Friday, March 23, 2018

A Blast From The Past: “Satisfaction Not Guaranteed”

     Full disclosure:

  • I am 66 years old.
  • I wasn’t always 66 years old.

     Things change as one ages, including one’s spectrum of priorities. Why, I’ve been told (by someone who should know) that I was once more interested in sex. The vagaries of recollection are such that I find that I must take her word for it.

     This came up (as other things seldom do, these days) because of an observation made by a longtime Gentle Reader: “You no longer write about sex much.” And indeed it is so. I wouldn’t have imagined it for a subject on which my Gentle Readers feel there’s a dearth of opinion being expressed, but one does live and learn.

     I’m cooking a long essay on another subject just now – watch this space – so I’ll attempt to assuage that correspondent’s interests with a repost. The following essay first appeared at Eternity Road on November 11, 2005. (Yes, that was the eighty-seventh anniversary of Armistice Day. Is that really significant?)

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

     It sometimes happens that, in defending or promoting a position of which your Curmudgeon approves, a commentator will "go overboard" in a big way, slathering all sorts of undeserved contempt on those who differ with him. (Note that word "undeserved," please. Your Curmudgeon has no problem with the distribution of contempt to those who've earned it.) A fresh example of this has just blipped your Curmudgeon's radar.

     The commentator of whom your Curmudgeon speaks is relatively popular in the Blogosphere. Owing to his modest gift of wit, he once made Eternity Road's blogroll but, owing to his penchant for the sort of tirade mentioned above, he was dropped from it soon thereafter. Inasmuch as his opinions, shorn of his tendency to decorate them with vilifications and denunciations, are fairly sound, this must be considered unfortunate. However, your Curmudgeon has his priorities, and the promotion of civility and genuine tolerance, particularly among persons of divergent views, ranks high among them.

     The subject is, of course, sex.

     Has your Curmudgeon set his hook fairly well? Good. Then he can begin his discourse with a little economics.

     Every decision one makes consciously involves a selection from among the possibilities open to him at the moment. By corollary, he must also reject any other possibilities that are incompatible with his selection -- that is, other possibilities which his selection would render impossible, or prohibitively costly. This is called "opportunity cost," and it's no less important in one's sexual decision making than in any other venue.

     A crude example would be a man who has his choice of two women as bed partners on a particular evening. Unless the ladies are somewhat kinkier than the norm, selecting either one will deny him the other. Unless he's more of a cad than the average man, he's unlikely to factor that into his choice, but it's no less true for that.

     A somewhat more practical example is that of a woman contemplating the surrender of her virginity. This is a one-time-only event; there are many items and appliances one can unscrew, but a woman is not one of them. So if she places some value on her virginity, she must come to terms with the prospect of having it nevermore.

     Contemporary American society values virginity much less than that of a century ago, or even half a century. A woman is not widely expected to arrive at her marital bed still a virgin; far less so is a man. But some persons still do resolve to make it to the altar "unscrewed," whether for religious, social, or epidemiological reasons. Your Curmudgeon considers it a wise policy, even though it's one that, as a young man, he wasn't wise enough to follow himself.

     But that doesn't change the economic aspects of the decision.

     The opportunity cost of maintaining one's virginity until marriage is whatever amount and degree of sexual satisfaction one might have had beforehand. One must believe either that premarital sex is morally wrong, or that the benefits are not worth the costs, to eschew those possibilities. Since valuation is personal, and since there's nothing more personal than one's sexual attitudes, this is not a decision anyone can make for someone else. Nor is it a decision that a nosy parker, whatever his station in life, ought to award himself the privilege of reviewing and critiquing.

     One's approvals and disapprovals are one's own affair. However, public censoriousness over something so intimate is massively arrogant and wildly out of place, even when one is speaking in generalities. Nor is it a defense of such behavior to claim that others have been just as censorious about one's own preferences and proclivities. In case there's anyone in the audience who's mislaid his aphorisms, two wrongs don't make a right.

     Sexual decisions are among those that involve the largest uncertainties. No matter how good she looks, how seductively she dresses, or how invitingly she talks, satisfaction is emphatically not guaranteed. Indeed, if experience is a reliable guide, in sexual matters appearances are deceiving more often than in more mundane transactions.

     But the value of virginity is also an uncertain thing. Will your future spouse value it? Might you lose a possible future spouse by clinging to it? Whatever your church teaches, do you think God really demands it of you, on pain of eternal punishment? These and many related questions cannot be answered with perfect assurance. All that's certain is that by remaining virginal, one has elected to forgo the possibility of certain pleasures, and has averted the possibility of certain hazards. That is all.

     For some, that's enough and more than enough. For others, it seems a bad bargain. But it's illegitimate to second-guess the decisions of others with the benefit of hindsight. It's even dubious to second-guess one's own decisions. After all, the graph of desire is not constant over one's lifetime. How can one really put oneself into the proper frame of mind and body to fairly judge an emotionally charged decision he made years ago -- sometimes many years ago?

     Surely, the general modern reluctance to insert one's views into the intimate decisions of others is a gain to all of us. It bespeaks humility, in contrast to the arrogance of the self-appointed judge. It allows that Man is not allowed true clarity of vision about things so close to the heart. It says "there but for the grace of God go I," and passes on to its own proper concerns.

     Regardless of how one feels about contemporary attitudes toward sex and sexual display, the last thing the country needs is a Howard Cosell of the nether parts, orating critically about others' properly private decisions and actions as if they were fit to be telecast to millions. Even in the most provocative situations, all one should allow oneself is to ask others -- politely -- to maintain the privacy appropriate to sex.

     Moral conduct toward others is a hotly debated subject. Your Curmudgeon doesn't expect it to be settled in his lifetime. However, there's at least one principle that appears to have general assent: It is wrong to treat another person solely as a means to your own ends.

     As regards sex, some of the implications are obvious. To lie to a potential bedmate about your intentions toward her, just to get her panties off, is clearly wrong. To coerce or intimidate or bribe or "guilt" sexual access out of her is clearly wrong. To subject her to hazards that you know about but she doesn't is clearly wrong. There can be no serious debate about these cases.

     Herein lies the explanation for many of our society's quasi-taboos. Men lie, arm-twist, and conceal to get sex. Women offer it in exchange for other considerations, sometimes immediate, sometimes deferred. None of this is wholesome; all of it constitutes the use of another person purely as a means to one's own ends. When we learn of it, we frown on it, even if we've occasionally been guilty of it ourselves. It might not be possible to enforce laws against it, but it's no less reprehensible for that.

     But when two mature adults come together sexually under conditions of "informed consent" -- that is, both are of sound mind, neither has attempted to coerce or defraud the other, and both are as aware of the hazards as a mature adult is expected to be -- their decision to couple, whether permanent or very temporary, is theirs alone. Each is operating under the old principle of "assumption of risk." Neither can validly claim afterward that he was anything but a free agent acting on his own vision of his best interests. And whether they're married or unmarried, the rest of us should butt out.

     Good parents do their utmost to educate their kids about sex, both its pleasures and its hazards. (Bad parents mostly hope the subject never comes up.) While the child is still a minor, responsibility for whom rests with the parents, they're justified in being protective of him, even to the extent of presenting an intimidating face toward prospective romantic partners. But once he's reached his majority, even Mom and Dad should withhold their wisdom until their counsel is requested. He may stumble; he may even fall. But unless he's permitted to do so on his own initiative and at his own discretion, he's not yet an adult; he's merely an overgrown child still under his parents' supervision.

     The covenant among adults is that each shall be allowed the management of his own affairs. Nothing more, but nothing less.

     The subject is large. Your Curmudgeon has his standards and preferences, and could easily spend ten thousand words explicating them. Being a basically nice guy, he'll spare you. But in exchange, he has two requests to make of you all:

  1. Please don't copulate in public.
  2. If you have opinions about proper sexual conduct, keep them almost as private as your bedplay. That is, express them if asked for counsel by someone you know well, but when the subject is the private conduct of strangers, or of persons you know who haven't asked for your opinions, keep them to yourself.

     It's not that difficult.

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