Philosophy of Sex
PHILOSOPHY OF SEX
In the last quarter of the twentieth century a distinct, new subarea of philosophy came to life, the philosophy of sex. Many philosophical books and professional journal articles on various aspects of sex appeared in print during this period; university-level courses devoted substantially or entirely to the philosophy of sex proliferated, as did textbooks for these courses (the first, the anthology Philosophy and Sex, was published in 1975, edited by Robert Baker and Frederick Elliston); and in 1977 a professional organization, The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, was founded.
The new philosophical investigation of sexuality emerged partially in concert with second-wave feminism's critique of both the politics of sexual difference, including gender discrimination, and the politics of sexual desire and behavior, including widespread social and legal contempt for the sexual preferences and lifestyles of gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and the transgendered. But the philosophy of sex was (and has been) historically and thematically separate from any particular ethical, political, metaphysical, or religious perspective. Indeed, the discipline encompasses a host of viewpoints, schools, approaches, and methods, as shown by its eclectic teaching and research materials, for example, Igor Primoratz's collection Human Sexuality (1997) and Alan Soble's encyclopedia Sex from Plato to Paglia (2005).
By the early twenty-first century, scholars working in the philosophy of sex had exhumed much of its history, although many figures and movements remained to be explored. They had also written about numerous conceptual, ontological, ethical, and political matters. In addition to "sexual activity" and "sexual desire," perhaps the two fundamental concepts (or phenomena) of the area, subjects investigated included marriage (same- and other-sex), fidelity and adultery, consent and coercion, seduction, exploitation, sexual objectification, sexual harassment, rape, date and acquaintance rape, pornography, prostitution (and other sex work), sexual perversion, incest, pedophilia, group sex, masturbation, sexual orientation, sadomasochism, and sex with and without love, commitment, or psychological intimacy (casual sex, promiscuity). Analytic, existentialist, phenomenological, poststructuralist, postmodernist, evolutionary, conservative, liberal, feminist, Marxist, and diverse religious philosophers have all had their say.
A History of the Philosophy of Sex
The philosophical discussion of sex in the West began with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BCE). His dialogues Symposium and Phaedrus, which are about eros (identified in the former work as a powerful passion to possess the good and beautiful), are provocative, astute, and an indispensable foundation for anyone interested in pursuing the philosophy of sex. Although Plato's student Aristotle (384–322 BCE) had little to say about eros, he meditates at length in his Nicomachean Ethics (books 8, 9) about philia (friendship-love), arguing that genuine friends improve each other's virtue and want the good for each other for each other's sake. Those who engage in research in the philosophy of sex commonly also study the related phenomena of love and friendship. Furthermore, the philosophy of sex generates its most instructive results when approached interdisciplinarily, that is, when it pays attention not only (and most obviously) to the psychology of sex and love but also to the sociology and history of mating practices and marriage forms, the anthropology of sexual and fertility rites and rituals, and the anatomical, physiological, and genetic findings of biomedical science.
Between antiquity and the twenty-first century, many philosophers, theologians, and others in the humanities made significant contributions to the richness of the philosophy of sex. Among the figures who made a lasting impact is St. Augustine (354–430), the Bishop of Hippo (in North Africa). Augustine was a profound thinker about sex and the human condition, as can be seen in his The City of God (for example, book 14), in which he expresses apprehension (as Plato did) about the threat to self-mastery and individual contentment by the forcefulness of the sexual impulse. Also noteworthy are the people with whom Augustine had theological disputes over the nature of the prelapsarian sexuality of Adam and Eve and the effects on sexuality of the Fall: on the one side, the radically more sexually ascetic St. Jerome (the translator of a Latin Vulgate bible, in 380) and, on the other, the much more sexually relaxed Pelagians, including Julian (c. 386–454), Bishop of Eclanum—battles recounted well by Princeton University historian of religion Elaine Pagels (1988). Innumerable later medieval theologians were also important (see Brundage 1987), from Peter Abelard and his student, lover, and wife Heloise, whose tragic lives and impassioned letters are lessons in ardent sexual desire and an equally ardent Christianity, to St. Thomas Aquinas, tutored by Albertus Magnus (who also set about to merge Catholicism with Aristotle). In his stupendous Summa theologiae (1265–1273), Aquinas formulated a natural law theory that eventually (1879) became the authoritative foundation of Catholic teaching about sexuality.
After the medievalists, there came, from 1500 to 1900, a stream of colorful scholars: the skeptic Michel De Montaigne (1533–1592), author of the famous essay "On Friendship" and the lesser known "Of the Power of the Imagination," on sexuality; the French mathematician and rationalist philosopher René Descartes, whose last book (1649) was The Passions of the Soul ; the Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume, who proposed in his monumental A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740) that the amorous passion "betwixt the sexes" was composed of three discordant elements: kindness, lust, and a response to beauty (2.2.11); the Englishman Thomas Hobbes (life in the state of nature, he wrote in 1651, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" [Leviathan, sec. 1.13]), who contended in his earlier "Human Nature" (sec. 9.15) that sexual desire is actually composed of two distinct desires, a desire to be sexually pleased by the other person and (as anomalous as it sounds) a desire to please the other; his adversary, a defender of the state of nature, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who promulgated terrifying warnings about the evils of self-abuse (the solitary vice) in his autobiography, Confessions, and in a treatise devoted to educational techniques, Emile ; the philosopher and physician Bernard Mandeville, who, in A Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724), praised prostitution in part because it prevented self-abuse, or so he was convinced; the bachelor Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who alleged that sexual love not combined with "human love" is merely an appetite that, when satisfied, discards the other person like a lemon sucked dry (Lectures on Ethics 1997, Ak 27:384); the Marquis de Sade, whose inventory of acrobatic and monstrous sexual feats in 120 Days of Sodom (c. 1785) proclaims that "anything goes," and who died in the Charenton insane asylum; G. W. F. Hegel, who, wielding dialectical logic in "On Love" (1797–1998), claimed that during sex (only during good sex?) "consciousness of a separate self disappears, and all distinction between the lovers is annulled" (p. 307); the Danish Christian-existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whose brilliant "Diary of a Seducer" and portrayal of the aesthetic/sensual and ethical stages of life in Either/Or (1843) began the decade-long analysis of his broken engagement with his beloved Regine Olsen; a German fan of Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), whose nineteenth-century metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and deification of the reproductive function of sexuality in World as Will and Representation uncannily anticipated both Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose Communist Manifesto (1848) equated being a prostitute and being a bourgeois wife, an idea far from dead among contemporary feminist scholars; John Stuart Mill, the author of the definitive feminist treatise Subjection of Women, who employed, in On Liberty (1859), his liberal utilitarianism to exonerate Mormon polygyny and pimps or brothels; and, closer to the fin-de-siècle, a German fan of Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, who, with myriad scattered, sharp aphorisms about the sexes to his credit, still failed to negotiate benignly his crush on the vamp Lou Salomé and ended up dying in an insane asylum.
After Plato and Augustine, philosophical deliberation about sex became less urgent. With the exception of the thorough Thomas and the obsessed Sade, those mentioned above did most of their philosophy in epistemology, ontology, ethics, economics, and political theory, writing only sporadically on sexuality. The twentieth century, however, witnessed an outpouring of candid, sometimes shocking, inquiries into human sexuality. First was Sigmund Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), which audaciously challenged myths about childhood sexual innocence and postulated that human sexual nature was polymorphously perverse. Freud's legacy includes the maverick psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), who explored sex and language, and Lacan's Slovenian student Slavoy Žižek, who has explored nearly everything, from the role of power in human sexuality to cultural variations in the technology of toilets. Later came Bertrand Russell's Marriage and Morals (1929), which combined a prescient and formidable feminism with a well-reasoned critique of marital sexual fidelity. Marriage and Morals, called a "lecherous" book by some, cost Russell an appointment at the City University of New York. Then, during the thick of World War II (1943), Jean-Paul Sartre's L'être et le néant was published. Sartre unabashedly exposed the "bad faith" of the woman who allows an unwelcome male hand to remain on her knee without so much as a mild squawk. In sexual interactions, for Sartre, we always desire to capture the freedom of the other. That endeavor, however, is doomed to failure; consequently, he argued, sexual relations reduce to masochism or sadism.
Soon afterwards appeared Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex ) by Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre's long-standing companion, with its primordial yet fertile feminist accounts of love, sex, and gender: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (p. 267). Beauvoir's "Must We Burn Sade?" helped garner for the Divine Marquis a persisting scholarly interest. Coming before and after Sartre and Beauvoir were some social philosophers—Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), and Norman O. Brown (1913–2002)—who tried to solder an alliance between Freud's psychology and Marx's humanist economics in the name of liberating sexuality from oppressive Victorian morality and twentieth-century political tyranny. (Marcuse's Eros and Civilization  is a worthy successor to Freud's 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents.) Outside philosophy, Alfred Kinsey and his associates at Indiana University stirred up a hornet's nest by investigating in the late 1940s the extent of homosexual and other atypical sexual behaviors in America.
More recently, New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel domesticated Sartrean insights and fashioned from them, in "Sexual Perversion" (1969), an H. P. Gricean theory of psychologically natural human sexuality. It is routinely acknowledged that this essay inaugurated contemporary philosophy of sex. It was followed almost immediately by a swarm of sophisticated discussions and rebuttals that also boosted the field, including essays by Sara Ruddick, Robert C. Solomon, Janice Moulton, Jerome Shaffer, Robert Gray, and Alan Goldman. In his wide-ranging and erudite Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic (1986), politically conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton rehabilitated nearly everything traditional, from sexual fidelity in marriage to Rousseau's condemnation of the solitary vice and, in an already sexual-orientation sensitive climate, Scruton fearlessly raised doubts about homosexuality. In Sex and Reason (1992), law professor and Judge Richard Posner expounded a no-nonsense, pragmatic/utilitarian ethical and legal philosophy of sex, and articulated what we should expect sexually from homo economicus (e.g., male pederasty tends to increase in locales in which there is a relative scarcity of women).
Another law professor and political philosopher, Catharine MacKinnon, after her early innovative writings on sexual harassment, dramatically escalated (along with Andrea Dworkin) the feminist battle against sexism. In Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987) and Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), she argued that women's consent to sex in patriarchy is chimerical, implying that all heterosexual intercourse is rape. A third philosopher with legal training, John Finnis, joined by other New Natural Lawyers and the Catholic theologian Germain Grisez, overhauled Thomistic philosophy of sex. Finnis defended, in the Notre Dame Law Review (1994), the crucial but, for many critics, dubious moral distinction between the permitted coital acts of a sterile heterosexual couple and the prohibited sexual acts of a lesbian or gay couple.
This distinction in Catholic ethics has affinities with another one, well worth contemplating, between (illicit) heterosexual coitus in which procreative potential is deliberately impeded by contraceptive devices and (licit) intercourse that is unlikely to be procreative because the couple has deliberately restricted engaging in the act to the infertile period in the wife's cycle (see Anscombe 1976, Wojtyła 1981, and Noonan 1986). The unconventional feminist Camille Paglia frankly told university women, in Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992), that if they go to fraternity parties and willingly drink excessively, it is partially their own foolish fault if their panties come down on a billiard table—thereby adding the cool voice of a humanist public intellectual to the often tempestuous debate in philosophical and legal circles about date and acquaintance rape.
Of special significance is the French Renaissance man Michel Foucault, who caused a thunderstorm among philosophers, historians, and social theorists of sex with the three volumes of his Histoire de la sexualité (1976–1984). Foucault sparked "genealogical" studies informed by the heuristic idea that not only are patterns of sexual desire and behavior socially engineered but also that the very concepts of our sexual discourse are "socially constructed." (He was in part reacting against the discourse of "natural" sexuality found in Reich and Marcuse.) Foucault influenced feminism, gender studies, queer theory, and the debate about the resemblance and continuity, or lack of them, between ancient same-sex relationships and their contemporary counterparts. (These questions are pursued in the collections edited by Edward Stein, by Nussbaum and Sihvola, and by David Halperin and his colleagues. This venture is sharply criticized by Paglia in "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders," in her Sex, Art, and American Culture.) One contested issue is whether homosexuality as a sexual orientation was first recognized in 1869 when the Magyar sexologist Károly Mária Benkert coined a word for it ("homosexuality"), a word unknown to the ancients, who could very well have invented it had they deemed that doing so was philosophically, socially, or medically meaningful. It was late nineteenth-century European sexology that detected value in picking out and labeling a class of persons as homosexual.
Related to the question of the "birth" of the modern homosexual, there is the analytic task of defining "sexual orientation" and each of the various sexual orientations. It seems that neither sexual orientation in general nor any specific sexual orientation can be adequately understood in terms solely of behavior. Because there are many reasons and motives to engage in sex, and many intentions and desires are involved, outward behavior might not reveal anything interesting about a person's core sexual psychology (orientation). A closeted gay male who engages in coitus with his wife to impregnate her does not thereby make or declare himself heterosexual; the frustrated straight male in prison who reluctantly succumbs to mutual masturbation does not thereby become gay; the prostitute who participates in sexual acts with both the male and the female of a couple who has hired her for an evening is not thereby bisexual; an abstinent person who engages in no sexual activity, not even self-abuse, does not necessarily have an "asexual" orientation but may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or polysexual. What the examples suggest is that preferred sexual activity, or activity that one would engage in purely out of desire and for no other reason, is a better indicator of sexual nature than behavior, which might be induced by nonsexual motives. Counterfactual questions such as "What would you prefer to do, given your druthers and all real-life obstacles eliminated?" as well as straightforward questions about sexual fantasies, perhaps those entertained during the solitary vice, and about what a person finds arousing in anticipation (even if not during the anticipated act itself) are more revealing of sexual psychology than an accounting of acts performed. Orientation, then, is largely understood in terms of what sexual desire attaches to and the sources of sexual pleasure. But what are sexual desire and sexual pleasure?
Among the central concepts in the philosophy of sex are sexual desire, sexual activity, sexual pleasure, sexual perversion, sexual arousal, and sexual satisfaction. Philosophers have worked on these concepts, striving to provide clear analyses of them as well as illumination about the role and significance of sexual desire, and the others, in human life. Analytic philosophy of sex attempts to indicate, for example, how sexual desire is different from other kinds of desires; to explain how acts can be specifically sexual instead of some other kind of act; to discover what it is that makes a feeling or sensation one of sexual pleasure; and to determine what meaning, if any, can be given to the idea that some sexual acts (but not others) are unnatural or perverted. In the process of analyzing these central concepts, philosophers of sex have discerned or proposed that understanding any one of them might require understanding some other central concept. A chief case is sexual activity, which might be defined as activity that aims to satisfy sexual desire, or is motivated by sexual desire, or is intended to produce (or does produce) sexual pleasure. These candidate analyses seem to be on the right track, yet they all suffer from the same apparent defect.
The principal problem is that if sexual activity is defined as activity that is motivated by sexual desire or is intended to yield sexual pleasure (which works well for many paradigmatic instances), there are activities that are presumably sexual, are not uncommon, and yet are not captured by these or similarly fashioned definitions. Acts performed by a prostitute may produce pleasure for the paying client or are done by him to satisfy his sexual desires, but these definitions cannot explain why the acts of the prostitute (e.g., fellatio or coitus) are still sexual for her, assuming, which is plausible, that she participates for payment and not out of sexual desire for her client and that she derives no sexual pleasure from what she does or has done to her. The problem is not only that, given this type of analysis, the single act that the client and the prostitute perform together might be a sexual act for the client but not for the prostitute. The conundrum, more specifically, is that the feature (if any) in virtue of which her contribution to the act is sexual is not clear. It might be proposed that sexual activity be analyzed, instead, in terms of the involvement of salient sexual body parts—say, the genitals. If so, acts performed by a prostitute are sexual when and because her genitals are involved. But "involves the genitals" (or any other body part) seems neither necessary nor sufficient for an act to be sexual: some sexual acts are not genital (rubbing the breasts) and some acts that involve the genitals are not sexual (a gynecological exam). Perhaps "sexual body part" should be analyzed in terms of "sexual activity" (a body part is sexual exactly on those occasions when it is employed in a sexual act) rather than the other way around.
Analytic philosophy also tackles "derivative" sexual concepts, a large group of concepts (or phenomena) that include reference to sexuality. Derivative concepts that philosophers have attended to include adultery, jealousy, sexual harassment, casual sex, promiscuity, seduction, flirting, cybersex, and sexual fantasy.
Intriguing questions can be asked about adultery, in addition to standard moral questions, which are also explored by philosophers of sex. Does a nonmarried person who engages in sexual activity with a married person commit adultery? (In the law, the answer varies by jurisdiction.) Does a person commit adultery if she believes falsely that her spouse is deceased? Is adultery altogether a physical act or could desires and fantasies be not only adulterous in spirit but adultery itself? (See Matthew 5:28.) Some claim that in vitro fertilization, if carried out with donor (nonspousal) sperm, constitutes adultery. Can such a judgment be sustained? Casual sex and promiscuity, too, suggest questions beyond the ethical: For how many partners over what period of time is the judgment "promiscuous" accurate? Can one engage in casual sex with one's spouse? (Theologians argue that marital sex can be unchaste. Perhaps in this way it can be casual.) What distinguishes promiscuity from casual sex? Are there moral or perfectionist criticisms that can be made about casual sex and promiscuity other than condemning them for the absence of love, marriage, or commitment? There are difficulties in defining "sexual harassment"—what counts as a sexual advance, an improper sexual comment, or hostile work environment?—and explaining what is wrong with it, when (if) it is wrong—as sexual discrimination, immoral sexual conduct, or misuse of power, authority, or institutional position?
Seduction poses the analytic problem of carving out distinct logical space between rape, on the one side, and completely consensual sexual activity, on the other, and hence may pose novel ethical questions beyond those that apply to the other cases. But the moral issues concern not only the perpetrator of seduction. What about the person who welcomes and encourages being seduced, perhaps to be reassured of attractiveness or power? Sexual fantasy is a ubiquitous human phenomenon that suggests provocative questions: Does sexually fantasizing about a person "use" that person in any robust sense? Is it possible to criticize morally a person who fantasizes sexually about a third party during sexual activity with a partner, while not objecting to sexual fantasy tout court ? What is the relationship between fantasy and sexual desire: Do we fantasize about something (or someone) because we desire it or do we desire it because we have fantasies about it? Jealousy, because of its intentional structure (its dependence upon beliefs), might arise in response to a fantasy. Is the fault with sexual jealousy (if it is faulty) exhausted by its being caused by a false belief or one arrived at negligently? Or can sexual jealousy be deplored because it frequently betrays a wrongful attitude of owning another person?
Cybersex highlights the intentionality of sexuality, because cybersexual arousal depends exquisitely on beliefs about unseen persons; it forces us to ask why another person's body is apparently so important—or not so important, after all—in sexual experiences, which also raises questions about masturbation; and cybersex makes us ponder whether some sexual activity—and therefore, for example, some adultery—may involve no physical touching in the ordinary sense (as does telephone sex). Similarly, flirting might be a sexual activity that falls somewhere between faithfulness and infidelity. To which is it closer? Does this depend on with whom one flirts, why, or the extent to which one is tempted or willing to turn flirting into physical contact? Flirting is interesting also because it is occasionally misread, conveying to some optimistic or deluded recipients an explicit invitation to engage in sex instead of registering merely as playful or teasing. As a result, flirting might sometimes precipitate date or acquaintance rape.
The derivative concept "rape" has long presented special problems. One controversial matter is whether rape should be defined in terms of the absence of consent or the presence of force. This has implications for how the occurrence of rape is established in a court of law. The choice is difficult: A force definition of rape might place too much emphasis on whether or to what extent a woman resists, which many see as irrelevant. A consent criterion implies that tough issues about mens rea become important: Did the accused believe that the woman had consented, even if she didn't; is the accused liable for something he might or should have believed but did not believe (that is, that consent was absent)? The difference between a force and a nonconsent criterion may be illustrated with acquaintance rape. A force criterion tends not to classify such acts as rape, whereas proponents of a nonconsent criterion argue that rape includes all nonforcible yet nonconsensual sex (see McGregor 2005). Further, like prostitution, rape seems to provide a counterexample to the analytic proposal that sexual activity be understood in terms of sexual desire or sexual pleasure.
Perhaps because both prostitution and rape are activities that involve coercion or are not engaged in (fully) voluntarily, they resist being characterized as sexual acts in terms of desire or pleasure. Indeed, it has been argued, on various grounds, that rape is not a sexual activity at all. (Maybe this point applies to prostitution as well.) If a woman, a virgin, is raped and does not thereby, automatically, lose her virginal sexual status, she has not taken part in a sexual activity, at least not one that was sexual for her. But the derivative concept "virginity" and similar notions—abstinence, chastity, celibacy—require careful analysis in their own right. Are they merely a matter of behavior or anatomical characteristics or does state of mind play a role, and how? Another issue concerns the extension of "rape," which accentuates problems in spelling out the meaning of coercion or consent and in deciding why and when coerced or nonconsensual sex is wrong. Suppose a man badgers his wife for sex until she acquiesces, and they engage in sexual activity even though she much prefers not to. Has she been coerced and therefore raped, and is this the reason the act is morally stained? Perhaps badgering does not amount to coercion, but it is still morally suspect. By contrast, some would say that even if the badgering coerces her into sex, it is not especially morally objectionable. Or suppose a woman hints to her husband, "No sex until you buy me that fur coat."
Humans and Other Animals
One debate in the philosophy of sex concerns the relevance of animal sexuality for understanding and judging human sexuality. Some philosophers, for example Thomas Aquinas in Summa contra gentiles (chap. 122, sec. 6), argue from observations of animal sexual behavior to the nature of human sexuality and draw ethically conservative conclusions. These philosophers emphasize (a subset of) that which is common between humans and animals. For example, many animals engage in sexual relations only to reproduce and that, too, is what is significant about human sexuality. Then there are philosophers—those who are sympathetic to sociobiology or evolutionary psychology are among them—who similarly stress what is common to animals and humans, yet draw ethically liberal conclusions. We are fundamentally animals and that fact should not be ignored or minimized; the robust sexuality that is due to our animal nature is suppressed at our peril.
What may distinguish the first group of philosophers from the second is the animal species invoked in drawing conclusions about humans. If one selects as the argument's observational basis monogamous birds (swans) and mammals (wolves), different conclusions will emerge than if one selects more sexually adventuresome species (dogs, the bonobo). The question—Which is the right animal model?—is murky, although similarity of DNA, testicle size, and other traits are potentially useful links. (Why even assume that the same animal model will be the right one for both human males and females?) Regardless, we must avoid the circularity of arguing that a species is the right model because these creatures are remarkably like humans—unless our methodology is a sophisticated "reflective equilibrium." Further, once we select some animal species from which to argue, we must take the "bad" with the "good": The aggression, dominance, promiscuity, and oddness (e.g., urolagnia in some llamas) of animal sexuality, along with its attractive features, have to be extrapolated to humans as well. Against both the conservative and the liberal who argue from animal sexuality to ethics, it can be protested that doing so commits the naturalistic fallacy. What cannot be excluded is that comprehensively studying animals can tell us something about human nature. It is a dangerous leap from there to ethics.
Some philosophers, by contrast, even though acknowledging that humans, as embodied, are undeniably in part animals, perceive sharp discontinuities or differences of kind, not degree, between animals and humans. There are physiological differences such as concealed ovulation and the absence of oestrus in human females that have extensive implications for sexual psychology and behavior. But more striking is the human cerebral cortex and hence cognitive differences between humans and animals. This view can also be taken in an ethically conservative or liberal direction. Conservatives—Scruton, for one, and many theologians—say that humans have mind or soul, something that lifts us above animals, so that even if we have animal urges, we can and should transcend them. Behaving in a humanly civilized fashion is to be accomplished by virtue of our spirit and for the sake of our spirit. But the discontinuity is also compatible with liberal sexual ethics. Nagel, in formulating his theory of psychologically natural human sexuality, emphasizes the differences between animal and human sexuality that result from the nearly unique faculties of the human mind, primarily intentionality and self-consciousness (which also figure prominently in Scruton's philosophy of sex). Yet Nagel comfortably embraces Millian liberal sexual ethics.
Further, for social constructionists animal and human sexuality are of course different, and nothing much is to be gained by comparing them. Human sexuality and sexual discourse vary as much as human culture varies, whereas animals have (by and large) no culture or language that might construct their sexuality or their (nonexistent) conceptions of it. The sociobiologists and their philosophical sympathizers retort: Yes, society constructs much of human sexuality, but human sexuality (to use E. O. Wilson's metaphors) is a twig bent at birth; it is on a leash, tied ultimately to a biological post, a substrate upon which society can work—and which it requires in order to work—its constructionist miracles. As suggested by the mixed results of the medical management of intersex conditions (neonates of ambiguous sex), the social cannot make everyone male, female, straight, or gay. How much of human sexual nature is due to animal biology, and how much to culture, is as difficult to resolve as analogous nature-nurture quandaries about the contribution of race or biological sex on various skills and personality traits. Often these disputes are replaced by (prematurely, perhaps, but not altogether baselessly) brute political machinations, à la Plato's Thrasymachus in the Republic.
One reason for looking at animal sexuality is that this knowledge may serve as a guide to what human sexuality would be like were it not for social interference, that is, in the absence of all cultural influence (although, unlike Freud, social constructionists do not speak of the cultural as an "interference" but as necessarily constitutive). It does not strain the imagination to conceive of cultureless animals as expressing pure state-of-nature sexuality. If humans arrange their sexuality consistently with what is seen among animals (by peeling back various social influences), we can have some faith that we are not too far away from humanly natural, healthy, satisfying sexuality. Such thinking builds on an absorbing and plausible thought, that animal sexuality cannot in any way be unnatural or "perverted." If nothing about morality can be learned from animal sexuality, at least we can get glimpse of normality. There is probably too much Rousseauvian utopianism in this thinking, and of course such a view remains vulnerable to the hitch of which animal model confers the best insight into "normal" humanity. Alternatively, well-founded speculation about the sexuality of prelapsarian Adam and Eve might, for some theologians, supply that information. The Garden of Eden is their Hobbesian state of nature.
As far as popular culture and ordinary folk are concerned, the terms "[sexual] perversion," "[sexually] perverted," and "[sexual] pervert" are not problematic, even if they might not always be in good taste and cause distress to those singled out. "Sexual" is bracketed because "pervert" in ordinary talk implies that the domain of discourse is the sexual. (At least, that is the default position.) By contrast, some philosophers, psychologists, and other academics have argued that "sexual perversion" is outmoded, ontologically groundless, confused, offensive, unscientific, not applicable to anything in human sexual behavior, and hence happily dispensable. Despite the counsel of philosophers and other experts that "perversion" be extirpated from the language, ordinary people use it unflinchingly, as does the Religious Right. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) no longer officially uses "perversion" to refer to sexual disorders but has, since 1980, opted for the clinical "paraphilia," even if an ordinary person's list of perversions is nearly identical to the paraphilias listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM ). ("Paraphilia" is not a total improvement. It is an unlikely group that includes "Philadelphia," "philanthropy," "philosophy"—and "paraphilia.")
The fundamental problem about sexual perversion is distinguishing natural from unnatural sexuality. In carrying out this task, it is necessary to explain not only how certain sexual behaviors (desires, preferences) are perverted but also how they are sexual to begin with. For example, if being potentially procreative is the feature that defines sexual activity, then being nonprocreative cannot be a mark of the sexually perverted, because whatever is not procreative is not sexual. (The acts might still be "nonsexually [or fill in the blank] perverted.") Or if sexual activity is defined as activity that tries to satisfy sexual desire and sexual desire is defined, in turn, as desire for physical contact with another human being, the perversions cannot be sexual, because they typically do not involve desire for that contact: consider the wide variety of fetish objects that excite men. Some would call it special pleading or adhockery, whereas others would see it as a stroke of genius, to say that the fetishist does desire physical contact with a person, unconsciously, and achieves that in a psychologically safe way by substituting the fetish object.
Philosophers and psychologists have tried, with unclear success, to formulate theories about sexual perversion. An obvious contender, that only potentially reproductive sexual acts—acts that are reproductive in their anatomical and physiological forms—are natural, and all others perverted, has seemed plausible to many thinkers (Catholics and some evolutionists, mostly) but implausible to others. Certainly, being nonprocreative is a property that many (preanalytically) perverted sexual acts share: zoophilia, cross-dressing, exhibitionism, voyeurism, klismaphilia, necrophilia, urolagnia, sadomasochism.
But analyzing perversion as nonprocreative sexuality is not straightforward. Some nonprocreative sexual acts are not especially, or at all, perverted: masturbation (solitary or mutual) and oral sex to orgasm. And some purportedly perverted acts (cross-dressing, light sadomasochism) for some people often or regularly culminate in heterosexual intercourse, as if functioning as foreplay. Also note that both vertical (parent-child) and horizontal (sibling-sibling) incest can be procreative, yet many have thought them considerably unnatural (or maybe only repulsive). The sexual practices that are supposed to be subsumed under the label "perversion" or "paraphilia" are extraordinarily diverse, other than being nonprocreative, so finding common, essential features may be doomed—a reason to dispatch the concept. We could still investigate, without using "perversion," behaviors that are unusual, bizarre, harmful, or are done compulsively or exclusively, in preference to every other sexual activity (which category may well include a narrow interest in heterosexual coitus). That "unusual," "bizarre," and "harmful" are to a greater or lesser extent evaluative or culturally bound is why these features of sexual acts cannot be used to develop an objective, scientific, universally sound theory of sexual perversion. Social constructionists applaud this result.
Another question about sexual perversion has to do with its morality. The Roman Catholic position, that what is perverted is for that reason sinful, has not won over many secular adherents. "Premodern" philosophy of sex, which derives from the older Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, understands sexual perversion teleologically as behavior that is incompatible with the (perhaps divinely ordained) species design. Premoderns frequently add that in virtue of this deviation, deliberately performed sexually perverted acts are immoral. But perhaps not every deviation is wrong. Mutual masturbation, cunnilingus, and fellatio, which in themselves are nonprocreative and hence unnatural, might be permissible when they function as preparation for heterosexual marital coitus. "Modern" philosophy of sex dates from the late nineteenth century and the rise of scientific sexology (e.g., Iwan Bloch, Magnus Hirschfeld, Richard Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, Freud). Some modern philosophers of sex retain the biological, teleological account of perversion, whereas others (Freud, Nagel) replace that with a more sophisticated psychological account.
What the two branches of modern philosophy of sex share is a refusal to judge perverted sex immoral merely because it is perverted. Many modern philosophers of sex have reached, instead, for the evaluation "psychologically unhealthy." It is worthwhile to think of premodern judgments of sinfulness as superseded by modern judgments of sickness, as social authority residing over sexual perversion passed from the clergy and organized religion to the physician and biomedical science. The fate of homosexuality illustrates this progression, from being condemned as sin by all Western religions to being deprecated as sickness (although excused, in keeping with the medical model) by most Western psychology and psychiatry through the mid-twentieth century. But in 1973, the APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in DSM, thereby helping to usher in "postmodern" philosophy of sex, according to which no nonharmful, consensual sexual behaviors are perversions, sinful, or sick, but alternative sexual choices. The APA has not gone completely postmodern. It still classifies some innocuous sexual practices (fetishism, transvestism) as sexual mental disorders.
The American Psychiatric Association distinguishes between sexual dysfunctions and the paraphilias, which, even though they involve unusual or bizarre sexual desires or acts, do not necessarily involve inadequate functioning of the sexual organs. When homosexuality was still a mental sexual disorder, there was no doubt that gay men could sport firm erections and did not suffer from ejaculatory problems merely in virtue of their orientation. In addition to premature ejaculation, an inability to achieve or maintain an erection, insufficient lubrication, and pain during coitus, the APA includes as a dysfunction "Hypoactive sexual desire disorder," a deficit or absence of sexual desire that causes psychic distress or interpersonal (e.g., marital) problems (DSM-IV, sec. 302.71). Critics have pointed out that the clinical judgments that a person has too little sexual interest and is bothered too much by a perceived lack of desire are routinely influenced by all manner of social factors that seem irrelevant to a diagnosis of mental disorder. The DSM also lists a more extreme variant, "Sexual Aversion Disorder" (sec. 302.79), but (asymmetrically) contains no "hyperactive sexual desire disorder." The APA did, however, briefly flirt with Patrick Carnes's innovation, "sexual addiction" (a type of obsessive-compulsive promiscuity), as a sexual mental disorder, which was included only in the revised version of DSM-III (1987). Speaking of naturally pleasurable sexual activity as "addictive" is highly disputable, as is whether promiscuity (such as homosexuality) is sinful, sick, or a mere variation in human sexuality.
Being unnatural is of course not the only way sexual activity might go astray morally. In the Kantian tradition, the central way that sexual activity is morally wrong is when one person uses another person sexually, treating the other as a means or object, thereby violating the second formulation of the categorical imperative. Coercing another person, as in rape or quid pro quo sexual harassment (boss to employee: "Have sex with me or you're fired"), or deceiving someone in order to obtain sexual relations (an identical twin sliding into the bed of his brother's wife) are frequently cited cases of treating another person as a means. On a Kantian view, and on some utilitarian views (such as Mill's), it is necessary for the moral permissibility of a sexual event that all parties furnish free and informed consent. Other instances of possible use are difficult to settle; even among confirmed Kantians, exactly what treating another person as a means or an object amounts to has long been disputed. One disagreement between conservative and liberal Kantians is over whether an adult's consent is sufficient (ceteris paribus) for the morality of sexual activity. Kant answered "no," arguing that sexual activity avoided mere use in, and only in, marriage, or that marriage made mutual sexual use permissible. (How to interpret Kant is an issue for Kant scholarship. See Lectures on Ethics, Ak 27:388.)
In this respect many conservative Kantians, such as Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II, 1920–2005), have followed Kant, insisting that mutual consent alone neither eliminates nor blesses the mutual use in sexual relations that must occur if the persons are not married (although some conservatives would be satisfied were sexual relations confined to a genuinely committed even if nonmarital relationship). In any event, Kant and the conservative Kantians need to explain—a challenging task—how the additional ingredient, marriage or commitment, changes sexual activity from mere mutual use to something morally permissible, and why only commitment or marriage and nothing else (say, consent) has the ability to do this. For liberal Kantians, mutual consent is powerful enough by itself to make sexual acts permissible in the absence of marriage. The presence of consent, they argue, satisfies the demand of the second formulation of the categorical imperative for the reciprocal acknowledgment by each person of the rational autonomy (the humanity) of the other. In virtue of consent, much sex is permissible that is condemned morally by Kantian and other conservatives: same-sex sexual acts, group sex, casual sex (say, between strangers), even adultery if all parties consent. Consent is sufficient only ceteris paribus for the liberal Kantian and the Millian utilitarian because third parties might be harmed or have their legitimate interests disregarded by the consensual sex of others (as often happens in adultery). For some conservative Kantians, mutual consent to use each other not only is not sufficient, but makes for an especially morally corrupt situation, for they take, as did Kant, the often slighted part of the second formulation seriously: one may not treat the humanity in one's own person merely as a means. This is what one does to oneself—willingly makes an object of oneself—when consenting to be sexually used by another person, even if that use is mutual. It is an interesting question how it might be decided whether mutual consent cancels or compounds the moral faults of mere use.
The opposite of sexual objectification is sexual personification, which occurs when, to mention the key instance, a person or a couple gives a name to an erotic body part. (Christening the genitals is an important theme in D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.) An example of nonsexual personification might be worshiping an idol, a golden lamb, treating a mere material symbol of the Almighty as if it were the Almighty. Personification can be understood as raising something's ontological status or treating it as if had a higher status. This is what happens when a couple gives proper names to their genitals, treating them as persons. In objectification, by contrast, one person reduces (or attempts to reduce) the ontological status of another. If a person manipulates another so that a goal of the first person is thereby attained, the first has used the second, has treated him or her as a mere material object, in that the second's personhood-defining feature, rational autonomy, has been minimized or ignored. One person is acting toward another as if the latter were no more ontologically elegant than an inanimate thing or a subhuman animal. In sexual objectification, even if there is no coercion or deception, a person is treated as a usable object fundamentally capable of (only) satisfying another's sexual desire. It is often claimed, by both Kantian conservatives and many feminist philosophers, that this is exactly what is morally wrong with prostitution and pornography: women are not respected fully as the persons they are but are seen and treated only or primarily as consumable and fungible providers of sexual pleasure, even when they consent to participate. Some theorists go further, claiming that these considerations apply as well to the institution of heterosexual marriage.
Pornography and Prostitution
Arguments about consent occur when philosophers, legal theorists, political activists, and women and men sex-industry workers discuss pornography and prostitution. If consent is present in a given instance of prostitution (which can be defined, but not unproblematically, as exchanging sexual activity for compensation), if neither the client nor the provider of sexual services is subject to coercion or is deceived, or if those hired to perform sexual acts in front of a camera (a type of prostitution) in the production of pornography (variously definable, notoriously with difficulty) have, similarly, freely and with reasonably full and relevant information agreed to do so, the issue still arises whether their consent is sufficient. In this debate, one side (the liberal, the libertarian, perhaps the Milton Friedman capitalist) points out that if consent is sufficient for other kinds of paid labor, from slinging slop in a fast food pub and collecting garbage to executing proctological examinations and fighting in a volunteer army, there can be no objection to a person's engaging in sex for payment. Anything is fodder for the market or, at least, nothing differentiates selling sexual services and performing other tasks that some people, but not all, find too repugnant or risky to undertake even for substantial financial compensation. The other side (some conservative theologians, Marxists, and feminists) insists, however, that sexuality is "different," that it does or should involve a quality of intimacy that is undermined by its being bought and sold, or that it is demeaning when sexuality is the means of making a living, or that sexuality is metaphysically or anthropologically too crucial an aspect of human personality or identity to be commodified. Doing so entails an immeasurable cheapening of humanity. Whether these claims about how sexuality differs from other aspects of human life are culturally bound (hence not so compelling?) or are deep, sustainable philosophical truths about the human person is unclear. Note that if they are overblown, exaggerating the significance of sexuality in an overall picture of the human person, it might be more difficult to explain why rape is an especially grievous harm (see Murphy 1994).
However, that women sex-industry workers participate consensually is debatable. There are various reasons, often advanced by feminists and Marxists, for doubting that the consent of the women who make pornography or sell sexual services is genuine (see, e.g., MacKinnon's Only Words ). They might have been indoctrinated to devalue themselves and their sexuality or have been as children victims of sexual abuse, and in either case, they may be exceptionally vulnerable to being manipulated into prostitution and the production of pornography. Further, to the extent that women who participate in these activities come from the lower economic levels of society, the lure of making decent money despite lacking education or vocational training can be coercive, if their alternatives are even more dismal. The possibility of compulsion may be greater when the women, in addition to being relatively impoverished, are members of a disparaged ethnic minority or have dependent children. Their dire need creates a situation in which being offered money for sexual activity is coercive, even if engaging in those sexual events seems to them, at the moment, a small sacrifice of their sexual integrity.
It might also be argued that because women are willing to sell sexual services in either prostitution or pornography, this is by itself evidence that something is amiss in their rational autonomy; doing such things is not what someone "in her right mind" would choose to do. Several responses to this account of the plight of women sex-industry workers have been advanced. One rebuttal is that it overstates the victimization of women and underestimates their strength and resourcefulness. Another is that citing financial need as coercive may imply too much. Most people who sell their labor have financial needs, are in no position to refuse to work, and they, too, would have to be described as coerced. Finally, there are women who relish the opportunity to make good money in the sex industry and would not describe their situation as one in which they are pressured into doing something they prefer not to do.
Our personal understandings of the nature of sexuality and its significance in our lives, public discussion of ethical, religious, and social issues, and technical matters about sex that arise in medicine, social science, and the law—all these can profit from philosophical study. Students who take courses in the philosophy of sex are exposed to material they are unlikely to encounter elsewhere, material that gives them an opportunity to scrutinize their beliefs about sexuality and habitual behaviors. The law benefits from the philosophical analysis of concepts such as rape, harassment, and consent; theology is in a position to learn from the elaboration of theories of natural human sexuality and the examination of the conceptual connection between the goodness of the natural and the goodness of human actions; social scientific surveys of the frequency of sexual activity (by age, education, ethnicity, and other parameters) and the extent of nonheterosexual sexual orientations depend on analyses of "sexual activity," "sexual desire," and "sexual preference" and effective ways of identifying and counting or measuring them; the pronouncements of psychiatry and medicine on sexual health, both physical and mental, can be (and have been) improved by the deliberations of philosophers who investigate the concepts of sexual perversion and mental illness. The philosophy of sex has proven that it is no idle enterprise.
See also Abelard, Peter; Albert the Great; Affirmative Action; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Beauvoir, Simone de; Darwin, Charles Robert; Descartes, René; Engels, Friedrich; Feminist Social and Political Philosophy; Foucault, Michel; Freud, Sigmund; Grice, Herbert Paul; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heterosexism; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Lacan, Jacques; Mandeville, Bernard; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Nagel, Thomas; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Nussbaum, Martha; Pelagius and Pelagianism; Plato; Reich, Wilhelm; Renaissance; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Sexism; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Thomism; Utilitarianism; Wilson, Edward O.
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