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Harry Benson: Oxford students vote for promiscuity


Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in a debate at the Oxford Union.

Formal debates start with a motion that “this house thinks …” or “this house would …” do something. Invited speakers, and students from the 300-strong audience, then have a chance to speak alternately in favour or against the motion. For the speakers, the evening is great fun but also incredibly nerve-racking. At the end, the audience file out through doors marked “ayes” or “noes” and the tallies are counted.

Last week’s motion, against which I was invited to oppose, was that “promiscuity is a virtue, not a vice”. Speaking in favour were variously an Oxford student, a man who runs an affairs website, two actresses and two bloggers. Speaking against, alongside me, were an MP, a director of a schools sex and relationship education charity, and a journalist.

The debate was good natured and humorous, if occasionally salacious. The proposers mainly argued that promiscuity was not a vice but rarely ventured how it might be a virtue, other than being fun. The opposers mainly argued about the importance of relationship and the consequences of promiscuity.

The end result was that the “ayes” carried the motion by a majority of two to one.

I have to admit to being surprised and disappointed at the result. Two years ago, I was on a team that defeated the motion against formidable opposition that “marriage is outdated”. In both debates, as opposers, we presented evidence and argument from social science as well as anecdote. Yet whereas then we persuaded the audience that marriage is not outdated, this time we failed to persuade them that promiscuity is not a virtue.

On reflection, what this debate has highlighted for me is the disconnect between “what I do now” and “what I expect to do in the future”. Students think that it’s OK to sleep around without consequence, because it’s fun. When the time comes to settle down with somebody they love, they can get married without consequence. Play now, marry later.

Ironically, students at Oxford University should be more aware than anybody that their actions now profoundly influence their future. After all, they attend one of the best universities in the world precisely to strengthen their future prospects.

Where we fell short in the debate was in failing to convince the audience that a relaxed attitude to sexual relationships now comes at the cost of our likelihood of a stable relationship in the future.

“Of course you can have fun now. But don’t think for a second that this is risk free”. We presented the evidence. But they didn’t want to buy it.

Thirty years ago, most people – including me – smoked. Even if they heard the evidence that smoking is linked to cancer, they chose to ignore it. After all, it’s fun. Today, few smoke because everyone knows about the consequences. In the end, the evidence won through.

Thirty years ago, the birth control revolution was just taking off, encouraging sex without commitment. And that’s why, despite my initial disappointment, I remain hopeful that, even if students don’t buy the evidence that sexual promiscuity has serious knock-on effects on future relationships yet, some day they will.

We might have lost the debate last week. But in the end, the evidence will win through.

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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