Philosophy on sex

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Sex has received little attention in the history of western philosophy, and what it did receive was not good: Plato denigrated it, arguing that it should lead to something higher or better Phaedrus , Symposium , Aristotle barely mentioned it, and Christian philosophers condemned it: Augustine argued that its pleasures are dangerous in mastering us, and allowed sex only for procreation City of God , bk 14; On Marriage and Concupiscence , while Aquinas confined its permissibility to conjugal, procreative acts Summa contra gentiles III.

III, ch. The Marquis de Sade a philosopher of sorts went to the opposite extreme, celebrating all types of sexual acts, including rape ; ; Only during contemporary times do philosophers, beginning with Bertrand Russell and including Sigmund Freud , think of sex as generally good see Soble b and ch. Sex raises fascinating issues. Rooted in our biology, pervaded by our intentionality, and normally directed at other human beings, sexual desire is complex and not confined to specific mating seasons.

Its pleasures are powerful and have ruined many lives. Men and women seem to exhibit, desire, and experience sex differently e. II; Margolis , esp. Why this is so, is debatable Soble ch. Four broad lines of thought are prominent regarding sexual desire: 1 whether it is merely a biological drive or an intentional mental state; 2 how it should be defined; 3 whether it is benign or malignant; and 4 whether it admits of perverted forms.

I discuss 4 in the third section. Definitions of sexual desire in terms of sexual pleasure seem to understand sexual desire as basically an appetite. The second definition avoids the conceptual involvement of another person, understanding sexual desire instead as desire for sexual pleasures, period. These views have in common the idea that sexual desire is desire for brute bodily pleasures, possibly implying that sexual desire is merely a biological appetite. If so, they face the objection that they mischaracterize the nature of sexual desire, which should instead be understood as intentional through and through Morgan b.

So whenever X sexually desires someone or something, X does so under a description: X desires Y because something about Y appeals to X. On the intentional view, sexual desire is no mere appetite but thoroughly infused with meaning. On another version, sexual desire should be directed to love Scruton ; cf. Giles ch. Both these variations might raise doubts, however, because they layer a normative view of sexual desire, dictating its aim e.

Other such views burden sexual desire with too much inter-personality Russon Is the pleasure view of sexual desire committed to understanding sexual desire as mere appetite? Perhaps not. The intentional view is plausible in that sexual desire can be quite complex and that its complexity is not captured well or at all by the pleasure view, given that human mentality infuses our most basic urges and appetites.

But whether the intentional view is at odds with the pleasure view depends on our goals. Given that definitions are not usually meant to convey the complexity of what they define, we should not expect a definition of sexual desire to be a full-blown theory sexual desire, while agreeing that it is a complex phenomenon. This does not mean that the pleasure view of sexual desire is correct, only that its aim or strategy need not be misguided.

Indeed, depending on how it is stated it might be wrong. For example, if the pleasure view conceptually ties sexual desire to sexual pleasure obtained through the touch of another person , it would be dualistic and might implausibly render many sexual desires as nonsexual, such as some masturbatory desires, voyeurism, and exhibitionism.

Even a non-dualistic pleasure view might face difficulties stemming from understanding desire in terms of what it seeks sexual pleasure. But there might be additional problems. First, not all sexual desires are for sexual pleasure: a couple might have sex to have a baby, even though the act is pleasurable Jacobsen 33; see also Second, our sexual partners would in principle be dispensable if there are other ways to attain the pleasure. This objection is not moral—that we use our sexual partners as mere instruments—but ontological: sexual pleasure cannot be the only or common goal to all sexual desires otherwise the agent would be indifferent between the available ways of attaining sexual pleasure.

Since this is not true, sexual desire is not solely for sexual pleasure Jacobsen Shaffer Because this state is enjoyable, we often induce it in ourselves: we think about sex in order to be sexually aroused Jacobsen 34— Jacobsen This allows the feature-based view to avoid being confined to the false binary of my desire for someone being either sexual or not, a problem that the object-based approach might face.

The objections to the object-based views merit scrutiny. First, even if the goal of sexual desire is sexual pleasure, unless we assume that sexual pleasure is uniform across different contexts an assumption with which the feature-based view saddles the object-based one , one might not be indifferent to how the pleasure is produced. Second, although the couple in the example want to have sex from procreative motives, this might not show that their sexual desire if it exists in this case is not for pleasure. People can have sex from nonsexual motives most prostitutes , but once we postulate the motive of sexual desire, the motive of pleasure is present.

This independence lends support to pessimist views of sexual desire. Although pessimism and optimism have moral implications — some of which are addressed below — they are based in the nature of sexual desire. Pessimism considers sexual desire morally dangerous and threatening to our rationality including Christian philosophers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Plato, Kant, and Schopenhauer [ ch. Pessimism is opposed by optimism, which views sexual desire as generally benign and as bringing people together it commands a large majority of the philosophers of sex, including Bertrand Russell passim ; Irving Singer passim ; and Martha Nussbaum , , though it recognizes that it can be morally problematic Morgan a.

The issue, then, between the pessimists and the optimists concerns not whether sexual desire can be morally problematic, but whether it is so by its nature Soble, with Halwani 5—8. Sexual pessimism can be deep. Sexual desire aims to capture a person in their entirety through their body. A phenomenology of sexual desire seems to support the above views, according to which in sexually desiring Y , X is attracted to the bodily, physical attributes of Y. Sexual optimism claims that although sexual desire can be morally dangerous, it need not be and is usually not.

They agree that its focus is on the body but do not see this as a problem. Sex intimately and pleasurably brings two or more people together. It is a force for good, establishing trust and strengthening human bonds. Unlike appetites,. Singer ; see also Goldman —; Russell [ passim ]. This is especially so when closely related concepts e. In ordinary language use, and according to some studies, people distinguish between having sex and sexual activity; they count many activities as sexual but not as having sex, such as solo masturbation, cyber-sex, and even oral sex Soble a: 15— Solo masturbation counts as sexual activity and as a sexual act, but not as having sex.

One criterion is reproduction: for an activity to be sexual it has to be or aim at being reproductive. This faces obvious counter-examples, such as same-sex sexual activities and heterosexual oral and anal sex Soble a: 18— Another criterion is bodily contact: sexual activities are those that involve contact with sexual body parts though we need to figure out what these are. But the production of sexual pleasure is not necessary because many acts do not produce such pleasure; and this criterion conceptually rules out non-pleasurable sex Soble a: 21— It might also not be sufficient: a man might see someone on the street and feel a twinge of sexual pleasure Soble Another criterion is intention, though we need to figure out what the intention is for.

But this is not necessary: two people who have sexual intercourse to procreate engage in a sexual act. The experience, if any, of sexual pleasure is a by-product of the action Soble This criterion is also not sufficient.

Goldman But it faces counter-examples. A prostitute performing fellatio on a man does it typically not to satisfy or fulfill her sexual desire, but to make money. Nor does the act tend to fulfill her desire, for she might have none to be fulfilled. Thus satisfying sexual desire is not necessary for an activity to be sexual. Taking a cold shower, a powerful sleeping pill, or even just focusing on something else might get rid of the sexual desire, yet these activities are not sexual. One crucial reason might be that what we commonly think is a sexual act does not depend on one criterion: behavior, intentions, contact with body parts, etc.

Another reason might be that there are many concepts closely related to each other that nonetheless commonly mean different things. Thus, defining these concepts is tricky if we want the definitions to agree with common linguistic usage, or if we rely on such usage to formulate these definitions.

More worrisome, if we need to define these concepts for help with practical, moral, and legal issues, the rift between them and common language should give us pause. We thus have four types of pleasure: pleasure-as-sensation, pleasure-as-enjoyment, pleasure-as-feeling, and pleasure-as-pro-attitude. All four concepts can be relevant to sex, but it is the first two that are important, because each can be a type of sexual pleasure, whereas the third is typically consequent to sexual activity and the fourth is about sex.

Moreover, one or more parties to the act might experience pleasure-as-sensation, yet not enjoy the activity itself. One can experience the pleasurable sensations of sex and enjoy the act, yet feel repulsion later. We can thus see how each pleasure has its opposite: one can feel painful sensations during a sexual act e.

Although orgasm does not exhaust the pleasures of sex, there is something to the idea that the pleasure of orgasm is unique. As a sensation, it is unique in the way it feels and in its intensity, though this feeling might differ between men and women, especially since women seem to experience various types of orgasm Komisaruk et al. Moreover, it contrasts with other sensation-pleasures in its physiological aspects and ability to be produced through genital stimulation.

Of course its frequency, ificance, and meaning vary socially, culturally, and contextually Blair et al. This feature of orgasm might explain how we can speak of sexual desire across times and cultures as a unified phenomenon, even though sexual desires and bodily sensations are socially and linguistically mediated. If the pleasure of orgasm is unique, why do people usually prefer sex with someone else to masturbating, given that masturbating produces orgasms, often more intense than partnered sex?

This shows that orgasm is not the only pleasure sought in sexual activity, not that its pleasure is not unique. Touching, smelling, kissing, and licking, for example, are other goals of sexual desire Soble 85— We can even claim that people prefer the pleasure of orgasm through these other goals.

Sexual activity can … be defined as activity that tends to fulfill sexual desire, while sexual desire is sufficiently defined as the desire for certain bodily pleasures, period. Primoratz But which bodily pleasures? More generally, and ing for sexual pleasures not located in the genitals, sexual pleasure. To distinguish a sexual from a nonsexual kiss, we ask which of the two is associated with arousal, and we understand the notion of arousal as essentially linked to the sexual body parts.

Because the above view relies solely on sexual pleasure-as-sensation, it would have to understand the other two types ultimately in terms of pleasure-as-sensation. That is, what makes sexual pleasure-as-enjoyment sexual is its connection to arousal.

Philosophy on sex

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