Philosophy of Sex and Love
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Philosophy of Sex and Love

An Opinionated Introduction

Patricia Marino

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eBook - ePub

Philosophy of Sex and Love

An Opinionated Introduction

Patricia Marino

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About This Book

Writing for non-specialists and students as well as for fellow philosophers, this book explores some basic issues surrounding sex and love in today's world, among them consent, objectification, non-monogamy, racial stereotyping, and the need to reconcile contemporary expectations about gender equality with our beliefs about how love works. Author Patricia Marino argues that we cannot fully understand these issues by focusing only on individual desires and choices. Instead, we need to examine the social contexts within which choices are made and acquire their meanings. That perspective, she argues, is especially needed today, when the values of individualism, self-expression, and self-interest permeate our lives. Marino asks how we can fit these values, which govern so many areas of contemporary life, with the generosity, caring, and selflessness we expect in love and sex.

Key Features of Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Opinionated Introduction

  • Offers a contemporary, problems-based approach to the subject, helping readers better understand and address current issues and controversial questions

  • Includes coverage of sex and love as they intersect with topics like disability, race, medicine, and economics

  • Considers not only the ethical, but also the broadly social and political dimensions of sex and love

  • Includes a helpful introduction and conclusion in each chapter and is written throughout in a clear and straightforward style, with examples and signposts to help guide the student and general reader

  • A comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography provides a valuable tool for anyone's further research

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1 Sex, respect, and objectification


Why begin a book on sex and love with the problem of sexual objectification? It may seem an odd choice, one that focuses on a problematic and apparently peripheral aspect of sex before we’ve taken up what may seem like bigger, more profound questions. To be sure, objectification is widespread in most contemporary societies. In North America, we’re bombarded with advertisements featuring attractive, scantily-clad women, and pornography dominates the internet; women are regularly whistled or leered at in the street, and men and women alike often feel valued only in terms of their sexual attractiveness, rather than for their other qualities. In our society, sexual objectification is a commonplace and frequently harmful experience, especially for people who are vulnerable in other ways.
So there’s no doubt that it’s a problem that deserves analysis, but in this chapter and the next, I’ll argue that it’s also something more: thinking about sexual objectification in fact leads us into some of the most fundamental questions that sex presents us with, and it also raises fundamental questions about how sex relates both to loving relationships and to the other contexts in which sex takes place. Examining sexual objectification forces us to explore what exactly it means to look on another person as a sexual being and interact with them on those terms, and it forces us to think about the ethics of doing so.
Many such interactions seem to dehumanize their targets in ways that are clearly unethical, as when women are evaluated only in terms of their sexual attractiveness. At the same time, being the object of sexual desire and feeling sexy and attractive are often good things. In fact, a lot of sex and sexual attention seem to potentially treat persons as objects in one way or another. Some objectification can be ethical and even quite appealing – as when lovers are so inflamed by passion that they temporarily fail to attend to the complexity and humanity of their partners. A few years ago, the actress Cameron Diaz said “I think every woman does want to be objectified. There’s a little part of you at all times that hopes to be somewhat objectified, and I think it’s healthy” (Huffington Post 2012). Maybe you’ve heard men say things like “What’s wrong with sexual objectification? I’d love to be sexually objectified!” If you desire a person’s body because of its beauty and sexiness, and you long to use that body to satisfy your desire, isn’t that “objectifying”? Does this mean that all sexuality is somehow suspect? If not, what distinguishes the good from the bad? On the face of it, a certain amount of stripping and flaunting are characteristic both of soft-core pornography and of Pride parades. Is there a difference between these contexts? And if so, what is it?
In this chapter and the next, we’ll examine different perspectives on sexual objectification. One way of looking at things is that sex is inherently objectifying, because it is reductive and treats others as bodies. An alternative framework focuses on the sexist ways that women in contemporary society tend to be valued and appreciated for their attractiveness rather than as full human beings. These views seem to lead to the conclusion that sex is always, or generally, a problem. But finding a more nuanced approach is complex. I’ll argue here that one common idea – that love and caring mark the essential difference between objectification that is sexy and good and objectification that is degrading and bad – isn’t right. In the next chapter, we’ll examine the idea that social contexts rather than personal relationships and interactions determine how we ought to evaluate various acts and attitudes of sexual objectification.

Sex as inherently objectifying: the view of Immanuel Kant

To look at the relationship between sex and respect for a person, let’s start by looking at the ideas of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant, who lived from 1724 to 1804, was one of the most influential philosophers in the historical Western tradition. He wrote on many subjects including ethics, the nature of reality, theories of knowledge, logic, and religion. His ideas are worth thinking about here both because they have been so influential, and also they’re so specific in defining why sex is objectifying and what to do about it.
Broadly speaking, Kant’s ethical views are based on respect for individual persons. He is famous for his “formula of humanity,” which says that everyone should “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” To treat a person or thing as a “means” to an “end” is to use that person or thing as a tool of your purposes, to get something else. To treat a person or thing as an “end” is to value it as an ultimate goal or object of value. Crucially, Kant’s dictum does not rule out using people as means: it just means you can’t treat them as a “mere” means, as just a tool of your purposes. For example, if someone makes dinner for you, and you eat it, you are in a sense using that person as a means – to the end of the satisfaction of eating dinner. This is not wrong. What is wrong is using people without, at the same time, valuing them as ends-in-themselves. If you treated someone as being of value only insofar as they can make you dinner, and not because of their whole personhood, if you saw them as just a kind of ticket-to-dining, this would be using them as a mere means and would constitute a moral violation.
For Kant, this distinction between treating a person as a means and as a mere means has to do with respect for autonomy. Autonomy means acting for reasons that are your own, rather than being coerced or deceived or manipulated. Roughly speaking, when you use people in order to achieve your own ends, you must respect their participation in the interaction and in the decision-making process.
The basic idea is simple and intuitive. When Kant tells us to treat people as valuable, as “ends,” he means in part respecting their ability to make decisions, for themselves, about the role they will play in an interaction. It is wrong to manipulate people, to force them, or coerce them, because this treats them as “mere means” – as just tools for one’s purposes. If a person chooses to make you dinner, perhaps to be nice or in exchange for money or some other benefit, this is fine, because it’s their decision how to interact with you and what to agree to. But if you were to force someone to make you dinner, through coercion or threats, that would be morally wrong, because it would be using a person as a “mere means” and not respecting them as an end in themselves. The same applies to deception. If you were to lie to someone and tell them that you have an otherwise fatal illness that can only be cured by a home-cooked meal, and believing you, they made you dinner on those terms, this would also be treating a person as a “mere means” and not an “end in themselves.” You prevent them from freely choosing to make you dinner, since you deceive them into doing so.
These dinner examples may seem fanciful, but the preservation of sexual autonomy through avoiding coercion and deception can help us understand what it means to respect people in sex. Later, in Chapter 3, we’ll see a range of examples illustrating how sexual interactions can fail to respect the autonomy of another person, and thus fail to be properly consensual: if one person forces or coerces another into sex, or uses the power they have over them to force them to say “yes,” or if a person lies – for example about their HIV status – these are some of the most basic ways people wrong one another sexually. These actions fail to respect people as ends-in-themselves: they violate Kant’s principle and are therefore morally wrong. Kant’s theory of ethics and autonomy gives a straightforward analysis of these cases: they are wrong because they fail to respect someone’s personal autonomy.
It might seem that applying Kantian ethics to sex would yield a basic consent-based view: that if you consent to an activity, your choice is being respected, so your interaction is properly respectful and ethical: you’re not using or objectifying a person sexually. But Kant held specific views on lust and sex that go beyond concerns over coercion and deception. In a famous passage, Kant writes: “Sexual love makes of the loved person an object of appetite; as soon as the other person is possessed and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, ‘as one throws away a lemon that is sucked dry’” (1997: 156). It is a vivid image. Kant is saying while people are in the grip of sexual desire, they are intensely focused on the object of their lust, but once the desire is satisfied – e.g., after orgasm, or after the lustful feeling fades – they suddenly cease to care about the other person. Though Kant, who never married, is widely thought to have had little or no direct experience with sex, this idea is not difficult to understand. Everyone who has experienced lust knows the feeling. When you have it, you have one set of priorities, and when it’s gone, those priorities can shift rapidly and dramatically. Kant is saying that sexual desire causes us to have an intense focus on another person, but that focus isn’t the right kind: once your thirst is slaked, you cease caring about the other person. You “throw them away.”
Kant is also concerned about the way that sex and sexual desire require a focus on the other person’s body. In addition to refraining from using others, Kant thought we have some obligation to care about others’ interests and reasons, and to help them get what they want and need in life. But when you’re caught up in a certain kind of animalistic lust, you can’t care about people properly. You’re focusing more on the other person’s body and not enough on their mind. In sex, a person may not be thinking about what their partner wants and needs, and thinking instead about how to get what they want and need for themselves, from their partner’s body. For these reasons, Kant finds that sexual desire and sexual activity are generally a moral problem. In sex we fail to respect other human beings for their full humanity, and sexual desire is therefore dehumanizing.
Though Kant didn’t use the language of “objectification,” these ideas about dehumanization and using persons as mere means are closely related to what we mean by that term. Sex can be seen as objectifying because it causes us to treat others as tools of our purposes, as bodies, as there to meet our needs; it renders us unable to respect people as full human beings. It’s no surprise that sexual desire might cause you to treat a person as a sexual object, as a tool of your purposes, without regard for their humanity. For Kant, this isn’t just a possibility. It’s what follows from our status as embodied beings. So from his point of view, the moral problem of sex isn’t solved simply by all parties being willing and consenting; the sexual appetite, if unrestrained by proper context, always involves using a person in a problematic way. For Kant, even masturbation is morally wrong in this way, because in masturbating, you are treating yourself as a mere means, a means to the end of sexual pleasure.
This is interesting because it illuminates one potential way that sex could be different from dinner. As we said, if you cook dinner for someone, whether from kindness or from self-interest, your autonomy and humanity are being respected. But if you have sex with them, even consensual sex, the act is inherently dehumanizing, because of the nature of the sexual appetite. As we’ll see in later sections, in contemporary society people often think that the key to avoiding dehumanization in sex is reciprocity: for healthy relationships and good sex, all partners should ensure that the others are not only consenting but are also experiencing sexual desire, pleasure, and excitement. But for Kant, reciprocity is not generally the kind of thing that makes sex less problematic. Instead, Kant says that our desire to get what we want from others in sex is so intense that we are willing to be dehumanized by them in exchange for being able to dehumanize them. That is, the fact that we reciprocate in sex – giving others pleasure in return for the pleasure they give us – does not transform its ethical quality. From this perspective, it’s more like we are willing to be degraded in order to enjoy the base pleasure of degrading another. (For an analysis relating Kant to “kink,” see Pascoe 2012.)
Though Kant did not think reciprocity could solve the problem of lust, he did think there was a treatment – not a solution, exactly, but something that would help. His idea involves marriage, and specifically, the nature of marriage as an open-ended and legally protected contract uniting two people. Marriage does not transform lust, but it properly contextualizes it. The Kantian appeal to marriage as a response to the moral problem of lust has puzzled many people over the years. If lust and sex essentially dehumanize, how on earth could a contractual arrangement like marriage solve that problem? It seems the effect would be the opposite, and that the marriage contract would legalize and formalize the unethical violation that sexual desire entails. Marriage would be a contract to dehumanize or disrespect someone.
But as Barbara Herman (1993) and Helga Varden (2006) have explained, there are reasons to think that Kant’s appeal to marriage is on to something important. In the lemon quotation, we see the concern that once desire is satisfied, caring ceases. Responding to this, Kant emphasizes the legal standing that marriage gives people with respect to one another. Marriage is a legal institution that mandates taking others’ interests into account, at least in some ways. Marriage could make people permanently and formally committed to caring for one another’s ends. The law cannot force you to love, but it can force you to do certain things, like share money and decision-making power. At least, you cannot “throw away” the other person.
Marriage, then, is a way of dealing with the degradation and dehumanization associated with sex and sexual desire. Particularly in Kant’s society, where divorce was virtually impossible, marriage was a legal way to enforce certain behaviors. In Kant’s theory of marriage, personal property becomes jointly owned property, and spouses’ common property is subject to their choices as a couple – for instance, one person cannot unilaterally make important spending decisions. So, in this sense, marriage would be a way of ensuring that even if you are, in a sense, using another person for sexual pleasure, your caring for them must at least extend to taking into account their needs and desires. So, if the problem is that with your appetite sated you will desert the other person and fail to care for them, then marriage might mitigate this danger. You cannot simply drain out the savings account, take the kids, and go on your merry way.
To many modern readers, this might seem a bit peculiar, on grounds that most of us want more from our lovers than just rights over someone else’s goods and money. We want our lovers to care for us, and you can’t legislate love. Yet this is what many people hope for, at least sometimes, when they have sex with people they love: they want to be loved back. As we all know, though it’s wonderful when marriage and love do go together, they don’t always, and it’s certainly possible to be married to someone and obey your legal duties to them without loving them. To Kant, however, what matters is the kind of respect and ongoing care that the marriage institution formalizes. Marriage might not transform sexual desire, but it does provide the proper context for it.
For Kant, then, the problem of sexual dehumanization is universal, in the sense that sex is always in some way dehumanizing; marriage transforms the problem but does not solve it. Kant’s analysis is also gender-neutral: the way that sexual desire causes a failure of human full respect applies generally, regardless of the sex and gender identification of the people involved. As we’ll see in the next section, these features mark striking differences from the feminist theories of sexual objectification developed in the late twentieth century.

Feminist theories of objectification

Though Kant’s perspective is gender-neutral, feminist scholars of the late twentieth century developed the idea that sexual objectification is especially a problem for women: pervasive forces in our society cause us to value women first and foremost not for their qualities as human beings but for their qualities as sex objects. Women are relentlessly judged on their attractiveness rather than their intelligence, accomplishments, or kindness. In addition, cultural expectation of gender roles are such that women are often expected to be passive and submissive – to let themselves be “objectified” – while men are expected to be active and dominant. Feminist scholars found a unifying theme among all these different factors: a tendency to see and treat women as primarily sexual objects, which leads people to dehumanize them and discriminate against them more generally.
In her 1989 book Feminist Theory of the State, Catharine MacKinnon says that “All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water” (1989: 149). This striking image suggests that objectification not only surrounds women but that it does so in such a way that women must actually derive sustenance from it. A willingness to be objectified is necessary for women to get the things they need to live, and therefore women not only experience objectification, they also participate in it; from this, women may form a positive desire to be objectified.
Let’s take a moment to look at how these ideas play out in specifics. In Western societies, our social structures have their roots in a history that was highly patriarchal. It was not that long ago that women’s rights to work and even to own and control their own money were severely restricted. Women were not considered to be autonomous individuals, capable of making their own decisions in life. Marriage was thought to create unity between a man and a woman by subsuming the woman’s will and rights into those of the man: men would decide things; women, as natural nurturers, would take care of domestic duties.
Today, women can work at lots of different jobs, and obviously they can own their own money and things. But many contemporary feminists think that the patriarchal social relations of the past persist and find new expression in the emphasis on female sexuality and attractiveness over everything else. In contemporary relationships and at work, it’s often much more important for women than for men to be sexually appealing in order to be successful. In many industries, women in the workplace are treated as potential dating partners; if they reject the advances of men in positions of power, they may fail to get ahead or even lose their jobs. Studies show that identical work histories can be rated more highly when evaluators believe the applicant is a man, suggesting that people discriminate against women even when they are not aware of it (see, e.g., Moss-Racusin et al. 2012). Practices that are associated with “leadership” in men can be associated with “bossiness” and uncollegiality in women (Butler and Geis 1990).
A simple illustration of the way our society values men and women differently is reflected in the “Bechdel Test” for movies. This test was proposed first in a comic strip by the writer Alison Bechdel in 1985: the idea is that to pass the test a movie must have at least two female characters, and these two characters must talk to one another about something other than a man. In Bechdel’s original drawing, the movie that passes the test is the 1979 movie Alien, in which two women discuss the monster. The vast majority of movies popular in North America fail. They fail because women are typically depicted in movies as of interest only sexually and romantically, and only in relation to male characters, rather than being depicted – as men are – doing things like catching thieves, solving problems, running for office, playing sports, and so on. This is not to say movies or movie makers are somehow the cause of the problem. Rather, movies fail the test because they reflect s...

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