The Heart of the Matter


Sex without Love, by Russell Vannoy, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1980, 226 pp., $14.95/$7.95.

This wolf in sheep's clothing is subtitled "A Philosophical Exploration" but is in fact a manifesto. Consider the following passage from late in the book.

If my thesis that erotic love is essentially self-interested is correct, it is going to damage seriously the claim that sex with a lover is the supreme experience. Part of the sexual joy lovers experience derives from the feeling that the partner is truly an altruistic person who would be willing to give his all to the act even if he felt he weren't getting very much in return. But if my thesis about the motives of lovers is correct, this joy is based on an illusion.

Lovers, for example, would be on the alert to see that they are getting as much as they are giving, or hopefully, to get more than they give (as with the millions of husbands who leave their wives orgasmically and otherwise unfulfilled).…Furthermore, lovers commonly consider the beloved obligated to satisfy them whenever they wish, even if the beloved isn't in the mood for sex at all.

On the other hand, a generous, considerate non-lover is capable of performing a sex act without engaging in violent quarrels if he fails to be satisfied. Nor will such a generous person so readily threaten to abandon his partner if he fails to be pleased sexually with his partner's performance. Nor will he think that it is his partner's obligation to please him whenever he wishes.

Vannoy has two basic theses to urge upon the reader. The first is that sex without love can be "just as fulfilling" as sex with love and "may be even more so." The second is that erotic love (sexual love, romantic love) is an intrinsically contradictory phenomenon that introduces contradiction and hypocrisy into the lives of those who experience it.

His style of presentation is a fast-paced thrust and parry of thesis, counterexamples, counterargument, and new thesis. The trouble is that Vannoy's determination to promulgate his ideology has a corrosive effect throughout upon the thrust and parry of the purported "exploration." He mischaracterizes views alternative to his own, ferrets out pathology everywhere, manages to seriously misunderstand most of the philosophical classics on sex and love, and slips shoddy arguments for his own theses past the reader. Perhaps most seriously of all, he shows none of the intellectual empathy and generosity that would enable him to discern merit in positions different from his own and that a true "philosophical exploration" requires.

Returning to the opening citation: On what ground does Vannoy attribute to nonloving sex the generosity he denies to love? Do lovers typically engage in violent quarrels and threaten to abandon their partners when they are not sexually satisfied? Since sex is the focus of the nonloving sexual relationship, is it to be expected that nonlovers will surpass lovers in the patience with which they uncomplainingly bear their lack of sexual satisfaction? Is it true that "part of the joy" of sex with love is the belief that one's partner is a "truly altruistic person" who doesn't mind getting little in return? Won't his not getting much in return be of deep concern to the person who loves him? Do we expect "altruism" of persons who love us? Altruism means self-sacrifice, and if we love the person in return, would we not be asking for the sacrifice of what we regard as infinitely precious? And do lovers "commonly consider the beloved obligated to satisfy them whenever they wish," in disregard of the feelings of the beloved? We do not know what concrete examples of love the author may be acquainted with, but he seems to have peered at them through a reversed binocular and often confused love with its common pseudomorphs.

Judging by the frequency with which he repeats it, Vannoy's favorite argument for the superiority of sex without love is that it is "not within the power of a penis or vagina to communicate love at all." On this basis it becomes clear how he can say that "sex without love can be just as fulfilling an experience as sex with love; indeed it may be even more so." Evidently he means: just as fulfilling to disconnected penises and vaginas. In the same vein, one might equally say that letters on a page cannot communicate feelings, nor can the hand that clasps ours, or the arm about our shoulders.

But penises and vaginas are connected to bodies, and bodies belong to persons, hence penises and vaginas, like words, hands, and arms, can be expressive of persons. If by "fulfilling," then, we mean fulfilling of the persons to whom penises and vaginas are connected, it is clear that relations involving more than penises and vaginas can be more fulfilling (granted that they can sometimes be less), for the simple reason that there is more to fulfill.

Vannoy's carelessness with classical sources on love is pervasive, but an example must suffice. From the Lysis, he attributes to Plato the "dour conclusion…that there is no philosophical basis on which to justify any form of friendship." But the conclusion is the product of Vannoy's misreading. In the Lysis Socrates argues, to be sure, that neither likeness nor difference between two persons affords the basis of friendship. But he then shows that the basis is both likeness and difference together, a relationship he terms the "congeniality of excellences." Friends must be alike in pursuing the good but different in the aspects of the good that each pursues. In this way they share the most important thing in common, yet each offers to the other something of worth that the other cannot self-provide.

Had Vannoy understood this conception of friendship, it would be sure to displease him, for he takes the inwardly secure individual to be the wholly self-sufficient individual, and from this standpoint all forms of love appear to him as manifestations of insufficiency and insecurity. We suggest, rather, that the secure individual can give of himself without fear of self-depletion and can receive from others what they have to contribute without experiencing anxiety over an erosion of self-sufficiency.

But it is to prove that erotic love is intrinsically contradictory that Vannoy unlimbers his heavy artillery. He identifies six contradictions under the headings "Ecstasy vs. Endurance," "Altruism vs. Self-Interest," "Choice vs. Emotion," "Security vs. Insecurity," "Oneness vs. Twoness," and "Opposites Attract vs. Like Attracts Like." In general, his tactic is to argue that love cannot be represented by one term or the other in each pair, but neither can it combine both, for the terms in each pair are mutually exclusive. But the fallacy throughout is that of defining the terms of each pair in mutually exclusive fashion—the fallacy of intellectual abstractionism. It is true that we can conceive of the terms in mutually exclusive fashion, but by so doing our thought ceases to be representative of human experience.

Consider "Ecstasy vs. Endurance." It is true that ecstasy does not endure (and it is also fortunate, for at the same time that it lofts us to the heights, it unfits us for much that living requires); but ecstasy can be recurrent, and Vannoy does nothing to show that an enduring relationship cannot be a foundation for recurrent occasions of ecstasy. That it may be the best foundation is suggested by an analogue drawn from creative writing. By all accounts such writing calls for both "inspiration" and "perspiration." Typically the novice believes he can write only in moments of inspiration. The experienced writer knows that it is his sustained daily effort that provides the fertile ground for recurrent inspiration.

Or consider "Choice vs. Emotion." Vannoy says, "A further contradiction to which erotic love is subject is the conflict between one's demands that one be chosen for what one is in some kind of rational way, and also that such love must include some degree of emotional involvement. But having an emotion does not seem to be a matter of choice at all." To make short work of this artificial bifurcation, consider the following example. Suppose that in the presence of a given other person we experience strong emotions—sexual desire, perhaps, or keen admiration, or aesthetic rapture over physical beauty. But whether, when, and how often we shall re-experience these feelings remains our choice. Certainly all of us have feelings that we choose not to repeat by choosing to avoid the circumstances that produced the feelings.

At a deeper level, a distinction is to be made in the case of each of us between feelings that are simply had and feelings that are had and identified with. Our identification with only selected feelings that we experience is a matter of choice. To acknowledge one's feelings for another as love of the other is an identification of this sort, combining choice with feeling. Hence the distinction between feeling and choice cannot be made into the contradiction that Vannoy alleges.

Our last example is Vannoy's purported "Altruism vs. Self-interest" contradiction. "Altruism" is commonly understood to be concern for others to the exclusion of concern for oneself, and "egoism" is commonly understood to be the converse. But Vannoy ought to be critical of these understandings, for they are abstractionist fallacies. Concern for others implies concern for oneself in the following way: to be concerned for the well-being of another is to want to contribute to that well-being; but we can contribute nothing of worth to others unless we have taken the trouble to cultivate resources in ourselves, and this implies self-concern. Because concern for others presupposes self-concern, Vannoy cannot demonstrate the egoism (exclusive self-interest) of love by detecting in it elements of self-concern.

Vannoy appears to be writing for adolescents (of whatever age), for he identifies "fulfillment" with novelty. Adolescence, as exploration of the world in search of itself, is by its nature wedded to novelty. Whatever bears no fruit in a week exhausts its patience, and enterprises whose first fruits are plucked are discarded for new enterprises. But one outgrows this stage in the recognition that exploration furnishes the conditions for sound choice. Sometimes one recognizes this indirectly by uncovering the monotony in overextended exploration. Kierkegaard was correct in suggesting that Don Juan's eventual despair is boredom; try reading the Memoirs of Jacques Casanova—all of them. And the perpetuation of novelty is at the expense of other values, some of which are inseparable from commitment and fidelity.

This way of thinking throws us into the camp of the sexual "conservatives" that Vannoy contrasts unfavorably to his own "liberalism." But he paints conservatism as at bottom disgusted by sex, prizing security above all else, and existing as a thoughtless product of repressive social conditioning. He fails to recognize the possibility of choices to which one may commit oneself because, on the basis of exploration, one understands them to be right choices.

As a self-professed liberal, Vannoy is not liberal enough by half. For what liberalism entails is the ability to recognize value in modes of experience different from one's own. Vannoy gives us only caricatures of alternative modes.

David and Mary Kille Norton are coeditors of Philosophies of Love.