The difficult question is whether there are sexual obligations outside such relationships
X also knows that were X to have sex with Z, there’s a serious risk that Y, X’s partner, will find out and dissolve the relationship with X, a relationship that X values
If having sex is a basic need, perhaps plausible cases involve a health caretaker alleviating the sexual needs of a patient. Even if not a duty, such actions might be classified as supererogatory (Soble 2017a: 453–54; see below). These cases are plausible only if sexual needs are basic and if certain professionals have duties to meet them. One can argue that although under the usual conception of “health care professional” (e.g., a nurse) there are no such duties, society should create a category of such professionals to meet these needs-if they are indeed basic.
Still, sexual obligations might exist outside professional roles, based in general duties of benevolence-attending to someone’s sexual needs would be similar to attending to someone’s hunger (Soble 2017a: 454–55). But who is to fulfill these obligations? What would their fulfillment amount to (is masturbating the beneficiary of the duty enough)? Do the gender and sexual orientation of the parties matter? These are tough questions, but they have their parallels in nonsexual domains-Who has to fulfill the obligation to feed the starving? Is a plate of boiled rice enough or more sophisticated dishes are required?
For some reason, having sex is a crucial need for Z, and X knows this
But they might not be exactly parallel. The extent to which someone’s sexual needs are properly met does somewhat depend on their sexual desires and preferences: a straight man’s needs might not be met by a gay one, and straight women meeting men’s sexual needs is troubling given sexism and gender-based oppression. Moreover, if X’s sexual need cannot be alleviated by X masturbating, how the needs are to be met is a pressing question, and so is how the depth of a sexual need is determined to see whether it gives rise to an obligation.
Even if such sexual obligations do not exist, obligations to ourselves to develop or dampen certain sexual preferences might, assuming there are general moral obligations to ourselves. Pedophiles, for example, might have an obligation to change their preferences, not merely to refrain from acting on them. Other examples include obligations to change one’s preferences (or their lack) for, say, members of a particular race, ethnic group, age group, body type, etc. These are more controversial, however, because it is not clear that such preferences are bad to begin with (Halwani 2017b; Zheng 2016), and some might not be under our control as others are (preference for skin color vs. age group).
(3) A supererogatory action is permissible but not obligatory, is intended to benefit the recipient, involves, or probably involves, “a significant reduction in the interests or good of the agent, [o]r the act is risky, significantly, not trivially”, and is such that the agent knows or truly believes this in advance (Soble 2017a: 452; the agent’s belief has to be true; falsely believing that the act is risky might disqualify the act from being supererogatory). There can easily be permissible, non-obligatory sexual actions intended to benefit the recipient. So everything hinges on the criterion of serious risk to the agent.
The inclusion of risk is controversial, because one can imagine non-obligatory actions that greatly benefit another without risk to the agent (the examples of supererogation given in Heyd 2015 include both risk and non-risk cases). But it is plausible to assume it because it explains why the agent, not only the act, is admirable, and (see below) without risk it is implausible to speak of supererogatory sexual acts. What are the risks to the agent in the case of sexual supererogation? Risk of pregnancy is one, risk of contracting serious (or not so serious) diseases is another. But consider: X is attracted to and wants to have sex with Z, whom X meets in a bar. X nonetheless has sex with Z (and enjoys it). This satisfies the conditions for a supererogatory act, but it is doubtful that X performs one. The presence of sexual desire and the prospect of sexual pleasure lower the degree of the supererogation, if not entirely nullifying it. This is not parallel to other cases of supererogation, in which no additional motive to wanting to help someone exists. In X’s case, X intends to benefit Z but also to derive pleasure from the sexual act. This might affect its supererogatory status.