What Is Sex For?
i don't know yet
Something I think about a lot is whether sex is morally different than other human activities. Is sex different than playing tennis? From dancing a waltz? From fighting a duel? From running a marathon? And if yes, yes, yes, and yes—then why?! What is sex, such that it should force us to take such unusually stringent ethical precautions? What is sex, such that it should sometimes matter so much and sometimes so little? What is sex, such that it drives people to risk so much? etc.
I’m not really asking whether sex, the physical act of copulation, is different from other activities; I’m asking whether what I’ll unsexily call the whole gamut of erotic behavior is different from other activities. Is whipping someone dressed in a Latex gimp suit like playing tennis? (Aside, of course, from all the trivial ways in which it isn’t.) I don’t really believe humans can muster sex drained of eroticism, anyway; I suspect that we’re so enmeshed in the net of social and narrative imperatives that we only ever engage in something more than mere mechanics, and thank god for that. I love being a body, but I would hate being a body and nothing else. I mean, to be nothing but a body is to be inanimate. No wonder I think one of the worst things you can do to another person is treat her as reducible to her physique. More on this below!
As you may have gathered by now, I suspect, tentatively, that erotic commerce is different from the stuff of everyday exchange, which isn’t to say that sex and associated activities are more exalted or elevated—only that sex et al. have a number of peculiar moral features that many (though maybe not all) other activities lack. Here’s a probably incomplete list. (I’m still thinking through this, and have been for the last several years.)
Erotic overtures require an especially rigorous sort of consent. Giving a student an F which she does not consent to receiving is no problem at all; hugging someone who does not consent is, at worst, a minor infraction; but sleeping with someone who does not consent is an unforgivable violation. Why? Some other activities—namely, medically invasive activities like surgery—also require a special sort of consent. Is special consent required in the event of a breach of bodily integrity? Touch of all sorts does seem to require some measure of the special sort of consent, even if obtaining this kind of consent is less important in cases of less consequential touch, e.g., brushing an insect off someone’s jacket. But bodily integrity cannot be the whole story, because it cannot explain the range of erotic activities that require especially rigorous consent. We need the same sort of consent to send someone a graphic text message or to arrive at her house in a Latex gimp suit or to indulge our voyeuristic or exhibitionist fetishes, but none of these activities involves touch. They can be preludes to it, of course, but they needn’t be and even if they make no reference whatsoever to future touch or potential touch, they require the special kind of consent.
It is especially repugnant to enjoy an erotic encounter that one’s partner does not enjoy or, worse, positively dislikes. Imagine that I am enjoying a game of chess with a friend who is having a terrible time. It’s certainly not nice of me to become so absorbed in the game that I forget to care whether my friend is having fun; if I’m actively indifferent to whether she’s having fun, I am behaving with a twinge of sociopathic sangfroid; and if I go so far as to enjoy that that she is not enjoying herself, I’m behaving wholly uncouthly. But we can forgive schadenfreude when it comes to chess in a way that we cannot forgive, e.g., the widely (and rightly) vilified sort of man who is entirely indifferent to his female partner’s pleasure, or, worse, the man who is aroused by his female partner’s displeasure. At first glance, it may seem as though the moral problem of enjoyment is reducible to that of consent. Perhaps what makes it wrong for the indifferent man to have sex with the long-suffering woman is that she does not really consent to the uninspiring sex? This may be true in some cases, but in general, I think consent and pleasure come apart in important ways. I might consent to an act I want to try without knowing whether I like it or not—and if I turn out not to like it (no Latex gimp suit for me!), it is certainly not fair to charge my partner with having embarked on a non-consensual escapade. Note that I needn’t be writhing in pain to have a moral complaint. (Indeed, many generations of women have complained of male indifference to female pleasure, not just of male indifference to female agony. Surely we deserve partners who do not only deign to care how we are feeling when we are conspicuously suffering… and surely in these cases, the problem is not that the woman is having sex she does not consent to, but that the woman wishes her partner took her experience into account.) And there is another important difference: to have sex without consent is to violate an obligation, to act wrongly, whereas to enjoy sex with someone who agrees to it but evidently does not enjoy it (even if she is merely bored by it) is to display a disturbing appetite, to feel wrongly. It is not unlike feeling titillated despite (better) or by (worse) the spectacle of a car crash, insofar as both involve failures of sentiment and desire.
The accounts of the erotic theories on offer explain various pieces of these two moral peculiarities, but I haven’t found one that explains both to my satisfaction.
In one of my favorite papers, the philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that it is significant that perversion is possible: that is, the fact of perversion sheds light on the nature of good (in the sense of ethical, but possibly also in the sense of satisfying) sex. He concludes, in brief, that in a good sexual encounter, I desire you on the basis of your desire for me, and vice versa. Thus good sex involves mutual recognition: it involves bodies, yes, but it also involves bodies recognizing and treating each other as seats of experience. There are several points in the paper I’d quibble with. One pedantic issue is that, if I desire you on the basis of your desire for me, and you desire me on the basis of my desire for you, what originated our desire for each other? Unless we both started desiring each other at exactly the same moment, it cannot be that we began to desire one another solely on the basis of each others’ desire. Worse, it seems a touch narcissistic to desire someone exclusively because they desire you, and not, say, on the basis of any of their personal qualities. A second quibble: Nagel thinks sadomasochistic acts are perverted, because he assumes without justification that they involve disregard for the desires of the other. In fact, sadomasochistic sex is no more apt to be “perverted” than vanilla sex; in both cases, it’s possible to desire someone on the basis of the her desire for you, and in both cases, it’s possible to ignore the other’s desire and flatten her into a fetish object. All sex can be perverted; perversion has less to do with any particular activity and more to do with the attitudes under-girding the activity. You can whip someone wearing a Latex gimp suit because you believe that she desires you to do so and therefore desire to do so, and you can have vanilla sex in the missionary position in suburbia without caring that your partner has an inner life. Personally, I can’t think of anything more perverted or more horrifying than the standard sort of patriarchal disregard.
Anyway, despite these infelicities, I think the core of Nagel’s account is insightful. In cases of good sex, there are probably multiple bases of desire, but it is at least necessary (if insufficient) that one of them is your desire for me on the basis of my desire for you. That is to say, a certain sort of intersubjectivity is required. As the philosopher Roger Scruton writes in his excellent book about sex (excellent aside from the chapters in which he argues—very poorly—that pre-marital sex and gay sex are bad, yikes), “I am excited precisely by a cooperative enterprise, in which I and the other gradually evolve within each other's perspective, changing for each other and through each other, with a constant and reciprocal anticipation of our mutual intentions.” Quite! I don’t think erotic collaboration, as we might call it, requires love or long acquaintance; it requires merely that we treat everyone with whom we pursue erotic pleasure, even anonymous one-night stands, like human beings. I imagine I’ll be misread as saying that you have to be in love in order to have good sex, or that good sex necessarily involves a spiritual exchange of some kind. I am not saying any of these things, believe me. What I’m saying seems minimal enough that you’d think it would be obvious, although plenty of sex in the wild (and in the frat houses at the venerable institution where I attended college) is perverted in Nagel’s sense: good sex must involve a recognition of the humanity of all parties involved (even more robustly, the humanity of all parties involved must be a partial basis of the mutual desire).
This thesis explains number of important moral facts about sex. For one thing, it explains why we can’t have sex with children and animals. Of course, these creatures cannot consent, so we have one explanation of the impermissibility of sex with them already. But an additional explanation is that they’re incapable of the kind of mutual recognition required for good sex. The reason it is so sickening when people do desire children or animals, I think, is that they have a perverted (in Nagel’s sense) appetite—an appetite for a sexual encounter with someone who cannot engage in an intersubjective exchange, an appetite for someone we could not treat as an agent and would therefore have to treat like an object. Bestiality is, at its core, the hideous desire to have sex with something that does not have a point of view. Relatedly, then, Nagel has a good explanation for the unconscionability of an extreme kind of objectification. To objectify someone is to regard or treat her as an object; it is not necessarily to regard her as nothing but or as primarily an object, and in one of my favorite philosophy papers ever, Martha Nussbaum argues that it is okay to objectify someone (e.g., to use your friend’s stomach as a pillow) as long as you are also regarding and treating her as a person (you do not just use your friend as a pillow, or so we hope). The reason you should not desire someone exclusively on the basis of her body (although of course her body can play a large role) is that to do so is to treat her as nothing but an object. As Scruton so aptly puts it, desire is a response to embodiment—to the physical expression of personhood—but not to the body as such, to the raw lump of meat. That we desired embodied persons but not mere bodies explains why most of us (or so I hope) would not desire an exact but unconscious/inanimate physical replica of the people we desire. It isn’t just that we would refrain from sleeping with such an object out of a sense of scruple; it’s that we wouldn’t desire such an object, because it would be so crucially unlike the person that we desire.
Per my point above, it’s not obvious to me that purely physical desire is possible for humans, anyway. We’ve been steeping too long in a stew of meanings. Even in the most abjectly misogynistic contexts, in which a man makes a show of enjoying a woman merely as a body, the insult is inflected with social performance; the bodies involved are still symbols, in this case of degradation. (That they retain their symbolic import despite stubborn attempts to expunge it is a consolation.) As Scruton writes, “arousal is a response to the thought of the other, as a self-conscious agent, who is alert to me, and who is able to have 'designs' on me.” Later, he writes,“It is not the 'physical pleasure' (whatever that may be) felt in the mouth or on the cheek, but what I shall call the 'intentional pleasure', involved in the recognition of the meaning of another's gesture. Arousal seems to affect, not so much the sensation of kissing, as its 'intentional content': although the sensation itself is by no means insulated from the thought which provides its context." In other words, you enjoy kissing someone because it’s a person you’re kissing, not just a pair of lips. In a way, as Scruton proposes, purely physical desire is always a kind of bestiality; even if the purely physical desire targets a human, it is still a desire for the animal element of a human. “In this case,” he writes," “the arousal is turned from a person to the caricature of a person - to a creature which either is, or is thought to be, stripped of that first-person perspective which gives sense to the intentionality of arousal."
All of this interests me enormously, and I think it explains why indifference to an erotic partner’s pleasure is so uniquely nauseating—but I don’t think it explains why erotic activity requires a special sort of consent, nor does it explain the range of activities requiring this sort of consent. (Why the gimp suit?)
So what could explain all of that? It might be that erotic exchanges have the capacity to unmake and remake us dramatically, but that’s true of plenty of thing that don’t require consent (though perhaps they should?): encounters with art, aesthetic experience more generally, love. I might be shattered and changed forever by the mountains or Fanny and Alexander (reader, I am), but no one went to great lengths to check in with me before sitting me down before the TV. So what is distinctive about erotic activity, such that it requires consent?
Unfortunately, I still do not know. So I must end on a deflating note, by thanking you for letting me lay out my chaotic thoughts before I can draw any satisfying conclusions.