A while ago I was invited by the Exeter Debating Society to argue against the claim that casual sex is morally wrong. Although I thought that was a strange question to ask, I had never been to a debating society event and was curious to see how it was. So I accepted. Somewhat naively, I thought that it would be very easy to defeat the claim, not the least because I imagined that most students would not feel that there was anything wrong with it. However, I was in for a surprise. As it turned out, the majority of the house voted with yes: casual sex was indeed morally wrong. I was a bit taken aback, but then did my best to argue persuasively that even though having lots of casual sex might not be as desirable as it may seem, it is certainly not morally wrong.
Meanwhile my opponents, one of which was a colleague of mine, said a lot about the good life, true intimacy, and commitment, and how casual sex destroyed all that, none of which, I thought, was in any way relevant to the question. Yes to my shock and dismay, when the debate was over and the house was asked once again to cast their vote, nothing had changed: the majority still thought that casual sex was morally wrong. For me that was an almost traumatic experience. It certainly ruined my day (and night). Not that I'm a big fan of casual sex; it's just that I didn't expect British students to be so morally conservative and so immune to reason.
Casual sex is when two people decide to have sex with each other without having any intention to enter into a long-lasting relationship with their sexual partner. They just want to have sex with the other person, nothing more and nothing less. Now how can that be morally wrong? Of course we can imagine situations in which it is. When you're in a relationship, then having sex with someone else might be a breach of trust, or a breach of the implicit promise to share a certain degree of intimacy only with your partner. But then it is these circumstances that make the act morally wrong, or at least morally dubious, and not the casualness of it. Casual sex may certainly be unwise (though it doesn't have to be), or it may turn out that for one of the participants it was less casual than for the other. If there are different expectations, then this may well result in tears and hurt. But that still doesn't make it morally wrong, unless one is deliberately misleading the other. The fact that someone is hurt by something I do, is not sufficient to declare my action morally wrong. There are all sorts of things that we do that hurt other people without being morally wrong. I might, for instance, hurt a student by giving them a bad mark. Yet as long as the mark is fair and reflects their actual achievement, they may hurt all they want and I still haven't done anything that would qualify as morally wrong. Conversely, however, it seems to me that if nobody is hurt by something we do, then it cannot possibly be morally wrong. So clearly, if two people give each other pleasure, sexual or otherwise, and then part and each go their own way, there is nothing whatsoever morally wrong with that.