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The Point of Sex

Mary Harrington and Christopher Rufo offer a morally perverse view of sex based on false naturalism.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
March 2, 2024

What is the purpose of sex among humans? Mary Harrington, the Heritage Foundation, and Chris Rufo have some strange ideas about that.

Last year (April 25) the Heritage Foundation hosted a book event, recorded by C-Span, with Harrington (author of Feminism Against Progress) and Erika Bachiochi. Near the end, in reply to a question about gender roles, Harrington says the following (starting at the 58:16 minute mark):

One intervention I've suggested that young women might employ to bring the consequentiality back into our differences [as men and women], as well as the mystery and the danger and the substance, is to begin by rejecting the original point of entry into cyborg feminism, which is the contraceptive pill. And this is something I see a lot of young women already doing, and by no means only from conservative or religious backgrounds. I hear from a great many young women who were put on the pill at the age of 14 and came off it maybe 10 years later and realized they'd done a complete personality flip. . . . [O]ne said, and I quote, I thought I was bipolar, but then it turned out actually, it was just this psychoactive substance that I'd been [on], what were they doing to me? And this was all to the to the purpose of rendering a woman receptive to what is for the most part loveless and sometimes extremely degrading sexual access. And I struggle to see in what way that's in women's interests and. And given the great many other things that to my eye are downstream of the entry into that paradigm, it seems to me that a good place to start would be the a feminist movement against the pill and for rewilding sex, returning the danger to sex, returning the intimacy, and really the consequentiality to sex. And a great deal follows from an intentional reconnection of women's opting intentionally to reconnect with the fullness of our embodied nature, including our potential for . . . our reproductive role.

On May 27, the Heritage Foundation Tweeted a clip of the video and added the comment, "Conservatives have to lead the way in restoring sex to its true purpose, and ending recreational sex and senseless use of birth control pills."

The skeptic-rationalist Michael Shermer revived the discussion with a Tweet of February 22, 2024, in which he wrote, "IVF frozen embryos is just the start [an Alabama court ruled that frozen embryos are legally people]: A feminist movement against the pill; end recreational sex; have sex; make babies."

To this, Christopher Rufo replied:

So what? The pill causes health problems for many women. "Recreational sex" is a large part of the reason we have so many single-mother households, which drives poverty, crime, and dysfunction. The point of sex is to create children—this is natural, normal, and good.

The positions of Harrington, the Heritage Foundation, and Rufo are nonsensical, ill-informed, and demeaning to women and men alike.

Each member of our Gang of Prudes seems to mean something a little different by "recreational sex." Surely Rufo cannot be serious when he claims that the "point of sex," when it is "natural, normal, and good," is "to create children." That would rule out the overwhelming majority of sex between people who are married. It would rule out all sex by women past the age of menopause (married or not), all sex by people infertile for whatever reason, all sex between gay people, all sex that does not involve penile penetration of the vagina, all sex using any form of birth control. That is far stricter even than formal Catholic doctrine (which most Catholics ignore), which at least allows for the "rhythm method."

I'm not sure what the Heritage Foundation means by "recreational sex," but I guess it's something like sex outside of marriage. The Foundation does not, at least in the quoted Tweet, clarify what it holds to be the "true purpose" of sex, nor whether it thinks people ever may justifiably use any form of birth control.

Harrington believes that sex needs to be wild, dangerous, intimate, and consequential. By "dangerous" and "consequential," presumably she means that fertile women should risk being impregnated when they have sex, and their partners should risk impregnating them. So, for example, a financially distressed and exhausted married woman with five kids, who does not want more children, should not, by Harrington's doctrine, have sex with her husband unless she is frightened of becoming pregnant and bearing a sixth child.

Harrington's doctrine is morally repugnant.

The grain of truth to the claims is that sex evolved, at root, as a means of reproduction. But that doesn't mean that reproduction is the only evolutionary aim of sex. Evolution often finds new purposes for old functions. Among humans, sex serves the biological function of promoting pair bonding (as an article by Sarah Blumenthal and Larry Young discusses). That easily explains why couples often have sex "recreationally," rather than to conceive a child. Of course, the deeper evolutionary function of pair bonding is to promote the effective raising of the young, so there's still some reproductive aim, but clearly sex plays a much larger role in humans simply than to impregnate women.

"Human sexuality is not primarily about reproduction," writes the sex therapist Jason Stotts in his Eros and Ethos. He notes, "Humans have sex dramatically longer [at a time] than other mammals." And, "Human sex is also unusual in that we do not have mating seasons." Stotts references Sex at Dawn (by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha), which points out that humans "and the bonobo both average well into the hundreds, if not thousands, of acts of intercourse per birth." Those authors note that for "hypersexual" humans, "nonreproductive sex is 'natural,' a defining characteristic."

Further, plausibly there's an evolutionary advantage just in being able to experience the pleasure of sex, even of masturbation. A being that generally enjoys being alive, and that is able to find pleasure in sex, food, sunsets, music, and the like, probably will try harder to stay alive and contribute to the next generation.

While often we do best by doing what is in some sense "natural," there's a reason why we refer to the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is "natural" doesn't mean we should do it or accept it. You've probably heard the usual examples. I wear eyeglasses to overcome my "natural" nearsightedness. It used to be "natural" for around half of children to die before making it through puberty, and for most people to die before making it through what we now consider middle age. People have an apparently "natural" disposition to tribalism, favoring their in-group and disfavoring out-groups. Humans have a "natural" liking for sugar, which was scarce during most of our evolutionary history.

Humans also have a natural capacity to reason and an ability to rationally integrate our values (as I have argued in my last two books). So what we should do, ethically, is evaluate what in nature to embrace and what to modify. Cancer is natural; chemotherapy is "unnatural" (in the sense of created through human science, itself a natural process in the wider scope). My nearsightedness is natural; glasses are unnatural. In such cases I'll take the "unnatural," thank you very much! Recently I enjoyed a trip to the beaches of Florida via "unnatural" flight by jet plane. But I pretty studiously avoid artificial food dies and processed vegetable fats (not to be confused with the fruit fats from avocados, olives, and coconuts).

Especially given that most of our children survive childhood these days and we usually live past our forties, most people have pretty good reason to use "unnatural" forms of birth control. It's pointless to discuss whether some forms of birth control are more "natural" than others; if we choose to use it, we should choose based on such measures as effectiveness and health impacts.

Both Harrington and Rufo claim that the hormonal birth control pill in particular is unhealthy. I readily believe that hormonal birth control harms the health of some women, and I know a couple of women who probably suffered adverse effects from it. (On the other hand, teasing out causes can be difficult; just consider the enormous number of bullshit claims concerning alleged harms of vaccines.) You'll notice that Harrington and Rufo do not therefore recommend some other form of birth control instead, such as condoms or the copper IUD. Almost all medical interventions harm some people. Rational people weigh expected benefits against potential harms. "Unnatural" colonoscopies harm and even kill some portion of people who get them, but I don't hear Harrington and Rufo claiming that everyone therefore should avoid colonoscopies.

Largely because I do take seriously the role of sex in pair bonding, I do tend to be somewhat conservative in my views of sex. I think casual hook-ups generally are a bad idea. I think sex is best, and least risky in terms of physical and emotional health, when between committed partners. I also think that I'm not the world's sex policeman and that other people's consensual sex lives for the most part are none of my damn business.

Notice how Harrington denies women agency who have sex for pleasure rather than procreation. A young woman does not choose to go on the pill or some other form of birth control, in Harrington's universe; she is passively "put on the pill" and "rendered receptive" to sex. A woman cannot possibly make her own choices in these matters, and certainly she cannot enjoy recreational sex!

Harrington also offers a false choice between "loveless" and "degrading" sex and "dangerous" yet "intimate" sex that could result in pregnancy. She thereby denies that my wife and I, who often have sex using birth control, love each other. Her attitude is breathtakingly patronizing. She thoughtlessly smears the millions of people who do have healthy and intimate sex using birth control.

If by recreational sex we mean sex pursued for intimacy and pleasure rather than for procreation, then recreational sex is one of the great joys of life and among the highlights of the human condition. Only the depraved would seek to rob people of that joy.

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