“To know yourself you need to understand what matters most to you and why.”
“Part of sexual wisdom is coming to know how much sex matters to you, what the sources of its value are in your life, and how sexuality fits into the array of all those things you care most about.” — Caroline J. Simon
Sex and intimacy are great sources of pleasure, but also of confusion and heartache. In earlier years it’s common to clumsily navigate this new terrain with hormones battling our better judgement. What one person saw as a bit of fun was what another saw as an act of love. Feelings of violation, joy, disillusionment, regret, passion, rejection and excitement are abound in this new territory. You graduate to a new level of experience — or lack thereof — without a proper guidebook to go with it. You haven’t had the tools to define your boundaries or when to engage.
But does it have to be this difficult?
Unfortunately education has been inept and parenting awkward. On top of this the media, entertainment and advertising bombard us with sexual subtext that influences our ideas of what is expected of us, and what is unacceptable; normal and abnormal — but nor is it consistent because of the contradictory pressures from either side of the culture war. For example, people get exposed to both slut-shaming and virgin-shaming. Culture is full of double-binds like this and there is no winning both sides. This is a meaning you have to create for yourself.
Caroline J. Simon recognises this need for understanding. In her book “Bringing Sex Into Focus: The Quest For Sexual integrity” on which this article is based, she outlines a framework that categorises people’s perspectives into six distinct “lenses”, or views. The lenses refer to the main metaphor of the book being a phoropter; an ophthalmic testing device that calibrates multiple lenses for the purpose of clear vision.
More conversation about sex and values needs to take place. These lenses, although relatively unheard-of, can help us understand our shortcomings and ideals, increasing our self-knowledge so we can navigate this crucial part of life with dignity and confidence. In the following I will attempt to break down the perspectives, as well as contribute some of my personal interpretations and relevant cultural points.
The Plain Sex view
The plain sex view sees sex as a mutual act of bodily pleasure, disconnected from biological consequences and emotional attachment. Sex is inherently insignificant; an act like any other that we are free to use at our discretion.
This view often sees the past as full of injustices such as obligatory marriages, psychological enslavement and women treated like property. Situations such as these could finally be overcome with the advent of contraception and sexual health advances. Combining this with the segregation of sex from government and religion, we have been liberated from oppressive limitations.
The notion of the ‘hookup’ is at home in this view and is commonly portrayed in mainstream entertainment. We are now free to enjoy the pleasures of sex as mutual transactions unbound by biological consequence, traditional ideas of virtue and dignity, or love and commitment — as long as it is consensual.
Consent becomes most important in this view because it’s harder to draw intentions and implications from partners that aren’t familiar, loving or committed — so consent (however unromantic) needs to be absolutely explicit.
A logical inconsistency here is that in modern culture the considerable emphasis on consent, and paranoia surrounding abuse implies a special significance to sex. If sex wasn’t significant, consent may be relevant, but what reason is given that makes it highly important? If sex bears no special significance — just like sharing a meal — what are the grounds for condemning its misuse as such a grave misdeed?
“When evaluating sex, the plain sex view puts its emphasis on mutual consent and mutual consideration leading to mutual sexual satisfaction.” — Caroline J. Simon
The Romantic View
The romantic view’s ideal is the classic relationship. It sees sex as a mutual gift-giving and privilege to be preserved for those of profound significance within a long-term commitment. Signified by feelings of love and passion, it is a poetic attempt at meaning and creates some confines within which to operate.
Meaning in this way is generated by exclusivity, which romantics believe sex naturally reinforces via pair bonding. Since sex is seen as an expression of deep affection, casual sex and sex outside of romantic love or commitment is seen as inappropriate as it divorces sex from what gives it depth. From the romantic view, “the promiscuous person treats as insignificant that which ought to be significant”¹. It makes casual something which simply isn’t.
Unlike the plain view, sex isn’t purely mechanical but also deeply psychological and emotional. Sex must integrate these other elements in order to be holistic and not divorce the sexual experience from interpersonal intimacy and erotic love. It can end up a habit that conditions a person to separate desire from the object of one’s desire.
However, unlike more devout conservative views, romantic love is the guiding principle and is subject to change. A new love interest on the horizon certainly complicates the arrangement. The romantic lens often means that commitment lasts as long as romantic love lasts, usually leading to serial monogamy.
Romantics don’t necessarily have it easy. They can go long periods of time without sex and feel like their ideals are threatened by modern culture. Romantics whose values aren’t properly considered could become involved in committed relationships with those of plain or expressive dispositions, where a crisis of meaning could occur through a conflict of values.
How could the mutual gift-giving of sex only paid for by the heart and soul also be purchased by someone else with a mere bottle of wine? What does the romantic’s sexual restraint now mean if the other did not uphold that value? The romantic can also struggle to shed ideals that idolises the other, rather than seeing an imperfect human being.
“The romantic lens too often holds us hostage to our fantasies of a perfect lover…” — Caroline J. Simon
The Expressive View
The expressive view feels that sex is an expression of growth and development including joy, creativity and human connection. It is a source of empowerment through expression and a sense that we should be using to engage with the world. Like the plain sex view, it is not tied to commitment or romantic love, and it disagrees with the romantic view because erotic and passionate sex should still be experienced outside of committed relationships.
Sex is a body language that ought not to be silenced.
To renounce sex would be to invite neurosis by denying the self and the fullness of humanity. Those who hold the expressive view are also likely to hold similar ideas to the plain view when it comes to cultural conditioning and traditional views, but like the romantic view, the expressive view also believes that sex involves emotional and psychological elements such as intimacy and vulnerability.
Since sex is a body language, it means it is communicative. How it is used shows how people are valued. An example of this is that porn often communicates the domination of the masculine and eroticizes over-submission of the feminine. She often becomes nothing more than a medium for the viewer’s pleasure. This kind of communication and ‘body language’ affects the mutuality of personhood in sex, as well as creates unrealistic expectations. Expressivists however see erotica as a celebration of mutual sexuality, making a moral distinction between porn and erotica based on differing power dynamics.
“Sex can help us to like ourselves and find a generosity of spirit, open ourselves to the world and simply be alive.” — Sally Tinsdale
In my experience, expressives often have a playful nature and emanate an openness. This openness can be perceived as mild interest, such as flirtation. The expressive can be naïve in the sense that they can focus on the joy of sex at the expense of the darker side of it and the realm of motivations. This provides the perfect canvas on which others can project their fantasies, ranging from passionate love; to control and domination. Some want to possess the expressive when it is not in their nature.
Some expressives actually fear commitment and deep intimacy so they attempt to spiritualise more shallow relationships, such as simply taking part in the impermanence of all things, being free in contrast to tied down, maintaining a sense of independence, and always with an exit.
Since the expressive can be naïve, this can result in the importance of sex and selection of relationship partner being left up to fate or ill considered. An expressive also might not be aware of emotional proclivities of others, potentially leading to fallout. A conscious expressive is aware of the psychological dimensions such as intention, the ways sex is used and what it is communicating.
The Covenantal View
The covenantal view holds marriage as the ideal framework for relationships. The idea is someone is to remain chaste until they find someone they would like to spend the rest of their lives with. Like the romantic view, it is a mutual gift-giving of the self, although the dedication is established in a much deeper notion of sanctity, therefore requiring a lot more from its adherents.
As you might have guessed, marriage is the only appropriate context for sex in this view. After two people are married, they then consummate the marriage by becoming “one in the flesh” before God. It is a symbolic dedication to the highest ideal and seen as an “existential reality rooted in the order of existence.”
The virtue of chastity isn’t merely abstaining from sex, it’s seeing others for who they are, uncoloured by sexual desires that can distort the mind. Chastity requires a great level of self-mastery through discipline; using the higher mental faculties to redirect sexual impulses to pursue a lofty ideal established by the deliberate unadulterated will. Without chastity and discipline, in this view, the gift of oneself is scarcely possible.
“To take sex lightly is not just disloyal to one’s spouse but is also an affront to God.”
To maintain dignity, sex requires a deep reverence and respect for your partner, honouring them as a complete and complex individual. This emotional investment leads to deep care in matters such as injury, old age, and remaining loyal ‘in sickness and in health’. One symbolic meaning of the veil has been to cover something sacred from the eyes of sinful men, only to be lifted by those who have proved their character.
Science actually supports that those with the happiest marriages have only had one sex partner, so it pays off if this ideal can be carried out. An added bonus is a dependable guard against unplanned pregnancy and STD’s.
As this ideal reaches far above, so it creates a pit below. Whatever adversity the romantic view confronts, in comparison pales. This view is seemingly unrealistic for many and those trying to hold out these values struggle to keep a sense of purity and feel under constant threat. It is also extraordinarily rare for someone to have never been unchaste.
These ideals can fall into illusions by judging others and becoming insecure. “Used foolishly, ideals oppress people. We can use them to flail ourselves and bludgeon others. But used wisely, ideals can keep us moving in the right direction”. If one fails to know themselves, this decreases true sexual insight and can devolve into projection and neurosis.
“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”― Louisa May Alcott
The Procreative View
In this view sex is a celebration of life; the nexus point where ancestry meets posterity. Sex is seen as naturally life generative so any sexual relations outside of generativity distorts its purpose.
This view sees contraception as having diminished the importance of sex and relationships by subverting sex’s natural consequences. People can now get away with shallow relationships involving only transactional exchanges of bodily pleasures. Considering generativity is what gives proper insight to the depth and importance of what relationships ought to be, people have lost sight of the glory in the future in pregnancy, parenthood and life plans.
Aside from partaking in contraception; you cannot masturbate, the impotent cannot marry, and neither can homosexuals. This is because sexuality in these contexts doesn’t create life. The good side is that through valuing life, it provides moral grounds to condemn paedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia and other perversions. As the only generative form of sex is heterosexual and genital, it is seen as the only right way to engage in it.
Marriage is also the only viable context, as it is a stable structure to raise children, but also a covenantal pledge. If you think this view is harsh on others, even those who are married cannot engage in sexual activity without the intention of generation; which could result in a rather large family.
The Power View
The power view sees sex as an expression of deeply entrenched interpersonal power dynamics: domination and submission, power and vulnerability, subject and object, authority and punishment, freedom and restraint… each of these can enhance the erotic pleasure of the sexual experience. Complete surrender to another’s will, or the complete control over someone else are intoxicating elements of sex for many people (that not everyone will admit).
Something that needs to be considered is that the potential increase in pleasure is counterbalanced by risk, where in the power view is incredibly high if it goes astray. Some effort is required to safeguard against real exploitation and manipulation rather than playful simulation. Someone could get carried away by fantasy in their own mind rather than connect with their partner. A few of the most well-known serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy were driven by their desires of dominance and control in conjunction with sex that got progressively more demanding.
At its darkest, the quest for power results in rape and violence as well as complete objectification. The needs and personhood of their sexual partner are non-existent. This is why dignity, love and commitment are moral virtues in other lenses, to safeguard against this progressive fantasy and instead see a person with as much depth of dimension as possible.
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” — Oscar Wilde
Here we can start to see the interplay of the lenses.
For example, the plain and romantic views contrast and often compete. The exclusivity, emotion, commitment and holistic bond as the meaning-making framework can be disregarded as something to be overcome by the plain sex view. Those who belong to the plain sex view promote their views as liberation similar to a human rights front, and those who hold the plain sex view feel judged by the romantic view and feel they try to impact their freedom based on arbitrary beliefs.
Some lenses seek freedom and rights, others meaning and responsibility. And there is a tension between these two values that needs to be balanced. Competitive lenses seem to be quite polar, but the lenses aren’t entirely antithetical and people don’t always neatly fit into one view.
The lenses on their own are fragmentary and don’t provide a full picture, so it’s common to borrow from what other lenses find important for a wider perspective: through the plain lens we can understand the complexities of consent; through the procreative view we can understand the reverence for life; the romantic view shows us sex as a gift; the covenantal view a reverence for personhood; the expressive shows us the openness and joy of expression, and the power views reveals other erotic dynamics in play.
It’s easy to lose sight of this inter-relatedness of the lenses when there are competing values. The book itself argues that the covenantal lens — while on its own doesn’t reveal much about navigating sex — when placed as the central focusing point of all the lenses it is the most stable, effective, and mitigating of the risks.
As I illustrated in the descriptions, each lens has its drawbacks and ideals, and it’s best to work on our own lenses and blind spots before judging others. We must understand other lenses to further clarify our own position.
When we do not know ourselves, our will is weak and we struggle to orient our actions. In sex, when we are not steadfast in our values we are susceptible to pressure and coercion into sexual experiences we would have rather avoided, we are ignorant to when or when not to act on desires, or we feel ashamed of them. Hopefully these lenses offer you some insight into yourself and allow you to feel more confident in how you choose to navigate sexuality.
- Unattributed quotations are from Bringing Sex Into Focus: The Quest For Sexual Integrity by Caroline J. Simon
- Benatar, D. (2002). Two Views of Sexual Ethics: Promiscuity Pedophilia, and Rape. Public Affairs Quarterly, 16(3), 191–201. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40441324