Sex: Meaningless or Meaningful?

When any discussion of sexual ethics arises, many people will inevitably argue that there is no inherent meaning or “purpose” to sex: it is just an act like any other and is controlled by bundles of physical drives and chemical processes. Since, on this objective and scientific account, there is no meaning to nature, the body, or sex, then anything in the domain of the sexual is perfectly reasonable and moral – provided, of course, that there is consent and free-choice.

This argument from the objective meaninglessness of the world (and hence of the body) is often employed as a conversation-stopper, discrediting any appeal to an inherent meaning or purpose to sex as invoking quasi-religious metaphysical categories that have no basis in fact. But even if this meaningless and reductive view of nature is correct, does it follow that we cannot or should not reason about sex in a meaningful way? I argue that it does not.

Consider our everyday human experience. While we may believe that, in a scientific sense, there is no deep meaning to things such as friendship, aesthetic experience, or love, they still have meaning for us as subjects. For us, in our ordinary human lives, what’s most real is not always what’s most objective or scientific. Scientific reductionism may work as an account of the world, but not as a framework for conducting human affairs. Even though we know that persons are simply clusters of atoms, for example, we ought not, cannot, and do not consider them as such in our interpersonal relations. Indeed, we would consider a life devoid of such “meaningful” things as friendship, aesthetic experience, and love to be hardly a flourishing life, hardly a human life at all. The “subjective” aspects of human life are essential aspects of human life. Indeed, without them, such modern ideals of freedom, choice, and dignity make little sense. They cannot be justified according to a purely reductive scientific account. But how does this relate to sex?

When it comes to matters of sexuality, people will often say that they need not regulate their sexual behavior according to some meaning-based approach to sex, for, according to the findings of science, no such meaning exists in nature. But when it comes to aspects of human life such as friendship and love, the same people reason and act as though those things were meaningful. If this is so, however, a great difficulty arises. What reason is there for treating sex as meaningless while, at the same time, treating every other aspect of human life as meaningful? Recourse to scientific reductionism, at least, does not provide such a reason. To be consistent, we must treat sex as just as meaningful as any other part of life.
Now, this is not to say that scientific reductionism is false. Rather, what I’m asserting here is merely that the fact that science may show the world to be meaningless gives us no reason for rejecting meaningful discourse about sexual ethics or for holding that sex is meaningless. Sex does, in fact, have meaning in our lives as human beings, whose “real” world is constituted in large part by the “subjective” element. While the precise nature of that meaning is beyond the scope of this post, one point is clear: there is no a priori reason for holding that sex ought to be treated as meaningless.