“Casual sex is using another human being solely as a means to our end, which is unethical”
This argument against casual sex is based on Deontology or the categorical imperative, the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He said that we should act according to universal laws, that is, that there are some basic ethical principles from which all duties and prohibitions derive. A categorical imperative is something that we do not do to attain a certain end, but because it is an end in itself.
In particular, human beings are ends in themselves, so it is unethical to treat them as means to an end.
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.
You can see how the condemnation of casual sex, and the idea of “objectification” that is used to denounce pornography, derive from this imperative of not to use people as means to satisfy our desires.
However, this is an unrealistic imperative that clashes with almost everything we do in our capitalist society, in which we are constantly using the labor of other people to achieve our goals. We use barbers and hairdressers to do our hair, masseuses to relive our muscular tension, doctors to guard our health, teachers to get educated, etc. More generally, capitalism is based on using the labor of workers to produce goods and services. You may dislike capitalism, but in a communist society things are basically the same: the labor of workers is still used as a means to an end, only that it is controlled by the state instead of corporations.
Using people is not unethical, as long as it is consensual and everybody involved is treated fairly. In most cases, that means getting paid. In the examples I gave above, what we have are transactional interactions in which people mutually use each other to achieve a goal. I get the haircut and the barber gets my money. If I could not get a haircut and the barber was unemployed, we would both be unhappy, which is a bad outcome indeed.
What is unethical is not using people, but using people while disregarding their humanity. When I go to get a haircut, I interact with the barber as a human being, chitchatting about things that interest us both. From that point of view, we should be concerned when corporations use people with complete disregard of their humanity: as faceless workers and consumers; as mere statistics in a healthcare system; as a mass of students being lectured. That is what is wrong with capitalism.
However, casual sex - as long as it is consensual and not exploitative - is not unethical because people are using each other. It is just another transactional activity: I enjoy your body while you enjoy mine. I get pleasure and you get pleasure. Even in the most impersonal casual sex, there is an implicit recognition that we are dealing with a person, with desires and sexual needs that need to be satisfied. We are not using a person disregarding their humanity, like corporations do when they treat us as machines. The fact that pleasure is an emotion prevents us from seeing each other as objects.
“Sex is too intimate to be transactional, so it is unethical in the absence of love”
A second argument against casual sex is based on the idea that sex is somehow special or sacred, so it is only allowed in the context of love or a relationship.
Prudish philosophers like Kant and social conservatives do not seem to be bothered when capitalism and corporations use human beings - workers and consumers - as means to an end - making money -, while ignoring that humans are ends in themselves. But when it comes to sex, things suddenly change and the accusations fly about being used and objectified.
Why? What is so special about sex?
One old argument is that sex should be used only for procreation. As I explained in my article The Seven Enigmas of Sex, that idea has been largely put to rest by science. In humans, sex has been co-opted as a powerful mechanism for bonding and to create cooperation and trust between couples and perhaps even amongst entire tribes. Most of the sex we have is not for procreation, and that is completely morally acceptable. Even the Catholic Church is having to reckon with the fact that even the most pious couples have sex that is not procreative.
But then, if sex is for bonding, wouldn’t this support the idea that sex is only ethical when done by a loving couple? Isn’t it true that sex is a most intimate act? There certainly seems to be something special about sex. Otherwise, rape wouldn’t be considered such a horrible crime - it would just be similar to any other act of physical violence. If sex is indeed special, it might be that is too intimate to be casual. We may violate something inside ourselves when we do not recognize its emotional importance.
I examined the problem of the specialness of sex in my article Is Sex Sacred? I pointed out that if sex is sacred, then masturbation would also be unethical.
Let me give you an example of something that is both transactional and intimate: psychotherapy. Indeed, it is even more intimate than sex, since we reveal to the therapist our deepest emotions, traumas and fears. In fact, intimacy is the whole point of therapy. In addition, the client is using the therapist for his own personal benefit. He will dispose of the therapist the moment he sees that his goal of improving his mental health is not being achieved. Again, the fact that it is transactional is an important part of going into therapy. The therapist is a professional committed not to reveal our secrets, and who doesn’t have the biases and the personal investment of a friend in whom we would confide instead. If psychotherapy is not wrong, even though it is intimate and the therapist is being used as a means to a goal, how could we condemn causal sex on the same grounds?
This should get rid of the objection that casual sex is unethical because is too intimate.
But what about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?
The AIDS pandemic taught us to take STDs seriously. Ironically, comparing AIDS with the modern Covid-19 pandemic uncovers the puritanism and sex-negativity hidden behind some of the advice to prevent AIDS, like being monogamous. If during the AIDS pandemic having sex with many partners was stigmatized, during the Covid pandemic socially approved things like attending religious services became the most risky activities. But the Catholic Church and other religious organizations had no qualms of taking to the Supreme Court their right to be infected during mass. And the Supreme Court ruled in their favor.
Of course, preventing STDs in others and ourselves by practicing safe sex and being informed is extremely important. However, STDs should not become an excuse for sexual repression.
We all have the right to engage in risky behavior. Otherwise, risky activities like rock-climbing, hang-gliding, free-diving and driving motorcycles would be illegal. We do not have the right to expose others to STDs, but this should be addressed by the responsible exchange of information between sexual partners, not by rules imposed by society and the state.
Casual sex and sexual repression
For some people, casual sex is something that they would never do. They need love and connection for sex, and that is fine. But some other people want to practice casual sex. And they have the right to do so.
For young people, having sex with many partners is useful to help them define their sexual desire, and their favorite kinks and sex acts. That way, they would be able to identify sexually compatible partners for future long-term relationships.
The question is not one of personal choice, but whether casual sex should be something that we condemn in others, to the point of creating social sanctions and even laws (e.g. against sodomy, pornography or prostitution) to ban it. I think the latter is wrong. The modern sex-positive movement is a struggle for sexual liberation, understood as the right of every person to approach sex according to their own personal preferences. The only prohibitions should be non-consensual acts and sex with minors.
It’s actually the other way around. What is unethical is sexual repression, not casual sex. Sexual repression should, indeed, be considered a non-consensual sex act. Just as sexual abuse and rape are wrong because they violate the personal autonomy of an individual, sexual repression violates the right of that individual to their bodily and mental autonomy.