The ethical corollary of “sex is a basic human need” is that rape is justified.

(Trigger Warning: This post discusses rapist logic and rape.)

Some men argue that when women “withhold sex” from men, we are depriving men of their basic needs:

A sense of entitlement? That’s what you want to call the basic human need for love, companionship, approval, and sex? [...] And then you wonder why guys perceive hostility from women. Gee, I wonder.

— unapproved comment from a Geek Feminism post

If a woman declines to have sex with a man, is she violating the man’s human rights, his alleged “right to sex”, or is the man’s experience of being deprived of his rights actually evidence of his sense of “entitlement” over women’s bodies?

Physiological - breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion. Safety - security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property. Love/belonging - friendship, family, sexual intimacy. Esteem - self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others. Self-actualization - morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts. This visual representation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts “sex” at the bottom base of the pyramid (falling under the category “Physiological” needs, which are the most basic needs), but “sexual intimacy” is also at the third rung from the bottom, falling under the category of “Love/belonging” needs. “Security of body” is at the at the second rung from the bottom of the pyramid, falling under the category of “Safety” needs, which is above “Physiological” needs but below “Love/belonging” needs.

If the “right to be not raped” falls under “Safety” and “security of body”, then is the alleged “right” to obtain sex a more basic need than the “right to be not raped”? Or does “Safety”/”security of body”/the “right to be not raped” have higher priority than fulfilling everyone’s alleged “need” for sex?

Of course, if one assumes that sex is a more basic need than security of body, then the ethical corollary would be that rape is justified. If you accept “rape is wrong” as an axiom, then you should agree that a person’s security of body/the right to be not raped has a higher priority than a person’s “need” for sex.

Men who lack basic empathy for women (in same the way that white people lack empathy for brown people and rich people lack empathy for poor people) might imagine that a world where everyone who wants sex receives it is a better world than one in which sexual consent is required. They might even invoke a Fallacious Flip, arguing that they would not mind if the gender roles were reversed, and that they wouldn’t mind being raped.

What is wrong with this argument—besides heterosexual men’s tendency to incorrectly visualize the thought experiment as the heterosexual-male-fantasy trope where the man is chased by only the women who look like models—is that they fail to take into account the power imbalance between men and women. A better analogy would be imagining whether the need for security of body or the “need” for sex has a higher priority within a male prison, where men have a high chance of being raped. If you are a man and you do not understand why the claim that sex is a basic need is rapist logic, then imagine being in a male prison where about half the prison population is larger and stronger than you, and where rape is a real threat. Imagine that when you resist the sexual advances of an inmate who is larger and stronger than you, the inmate asserts that sex is a basic need, accuses you of violating his human rights, claims that you have social power over him because you reject him, and states that you are being hostile.

Statistically, men have the power to deny women sex through physical force, which is why a world where everyone has the ability to rape everyone else would benefit men. Unfortunately, this “hypothetical” world is hardly a thought experiment; it is very much the reality we are living in. Women are much more likely to be raped than men, despite the requirement of sexual consent being encoded into law. Thus, when men assert that sex is a basic need, they are not making some philosophical, abstract, or theoretical argument about what counts as a “basic human need”. They are advancing the status quo of rape culture in a society where men rape women because they do not prioritize consent.

Sex is not a basic need. Unlike breathing, food, and water, having sex with another person is not necessary for survival. Asexual people exist, live full lives, and are complete human beings. To argue that sex is a basic need is indeed a display of both entitlement and privilege. Women are not being hostile towards men when we complain about men feeling “entitled” to sex. Men are being hostile and threatening to women when they make elaborate arguments about why their libido is more important than our security of body.


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26 Responses to “The ethical corollary of “sex is a basic human need” is that rape is justified.”

  1. Jayn Says:

    Sex as a survival need only makes sense if you’re looking at it from the perspective of a species. As with anything, applying group logic to an individual is missing the point. That’s also the only reason I can think of that ‘sex’ and ‘sexual intimacy’ would be split up.

    Whoever wrote that comment is also missing the division between ones needs and desires, and others’ responsibilities to one. We all need to eat, but I think most of us would also agree that, while the action is understandable, that does not give one the right to steal food from another. No matter how badly you need something, that does not give you the right to take it from another person. If I need food, I look for someone who is willing to provide me with some. If I want sex, same deal. If you can’t find anyone willing, the problem probably isn’t us. To quote Dr. Phil, ‘the common denominator is you’.

  2. FlawInTheSystem Says:

    “No matter how badly you need something, that does not give you the right to take it from another person. ”

    Given the right conditions I find this untrue. If starving, with no other way of obtaining food or starving another, I would steal it. I need food to survive.

    But I, in no way, require sex for my personal survival.

  3. Robin Says:

    Yep, as Flaw says. I have no issues with someone stealing when the alternative is them starving to death. But sex is not a requirement for life, even for those with sex addiction.

    “They might even invoke a Fallacious Flip, arguing that they would not mind if the gender roles were reversed, and that they wouldn’t mind being raped.”

    I have seen this bullshit so much. Statements like, “I wouldn’t be complaining if some chick held me down and fucked me,” and shit like that. They don’t understand that rape =/= good sex for the person being raped.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    “Statements like, “I wouldn’t be complaining if some chick held me down and fucked me,” and shit like that. They don’t understand that rape =/= good sex for the person being raped.”

    Yes, I think men who keep saying things like that should be thrown into prison just so they’d know what it’s really like to be raped.

  5. FlawInTheSystem Says:

    “Yes, I think men who keep saying things like that should be thrown into prison just so they’d know what it’s really like to be raped.”

    Because that solves everything. Or re-enforces rape culture.

    Which do you think?

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Then again, I don’t claim to want to solve anything. All I want is for people like that to know what it’s like to be in a position where non-consensual sex is actually a threat.

  7. Kitty Stryker Says:

    See, I find this interesting, esp in relation to my recent blog post about consent and the developmentally disabled (read here: http://purrversatility.blogspot.com/2011/02/who-can-consent.html )- while I agree that sexual access to another isn’t a right, I do think people have a right to privacy and sexual expression- which doesn’t have to involve anyone else. And I think people have the right to access to tools to give informed consent- again, there’s a difference between having the right to sexual agency and having rights to the sexual agency of others (if that makes sense?)

  8. melektaus Says:

    This is a very confusing post. You seem to be confusing rights with needs.

  9. melektaus Says:

    You said:

    “Sex is not a basic need. Unlike breathing, food, and water, having sex with another person is not actually required for survival. ”

    Though I agree that the argument that men are entitled to sex because sex is a basic need is fallacious, I disagree that the reason it is false is because sex is not a basic need. It is. Don’t confuse the use of “basic need” with “need necessary for survival” which is totally different.

  10. Restructure! Says:

    melektaus,

    No, rights and needs are not the same thing. Rights exist within an ethical framework, while needs are outside any ethical system. However, assuming the ethical system where more basic needs have priority over less basic ones, then the assertion that sex is more basic than security of body entails that rape is ethically justified. That’s why I called it an “ethical corollary” instead of just a corollary.

    Why is sex a basic need?

  11. melektaus Says:

    “Why is sex a basic need?”

    Basic as used by Maslow and many people simply means “physiological” or “natural” need. In this since, it clearly is a basic need. It doesn’t give it any normative or other kind of priority over any other need.

    “However, assuming the ethical system where more basic needs have priority over less basic ones, then the assertion that sex is more basic than security of body entails that rape is ethically justified.”

    I’m still a little confused about your post. Why would “basic” in the sense Maslow used be relevant to the system of ethical rights you speak of? Maslow’s hierarchy is not relevant to the hierarchy of rights entitlements which is very complex system and is a moral system where moral considerations are relevant, not psychological, biological, etc as Maslow’s theory is meant to deal with.

  12. Restructure! Says:

    melektaus,

    That’s a good point. It shouldn’t be the case that an ethical implication (within an ethical system) affects the truth of a descriptive statement about biology. I suppose what’s happening is that a contradiction or absurdity is found, which means that one of the premises is false. The false premise may be that sex is a basic need, OR the false premise may be the ethical system where more basic needs have (ethical) priority over less basic needs.

    I suppose you can argue that the assumed ethical system is the false assumption that leads to the contradiction (not the assumption that sex is a basic need), but I am assuming that the ethical system is a correct ethical system.

  13. melektaus Says:

    Maybe I should be a little detailed in my response. I think that in order to correctly refute the argument (though I don’t know who actually has made such a one) that men are entitled to sex from any one woman because sex is a basic need is not to revise what Maslow meant by basic need or even to bring in Maslow’s hierarchy.

    All it takes is just to point out that just because one has a basic need for something (or any need) doesn’t mean that a particular arbitrary person is *obligated* to satisfy that need. Many people have needs for all kinds of things, some natural or basic, others not, some strong needs, some not so strong. Even the need (desire) to continue living, for example, is not claimant on everyone to satisfy that need. If someone is dying because they need a bone marrow transplant and will die otherwise, that doesn’t mean that Jane-Doe-off-the-street is obligated to donate her bone marrow to him. He has no right to her bone marrow even if his need for it is great and required for his survival. You can make the case that people are not obligated to satisfy others’ sexual needs without any reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by simply resorting to the talk of rights and obligations (moral concepts instead of Maslow’s conceptual framework of motivation).

    I hope that’s a little clearer.

    Nan

  14. melektaus Says:

    “I suppose you can argue that the assumed ethical system is the false assumption that leads to the contradiction (not the assumption that sex is a basic need), but I am assuming that the ethical system is a correct ethical system.”

    I agree. I made a somewhat related post on my philosophy blog about the morality of sexual attraction. It is not couched in rights talk but in talk about “fairness” broadly construed in making discriminating judgments as to sexual attraction and choice to have sex with.

    http://lapisphilosophorum333.blogspot.com/2011/01/morality-of-attraction.html

  15. Restructure! Says:

    You can make the case that people are not obligated to satisfy others’ sexual needs without any reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by simply resorting to the talk of rights and obligations (moral concepts instead of Maslow’s conceptual framework of motivation).

    Yes, but what’s missing from that is that some men’s sense of entitlement to sex consistently results in violations of security of body for women. There is a difference in privilege.

    For men who really do feel that they are being victimized when women reject them, talking about rights and obligations would appear to be talk of “political correctness”, or, for geek men, it would be perceived as talk of “social skills” and social norms.

  16. Rowan Says:

    Someone made a comment that being hungry doesn’t give you the right to steal food. A better analogy would be that being hungry does not give you the right to murder someone and eat them.

  17. andygodfrey Says:

    This seems to be one of those many cases of privilege appropriating and misusing the language used by minorities to assert their own rights. There is such a thing as having one’s right to sexual expression denied, but it tends to happen to e.g. LGB people, disabled people, and women. Whatever a right to sexual expression consists in (and it’s certainly not a right to have sex from a particular person), it’s staggering to suggest to suggest that it is heterosexual men of all people who have it denied.

  18. grth Says:

    I would change “sex” in the physiological category to “sexual release”. This can be achieved by masturbation, and therefore unlike the other things in the physiological category (food, etc. which are finite resources) there is no need for other beings to share or contribute to it, and no one would be required to help with the sexual release.

    That leaves sexual intimacy (with others)higher up the scale with “friendship and family.” Since no one suggests the fact that friendship is a human need means people are entitled to be friends with whoever they want, hopefully sexual intimacy would come to be seen in the same way: as one of the higher human needs, but not one that other beings should feel obligated to fulfill unless they want to.

  19. Sara Says:

    I understand, from a neurobiological perspective, why Maslow categorized ‘sex’ the way he did.

    I also understand why categorizing it this way has become socially problematic.

    Perhaps it needs to be made clear that it doesn’t have to be partnered sex; that a person’s most basic, biologically-driven sexual needs can be (mostly) met without the participation of another person. I’m not sure how it would be worded; saying ‘orgasm’ instead of ‘sex’ might make it clear that DIY is fine, but still seems too narrow to me.

    Suggestions?

  20. wriggles Says:

    I’d change ‘sex’ to ‘sexual intercourse’. Anyone can masturbate on on their own or with someone else willing, i.e have sex.

    But of course mutual masturbation doesn’t celebrate the almighty phallus and pay tribute to its supposed fertility.

    The idea of women’s bodies being a mere adjunct of men’s ‘basic need’ is so deranged I almost pity the person who sees it as reasonable.

  21. sheenyglass Says:

    It seems like there can be two ways in which someone would refer the witholding of sex. One of which is a rank sense of entitlement, in which women in general are responsible for ensuring that each and every many is completely fulfilled. The other is more complicated, as it stems from the idea of a relationship as an agreement between two people to be responsibile for each other’s well-being. In this context witholding of sex is used analogously to emotional witholding. Or, alternatively, it is viewed as a component of emotional witholding; denying intimacy in general, of which sex is a part.

    Of course, if people start viewing the agreement as an entitlement that overrides consent, rather than a framework in which consent is sought and given, it bleeds over into the first category and fosters a vision of relationships as being static inputs and outputs, where I do X and you do Y, ALWAYS BECAUSE THAT WAS THE DEAL! Which causes some men to treat real life like a Bioware relationship (give her 500 chicken bones + asked her about her childhood three times -> get laid).

    I’m wondering if sometimes when men talk about a need for sex, they think they are talking about sex in a purely consensual/relationship context where sex is a legitimate part of what couples give each other, without really engaging with the way in which a sense of entitlement and the idea of a relationship as an agreement can overlap. So they become overly defensive because they mistake a criticism of entitlement for a criticism of the desire for companionship.

  22. Additional Linkspam « Writing From Factor X Says:

    [...] a piece I found on Restructure, not about asexuality per se but has some interesting criticism of [...]

  23. More Linkspam « Writing From Factor X Says:

    [...] a piece I found on Restructure, not about asexuality per se but has some interesting criticism of [...]

  24. If you value sexual consent, then you should accept rejection. « Restructure! Says:

    [...] The ethical corollary of “sex is a basic human need” is that rape is justified. [...]

  25. H Says:

    I’m not sure if Maslow meant “orgasm” (which can be achieved alone) when he included sex in the physiological needs, but if he meant partnered sexual activity, you are certainly correct to find it ethically problematic.

  26. Paul Says:

    I’m kind of a loner type guy, never really had any urges toward sex male or female. They say guys are wired for sex, my wires must be all messed up. I just never felt that way! I’ve worked hard all my life, started a paper route at 12 yrs old, The only time I didn’t work was when I spent 2 god awful years with uncle sam, some thing I regret ever doing. Should have headed to Canada. Any way never had sex nor do I want it, I can’t understand that there would a need fo sex. I’m approaching 67 yrs old enjoy my life.


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