The publishing industry is flourishing when it comes to books about sex – just have a look on Amazon. You’ll find books on feminist sex, psychoanalytic sex, prostitution sex, Foucault sex, and even something about channelling your sex “energy”.
Probably you will find less about virtuous sex, which is the area where English bioethicist Anthony McCarthy aims to make a difference. His book, Ethical Sex: Sexual Choices and Their Nature and Meaning, is an ambitious attempt to bring thoughts about good desires, sexual virtue, modesty and purity to today’s secular audience.
Dr McCarthy sat down with Daniel Blackman to talk more about things that many of us have ceased to hear mentioned in serious conversation.
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Daniel Blackman: You’ve just written a philosophy book about sex, yet you end your book by saying that philosophical speculation about sex doesn’t do much to improve people’s sexual behaviour, so what’s the point?
Anthony McCarthy: Well, philosophical ideas seep into cultures over time, and they can underpin what we think are just common opinions and ways of behaving. So philosophy can affect how we think and live, if only indirectly. But it’s also true that the kind of subtle and deep thinking we expect from philosophy isn’t alone going to change behaviours. That comes with upbringing, experiences of being loved and loving others, how we come to see the world via the arts and the people we talk to, and our religion if we have one – and for many, the care and protection of their children shapes how they view sex and things of a sexual nature.
DB: A lot goes into writing a book, and sex can be a controversial topic, so what motivated you?
AMC: I found myself drawn to the topic of contraception to begin with. Why? Because it straddles the areas of abortion and sexual ethics, and also because philosophical heavyweights like Elizabeth Anscombe took a great interest in the topic. It was reading her work on these issues that really directed me towards this field, and her debates with what you’d call secular philosophers like Michael Tanner and Bernard Williams. As my interest grew, I began to read people like Roger Scruton, and I began thinking about gender, sexual desire and marriage, and their relation to politics and culture.
DB: A book’s front cover is like a shop window. What does yours say about the book?
AMC: OK – so it’s a mosaic of a husband and wife reunited, the husband being Odysseus and his wife Penelope. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope over a very long period of time remains faithful to her husband who is making his way very slowly back home after fighting in the Trojan War. She is surrounded by suitors, yet never falters in her faithfulness.
I like the story as it’s a pre-Christian, pagan story that’s a good example of the natural virtues and goods of marriage.
DB: Sex is something private, something people do in the privacy of their own lives, so why the need to publicly scrutinise it and look for rules about it?
AMC: That kind of observation is often thrown about, and sounds right, but sexual acts do have an impact on public life. Sexual acts and how we approach them shape more than the people immediately involved: experiences of faithfulness or betrayal, promiscuity or exclusivity do affect people’s lives beyond ourselves, and that includes thought processes, opinions, public discourse and writing, art works produced and consumed and so on.
Private sexual acts can easily, as we know, become subjects for public promotion and the defence of all sorts of sexual acts as normal and good. The very public – and even publicly funded and promoted – contraception and abortion industries, not to mention the huge pornography industry, help to form public attitudes as well as profiting from the sex lives of countless individual people.
We see even further how the private sexual lives of homosexual people, particularly men, have brought about a revolution in Western societies. In law, marriage has been redefined to include two men or two women. The obvious and natural link between marriage and procreation has been very publicly removed.
Very importantly, babies come from sex, and we need a society that values and protects and helps parents raise these children, whether they come from a marriage or a more casual arrangement. How children are conceived and brought up by their parents is not just a private matter – it’s something we all have some kind of a stake in.
DB: OK fine, but isn’t it enough to have consent as a stand-alone rule, rather than introducing things like desire, intentions and the nature of sexual acts?
AMC: We have laws about incest, even if it’s consensual, so the question is why? Why is adultery a ground for divorce in law? And regarding consent, what is it about sex that makes consent important in the first place? We can have all sorts of bodily contact with people without consent, but that’s very different from sex without consent. I can slap you on the back or squeeze your hand, and maybe I shouldn’t if that annoys you, but nothing like that is remotely similar to rape, so we need to know why that is. It’s because of the nature of sex and the goods it relates to that lack of consent here is so bad.
DB: So someone concedes the points you make above, but you go even further: you talk about intentions and desires. Whatever happened to a person’s right to private thoughts and rights of conscience? Aren’t you crossing a line?
AMC: We might think of “hate crimes” here – whether or not the law should get involved in recognising motivations of “hatred”. We certainly have no moral right to hate certain groups of people, and such a motivation can worsen a crime morally. Apart from that, the law is always trying to judge people’s intentions in order to classify and identify certain kinds of harmful acts in which the law takes an interest. So there’s nothing strange about judging intentions and desires – without that we aren’t really engaging in rational reflection about moral acts, including outwardly visible acts that carry legal penalties.
The extent to which it’s prudent for the state to legislate with regard to, say, the manipulation of desire by advertisers is, of course, a complex prudential matter involving many different considerations. But acts generally come from what is happening in people’s heads and any civilised society has an interest in encouraging good intentions and desires which will result in virtuous activity. By the same token, a bad state may not want to encourage virtue in its citizens, not least because those in the grip of vice may be much easier to manipulate.
DB: Can you explain what you mean by modesty and purity? Aren’t they a little old-fashioned today?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that modesty “protects the intimate centre of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.” That seems as good a definition as any, and is not even a particularly religious one as such.
I think part of the problem is that modesty is sometimes associated with puritanism or oppression of women. However, it should be seen as truly liberating and sensitive to our bodily dignity. A society that has becomes heavily dualist regarding body and spirit, and also sexually promiscuous can’t make sense of that. DH Lawrence once referred to pornography as “doing dirt on life”. Funnily enough, even in our age people talk of dirt in the context of sexual immorality, so they shouldn’t be too surprised that the term purity still has a resonance for some and makes sense of their use of the term dirt as some kind of offence against it.
DB: Moving on a little, you make no mention of marriage in your opening introduction. My impression is that “ethical sex”, as you want to present it, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with marriage?
AMC: On the contrary, sex is inherently marital, properly understood – that’s what I’m arguing. It has a marital nature: lifelong commitment, ties to children, fully giving oneself to the spouse, exclusively. What I’m trying to do is build up, guide the reader, from whatever starting point they’re at. I’m building up from a low base; gradually moving up to the fullness of sexual desire and love and sexual activity in marriage.
DB: You make an interesting argument about “substitutionary sex”, and even claim there’s a blurring between heterosexual and homosexual sex. What’s that about?
AMC: If there’s an increasing focus on sexual pleasure in isolation from other things, then you’re no longer looking at sex as something linked to procreation and parenting; and the more sex is seen that way, the less relevant it is whether the other person is a man or woman. Elizabeth Anscombe made this point decades ago: that a heavily contracepted culture prepares the way for homosexual sex as well.
Dr Anthony McCarthy is the Education and Publications Manager for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) and a Visiting Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria.
Daniel Blackman is a theology and ethics post-graduate. Since 2010 he has been working in education, research, and campaigning on family issues. His articles have been published in journals, papers, and magazines in the UK and US.