Sexual Responsibility and Culpability

Sexual Responsibility and Culpability September 21, 2011

Looking through the comments thread for “Soup Nazi Approach to Sex” it looks like there were two major subtypes of disagreement with my post. Many commenters wanted to know why men should bear responsibility for a pregnancy when women can make unilateral decisions about whether to bring a child to term. They accused me of enforcing a sexist double standard. I’ll try and get to that topic tomorrow.What I want to address today is the way we conceive of responsibility and culpability for both genders. I saw a lot of comments along these lines:

  • “For some reason this reminds me a little of conservative arguments about health insurance: “Well, you should have thought of the risks beforehand!” Yes, you should have, but assume that you didn’t. What then?” [1]
  • “This sounds exactly like the “pro-life” response to women who have abortions. Didn’t want a baby? You shouldn’t have had sex. So this argument is ok to use for men, but not women?
    …Anyway, I think the question is a lot more complicated than you want it to be, and your answer makes you sound like a pro-lifer, except you are placing the burden of not having sex on men instead of women.” [2]
  • “As has been pointed out before, the pro-life arguments against women’s reproductive rights (why don’t you just keep your legs closed?) are exactly the same ones that some women on this thread are using against the men. Hopefully pointing this out will make it easier to see what is wrong with that argument.
    Leah, you have to realize that you are, in fact, making the exact argument pro-lifers make for why abortion should be illegal: if you don’t want the responsibility of a kid (or the burden of a pregnancy) then don’t have sex. The reasons that’s a wrongheaded statement to make to a woman are the same as those why it’s wrong to say to a man.” [3]

Let’s take this out of the realm of pregnancy for a second (to avoid some of the abortion side-arguments) and reframe the discussion in terms of STIs. Both people in a relationship can take action to lower their risk of contracting a venereal disease (screening partners, using condoms, getting vaccinated), but something can still go wrong. (Especially when a significant proportion of people who think they’re using condoms correctly are wrong).

Someone can contract a disease, even when they and their partner were doing due diligence, because someone has to get hit with the nasty end of the probability stick. So, in that instance, there’s not really any culpability or blame. Not any more so than if you tripped and skinned your knee. However, even though neither partner is at fault, the infection will carry with it a new burden of responsibility.

Best case scenario, the infected partner now has a responsibility to him/herself to go to a doctor and get treated with a short course of antibiotics to clear the problems up completely. Worst case scenario, in the case of HIV/AIDS, the person now has a chronic disease that they will be responsible for managing for the rest of his/her life. Any chronic infection also entails a new responsibility to inform and protect future partners. None of these new responsibilities have anything to do with desert, they exist regardless of the action that brought someone to this point.

If someone wanted to be sexually active but was also unwilling to take even the smallest chance s/he might contract an STI, I wouldn’t jump straight to “No sex for you!” (and I’d probably want to have a longer conversation about estimating risk). The person who would provoke my Soup Nazi response would be someone who said, “If I get an STI, I won’t get treated. It’s not my fault I was infected, so why should my life change?” You can’t opt-out of that responsibility. It has nothing to do with culpability, it’s just playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

Of course, almost no one would make the ‘not-my-fault’ claim to avoid medical treatment and the duty to disclose to new partners. Most of us have no qualms about accepting treatment for disease, so we’re able to see it as just the next logical step, not an unfairly burdensome responsibility. The trouble is, plenty of people who have sex are profoundly uncomfortable with their three options if conception occurs: an abortion, an orphan, a child you have to parent. But these are the only options on the table, and it’s your responsibility to pick one.

You can have sex and hope that you never have the bad luck to need to make the choice, but, when push comes to shove, those are the options in front of you. If you know you aren’t comfortable with any of these three options—you couldn’t handle that responsibility—then you’re back in the “No sex for you!” group, and, given that the range of options are obvious, I do assign culpability for choosing to place yourself in that situation. If you’re a guy and some of those options are intolerable to you, you have a responsibility to not have sex with women who will choose them or women who you don’t know well enough to estimate their choice.

I’m a paternalist when it comes to government, so I’m very interested in making all of these choices less frightening and easier to bear (covering abortion in standard health insurance, better disclosure of adoption options during counseling, a heckuva lot more child care subsidies, maternity and paternity leave, etc). It’s not an individual’s fault that one of the three options is prohibitively difficult due to outside circumstances. But you have to choose based on the options you have, and, if none of them are tenable, “No sex for you!”

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  • Patrick

    This is not a well thought out post."But you have to choose based on the options you have, and, if none of them are tenable, "No sex for you!""The choices available are created by law. People are asking why the law should not create a different set of choices.Imagine if we had a legal regime where the default assumption in the case of unplanned pregnancy was that each party should bear an equal share of the cost of abortion. In this regime, if a woman refused to have an abortion, it would be considered her decision to carry the pregnancy to term, and her obligation to take full financial responsibility for that choice.Under that hypothetical legal regime, someone could easily write almost exactly the same post you just wrote, directed at people who would like to switch to the real world status quo legal regime.You'd probably recognize this quickly in a different context- if someone asked why people should go to jail for smoking marijuana, you'd recognize as inadequate the response, "Smoking pot has consequences, and going to jail is one of them." Going to jail isn't an inherent part of smoking pot, its something that that the government does, and the question was about whether the government ought to continue doing it. Likewise, bearing financial responsibility for a child doesn't happen due to the laws of physics or due to some kind of basic state of nature. Its something the government imposes to varying degrees in varying conditions for varying reasons. Either these reasons are adequate, or they are not.Personally, I think that, contingently and based on present day society, they're adequate. But they need to be defended on the merits. They can't self-justify.

  • Anonymous

    "The trouble is, plenty of people who have sex are profoundly uncomfortable with their three options if conception occurs: an abortion, an orphan, a child you have to parent. But these are the only options on the table, and it’s your responsibility to pick one." You're only addressing women with this statement aren't you? I look forward to tomorrows post.

  • If suicide and abortion are on the table, then why not infanticide?As Patrick implies above, this post seems to be focused on stating the status quo rather than justifying it.

  • Hibernia86

    Yes if you choose to have sex, you have to take responsibility for the worst case scenario. But we should make sure that each gender has as many options for solving the problem as we can reasonably allow. We shouldn't artificially limit them through the law from a solution that would otherwise be available. If you say "If a woman is not ready to take care of a child she shouldn't have to, but if a man is not ready to take care of a child, then that is just too bad." then that is enforcing a basic gender inequality that shouldn't exist. Both genders get hit heavily by child care in a two parent household so both genders should have a choice in whether they are ready to take up that responsibility or not. In today's society you can have sex AND control your reproduction. We shouldn't force people to choose between the two when they don't have to.

  • Joe

    You tell me if this defendant had been a man how do you think things would have went?

  • anon atheist

    What you are saying is akin to people getting into a car. You could be killed or be permanently bound to a wheel chair. Yet most people don't think about these consequences.So no driving for you or is sex somethings special? Are we talking about a more insignificant risk here?

  • Ok, let me jump in with a clarification: In this post and the last, I'm talking about an ethical and prudent way to approach sex in the world we live in. I'm not designing a utopia or showing you how to get there. Given the options that exist (abortion, orphan, child-to-raise), I think women shouldn't have sex if they're not ok with one of those options and men shouldn't have sex unless they're confident they're comfortable with the one their partner is going to pick.Discussing whether there should be more options than these three or whether one of them should be taken out of play for everyone is a different question.

  • @anon atheist: I am not saying that the risk of pregnancy is a high enough or serious enough risk that it would kibosh sex. What I am saying is that you should not have sex if you see no option you could take (abortion, orphan, child-to-raise) in the event you became pregnant. That's not being risk-averse, that's choosing to put yourself in a position where you believe you have no options.

  • Anonymous

    Yes LeahBut the initial question put to pro-choisers wasn't about risk assessment. It was about wether or not men had equal rights when a pregnancy does happen. If not how is this justified? And if not how can you still claim to be an equal rights advocate? Can it be said that a man that has his wages garnished to provide for a child he didn't even know was conceived is in a position of slavery? Why is it that men are forced to accept abortion, orphan, and parenthood not as options but as consequences? Im sorry you will address some of this in your post tomorrow.

  • Anonymous

    ment to say "sure"

  • anon atheist

    @ LeahAll I wanted to say is that people regularly do thinghs without considering the negative consequences. Sex is nothing special in this regard

  • "three options if conception occurs: an abortion, an orphan, a child you have to parent. […] If you’re a guy and some of those options are intolerable to you, you have a responsibility to not have sex with women who will choose them or women who you don’t know well enough to estimate their choice."Hold on there, beyond the choice on abortion the mother also gets to make a unilateral decision on adoption? At least in Germany that is not the official rule, though the European Court for Human Rights recently smacked us down for a case where it was handled that way in practice. And I don't know what the American rule is.But anyway I'm more interested in what the law should be. And there I can see a pro-life justification for such a rule: It diminishes the pressure to choose abortion. But if you don't think abortion a moral problem, after birth the situation is clearly symmetrical, isn't it?

  • "Can it be said that a man that has his wages garnished to provide for a child he didn't even know was conceived is in a position of slavery?"…No. No, it can't. Slavery is being forced to work for no usable compensation. Losing some money every week can be argued against, but it is not in the slightest comparable to slavery.Personally, I understand your point, but I think it's a little short-sighted. It reminds me, in a distant way, of "we can't have sex ed because then we're condoning sex." If we could somehow make this a widespread accepted social norm, I would probably feel differently, but to expect a man to, 90% of the time, shoot down his chances with a woman to make sure of this choice shows a misunderstanding of sexual drive and politics. I would probably support a solution where a man had the option of "opting out" as soon as he found out about the pregnancy — he has no obligations, his name doesn't go on the certificate, he has no rights. If someday he changes his mind and wants the kid, he doesn't have a legal leg to stand on if the mother doesn't want him around. Both partners should be willing to face the burden of raising a child alone, although unfortunately this fact is thrown off-balance by the fact that the woman carries the child, which is why I support abortion. If partners could somehow timeshare a fetus, I would probably support either partner being able to opt out. (I should write a story about that.)

  • Carley

    And by "your" in the second paragraph I mean Leah. Don't comment at bedtime, kids.

  • To return to your STI analogy, I think you miss the whole problem.If Lee and Carol have sex and Lee gets an STI and refuses to take a pill, which Carol is willing to share the cost of, to cure the STI, should Carol be on the hook for a lifetime of care and medical bills that Lee (unnecessarily and by choice) incurs?What if Lee has said beforehand that the pill would definitely be taken, which was the only reason Carol agreed to have sex, should Carol still have to pay because Lee had a change of mind after the fact?

  • – B ..

    "Given the options that exist (abortion, orphan, child-to-raise), I think women shouldn't have sex if they're not ok with one of those options and men shouldn't have sex unless they're confident they're comfortable with the one their partner is going to pick." (Leah)I disagree with your framing. This hides the profound factor (contraception failed) behind the trivial factor (couple had sex).Shouldn't we look at sex as a decision based on risk? If so, the unwanted pregnancy outcome is very high impact and very low likelihood. Two sides of the one coin.Whether sex is too risky will hinge on the individual's current appetite for risk. And how much the heat of the moment remembers the cold hard light of day.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Leah, I just want to say that I found your blog a couple of weeks ago (and wasted half an afternoon reading the Turing test entries), and have a ton of respect for the way you write about religion and science (I'm a scientist Christian marrying a scientist atheist so I think a lot about these things). After the Soup Nazi post, you're pretty much my favorite person on the internet. Keep it up!

  • Thanks a lot, Anonymous! What field(s) do you and your husband work in?

  • Hibernia86

    @Leah: I understand that you are trying to say that people should follow the law until it is changed. I don't think that anyone here is against that. It is similar to the idea that Planned Parenthood isn't trying to promote the idea that women without abortion rights should get back alley abortions, but rather that the law should be changed. I think the people talking about reproductive rights of men feel the same.@ Joe: If you read the Edmonton Journal article that is linked to in your article, it says that the girl was mentally disturbed. She had been to a psychiatric hospital and hadn't been allowed to leave home without parental supervision. If she was truly mentally disturbed beyond the effects of just being pregnant, then I think that adds an important issue that most be considered in this case.@Gilbert: In America, if a man is married to the woman, the child can only be put up for adoption if both parents agree to it. If a man isn't married to the woman, he must legally establish paternity in order to have a say in the adoption procedure. This can be a problem if the father and mother aren't married and live apart. The father might not know the woman is pregnant and she could give the baby up for adoption before he finds out. This is unfortunate, but I see no easy way around it. Without a national DNA database, it is sometimes impossible to track the fathers down. I don't know what would happen if a wife cheated on a husband, got pregnant with another man, and then wanted to give the baby up for adoption. I'm guessing that US law would give the biological father the right to have a say in the adoption process and not the husband, though I'm not sure about that. I guess it would depend on whether a paternaty test was done, which the biological father might not have a right to. I'd have to ask a lawyer.@ Carley: I agree with you about the term "slavery" being way too extreme. And I agree entirely with the rest of your post. I think a lot of people here do. @March Hare: Excellent point. Forcing a man lose all reproductive rights as soon as he has sex is similar to how Conservatives want to stop HPV vaccinations in order to punish girls for having sex. @Anonymous (sept 23, 8:19 AM): I agree that Leah is awesome, but why is it that most of the people supporting the Soup Nazi Post never give any reason why they are doing so?

  • I admire you as a person and for your seeming love of truth. Your paradigm, however, I find odious; it does not provide for truth. It seems to me like two men making a campfire. One made it ten minutes ago and is now well-warmed. The other is more interested in arriving at the same result, or nearly the same result, by MyWayTM. The Enlightenment — son of Protestantism, father of Sartre, et. al. — strikes me as would building a fire with wet kindling, i.e. the assumption that an individual sapience is the source of all truth.Reframing sex to be without preganancy is the problem. Might as well reframe water, in a discussion about it, to be dry — it would involve the equivocation on either "dryness" to being less than mean wetness or "water" to mean all liquids — and so this is precisely the dangerous abstraction we have to avoid.I admire your effort to demonstrate that certain modern assumptions are harmful even on their own merits, but this strikes me as the rationalisation against, say, incest as being wrong because it limits the gene pool and leads to birth defects. Or eugenics for the same reason. Yes, that is a reason against the thing, but a minor reason. It cannot lead a crusade or be shouted from the rooftops or the be a gloriously unfurling banner of truth. It is too banal. (Note that lies shouted from the rooftops, &c.;, I give no respect.) Call me a Romantic for assuming truth is not banal, but it is better than the Agnostic Orthodoxy or the other Puritans who seek to kill all joy.Even granting a parity of quality in the reasons, purely for rhetorical benefit (which in fairness is what I think you're aiming at), the important thing is not that a system tells this truth or that truth but is a "truth-telling thing." You know that; I know you do.Speaking more ecclesiastically, every heretic tried MyWayTM, each a different way, their only common thread being a rejection of That Which Works, the only agreement with That Which Works being the rejection of every previous heresy.Your wet kindling may yet dry enough to light a fire, but it is the narrow way.

  • Anonymous

    I can't help but appreciate the irony in Leah's argumentation. She demands that men take on the responsibilities of irresponsible sex. And she does this as an atheist feminist. Its ironic because I am assuming that she rejects Christian Patriarchy. But Christian Patriarchy demands that men set aside their own selfish desires for the sake of women and children. The fact that men are forbidden in our society to opt out of being a parent seems evidential that we still desire and expect men to be true Patriarchs.

  • Anonymous

    Its also import that we remember that if a man is allowed to opt out of parental responsibilities(i.e. child support) we must also allow him to opt out of paying for half the abortion. Because if a woman can freely choose abortion the man should also be free not to participate in one against his conscience. You wouldn't want an abortion imposted on a women so to keep things equal you can't impose one on a man either. Equal rights for everyone!!!

  • Anonymous

    WOW a consistant Pro-Choice ideology really makes sex incredibly risky for women!! It almost seems misogynistic.

  • Sam

    I appreciate your post Leah! Sorry you seem to be getting so much vitriolic responses….