Premarital sex. Well, premarital sex is a hot topic, no doubt. Let me give you the pros and cons quickly.
Arguments for premarital sex basically have the following structure. Premarital sex is put in the same moral category as actions which are either not wrong or non-moral. Here’s the way the argument works. Suppose I ask you to play tennis with me. It is a game with rules that when done properly can be physically and mentally rewarding. But, what would make a game of tennis morally wrong? Well, it would involve either party (or both) to break certain moral rules. (These rules are specified by Thomas A. Mappes in his article, “Sexual Morality and Using Another Person.”) For example, if I asked you to play, but smashed the ball into you every time I got the chance, that would be wrong. I would be intentionally treating you as a mere means to my enjoyment of seeing you harmed. Or if I played tennis with you only for the sake of embarrassing you in front of some people I knew who were not your friends, that would make the action wrong. I would be intentionally harming you for my pleasure. Basically, the crux of these examples involves a deontological perspective; actions are wrong if they use persons merely as means. Since premarital sex can be like a proper or moral game of tennis in which no one is treated merely as a means, premarital sex is not morally wrong. A good game of tennis and a good round of sex are morally equivalent; the persons involved are respected as ends in themselves in the course of action.
But, there are utilitarian arguments just as well. If an action produces the most amount of good for those involved, then it is moral. On the other side of the coin, if an action does not produce the most good for everyone involved, that is a sufficient reason to make it a wrong action. If sex produces more harm or incurs more dangerous risks than not having sex for the two of us, then on a utilitarian basis, it is wrong.
Let's stick with the deontological perspective.
Women and men may act differently about sex. There may be genetic and/or cultural reasons for these differences. Men have a strong genetically caused disposition to spread their genes as widely as possible. Hence, more sex with more women. Testosterone is a hormone that fuels this desire. Women have a disposition to choose a male who will stay and protect their offspring, given that they cannot widen their genetic pool through multiple partners. So, men want or desire more sexual encounters whereas women, though they may have strong desires for sexual encounters, are more prudent in their choices to pick the male that will best promote the survival of their offspring.
In every day life, we seem to see the desire for sex and related promiscuity in male behavior and the “not so fast” prudential disposition in female behavior. The social contexts derived from these conflicting behaviors do anything to resolve the antagonistic elements. Movies and music promote male promiscuity and dominance while portraying females as sexual objects to be acquired through “macho war.” The net result for the young person is a realm of conflicting messages. A male is not a “male” unless he has scored a number of times. A female is truly female when she attracts a number of males, but holds them off until she chooses the one of her liking at the appropriate time (when the male is ready to make a permanent commitment).
Enough about current culture. Let’s try a little experiment to determine the moral status of premarital sex. We shall invent two persons, Tom and Tammy, who are thinking about premarital sex. Tom is an egoist and Tammy is a deontologist. What would their talk about sex be like?
Tom. “Tammy. We have been dating for two months. I think we might have a go at sex. I would like to, and I can tell you now that I have never done it with anyone else. Also, if you don’t want to I won’t press you, but if we can’t be intimate, then maybe I should look for another girlfriend who can be.” In fact, Tom has had numerous encounters with other girls.
Tammy. “Tom. I really like you, but maybe we should date a bit longer. Like you, I have never had sex before and it is a big deal to me.”
Tom. “Oh, Tammy, come on. Sex is not such a big deal. There is no difference between sex and a good dance. In both, we choose the partners, have good physical activity and end up having a lot of fun and pleasure. What’s wrong with that? Sex and dancing are morally equivalent. Nothing’s wrong with either unless someone gets hurt. And I can assure you that that won’t be the case with us.”
Tammy. “I guess you’re right, Tom. But let’s wait for the right time. Besides, if you really like me enough for sex, then you wouldn’t say that you’d be out looking at other girls if I didn’t do it.”
Tom. “Tammy, you just don’t know how men want sex. I’m sorry that you want to wait, but there are other girls out there who will accommodate me. It’s been nice knowing you.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, obviously, Tom is trying to use Tammy merely as a means to get the pleasures of sex. Moreover, he has added a threat. (A threat is request that will leave the other person worse off if he/she rejects it. An offer is a request that will not leave the other person worse off if he/she rejects it. See Mappes’ article for a complete discussion of this distinction he makes.) Tammy was right to call Tom on the threat, for it was coercive in nature in trying to force her choice to his preference. And, Tom lied about his sexual history. Deception clearly deprives information from Tammy which she should have to make an informed choice. Clearly Tom is in the wrong, but, of course, he is an egoist who will use any means to obtain the ends that he desires.
But, let’s smooth things out. Suppose Tom doesn’t lie or make a threat. Suppose that he is a deontologist and is every bit as concerned as Tammy about the act of sex and its repercussions. Would their having sex, after thinking it over with both revealing all the important information needed to make a decision, be something wrong to chose? Given that they are both deontologists, it would be hard for either to say that they were being used merely as a means. Both reveal all the important facts about themselves. Both choose without coercion the end that they desire, an end that does not treat anyone else or themselves merely as a means. So, after considered deliberation over the nature of the act, a review of the facts of the matter (what risks there are physically and psychologically) and voluntary choice by both, were Tom and Tammy to choose to have premarital sex, it looks to be a morally permissible action.
But, have they thought it out fully? There are physical risks to be sure. Diseases, some quite fatal, can be transmitted through sex. But, let’s suppose that they are intelligent enough to take sufficient precautions. What about psychological risks? Here the area is foggy, but there are some important arguments to consider.
First, sex is not like dancing with someone. Well, it is, but you know what I mean. It is a very, very intimate act. And, given that intimacy, were you to have a lot of sex “just for the fun of it,” you could lose the aspect of intimacy that you would wish. Put it this way, do you want to tell your husband or wife that he/she is number thirty-five on your list of sexual experiences? How, in fact, do you feel about being number thirty-five on a cumulative list? Further, can you handle the emotional baggage of introducing your husband/wife to a former lover? That can happen. And here’s the rub. What if your spouse wants to know with whom you have slept? That information is confidential between you and those persons. Not even your spouse has a right to that knowledge, for it is private to you AND the other person. But, how can you be honest and truthful to your spouse, when there are serious events in your past that you cannot tell him/her. In other words, premarital sex can leave a person between the rock and a hard place, so to speak. Sex involves privacy of intimacy. Marriage involves truthfulness and trust. Premarital sex could involve a person choosing between lying to his/her spouse/partner about a relationship with another person, or breaking the contract of privacy that sex involves with that other person. Worse, a person can be a slave of using sex as a means to ends, which, for the most part, are trivial or ultimately psychologically destructive. So, the basic message is, don’t have premarital sex or at least too much of it unless you are quite certain of marriage, for that moment of "bliss" can involve serious psychological and moral conflicts down the road.
The reality of the matter is that with young persons, hormones and thinking do not mix too well. It is one thing to be a deontologist or utilitarian at home alone in your study. It is quite another to be with your soul mate in a very romantic and secluded spot. Best to have things thought out way ahead of time before you get to that secluded spot.
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