A dialogue between a philosopher and an unfaithful wife.
W: Hi P, I’d like to talk with you about an ethical issue.
P: What do you want to talk about?
W: Do you remember the last discussion we had, on whether it could be ever morally justified to fake an orgasm?
W: Do you still believe what you told me?
P: Yes. My point was that in certain circumstances faking an orgasm may be the most reasonable thing to do. Suppose a woman loves her husband and they have children. He is a wonderful as a dad and as life companion, and a very responsible partner. Sex had never been particularly intense, moreover its quality has decreased with the time, until a point when the woman cannot have orgasms. She talks to him about the problem, she tries to instruct him about how they may have a better sex. He tries, he makes the effort. But the results do not come. But the stability of the family is based upon another type of love and affection. She realizes that he would suffer from knowing his inability to satisfy her, and – knowing her husbands personality – justly fears that if he were to know this, it may eventually turn up in a divorce... so the welfare of the children may be affected... In a case like the one I described, I think, it may not be wrong for the woman to fake an orgasm.
W. I’ve been faking my orgasms for years. My situation is similar to the one of the woman you described in your example. Now that I know that you’re quite open minded about such issues – I feel comfortable to ask you to judge me about something I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been sexually unfaithful to my man, betraying him with another lover since a couple of months.
P: Oh no, oh no. I think now you’re doing something wrong.
W: Why? Look: my husband will never get to know this. I love him. He’s a wonderful man, but my situation in terms of sexual life was just like the one of the woman in the example.
P: Why is it so much better with your lover? Are you in love with him? Are you attracted by him more than you are by your man?
W: Not really. Believe me, I really really love my husband. But we have a problem over a certain sexual practice. I need to XXXXXXXXXXXXX in order to reach an orgasm, and this is something my husband just cannot force himself to do. The new sexual partner likes the practice. So with him, I can have an orgasm easily. With this extra ingredient, with those orgasms, I'm in peace with my self, and even my family life has gained from this. My husband is happy, we still make sex, and he's got no problem getting aroused and enjoying our sex, at least now that I also fake my orgasms. Why should I not preserve this delicate equilibrium?
P: I think that you can do something wrong to someone, without making him less happy or inflicting pain of some sort.
W: Sorry, I cannot understand. I am sure that he’s never going to know about this fact. My partner is absolutely reliable. Nobody else can discover this. I’m sure it cannot be known. So what’s the problem? How can I be acting wrongly, if I found the solution that does not to hurt anybody?
P: If there is some value in promises, and if breaking them can be wrong even when this cannot be discovered, you must recognize that you are doing him a wrong, even if he may never discover you. If you accept the general principle, you should be more careful in thinking that.
W: I cannot understand what you say. How can it be wrong to do something if it will do nobody a harm.
P: We have duties towards other people that go beyond the physical or psychological harm that we can inflict to them. So let me ask you a question: suppose that you promise to your best friend, who is soon going to die, that you are going to care after his child. It is not that, if you do not, the children will die or anything particularly unpleasant will befall him. He will only go to the orphanage, and after one or two years probably he will be adopted by another family. Our orphanages are not those terrible institutions that they used to be one centurty ago. Of course, I'm not denying that if you would take the child and raise him as if he were yours, you would be doing that child a favor. But still, if you would not do it, he would not end up worse than many other children. Imagine that you do not know the child, but you were the best friend of his father. What would you do?
W: I will maintain the promise. But look, that does not prove your point. I would maintain it because his child’s well-being is at stake. If my friend had asked me something silly, for example, that I’d listen to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”, I may promise it indeed to him, but I would not feel bound to respect this promise after his death. It’s the well-being of the child that matters in this case.
P: This is not so simple. If all that matters is the sufferance of the child, why should you not feel a similar obligation towards other children who live in the orphanage, and would also be better off by being adopted by you? Whatever special duty you feel that you have towards this particular child, derives from your special relation with their father, and the promise you made to him. You do not regard yourself to have any similar obligation to other children in a similar situation.
W: Ok I grant your point, as a general one. But I still cannot see how it applies to the case we are discussing.
P: Well, I think that by betraying your man for another man you are doing him a wrong, even if he does not know – and will never know – about it. You are behaving unjustly to him by being unfaithful to him, and that's the sense in which you’re doing him a wrong. Try to think it in this way: there is a close relationship between the value of trust, intimacy and love. Doing sex with another man counts as a severe break in the relationship of trust and intimacy. And it affects love too. So you should be concerned about that if you think that love is an important part of your relationship, or that your partner feels in this way.
W: I still cannot see why. After all you admitted that it was ethically OK for a woman in my situation to fake her orgasm, if required by preserving the stability of the relationship and thereby the well-being of the children. And that is a case of lying, certainly a betrayal of trust and intimacy.
P: But there is lying and lying. Don’t you see that you are lying about something more important?W: Why? You appealed to the values of trust and intimacy are values, which are connected to love. But why is sexual fidelity so important? I believe that, in the eyes of my man at least, the reason why it is important that I make sex with him, is that otherwise it will signify that he cannot satisfy me as a woman, and this is something he will not accept. Sexual satisfaction is the point that hurts most. Intimacy and trust, as you said, are important, so it is never ethical to fake an orgams. A woman should always tell the truth. By telling the truth, the man can struggle to try to satisfy her. When this is not possible, they should either split, or the man should find the way to live with this thought, and maybe allow her wife to have sex with other people. But this is a conclusion very few man, in our society, will accept.
P: But you must assume he’s a reasonable and mature man, and he cares for the well-being of your children as much as you do, and maybe you will both work out a solution. You respect your man only if you do not base your decisions on your own evaluations of how he shall react. You must assume that he can act freely, and that if you do not let him outside of your choices, you can all together make the choice that is best for all of you.
W: But then I should reason in the same way about the truth of my sexual gratification. I should not hide the truth to him, even if there is some concrete chance that this may endanger our stability as a couple.
W: But if I will tell him, we will split. So maybe this is what is most ethical to do. I shall just tell him about my problem, and what will come will come. I shall not regard any amount of well-being of my children as more important than my happiness, or the respect that is due to my husband.
P: I do not agree. It was justifiable to fake your orgasms for the sake of saving the children some pain. It is not ethical to be sexually unfaithful to your man. If you fake your orgasms, you can save your children some pain. That should be your main goal. But you should also respect your husband, since you say that you love him, and he seems to deserve your trust, if you want to regard yourself as moral. If you want to be moral, you should not tell him about his inability to satisfy you in bed, if you are pretty certain it will lead to separation, which will damage heavily the well-being of your children. You should continue to fake your orgasms if that is needed to make your husband happy, and stop seeing your lover. Sometimes being moral requires big sacrifices.
W: I’m sorry, but it seems to me that your view suffers from a wrong conception of woman and sex. You seem to view woman primarily in their function as bearer of children and as supporters of a family. You seem to recognize no woman the right to have a sexually rewarding life. You do not seem to understand the importance of sex in a relationship.
W: Because you are telling me that I should give up my sexual satisfaction. My children are 7 and 8 . How long should I wait? Shall I wait until they are 12 and 14? It may be even worse for them then. Or until they will be 20? Fifteen years without sexual satisfactions can be all - right for a woman? Is that what you think?
P: Morality requires that you sacrifice your sexual pleasure for this higher causes. Is your sexual pleasure as important as the sufferance of your children?
W. That does not look like morality to me, but rather like moralism. We agreed that my man did not deserve to be sacrificed for the sake of the welfare of my children. But then, neither shall I sacrifice my welfare for the same purpose. The welfare of my children is not all that matter: there is also my well-being. And that depends from how well my sexual life is going, to a great extent.
My reader, let me ask you a question: who do you think is right? Or maybe, none of them can be right , because the institution of monogamy and the symbolic meanings we attach to it has already ruined the couple's life, so that there is no ethical way out?