Need sex, don't want itIsland.lk
Buddhism, bioethics and society
by prof. Suwanda H.Sugunasiri
Sex is natural and functional, like eating or sleeping, the Buddha would say. From that point of view, a sexual relationship may be explained away as simply two consenting adults giving in to a basic human drive. But the Buddha also makes a distinction between sex as need and sex as want. If sex as need is what keeps the human (or animal) race going, sex as want is what he explains as passion, one of three desires (or tanha) of sentience that keeps each one of us going in the life cycle.
In that light, a sexual act originating in want becomes more than a mere act. "Intent I say is action," says the Buddha. So first of all, sex comes to have karmic consequences, in this life or another, for both man and woman. It can come to be desire leading to more desire or insatiable desire.
If the relationship occurs in the context of a workplace, it comes to be problematic in other ways, too. For starters, there is always the possibility of the partner’s own work performance being affected. Possibly, their professionalism may also be compromised. This is why business and industry discourage, or take a serious view of, such relationships.
The relationship may involve unequal partners – say a religious person and congregant, health professional and patient, teacher and pupil, politician and assistant, etc. Then there are other social implications such as abuse of power and the violation of a public trust.
Now if the relationship in that public domain is an extramarital one on the part of one or both partners, then the results may be catastrophic!
First, of course, is the issue of public morality – the example set by people in positions of public accountability. But from a spiritual point of view, the personal morality is surely equally problematic. One has to live with oneself or one’s God.
What if, in a relationship developed in a public context, things go sour and one partner’s "no" does not mean "no" to the other?
A sign at a Queen’s University protest a few years ago read, "Which part of no don’t you understand?" One might ask the same question of such a person. But would there be a basis for a charge of sexual harassment under criminal law as well?
Now if nary an interest had ever been shown by the offended in a relationship, then, of course, the answer would be clear. It would indeed constitute harassment.
But if the offended had agreed to sex at all, then there is what in Buddhism would be called a "supportive" condition, i.e., encouraging a behaviour (remembering the obvious that without a partner, there would have been no sex).
Sexual passion being the drive it is, and the human being not being a machine, a tap opened is a tap not easily shut off – desire leading to desire. The cells store the pleasure in the memory, and indeed a "no" may even heighten the desire.
"No" after "yes" is, then, not the same as "no" before "yes."
So to speak just in terms of harassment and to ask for the head of an offender would be to go for cold revenge, not justice. It would be worse if no accountability were asked of the offended partner.
The more reasonable and humane expectation would be for both partners to recognize their own contribution to the problem and remove themselves from the environment in which the act flourished.
The responsibility of society would be to insist that both stop pointing fingers or seeking redress, holding both accountable for their behaviour. Not to do this is to send a wrong signal to society, particularly teenagers, that if you can get another in trouble and take revenge, you don’t have to take on responsibility.
To allow for a balanced view, by contrast, is to strengthen the foundations of a just society where both women and men begin to treat each other with respect and compassion.
Let us hope that while we continue to think of sex as a healthy need, we will also think through the ramifications of sex as want, at both the personal and the public levels.
(Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, MA, MA, MEd, PhD is the Founder Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, Adjunct Professor, Trinity College, University of Toronto and a former US Fulbright Scholar. This essay appeared in his publication Embryo As Person)