by Jason Stotts
Recently, Leonard Peikoff took a question about swinging on his podcast and I think his answer fails to address the reality of swinging and of non-monogamy more generally. In his analysis, Peikoff glosses over important distinctions that are relevant to a moral analysis of swinging and even goes so far as to call swingers no better than rutting animals. I, however, think the issue is much more complicated and that by glossing over important distinctions, Peikoff is attacking a straw-man version of swinging. This is confusing, since in his more carefully thought out lecture “Love, Sex, and Romance,” Peikoff goes so far as to lay out conditions under which a threesome, an instance of non-monogamy, might be moral.
The Question and Peikoff’s Response
Let me preface this section by saying that I did the transcription myself and I take responsibility for any mistakes in the transcription. The original audio is here.
What is wrong with “swinging” at parties? Isn’t this only an expansion and augmentation of sexual activities and the pursuit of the pleasure that sex brings?
Well no, I think that you could define swinging as “adultery without deception” or “promiscuity without pretense;” in other words, without saying, or implying to the woman, “oh I love you, you’re so great” and then going next door to the next one. This time you’re telling her right there: “I’m waiting for the next one right now, but I’ll just get through you first!”
If you know the Objectivist view of sex and that it is not primarily physical, it rests on basic values, then you wouldn’t even consider this. If you find your “basic values” all over the place, in a whole gathering of neighbors, or in any gathering, you have no values and sex to you is just physical sensation, like an animal. Well, you’re free to live that way, but I suggest you give up cooked food and just eat nuts and berries, live in a cave, and go whole-hog with it.
I actually think that the true motive of swingers has nothing to do with enjoying sex; I think they get a thrill because they are free of morality and they’re thumbing their nose at reality. “I can do whatever I want! I don’t care what’s right or wrong, I don’t care about anybody! I don’t care about anything! Nobody can touch me! This is my little realm to flaunt my whims.” And the proof that it’s not any emotional attraction to the other people is that a lot of them love doing it in the dark, where they can’t see a blessed thing and they have no idea who they’re doing it with, what age, you know, partly, maybe, they just want group membership. They like to feel “I’m not alone in the room, there are a lot of other bodies here.” But, you know, for that the New York subway is a much better experience, with a lot more people jamming into you a lot more tightly than in a group orgy.
Anyway, that should give you an idea of my opinion of swingers.
So, let us now turn to Peikoff’s major points, where we shall see why I find Peikoff’s analysis unsatisfactory.
An Analysis of Peikoff’s Major Points
1. All swingers are orgiasts.
One of the first, and most serious, problems in Peikoff’s analysis is his idea that all swingers are orgiasts. This is clear throughout his discussion, as when he says:
[Swinging is] “promiscuity without pretense;” in other words, without saying, or implying to the woman, “oh I love you, you’re so great” and then going next door to the next one. This time you’re telling her right there: “I’m waiting for the next one right now, but I’ll just get through you first!”
[Swingers] love doing it in the dark, where they can’t see a blessed thing and they have no idea who they’re doing it with, what age, you know, partly, maybe, they just want group membership. They like to feel “I’m not alone in the room, there are a lot of other bodies here.” But, you know, for that the New York subway is a much better experience, with a lot more people jamming into you a lot more tightly than in a group orgy. [emphasis added]
This claim is obviously false and is one of the biggest problems with Peikoff’s analysis.
There are, in fact, many people who consider themselves swingers who do not attend orgies. Conversely, there are many people who go to orgies, or who have been to an orgy, but who do not consider themselves swingers. Part of the problem might be the way the question was phrased or it could be in Peikoff’s conception of a swinger, which is likely influenced by the way swinging was practiced in the 70’s at clubs like Plato’s Retreat and has been characterized by the media ever since. However, there are many different kinds of swingers and those who participate in orgies are only one kind among many.
Swinging, as a phenomenon, is characterized by couples that seek sexual activities with others outside of their relationship, but with the knowledge and explicit consent of their partners. Additionally, they almost always act together as a couple and most swingers would see this joint action as a necessary condition of swinging: that is, they would say that if each individual in the couple was acting alone, then it’s not swinging. Swingers would consider acting individually much closer to an “open relationship” or polyamory than swinging proper. In “Relationships: A Continuum of Permissiveness” I drew distinctions about different kinds of couples and showed that there are multiple types of couples: jealously exclusive, the traditional exclusive relationship, swinging relationships, and open relationships.
Swingers are non-monogamous sexually, but emotionally exclusive. This is important because it distinguishes them from other kinds of relationships. By non-monogamous, but emotionally exclusive, I mean that they separate love and sex for the purposes of swinging, reserving deep emotional connections only for their partner. This does not mean that they feel nothing for their other sexual partners, but that they draw sharp lines and do not allow any attachments that might compete with their primary relationship. However, they frequently feel great affection for their outside lovers and often form lasting bonds with them.
Among swingers, there are many different kinds: some couples only occasionally have a threesome, while others will form sexual relationships with other couples, while others will go to organized swinging events, and still others participate in group sex. As they generally describe themselves, swingers are of two kinds: “soft-swap” or “full-swap.” The former term, soft-swap, generally means that the couple will engage in sexual acts with others, like manual stimulation or oral sex, but not vaginal or anal sex. In contrast, full swap couples are willing to engage in a wider range of sexual activities with others. From my research into the subject, most swingers are not into full out orgies where one has sex with whoever is proximate. This is born out in books like The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers and my personal interviews with couples that self-identify as swingers. It is not the case that there are no swingers who are orgiasts, but it is also not the case that all swingers are orgiasts. Especially today, with there being so many sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) around, most swingers seem to avoid orgies and not engage in sexual activities with those couples who do engage in orgies.
Unfortunately Peikoff’s analysis hinges on this conflation of swingers and orgiasts, and thus he ends up attacking a straw man version of swinging. This is not to say that Peikoff could not still condemn swingers, but given that the class is much more nuanced than he realizes, he certainly can’t give the kind of blanket condemnation that he gave above. In fact, it seems like it would be hypocritical for him to condemn all swingers, including those that only occasionally have threesomes, since, as we pointed out above, he seems not to have a problem with threesomes in his lecture “Love, Sex, and Romance.”
2. Adultery is possible even with the expressed consent of one’s partner.
“I think that you could define swinging as ‘adultery without deception’.”
The claim that adultery can occur with the consent of one’s partner is quite peculiar and indicates that either Peikoff is using the term “adultery” in a non-traditional way or else relying on an implicit premise that may or may not be warranted. For example, dictionary.com [link] defines adultery as “marital infidelity” and defines infidelity as “disloyalty, unfaithfulness, or breach of trust.” This, I think, gets close to the heart of the problem of adultery. Regardless of the dictionary definition we pick, I think that the colloquial use of the word “cheating” to describe adultery is apt. Cheating, in this context, is a violation of the agreement that underlies a relationship; a transgression against the foundation of a relationship itself and upon its most important pillars, like honesty, open communication, and commitment. However, in cases in which a couple agrees to non-monogamy, it’s not clear how non-monogamous activity would be a violation of their agreement. This is important, then, because a couple who agree to non-monogamy and who engage in non-monogamy together, and with each other’s explicit knowledge and permission, could not, in fact, commit adultery because they would not be violating the agreement that underlies their relationship. It’s just not clear to me where the violation is when a couple explicitly agrees to non-monogamy.
Now, it’s still possible for Peikoff to claim that one can engage in adultery even with one’s partner’s consent by bringing in a premise that would change the above analysis. Specifically, if he could show that monogamy was the only moral way to have a relationship and that all kinds of non-monogamy were immoral, then he would invalidate the above and be justified in his claim. This however, doesn’t seem possible for him to show. I don’t think it’s possible for him to show that monogamy is more “natural” than non-monogamy. Consider, for example, cultures that are non-monogamous, such as ancient Athens. In Athenian culture a man was expected to maintain a household with a wife and children, as well as to engage in pederasty with younger males (16-25, not children), so that they would be properly raised and incorporated into society. That is, a man was expected by society to have both a female wife as well as male lovers. For the Athenian in this time period, non-monogamy was very much the expectation and monogamy would have been not only atypical, but also culturally frowned upon. Were these ancient Athenians living in an “unnatural” state? Even if they were, which it’s not clear one could show, was this kind of behavior immoral? Remember, by “immoral” we don’t mean a moral rule given to us by an imaginary friend in the sky, but something that demonstrably causes harm to an individual’s life. It seems to me that not only were the Athenians living in a more natural state, their non-monogamy was actively improving their lives and allowing them to express the full, and natural, range of their sexuality.
I just don’t think that one can claim monogamy as a premise for which no argument is necessary. In fact, both biological and physiological evidence suggest that non-monogamy is more natural than monogamy (for further elaboration, see the new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality or my forthcoming essay “In Defense of Non-Monogamy”). For example, the very makeup of our bodies, such as the shape of the human penis, the existence of female breasts, the dichotomy between female orgasmic response and male orgasmic response, all point to a non-monogamous human past.
Given that there is much evidence that humans are naturally non-monogamous and that this does not necessarily hurt one’s life and happiness, monogamy cannot be assumed as a premise without argument. Thus, it seems to be clear that a couple could agree to a non-monogamous relationship.
If Peikoff cannot show that monogamy is morally necessary for a good life, then he will not be able to show that one can commit adultery with the consent of one’s partner. In order to claim that this purported adultery is immoral, he must show that it causes harm. If both partners consent to the sexual activity freely and with the full understanding of what they are doing, then it’s not clear to whom the harm is being done. Unless, that is, the harm is being done to both people, even though they don’t realize it, if monogamy were necessary for a good life. If monogamy is taken away from the analysis, since we’ve seen that it’s not morally necessary, then we can get to a much more interesting analysis: that of the connection between emotions and sexuality and mind/body integration, which is Peikoff’s next point.
Before we move to that point, however, I want to state that I do not think that one can commit adultery if one has the full consent of one’s partner who has a complete understanding of what he or she is agreeing to. I think that the precise nature of a relationship should be determined by its members and should not be imposed as a cultural standard that may or may not maximize a person’s life: a relationship should be an expression of love between two people that takes the form that works best for them, not a straightjacket of cultural expectations. If both partners are full moral agents, then the idea that they could not consent to engaging in sex with people who are not their partner is absurd.
3. Sex is a response to fundamental values.
“…the Objectivist view of sex [is that] it is not primarily physical, it rests on basic values…”
On this point, I agree with Peikoff. Sexual attraction is an emotional response and, as such, functions as an automatic response to our antecedent value judgments. The more fundamental the value, or the more dearly we hold the value, the stronger the emotional response from it. (For a more thorough account of sexual attraction as a response to values, see my essay “Sexual Attraction.”) It should also be noted that sexual attraction is distinct from, but directly related to, physical sexual arousal. Sexual attraction leads to sexual arousal, but the converse is not true: just because a person is physically aroused does not mean that they are currently experiencing sexual attraction.
Now, let us explore Peikoff’s more complicated claim that: “If you know the Objectivist view of sex and that it is not primarily physical, it rests on basic values, then you wouldn’t even consider [swinging].” Peikoff’s argument seems to be that sex simply for the physical pleasure, absent shared values and a relationship, would be animalistic and would encourage a mind/body dichotomy as a person would actively have to try to suppress intellectual and emotional responses in order to have purely physical sex, as Peikoff seems to be claiming happens in the case of swingers.
To the extent that a person evades his emotions and judgment in order to have a purely physical sexual experience, I can certainly agree that Peikoff is right in his analysis. However, it is the evasion, not the sex, that is morally problematic. Pleasure itself is not morally problematic: my pleasure from good food, or exercise, or contemplating beauty is not a moral issue. As Objectivists, we must remember that the basis of morality is the very simple question: does this improve my life or detract from it? It’s clear that pleasure, itself, improves one’s life. However, pleasure is not a simple thing. Pleasure is a physical response that has both physical and mental aspects to it. One cannot just have spontaneous, uncaused pleasure; such a thing does not exist. One has pleasure from sex, from eating good food, from exercising, from contemplating beauty, et cetera. Every pleasure has a cause: pleasure attends certain actions, but cannot be sought for its own sake. Thus, in order to make a moral judgment, one must judge a person’s intentions and whether or not the activity that gives rise to the pleasure improves a person’s life or whether it detracts from it.
So, to judge whether pleasure from sex is moral, we need to ascertain a person’s intentions and whether the activities they are engaging in are beneficial or detrimental to their life. However, just as in most moral analysis, the issue is rarely so clear as whether any particular sex act is causing physical harm. As we noted above, there can also be problems of evasion and of intention, among others. The problem with sex is that it is so interconnected to our emotions and our personal identity that to have sex purely for the sake of the physical pleasure is likely impossible. Never are we more vulnerable or open to another person than in a sexual situation. Sex is just not like many other actions that can be done without an emotional response.
Furthermore, even in cases where the origin of sexual attraction is physical in nature, it is never purely physical. The characteristics, traits, personality, style, etc., of a person that we find attractive is a function of our judgments and values. One cannot simply say that all men find large breasts attractive. Some men are not attracted to women at all, nor are they interested in their breasts. Some men like large breasts, while other men prefer small breasts. The fact is that one cannot just claim that some characteristic is inherently attractive: such is not the case in humans. Our attractions are the result of our antecedent value judgments: our attractions flow from our values.
Moreover, even in cases where one knows little to nothing about a person’s character or values, the allegedly “pure” physical attraction, our sexual attraction operates by overlaying desirable characteristics onto the person in a process I call projection. In fact, projection is made easier the less we know about a person. If we metaphorically have a blank canvas, we can paint whatever picture on it we might like, thus guaranteeing the kind of response we desire to have to a person. If I know nothing about the attractive female I just met, other than the fact that I am physically attracted to her, then I can project characteristics on her that I am mentally attracted to as well, giving me a fuller attraction to this person and in some sense justifying my initial attraction and making it more intense. Indeed, one reason why some people prefer sex with complete strangers is precisely due to their ignorance of the other person. Because they know nothing about the other person, they are able to project their ideals onto their partner and have an intense response to their ideals as apparently embodied in this other person. The problem with this is that it is fundamentally self-deceptive: a person knows that the response he or she is having is to a projected ideal and not to their actual partner, about whom they know nothing. The more that they know about the other person, the weaker their sexual response to them becomes as they fail to live up to their ideals. The process of projection shows that there is simply no way to actually separate sex from our emotions and to attempt to do so is self-deceptive and evasive, and thus immoral. This is Peikoff’s objection and it is a fair one.
Now, the fact that sex with a person with whom one does not have a perfect alignment between values can be engaged in self-deceptively does not mean that this kind of sex is always self-deceptive and this is the key to the question of whether such sex is moral. Just because it is true that sex always has some emotional aspects, does not, therefore, mean that sex must only be done with the “perfect partner” whom one will marry and any sexual activity other than this is immoral. There is certainly a range of value alignment where sex is permissible: as Objectivists we are not looking for the Platonic other half of our soul. There is nothing inherently wrong with two teenagers who care about each other exploring sex. There is nothing inherently wrong with two people who are considering having a relationship having sex with each other to make sure they are sexually compatible. There is nothing inherently wrong with spouses having sex with each other. Yet, in each case the sex could be immoral; for example, spousal rape does exist. Sharing values, or value alignment, is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the moral permissibility of sex.
This, of course, raises the question of whether there are other necessary conditions that a person must satisfy in order to morally engage in sex. The answer is, of course, yes! Beyond just having value alignment, two people who are going to engage in sexual activity with each other should also be a value to each other. There must be at least some positive emotional response to the person’s character in order to morally engage in sex with a person. Typically, these feelings will follow naturally from having value alignment, but it is not true they follow inexorably. It could be the case that there is another person who holds all of the same values I do, but because of some difference, say in sense of life, we do not enjoy each other’s company and we find no value in any kind of relationship with each other (whether a sexual relationship or even a friendship). Liking a person for themselves, and not merely what values they hold, is a necessary condition for moral sexual activity.
Further, and as we mentioned above, a person’s intentions play a heavy role in a moral assessment of sexual activity. Am I going to engage in sexual activity with a person because I want to fake a sense of self-esteem or do I sincerely value them for their own sake and would find value in a sexual relationship with this person? In general, we can say that as long as one is self-reflective and honest about the reasons he wants to engage in sexual activities with another, as long as there is no evasion on his part or deception to his partner, and as long as the sexual relationship will not damage other values that he holds dear, like a pre-existing relationship, then a person has a good shot at having a morally permissible sexual relationship with another. I will elaborate more on the conditions for moral sexual activity in the follow up essay to this one: “In Defense of Non-Monogamy.”
4. A person who is always finding the “perfect” person has no actual standards.
The above considerations lead us to Peikoff’s point that “a person who is always finding the ‘perfect’ person has no actual standards.” This point is primarily misapplied, since Peikoff was working in a framework that equated swingers with orgiasts; yet, the point is still true and could apply to many other situations. A person who finds everyone to be sexually desirable or who thinks every person they meet is a good match for them does lack any real standards.
If a person has standards, then they have to judge the people they meet by these standards and there will be at least some people who are necessarily excluded. If you value an education in a partner, then anyone who lacked one, or who was not an autodidact, would be excluded. If you value your partner being reasonable, then religious people are excluded. For anything you value in a partner, some people are excluded who lack these qualities. Now, obviously sometimes we have to make concessions and let go of lower values in order to secure the greater values that are more important to us. In fact, there is likely no perfect person in existence that would be a “perfect match” if one were to consider every single value that a person held. But this is an unrealistic standard to even try to achieve. The salient point is that if a person finds everyone to be sexually desirable or desirable for a relationship, then they have no standards by which to judge, for if they did, then some people would necessarily be excluded.
5. Swingers are not truly interested in sex or sexual pleasure, but are actually only enjoying the moral violation and the sense of false power they have from the transgression.
“I actually think that the true motive of swingers has nothing to do with enjoying sex; I think they get a thrill because they are free of morality and they’re thumbing their nose at reality.”
Frankly, it is unclear to me what Peikoff’s reasons are for asserting this. Even in the case of orgiasts, this claim seems unfounded. There is no doubt that there are some people who are perverted and who enjoy moral violation and a sense of false power from moral violations. However, perversion is not a necessary aspect of swinging and there could be perverts engaging in any particular sexual action; but that is not a reason to claim that any particular action is immoral, just because a pervert may engage in it. In fact, the moral objection against perversion is against the fact that perversion causes a decline in life and not against any particular action that a pervert might engage in.
Thus, while it is likely true that some swingers are perverts, it’s exceedingly unclear that all swingers are perverts. It seems much more plausible that those engaging in swinging are doing it for the sexual pleasure and the experiences.
6. Swingers are completely sexually indiscriminate and that many of them have sex in complete darkness, since they don’t care with whom they are having sex with.
This point also seems to be completely unsubstantiated. Even if we assume Peikoff was working in the context of orgiasts, it doesn’t even seem that it would be true there. Swingers, as distinct from orgiasts, are usually sexually discriminate and there seems to be no evidence that they always have sex in complete darkness. Interestingly, many people of all sexual proclivities have sex in low light or darkness and there doesn’t seem to be any particularly poignant moral considerations regarding this choice. While, again, I agree with Peikoff that being sexually indiscriminate is immoral, this does not necessarily apply to swinging: some people could engage in swinging and still be sexually discriminate. Additionally, his point about swingers having sex in complete darkness, presumably to avoid having to see their partners or themselves, and thus face the reality of their actions, is just absurd. In all the existing literature, studies, documentaries, and anecdotes, there is no evidence that all swinging is done in the dark.
After a thorough analysis, we can see that Peikoff’s position does not do justice to the nuanced issues involved in the case of swinging. While it is true that swinging can be done immorally, it is also true that one could be a moral swinger if one follows some simple principles. In my next essay, “In Defense of Non-Monogamy,” I shall examine the conditions that one would have to satisfy in order to morally engage in swinging. I will also further explore the reasons why a person might want to engage in non-monogamy and whether there could be any objective values from such a pursuit.
Disclosure: if you click on the Amazon links and purchase the books, I will receive some small amount of compensation.