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Academia and teaching General Morality

Shock and horror as it’s revealed that students have premarital sex

So, I wasn’t on campus when the most recent edition of the student newspaper, Varsity, hit the proverbial streets. But I’ve been made aware of something that should surely be directed to the Media Tribunal – an article by Kathryn Mitchell which fails to point out to students just how dangerous it could be to have sex before marriage. Not dangerous in terms of things like STD’s, embarrassment and regret, but rather dangerous in terms of threats like having your spirit “torn up”. Yikes. That would certainly trouble me, if I believed in nonsense like spirits. Judge for yourself whether Kathryn is an agent for the forces of darkness, or just a normal, fairly sensible youth (not that sensible is necessarily the norm).

Waiting until you are married to have sex seems, in our sexually saturated culture, a rather old-fashioned, even idealistic, concept. In Western culture, moral standards seem to have slackened as more and more people are engaging in acts of copulation for recreation as opposed to procreation. Every sperm is no longer sacred! As people embrace their sexuality and desires, the practicality of our moral code is called into question. Why wait until marriage to discover the joys of sex?

The principal reasons for pledging purity are religious – to a sworn atheist, this seems absurd. There is no one biblical verse condemning sex before marriage; Christians suggest instead that this message can be inferred.

In Deuteronomy 22:13-22, for example, it is clear virginity when getting married is expected and sex before marriage is termed “a disgraceful act”. This is just one of many examples and the message is pretty clear. What the Bible fails to do, for me however, is provide adequate reasoning.
The only legitimate reason I can see for keeping sexual partners to a minimum is the risk of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. STDs are almost a symbol of promiscuity – the price of pleasure. And there is a belief that if everyone behaved responsibly the epidemic would end. So the church has made it its mission to ensure that everybody behaves.

In 1495, a new disease started appearing all over Europe and its symptoms were terrifying. A doctor at the time described it as “Boils that stood out like Acorns, from whence issued such filthy stinking Matter, that whosoever came within the Scent, believed himself infected. The Colour of these was of a dark Green and the very Aspect as shocking as the pain itself, which yet was as if the Sick had laid upon a fire.” Such was the explosive birth of syphilis.

Christopher Columbus and his crew have been accused of bringing the disease back with them from the Americas to Europe where it raged its way through the population, killing millions of people. During this period people’s attitudes towards sex changed radically. The church pushed its no-sex-before-marriage agenda hard and it to started win its battle.

Telling people they will die from disease if they have too much sex doesn’t work. We all need to believe that we will never die; that it can never happen to us, otherwise we would never be able to leave our houses.

However, if you make something deplorable, you attach stigma to it, and ensure that those who indulge in it will be ostracised; in this way people feel as though they can lose something tangible, something real. I am suggesting that the church has transformed pre-marital sex into a sin in order to protect its flock from real diseases, not hell. Once this disease was syphilis, now it is AIDS.

The moralistic preaching about sex before marriage has no place in our post-religious society. There is something profoundly wrong with telling people sex is dirty, therefore you must save it for marriage. Sex is not dirty.

For most of us, we have enough insecurities when it comes to the fuzzy tinkle times without having to worry about whether God is watching us and enjoying the show or not. This mindset imposed by the church had created guilt even when having sex with a steady partner.

This is wrong. Sex is about freedom, choice and exploration – and to be cheesy and romantic, love. And there is nothing wrong with that. Just use a condom.

Now, besides the apparent contradiction contained in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs, this appears to be a reasonable opinion piece, and one that warms the cockles of my heart (no, I don’t have those either) in expressing a naturalistic outlook on the question of premarital sex. But for some, what Ms Mitchell says is completely beyond the bounds of decency and good sense. And no, I’m not talking about Taryn Hodgson or Errol Naidoo, but rather a soon-to-be graduate of one of the more demanding programmes at the University of Cape Town. Let’s call him “Gershwin”. Gershwin offers us some impassioned pleas, in an email that was addressed to 114 people (including some mailing lists, so probably many more). He feels so strongly about the matter that he even included the Vice-Chancellor in his entreaty. I did reply to tell him that this was spam, and in contravention of UCT email policies, but perhaps he thinks that those policies are evil too. Anyway, let’s see what he says:

I am writing too you out of serious concern because of what has been written in the 24 August 2010 Volume 69: Number 9 issue of the varsity newspaper. I have attached an electronic version of the article for you to read.

My concerns are :

  1. This has serious damaging effect on the students who do not have an standpoint on the matter of sex before marriage and will be swayed into thinking that this article has any substance
  2. UCT is a prestigious university and one does not expect writing and lack of depth of thought of this calibre.

This article is intellectually limited and carries too much harmful effects too be taken lightly.

So, besides the implicit claim in (1) that students who don’t yet have a standpoint on “this matter” should presumably adopt Gershwin’s standpoint (which we’ll hear about soon), we’re probably also entitled to ask for some defense of the claim that the article has no substance. Maybe Kathryn got some facts wrong? Gershwin will hopefully enlighten us. On point 2, no argument from me – just the observation that Gershwin might well be in the process of getting his own petard ready for some hoisting.

Please I urge to help me undo the damage that the author has Kathryn Mitchell has caused. Please give me your opinions on the matter so that we together may create a better and deeper understanding of this topic

Here is what my thoughts on the matter are:

  1. I believe that sex should be preserved for marriage because it the most deepest connection you can have with your partner. if you are constantly having sex with many partners you have shared that deep connection with many people. This means that your deepest connection is worth less.
  2. From a spiritual point of view, sharing your spirit with people constantly leads ones spirit to be torn up in the end and one would constantly feel empty.
  3. From an empirical point of view their are psychological studies (I have looked them up) that prove that couples who engage in sex before marriage most times end up being divorced. Hence we have high divorce rates, dysfunctional homes and even abuse
  4. From a moral point of view, it is simply wrong.

We need to paint a proper picture and not simply eradicate the author’s view. I have not even considered a moral argument as the author clearly, from the article, lacks this. It would seem she is using this article to hide from her own sexual immorality.

People do not need to make this mistake before they understand its immensity.
Pleading you understand

Well, he asks for opinions, so here are mine, addressing his points in order:

  1. Why should we care what you believe, Gershwin? I, by contrast, think that wrestling escaped marmosets together is the deepest connection one can make with a partner. Sure, doing so often leads to sex, but that’s not why we do it. If you think that sex involves the deepest connection possible, that’s fine – go forth and live according to your chosen standard. But if you want it to be anyone else’s standard, you’ll need to tell them why.
  2. Even if one believed in the idea of a “spirit” (and there’s no good reason to, Gershwin), we’d also need to know plenty about the nature of that spirit. Maybe it can handle being shared? Perhaps it’s robust enough to sleep around with some other spirits without getting torn up and all. And sure, meaningless sex can make you feel a bit shallow, some of the time. But we can get meaning from all sorts of places – and while one of those places might be marriage, marriage has no monopoly on interpersonal meaning.
  3. Oooh, you’ve looked them up, have you? I’ve looked some stuff up too. One of my sources says you’re an idiot, but the data isn’t quite clear, so I’m happy to judge you on your words instead, which appear to come from a distinctly idiotic religious space. Other sources I’ve looked up tell me that divorce rates are highest amongst religious believers, that all so-called “happiness indexes” consistently rank secular nations above religious ones, etc. And I can actually offer my sources, and have often done so on previous posts here – instead of just asking you to take my word for it.
  4. What does that mean? What moral theory or framework are you appealing to, Gershwin? Sure, people can be harmed in sexual interactions, but that can happen whether they are marital or pre-marital. You need to give us an argument here, rather than just tell us it’s “simply wrong”. It’s not simple at all – you are, for claiming that it is.

Gershwin then tells us that he has not even considered a moral argument, which is of course clear from his letter. He does apparently seem to think that he’s offered some sort of argument, but all I can see are assertions, backed by unshakable prejudice. It’s bloody sad that 4 years of expensive education sometimes add up to this sort of stupidity.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

7 replies on “Shock and horror as it’s revealed that students have premarital sex”

To be honest, most of the articles I’ve seen in Varsity are retarded. Even more so when they discuss religion, sex or politics.

Haha. Is this “Gershwin” studying CA by any chance? If it is the same person I am thinking of, then he is indeed quite out spoken; although he’s never tried to talk me out of premarital sex 😛 I don’t think it is fair to judge a person’s intellect based on one solitary encounter. I can think of plenty of smart individuals who lack complete sense when it comes to religion but are otherwise quite cogent. I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and he is a nice guy – definitely not as stuck up and irrational as the email has portrayed him to be. Right or wrong, at least he is standing up for what he believes in.

4 Years of expensive education (including EBM – a course on rationality and whatnot) adds up to this – what does that say about your course if students like him were able to pass it?

You’re right about fairness, and I’m sure the individual in question is perfectly competent in other areas. But as for “at least he’s standing up for what he believes in”, that’s no virtue when you’re standing up for nonsense that causes people to live their lives in fear and guilt. Passion and commitment are not by default good.

The way I see it, there are 3 types of people (relevant to the scope of this discussion):

1) Those that are so introverted and shy that they never have the courage to speak out;
2) Those on the other side of the extreme, who goes around blowing things up in protest;
3) The inbetweeners (like Gershwin) who aren’t as radical as (2) but are more vocal than (1).

Even though I don’t believe in what he said, I believe in his right to say it. By sending that email, he is giving you (and the rest 164 recipients) the opportunity to respond and challenge his point of view. Maybe he’ll be swayed by your rebuttals, maybe not; regardless, he will come out of this more enlightened than before (I hope).

The email isn’t going to cause people to live their lives in fear and guilt. In most cases, if people are living in fear and guilt, it is because their beliefs already coincide with Gershwin’s — not because of it.

marriage, sex and relationships are certainly under review at the moment, i’d suggest they always have been… society will always evolve their beliefs to whatever is most socially expedient. for example polygamy initially being sanctioned by abrahamic religions due to lower male numbers (war), or the death of a husband (provider).

i personally believe that society is so “sex starved” in reaction to being so sex-deprived for so long. with sex having been taboo, i think we’ve realised that we’ve developed some unhealthy patterns, and we’re trying to correct that. in such a case, we’re living in the antithesis, waiting for the synthesis.

what’s interesting is the statement about marriage and divorce. i think marriage is more under review than sex per se. does marriage still provide the best vehicle for long-term relationships? is everybody suited to marriage? what does marriage achieve and is it achieving these goals effectively for society? are there better alternatives?

if the question is: “how many marriages end up in divorce”, i don’t see how stats can help. it doesn’t really give us much insight into the true problems, motivations or solutions. what is the percentage of divorce amongst those who married their first sexual partner vs those who didn’t? how many of those still married are happy? how many stayed married and had affairs anyways? how many people are in long-term relationships with kids, but aren’t married? of those divorced, how many consider themselves to be religious? is religion a necessary prerequisite for marital success, or are religious personalities more likely to also be more loyal by nature?

nice blog. swing by http://www.mybroadband.co.za/vb sometime if you haven’t already.

Thanks for visiting, and for raising some interesting points. On the stats, I think they can help, if we’re clear on what we’re measuring (which is really your point). But until we are, the domain of moral argument certainly often allows for people to cherry-pick stats that are convenient to their cause. Re. myBB (that link caused your comment to be flagged as spam, hence the delay in me noticing and approving it), yes, I’m on there, but tend to stay out of the so-called “philosophy” section, given the typical low quality of debate.

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