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On Using

May 16, 2012

I want to talk about the concept of “using” someone. This can come up in a lot of contexts, but I’m going to specifically talk about sex.

Every relationship is a series of transactions. You do things for other people, and you get things in return. That doesn’t mean you have to do things because you expect the other person to do something: your reward could be the simple pleasure of giving, or the pleasure of seeing someone you love happy. It also doesn’t mean the value of the rewards has to be the same, or the cost of giving them equal. All that matters–all that matters–is that each person freely engages in the transaction, and that the value of what they get is to them worth the cost of whatever they’ve given.

In the case of what is sometimes called casual sex–though sex without expectations or promises does not have to be at all “casual”–it can be the case that in the exchange, one person is seeking physical pleasure, the other emotional intimacy. Or at least, they are seeking these things in different measures: I think it’s rare that we ever really go after only one or the other (perhaps I’m naive). Most people looking into these arrangements might be inclined to say the pleasure seeker is “using” the emotionally involved person. That’s overly simplistic. If each of them gets what they want and need out of the encounter, then in what way is anyone doing anyone harm?

Even in cases where both parties are primarily seeking pleasure, many people in mainstream society tend to turn up their noses and say they are using each other–as though an exchange of physical pleasure somehow harms one or both of them (probably the woman, but not always).

Accusations of “using” are, in many cases, rather paternalistic. I need to be able to assume that, with few exceptions, the people I encounter in my life, and with whom I engage in any kind of transaction but especially a sexual/emotional one, are reasoning adults who can take responsibility for their own emotions. That doesn’t mean I should hang them out to dry and then say “be responsible for yourself”: I need to communicate, and I need to act with compassion.

And that’s the key. In evaluating whether someone, even ourselves, is behaving ethically, the questions to ask are not whether the two people gave/received the same thing (that’s not important), or whether they gave/received things of equal value (it’s for each person to decide the value of what they’ve gotten or given), or whether they gave/received something we would want ourselves. It’s whether each person has acted with compassion and above all honesty. If you are open about what you want and what you have to give, then it’s your partner’s call as to whether that’s good enough for them. The term “using” should only apply if you deliberately deceive someone about what they can expect from you, or trick them into giving you something they didn’t intend to give (an example: slipping a condom off during sex. This happened to someone I know.)

I was accused of using W for sex, of letting him become more attached to me so I could get something I wanted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our transactions were entered into freely: we both got pleasure. We both got closeness, though we each valued it differently. We each felt love, though it was a different kind of love. Neither of us ever coerced or lied to the other. We never used false pretences to get what we wanted. We were both happier for it having happened.

What do you think about the idea of “using” other people? Is it a term you use, and in what context? Is it always negative?

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