Life Watch: Tennis Anyone, or Sex?

In Mel Brooks’s film History of the World, Part I, the king of France, before the Revolution, is walking on his estate, musket in hand, engaged in the diversion of skeet-shooting. But with a twist: When he says, “pull,” a lever is pulled, and the catapult hurls into the air not a clay pigeon… but a peasant. The sport of kings.

Once again, the comedians do the work of the philosophers: For the joke to work, Mel Brooks had to count on an understanding planted deep in his audience.

There was a moral point to be grasped, and yet he had to assume that it would be grasped at once by people of all descriptions in a mass audience. Whether they were philosophers or plumbers, chiropractors or White Sox fans, he had to assume that they would grasp the point quickly, with a kind of natural understanding: There was something laughably out of scale, something wildly inappropriate, in regarding human life as something to be discarded, or destroyed, as a part of someone’s sport or recreation.

The writers of the comedy had to put in place then every premise that would establish what was quite as laughable—quite as open to instant derision—in this scene: A young man explains to his girl friend that “there is this new kind of sport, and it works in this way. I spill my seed in you, and it’s very exciting—there is nothing like it—it’s better, far better, than tennis or golf—and not to worry: If anything happens, if we should have an ‘accident,’ we can get rid of ‘it.'”

Plainly, the scene would not elicit the same instant laughter, and it cannot be because the audience does not understand the moral premises of the story. The response to the Mel Brooks film, the laugh elicited by the movie, stands as a confirmation that the audiences have indeed absorbed the premises that are necessary to both jokes. The difference in reactions is simply a measure of the fact that people have not made the connection between the moral axioms built into their understanding and the conventions they have come to regard now as familiar, routine—and in becoming familiar and routine, legitimate.

My own students at Amherst have all come into the world after Roe v. Wade. They have grown up at the same time that the premises of that decision have settled into the assumptions and habits of our people. They are among the brightest of their generation, and yet even the most thoughtful of them have absorbed, in their understanding of sex, the assumptions and the licenses that have come along with Roe v. Wade. Youngsters in the 1950s could have been quite as thoughtless when it came to sex, but their society cast up more barriers and inhibitions. And the legal restraints on abortion cast up a constant reminder of just what was so portentous about sex. The creation of new life was a momentous thing, and when youngsters “experimenting” with new liberties suddenly found themselves producing something astounding, they knew that the event marked the end of their childhood. It went without saying of course that couples would not be free to remedy their “problem” through the expedient of destroying the new life they had brought into being.

But that “remedy” is now available as a standard procedure, without the sense that there is anything especially remarkable about it. And as that legal barrier has come down, so too have the set of inhibitions and warnings that stood, at least, as markers along the path. My students argue then with a certain serenity that sex may be pursued for intimacy. And it is “serious,” they insist, even though it is detached from any commitment to the woman—and even though it rejects, from the beginning, any openness to the child who may be created in this encounter.

How then is it “serious”? How does it differ from tennis or golf as pastimes? As one of my students earnestly put it, the woman is “special” for the young man; he is “committed” to her in the sense that he is involved in no intimate relation of this kind with anyone else. Yet, there are different excellences and different kinds of exclusivity. Fred may find that no one puts him on his mettle as a chess player as much as Ralph, and no one keeps him at the same pitch in tennis as much as Frank. It might be said that he is utterly and exclusively “committed” to chess every Tuesday night with Ralph, and to tennis every Friday with Frank. And of course he happens to feel committed, with the same intensity, to his girlfriend, Doris. Now, in what way does the commitment to Doris stand on a higher plane than his commitment to Ralph and Frank?

The difference would be marked only in the way that sex must be different from tennis or chess or anything else: something about it insists that this coupling of the bodies take place only in a relation that is enveloped with love and marked by a “commitment” in the most literal sense. And by that we would mean a promise made binding through the law. It is a hard “commitment” precisely because the partners forgo their freedom to be quit of this relation whenever it may suit their interest or their pleasure.

The presence of a commitment in that demanding sense draws us back to the moral dimensions of love: We would not choose a partner because her coloring went with the new drapes. Nor would we turn her in for another model when we decided to redecorate the house. So much for the claim that sex and marriage involve the most subjective, aesthetic “feelings,” sentiments quite detached from anything resembling a moral judgment. When we love, we are presumably drawn to something in our partner that is enduringly good, something that draws our lasting respect; something that will not wither as age may alter our looks.

Nevertheless, we still hear the voices proclaiming the doctrine of “plain sex”: They concede that sex would be enhanced if it were enveloped by love and commitment, but so would everything else, including your mother’s tuna casserole. They insist, however, that sex can be pursued for its own pleasure, with a sense of its own “aesthetic,” unencumbered by moral freight. And yet, in countless ways, the partisans of “plain sex” keep giving away the game, for they keep insisting, on different occasions, that sex must be taken seriously. The question of “date rape” has troubled the campuses in recent years, and yet that problem could be entirely dissolved if we accepted the premises of plain sex. For sex would truly be no different then from tennis or gin rummy, and so the woman who complains of date rape may be likened to the person who registers this complaint: “I became flown with wine, and in that condition, you induced me to stay up all night playing squash. To make matters worse, you kept me up the next night playing chess and listening to Mozart.”

In one of the most suggestive lines in the Politics, Aristotle remarked that the polity was “prior” to the family in the order of nature. Aristotle knew fully well that those primates who conjugated verbs were quite capable also of having sex in the woods, even when civil order broke down, or the laws were nowhere to be seen. What he meant rather was that the very notion of the “family” would always be affected by the moral understandings that pervaded our society and found expression in “the laws.” ‘What, after all, would constitute a marriage? It is a union of two people, or more than two? A man and a woman, or two people of the same sex? Could we have a marriage between a man and his natural daughter, or between an adult and a child? Would we need then an “age of consent”? Would we be moved, perhaps by “speciesism,” to rule out alliances across the species? I’m told that a man showed up recently in Colorado seeking a marriage license for himself and his horse. And the people behind the counter, not knowing what else to say—and not recalling any longer how the law speaks in a moral voice—could at least appeal to part of the laws: the horse, they pointed out, was not yet eighteen.

After we have traced matters back, we discover that not even the most advanced libertarians would dispense with the laws on marriage. Even when marriages break down, it matters profoundly that they were constituted in the first place in a framework of lawfulness. The wreckage of a marriage will produce lasting hurts, but in a framework of law, children may at least know just who bears the responsibility for them.

P. G. Wodehouse, even in his most whimsical moments, never had Bertie Wooster wander into a drawing room, in his state of distraction, and announce, “We need a fourth for bridge or was it sex?” The wholesome tie between the past and the present is that this line would still be a joke.

  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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