Sandra Fluke’s testimony in favor of a mandate for contraceptive coverage by private universities and institutions—including those with moral opposition to such coverage—has sparked a national controversy. As arguments from across the ideological spectrum clash, Rush Limbaugh offered the most controversial criticism, labeling Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for expecting, in effect, that her sexual endeavors be subsidized.
Instead of critiquing her expectation that sexual endeavors be subsidized, some conservatives have repudiated her expectation that sexual endeavors be subsidized. Conservative pundit Matt Barber, for instance, recently referred to Fluke’s “fornication” as “sexually immoral,” and to her view of sex as “cheap and casual.” While then presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently dismissed Limbaugh’s comments as “absurd,” his own views on sex lend undue credence to Limbaugh. In a 2011 interview, Santorum offered the following explanation for his opposition to contraception:
[Sexual relationships] are supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal and unitive but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it, and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.
Conservatives who pursue this line of criticism are focusing on the wrong issue. In fact, the kind of sexual relationship that Santorum describes is far from a “perfect sexual union.”
The primary purpose of sex is not procreation—sex is an end in itself. Consider the alternative, the idea that sex is merely a means to the end of procreation. Under the guise of spiritual piety, religious conservatives who propose this idea actually encourage a debased view of sex. It is one that reduces people to the status of mere animals, treating them simply as necessary ingredients in the reproductive process. Animals are slaves to their instincts and to their environment. Human beings are distinctive in their capacity to use reason to alter their environment to fit their own purposes. We have the capacity to choose whether we intend to reproduce and to decide which criteria we use to evaluate potential partners. We are not mere animals, and it’s absurd to treat our sex lives as if we were.
Only a faith-based morality could hold that sex is good for procreation alone, and never for pleasure. But such a view of sex has no basis in reality. Should we use faith to dictate how we interact with the other sex? Timothy 2:12 proclaims: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence.” Should a woman, then, subordinate herself in the pursuit of knowledge to the authority of men, in order to follow the word of the Bible? In regard to sex, should a man limit his sexual experiences to procreative intent? Nothing in reality tells us he should.
Two partners will typically choose to have sex to celebrate their love or affection. The pleasure they derive from this is the primary purpose of sex. It is an expression of one’s pursuit of happiness, a cherished ideal in American culture. Removing the procreative component of sex through the use of contraception does not make it any less special. In fact, contraception allows two individuals to express their love for one another without risking any unintended consequence of their passion—further securing their pursuit of happiness. Couples are thus able to focus solely on the pleasure of the sex itself. What, Mr. Santorum, is wrong with pleasure—or with the pursuit of happiness?
Conservatives who portray themselves as champions of limited government and individual liberty but who attack sex on religious grounds as “fornication” forget that individual liberty is only valuable as a necessary condition for the pursuit of happiness. Supporters of subsidized contraception are making an important moral error, but it isn’t the claim that more sex is good. Rather, it concerns the entitlement mentality—the collectivist welfare mindset of those like Fluke who expect from others what they cannot provide for themselves. To distract from this by condemning sex not only misses the point, but does so in a dangerous way.
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