Psychiatrists compare views on ethics of the bedroom

McHugh

Heiman

Sydney Maltese | Staff Writer

Hold onto your bench — sex is the topic of Tuesday’s 10:45 a.m. lecture.

“It’s hard to be boring about this subject. You’d have to really try to be boring,”
Dr. Paul McHugh said of his morning lecture in the Amphitheater with Dr. Julia Heiman.

Heiman and McHugh will discuss the ethics of cheating in sexual relationships, and whether cheating on a partner deserves its widely accepted negative reputation.

McHugh, University Distinguished Service Professor of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, previously served as director of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. He also served on President George W. Bush’s council on bioethics.

Heiman serves as director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana State University, and her work focuses on understanding patterns of sexuality from an integrated psychosocial-biomedical perspective. She is broadly published in the area of sex research on male and female sexual function and dysfunction.

“We’ll have differences — there’s just no way of not having differences,” said Heiman, of her view compared to McHugh’s. But both presenters understand the psychological connections at play in marital relationships.

“The things that psychiatrists bring to this issue are not so much a psychiatric approach as they are an understanding of the matter at hand — namely, sexuality, intimacy, commitment — that goes into a marital life,” McHugh said.

Though not acquainted in person, McHugh and Heiman know of each other’s work, and look forward to a give-and-take on the standard of ethics for relationships. While McHugh brings to the Amp the applied perspective of a practicing clinician, Heiman will bring a more research-based perspective.

“I’ll come at it more from the perspective of what people say about affairs, in terms of the research and polls that have been done,” Heiman said. “How do we understand that, given that we’re sampling a taboo behavior, a behavior that most Americans find morally objectionable by a long shot?”

McHugh plans to explain why commitment is naturally convenient, since it makes for a strong family unit for raising offspring.

“As a doctor, I’m going to ask the question — which people might find interesting — what is sex for?” he said. “Sex, it turns out, is nature’s way of turning a stranger into a relative.”

He argues that breaking commitment in an intimate relationship results in significant injury and distress, and he plans to cite some very famous examples.

“I’m going to have examples that people know a lot about, given that both President Clinton and President Kennedy have now been proven to be cheaters in this matter,” McHugh said. “They’ve both suffered in their reputations, and certainly in their married lives, and ultimately in their accomplishments because of it.”

He will also differentiate between enchantment and love.

“I want it to be a revelation, really,” McHugh said. “What psychiatrists are trying to do all the time, remember, is illuminate for people what they are getting into in relationships and in many aspects of their behavior — sexual behavior is just one of them.”

Heiman also plans to mention other writings about affairs, and how those who write about cheating reveal a great deal about the experience.

“I’ll look at the consequences to affairs, and what we’re really missing — in my opinion — in trying to understand this phenomenon, this aspect of a number of people’s lives,” Heiman said.

Ethics in sexuality, Heiman said, contributes to one’s perspective of ethics in other aspects of his or her life.

“We’re focusing on sexuality, but sexuality fits into people’s lives in the broader context of living their daily lives,” Heiman said, “which is lived in a social sphere of other things going on and other message they’re getting.”

McHugh served as a morning lecturer at Chautauqua previously, speaking again about sex. Heiman, however, is visiting the Institution for the first time.

The time for discussing those ethical issues, according to both, is now.

“I think to have a larger conversation about this is really what we should be doing, as a civil society,” Heiman said.