Criminal Conversation

 I have having a conversation with a hedonist. Because we do not share axioms in common, all we can do is stare at each other in thunderstruck disbelief. I thought that the exchange was worth repeating in part here.

He asked me “What is it that makes you believe that sex is so different from every other human activity that it must be carefully segregated from one’s life until one has found someone to practice it with, to the exclusion of all others, for as long as you both shall live?”

My asnwer was: “There are several reasons: sex is the only form of pleasure that involves romance; the only form that includes the possibility of self-abnegation; the only form that promises so much and can be so painful and permanently harmful when that promise is broken. The sexual pleasure is the only pleasure whose use and abuse involves the creation or the abortion of babies, helpless new life to whom we have responsibilities that cannot be escaped. The sex drive is the most profound and central drive in human psychology, more powerful even than the survival drive. And the list goes on. No one ever killed himself in despair over a bad meal. On the other hand, men kill adulterers so often that the law makes a special provision for it: it is called Second Degree murder.”

Below is a continuation of the conversation.


Q: I’m pretty sure that, as you are using it, “sex is the only form of pleasure that involves romance” is tautological. It appears that you mean sex is set apart because it is the only end result of a courtship whose end goal is a sexually exclusive relationship. Is that right?

A: Sorry if I was unclear, but a degree of unclearness is to be expected when talking to a man whose axioms differ from one’s own so sharply. Our foundational assumptions differ.

You and I were talking about what makes the pleasure of sex and the sex-drive different from other human appetites, for example, what makes horniness different from hunger, or sexual love different from friendship.

My answer was “Romance”.

One does not have a romantic relationship with a ham sandwich: the food is an instrument for sustaining the body, and the pleasure is a side-effect. The appetite for food is self-centered. One does not wish good on the swine before he is rendered into pork.

The next question is how romance differs from friendship. One might as well ask how poetry differs from music. Romance is more intimate and, in its higher forms, less selfish. Romance is exclusive and friendship is inclusive. When three friends are together having a good time, their thoughts naturally turn to inviting a fourth mutual friend to share the joy. When a man is kissing a woman, it would be odd, to say the least, for her thoughts to turn to inviting his other paramours into the embrace: it would at least divide his devotion from a two-armed to a one-handed sort of devotion, if you take my meaning.

While people can be jealous of friends who occupy another friend’s time, we do not hear tales of Othello killing Desdemona because of a broken friendship, but because of an erotic jealousy.

The Greek have two different words for the concepts: eros and philos. Those two concepts are not interchangeable, even if, in English, we use the same word for both.

Q: I’m certain you’re wrong that sex is the only form of kindness which involves self-abnegation; one of the most powerful images in the Gospels is of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

A: Not to be picky, but I did not say sex was a form of “kindness.” It is an insult to sex to call it this, a madness. I would certainly puke before I would say such a thing. I am a romantic, as all men of reason must be.

I said sex was a form of pleasure that involves self-abnegation. Jesus did not wash his disciple’s feet as an act to give himself pleasure: he was not a foot-fetishist. Indeed, it was the displeasure of the act, the humiliation involved, which showed His divine love.

I was distinguishing the pleasure of sex from the pleasure of food and drink, which is self-centered. When sex is self-centered, it is cheap and an insult to the lady involved. Sex has the possibility of being something more, something divine.

Q: And when you say that sex is “the only form that promises so much and can be so painful and permanently harmful when that promise is broken”, you sound as if you have never had a friendship of any significant depth.

A: I am not sure what to make of this comment. Can you really not tell the difference between a married couple and a couple of comrades? I am not asking you whether you hold your friendships in higher esteem than your marriage: I am merely asking whether you note the relationships are not the same.

Q: Sex is not necessary for a couple to share responsibility for the life of a baby, unless you believe that my sister-in-law doesn’t really care about her adoptive son.

A: Non sequitur. The biological mother of the baby had a duty to raise the child which your sister has taken over from her. Nothing I said implies that the sister does not or should not perform the duties that she adopted.

Q: Sex is necessary for birth (for now), but no one-to-one relationship exists between sex and child-bearing.

A: Non sequitur. I said that there was a cause-and-effect relationship between sexual reproduction and sexual reproduction. I did not say, nor is it necessary for my argument to assume, that the relationship is one-to-one. We are not a race that reproduces each time we copulate.

Q: Sexual desire only outweighs the desire for food, clothing, oxygen when those other things are reasonably abundant–I’m sure you’ve heard of concentration camp internees who hid pictures of meals in their bedclothes. People will undertake risky behavior for sex, but that tells us just that sex is a strong desire and that humans aren’t good at judging risk.

A: Non sequitur. My argument was not that sexual desire “outweighs” the desire for other things, but that it was both a fundamental drive, and a drive of a different nature. In order to be good for human life, and good for the social order, the sex drive ought to be channeled into productive rather than destructive avenues. When the sex drive is channeled into monogamy, this is good for everyone involved: the only losers are philanderers, who would be equally as happy or unhappy in a sexual anarchy.  

Q: Much of your argumentation in this section is that people should keep promises about sex. I agree that people should keep their promises, the ones around sex as much as any other. I have seen relationships where sex trumps everything else–if the wife wants to run off for an hour to have sex with someone, that is more important than any appointment she might have with the husband; that’s bad in ways that have nothing to do with the specialness of sex.

A: I respectfully disagree. If my business partner is late for a golf game because he forgot our date, that is different both in kind and in degree than if my wife is late for breakfast because she is copulating with the milkman.

Q: The more you care for someone, the more you are willing to be bound in promise, obligation, and benefit to them. This opens one up to betrayal, and people kill and kill themselves over betrayals of all kinds.

A: At this point, I am defeated. If you cannot tell, or if, more likely, you pretend you cannot tell, the difference between the romance between man and wife versus other human relationships, what more can I say? Should I use some obscure thing to explain a thing that is perfectly obvious? Eros is not philos. A living body is not a dead one. Music is not poetry. Butter is a not bearfat.

Q: Where I differ from you is believing that there’s some sort of hierarchy of promises with heterosexual exclusivity always and only the greatest promise, and that sexual kindness can only be rightly exercised within the context of that promise.

A: No, I fear we differ in far more fundamental respects. I cannot bring myself to believe that any man has so little regard for himself, for his wife, for his family, for his self-worth, for his manliness, to dismiss the intimate relation with his true love as “sexual kindness.” Even the word makes a wholesome man cringe. Have you never been in love?

Q: (quoting me) “Why should a girl take a risk of falling in love with a man who will not commit? Why should she take the risk of assuming he will be faithful if he will not vow faithfulness? Why should she risk pregnancy?” Why should a girl expect to fall in love with a man, or commit to him, just because she wants to have toe-curling good sex?

A: Because life is love, and sex without love is abuse.

One might as well ask why life is better than death. I do not understand the question or how any honest man can ask it.

You speak as if women are eager to be used and abused. You speak as if it is merely a tyranny of interfering males which armtwists the carefree nymphs of Happy Whoreland to ask for commitment.

What really is going on is this: men are naturally cads, and woman are naturally monogamous. Men are suited by biology to walk away from a woman he has possessed, and women are not suited by biology to walk away from a man to whom she has surrendered. She certainly cannot walk away from any new life growing in her womb.

What is really going on is that women tend to seek committed relationships. Those that do not seek such relationships come to dismiss sex as unimportant, and they grow callous and unromantic and disillusioned.

Since the surrender of a woman to her beloved involves, physically and psychologically, her total self, to treat sex with her as casual is to treat her as a casual thing, which means, a thing of little esteem, no more meaningful than a sandwich. A person cannot live her life thinking of herself as temporary, or replaceable, or disposable, and have high self-esteem.

Q: Why should she want him to be bound down to a vow of faithfulness if she doesn’t want it?

A: You don’t actually know any women from the planet Earth, do you? You are asking, in effect, why a woman should want to be loved and cherished and worshipped and adored as a wife, rather than treated like a whore, a merely walking meatbag where her love-of-the-hour can deposit his excess semen.

You are asking, in effect, what makes true love different from mere mutual masturbation.

Q: Why should she risk pregnancy when completely reliable birth control is available to most women at a negligible cost?

A: Ah. Now we come to it. You don’t like babies, do you?

No, there is no completely reliable form of birth control. The best still involves a risk of pregnancy. In a stable, committed relationship, backed by a vow, a new life is a joy and a wonder. In a friendless, temporary, selfish relationship of the type you (whether you know it or not) are advocating, the new life is a meat bag to be killed off or other disposed of as quickly as possible.

Here is the core of our disagreement. You live in a fantasy world, a world of sexual fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless, where actions do not have consequences, where acts do not have a context, and women do not have emotions. In the real world, sexual reproduction and sexual reproduction are related as cause-and-effect, but also related as categories. Even a sterile woman is cheapened if her lovemaking is treated as a commodity rather than a sacrament.

The evil of your fantasy world is that it has real world consequences. Among Blacks, 7 out of 10 children are raised by a single parent; among Whites, the rate is 4 out of 10 and on the rise. Half the marriages in the US end in divorce.

Contemplate that statistic for a second. Most of the social pathologies of the age can be traced back to fatherless childrearing: juvenile delinquency, truancy, wrecked homes, wrecked schools, youth gangs, high crime, the welfare state. The chance of these fatherless babies from Sexual Liberation Land turning into productive citizens, real men who built up a community rather than eaters who tear down a community, is remarkably low. Why should she want him to be bound down to a vow of faithfulness if she doesn’t want it? Why indeed.

Will your marriage end in divorce? By your philosophy, you should not be surprised or alarmed if it does. Neither you nor your wife take it seriously, and when it gets to be a burden, your philosophy, your system of values, will tell you to abandon it.

Q: Your approach to the issue is filled with question-begging: you take as axiomatic that sex should only be in a context of committed, permanent relationships, and anything which encourages sex outside of that context is “illogical” because it violates those axioms.

A: No, rather those are conclusions. My axioms are (1) it is a fact of reality that homo sapiens are mammals whose young are weak and helpless at birth and (2) it is a fact of reality that the sex act is related to sexual reproduction (3) a rational creature’s appetites and passions should be harmonized with the facts of reality.

I hold it to be illogical to pretend that acts do not have consequences, or to pretend that sex is or should be meaningless aside from its pleasure-value, or to pretend that sexual reproduction has only an accidental rather than essential relationship to sexual reproduction. I hold it to be false-to-facts to pretend that human psychology is infinitely plastic, or that we can change our basic natures by an act of will. I hold it to be mentally retarded for a grown up not to know where babies come from, or morally retarded not to care.

Q: It’s worth pointing out that your questions, as stated, express the view that that sex is something that women give to men, with emotional risk only for the women. There’s no indication that homosexuals exist at all. If you didn’t intend those assumptions, you should look at your questions more carefully.

A: Ah. You give away more about yourself than you intend by saying these things. I think men and women are not interchangeable. Their natures are different. Women are more vulnerable. I have seen women slap man and men slap women. It is not the same. Also, men cannot get pregnant.

You are also correct that I do not regard homosexual love as anything but a life-destroying tragedy, a mockery of true love. By the same token, I do not regard incest, paedophilia, necrophilia, or bestiality as equal in worth and wholesomeness to true love. It is a passion not rightly ordered according to reason.

Q: I don’t accept your axioms–which, being axioms, you do not actually defend, but merely assert and re-assert–I am somehow “false to facts”, “illogical”, and outside “the dictates of reason”. You have yet to indicate to me any reason why I should accept your interpretation of the “facts” in preferences to my own happy twenty years of marriage in which I have made an explicit renunciation of sexual exclusivity.

A: Any reason? You cannot think of one reason, even in theory, why you should be loyal and faithful to your wife?

What will your marriage rest upon when the going gets tough?

What becomes of your marriage if one of your casual flings outside of wedlock turns into a serious romance?

What happens if you fall in love with the girl at the taco stand? What happens if your wife gets pregnant by another man, and he wants to raise his child?

Let me put all sarcasm and disagreement to one side for a moment, to ask you a question from my heart: can you think of any good reason, aside from your own selfish thoughtlessness, to be unfaithful toward your wife?

The burden of proof is not on me to justify morality; the burden is on you to find a convincing exculpation for your betrayal of a woman who should mean everything to you.

What reason is there for unchastity, aside from a mere pursuit of base pleasure?

Why is it that other men can control their desire for pleasure, and you cannot?

Q: Now, back to your original question: I’ve already said that a mother-in-law who encourages her son-in-law to break promises to her daughter is doing a poor thing, probably even an evil thing. I don’t know if it’s “nuts”, but it’s certainly a bad idea, and again I’m sorry not to have communicated that more clearly.

A: We are not talking about the breach of a contract. We are talking about adultery. Not to be too legalistic, but “Criminal conversation is adultery.” Scott v. Kiker, 59 N.C. App. 458, 461, 297 S.E.2d 142, 145 (1982). The elements of the tort are (1) actual marriage between the spouses and (2) sexual intercourse between defendant and the plaintiff’s spouse during the marriage. Johnson, 148 N.C. App. at 200-01, 557 S.E.2d at 190.

The consent of the spouse, in the eyes of the law, does not excuse adultery. It is not a crime based on a broken promise: in real life, your wife CANNOT give you permission to have sex outside of marriage. She can divorce, but she cannot legally changed the terms of the marriage oath. It is not a contract.

Q: And I also don’t think that a mother-in-law who encourages her son-in-law to have sex outside of marriage is necessarily doing something evil, as long as she is not encouraging her son-in-law to lie to her daughter, for the reasons I outlined in my earlier response.

A: You have reached a conclusion that is beyond parody.

A sane mother would not encourage her son-in-law to cheat on her daughter, even with the daughter’s full and open consent, because a mother should seek her daughter’s good.

Look, Mr. Fantasy, it is one thing to pretend that no harm comes from cheating on your wife. It is another thing to pretend that your wife likes it, or at least, does not mind. Maybe your wife actually does not: I will take you at your word. But to pretend that her mother has no grounds to object to her own daughter being treated as expendable is a vile lie.

A mother wants her daughters to be cherished as she cherishes them; she wants her daughters to be loved as she loves them. Any mother who wants less than this is falling short of her duties as a mother.

I know a mother with such a broken relationship with her daughter that the two will not even speak to each other; and yet even that mother would not wish such an evil on her daughter.

You are nuts. Or, rather, you are a sane man who has been convinced to follow a philosophy that is nuts. The problem is that ideas have consequences: one cannot approve of philandering without disapproving of chastity; and one cannot disapprove of chastity without coming to disapprove, sooner or later, of innocence; and one cannot disapprove of innocence, without, sooner or later, coming to disapprove of children, motherhood, patriotism, wholesomeness, beauty in art and logic in philosophy, and eventually all the other good and natural things in life.

The same argument you give to excuse philandering can be used, word for word, to excuse cowardice, cannibalism, opium-smoking, bear-baiting, suicide or any other vice or injustice.

One can disarm a consequentialist argument by pretending actions have no consequences, or that acts take place against no background, in a vacuum. One can disarm a rational argument by pretending ideas have no context. One can disarm a pragmatic argument by pretending we live in fantasy land, where human nature is whatever Humpty Dumpty says it is that day: that’s his glory! One can disarm an idealistic argument by pretending one has never heard of any ideals before. One can disarm, and even counter-parry, a moral argument by assuming it is immoral to make moral judgments, or thoughtless to think. Moralists can be dismissed as petty tyrant. The sin-loving and selfish side of human nature will do the rest: all the excuse needs to do is sound good, not be sound. All of these styles of arguments are useful for the intellectual, but they all require a sharp divorce from reality.

That is the secret. That is the key to the entire modern revolt against reason.