Sex-positive feminists have this weird tendency to say “anything between consenting adults is okay!” That’s really dumb. Five minutes’ thought will reveal that consenting adults can have all kinds of unethical sex.
For instance: it is not ethical to cheat on your partner or have sex with someone who’s cheating on their partner. It is not ethical to bring a child into the world when you can’t make sure that it’s properly taken care of (whether through adoption or parenthood). Reproductive coercion is not ethical. (In fact, reproductive coercion is abusive behavior.) Lying to obtain sex is not ethical. Having sex with someone when you have reason to believe they will regret it (for instance, because they believe premarital sex is immoral or because they’re not ready to have sex yet) is not ethical. Not giving a fuck about your partner enjoying themselves* is not ethical. Obviously, reproductive coercion and rape are far worse than having sex with someone who might regret it or not caring about your partner enjoying themselves, but these are all Bad.
I think instrumental sexuality is a mindset that often leads to behavior that hurts other people and yourself, and is therefore generally bad, even if the sex is consensual. I would call it bad in the same way hate is bad. A lot of people hate people and don’t hurt anyone, which makes it a bit difficult to call hate strictly immoral; in fact, some people find their hate empowering and enjoyable and generally happiness-maximizing. Certainly it is unreasonable to expect everyone to not hate anyone. Still, if you have a choice between hate and not hate it is generally a good idea to pick not hate, and if you have a choice between instrumental sexuality and not instrumental sexuality it is generally a good idea to pick the latter.
(Disclaimer Time: I’m not talking about mutually enjoyable BDSM that simulates instrumental sexuality here– I’m going to talk about that later, but suffice it to say that playacting disrespect and objectification is not the same as disrespecting and objectifying someone, as every good dom knows.)
Partially, this is because instrumental sexuality tends to lead to assorted kinds of asshole behavior. If you treat other people as a means to your orgasm, it’s very easy to be like “well, they consented, whether they’re happy about it afterwards is their own business.” Or “well, they consented, I don’t really have to care about whether they liked it.” Or “well, they consented, never mind I had to ask them half a dozen times first.” Yay, you get the coveted Not A Rapist Award,** go you.
And partially because I’ve noticed– in both my case and the cases of people I’ve talked to– that sex is actually the most fun when we have it with someone we like and want to be happy. Sex we’re having for validation, or as a conquest, or because everyone else is doing it, or out of a sense of duty or obligation, or to prove something to ourselves, or because we’d feel like a loser if we didn’t, or out of desperation, or because it’s something you’re supposed to do– that is, instrumental sex… well, it’s just less good sex.*** I’m a utilitarian. I want there to be more good sex in the world!
This is not, of course, to say only relationship sex or sex where you’re in love with your partner is good sex. You can like someone and want them to be happy and want to fuck them if you met them two hours ago! You can certainly like someone and want them to be happy and not be in love with them or want to date them. Conversely, you can be in love with someone or in a relationship of long standing with them and have all the instrumental sex.
*Please note that I mean “enjoying themself” in the broadest possible sense– for instance, someone can enjoy giving their partner pleasure, or playing a particular role, or exploring the limits of what their body can take, or whatever. Talk about what you want out of sex ahead of time! This message brought to you by Sex-Positivity.
**Except the third person, who gets the Possibly A Rapist Depending On The Exact Circumstances And What Definition of Rape We’re Going By Award. ***Every time I make a generalization about sex I get at least three people in the comments telling me that they are, in fact, completely the opposite of my generalization. So this footnote is to say that if you have sex for those reasons and it works for you and you aren’t hurting anyone else, great, knock yourself out. I dunno how much you’ll get out of the rest of the series though.