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Sex Tips For Geeks: Sex and Consequences

It's time to talk about sex and consequences, and even the dreaded M-word -- morality.

A lot of people tune out when they hear the words "sex" and "morality" used in the same sentence. There is some justification for this; these days, the M-word mostly seems to get waved around by people who hate and fear sexual pleasure. And when you're trying to navigate your way through the problems of dating and mating, the last thing you need is another angry boring rant by some dry old stick of a religious bigot who probably does it in the dark and never had a decent orgasm in his or her life, right?

Right. But sex is powerful stuff. It does have consequences, and those consequences can be wonderful or terrible. They include children, for starters (this is not just fun, it's how we reproduce -- remember?). They can include AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. On a less physical level, sexual choices can transform one's self-image and create, alter, or destroy the most important relationships of our lives.

It's irresponsible to teach people how to shoot pistols without instructing them in basic safe firearms handling, no matter how obvious you think "always treat the gun as though loaded" is. Equally, I think it would be irresponsible to give anything that purported to be wise sexual advice without taking note of the fact that sex has consequences that can mess people up badly, and ways to avoid them.

So let's face it here. Sex involves difficult choices. Moral choices, and ethical choices. Here's the difference: morality proceeds from some set of assumptions about absolute good, while ethics asks how we must regulate our actions to be as happy in the world as we can possibly be. Most people subscribe to some variant of the ethical Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's easy to get people to agree on that, but harder for people to agree about morals.

However, I think most people would agree with the following basics of sexual morality: Love and pleasure are good. Misery and suffering are bad. Children are precious, and responsible adults protect and nourish them.

There are some other basics that look like morality but are actually ethics. For example: Adults have the right, and the responsibility, to make their own choices. And: Coercing others to serve your pleasure is wrong. These can be deduced from the Golden Rule.

"But Eric," you ask, "these principles are obvious. Often they seem to conflict. How am I to know what I am doing right, and when I am doing wrong?"

Actually hackers have an advantage over most other people here. As a class, we are particularly good at ethical reasoning. This is not just a consequence of high general intelligence, but of mind-set and attitude; we're comfortable with ethical abstractions and chains of logical argument about them. If this weren't so, Richard Stallman's many years of argument for "free software" would have been ignored rather than tenaciously followed and fiercely debated.

Often, though, you don't need elaborate argument. Everybody agrees that unwanted children are a tragedy. So unless you want children, make sure you have contraceptive protection in place. Nowadays most people see this as the woman's responsibility rather than, as formerly, a joint one (autonomy has consequences, too). But be aware that the law hasn't caught up with this change yet; many jurisdictions will hold you responsible if she gets pregnant, so if you're in any doubt about your exposure use a condom.

But our responsibility to protect and nurture children has other implications. One of the few things that is becoming clearer as we study the results of the social changes of the last forty years is that broken families tend to produce damaged children. Fatherlessness is the single most effective predictor of violent and criminal behavior in boys. The effects of divorce on minor children are traumatic and long-lasting, and they tend to have trouble forming stable relationships of their own. Children need a stable family unit consisting of at least one father and at least one mother to have a fair chance to grow up healthy. If you do want children, therefore, you owe it to them to make a stable relationship that lasts, and to work as hard as you need to to keep it lasting.

It's also a no-brainer, on grounds of pure self-interest, to take reasonable precautions against STDs. I'm going to buck the current wisdom here and point out that, statistically, AIDS is a negligible risk for white heterosexuals in the U.S. unless your partner has needle tracks or you have an ulcerating STD like chancroids. Outside those circumstances, people in the U.S. and other developed countries probably get killed by lightning strikes more often than they catch AIDS through unprotected heterosexual intercourse (which is why the disease is now in decline here and has been for years).

The `traditional' STDs (gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, chlamydia) are much more infectious and actually more significant risks, and genital warts (though low-risk) are nearly endemic. Condoms can help, but you shouldn't rely on them (if only because genital mucous membranes aren't the only ones you're going to expose to a sex partner). Choosing your partners carefully is smarter. Don't sleep with people who are sick, and don't sleep with people who don't use doctors and pay little attention to their health. (Today this mainly means people who are either extremely poor or so socially marginalized that they don't have access to medical care.)

In many other cases, making good choices about sex is a simple application of the Golden Rule. Like: don't rape, because you wouldn't want to be raped. Most people don't have any trouble following that one. But how about this: don't use other people sexually without regard for their feelings, because you wouldn't want to be used without regard to your feelings.

Cathy: "No woman wants to be treated like a mere receptacle for sperm -- and any woman who tolerates such an approach probably has more emotional problems than any sane human being wants to deal with."

Prudes jump right from this one to "never have casual sex"; a lot of prudes have a weird sexist view of the world in which all casual sex consists of horny men conning innocent women into doing things they'll regret later. This is laughably wrong and pretty insulting to women, who get plenty horny themselves and are no less capable of making their own decisions then men are. But the prude's mistake does set us up to develop an important distinction -- the big difference between "casual sex" and "callous sex".

Casual sex is sex for pleasure, without the intention of building a strong and continuing emotional relationship. Callous sex is sex that uses your partner without considering the partner's rights, feelings, or consequences.

These are not the same thing. People having casual sex, if they're honest and kind, can be good for each other. Sometimes, if they're lucky, that casual sex will become lovemaking. On the other hand, callous sex probably causes a significant fraction of the misery in this world.

Assuming you don't want to be part of that problem, then a good rule is: have sex only with people you are prepared to love. Note that this does not mean you have to believe you're in love every time you have sex. But if you can't imagine loving her, if you don't feel at least some identification of your own happiness with hers, if there's not even potential for friendship there -- then it's probably best not to bed her even casually. If there are no tender feelings on either side, the sex is likely to be mechanical and poor. If she has feelings about you that you don't about her, having sex with her is likely to leave her feeling unfulfilled and used, and can be cruel enough to leave emotional scars. You wouldn't want this to happen to you, so don't do it to her.

(And yes, this can work both ways. Women can sexually use vulnerable men so unfeelingly that the memory is a permanent ache. It's less common than the reverse because of the different ways men and women are socialized, but probably hurts men all the more because it evokes emotions that a man has much greater difficulty accepting or acknowledging. I got taken this way once when I was a pretty boy in my early twenties; if it ever happens to you, it will make you much more careful about never inflicting anything like it on a woman.)

One kind of callous sex disregards your partner's rights and feelings. Another kind is sex that disregards a third party's rights and feelings. Accordingly, you should respect the sexual and emotional boundaries that people agree to in order to protect the relationships that they value. Traditional (closed) marriage is a simple example of such a boundary, and will do as an representative for the others.

If you're in a traditional (closed) marriage, consider the downside very carefully before violating your contract -- you wouldn't want your partner to cheat, so you shouldn't either. Nor is it good to help other people cheat on their contracts. The word "homewrecker" may sound old-fashioned, but it's still an ugly thing to be. Would you want your home wrecked?

Cathy: "Another reason to be careful about entering a sexual relationship of any kind with a married person is that the person may have children. Even if your lover's spouse is willing to accept the fact of your relationship, her daughter or son may not."

Let's assume you can avoid doing any of these bad things; that you're responsible about contraception and STD prevention, caring towards your partner, and respectful of contract boundaries. What can we say about seeking the good?

Let's start with one simple and powerful fact. Love makes sex better. The odds are that the most satisfying sex you will ever have is in a long-term relationship of living with someone you love deeply and who loves you back (a marriage, whether it's given that name or not).

This shouldn't be surprising. The human instincts that love is founded on evolved in order to encourage both reproduction and long-term relationships, so the kids would have time to grow up in with both parents around. In effect, human sex is designed to reward marriage. And indeed, studies on this subject seem to show that married couples generally have better and more frequent sex than single people. If nothing else, they tend to have had more time to learn each others' needs and responses.

Amy: "They also stop having to deal with all the anxiety of dating and `performing' for one another. Face it, when you're comfortable with eachother, you are generally much better at losing your inhibitions and just getting lost in the moment."

One way to use sex for good, then, is in helping build a marriage that works. Another use that goes naturally with that one is to have children.

Are these the only good uses of sex? Hardly. Human beings have found lots of ways to tap the pleasure and emotional power of sex to improve their lives -- as art form, as therapy, even as a component of mysticism and religious ritual. But for most people, most of the time, good sex fits in one of three contexts: romance, friendship, or recreation.

Romance is a convenient label for what we're doing when we're either seeking marriage, constructing the special intimacy of marriage, or re-affirming that marriage. This is the use of sex that most directly supports its primary biological function of reproduction, and which accordingly tends to produce the most intense and satisfying sex.

Friends who are sexually compatible can use sex to express and strengthen their affection without having the kind of special commitment that makes a marriage. This sort of use of sex for non-romantic social bonding is also found in other primates, notably in bonobos (aka pygmy chimpanzees).

Recreation covers uses of sex for relaxation or pleasure between relative strangers who are neither trying to reproduce nor seeking continuing intimacy. This sort of behavior is, as far as I know, unique to humans (though some claim to have observed it in dolphins).

The point of making distinctions between these modes of good sex is that they involve different degrees of emotional investment and risk. If your partner and you are in different modes, the mismatch is likely to leave somebody disappointed or hurting even when both of you have the best intentions.

Sex thrives on communication, on mutual feedback, on the meeting of hearts and minds as well of bodies. The positive ethical lesson is to seek communication -- to approach your partner with a heart open to all the possibilities of intimacy that sex can promote. And to do as much as possible to ensure that you and she share the same expectations about what you will do, and why.

Good intentions never guarantee a good result, and accidents can happen. But if you approach sex with emotional openness, honesty, and clear communication you will almost always avoid serious errors; and you will likely find joy there.

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Eric S. Raymond <>