Is it OK to have an affair if your partner is asexual?

I am desperate to start a sexual relationship with an old acquaintance but his wife, who has no interest in sex, would be appalled if she knew. Does that matter?

I read this in the Guardian’s ‘Life & Style’ section. Every week, a reader can present a dilemma she/he is faced with in her/his ‘private’ life and ask other readers for advice.

The full story goes like this:

I recently reconnected with an old classmate from my teens, and we fell in love almost immediately. We are in our early 50s and both in long marriages to good people whom we love. Leaving our spouses is not an option [….] Despite our desire for each other and the fact that his wife and my husband may be asexual, my friend and I have not slept with each other. My husband has given me permission to have a lover, but my friend’s wife would be appalled if he asked for the same set-up. Shouldn’t someone with no interest in sex and minimal romantic attachment to their spouse (they are like roommates) allow that spouse to fulfil her or his needs for stimulation and affection (discreetly) elsewhere without calling it “cheating”? My friend and I are moral people, but life is short.

Some of the readers’ replies are:

Whose word do we have for it that his wife is asexual?…Oh, only his… What a surprise.

Of course it is ok!  Go and fuck with everyone in sight and don’t bother! 🙂

Fortunately, other replies are more sophisticated. Most people seem to acknowledge the dilemma is real. None of the proposed options are ideal. For example, those who suggest asexual married couples should never have extramarital sexual relationships at the same time acknowledge that this solution is not ideal as sexual frustration may build up and may have devastating effects on the marriage. Those who suggest the individuals who are attracted to each other (henceforth ‘sexual’ individuals) should be honest about it to their partners, and that the ‘affair’ (consented to by all parties concerned) may be justified,  realise this will make their ‘asexual’ partners unhappy, with potentially devastating effects for both marriages. Perhaps some will find it obvious that one of these alternatives is better than the other, but surely we must except that whichever option one chooses, there is some harm, or risk of harm.

Could what Savulescu and Sandberg, in their 2008 paper, have called ‘love drugs’  help resolve the dilemma?

Savulescu and Sandberg have argued that the possibility of biologically manipulating lust, attraction and attachment (for example by sniffing Oxytocin) offers an important adjunct to psychosocial interventions to help maintain or improve marriages (or similar relationships), especially given the biological limitations inherent to love. By altering our brains pharmacologically, through the use of ‘love drugs’,  individuals could synchronise and co-ordinate their drives and desires, to better work together as a couple.

Suppose the ‘asexual’ partners of the couples (let us suppose it is true they are asexual) could take ‘lust enhancing’ drugs, should they take them?

To answer this question, we must first ask what marriage means. What have these couples committed themselves to in the first place?

There is considerable disagreement about what people commit themselves to when marrying, but Iddo Landau’s explanation of the marriage promise in the journal Philosophy is one of the more plausible ones, I think.  Landau argues that:

The act of marriage should be understood as including at least two elements: (a) a statement about one’s emotional situation when marrying, and (b) a promise. The statement is that one strongly loves one’s future spouse. […] The promise is to invest work in performing certain acts that are likely to sustain the love.

Acts that are likely to sustain love, according to Landau, include supporting one’s spouse emotionally; helping him or her to cope with physical difficulties; sharing with one’s spouse a significant part of  one’s thoughts,  feelings, and hopes, sharing recreational activities; showing one’s spouse that he or she is considered special to one; and refraining from extramarital sexual affairs.

Landau writes that these acts frequently influence love to a considerable degree, and they are largely controllable. This seems plausible. But though one can choose to refrain from extramarital sex – that does not mean that the desire for it disappears.  Refraining from extramarital sex, in combination with no sex within the marriage, may cause serious frustration and may hamper the love between the sexual and the asexual spouses. A clash in sexual desires is a common cause for marital problems. Indeed, Savulescu and Sandberg refer to an American study (Cleek and Pearson 1985) which shows that in 32,1% of failed marriages sexual problems are mentioned as the reason.

So although we can control whether or not we refrain from extramarital sexual affairs, we can usually not control our sex drive, or only to a limited extent.  So here is where ‘love drugs’, more in particular ‘lust altering’ drugs may help. Of course the couple should decide together, as a couple, how they will solve the dilemma.

One option is for the asexual partner to take lust enhancing drugs (suppose they already exist). Although this option seems quite attractive at first sight, one question that arises is whether the asexual partner will be able to give valid consent to using the lust enhancing drug. After all, the circumstances in which the decision is taken are coercive. The asexual partner knows that if she/he doesn’t take the drug, the love for both partners is likely to come under increased pressure and this to such an extent that the other partner may  have a good reason to leave the asexual spouse (say, because all love-enhancing acts failed). Thus, consent may not be free, and thus not valid. This raises a related question: suppose the asexual partner takes the lust enhancing drug,  without valid consent; would that mean that when the couple has sex , it will be rape? This may sound absurd, but it would in a sense be non-consensual-sex and rape is non-consensual sex, or often defined as such (see, for example, Archard 2007).

Indeed, Savulescu and Sandberg, acknowledge that “while it is simple to appeal to autonomy and say that any use of love drugs should be voluntary on the part of both parties, the ties of a relationship limit the ability and will to disagree.” …Therefore, they suggest  that the use of these drugs should be guided by professionals who would act as a safeguard against ‘problems in the self-understanding or goals of the pair.’ One question we should keep in mind is whether professionals will be a sufficient safeguard against what may be rape. Of course, it may not be rape, but it’s worth raising the question.

Alternatively, the ‘sexual partner’ could undertake acts to sustain the love within the marriage. That partner could simply avoid the person she/he feels sexually attracted too. However, this may not always be possible, for example when it is a colleague at work. Most extramarital affairs happen at work. In their paper, Savulescu and Sandberg  discuss creating new love and fostering existing love through love drugs – pointing out some differences between the two. However, if it will be possible to take drugs that increase one’s lust, it should also be possible to take pills to decrease it (indeed, chemical castration has this effect), Should the sexual partner take such an ‘anti-lust-pill’ to sustain the marriage? Would the commitment of marriage require the partner to do so?

So here are the questions I would like to raise about taking ‘lust pills’ within marriage: (1) can the asexual partner give valid consent to taking a ‘lust pill’ and, if not, would the sex the couple engages in after the asexual partner took a ‘lust pill’ be rape, or at least, wrong in some sense? (2) Should the sexual partner take a ‘anti-lust pill’ to decrease his/her sex drive temporarily or in certain circumstances (or for longer periods)?

In the near future, such pills may be available, and the Guardian readers’ replies may be quite different. They may refer to what pills you can take to resolve the dilemma, though of course disagreement may exist about who should take what pill…

[Note: Moreover, even though we don’t have such pills now, there might be cases in which people do have means of manipulating their sexual desires. Suppose that the asexual partner, after watching porn, which he/she finds neither pleasant nor unpleasant (so neutral),  somehow feels like having sex with his/her spouse. Should the asexual partner regularly watch it to maintain the marriage? Some people may find this disturbing. But what is the difference with taking a pill that has the same effect?]

 

References:

Anonymous. (4 March 2012).  Is it OK to have an affair if your partner is asexual? The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/mar/04/ok-to-sleep-with-somebody-else.

Archard, D. (2007). The Wrong of Rape. The Philosophical Quarterly, 57(228), 374–393.

Cleek, M.G., and T.A. Pearson. 1985. Perceived causes of divorce—An  analysis  of  interrelationships.  Journal  of Marriage and the Family 47(1): 179–183.

Landau, I. (2004). An argument for marriage. Philosophy, 79(3), 475–481.

Savulescu, J., & Sandberg, A. (2008). Neuroenhancement of love and marriage: The chemicals between us. Neuroethics, 1(1), 31–44.

 

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3 Responses to Is it OK to have an affair if your partner is asexual?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    I find this a highly relevant analysis. Being together with somebody using SSRI or SNRIs that reduce libido can be deeply frustrating, and is likely not a rare occurrence. In this case demanding that the partner stop taking their antidepressants is likely unacceptable since they (hopefully) help their well-being.

    I think the situation is symmetrical: the low-libido partner might be pressured to increase their libido in order to maintain the relationship, but the high-libido partner has a similar pressure to decrease their libido. If it is problematic for the low-libido partner to freely choose to increase their libido then I think the same applies to the high-libido partner. However, they have a joint interest in a successful marriage, which suggests that they can discuss a solution that fits their preferences. Maybe meeting in the middle, maybe switching between states every three months, maybe agreeing that the risk of interactions with other medication makes it better to align with one partner's level of libido. The key point is that joint decisions are possible.

    Of course, the post presupposes the traditional Western monogamous marriage. Some cultures accept mistresses on the side, and polyamory has some eloquent proponents. I think that for somewhat extended marriage concepts these can be ethical practices. Whether these possibilities can solve the libido difference problem by enabling third-party sexual contacts while not causing too much logistical or emotional difficulty is however likely a highly individual matter. Given the complexity of mere dyad relationships I suspect the overhead can be large.

  • J says:

    >can the asexual partner give valid consent to taking a ‘lust pill’

    Alcohol functions as something of a "lust pill" for me. For a while my partner and I had disagreements about whether it was okay for us to have sex after I'd had any amount of alcohol, since he had been taught that alcohol in any quantity rendered a person unable to consent. I can see this being valid if alcohol caused me to want things I did not usually *want* to want, or to have sex in a way I would normally consider foolish (e.g. with a person I would consider regrettable the next morning, or in a way that exposed me to disease or pregnancy). But since in my usual state I *want* to desire sex with my partner and don't desire it, to take a substance that increases my desire is just to bring my state into accordance with my wishes.

    I would not approve of slipping someone a "lust pill" without their knowledge, or to convincing someone to take one if they did not want to feel lust. But for people who would like to experience more lust than they usually do, I see nothing wrong with taking a substance to help that happen.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I'm wondering to what extent this kind of issue is even a suitable subject for ethical discussion. Making it such seems to presuppose that there is some kind of governing (ethical) principle that should govern interactions within couples, and while this presupposition seems reasonable (subject to avoiding making moral realisms out of them), to fit my own utilitarian stance on ethics such principle would have to be rather general and not specifically related to sex or drugs. The kind of principles would involve how we deal with deep-seated desires and emotions (such as jealousy), and what is our attitude towards deceipt vs honesty.

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