In Defense of Sin

Overview

Intriguing, and occasionally unsettling, In Defense of Sinis a refreshingly frank exploration of some real facts of life. Portmann gathers an on-target collection of great writers on transgressions large and small. Read about defenses for promiscuity, greed, deceit, gossip, lust, breaking the golden rule, and more—and use this unusual guide to decide for yourself if sin has a place in our contemporary, and virtually unshockable, society.

Provocative and illuminating, this book ...

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Overview

Intriguing, and occasionally unsettling, In Defense of Sinis a refreshingly frank exploration of some real facts of life. Portmann gathers an on-target collection of great writers on transgressions large and small. Read about defenses for promiscuity, greed, deceit, gossip, lust, breaking the golden rule, and more—and use this unusual guide to decide for yourself if sin has a place in our contemporary, and virtually unshockable, society.

Provocative and illuminating, this book may change how you think about sin, morality, and what's right.

Contributors include Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, Anthony Ellis, Jane English, Ludwig Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud, Bernard Mandeville, Jerome Neu, Friedrich Nietzsche, David Novitz, Joyce Carol Oates, David A.J. Richards, Seneca, Jonathan Swift, Richard Wasserstrom, and Oscar Wilde.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Just what we frail and fallen mortals need—a book defending lust, gossip, deceit, and prostitution, and a book that is finally more moral than William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues." —Stanley Fish, author of There's No Such Things as Free Speech
Stanley Fish
...a book defending lust, gossip, deceit, and prostitution, and-a book that is finally more moral than The Book of Virtues.
Publishers Weekly
In this age of pious hyperbole, a volume extolling the virtues of sinfulness is very welcome. Portmann, the author of a wonderful examination of schadenfreude, When Bad Things Happen to Other People, here offers selections from a range of authors in defense of 16 varieties of evil, four of which are sexual. He makes no claims to inclusiveness the deadly sins of sloth and gluttony and biblical injunctions against profaning the Sabbath and coveting one's neighbor are sadly omitted to make way for vindications of new transgressions gossip, promiscuity, despair. The readings are uneven in tone and focus, thanks to the inclusion of excerpts from popular texts that seem off base. Oscar Wilde's mordant paean to lying, for example, is less about noble forms of deceit such as "white lies" than about the supremacy of art over nature, of the imaginary over the real. In defense of murder, Portmann offers a familiar satire by Jonathan Swift rather than a serious discussion of capital punishment or some other case in applied ethics. In contrast, chapters such as Anthony Ellis's vindication of casual sex and David Novitz's rejection of forgiveness are focused and provocative. The odd selection might have worked had the editor's introductions been less perfunctory. As it stands, the collection reads like a packet of texts assembled for a college course; absent is the authoritative presence required to tie it all together. (Sept. 8) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781403961426
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

John Portmann is the author of When Bad Things Happen to Other People.He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and his forthcoming book is Sex and Heaven.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 12: In Defense Of Lust

Ask any advertising executive, or simply look at the cover of this book: Sex sells. Lust, the food of sex, can help us understand what it is to be human. Granted, not every human inclination can be called good-think of aggression toward fellow humans, for instance. Lust, however, deserves praise for brightening the dreary horizon and inspiring us to pull the very best out of ourselves that we can.

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, particularly with lust. Contemporary employers increasingly worry about the time employees spend furtively visiting pornographic Web sites at work. And parents complain about unwillingly exposing children to a barrage of films, television programs, and music videos flaunting sexual images. Lust resists nearly every social attempt to contain it, it seems.

Is lust so bad? What would life without lust look like? Psychiatrists now consider the lack of lust a telltale sign of depression, something everyone wants to avoid. Lust cheers and sustains us with the confirmation that some people really can bring us joy.

Does lust lead to sex? Sometimes, no doubt, it does. Just as desiring money does not bring you money, however, appreciating the human form does not bring you company. Adam and Eve were not forbidden to look at the fruit on the tree, only to eat it. The pleasure we derive from looking around us can lighten the burden of existence.

The Internet has transformed communication in many ways, only one of which is the usage of the word "chatting." Although not all chat rooms are erotic, the word "chat room" has taken on a richly sexual connotation. Does erotic chatting (the only kind Idiscuss here) qualify as a harmless exercise of the moral imagination or as a sexual activity? Or perhaps both? Even it we considered chatting a sexual activity, it could hardly be worse than flipping eagerly through pornographic magazines.

Lust gave birth to chatting, at least the kind that goes on in erotic Internet spaces. In my view, chatting does not amount to adultery or betrayal of a romantic partner. In an essay written in 2000, I argue that defending chatting pays tribute to the life-giving zest of lust. Lust can uplift us as it fills us with a renewed sense of how nice it is to be alive.

John Portmann's book When Bad Things Happen to Other People (2000) was nominated for Phi Beta Kappa's Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize. He studied philosophy at Yale and Cambridge and now lectures at the University of Virginia.

Chatting Is Not Cheating

Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers? Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls? —Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road" (1856)

A triumph of human imagination, the Internet has expanded and facilitated communication. Lust, an age-old focus of human imagination, now enjoys a new stage on which to triumph.

The Internet simplifies life in ways many people have noticed. It complicates life as well, though, particularly with regard to sexual morality. Anonymous dirty talk over the Internet presents what may seem to be a new moral puzzle: Is it sex? Does it amount to betrayal if your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife logs on to an erotic chat room? Your mother or father? Your son or daughter? A priest, nun, rabbi, or minister? No. The Internet has not given us a new way to have sex but rather an absorbing new way to talk about sex. Distinguishing between flirting and infidelity will show that talking dirty, whether on the Internet or on the phone, does not amount to having sex.

I make a case for the moral acceptability of anonymous dirty talk, which is no better or worse than viewing pornography. Along the way, I suggest that reflection on the erotics of the Internet usefully exposes the largely intuitive and pre-articulate anxiety with which most of us approach the topic of sex.

Ways of Flirting

Probably as long as Homo sapiens have been around they have been having dirty thoughts. Like some Greeks before them, many ancient Jews (Genesis 20:2 and Leviticus 18) and Christians suffered through lust as if it were a curse. Famously, Jesus taught that the man who lusted after a woman in his heart had already committed adultery (Matthew 19:9). When, some two thousand years later, Jimmy Carter confessed in a Playboy interview to having lusted after women other than his wife, Americans took the news badly. Carter lost the 1980 presidential election.

What's so bad about lust? Certainly it can lead to bad consequences, but so can love, charity, mercy, and a host of other decidedly laudable motivations. We might place the blame on how lust affects our relations to others, but Plato objects to how lust affects our relation to ourselves. The true philosopher doesn't concern himself with sexual pleasure, according to Plato, who refers to sexual desire as a disease of the personality. Plato councels us to sublimate sexual energy in intellectual pursuits.1

Many Jewish and Christian thinkers have endorsed Plato's denunciation. Aquinas and Luther, among other theologians, regarded lust as a consequence of self-love or pride. Augustine, perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of all time, struggled to describe just how lust contorted him: "Surely I have not ceased to be my own self . . . and yet there is still a great gap between myself and myself . . . Oh that my soul might follow my own self . . . that it might not be a rebel to itself."2

Lust prevents us from being who we really are, Augustine says. He cultivates an athletic ideal, one in which we become strong enough to surmount lust as a champion hurdler mechanically leaps over obstacles in his path. Augustine's reflections leave us to wonder whether he understood the harmful effects of repressing sexual desire (Freud made a career out of detailing these effects). Missing from Augustine is the idea that lust completes us (however temporarily), fills us with a vivid sense of being alive, propels us along the way to self-fulfillment. (The zeal with which religious figures such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, or St. Jerome have sought God approximates lust, it may sometimes seem.) Lust, like the playfulness of children or the treasures of the Louvre, lights up a rainy day.

Not surprisingly, dirty thoughts can terrorize those who condemn lust. Hemingway's short story "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" introduces a sixteen-year-old boy whose fear of lust drives him to castrate himself. Some parents in Arabia and Egypt subject their daughters to clitorectomy in order to prevent lustful desires or succumbing to passion. And in the autobiographical Confessions, Augustine mentions a monstrous thought that came to him during a religious ceremony, a thought he viewed as properly punishable by death. That thought seems to have been about sex, possibly even about sex in church.

At the dawn of a new century, there is considerably less public fear of dirty thoughts than there used to be. In the 1990s the American press trumpeted the singer Madonna's confessing to fantasies of having sex in a Catholic church (her 1989 video "Like a Prayer," set in a church, stirred controversy upon its release).3 And in that same decade, Americans largely forgave President Bill Clinton his now-famous marital misdeeds.

Even now, though, some conservative religious people will still insist that sex ought to be procreative, not merely recreational (as in adultery). As late as 1972, one of the better-known philosophers in the West insisted that this view is a necessary step if one is morally to oppose petting, prostitution, sodomy, and "homosexual intercourse."4 People who morally object to dirty thoughts will naturally (and reasonably) object to talking dirty (in person) and chatting dirty (over the phone or on the Internet). My thoughts will do nothing to dissuade them. Here I address what must be the overwhelming majority of people who see some moral leeway in dirty thoughts and indeed dirty talk.

* * * * *

On the Internet, dirty talk passes as "chatting" (which is not to say that all chat rooms are erotically oriented). As if chatting were not already ambiguous enough, some people have taken to referring to it as "phone sex." What is phone sex? Do you need a phone for it? Will a chat room do? Is phone sex any different from what we call "talking dirty"?

For at least a decade before the advent of the Internet, pornographic magazines and subway advertisements (ubiquitous in Paris) offered the telephone numbers of professionals (in the sense that they got paid) available to explore sexual fantasies. A business transaction, this call entailed a fee, charged to your phone bill, based on time spent talking. You paid, and the pro profited.

By "phone sex," people seem to mean talking dirty on the phone. You may have a private phone conversation with an amateur you have "met" in a chat room, or you may call a "pro" and pay for his or her services, as advertised on the Internet or elsewhere. In any event, you do not meet, although you may have seen a photograph of him or her (or think you have-you may have exchanged pictures on the Internet, but he or she may have submitted a photo of someone else). "Phone sex" involves another person in a way that solitary sprints through pornographic magazines do not.

Is this talk a way of having sex? The idea that words can seduce others, or might serve as a kind of foreplay, has been around for centuries. Poets from around the world have left us shining examples. With Freud came the idea that talking might be equivalent to sex itself. Certainly talking dirty falls within the realm of sexual harassment-it is not something a manager can do at work to subordinates, for example (although technically, the dirty talk must be unwelcome, severe, and protracted in order to win a lawsuit against an employer). The idea that "phone sex" is a "gateway drug" that will escalate to something much bigger and more dangerous does not seem obvious, though. Chat rooms are journeys that needn't lead to physical contact with another. Of course, they sometimes do.

What people call "phone sex" isn't really sex at all. Of crucial importance is the lack of touching (despite AT&T's commercial invitations to "reach out and touch someone"). Thinking of dirty talk over the phone as sex confuses moral evaluation. The verbal innovation "phone sex," clever as it may sound, ought to be abandoned. We already have a perfectly apt way of describing this activity: talking dirty. Anyone wishing to emphasize the phone's role in dirty talk would do better to speak of phone flirting. Flirting may or may not lead to sexual contact, but flirting itself is not sex.

Neither is voyeurism sex. Ogling pornographic images, either in an old-fashioned magazine or on the Internet, is a kind of voyeurism. It is not sex. Most of us are soft-core voyeurs to some extent (not just the prosaic husband with "a wandering eye"). Depending on the configuration of the shower room, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people can hardly avoid becoming voyeurs each time they wash off at the gym. Looking into other people's windows, what a peeping Tom does, is hardcore voyeurism. Although a peeping Tom can get into trouble with the law, what he or she does is not sex. People who talk dirty in Internet chat rooms are a new kind of peeping Tom-typing Toms, we might call them. They are not having sex.

Whatever else flirting may be, it is not sex. Patting someone on the bottom or giving a hug may sometimes arouse us; neither amounts to sex, though. And what about dancing? Is that sex? Indeed, there is such a thing as "dirty dancing"-even a movie by that title. Flirting and dancing have long troubled religious leaders because of the confusing dynamic that these activities inaugurate. We want to insist that waltzing with the boss's husband or the boss's wife can be morally innocent, despite the close physical contact involved. Dancing, like flirting, is not sex.

It might be thought that flirting is intentional, that is to say that we flirt only if we intend to do so. But this view misses the ease with which we can hide behind our roles as sales clerks, waiters, and entertainers. We can flirt even when we pretend we are just doing what's expected of us. We can deceive others, even ourselves, about what we intend.

Waiters and sales clerks routinely report that flirting with customers is good for business. It is hard to deny that flirting becomes us. The stodgy butler from Ishiguro's celebrated novel The Remains of the Day ruminates on his refusal to flirt and the colorless, lonely existence to which it has led: "Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in-particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth."5 Flirting can build rapport with others. We understand what it means, for example, to dress for success in the workplace or to keep up with fashion trends when going to parties. We may find ourselves flirting by wearing clothing that fits our bodies closely or exposes a certain amount of leg, chest, or arm. We might wonder, What is the difference between the sight of a woman's cleavage emerging from an expensive French gown and the chat room journey of someone who never intends to have sex with anyone he meets in cyberspace? It may well be that flirting amounts to self-centered bragging or exhibitionism: "Look how beautiful I am," fashionably dressed people may be saying. Flirting may sometimes ask nothing more of others than admiration.

In contrast to flirting, it is possible to engage in another suspect kind of activity all by yourself: masturbation. Involving no mutuality, masturbation is known as a distinctly inferior form of sexual activity. In his early writings, Karl Marx derided what he took to be Hegel's extravagantly theoretical books through a mean analogy: Hegel is to "real" philosophy what masturbation is to "real" sex. Those who view anonymous cyberchatting as a new way of having sex would presumably conclude that chatting is a disappointing and even embarrassing substitute for a higher pleasure.

Long-standing opposition to pornography is rooted in an ancient fear of (male) masturbation. (Most moral thinking about masturbation has ignored female masturbation.) Chatting will likely (and reasonably) offend anyone who objects to pornography, in part because of the alleged link between pornography and masturbation.

Vilification of masturbation, or, onanism, stretches back over two thousand years. Modern people often find the received reasons for condemning masturbation hilarious. Ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, thought of semen as costly horsepower. Ejaculation robbed a man of a vital fluid without which he could not roar or soar. As recently as a hundred years ago, some religious thinkers in the United States insisted that unused semen was reabsorbed by the body and then harnessed as energy. Proper religious devotion was impossible without the tremendous energy supplied by conserved semen. Frequent intercourse in a marriage was therefore discouraged and masturbation vilified (soldiers in the ancient world were cautioned against any ejaculations at all). Rabbinical Judaism and Roman Catholicism have long condemned the sin of Onan. The film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life even includes a musical send-up of Catholic reverence for semen called "Every Sperm Is Sacred."6 To the extent that chatting, like pornography, induces masturbation, it is not surprising that a cultural tide of objection rises up to greet this cyber-innovation.

* * * * *

Men fantasize about sex roughly twice as frequently as women, according to studies in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Men are more likely to fantasize about strangers as well, which means that chatting might tempt men more than women.

But if Oscar Wilde is correct that women fall in love with their ears and men with their eyes, then the textual, nonpictorial world of chat rooms might appeal more to women than men. Some recent fiction (such as Sylvia Brownrigg's The Metaphysical Touch, Jeanette Winterson's The Powerbook, and Alan Lightman's The Diagnosis) prominently feature women chatting. We are sure to see a steady stream of novels involving chatting in the near future, and these works may challenge the very idea that chatting appeals more to one gender than the other.

Women may risk more in chatting or flirting. Culture and law have long been men's domains. It is hardly surprising that religious and secular cultures both reflect a masculine bias. To be sure, there are words for men who "get around": We call them a Don Juan, a Casanova, a Lothario. We call women other names, names that should not be repeated in polite society. For millennia, fathers and husbands have made it difficult for their daughters and wives to flirt. The Internet makes it easier for anyone with access to cyberspace to flirt. As long as women remain economically dependent on men, though, they will risk more in chatting (assuming, of course, that those on whom they depend consider chatting cheating).

Flirting requires a certain comfort level with uncertainty. As the popular saying "flirting with disaster" indicates, we are on our way somewhere when we flirt. We have not arrived, nor will we necessarily. Augustine, who cast greater aspersion on sex than perhaps any other Western thinker, started out as an adventurous young man. His famous plea to God "Give me chastity and continence-but not yet" plays off of flirting. Augustine had not yet embraced the ideal moral life and so, his reasoning goes, did not deserve any credit for the desire. By the same reasoning, we do not deserve blame for flirting with attractive people.

We sustain our notion of fidelity by banishing uncertainty and policing its attendant complications, such as devouring porn magazines, a night at Chippendale's or a topless bar, and everyday flirting. We may understandably fear ambivalence once we have made a romantic commitment. Nonetheless, the idea that better or deeper erotic fulfillment lies elsewhere may nag at us. Through flirting, we enjoy uncertainty. Our comfort level with uncertainty (and love is notoriously unstable) drives our moral evaluation of online dalliances.

Ways Of Cheating

Strangers in the Net, exchanging glances, strangers in the Net, what are the chances? They'll be sharing love, before the night is through? The chances of falling in love on-line may not be any worse than in the street. Yet, as always, a person intent on remaining faithful to a spouse or partner must be careful to avoid crossing a certain line. Whatever else a monogamous commitment may entail, it forbids sex outside the couple.

As I have acknowledged, some people certainly do believe that talking dirty is a form of having sex.7 In some arenas (such as the office), talking dirty qualifies as sexual harassment, but, as I have said, I don't think it makes sense to call this sex. I hold on to the notion, admittedly old-fashioned, that sex entails skin-to-skin contact. Peeping Toms may get into real legal trouble, but it doesn't make sense to say that voyeurism amounts to having sex. Like sexual harassment, voyeurism implicates the active party but not necessarily the passive one.

Ranking sexual misdeeds requires talent and time. Our legal system can help. "Adultery" signifies penile-vaginal penetration and applies to the illicit sexual activity of two or more people, at least one of whom is married. Only married people can be guilty of adultery: if an unmarried woman engages in vaginal intercourse with a married man, he is guilty of adultery, whereas she is guilty of fornication. "Fornication" is to unmarried people what "adultery" is to the married, which is not to say that married people can't fornicate. "Sodomy" applies to both the married and the unmarried and involves anal and/or oral sex. Because they cannot legally marry, gay and lesbian couples can in principle never be guilty of adultery, only of fornication or sodomy. In the highly publicized Monica Lewinsky case, President Clinton (a married man) was guilty of fornication and Lewinsky was guilty of sodomy.

Moral distinctions loom behind such legal ones. There is nothing legally wrong with serial monogamy, for instance. Lots of people in their late teens and twenties devote themselves in earnest to a sexual relationship that they claim has long-term potential. After the breakup, another relationship begins and then ends. The cycle continues. Morally speaking, such serial monogamy may not seem very different from fornication. And yet most of us will feel there has to be some difference between promiscuity and failing to carry through on good intentions.

It is important to recognize these distinctions as culturally conditioned. Not everyone agrees with American mores (not even in America). Throughout much of Asia, for example, married men have openly taken concubines with apparent impunity:

A traditional Chinese or Japanese man could be branded as adulterous only if he slept with the wife of another man. This was taboo. Illicit sex with a married woman was a violation against the woman's husband and his entire ancestry. In China these lawbreakers were burned to death. If a man seduced the wife of his guru in India, he might be made to sit on an iron plate that was glowing hot, then chop off his own penis. A Japanese man's only honorable course was suicide. In traditional Asian agricultural societies, only geishas, prostitutes, slaves, and concubines were fair game. Sex with them was simply not considered adultery.8

Not surprisingly, extramarital sex in traditional East Asian cultures was strictly off limits to women, always. What is nonetheless interesting here is the notion that morality (like immorality) has a limit. Adultery doesn't signify all sex with someone other than your spouse, just some. This is roughly analogous to the idea that on the third Friday of every month, husbands and wives may morally have sex with anyone they like. If the analogy seems arbitrary, it is because so little of cultural practice is transparent to people who live beyond it.

And so the identity of the person one courted or bedded has figured into the ways other cultures have defined adultery. That identity counts for little in America, where all sex with someone other than your spouse qualifies as adultery. Where does cyberflirting fit into this schema? Legally, Internet flirting (what typing Toms do) does not fall into any of our three categories (adultery, fornication, or sodomy). And yet many people will maintain that chatting threatens, or could threaten, monogamous unions. If chatting did represent a kind of cheating, then it would have to be acknowledged as a genuinely new one. I do not think there is anything new under the sun.

Despite the criticism heaped upon Bill Clinton in the wake of his "rationalizations" of sexual adventures (or nonadventures, as he insisted) in the White House, still it remains that most of us agree there is a difference between all-out adultery, hanky panky, and just talking about one or the other. I am not claiming that we should think of the ethics of virtual flirting on a case-by-case basis but that we should think of chat rooms as intrinsically morally ambiguous-neither wholly bad nor wholly good.

Another way of thinking about online fidelity is to ask whether a virgin is still a virgin after chatting. In strict religious terms, certainly not.9 He or she has affronted modesty-"sinned against purity," as Catholic theologians say. Nowadays it is hard to imagine such a view commanding much agreement, even among Catholics. It is still important to remember that rules in a given religious or society go far toward shaping cultural attitudes, though. We can tell something important about Catholicism, for example, from the fact that its greatest moral theologian of the past century maintained that fantasizing about someone else during sex (with your spouse) was a grave sin.8

Even virgins may burn with lust. The people whom chatting helps most are those committed to celibacy or monogamous relationships. We should expect these people to become the most ardent defenders of imaginative possibilities wrought by the Internet. An obvious advantage to chat rooms is that they keep people out of bars and clubs: away from actual (as opposed to virtual) adulterous possibilities, and away from sexually transmitted diseases as well. This is hardly a moral defense, admittedly.

A good way of defending chatting in the context of committed relationships (whether straight, gay, or religiously committed) is as a temporary "fix"-not unlike a sleeping pill or an antidepressant. Chatting can help you through the inevitable tough times in a relationship aiming at permanency.

Chatting is dangerous to the extent that it absorbs some of the energy required to make a couple a success. A double life carried out in veiled Internet spaces resembles the closet against which most gay and lesbian people develop a sense of self-identity. Chat rooms can become a new closet of sorts (at base, any deep secret can). Double lives can exhaust us, and the Internet can become a demanding mistress indeed, even an addiction. Until chat room adventures start taking up more time than the relationship from which they are a distraction, this danger has nothing to do with the moral acceptability of courting strangers in cyberspace.

While perhaps not the moral ideal, chat room adventures should not be considered adultery or infidelity. The possibility of deceit lurks here, as it does in so many other places. We may pretend to our spouses or spouse equivalents that we would not, could not, even look at another man or woman. There is no question that Romeos and Juliets would be guilty of deceiving their partners if they entered a chat room after having declared they couldn't even conceive of doing so. How many among us pretend never to notice attractive strangers? How many of us feel threatened when our partners do notice attractive strangers (or familiars, for that matter)? Chiding chatters may reveal more personal insecurity than moral concern. In any event, it seems the only durable moral objection to chatting is deceit. There might be a practical objection as well: that chatting will inure us to erotic pleasure with our spouses. If the mind could be so easily dulled by the computer screen, then chatting might in fact threaten a sexual tie to a spouse or spouse equivalent.

Some people are better at flirting than others, and some people are better at fidelity than others. Those who excel at flirting may strike us as cruel if they insist on pointing out our inferior charms and relative unattractiveness. And those who excel at fidelity might strike us as cruel if they were to demand perennial center stage in the thoughts of their spouses or spouse equivalents.

Penetration Veneration

Why should penetration serve as the pivotal criterion for infidelity?

Precision is a ready answer. It may seem impossibly difficult to ascertain what someone wants from flirting. She bats her eyelashes and he thinks he has a chance. Then she declines his invitation for a drink, and he furiously demands an explanation. She maintains that he misunderstood her attempt at civil conversation. Or another scenario: Eager to show her interest, she requests help repairing her car. He agrees to try. She cries when he leaves without having asked to see her again. Intentions and desires may sometimes drive our behavior, but others may quite understandably fail to see our motives.

Penetration is another story. A penis in a vagina or someone else's tongue in your mouth can be readily felt or observed. Even if we are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, we will almost certainly realize that penetration is taking place. Act and motive overlap so penetration lends itself to the certainty lacking in flirting.

Both formally in the law and informally in the streets, we have long venerated penetration as a reliable threshold for whether sexual intercourse is taking place. Two thousand years ago, for instance, the poet Ovid lamented his impotence. In a poem included in the "Amores" series, he wrote: "Although I wanted to do it, and she was more than willing, / I couldn't get my pleasure part to work. / She tried everything and then some. . . ."11

Ovid piques our curiosity through the terseness of this last line. Despite the diligence of his partner, Ovid tells us that: ". . . She left me, pure as any Vestal virgin / polite as any sister to her brother."12 He leaves us to wonder how seriously Vestal virgins took their profession and also how well he knew his sister. Ovid's coquettishness aside, we should take him at his word here. He apparently believed that he had not had sex with this woman, who so exerted herself and with whom he tried "everything and then some." Anne Fausto-Sterling has woven this notion into a description of male identity. "Of course, we know already that for men the true mark of heterosexuality involves vaginal penetration with the penis. Other activities, even if they are with a woman, do not really count."13 Other writers have used penetration as a dramatic psychological threshold. Entering another person may excite fear, a fear that even marriage may not dislodge:

Among couples who come to a sex-therapy clinic, the prevalence of the madonna /whore or saint/sinner phenomenon is astonishingly high. It wears a proverbial coat of many colors and designs, and so has many disguises. A classic example is that in which the period of romance and courtship was intensely positive for both partners. They engage in much above-the-belt activity and some heavy petting of the genitals to the point of climax, but no genital union itself. They don't actually say that they are saving the dirty part of sex until after they are legally married. Their own explanation is that they are applying their own moral standards by postponing actual penovaginal penetration.

Once they are legally married, they gradually reach the discovery that they can't have ordinary sexual intercourse. He blames himself for ejaculating too soon and for not being able to arouse her to have much active desire or enthusiasm for his penis. She goes along with his self-blame and keeps both of them blinded to the fact that she has a paralyzing fear of having anything actually penetrate into the cavity of her vagina. For her that would be as degrading as being a whore.14

Johns Hopkins psychobiologist John Money draws our attention to a primitive fear of one of the most sensitive boundaries of all-that between our bodies and the outside world. Religious anxiety blossoms on this boundary. This is how sex writer Lisa Palac recounts her furtive sexual debut while a Catholic high school girl in 1970s Chicago:

Just before the big moment, I admitted that I didn't exactly know what to do. "Just open your legs and rock," he told me, which sounded remarkably like a Foghat song. It was over in minutes. Afterwards, I was extremely disappointed and felt sick with guilt. I kept torturing myself with the mantra "I am not a virgin I am not a virgin," which was stupid because I'd done practically everything else-as many other girls in my class had done-yet none of that constituted sex. It wasn't sex until he put it in.15

Penetration veneration finds itself covertly transmitted through the celebration of modesty in this confession. Later recounting one of her first online erotic encounters, Palac tells us of the terrible guilt she felt after the fact. She warned her chat man: "'If you tell anyone what we just did, I'll never speak to you again!' She added, "I felt so uncontrollably Catholic. I shouldn't have had cybersex on the first date. Big sin. I should have waited. It would have meant more to me if I'd waited!"16

Ironic chuckles aside, Palac contradicts herself. Her dirty talk, which in this case eventually progressed from the Internet to the telephone, was not sex, even on her own terms. But vestiges of Catholic school modesty surfaced and prompted guilty feelings.

Carnal contact cannot by itself distinguish flirting from cheating. Unlike exhibitionism or rape, flirting plays off of negotiation. We do not force ourselves on others in flirting; we toy with the exploration of another's opinion of us. It would be too simplistic to reduce flirting to sexual playfulness, though. The ancient Greeks and Romans were notoriously playful sexually. Ascetic Jews and then Christians challenged this playfulness and replaced it with gravitas, a high moral seriousness. It is difficult to ally flirtatiousness with either side of this divide. For the sexually playful will pursue flirting until sex, which is to say that the flirting is actually foreplay. The morally serious will swear off flirting generally but smile on a scripted version of chaste romance. Who, then, flirts?

Technically speaking, gregarious people who do not really intend to have sex are just flirting (using penetration as the criterion here). Of course, it is often difficult to predict whether any spirited conversation or eye exchange will lead to full-fledged physical contact. But people who know what they want will see the sense of setting foreplay off from flirting. Seduction can be a game that consciously starts with words and glances. Flirting is an end unto itself-a way of showing someone else that we know "how to play the game" or, perhaps, a test in which we prove to ourselves that we are still attractive. Happily (or even not so happily) married people flirt with colleagues and cocktail party strangers, and it is perfectly acceptable for them to do so. Chatting is the technological celebration of flirting. Adulterous impulses lurking in protected cyberspaces will likely lead to penetration; curiosity, playfulness, or boredom, however, will just end in chatting.

The problem with penetration veneration, to which I myself fall victim, is that we end up saying that a man who receives anonymous fellatio has had sex, whereas two close friends who spend a night cuddling naked in bed have not. Even this position is easier to accept than the idea that typing amounts to having sex, though. In the second scenario, we might applaud whatever moral motivation prevented the two friends from consummating their passion. The first scenario, meaningless as it might have been, lacks this moral motivation.

Penetration veneration molds the mind of many a Westerner, sometimes to quite surprising effect. In Been There, Haven't Done That, recent Harvard graduate Tara McCarthy, also Catholic, tells us that she is a virgin, despite having been "touched, kissed, poked, prodded, rubbed, caressed, sucked, licked, bitten-you name it."17 Reflection on this so-called virgin's way of seeing the world should remind us that sex, despite all the advertising it gets, is neither transparently obvious nor wholly intuitive. If it accomplished nothing else, the media coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal made clear the extent to which people can differ over the question of when sex begins and flirting ends.

In a sea of ambiguity, penetration emerges as the best single criterion of cheating we may expect to find.

Infidelity Online?

Nothing prompts divorce so often as infidelity. We can't stand it when our partners go astray-"go astray" may mean sex, lying about having had sex, or both. Many of our most engaging plays and novels have relied on infidelity as a plot device.

Who cares about the ethics of cyberchatting? Many if not most couples naturally do, as well as those who worry about the moral health of the communities they inhabit. The sex lives of strangers have something to do with us, after all. Our children may someday attend school or play soccer with their children, and we want those meetings to be as constructive as possible. Our fear of lust affects our children, our neighbors, and our laws.

Moral evaluation of chatting colors the ways couples interact with one another as well as what we think of our teachers, colleagues, priests, and rabbis. It should go without saying that in order to care about the ethics of chatting, you first have to care about something else: fidelity, "sins against purity," or trust. I consider fidelity a moral ideal, one I certainly endorse.

We can remain agnostic as to whether or how often chatting will lead to a face-to-face encounter. My goal here is to isolate chatting from attendant activities and ask whether there is something intrinsic to chatting itself that qualifies as betrayal (of a promise to a lover or to God), as opposed to an exercise of the imagination (whether we can betray others though the free use of our imagination is a question I do not take up here). I have presented penetration as the decisive test of whether someone has cheated, while indicating the unsettling underside of flirting. I concede that a whole-hearted person, a saint of heroic integrity, would consistently avoid flirting of any sort.

Is cyberchatting the moral equivalent of talking to someone in a bar, then? Anonymous chatting is morally superior to the extent that it is less likely to lead to physical contact. Is Net naughtiness, even when it becomes a habit, morally worse than an actual (and physical) one-night stand? No. Net naughtiness enhances the sexual imagination. It teaches as it titillates. Giving into lust and allowing ourselves to chat may provide the illusion of flying over personal limitations that reduce our attractiveness to others. So much of human industry (for example, cosmetics, fitness, fashion, and real estate) comes down to this goal that we really should look sympathetically on chatting. Moreover, we may deepen our sense of who we are and what we want from anonymous chatting. Net naughtiness challenges the sexual uniformity many take monogamy to impose. It shows us that something like sexual diversity is possible without shattering monogamous bonds.

Net naughtiness strains traditional ideas about what a person is. Are the faceless strangers we meet online real people? Can we hurt their feelings? Can they have us arrested? They understand that we do not know who they are; presumably they cannot be slighted by us over the Internet in the way that they can in person. Given the way the Internet depersonalizes human contact (even as it increases the opportunities for locating other people), it is hard to say whether chatting involves another human being in the way that even a one-night stand does. How thinly can we stretch our notion of a person? Very thin indeed, chatting shows us. Those we chat with may seem no more human than the characters who populate the fiction we read.

In the course of defending it, I have recognized the danger of chatting. If it is true that "women are more forgiving and less upset if no emotional involvement accompanies their husband's affair,"18 then extensive chatting might seem more threatening than a one-night stand. Pen pals or Net pals might seem to develop an emotional attachment to one another over time, an attachment unlikely to begin in a one-night stand. Time, or duration, has a lot to do with both the psychological and moral evaluation of chatting. A night of passion is for many fuming spouses easier to forgive than a cultivated attachment. Chatting certainly can fray our commitments to others, no less than our quest for self-fulfillment.

In sum, the Internet has given lust a new outlet. Fantasy life has always been possible, and pornography already abounded in ancient Greece and Rome (despite Plato's disapproval). Being human just got more exciting-and more complicated. The Internet and the phone may threaten fidelity, chastity, even integrity-but no more so than old-fashioned pornography. Chat rooms may in the long run facilitate fidelity, insofar as they can in themselves satisfy an active imagination.

A pleasure both simple and complex, chatting captures nicely the undying tension between trust and lust. Making room for chatting in a monogamous relationship honors both the promise of sexual exclusivity and the titanic power of the imagination.

Notes

1. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato, trans. Lane Cooper et al. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 64, 82, 402-405, 485.
2. Augustine, Confessions, Trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961),10.30.41-42.
3. This, despite the allowance of the highly influential eighteenth-century Roman Catholic theologian St. Alphonsus Liguori that having sex in a church or a public place might be allowed in a case of "necessity." See Peter Gardella, Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 18.
4. G. E. M. Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity," The Human World 7 (1972), p. 22.
5. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 245.
6. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (Celandine Films, 1983), starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Sydney Arnold, and Guy Bertrand. Kasy Moon provided the correct reference here.
7. "You can meet someone on-line. You can fall in love on-line. You can even consummate that love on-line." Paco Underhill, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 212.
8. Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), pp. 79-80.
9. Bernard Häring, The Law of Christ, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1966), vol. III, p. 306.
10. Ibid. pp. 375-376.
11. Quoted in Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy (New York: Scribner, 2000),p. 354.
12. Ibid.
13. Anne Fausto-Sterling, "How to Build a Man" in Vernon A. Rosario (ed.), Science and Homosexualities, (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 219-225. Quoted in Robert A Nye, ed., Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 238.
14. John Money, The Destroying Angel (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985), p. 127.
15. Lisa Palac, The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998), p. 20.
16. Ibid., p. 106.
17. Tara McCarthy, Been There, Haven't Done That: A Virgin's Memoir (New York: Warner Books, 1997), p. 3.
18. David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating (New York: Basic Books, 1994), p. 155.
19. Pamela Karlen, Jerome Neu and Anthony Ellis graciously provided comments on this essay which Daniel Ortiz especially enriched.
—From In Defense of Sin Edited by John Portmann. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission.

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Table of Contents

The Half-Life of Sin by John Portmann

• In Defense of Idolatry by Ludwig Feuerbach

• In Defense of Blasphemy by Friedrich Nietzsche

• In Defense of Dismissing Mother and Father by Jane English

• In Defense of Murder by Jonathan Swift

• In Defense of Adultery by Richard Wasserstrom

• In Defense of Deceit by Oscar Wilde

• In Defense of Greed by Bernard Mandeville

• In Defense of Breaking the Golden Rule by Sigmund Freud

• In Defense of Refusing to Forgive by David Novitz

• In Defense of Pride, the Worst of the Seven Deadly Sins

• In Defense of Gossip by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev

• In Defense of Lust by John Portmann

• In Defense of Promiscuity by Anthony Ellis

• In Defense of Prostitution by David A. J. Richards

• In Defense of Despair by Joyce Carol Oates

• In Defense of Suicide by Seneca

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First Chapter

Chapter 12: In Defense Of Lust

Ask any advertising executive, or simply look at the cover of this book: Sex sells. Lust, the food of sex, can help us understand what it is to be human. Granted, not every human inclination can be called good-think of aggression toward fellow humans, for instance. Lust, however, deserves praise for brightening the dreary horizon and inspiring us to pull the very best out of ourselves that we can.

John Portmann's book When Bad Things Happen to Other People (2000) was nominated for Phi Beta Kappa's Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize. He studied philosophy at Yale and Cambridge and now lectures at the University of Virginia.

Chatting Is Not Cheating

Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers? Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls? --Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road" (1856)

A triumph of human imagination, the Internet has expanded and facilitated communication. Lust, an age-old focus of human imagination, now enjoys a new stage on which to triumph.

Ways of Flirting

Probably as long as Homo sapiens have been around they have been having dirty thoughts. Like some Greeks before them, many ancient Jews (Genesis 20:2 and Leviticus 18) and Christians suffered through lust as if it were a curse. Famously, Jesus taught that the man who lusted after a woman in his heart had already committed adultery (Matthew 19:9). When, some two thousand years later, Jimmy Carter confessed in a Playboy interview to having lusted after women other than his wife, Americans took the news badly. Carter lost the 1980 presidential election.

* * * * *

On the Internet, dirty talk passes as "chatting" (which is not to say that all chat rooms are erotically oriented). As if chatting were not already ambiguous enough, some people have taken to referring to it as "phone sex." What is phone sex? Do you need a phone for it? Will a chat room do? Is phone sex any different from what we call "talking dirty"?

* * * * *

Men fantasize about sex roughly twice as frequently as women, according to studies in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Men are more likely to fantasize about strangers as well, which means that chatting might tempt men more than women.

Ways Of Cheating

Strangers in the Net, exchanging glances, strangers in the Net, what are the chances? They'll be sharing love, before the night is through? The chances of falling in love on-line may not be any worse than in the street. Yet, as always, a person intent on remaining faithful to a spouse or partner must be careful to avoid crossing a certain line. Whatever else a monogamous commitment may entail, it forbids sex outside the couple.

A traditional Chinese or Japanese man could be branded as adulterous only if he slept with the wife of another man. This was taboo. Illicit sex with a married woman was a violation against the woman's husband and his entire ancestry. In China these lawbreakers were burned to death. If a man seduced the wife of his guru in India, he might be made to sit on an iron plate that was glowing hot, then chop off his own penis. A Japanese man's only honorable course was suicide. In traditional Asian agricultural societies, only geishas, prostitutes, slaves, and concubines were fair game. Sex with them was simply not considered adultery.8

Not surprisingly, extramarital sex in traditional East Asian cultures was strictly off limits to women, always. What is nonetheless interesting here is the notion that morality (like immorality) has a limit. Adultery doesn't signify all sex with someone other than your spouse, just some. This is roughly analogous to the idea that on the third Friday of every month, husbands and wives may morally have sex with anyone they like. If the analogy seems arbitrary, it is because so little of cultural practice is transparent to people who live beyond it.

Penetration Veneration

Why should penetration serve as the pivotal criterion for infidelity?

Among couples who come to a sex-therapy clinic, the prevalence of the madonna /whore or saint/sinner phenomenon is astonishingly high. It wears a proverbial coat of many colors and designs, and so has many disguises. A classic example is that in which the period of romance and courtship was intensely positive for both partners. They engage in much above-the-belt activity and some heavy petting of the genitals to the point of climax, but no genital union itself. They don't actually say that they are saving the dirty part of sex until after they are legally married. Their own explanation is that they are applying their own moral standards by postponing actual penovaginal penetration.

Johns Hopkins psychobiologist John Money draws our attention to a primitive fear of one of the most sensitive boundaries of all-that between our bodies and the outside world. Religious anxiety blossoms on this boundary. This is how sex writer Lisa Palac recounts her furtive sexual debut while a Catholic high school girl in 1970s Chicago:

Just before the big moment, I admitted that I didn't exactly know what to do. "Just open your legs and rock," he told me, which sounded remarkably like a Foghat song. It was over in minutes. Afterwards, I was extremely disappointed and felt sick with guilt. I kept torturing myself with the mantra "I am not a virgin I am not a virgin," which was stupid because I'd done practically everything else-as many other girls in my class had done-yet none of that constituted sex. It wasn't sex until he put it in.15

Penetration veneration finds itself covertly transmitted through the celebration of modesty in this confession. Later recounting one of her first online erotic encounters, Palac tells us of the terrible guilt she felt after the fact. She warned her chat man: "'If you tell anyone what we just did, I'll never speak to you again!' She added, "I felt so uncontrollably Catholic. I shouldn't have had cybersex on the first date. Big sin. I should have waited. It would have meant more to me if I'd waited!"16

Infidelity Online?

Nothing prompts divorce so often as infidelity. We can't stand it when our partners go astray-"go astray" may mean sex, lying about having had sex, or both. Many of our most engaging plays and novels have relied on infidelity as a plot device.

Notes

1. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato, trans. Lane Cooper et al. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 64, 82, 402-405, 485.
2. Augustine, Confessions, Trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961),10.30.41-42.
3. This, despite the allowance of the highly influential eighteenth-century Roman Catholic theologian St. Alphonsus Liguori that having sex in a church or a public place might be allowed in a case of "necessity." See Peter Gardella, Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 18.
4. G. E. M. Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity," The Human World 7 (1972), p. 22.
5. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 245.
6. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (Celandine Films, 1983), starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Sydney Arnold, and Guy Bertrand. Kasy Moon provided the correct reference here.
7. "You can meet someone on-line. You can fall in love on-line. You can even consummate that love on-line." Paco Underhill, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 212.
8. Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), pp. 79-80.
9. Bernard Häring, The Law of Christ, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1966), vol. III, p. 306.
10. Ibid. pp. 375-376.
11. Quoted in Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy (New York: Scribner, 2000), p. 354.
12. Ibid.
13. Anne Fausto-Sterling, "How to Build a Man" in Vernon A. Rosario (ed.), Science and Homosexualities, (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 219-225. Quoted in Robert A Nye, ed., Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 238.
14. John Money, The Destroying Angel (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985), p. 127.
15. Lisa Palac, The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998), p. 20.
16. Ibid., p. 106.
17. Tara McCarthy, Been There, Haven't Done That: A Virgin's Memoir (New York: Warner Books, 1997), p. 3.
18. David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating (New York: Basic Books, 1994), p. 155.
19. Pamela Karlen, Jerome Neu and Anthony Ellis graciously provided comments on this essay which Daniel Ortiz especially enriched.
--From In Defense of Sin Edited by John Portmann. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission.

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