teen, it will not be especially helpful to ignore your child’s budding sexuality. Teaching teens about sexuality involves much more than teaching them how to have safe and consensual sex. It involves teaching them that sex is primarily about establishing intimacy and union with another person. To understand this idea is to become aware of the sexual stakes. Sex is not a game. This is why “go out and play” is such dangerous advice.