My aim in this short post is the same as Christine Overall’s aim in her excellent book (which I’ve been reading recently thanks to the recommendation of my colleague Christina Bellon).
But here I hope to “test the waters” for an idea I might weave into my talk next month at our department’s Nammour Symposium (which I’m doing thanks to the invitation of my colleague Randy Mayes—and that’s the last collegial shout-out of this post, I promise).
Imagine a land where all think sex has two main purposes—pleasure and reproduction—but most think it is always permissible and usually wise to deliberately thwart exactly one of these purposes—namely, pleasure.
This land is just like ours in every single way, with only one inversion: they treat sexual pleasure and reproduction the way we treat sexual reproduction and pleasure.
The result is that most people in this land use some methods at least some time in their life to intentionally avoid having pleasure while still having sex.
In this land such methods are called “contrahedons.”
(The term comes from Greek hedone, “pleasure”; at least since Bentham, a hedon is a unit of pleasure to supposedly measure your happiness.)
Some contrahedons are known as “barrier methods” and involve wearing or inserting artificial devices during sex whose sole point is the prevention of unwanted sexual pleasure. Other contrahedons chemically alter the bodies of men and women to prevent pleasure from occurring during sex more reliably than barrier methods. Still other contrahedons are surgical procedures whose only goal is to prevent a person from having any sexual pleasure for the rest of his or her life.
One somewhat disputed method of “contrahedon” (there is debate whether it even counts as that) is popularly known as “natural pleasure planning,” and works by a couple being careful only to have sex during those periods of time least likely result in pleasure, like after reading Bertrand Russell. (Sorry, inside philosophy joke.)
Some people in this land point out that the easiest and least invasive way of not having sexual pleasure is to just not have sex, but they are widely dismissed as the lunatic fringe.
The philosophical thinking the people in this land engage in about contrahedons might surprise you.
They say they do not think that sexual pleasure is inherently bad. Indeed, most people in this land would agree that each of the two main purposes of sex—pleasure and reproduction—are “good” things. But one of these good things—reproduction, of course—is the sort of good thing that no sane person would ever want to have less of; whereas the other good thing—pleasure, of course—is the sort of good thing that only some people want at all, and which every sane person realizes must be had in moderation.
The people in this land debate whether the main “purposes” of sex are evolutionary or divine (or both). But this debate makes little difference to the actual practices of this land. (While a few thinkers in this land, typically of one particular religion, argue that deliberately thwarting the pleasure of sex is bad in itself and will lead to other bad things, these thinkers are usually just ignored, even by their co-religionists.)
As a result, the dominant public culture of this land—its education, its entertainment, its governmental and religious institutions—all take on the character that would be expected by this cluster of ideas. Advertisements for contrahedons boast of “taking the joy of sex away”; access to and state funding of contrahedons is a platitude of progressives; and so on. Of course, people still allow themselves some sexual pleasure; but usually only after having sex for a few years, and then just once or twice, and after that, never again.
Now, then. Most of the people still reading at this point are surely struck by something. It’s the weirdness of this land, and the weirdness of contrahedons. Of course, this weirdness does not automatically translate into the badness of contrahedons or the wrongness of using them. Still, contrahedons strike us as weird.
But what, precisely, is weird about them?
My initial explanation is this: the people are taking something that is so evidently good—sexual pleasure—and they are deliberately trying to prevent it from happening, while still saying that they think it is good.
This explanation does not rely on any special sense of “natural.” The weirdness of preventing the natural good of sexual pleasure is not from it being naturally good but from it being naturally good; put differently, the weirdness of stopping it comes from its goodness, not from its naturalness.
But if that is why contrahedons are weird in their land, is contraception weird in our land?
Most of us think of our own lives as so evidently good as to not need mentioning.
Most of us with children think that their own lives are so evidently good as to not need discussing it.
But those are precisely the sorts of things that we are deliberately trying to prevent from happening, while still saying that we think they are good.
Isn’t that just a little bit weird?