Sex and Expectations

Philosopher Neil McArthur asks an interesting question which is the title of his essay:  “Should We Have Sex Because Our Partner Wants To?”  McArthur is asking whether one has an expectation—maybe even obligation—to have sex with one’s partner just because they happen to be partners and one of the partner wants to have sex.  At first, this sounds like a demand or even forceful sex.  Before we make huge assumptions with this, let’s check out his argument.

  1. “We expect our partners to do something they may not want to do”.  (McArthur uses remaining monogamous as an example, but you could substitute something else less grand, say, watch a movie with your partner even though your partner does not want to watch this particular movie).
    1. We expect monogamy a two-way street.  Likewise, we expect that if our partners always picked a movie that you didn’t want to see, then the relationship is one-sided.  To even things out, you get to pick a movie even if your partner may not want to watch this particular flick every once in a while.
  2. Being part of a relationship means that partners will do things that they may not want to do (at least, at that moment?)
  3. Being part of a relationship means that you have certain expectations (obligations?) to do things that partners may not want to do (at that moment?).
  4. Doing things that you may not want to do, yet are expected (obligated) to do is to make sure the relationship is evened out.  (McArthur says that “monogamy is owed to us.”)
  5. Sex is one of those things that a partner may not want to do (at that moment).
  6. Thus, sex is one of those things that partners are expected (obligated) to do in order to make sure the relationship is evened out.  (McArthur is assuming that the sexual drives of the partners are not even.)
  7. Having an evened-out relationship shows that you care and that you (and your partner) are satisfied.
  8. This includes particular expressions of the relationship, such as sexual satisfaction.
  9. Therefore, “[y]ou should care as much about making sure your partner is sexually satisfied as you care that he or she gets that satisfaction from you.”

And this means having sex with your partner even if you sometimes don’t feel like it.  To be clear, this doesn’t mean you have to say “yes” every time.  It means that you must make every effort to satisfy your partner as best as you can in good faith.

Now, this seems intriguing, but is it valid.  One could push back and say that this seems to go against consent, so perhaps 3 is questionable.  McArthur gives an example to back up his argument:

Imagine your partner says to you: “I sometimes find having dinner with your friends to be kind of an errand. Some nights I do it not because I enjoy it but because I want to please you.” Um, okay. So what? “Well,” he says, “I think this raises a major gray area when it comes to consent. I’m not sure I’m really consenting to having dinner. Isn’t it kind of like you’re kidnapping me? And kidnapping is, you know, a crime.” Your partner’s mistake here is that he’s failed to distinguish between being forced to do something against his will, and not getting to do exactly what he wants to do all the time. Having dinner with your partner’s friends is kind of like being kidnapped. It’s also kind of like being a mature adult who occasionally has to do things that aren’t the exact things you most want to do at that exact moment.

In other words, 3 holds because this is not nonconsensual; rather, there’s a different between coercion and doing something you don’t want to do all the time.  The example is to replace “sex” with “going out to dinner with partner’s friends” in premise 5.

Here, we must be careful.  After all, what makes coercion different than “do[ing] things that aren’t the exact things you most want to do at that exact moment?”  I think McArthur may be on to something, but he needs to spell this out.  Coercion has to do with going against one’s will or being forced.  Doing something that you don’t necessarily want to do at that moment can mean that you prefer to do something else.  Or maybe it can mean doing an action that you aren’t too crazy about, but you will still do it to make the other person happy.  When it comes to relationships, we all make sacrifices now and then, but where is that line?

Continuing on, perhaps one can reply that the analogy doesn’t work because:

A. Sex is special; dinner is not that special.
B. Men have had special privilege to women’s sexuality.

McArthur dismisses A saying that hardly any of his readers won’t believe it.  Perhaps given his readership, but worldwide?  The specialness and sacredness of sex still seems to be popular, or at least it holds a powerful sway.

As for B, McArthur states that this is indeed a problem, and that we should be very careful to fight against patriarchy.  The way to do that, he says among other things, is to “contribut[e] to the happiness of the partners within that relationship.”  Again, this seems correct, but it could be spelled out.  How can we make sure that both partners are happy?  Obviously pleasure isn’t enough, but there must be a sense of flourishing or well-being in both partners and/or the relationship.  I don’t have a full-fledged account, but I would say that some characteristics of a flourishing relationship is where the people involved are continuing to grow instead of being stagnant, the people involved still see themselves and their partners as willing to sacrifice to make their partners happy (what philosophers have sometimes called “robust concern”), and that the care for each other is continuous and not taken advantage of.

Perhaps one more counterargument: if there is a huge discrepancy, why not get out of the relationship?  McArthur performs a reductio by responding this could be about anything.

Your partner likes “Supernatural,” and wants you to watch it with her every Tuesday night. End the relationship! Your partner loves sushi. You’re not crazy about it, but he wants you to take him to a Japanese restaurant every week or two. End the relationship! Ideally, both partners should want sex at the same time. But ideally, both partners should, I guess, also like the same movies, want to hang out with the same people, and end up simultaneously eating the same piece of spaghetti from opposite ends of the plate, leading to constant, adorable, mid-noodle smooches. If that happens, great. But, if it doesn’t, we need to be prepared to cope.

Negotiation is a big part of relationships, and that includes negotiating sexual matters.  By entering into a relationship, you are sharing yourself and that includes depending on them (somewhat) for your happiness.  McArthur says, “when you enter into a monogamous relationship with someone, they are, by definition, placing their sexual happiness in your hands. That’s a trust we should all treat with the respect it deserves.”

One premise that seems off-putting (if my account is correct) is premise four.  This premise makes it sound like a relationship is a business deal.  Perhaps I’m looking to much into however.  After all, all relationships have a give and take, which is just the nature of relationships rather than suggesting that “it’s all business.”

I hope I have carefully reconstructed McArthur’s argument and have given some constructive thought to this interesting essay.  This is, of course, an essay and I think the beginning of a good journal article once a few spots are clarified.

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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One Response to Sex and Expectations

  1. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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