The unit we begin with will form the basis of the whole semester. We’re going to investigate forms of relationships and feeling that have some relation to sex. The philosophy and history we read doesn’t go exactly in a chronological order, but roughly so. The ancient Greeks had ideas of friendship and love that raise questions for us today. Why do we read what Augustine has to say about sexual desire? Because Christianity has shaped how sex was seen in the Western world for about 1500 years, and we can read his thoughts and warnings as a way to understand some of our own feelings of shame and strangeness about sexual pleasure and lack of control. We can also compare to Augustine our own thoughts and beliefs about the purpose of sex and the most moral way to involve oneself with sex. The writings in this lesson that focus on passion show how even when Christianity was teaching a certain way to be sexual, there were other movements and forces that investigated alternatives.

Because this course is designed to help you become more reflective about yourself and your sexual development, I’ll say very little at the start. In this chapter, we will consider some of these questions:

  • Can friends be in love?
  • What is love?
  • What myths do we believe about love and what evidence do we have that some of these myths are true?
  • What happens when sexual desire enters a friendship?
  • What is sexual desire without friendship or love?
  • Can there be passion for another human being without sexual desire?
  • What do all these configurations look like?
  • What do you seek in your life? Your future?
  • What should human beings seek in their sexual lives?

Exercise: Friendship

To begin, answer the following questions.

What qualities make a good friend?





Are these qualities that make them good friends or just qualities you like?





Are these the same qualities you would want in a romantic partner?





Are these qualities that you are attracted to in other people whom you find yourself attracted to in a romantic or sexual way?




Reading and Discussion: Aristotle—A Philosopher who Wrote on Friendship (Among Other Things)

Aristotle was born in Stagira in 384 BC and died in Greece 322 BC. He was a member of Plato’s academy for 20 years and founded The Lyceum. When he was a student of Plato, he disagreed with him on a few things. He believed that the essence of human beings was their ability to reason about things. And he believed that a person with “practical wisdom” could determine right from wrong through reasoning. I hope in this course that you will use your own practical wisdom to think about the readings and questions posed.

Practical wisdom is not a science. It’s about becoming what some have called a “moral musician.” You have the instrument–your mind–and you need to fine tune it so that it can play the virtues. What are the virtues? In Greek society, there were a set of qualities believed to make people good human beings.

Aristotle thought that everyone pursues happiness but if you use your reasoning abilities while you pursue happiness you will undoubtedly choose to do things that enact your moral and intellectual virtues. “Eudaimonia” means “well being,” which is not exactly happiness. It is sometimes translated to mean “flourishing.” Aristotle was clear that the goal of life was “eudaimonia,” which is something like flourishing. When you are flourishing, you are activating the virtues, you are experiencing happiness and pleasure, but that happiness and pleasure are closely connected to activating the virtues according to a theory of means.

According to Aristotle, any virtue of character must be appropriately enacted or had. If it’s considered good to cooperate, then people should neither cooperate too little nor too much. If being courageous is a virtue, then everyone must cultivate that virtue to a moderate extent, neither being too chicken or weak, nor extra brave and foolhardy. If caring for others is a virtue, to be virtuous again means to exercise that virtue in a moderate way, neither being neglectful of one’s feelings nor so caring that you might neglect caring for yourself. Thinking ahead to when we discuss sex and sexual urges, Aristotle would argue that virtuous people allow some reasonable satisfaction of their appetites. Not too much, and not too little.

About being a moral musician. Some of this comes from the idea that there is no generalizable rule, and that you have to look at the particular situation and make moral judgments and decisions accordingly. You become good at this by cultivating a decision making process, by getting good moral habits, by thinking of your own temperament before you make choices, by having proper self-respect, and by not letting feelings that are unchecked by reason motivate your actions and choices.

Friendship is part of a fulfilling life. It is also part of a virtuous life. Friendship helps people to realize their own capacities and thus promotes each person’s happiness.

Read the following passages on friendship from Aristotle’s (1958) Nicomachean Ethics:

1 After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? The greater it is, the more exposed is it to risk. And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions-’two going together’-for with friends men are more able both to think and to act. Again, parent seems by nature to feel it for offspring and offspring for parent, not only among men but among birds and among most animals; it is felt mutually by members of the same race, and especially by men, whence we praise lovers of their fellowmen. We may even in our travels how near and dear every man is to every other. Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.

. . .

3 Now these reasons differ from each other in kind; so, therefore, do the corresponding forms of love and friendship. There are therefore three kinds of friendship, equal in number to the things that are lovable; for with respect to each there is a mutual and recognized love, and those who love each other wish well to each other in that respect in which they love one another. Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other. So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant. Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.

Now the useful is not permanent but is always changing. Thus when the motive of the friendship is done away, the friendship is dissolved, inasmuch as it existed only for the ends in question. This kind of friendship seems to exist chiefly between old people (for at that age people pursue not the pleasant but the useful) and, of those who are in their prime or young, between those who pursue utility. And such people do not live much with each other either; for sometimes they do not even find each other pleasant; therefore they do not need such companionship unless they are useful to each other; for they are pleasant to each other only in so far as they rouse in each other hopes of something good to come. Among such friendships people also class the friendship of a host and guest. On the other hand the friendship of young people seems to aim at pleasure; for they live under the guidance of emotion, and pursue above all what is pleasant to themselves and what is immediately before them; but with increasing age their pleasures become different. This is why they quickly become friends and quickly cease to be so; their friendship changes with the object that is found pleasant, and such pleasure alters quickly. Young people are amorous too; for the greater part of the friendship of love depends on emotion and aims at pleasure; this is why they fall in love and quickly fall out of love, changing often within a single day. But these people do wish to spend their days and lives together; for it is thus that they attain the purpose of their friendship.

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing. And each is good without qualification and to his friend, for the good are both good without qualification and useful to each other. So too they are pleasant; for the good are pleasant both without qualification and to each other, since to each his own activities and others like them are pleasurable, and the actions of the good are the same or like. And such a friendship is as might be expected permanent, since there meet in it all the qualities that friends should have. For all friendship is for the sake of good or of pleasure-good or pleasure either in the abstract or such as will be enjoyed by him who has the friendly feeling-and is based on a certain resemblance; and to a friendship of good men all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves; for in the case of this kind of friendship the other qualities also are alike in both friends, and that which is good without qualification is also without qualification pleasant, and these are the most lovable qualities. Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men.

. . .

4 This kind of friendship, then, is perfect both in respect of duration and in all other respects, and in it each gets from each in all respects the same as, or something like what, he gives; which is what ought to happen between friends. Friendship for the sake of pleasure bears a resemblance to this kind; for good people too are pleasant to each other. So too does friendship for the sake of utility; for the good are also useful to each other. Among men of these inferior sorts too, friendships are most permanent when the friends get the same thing from each other (e.g. pleasure), and not only that but also from the same source, as happens between readywitted people, not as happens between lover and beloved. For these do not take pleasure in the same things, but the one in seeing the beloved and the other in receiving attentions from his lover; and when the bloom of youth is passing the friendship sometimes passes too (for the one finds no pleasure in the sight of the other, and the other gets no attentions from the first); but many lovers on the other hand are constant, if familiarity has led them to love each other’s characters, these being alike. But those who exchange not pleasure but utility in their amour are both less truly friends and less constant. Those who are friends for the sake of utility part when the advantage is at an end; for they were lovers not of each other but of profit. ”

From W. D. Ross (Trans.) (1958)The Nicomachean ethics (Book 8, Ch. 8). Retrieved from


Aristotle asks, “Who would choose to live without friends?” Even if fortune smiled upon the person and that person had every other good thing possible, wouldn’t that person still want and need friends?

Aristotle writes on “philia” which has been translated as “friendship.” Whenever we use a translation of a word, especially a word from another historical period and place, we can’t be quite sure the person saying or writing the word meant the same thing. In fact, Aristotle used this word to mean friendships between family members, husbands and wives, social clubs, political parties, and even business partnerships. He used the term very broadly. But he also used it to mean what we today consider friendship.

As you read in the passages above, for Aristotle, friendship is necessary for the good life. It’s important for a person to have friends in order to live a virtuous life and it’s also important for civic life, the life of a person in society. If human’s potential gets fulfilled through their actions, then friendship encourages a person to be active in things that bring happiness.

Here are some of the qualities of friendship Aristotle wrote about:

  1. A friend is someone who likes and is liked by another person
  2. It’s necessary for friends to be aware of the goodwill towards each other
  3. Friendships are reciprocal. It’s not a friendship if only one person feels that the other is a friend
  4. It’s necessary for friends to want to spend time with each other
  5. Friendships bring pleasure
  6. Fortune affects friendship and age differences or other kinds of differences might get in the way of being friends
  7. A person needs to test the friendship, even live together, to see if you are truly friends.
  8. Complete friendship is rare and you can’t have that kind of friendship simultaneously with a lot of people.
  9. Friendships teach us to be good people
  10. To have a life that flouishes, you need to have friends.

As you read, Aristotle discusses 3 kinds of friendships.
There is the friendship for utility or advantage. This means that you are friends with a person because the friendship benefits you in some way. Perhaps you can get together with this person when there’s nothing to do because this person lives close to you. Perhaps you can get rides to school with this person. Perhaps the two of you help each other with calculus. It’s not exploitation, but the friendship lasts as long as the two of you are of some advantage to each other. You might think of some school friends like that. You like them in school because it passes the time to talk with them and work on projects together. It makes school a nicer place. But when you get home on the weekend, do you really want to get together? Maybe not. You are friends at school because there’s an advantage to having each other as friends at school. There is mutual benefit.

The second kind of friendship is a friendship for pleasure. Aristotle says that this kind of friendship occurs more with younger people where as friendships for utility occur more frequently with older people. He means that sometimes you are friends with a person simply because you have fun together. In the exercise on friendship, did you write that a good quality for a friend was someone to have fun with? If so, then you were probably talking about friendships for pleasure. Are you friends because you like to play guitar together? Because you always have a good time when you do things? Does this person get you to do fun things you wouldn’t normally do for yourself?

According to Aristotle, these kinds of friendships are common and are not hurting anyone. Don’t think of these as exploiting each other for a good time. Think of them merely as basing the friendship on the good times you have together or the interests you share. Aristotle thinks that these kinds of friendships aren’t necessarily long-lasting, and that they may change quickly based on who can benefit you the most at a given time. But there’s another kind of friendship that is the best kind because it helps people to live good lives and be their best selves. This is something called “complete friendship.” Remember that different translators translate the ancient Greek differently but we’ll call this “complete” friendship.

Complete friendships are sometimes called “character” friendships or “perfect” friendships. In these kinds of friendships, each person wishes well to the other person for his or her own sake. The point of these friendships is to be mutually known, and love for this kind of friend is an extension of love for oneself. It is a relationship that makes us good. Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt in the movie As Good As It Gets, “You make me want to be a better man.” Of course this is a romanticized example, but according to Aristotle, this is what complete friends do for each other.
Friendship has some similar qualities to justice. Quarrels will be rare because friends are eager to treat each other well. But in some ways, friendships are not necessarily equitable to romantic relationships. To be intimate and close requires that we give special attentiveness and responsiveness to a person; in a sense, we demonstrate favoritism for that person.

Questions for Writing or Discussion:

Aristotle elevates friendship to the best sort of relationship. Erotic love, he argues, is based on incidental features and not the true character of another person. Thus only in “complete friendship” do you find that perfect, mutual love between two people. What do you think about that?

Why might it be important to be friends with someone before you are a boyfriend or girlfriend?





Does there need to be equality between two people in order for there to be a friendship?





In what ways is a friend “an other self” and in what ways not?





What challenges a friendship?





How is friendship different than romantic love?




Reading and Discussion: Love

What is love? Is it a feeling? Is it lust, affection, friendship, admiration, worship? Is it a device for getting someone to love you? In other words, you love others so that they’ll love you? Do we have an ability to love someone who doesn’t return our love? And is that healthy?

There are several myths about love. For example:

  • Love makes the world go round
  • Love is the union between two separate people.

In West Side Story, lovers Maria and Tony sing,
“Make of our hands, one hand
Make of our heart, one heart
Make of our vows, one last vow,
Only death can stop us now.”

What are some of the beliefs about love you have heard?


Love is the union of two souls meant to be together.

I’m sure you’ve heard this philosophy of love quite a bit while growing up. For example, when people say they believe that there’s only one right person in the world for them, a “Mr. Right” or the “perfect woman,”or when people talk about soul-mates and say such things as, “You complete me.” It’s a philosophy of love that can lead to or justify heterosexual intercourse—two people with parts that fit together, becoming one person (physically). But where does this philosophy come from?

This concept was first spoken of in a delightful story presented by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Plato lived in Athens and was a teacher of Aristotle. He wrote on so many subjects in incredible depth. One of his most famous and interesting pieces of writing was the Symposium. The word “symposium” translates to “drinking together.” And Plato’s symposium is a retelling of a kind of a drinking party where a bunch of people got together to share their views, in this case, on love. Symposia were fairly common in the society in which Plato lived. They were held at people’s houses and a large dinner was served, after which there would be entertainment or, as in the case of this symposium, mock speeches would be given. In Plato’s Symposium, several people give speeches about love, and the one we’re interested in for now is Aristophanes’.

Read what Aristophanes says about love at this symposium. Aristophanes was a playwright. What’s interesting and true to his time is that his imaginative theory of love encompasses love between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.

“Aristophanes professed to open another vein of discourse; he had a mind to praise Love in another way, unlike that either of Pausanias or Eryximachus. Mankind; he said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honour; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race. I will try to describe his power to you, and you shall teach the rest of the world what I am teaching you. In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three;-and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round: like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.”

From B. Jowett (Trans.) (1956) Symposium. Retrieved from

Exercise: Find in the novels, TV shows, or movies you’ve seen an example of union love.


In the Symposium, Pausanius discusses the dangers hidden in attraction and uses the Goddess Aphrodite to represent two kinds of love. The first is a kind of animal lust where love comes from the pleasure associated with sex; but Heavenly Aphrodite is different from the Common Aphrodite and elevates the spiritual over the body. If you give in to animal lust, you are a “vulgar lover,” a “lover of the body and not the soul.”

This view helps set up Plato’s view of love, which is that the best kind of love is a love for some transcendent goodness or beauty. You can find that love in another person but mostly because that other person points you to something above and beyond both of you. This view of love forms the basis of “courtly love” in the Middle Ages as well as the earliest Christian views about finding a transcendent love in God.

Let’s first think about “courtly love” and also about Abstinence programs of today.

Courtly Love

Courtly love was a kind of love that developed in the Middle Ages particularly in the noble classes. It wasn’t a kind of love one would have in marriage, but a kind of love for a lady (as in lords and ladies, not just any woman) that put her on a pedestal. Before this era, relationships between a man and a woman weren’t expected to involve passion. Marriages were made to join families or for other practical matters. In fact, it wasn’t even considered right for a husband to feel passionate about his wife or vice versa. The troubadours, minstrels who sang and performed stories to the courts of the time, promoted the idea of courtly love.

There were rules for how one was to love a lady. Courtly love did not allow intercourse, as it believed that this would in some way sully the relationship. It’s interesting to note that “ladies” were different from peasant women, and in the rules about courtly love, men were encouraged to overly praise peasant girls, get them to a secret place, and then “embrace them by force.” This was clearly permission to rape the “wrong kind of girl,” something we should think about in today’s society in terms of what kinds of rapes we think are “more wrong” than others.

Courtly love was a kind of love that was above physical love. It was conducted at a distance and involved a lot of physical longing and the yielding of all power to the woman the knight or courtier loved. It was considered a “pure love” in which a man could prove his masculinity by extensive self-control. The “lovers” were permitted embraces, kisses, fondling—they even could lie naked in bed together—but they were not permitted to soil this pure love with intercourse. This may sound crazy, but because the women were already married, courtly love promoted the idea that marriage was morally wrong in some ways because it was only done for monetary gain, and that the only good love was a love that was found in adultery.

Capellanus was an author from the 12th century who wrote about courtly love. Read some of the rules he outlined about courtly love, here.

Exercise: True Love Waits? Love and Abstinence

Abstinence programs encourage teens to wait until marriage to have intercourse. These programs often argue that sex is very special and should be saved for the wedding night, that sex is better when there is love in the relationship, and that sex sullies a relationship.

In reviewing the rules that Capellanus outlines in The Art of Courtly Love, this author suddenly thought that the expectations sounded a lot like what abstinence programs are teaching today. The theory of love as a perfect union also seemed similar to the content of some of these curricula. Read the following statements from various “Abstinence Only” programs across the country and see if you can identify various beliefs about what love is.


  • The Positive Choice curriculum teaches that “human sexuality includes deep emotional and psychological aspects and is not merely physical in nature.”
  • It also teaches that “non-marital sex can undermine the capacity for healthy marriage, love and commitment,” and that “abstinence is beneficial in preparation for successful marriage and significantly increases the probability of a happy, healthy marriage.”


  • “When you ‘hook up’ for fun, physical intimacy begins to lose its depth, greatness, sacredness, and power to bond two people. Sex is shared as easily as a handshake, and the couple loses all reverence for the sacredness of each other’s body. You begin thinking that physical pleasure is basically for fun and can solve the problem of boredom or loneliness.”
  • “This may come as a surprise to those who think that purity and prudery are synonymous, but purity has nothing to do with having a negative idea of sex. In fact, only the pure of heart are capable of seeing the depth and mystery of sex. For the person who is pure, sex is an unspeakably wonderful gift meant for your spouse alone. Therefore, the foundation of chastity is the dignity of every person and the greatness of sex.”

Reading and Discussion: Love in Equal and Unequal Relationships

Courtly love was a love that celebrated the inequality of the relationship. The Lady, put on a pedestal, had all the power to say no, to break her courtier’s heart, to permit little pleasures, and to turn away a visit at any time. Was this real power? Some today would say that girls have all the power because boys want sex and girls can say yes or no. Isn’t that a rather simple way of looking at it, as if all boys ever want is sex and never feel ambivalent? And if girls have the power to say yes or no, perhaps that’s a passive way of having power. It’s just a reaction or response to someone else’s quest. Do they have the right to pursue their own sexual wishes and put boys in the position to say yes or no? What are the “rules” of gender and heterosexual relationships that put boys in the asking position and girls in the deciding position? Discuss this in small groups or as a class.

Simone de Beauvoir was a French existential philosopher who wrote about these questions and argued that “genuine love” ought to be founded on “the mutual recognition of two liberties” (1989, p. 667). This means that true love can only be between two free people. She was concerned with women’s submissiveness to men, their unequal rights, and their willingness to give up their freedoms. She wrote:

“On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abuse herself but to assert herself – on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger. In the meantime, love represents in its most touching form the curse that lies heavily upon woman confined in the feminine universe, woman mutilated, insufficient to herself” (1989, p. 669).

It was not de Beauvior didn’t believe in romantic love. She just saw it as a way to get women to give themselves over to the authority of men and serve them, rather than to find an equal with whom to share their lives. She saw women as looking to fulfill themselves through their men rather than through their lives, and then join with men in love based on desire and mutual concern.

Philosopher Robert White was also concerned about women in this way and said that in romantic love, a woman has an imaginary identification with a ghost of a strong self-sufficient man because society denied her own independence.


Some have argued that love is just a friendship with sexual attraction added on. Do you think so or is it an entirely different thing?

  • What do friends share?
  • What makes a friendship valuable?
  • How is the love for a friend different than the love for a boyfriend or girlfriend?
  • What happens when two friends discover a sexual attraction?
  • Or if one feels it but the other doesn’t?


Do we value the person we fall in love with and his or her qualities because we love the person? Or do we love the person and because of certain values we have and qualities we admire in that person?

Some have argued that it’s probably the first idea above because when we fall out of love, the very things we used to love about that person seem irritating and annoying.

But if we love first and value the person second, then what explains why we fall in love with whom we fall in love?


This belief asserts that love is just some fancy word humans put on sexual feelings. (This is a very hard view of what love is. But there are softer views of the “love is an illusion” belief.) For example, some would say that when we fall passionately in love, we view the other person not as he or she really is but through illusions that help to boost our passion. The question is this: If we really do this, does that mean we’re not loving the real person? Have you ever heard the phrase that someone is “in love with love”?

Author Denis de Rougemont (1983) created quite a stir when he published a book called Love in the Western World. He believed that the reason we dream of potential passion is that it distracts us from our boring lives. He said that we manufacture drama and create obstructions and struggles to keep passion alive because long-term relationships and passion don’t mix. He examines literature from the Western World for what he calls “The Passion Myth,” and argues that because of our sharing this long tradition of such stories, we tend to prefer love that torments us, gets in the way of happiness, is intense, and transformative.

Intense may be an understatement. According to de Rougemont, we long for a passion so violent it’s oblivious to pain and peril. We think that “(p)assion means suffering, something undergone, fate’s mastery over a free and responsible person” (p. 43). “Why is it that we delight most of all in some tale of impossible love?” de Rougemont wondered? “… Because we long to grow aware of what is on fire inside us. Suffering and understanding are deeply connected…” (p. 45).

Carol Cassell (1989) has a different view. She writes that sex is a commodity, a source of power in a relationship, and that men and women barter. Does this sound a bit cynical to you? Writing about girls and women, she says there’s a “damned if you do and a damned if you don’t” spirit about having sex, and that girls worry that if they “give away” too much, they will lose value in the eyes of guys who may be “shopping.” She also writes that in today’s “Sex in the City” society, sex is confusing. Simply to have sex when one feels like it seems reckless and dangerous. But sometimes girls and women do respond to sexual feelings and deceive themselves by telling themselves that it’s not just sex, that it’s love. She points out that women are often unable and/or unwilling to accept the fact that a sexual encounter really might be just about the sex. She writes that our society tells us that sex is everywhere, and nothing special, but that love is still a one-of-a-kind experience, the “real” thing. So, at the first sign of sexual arousal, Cassell notes that women set up a love fantasy. One woman Cassell spoke to said that this is how she thinks: “I’ve never gone to bed with a man without caring for him. I always feel (that this experience is special). When it finally sinks in that this was ‘special’ only to me, I could kick myself for being such a dimwit.”

Why does the woman in this last quote want to “kick [her]self”?

Do guys do this too? Why or why not?

Exercise: Beliefs of Love

What do you believe?

From Gould, T. (pp. 11-12)

  1. If you have a person who loves you and will do anything for you, you have the most important thing in life.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  2. If two people love each other, nothing else matters.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  3. To marry for any reason but love is immoral.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  4. Love prevents even adulterous sex from being really immoral.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  5. Anyone who can tell why they love someone else is really not in love.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  6. Love between a man and a woman which doesn’t culminate in sex is unnatural.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  7. A person who loses everything for love is to be pitied and envied; a person who loses everything for sex is a fool.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  8. True love exists.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  9. All love is really sexual attraction.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree
  10. There is one right person for me in the world.
    Strongly Disagree ----- 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 ----- Strongly Agree

Reading: Wildly in Love

Read the following Time Magazine story about whether or not animals can feel romantic love: Wildly in Love

What do you think? Can animals feel love?

Sexual Desire

We discussed transcendent love in the last section. But we didn’t get into what exactly this love was transcending and why it needed to be transcended. That thing that supposedly needs to be transcended is sexual desire, lust, or horniness, whatever you want to call it. Saint Augustine thought that this involuntary responsiveness was something that we inherited as a punishment for having been kicked out of Eden, a defect in our beings. We’ll look at that in this section. The philosopher Immanuel Kant also thought that sexual desire—and particularly acting on sexual desire—was demeaning to humans. Before we consider these anti-lust points of view, let’s take a look at a lesser form of sexual desire—attraction—and see what psychologists have to say.


Why are we attracted to whom we are attracted to? If there was a simple solution, matchmaking companies would be making millions. Wait a minute. Some of them are making millions, using psychological tests to determine who will be good matches. Sometimes though, all the obvious factors fall into place but there isn’t that “spark.” So what is that spark and where does it come from?

One psychological study says that that spark might be a misreading of biological cues. Your heart races, you feel tense and excited, a little bit nervous, hyper alert to the other person, and you say to yourself, “Wow, I must really be attracted to this person!” But wait, was it that super caffeinated energy drink you had 20 minutes ago? One study says, yes, it may be. You may have just misattributed your biological response to caffeine to mean that you were interested in that boy you were studying with.

Another study looked at people who were vigorously exercising on a stationary bike. With their heart rates up, they were then placed in a situation that would evoke some kind of emotion. They were in a high state of arousal because of the biking, so when someone gave them a slight insult, they overreacted and got kind of aggressive. Maybe this could happen in terms of attraction, too? You’ve just left a vigorous ping pong match in PE and you get a smile from someone in the hall and think “Could that smile mean something more?”

Consider this study by psychologists Dutton and Aron (1974) testing a theory of passionate love by social psychologist Elaine Hatfield. They hired an attractive young woman to meet single men at the mid-point on a very shaky suspension bridge high above a rocky gorge, and to meet other single men on a much more solid bridge. The first bridge is 450 feet long and 250 feet high. The attractive woman asked all of the men to tell her a story in response to a picture she showed them. She said she was studying creativity. She also gave them her phone number in case they wanted to get a copy of the results of the study. Only 2 of the men on the solid bridge called her, but 9 on the shaky bridge did. Also, when some independent reviewers looked at the stories told by the men, the ones who were on the shaky bridge included more sexual images and references. Does this study say something about how passionate love is first evoked?

So, let’s concede that there could be some random events that help that spark along. Perhaps accidentally your eyes met at a Dave Matthews concert when you both were really feeling a song. That might help the spark. Perhaps your first date was on a roller coaster and afterwards the two of you just talked and talked and talked. We know that alcohol and other drugs can stimulate certain areas of the brain that make people look more attractive and raise our interest in them. For example, have you ever heard of “beer goggles”?! These biologically based shoves may be enough to get someone started, but is it enough to build something more long lasting? Probably not. But we’re not talking love anymore. We’re talking sparks, lust, or sexual desire.

Discussion: Can drugs produce love?

Knowing what we know about the effects of drugs and alcohol on our body chemistry, what are some considerations we should have?

How would you know if it was real attraction? And does it matter?

Lust: What’s the Right Thing to Do With It?

The philosopher, Martha Nussbaum (2001), wrote about Socrates’ view of lust in Plato’s the Phaedrus. This view is that lust and sexual desire seem to get in the way of other human feelings. She writes, “The best lovers . . . deny themselves sexual intercourse. But this . . . is because they feel that in intercourse they risk forfeiting other valuable non-intellectual elements of their relationship: the feelings of tenderness, respect, and awe” (p. 219).

In Xenophon’s speech in the Symposium he outlines the problem of lust. “There are . . . two loves: Love of the body, who accompanies the common Aphrodite, and Love of the soul, friendship, and beautiful deeds, who accompanies the Heavenly goddess.” Love of the soul, of course, is the best, but what about loving someone’s soul and body? According to Xenophon, that won’t do. “Suppose a man loves both body and soul: the bloom of youth quickly fades, and when beauty departs so must the lover’s affection.

These ideas about lust and sexual desire that were present in ancient Greek society were carried through into early Christianity which took a harsh view to these natural and very powerful feelings.

We’ll get to Christianity, but first consider one more ancient group, the Stoics, whose philosophy thrived from 301-263 BC, through the end of the Roman Empire, and beyond. They thought all passions were bad and that sexual pleasure was a particularly bad kind of passion because it got in the way of reason. The Stoics thought that even when a man had sex with his wife, he should avoid sexual pleasure, because pleasure was associated only with having sex with a woman outside of the marriage.  Some Gnostics followed suit urging people to ignore their sexual appetites, even in marriage, and have a “pure union.”  For these groups, abstinence was the road to spiritual perfection.

Christianity in its first 3 centuries continued to have this very strict attitude towards sexual pleasure and lust. Many thought that the pleasure that comes with sex was not part of God’s plan.

Saint Ambrose (340-397 AD) wrote that all sensations corrupt you because they distract you from the spiritual.  Some hermits practiced asceticism, which meant denying themselves all sorts of comforts and pleasures, including even looking at the face of a woman.  Along with this practice and other practices associated with keeping oneself pure and asexual was the view of women as dangerous temptresses.

Paul (c. 5 – c. 67) was a Christian missionary whose writings form a good portion of the New Testament.  He was celibate and encouraged people to practice abstinence. But he came to acknowledge that many people could not be abstinent, so he wrote that people were permitted to channel their sexual desire within the confines of marriage.  Pleasure within marriage was fine also because it helped people not to stray, but remain loyal in their marriages.

In the 4th century, when Christianity began to be incorporated into the lives of many more people, it became clear that advocating celibacy was not going to help the spread of this religion.  Christianity could not grow if people were not having babies (look into the lives of the Shakers of New England in the 19th and 20th centuries, a puritan group that died out because they did not permit intercourse).  Saint Augustine, among others, had an answer that influenced Christianity and our own beliefs today.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) was an early Christian theologian who influenced Christianity and Western philosophy.  Saint Augustine had a Christian mother and a Pagan father.  Augustine had a 12-year sexual relationship with a woman who also was the mother of his son.  But he was forced to break up with her because of an arranged marriage with a ten-year-old girl, and he felt awful about it.  The arranged marriage was delayed for two years until the girl reached puberty, and St. Augustine found it difficult to abstain from sex during this time (especially after having a passionate 12 year relationship with the mother of his son!)  Calling himself a “slave to lust,” he found another woman as a sexual partner. He eventually renounced the arranged marriage and embarked on a life of voluntary celibacy.

In his writings, Augustine worried about his lust.  Over time, he clarified for all Christians under what circumstances sex could be good.  He saw the body as an “active battleground on which the war against lust was to be waged” (Hawkes, 2004, p. 54), and warned people to be ever watchful and anxious about feelings of lust.  The only good ways to direct one’s lust were:

  1. to abstain, and by abstaining one would have more time for prayer,
  2. to apply reason to it, and
  3. to direct it towards reproduction.

The body was seen as unruly and full of appetite, but human beings could choose self-control over desire.  In fact, although this isn’t per se a Christian curriculum, you could say that the emphasis this curriculum places on using reason before acting can be traced back to Augustine and the earlier Stoic philosophers. While restricting the sexuality of high-born women was pretty commonplace among the ancients as well as pagans and Jews, it was the Christians who started to apply these stricter rules to men.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t just reason that helped a man keep a pure soul when bodily appetites made demands.  It was with the help of God that man could avoid sinning.  Augustine truly believed that every one of us was sinful by nature after the fall of Adam and Eve, and that after that cataclysmic sin, our wills were no longer really free because they were bound by lust and wicked desires. He was very concerned with how there could be evil if God was the source of everything, and he ended up arguing that it was that first sin that corrupted God’s originally good creation. God’s knowledge of what will happen has no bearing on our responsibility in the here and now to act morally.  He was not just telling others what to do but struggling with these very issues himself:

“I came to Carthage, where a caldron of unholy loves was seething and bubbling around me. I was looking for something to love, and, empty of thou, my soul itched to be scratched by the senses. And so I took joy with the body of my lover, and so polluted the spring of friendship with the slime of lust” (Book 3, Cp. 1).

The church fathers following Augustine wrote many rules about sex from 500-1000 AD.  Sex should occur in marriage.  Enjoying sex too much and having it a lot is wrong.  Having sex in different positions or even in different, non-intercourse ways is wrong.  This was when what is now called the “missionary position” was first advocated.  (The “missionary position” is named such because much later, when Christian missionaries went to tribal societies to convert the people in them to Christianity, they taught them this position as the only moral position for sexual intercourse.) This position is for heterosexual intercourse with both partners lying down facing each other, the man on top. All of these rules promoted heterosexual intercourse in marriage, but they didn’t promote pleasure.  There were rules about when people should “do it” so as to have the least amount of pleasure, and especially so that a woman would have less pleasure.  They also discussed how sex for pleasure was harmful to one’s health. These rules also suggested some punishments for those who could not abide by them.  In these writings, homosexual sex was acknowledged and considered wrong and punishable.  So was masturbation, as well as wet dreams.  Even in their sleep, people were held responsible for controlling their bodies. The church fathers who wrote these rules went into so much detail in their writings that those who could read or learn these rules certainly got a comprehensive sex education with regard to all sorts of positions, partners, and sex acts.

It’s interesting to note that in Arabic speaking societies during the 7th-13th centuries AD, there were writings of a different sort, co-existing with writings on restrictive sexuality, that didn’t treat lust as a sin. These writings were by medical doctors who emphasized the importance of sexual release for physical health.   They taught that intercourse was a remedy for different diseases.  They believed that both men and women ejaculate and that this release was helpful to both.  And perhaps more importantly, they saw orgasm and sex as a natural source of pleasure.  There were other writings that were non-medical that discussed intercourse as an erotic art, putting emphasis on a woman’s pleasure and writing theories about the phases of a woman’s path to orgasm.  When medieval European doctors found and considered these texts, they de-emphasized in their own practice these ideas about sensuality, but did promote ejaculations as a means of health. There were other writings that restricted female sexuality to such an extent that they were used to justify female genital mutilation, something we will discuss in a later unit. For now, we note that there were some writings during this time that were sexually positive with regard to pleasure.

Respect and Lust

There is another tradition among many that sees lust as a problem of human beings. In short this view is that those who lust after another person turn this person into an object for their own use, and that we dehumanize other people and treat them with disrespect when we treat them as a means to an end (a way for a person to get sexual satisfaction). We will talk about objectification in a later section in more depth. For Kant, objectification violated a certain basic principle of morality. It wasn’t about treating another person as one of God’s holiest creatures, nor was it about elevating the soul to something that didn’t have anything to do with the body or its needs and wants. At the heart of Kant’s views was the necessity of respecting other people. And he concluded that lusting after someone is a form of disrespect.

In his Lectures on Ethics, Kant states:

“If by . . . love we mean true human love, then it admits of no distinction between types of persons, or between young and old. But a love that springs merely from sexual impulse cannot be love at all, but only appetite. Human love is good-will, affection, promoting the happiness of others and finding joy in their happiness. But it is clear that, when a person loves another purely from sexual desire, none of these factors enter into the love . . . [because?] Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite” (1930 translation by Infield, p. 162).

For a different view, we can consider Thomas Hobbes, who wrote before Kant. Hobbes argues that lust is more than just an appetite to be pleased.

“The appetite which men call lust . . . is a sensual pleasure, but not only that; there is in it also a delight of the mind: for it consisteth of two appetites together, to please, and to be pleased; and the delight men take in delighting, is not sensual, but a pleasure or joy of the mind consisting in the imagination of the power they have so much to please (“Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policy” (1966 translation by Molesworth, p. 48).

For a funny, more modern perspective, consider this. Back in the days when it was believed that masturbation sapped men of their essential masculinity, Kellogg, yes the guy who invented corn flakes, suggested that before men go to sleep at night, in order to prevent themselves from masturbating, they wrap their lower bodies in some kind of damp straightjacket. If that didn’t help they could tie their hands up. And by the way, cornflakes was thought to be a cereal that dampened excitement. Because it was so bland, it would help a person start his or her day with purer, blander, less exciting thoughts. What do you think about that?!

Exercise: Friend Interrupted

How are erotic relationships and friendships the same? Friends want us to be happy, love us for who we are, and help us to be happy. But what happens to a friendship when one person senses a sexual undercurrent. It can disrupt a friendship, right?

Example 1: You’re a guy and have a girl who’s a friend OR you’re a girl and have a guy who’s a friend at your house listening to music in your bedroom. She or he lies down on your bed and looks kind of seductive. All of a sudden you wonder, “Is this a sign that he/she might want more than a friendship? More? Right then and there?”

Example 2: You have a friend who has “come out” and has even talked to you about his or her attractions and love interests. You wonder if your friend is attracted to you. Could this disrupt the friendship?

Let’s talk about the phrase “friends with benefits.” It could mean so many things, so let’s lay them out. In these examples, you can imagine “sex” to mean anything from making out to intercourse.

  1. You and your good friend mutually decide to have sex to see if there is something more between you
  2. You and your good friend decide to have sex because you’re not in other relationships and get horny at times, so why not?
  3. You and your good friend accidentally got involved sexually (accidentally means without discussing it) and now don’t know what to do about it
  4. Your good friend makes a move on you and you go along with it in order to try to move the relationship to a different level
  5. You and your good friend decide to have sex because you want to experiment together, as friends, and see what it’s all about

In these situations…

  • What could go wrong?
  • How could this change the friendship?
  • What risks does a person take?

Discussion: Friends with Benefits

  1. Plato believed that sexual attraction between friends or lovers could be transformed into a passion for things you share. Is this the way to go? Or does one risk the friendship in order to have a fling? Or even to pursue a love relationship?
  2. The original article in the New York Times that talked about “Friends with Benefits” discussed a problem. This problem is that many people end up falling for, developing crushes on, or longing for more from the friend they began to “mess around with.” Do you think it’s possible to negotiate JUST a sexual relationship with a friend without any feelings getting involved…including messy feelings like jealousy? Longing for more? Sadness? Feeling exploited? Do you know your own personality well enough to guess about whether you might be affected, and how?
  3. Do you have a special obligation to a friend that’s different than your obligation to anyone else to whom you might be attracted or who might be attracted to you? What is this special obligation and how does it influence how you might respond?

Discussion: Lust and Pleasure

In this short section about lust, we haven’t answered all the deepest questions about what we do about our lustful feelings, our sexual desire, and whether that at their core these feelings are good, are distractions from higher goals, or are evil. But we can begin to think about it as an emotion or feeling that has moral consequences for our lives. And this brings us to the question of pleasure. Lust certainly gives us pleasure. But is all pleasure good?


Aristotle. (1958). In W. D. Ross (Trans.) The Nicomachean ethics (Book 8, Ch. 8).  Retrieved from

Augustine. In A. C. Outler (Ed. And Trans.) Confessions. Retrieved from

Cassell, C. (1989). Swept away: Why women confuse love and sex. New York, NY: Simon & Shuster.

De Beauvior, S. (1989). In H. M. Parshley (Ed. & Trans.) The second sex. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

De Rougemont, D. (1983). In M. Belgion (Trans.) Love in the western world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510-517.

Hawkes, G. (2004). Sex and pleasure in western culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Hobbes, J. (1966). In W. Molesworth (Ed.) The English works of Thomas Hobbes (Vol. IV). Germany: Scientia Verlag Aalen.

Kant, I. (1930). In L. Infield (Trans.) Lecture on ethics. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Nussbaum, M. (2001). The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Plato. (1952). In B. Jowett (Trans.) Symposium. Retrieved from

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