ss Dr. Ellen Kenner The Rational Basis of Happiness, The Rational Basis of Sex

The Rational Basis of Sex

"The RATIONAL Basis" is a registered trademark of Dr. Ellen Kenner

From Dr. Kenner's original interview by the University of Totonto Objectivist Club and published in part by that club's newspaper The New Intellectual.

  1. What is sex?
  2. What are some common views about sex? What do most people think about it?
  3. One view of sex is that it is just an animal capacity. Is it just a reproductive function? Is it just "physical" or "chemical"? Or do human beings have a potential for something more?
  4. What is psychological visibility and how does it relate to sexual desire?
  5. What explains people's sexual preferences in partners? Do similarities attract? Do opposites attract?
  6. What role do the differences between the sexes play in sex?
  7. What is the connection between love and sex?
  8. What do you think about masturbation? The religious view of it would be that it's some kind of "self abuse". But if sex is not a base or disgusting activity, does masturbation have a proper role in one's sex life?
  9. Do love and sex involve compromise, sacrifice or selflessness? What happens to people's sex lives when they hold this view?
  10. What do people's sexual choices reveal about what they think of `themselves'?
  11. What advice would you give to a college student seeking a romantic relationship?
  12. What advice would you give regarding sex?

1-What is sex?
I can picture asking an adolescent boy this question and he'd say "You don't know…?!" We all know what sex is on the general level. It's a capacity and action that is an emotional response to someone we find appealing, physically and mentally. Sometimes we don't know the person (e.g., a Victoria's Secret model, Pierce Brosnen) but we project onto that person our ideal fantasy person and we feel sexually aroused. Even in fantasies, sex is tied to what a person values. What actions are considered sex? You can define sex more narrowly as limited to intercourse but that would leave room for devious politicians to claim innocence. You could explain sex technically as the stages one goes through (excitement, plateau, orgasm and recovery) but that is typically only of interest if you're having trouble in one of these stages. Sexual expression varies from a gentle caress, a fiery kiss, to oral sex or intercourse.

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2-What are some common views about sex? What do most people think about it?
I think most people start out loving sex from their first discovery of their capacity to experience such an intensely good feeling either while fantasizing or when first feeling aroused with a potential partner.

For an example of a common view of sex that is seriously damaging, the religious is one of the worst. I was never raised religious, but in my practice I have seen the damage done by religious doctrine; it usually is a deliberate assault on a person's sexual capacity. First there is the unearned guilt in which children are taught, that touching their private parts is somehow dirty. Then there are sex and reproductive myths. Follow that up with leaders who are supposedly virtuous by being sex-free. You can see how they destroy a person by making one feel as though one's body is low and dirty and one's sexless mind is lofty. They have what's called a mind-body split. The consequence of their policies results in ugly perversions. In my state alone we've had multiple cases of pedophilic religious leaders.  Or look at the "good" religious mothers with 8-10 children, who are tearing their hair out. Most faiths see abortion, an option in our society, as murder. You are supposed to have sex only for procreation. Pleasure, they try to convince their worshipers, is not a value. Religion has mutilated romantic sex for millions.

Another common view, that can happen with a religious or secular viewpoint, is that sex is a duty, something that you have to do to make someone else happy. That's a deadly formula. Sex is fundamentally a self-valuing, selfish act. If you don't allow yourself to relax, enjoy and feel erotic sensations, but exclusively focus on pleasing someone else, then you will be watching the clock till the dastardly deed is over, as unfortunately many long-term married woman do.

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3-One view of sex is that it is just an animal capacity. Is it just a reproductive function? Is it just "physical" or "chemical"? Or do human beings have a potential for something more?
Of course they have the potential for something more. Any individual can perform a simple thought experiment. Think of the most repulsive person you know – I mean corrupt, ugly, smelly – and imagine having sex with this partner. Nauseating! Rabbits might be indiscriminate, but to us, sex is more than just a physical action.

Maybe you mean by "is it just physical" that it is physical attraction only. A guy sees a voluptuous woman in a bikini and becomes immediately aroused. If you're a guy, try another thought experiment. Imagine having sex with this woman. I suspect you imagined that she had character traits that you value. If you met her in real life and discover that she's a child abuser and she stole your wallet, notice what happens to your arousal. Even a lovely body can't cover up a lousy character. You mention chemical response. There are street drugs that mimic an orgasm. If you were told that you could become a crack addict for life, would you choose that instead of finding a romantic partner? Something is still missing. Crack doesn't carry on a stimulating conversation or look sexy in a bathing suit.

A healthy sexual response involves two positive evaluations: you admire your partner and you yourself feel worthy of that partner (you admire yourself). When that admiration is intense and mutual, romantic love flourishes.

You can probably think of a range of examples of sexual attraction that violate the above description. For example, there are womanizers who try to "conquer" as many women as possible, men (or women) who use sex as a method of controlling another person, rapists, masochists, individuals with fetishes, casual sex and so on. We are certainly capable of inferior, subhuman varieties of achieving orgasm, but that doesn't rise to what is our actual potential: sex as a response to another person's admirable character and a celebration of similar qualities in yourself.

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4-What is psychological visibility and how does it relate to sexual desire?
Every person holds fundamental ideas about himself. Take Tom who thinks "It's important to make healthy, honest choices in my life. I want to feel proud of the way I'm leading my life." He values, not only the interesting goals he sets in life (e.g., adventures, career path, hobbies) but his own choice-making ability, his self-made character; he values himself. He feels admirable and desirable (as opposed to the con-artist or the person of low self-esteem). For Tom, it would be lonely going through life without friends or without a special woman who recognizes and values his virtues. If he were living among nagging, female con-artists, he would feel psychologically invisible. They would be unable and unwilling to admire the best in him -- they may despise him for those very traits. But if Tom meets Julie and discovers that, not only is she attractive and she has similar interests (e.g., skiing, hiking, dancing) but she shares the same virtues (e.g., honesty, thinking independently), then he will sexually desire her. Tom's sexual desire stems from an evaluation of himself (as worthy) and of Julie (as an embodiment of his highest values in a woman). It's a desire for more than a friendship – to feel a mental and physical bond. Julie's admiration of his good qualities gives him an opportunity to view himself in an accurate, psychological mirror; this is psychological visibility. Her love and sexual desire are a recognition and a response to his (and her own) actual virtues. They both feel visible on psychological level – they profoundly admire each others virtues.

Contrast this with an unhealthy sexual desire which comes from a different source. If a man has made himself into a con-artist, then he may desire a woman of good character to con himself. He may want her to help him fake that he is better than he is. His erotic feelings may translate into "let's see if I can make her worship me and see how great I am." He has to engage in double delusion -- deluding her about his true nature and deluding himself – faking a self-esteem he has not earned. He's dishonest and manipulative; he has no good virtues to celebrate. In his case, "sexual desire" is the desire to fake to himself and to his partner that he is better than he is. It does not stem from an accurate evaluation of his character. He's trying to rig the psychological mirror to make himself look better than he is.

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5-What explains people's sexual preferences in partners? Do similarities attract? Do opposites attract?
To answer these questions, ask yourself who you're attracted to and who do you find repulsive. I dated a lot when I was in college. I was attracted to intelligent, decent looking men who were good listeners, men I could look up to and felt comfortable around, men who were not embarrassed about sex. I was attracted to men who admired in me what I admired in myself. I was not attracted to athletes involved in spectator sports, I was repulsed by con artists or those on drugs.

So in one sense, I was looking for similarities: intelligence, a decent looking chap, a good listener, a romantic person and, very importantly, a rational atheist. I was repulsed by anyone who bought into any sort of irrationality.

In another sense, I definitely wanted a partner who had what I lacked. I was sometimes shy. I wanted my partner to be someone who was confident so that I could learn from him. I was disproportionately work-focused. I wanted someone who was work-focused, yes, but able to relax more so that I could learn to unwind. In that sense I wanted an "opposite," but in a specific context. I wanted someone who had what I lacked character-wise, traits which I admired and wanted to achieve for myself. Notice that opposites on other fronts were repulsive to me (e.g., a drug user or a religious fanatic); those traits were very unsexy and unromantic, irrational.

Why did I throw in my dig about not liking men involved in spectator sports? I did it to illustrate that your experiences from your own family are not irrelevant in terms of your personal selection factors. My dad was obsessed with the damn (not Yankees) but the damn losing Red Sox. I spent much of my childhood watching his mood deteriorate because of a strike-out or some such nonsense. I vowed that I would never subject myself to that torture when married and a finding a partner who could care less about sports was important in my selection process. In fairness to dad, I wanted to find a partner who had his level of ambition, his sense of adventure and his light-hearted sense of humor. Those too became selection factors.

You may find some similar dynamics in your selection process (e.g., I want a woman who never nags me – my mother drove me nuts; I want a woman who cooks as well as mom).

Regarding the sexual act, there's a wide range of sensual activities. You want to match on that dimension, or be open to experimenting. If you are repulsed by oral sex and your potential partner loves it, that might be a factor that is non-negotiable and it could spell the end of this relationship, even though you enjoy each other in other capacities. If a woman was raped in childhood, she may hate intercourse throughout her lifetime; that may absolutely rule her out as a partner if you love intercourse.

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6-What role do the differences between the sexes play in sex?
Ask a gay or lesbian couple and you will get a different response from asking a "helplessly heterosexual" man or woman. This demonstrates that sexual attraction involves a complex set of factors such as your sexual history (maybe you had a close same-sex companion as a young child and you experimented and enjoyed your budding sexuality with this person), your experiences with the opposite sex in general (maybe the men you dated were always forceful), and other factors.

In the normal course of events, men get highly aroused by the sight, thought or image of their ideal woman. Woman, likewise get aroused by the opposite sex. Both fantasize about giving themselves and this ideal partner pleasure. The biological and physical differences are obvious here, but as illustrated with gay couples, male/female attraction can be overridden by your values.

The differences in physique, i.e., male, female, are intriguing, an adventure. The masculinity of the man can be very sexy as can be the femininity of the woman. You don't have to be a size 6 woman to feel sexy and appealing to a man. A woman at our dance studio is easily a size 16, yet she sways her hips, smiles confidently, wears short skirts and heels and does one hot mambo with her male partners.

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7-What is the connection between love and sex?
Pathetically sometimes there is none, as in the case of the macho man who womanizes and keeps tabs of the number of woman he's "laid." However in romantic love, love and sex are intimately connected. Love is your response 1) to what you value most in yourself and 2) to your awareness that your partner also embodies these same high values. Romantic love is a mutual expression of your own self-esteem and the highest esteem of your partner.

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8-What do you think about masturbation? The religious view of it would be that it's some kind of "self abuse". But if sex is not a base or disgusting activity, does masturbation have a proper role in one's sex life?
Masturbation is healthy and a great way to learn what movements or fantasies give you pleasure. The religious view is so highly irrational that it can be easily dismissed. To tell a person that what gives him (or her) intense pleasure naturally, is "self-abuse" is a contradiction, meant to destroy a person's self-confidence and self-value. It's just another weapon religious individuals use to induce unearned guilt. They use it to destroy an individual's confidence so that this individual turns to the "pious," sexless, religious leaders and becomes selfless putty in their hands. Another outcome of the assault on self-pleasuring is that a person goes underground. He or she secretly allows him or herself to enjoy self-pleasuring, while publicly denouncing it. They hide it as a shameful, guilty secret – the outcome is that they know they are being hypocritical. Religious prohibitions against self-pleasure are a form of abuse and torture.

In an unusual children's book, What's Happening To Me, Peter Mayle includes two pages on masturbation. The author lets children know that it is healthy and feels terrific. They add "You'll hear all kinds of strange stories about masturbation: that it makes you go blind, it makes you go crazy, or even that it makes hair grow on the palms of your hands. It does none of these. It's a perfectly healthy and normal function…Don't let anyone try to make you feel guilty about it."

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9-Do love and sex involve compromise, sacrifice or selflessness? What happens to people's sex lives when they hold this view?
Yes, in the healthiest meaning of love and sex, they absolutely involve compromise, but not sacrifice or selflessness. Sacrifice indicates that you are being dishonest with yourself and with your partner. Such dishonesty only breeds resentment. For example, you tell your partner that it's fine for him to choose a particular career even though it means that you shift your career goals, but you didn't mean it when you said that it was okay. You were sacrificing. At some point, your built up resentment will break through the floodgates. "After all I sacrificed for you…the least you could do is…" Sacrifice, the giving up higher values for lesser values or non-values, breeds dishonesty and resentment.

Selflessness is a recipe for a lousy relationship. You often hear one partner say, "I want nothing for myself…all I want to do is to make you happy." If the partner responds "I too am selfless and want nothing for myself. I just want to please you." You can see how humorous this is. Neither can please the other because the other doesn't want "anything for myself" - the other professes that he doesn't want to be pleased – that's too selfish.

Some people use the term selfless in contrast to the "me only" type of beast – the controlling person who doesn't want a mutual relationship in which both partners work within a rational framework to both get their needs met, with open, non-sacrificing compromises when conflicts arise. The me-only person, by contrast, wants a slave as a partner. I call such partners "bulldozers." They demand that their needs be met apart from any concern for their partners. If the partner doesn't comply, they launch a character assault on him or her. Neither the selfless person, nor the me-only person make good partners. Only the self-valuing person is ready for healthy romance.

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10-What do people's sexual choices reveal about what they think of `themselves'?
Your sexual choice reveals a lot about you.

Some people shoot lower than themselves. For example, a guy may feel that he's only able to hold a "dumb broad" he picks up at a bar. He knows he can control her and not lose her. What's does his choice reveal about him? His view of himself, his view of woman, his view of relationships and his view of his chances in the world would not show much self-esteem or be optimistic. Dumbness in a woman becomes an important selection factor for him.

Some people shoot higher then themselves. They want someone who can take care of them. They fall into a dependent relationship. If a woman says, "I married my husband because he had a lot of money and I knew I'd be taken care of and be able to have a country club life style." What does her choice reveal about her? She doesn't think she could live independently or become successful on her own. She feels she needs to be dependent upon a man. Money becomes an important selection factor in her choice for a partner.

Some people shoot at what I call "eye level." They try to find a partner who is similar to themselves in terms of self-esteem and their view of the world. If you choose a partner with traits that are similar to your own, e.g., matching on levels of ambition, intellectual curiosity, ability to communicate openly and effectively, then your choice is a tribute to yourself, demonstrating your self-esteem. You value yourself enough that you look for a match, not someone to look up to you, nor someone that you have to peer down at. Level of self-esteem and healthy character traits become important selection factors.

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11-What advice would you give to a college student seeking a romantic relationship?
Most importantly, value yourself. Make yourself into a person you admire and whose company you enjoy. Some people mope around saying "I need a guy (or woman) to make my life interesting; I'm bored with myself." The primary problem here is not the lack of a partner, but a boring person.

If you have achieved high self-esteem, if you value yourself, then rejections won't be as difficult, which will give you the flexibility to date different individuals without feeling depressed after each "failure." If you value yourself, you will spend the time and energy needed to find a romantic partner. Like any important value, sitting home chomping on popcorn in front of the tube is less likely to bring you success then actively searching for a partner. If you value yourself, you won't accept someone with an inferior character. You will also be motivated to learn the skills to communicate well with partners, to ask the difficult questions (e.g., regarding past sexual history), and to find mutual activities to enjoy together.

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12-What advice would you give regarding sex?
Know what pleases you sexually and why. Listen carefully so that you learn what pleases your partner. Don't try to impose activities on your partner that he or she doesn't like. Experimentation is fine as long as it is mutually agreed upon. If you don't like something, understand why and don't force yourself to repeat it. At all costs, enjoy your own sensuality during sex and avoid a duty approach to it.

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