“When Adam ate the apple in the Garden and learned how to multiply and replenish, the other animals learned the Art, too, by watching Adam. It was cunning of them, it was neat; for they got all that was worth having out of the apple without tasting it and afflicting themselves with the disastrous Moral Sense, the parent of all the immoralities.”
Thus observed Mark Twain in Letters from the Earth
So is this moral sense, which distinguishes human animals from other animals, beneficial or harmful when it comes to sex? The answer, I would argue, is not as black and white as Mark Twain and most religionists would have us believe. Or perhaps “black and white” really is an appropriate morality metaphor. When my white cat was in heat, she cared not at all if her partner were white, black, or orange. And she was a resident of South Carolina, which once prohibited such coupling of black and white human animals on moral and religious grounds.
Sex is a biological act, and fun, which is why our pets and we are here today. But sex for humans is not purely biological. It also has emotional and moral components. Morality enters the picture when we decide what kinds of constraints we should place on doing what comes naturally. Not all of us have the same criteria for constraints, and that’s where religion usually enters and sometimes screws things up.
Here are my atheist and humanist constraints: Sex should never be exploitive. Couples who have sex should do so by mutual consent, without pressure or threats. One should not have sex simply to go along with the crowd. Sex should not be about power. Men and women should be concerned about the pleasure of their partners as well as their own pleasure. It matters not at all whether the partner is of the same or different sex. Abstinence is sometimes desirable, but contraceptives and other protection should be available for young people who choose not to be abstinent, as well as for people who want to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. And it should go without saying that adults must never exploit children for their sexual pleasure. Those who do should feel the full weight of the law, whether the exploiters are white collar, blue collar, or black collar workers.
Religious constraints are fine with me, as long as they are comparable to those in the paragraph above. However, applying moral standards written a couple thousand years ago can be problematic. To “be fruitful and multiply” made more sense in an under-populated world than in this one. It never made sense when either parent did not want additional children or when the health of the woman was at risk. There is more to sex than procreation, and all religions ought to recognize this, but they don’t. In the Bible (I Cor.), Paul doesn’t even approve of sex for procreation. He says it’s better that men not even touch women, but grudgingly permits marriage to prevent the sin of fornication, for which hell is the appropriate punishment. This kind of sexual attitude has led countless religious believers to suffer tremendous guilt about a natural and pleasurable human function. Its only beneficiaries have been late-night comedians who are presented with an opportunity to make fun of a religious view, “Sex is dirty, and you should save it for marriage with the one you love.”
Finally, there is a tendency in our culture to equate morality with sexual behavior, when that is just a very small component of morality. Ethical behavior and morality are about treating others with respect, dignity, and compassion. We should not exploit people, whether through sex or any other means. Morality should not be viewed through the narrow prism of sexual behavior. Sex is an important part of life, but there is more to life than sex, and there is much more to morality than sex.