Against the Test Drive Approach to Spousal Love

Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth, wrote about why everyone should have premarital sex on Feministing yesterday.

Let’s face it – if you’re going to commit yourself to someone for (presumably) the rest of your life, it’s probably best if you know that you’re sexually compatible. I don’t think this is particularly radical thing to say; in fact, it seems quite logical to me. But somehow, if you suggest that pre-marital sex is a good and maybe even necessary thing (especially if you say those things while being a feminist) you are an evil, evil whoremaker.

Do I think that people can have perfectly wonderful satisfying relationships without having had sex before making a commitment? Sure, I’m positive that happens often. But considering what a huge role sexuality plays in our lives and relationships…well, I’d rather be super duper positive.

What a tragically narrow vision of sexuality! Sexuality is reduced to an action. It’s not just Valenti. Films become rated R: “contains sexuality.” The example that will always stick out in my mind is Nick Carter asking in Backstreet’s Back, “am I sexual?” (Yes, Nick, you are a sexual being.) As wonderful as sex (the act) is, sex (-uality) is so much more than that. It’s especially ironic considering Valenti is trying to reclaim a more nuanced vision of sexuality from “the virgin/whore binary,” yet her nuanced vision remains so narrow. Sexuality isn’t just having sex. It’s about being created male and female, about our entire being, not just our genitals.

More importantly, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the “test-drive” approach to love. Yes, of course you want to get to know your partner before you make a longterm commitment, but suggesting that means you ought to take their body for a test drive is a bad, bad way to approach that commitment.

It sets up the spousal model all wrong.

I’ve come to refer to this as the “pleasure and duty” ethic. If people consent mutually to the use of their bodies for pleasure, what’s the problem? Look at the model: Pleasure is the end goal, and consenting to the “use” of your body parts is the means of attaining it. Fluffy feelings of bonding might be a nice side-effect. Orgasm is the intent. The other person becomes a means of achieving your orgasm, and you become a means of theirs. This is objectification by definition, even if it’s mutual and consenting. On top that, pleasure is the metric of success. That is, a successful sex act is one that brings about pleasure. The act of sex becomes, at least in part, an economic transaction where you trade access to your body in exchange for pleasure. And that’s not always going to be a fair trade — and you may evaluate the quality and the fairness of the deal. After all, we test drive cars. And we also sell and replace them when they no longer serve their purpose.

I have a crazy idea: What if the goal of sex is self-giving rather than pleasure? What if the idea was to come into ultimate union with another human being, and the means of attaining that was complete and total self-giving and affirmation of the other as other? I have a feeling that the pleasure factors in as a side-effect, without “driving” the entire experience.

I don’t feel the need to take my future spouse for a test drive. I’m not marrying a car.

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