A while ago, one of my friends started a discussion on Facebook about porn. The question was something like: is porn “morally good or morally bad”? I thought I’d be the Socratic asshole and noticed that it was telling that the question even makes sense — if you substitute porn with say “film” or “theatre” or “the internet” it just wouldn’t scan. The original person went into a few specific negatives that he was referring to and asked “what are the positive aspects of porn?”. It was telling that the entire thread (which others posted in) went on without a single mention of the obvious “positive aspect” or porn, namely its main purpose for existing which is getting people off.
Was this just too obvious? I don’t think so. I think this framing is good evidence of sex-negativity within culture. Sure, most people who aren’t wingnuts will agree that people should be free to pursue the kinds of sex they want, if it’s between consenting adults. (They might of course bail at some things they personally find icky but they’d still acknowledge the wider principle.) And most people would probably agree that pleasure is an important part of sex. But when it comes to talking about the issues in an area related to sex, people will talk about anything but pleasure. This often includes self-identified liberals/progressives.
A good example was cited by Dan Savage on an episode of his podcast that I can’t find. It was found that some high-school girls putting up with considerable pain during their first sexual experiences. A potential reason is that while their sex-ed covered the importance of safety, safety, protection, respect, consent, safety and protection, it made absolutely no mention of pleasure. In the end, neither the girls nor their (in this case, male) partners even realised that it shouldn’t hurt because it’s meant to feel good. Of course, safety and respect and so on are very important. But not mentioning pleasure is the strongest case I’ve seen of missing the forest for the trees.
Finally, as Amanda Marcotte is frequently and correctly points out, there is a profound puritanism at work. Ignoring or demeaning pleasure has a dangerous effect on public policy debate. There’s an implicit slut-shaming (again, often done by self-identified liberals) when we say that birth control is important because some women use it to relieve menstrual cramps, or when focussing extensively on rape “exceptions” to anti-abortion laws. In other times, people might actually decry a policy because it will lead to more sex. (Example: more access to contraception will lead to more sex!!1!) The usual response is to deny this which again concedes too much ground to the notion that pleasure is not legitimate enough of an end in itself.
I hate the natural law argument that sex is “for” something with a passion. But if we were to buy into that kind of reasoning and look at the structure, function and practice of sex to figure out its Aristotelian natural end, we are likely to conclude that it’s mainly for pleasure. I doubt animals with less complex brains are thinking of their offspring when they’re having sex. To assume that it’s directly about the offspring is to seriously misunderstand how evolution works. Although people have sex for a multitude of reasons, I think feeling good is a consistently major component.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky said, the “deeper” answer to “what is 2+2?” is still 4. The “deeper” answer to why animals have sex is that it feels good and that this is a fine state of affairs. To say otherwise is pretentious and false and overintellectualising (in addition to having the harmful policy effects described). As the saying goes, some kinds of stupidity you need a PhD for.