Is Sex Disgusting? Feminism and Metaphysics

In previous posts I argued a few things about disgust. Firstly, I claimed that the main things that disgust us are things that violate the boundaries between mind (and associated things – form, structure, will, etc.) and matter (and associated things – inertness, homogeneity, etc.) – for instance, seeing someone’s body being taken apart, turned into mere meat, is strongly disgusting.

Secondly, as a consequence of this, we are all latently disgusted by human bodies themselves – because they (or should I say ‘we’?) are a prime example of blurring mind and matter togher. Another person’s body especially – to smell it, to touch it, to feel its hairs and pimples and tubes and membranes and secretions – is always liable to disgust us.

Thirdly, though, society requires that we get past this disgust – people can’t interact much if they all make each other feel sick. And there are two major, and opposed, ways that this happens.

One is the ‘magic’ of appropriateness: by observing the right formulas (what to say, what clothes to wear, what to cover or uncover, which hairs to trim, where to keep our secretions, etc.) we can in public turn ‘banish’ our disgusting bodiliness, and present to people a sanitised image that doesn’t remind them that we are disgusting and oozy.

The other is the ‘miracle’ of sexuality: by some mysterious process, under the right circumstances, what had previously been most disgusting is transmuted into what is most desirbale. Rather than wanting to minimise contact with another person’s body-as-a-body, we now seek to maximise it.

The defect of this analysis, though, is that it presents these two as being separate. But of course there is an overlap: even in public, we present ourselves partly in sexual terms, and even in sex, we make some effot to present a sanitised version of our bodies.

At this point though, we can see that the methods of ‘disgust-management’ become very heavily gendered, and open to political critique.

The most striking thing, of course, is that for women, the ‘overlap’ is made a much bigger deal than for men. On the one hand, the way women are encouraged to present themselves publically is sexualised much more reliably and fully. The are endless decisions about how much to conceal or reveal, how things will flatter the figure, etc.  Men have some of the same stuff going on but to a much less degree. And on the other hand, that public sexualisation is also imported into the bedroom. For instance, there’s much more pressure for women to manage their intimate body hair of various types than there is for men.

Now the critique is not just that this is a lot of work (which might be countered by pointing out that it can also be a lot of fun). The critique, I think, would be, among other things, that the growth of this overlap area squeezes out either of the two extremes.

That is, the more prominent is this sort of public-appropriateness-but-also-sexuality, the harder it may become to properly get one or the other.

So on the one hand, the more sexualisation there is in public codes of presentation, the harder it may be to present oneself publically not as a desirable mind-body-object, but simply as a subject: even if you dress in a suit and focus on getting things done and being smart and functional, people may look at you in sexual terms.

On the other hand, the more of the spirit of public presentation there is in sexuality, the harder it may be to get proper of intimacy with someone, the full it-doesn’t-matter-what-my-cellulite-looks-like-as-long-as-it’s-MY-cellulite acceptance. Sex may become more like a performance, or even a transaction, a way to keep someone happy.

Of course neither phenomenon is absolute, but all-in-all and on the whole, we might imagine that this sort of correlation would be active. This wuld suggest that sexist culture, in its practical workings, perceives women and men as embodying different sorts of mind-body metaphysics – one is a pure mind controlling a distinct body, and the other is a homogenous fusion, always bodily but always actively bodily, ‘performing’ their physical embodiment.

2 Responses to “Is Sex Disgusting? Feminism and Metaphysics”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    The critique, I think, would be, among other things, that the growth of this overlap area squeezes out either of the two extremes.

    That is, the more prominent is this sort of public-appropriateness-but-also-sexuality, the harder it may become to properly get one or the other.

    Oh, this is intriguing.

    What would you say to the “uncanny valley” phenomenon? Where robots (or other humanlike, but just as clearly inhuman, creatures) inspire something very like disgust in people who interact with them? It seems to me that that manifestation of disgust comes when something is not bodily enough, or at least not having a human-enough body.

    There’s also the very strong revulsion many anti-porn radical feminists have for the bodies of porn performers (typically the women) — you most often see comments like “She doesn’t look human!” “Her tits are plastic!” “Sexbot!”, etc. The too-perfect bodies of these women inspire disgust in these other women.

    Maybe disgust regulates a mind-body equilibrium, and is therefore activated both by dissolution *AND* hyperpolarization of the dichotomy?

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Hmmm that’s a good question. I don’t think it is a huge problem for my general idea that disgust is triggered when things blur or unsettle the boundaries we have – like when a body seems to be human in some ways, but not in others, as in the case of robots. But there’s certainly a particular species of ‘uncanny’ revulsion there.

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