I missed out on the “free love” aspect of the counterculture. Although young and single, I was also painfully shy. By my early 40’s I had lost my virginity, but now—at age 76—I mourn the loss of the sexual adventures engaged in by so many of my hippie friends. And yet, I’m glad to have been in a committed, monogamous relationship for some thirty years. These two attitudes are contradictory, of course. Perhaps Quakerism can clarify the confusion. Do Friends have anything to say about marriage and sex outside of marriage?
Well, yes. Friends have a lot to say. Unfortunately, there seem to be as many opinions about sex as there are individual Quakers. And, on a corporate level, this same diversity is the rule. At the risk of being glib, I’d say that Quakers in Friends United Meeting regard monogamy as a moral absolute while Quakers in Friends General Conference entertain the idea that relations outside of marriage may be ethical. New York Yearly Meeting belongs to both organizations and is largely silent when it comes to the specifics of sexual behavior.
So, I guess I have to set Quakerism aside—at least temporarily—in a discussion of ethical non-monogamy. Instead, I’ll turn to the great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant. One form of Kant’s “categorical imperative” reads, “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” I think I can legitimately rephrase Kant and say, “Never use another person only for your own selfish ends but seek the good of that other person even if you get some selfish benefit out of the relationship.”
Before considering open marriage in Kantian terms, I should admit that I’m assuming heterosexual relations in order to simplify the discussion. LGBTQ folks can engage in the same kinds of relationships as heterosexuals. They can enter into informal committed partnerships as well as traditional marriages. And those marriages may be “opened up” to sexual intimacies outside of the marriage.
When I talk about relations outside of marriage, I’m not talking about pre-marital sex. I’m thinking of a legal marriage in which the spouses have agreed that each may have sex with other people. To simplify farther, I’m assuming that the extra-marital sexual relationships are not romantic, love relationships. The extra-marital sex is purely for pleasure, while the marriage is a bond of love and commitment that involves, but also transcends, sex.
To simplify further, I’ll only look at the husband and wife plus the husband’s extra-marital partner, presumably, but not necessarily, female. For Immanuel Kant, none of these three people should be using the others exclusively for selfish ends. Of course, it’s fine for anyone in this triad to selfishly enjoy sex with the other person as long as he or she is also trying to satisfy their partner’s physical needs. Everyone wants to give and take sexual pleasure.
There can be no deception or manipulation among these people if their sex is to be ethical. Between the marriage partners, there can only be truthfulness and forthrightness. If the man lies to his wife about a sexual encounter, that’s unethical; that’s cheating. Should he threaten to leave the marriage if the wife doesn’t agree to his extra-curricular activities, that’s manipulation; that’s wrong. Moreover, the extra-marital partner must only be interested in sex for the sake of sex. That partner, a woman we’ll say, can’t be ethical if she’s trying to start a romance and sabotage the marriage. She must only want to have a good time and give a good time.
In short, ethical non-monogamy is very possible. But is it probable? Probably not. Physical sex and emotions tend to go together. In the open marriage just described, the wife is very likely to feel jealous. The husband and his girlfriend are likely to be romantically drawn to each other. If the problems of a conventional, “closed” marriage are difficult, square or cube those difficulties to get a sense of the dilemmas in an open marriage.
Still, a successful open marriage is possible. If the primary relationship—the marriage—is stable, and the spouses are committed to telling the truth, an open marriage could be enriched by extra-marital sex. I can imagine the wife enjoying a husband’s description of the sex he just had with a woman he met at a bar. Naturally, the woman “picked up” would also only be looking for a good time through casual sex.
So, could two Quakers have an open marriage? Well, yes, although I don’t think a Quaker male could pick up a woman by drinking liquor in a bar. Maybe he could have non-alcoholic drinks, and the bar would have to be wholesome or at least “high class.” And I doubt that the Quaker guy could conscientiously engage in dancing. Alternatively, there are service organizations where he might meet a woman, and online dating would be a possibility.
However, there could be a spiritual problem when a Quaker couple tries to open their marriage. If God has ordained marriage or if marriage is considered to be sacred, spirituality may overrule ethics. It might be perfectly ethical for a couple to be non-monogamous, but—on becoming convinced Friends— their new religion might trump morality. What was ethical might now be sinful, not in a moral way, but in the way of disobeying God. In other words, obedience to God might be a higher obligation than obedience to Kant’s categorical imperative.
I have, sometimes half-in-jest, tried to briefly outline an example of ethical non-monogamy in the context of human sexuality and spirituality. For another Quaker perspective on sexuality in its spiritual, ethical, and social dimensions, here is a quote from British Yearly Meeting:
Human sexuality is a divine gift, forming part of the complex union of body, mind and spirit which is our humanity. The sexual expression of a loving relationship can bring delight, joy and fulfillment for many, a life-long faithful relationship gives the opportunity for the greatest personal development and for the experience of sexual love which is spiritual in its quality and deeply mysterious. Others may find fulfilment in different ways. Whatever the moral climate, a sexual relationship is never purely a private matter without consequences for wider human relationships. Its effect on the community, and especially on children, must always be considered. Sexual morality is an area of challenge and opportunity for living our testimonies to truth, nonviolence, equality, integrity and love.
~ Richard Russell
This blog was set up to post content of interest to Old Chatham Quaker members and attenders. Posts related to one's own personal spiritual journey, reports based on interviews with others, and reflections on Quaker-related topics are welcome. Posts by individuals are personal expressions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Meeting as a whole.
Guidelines for posting on website blog:
Submit to member of Communications committee; committee has editorial oversight over all content posted on the Meeting website.
Be respectful of the nature of vocal ministry given in Meeting for Worship or other settings and any private conversations about spiritual matters.
Cite source of any image or other external content submitted.