Chapter 11: Sex and Family Life

Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum
by Philip H. Phenix

Chapter 11: Sex and Family Life

Turning now from questions of conscience in relationships with nature and with self, the present chapter and the next five will be concerned with conduct in relation to persons, beginning with the private face-to-face associations within the family, broadening out to the larger, more impersonal connections within the community and the nation, and concluding with problems of world responsibility.

The family is the fundamental social unit, and for its establishment sexual life exists. The importance of the family is in proportion to the dignity and worth accorded the individual person, for in the family new persons come into being and are cared for with unbounded concern for their well-being. In this activity of procreation and care for children the self-regarding and self-serving ways of the parents are to a large degree transformed into acts of self-giving and self-sacrifice. Thus, the family may be a source not only of human generation but also of regeneration, in which the usual gain-seeking attitudes are replaced by ones of self-forgetful dedication and joyful responsibility.

The family is the source and bulwark of democracy. The very idea of the boundless worth of the individual person can be truly and inwardly understood largely through the experience of the parent-child relationship. In the larger social community, in the affairs of business, and in civic life the notion of the infinite value of personality is a noble abstraction more than a living reality. Yet in the ordinary family the assurance of unconditional concern is an everyday actuality. Democracy as a comprehensive ideal of life is the extension beyond the family of the devoted care that good parents provide for their offspring. Any weakening of the family will accordingly be reflected in the decline of democracy generally, and a widespread belief in the importance and the stability of families will help to sustain democratic ideals in other spheres of life. Furthermore, the democracy that grows out of family experience is a democracy of worth, since it stems from loyalty to the good of the person and not from acquisitive impulses. It is based on willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others rather than only on satisfaction of one’s personal desires.

This natural democracy of worth in the family is the ground for the concern to educate the young. Parents are not content merely with begetting children and supplying them with the means of physical existence. Parents want to open the way for their children to grow in wisdom, grace, and honor through nourishment by the best fruits of civilization. Education is the attempt to fulfill the high hopes and fervent expectations which center around a child at his birth; it is the effort to make good the promise of a new life in its boundless potentiality.

These family-grounded ideals for the nurture of children are also the proper basis for education outside the family. Schools and other educational institutions should be regarded as extensions of the family and as instruments for accomplishing what parents intend for their children but for practical reasons cannot themselves perform. It is an error to regard the state as the primary agency of education and the family as simply the agency of procreation and support. The primacy of the family in education rests upon the spontaneous devotion of parents to their children -- a devotion that supplies a model for the relation between teacher and pupil and that is undermined when education is regarded as a direct responsibility of the state. It is for this reason that parents should be given the right to send their children to schools of their choice, provided certain minimal standards of safety and competency are satisfied, and should not be required to utilize state educational facilities.

The fundamental source of family degeneration is the insinuation of the way of desire into the pattern of family relationships. The parents may regard the child as a means to fulfill their own ends. Through their progeny they may seek to overcome a feeling of loneliness, emptiness, or uselessness. In return, they may try as far as possible to supply the child with what he desires. This reciprocity is in effect a commercial one: the parties to the transaction exchange benefits with one another on a quid pro quo basis.

Ideally, the parents’ devotion to their child should be unconditional in character. All traces of bargaining should be excluded. The child is not to be welcomed, accepted, and appropriately rewarded when he yields satisfaction to his parents, and rejected when he fails to produce as desired. He is to be accepted and cared for as a person, without regard to how well or how poorly he may live up to his parents’ expectations and hopes for him. He is not a marketable commodity, to be bought up or written off, and measured by price. He is a unique person to be loved for himself, without measure or calculation of benefits.

In its unconditional quality the love of parents for the child is to be like their love for one another. But the parent-child relationship differs from the parents’ relation to each other in this respect: while the parents entered into a joint covenant of mutual dedication, the parent-child relationship was established by the parents’ intention and action without any possibility of the child’s knowledge or consent. From this basic inequality in the establishment of the relationship stems the demand for a unilaterally unconditioned love of the parents for the child.

From this statement of the ideal of family love it should by no means be inferred that wants and satisfactions have no place in family life, nor that parents ought to make no demands upon their children. The fulfilling of desires is a happy consequence of good family life. Parents properly give innumerable satisfactions to each other and to their children, and children likewise please their parents. That this is so is a matter for gratitude. But to rejoice in the benefits of familial association is quite different from affirming a prudential basis for family life. Husband and wife enter into a covenant of loyalty from which it is hoped joy and happiness will continually spring, but which maintains whether or not these benefits actually accrue. Similarly, parents who take upon themselves responsibility for children may reasonably hope for the joys of affection returned and pride in healthy growth and worthy achievement, but the obligation to love and care for their young holds whether or not these legitimate desires are fulfilled.

In like manner, while it is right that parents should supply a child with things he wants, his wanting them ought not to be the reason for providing them. The parents’ prior consideration should always be the child’s need. If he desires what is right and good for him, that is cause for rejoicing; if he does not want it, then ways should be sought to lead him to a change of affection. This is the prime objective of the family’s educative effort: by loving persuasion and by example to engender habits of commitment to what is of worth, instead of living for self-gratification. Granted that no parents can claim full and true knowledge of what is for the benefit of the child, the obligation still rests with them to govern their action with respect to him in the light of their best understanding of his real needs. Since the child’s wants often provide clues to his needs, they should be hospitably considered and never discounted or rejected simply because they are objects of desire. The parents’ responsibility is always to evaluate the child’s requests and then to respond in the light of what appears to be right. Furthermore, as far as the child’s maturity permits, he should be included in the process of evaluation, so that decisions are not simply imposed arbitrarily from above, but can be recognized by him as issuing from intelligent love and as such may be accepted even in cases where they are not welcome. Such occasions of mutual engagement in the making and weighing of requests constitute the most decisive of all educative opportunities, whether within or beyond the family. For it is in these encounters of the parent with the child that the values by which one lives are most tellingly communicated, and that the most crucial of all lessons -- that of the primacy of loyalty to the good -- may most impressively be taught. It is through these events that the child can learn to distinguish between rejection and affectionate discipline and to prefer mature love to easy indulgence.

Even though the unconditional reciprocity which belongs to the relation between the parents because they have covenanted with one another does not pertain to the parent-child relationship, the child does owe full obedience to his parents during the time of his dependence upon them. This obligation is qualified only by the principle that parents may not make grossly unjust demands upon the child, on pain of interference by the state as guardian of basic human rights. The child’s obedience is not to be regarded as payment for benefits received from the parents; such an interpretation is ruled out by the unconditional nature of the parents’ commitment. The duty to obey is simply an ingredient in the concern for the well-being of the child and for his proper education. It is not in any way for the satisfaction or profit of the parents, to make life easier for them (though that may be a welcome by-product), or to gratify their appetite for command. A child can experience the meaning of secure love only through being dependent on persons who supply authoritative direction for his life.

Few doctrines in recent decades have been more injurious than the one that opposes the exercise of parental authority in the name of liberty and democracy. The eroding of the parents’ authority and the repudiation of the children’s obligation to obey has seriously contributed to the disintegration of the family and has undermined the education of the young in crucial respects. The trouble has come from a failure to distinguish between kinds of authority. Absolute, arbitrary, manipulative authority -- power over others -- is an evil thing; it belongs neither in the state nor in the family. But responsible authority, which derives from devotion to the good, is right and necessary, especially in the family. It is just this distinction that provides the basis for understanding why children owe obedience to their parents.

The foregoing principles of parent-child relationships -- concern by the parents for the needs of the child and the obligation of the child to obey the parents, within the context of intelligent and benevolent authority -- are the foundation for the right kind of education not only in homes but also in schools, which are established to aid and complete the family in its educative task. Teachers have a primary duty to serve their pupils and not to gratify themselves, whether by a sense of power over the lives of others, by the enjoyment of their students’ affection and respect, or by the intrinsic stimulus of interesting studies. Students, on the other hand, have the duty to render obedience to teachers within the limits of their recognized authority. Teachers ought to be given clear and unequivocal authority to conduct the work of education, and they should be afforded all necessary support, by parents and by school and civic officials, in making their authority effective. Finally, every effort must be made to insure that persons entrusted with the office of teacher will be selected with regard to their dedication to the authority of truth and right and not of arbitrary command.

Considerations of the nature of the family underlie the analysis of sex relationships generally. The basic principle of the position argued here is that the bearing and the rearing of children are the end and aim of sexuality, in the light of which all sexual activities should be appraised. Because parent-child relationships most naturally exemplify the way of devotion and obedience as opposed to that of self-gratification, the sexual relations that eventuate in procreation ought also to be founded in self-giving love and not in desire. Sex provides the crucial case of desire at odds with devotion.

The widely prevailing satisfaction philosophy has accorded sexual gratification a high place among the good things of life. To be regularly and fully satisfied in sexual experience is commonly accepted as an important human objective. The old-fashioned repression of sex is repudiated, and a new era of liberation is hailed. The stimulation of sexual appetite is a major aim of contemporary literary, dramatic, and pictorial productions, and the mass media are suffused with eroticism.

From this standpoint, the task of intelligence in relation to sex is not to master it or to control it in the way of earlier restrictive patterns of life, but to discover means of securing maximum sexual satisfaction for all people. In this new democracy of sexual desire the invention of efficient and inexpensive contraceptive devices and of improved drugs for the cure of venereal diseases is regarded as a signal advance toward the goal of the good life, for now it is possible to engage freely and widely in sexual intercourse with little fear of unwanted consequences, in the form of either offspring or infection.

When satisfaction is the criterion of good, the family is regarded essentially as a convenience and marriage as a means for sexual, economic, and social advantage. When the interests of the parties are no longer served by the marriage, the couple should be divorced, subject only to the requirement that due consideration be given to the care of any children resulting from the marriage. Even when the marriage is maintained, it is urged, extramarital sex relations ought to be countenanced, if discreetly engaged in, either in cases where for some reason the mate does not provide satisfaction or in any event for the added variety and richness of sexual enjoyments thereby provided.

The demand for full and free sexual satisfaction has been reinforced by certain reputedly scientific findings. From popular interpretations of Freud (in many respects incautious and one-sided) it has come to be widely believed that sexual impulses are the central factor in human existence, that social restraints on sex are the source of unhappiness and illness, and that uninhibited sexual experience is the basis for human felicity. Accordingly, sexual emancipation has assumed the character of a moral demand, and the imperatives of conventional sex morality have been condemned as contrary to human well-being.

More recently the studies of Alfred Kinsey and his associates on the sexual habits of contemporary Americans have shown how wide the gulf is between the persisting puritanic professions of respectable people and their average actual sexual behavior. The lesson usually drawn from these studies is that the outmoded pruderies of conventional middle-class sex ethics should be abandoned, and the liberties of sexual expression should be frankly, openly, and unashamedly accepted and enjoyed.

While it may readily be granted that certain hostile, fearful, and punitive attitudes toward sexual impulses will be harmful to personality, it does not follow that inhibition of sexual activity is intrinsically undesirable, or that a general relaxation of standards for sexual behavior is indicated. There is no evidence, scientific or otherwise, that personal and social well-being is proportionate to the degree of sexual gratification enjoyed. In fact, it may be closer to the truth to say that the refinement and ennoblement of personality and the advancement of civilization are in proportion to the degree of discipline and control of sexual appetite. From this perspective, the modern assault on sex standards in the name of freedom (more properly called license) presents a major threat to individual and social welfare, for it justifies and confirms sensual satisfaction as the regulating principle of life.

Sexual appetite, powerful as it may be, is unlike the craving for food and drink, which must be satisfied if life is to continue. Satisfaction of sex urges can be denied temporarily or permanently without any impairment of the person, provided the purposes of restraint are understood and accepted. Given sufficiently significant purposes, renunciation of sexual satisfaction will, in fact, tend to heighten energies and intensify the zest for living. Restraint is not good simply in itself. It is not beneficial when it is externally imposed simply as a denial of desire. But when a person comes to see the ordering of sex impulse as a necessary means to serving a high good, the sacrifice of gratification can become a source of well-being. It is difficult for a person to sustain that vision in isolation. The practice of continence in a concupiscent society imposes great strain on the individual. We need to work out a set of social expectations and conventions in which the proper regulation of sexual activity will be assisted rather than made more difficult by being thrust largely on the individual, as it is at present.

It is possible that the re-establishment of loyalty to the right in every aspect of life could be greatly fostered by a fresh acceptance of the ideal of sexual purity. Perhaps sexual discipline is the test case for dedication to standards of worth in every domain of existence. Furthermore, since sex has to do with the creation of persons, whose individual worth is the basic principle of democracy, the health and vitality of democracy may be directly related to the prevailing state of conscience with regard to sex.

Some of the principles of sex and family life which follow for a democracy of worth may now be stated. These principles also indicate the standards to be used in sex education -- the basic ideals to be inculcated by explicit instruction in homes and at appropriate levels in schools, and even more essentially by the complex of accepted acts built into social and cultural patterns.

First, sexual activity should always be judged in relation to family ideals. The family is the end to which sexual relationships are a means. Sexuality is not an independent sphere, and sexual experience is not rightly regarded as an end in itself. The test of conscience for any sexual act is whether or not it is in accord with the central purpose of the family, which is to embody the ideal of individual worth through an unconditional covenant between husband and wife and unconditional commitment to children.

It follows, second, that sexual intercourse should take place only between husband and wife, and not outside of marriage. Extramarital sexual relationships undermine the family and betray the covenant of fidelity which ought to be established between marriage partners. The justification of premarital sex experimentation as a means of preparation for marriage and as a test of sexual compatibility for prospective mates is a rationalization for license and self-indulgence. Devoted couples can and should work out their sexual adjustments as a task of married life. Marriage should be a state of learning and growing together, in which the partners come together not in ignorance but in innocence, and participate in sexual discovery as a fresh and unique experience.

The limitation on sexual relationships to married couples extends beyond the complete act of intercourse to those forms of mutual sex stimulation that are a preparation for intercourse. The widespread practice of petting by persons who have no intention of marriage to each other is a consequence of the common acceptance of sexual relations as a means of satisfaction quite apart from family considerations. Since all physical intimacies between the sexes have sexual union as an implicit hope, intention, or inclination, they should be reserved solely for persons who have made a covenant of engagement to marry one another. Morally, petting is the equivalent of intercourse. It also contains an inherent psychological contradiction, in being at once an invitation to pleasure and a frustration of desire. Thus, it not only poisons the spring of sexual purity but also creates habits of sexual response which later make full surrender to a marriage partner more difficult to achieve. It is difficult for young people to refrain from petting in a society where this is generally accepted and practiced. To help them, the support and loving discipline of families is essential, and more especially of groups of families with similar standards, and of churches, schools, and other institutions with well-developed programs for more worthy modes of mutual association.

Fourth, within marriage sexual intercourse should be a means of procreation and of expressing the mutual devotion of husband and wife. It is no true and right marriage in which husband and wife consider themselves licensed to use each other for sexual purposes. Possession and use are subpersonal and wholly alien to the spirit of dedication upon which marriage should be founded. This does not mean that pleasure in sex has no place in marriage. Mutual enjoyment is important and legitimate, but only and always as a welcome concomitant of a relation established on sensitivity and consideration by each for the needs of the other.

One of the most serious of all contemporary problems is the limitation of population growth in order to establish a proper balance between human requirements and natural resources. The responsibility for population control rests with individual families, who should deliberately restrict their procreative activity. Family planning is important not only to help meet the general problem of natural resources but also to make it possible for each child born into the family to have the material and personal benefits he needs. In fact, as this latter concern is in most cases the only effective motive for limiting births, it is the best approach to the larger social problem.

Within the family, then, the question arises of how the number of children shall be controlled. There are three fundamentally different possible ways. The first way is to destroy what has been produced by conception, either by infanticide or by abortion. Infanticide is a form of murder and, as such, has been outlawed in all modern civilized societies. Since a fetus is a human being, deliberate abortion is also an unwarranted taking of life. Parents are in conscience bound to accept, protect, and nurture each life given to them, beginning with the moment of conception, at which time that life comes into being.

The second way of limiting family size is for husband and wife to refrain from sexual intercourse except for the express purpose of having children. By reserving the act of sexual union solely for procreation, intercourse gains extraordinary symbolic power. While those who wholeheartedly agree to live by this ideal do great honor to human personality and to the creative sources from which persons spring, the level of spiritual attainment and of personal discipline required to live in this manner is most unusual and probably beyond the capability of the average couple.

The third way of limiting offspring is to prevent conception from taking place. This approach permits the mutual enrichment of life through sexual union without each time assuming the responsibility for another child. Its justification is in the conviction that intercourse may rightly serve not only for procreation, but also independently as a means for husband and wife to express their love for each other.

There is no reason why contraception should not be humanely and sensitively practiced for the high purposes of family planning, social responsibility, and freedom for full and frequent sexual union. This does not mean that contraceptives make it unnecessary to discipline sexual desire. The governing principle of devotion to the marriage partner still holds, and full mutuality in the sexual relationship is still the aim. The value of contraception is simply that it enables the husband and wife to exercise parental and societal responsibility in controlling procreation without renouncing one of the most powerful means of communicating love.

A fifth basic principle is that all perversion and immaturity of sexual expression are to be avoided. The chief perversion is homosexuality, and the major form of immature sexuality is masturbation. These sexual practices are undesirable because they contradict the fundamental purpose of sexuality, which is the establishment of families and the raising of children. It is important that relationships within the family be such as to prevent the inversion of sexuality through fear or hatred of the opposite sex. Homosexual tendencies are chiefly a consequence of miseducation by parents who have failed to establish secure and loving associations with their children. Continued auto-erotic practices also reflect both inability to give oneself in a complementary way to others and a habit of seeking compensation in one’s own bodily feelings for the frustrations of interpersonal associations.

Sixth, marriage should be a singular and permanent relationship. Polygamy is excluded by the democratic ideal of uniqueness, of which sexual union is the consummatory symbol. Families with multiple wives or husbands render impossible the unconditional devotion which is the ideal in marriage. Law and custom have sustained this ideal in advanced civilized societies by prohibiting multiple mating. While it is thus not lawful to have more than one husband or wife at a time, divorce makes possible a kind of serial polygamy. Such serial mating is probably even more damaging to family life -- particularly to children -- than ordinary polygamy. The prevalence of divorce is directly related to the prevalence of the desire philosophy. When interest and satisfaction are taken as the standards for conduct, mates who cease to interest or satisfy each other seek to dissolve their relationship. By contrast, when marriage is founded upon unconditional commitment to the other person, the desires and pleasures of the partners are secondary considerations, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the objective reality of the abiding marriage covenant.

Marriage ought to be regarded as an opportunity for the making of a shared life, as a task to be undertaken with full acceptance of the inevitable pains and sorrows as well as the pleasures and joys. Many modern marriages run a downhill course from the high romance and ecstatic satisfaction of newly-weds, through the progressive frustrations and disappointments of people who measure one another by benefits received, to the divorce court. Marriage ought rather to begin with nothing except the promise of loyal devotion and then move through patient, constructive effort to progressively higher levels of mutual understanding and service.

To affirm the ideal of permanence in marriage is not the same as to argue the legal prohibition of divorce. It may frequently be better for a marriage to be dissolved than for mates to be forced by law or the pressure of custom to live together in a state of unholy hostility. Children in such households may suffer less from the insecurities incidental to breaking up the home than from the poisons of their parents’ mutual antagonism. The point of the present analysis is that divorce ought not to be accepted as a normal and proper practice, for the benefit of couples who no longer satisfy each other. It should be seen instead as a lamentable consequence of establishing marriages on the deceptive and ultimately disastrous basis of want satisfaction.

Seventh, if marriages are to be permanent and productive of humane values, marriage partners need to select one another not on the basis of romantic attraction and immediate sexual satisfaction, but out of regard for the long-term potentialities in the relationship for the creation of a worth-full shared life. The question prospective mates should ask is not: Can I find happiness with this other person? -- but: Can we learn together and do things for and with each other in such a way as to bring into being new lives through our union nurtured in mature love based on dedication to what is true and excellent?

The eighth and final point is that in a democracy of worth not everyone need feel obliged to marry. Some people do not have the vocation to establish a family. For certain persons other channels of devotion may be more important than marriage and incompatible with an unconditional commitment to husband or wife. For those who have a mission to teach, to serve the poor and sick, to engage in exacting research, or to undertake dangerous and lonely assignments, family responsibilities may be an impediment. Persons who shun marriage simply to remain free to please themselves are not to be honored, but those are to be honored who have adopted other forms of dedication in place of marriage, whether by deliberate intention, by force of circumstance, or because no person has appeared with whom they could wholeheartedly make an enduring covenant. In fact, those who remain unmarried in the service of the right have the special opportunity to manifest loving concern for others without the natural impetus provided by matrimonial or parental relationships.