Disintegration and Sexual Pleasure

I’ll be involved over the next few months in a course on the philosophy of sexuality, so expect a few sexual musings to appear. Here’s one.

Reading over an anthology of pieces on said topic, I was amused to find two philosophers arguing for opposite conclusions using very similar arguments. One (a ‘New Natural Law’ Catholic) argued that sexual activity carried out for the sake of pleasure is wrong, because it “disintegrates oneself”. The other (a feminist) argued that sexual activity not carried out for the sake of pleasure is wrong, also because it disintegrates oneself.

I’ve paraphrased somewhat to make them sound more similar: the second writer (Robin West) doesn’t say that anything is wrong, but that is potentially (very) harmful, and doesn’t speak so much of whether the purpose of an activity is pleasure, but of “sex [someone] does not desire…that, although consensual, is in no way pleasurable.”

The upshot is that given the two actions of desiring to masturbate, and so doing so, vs. not desiring to have sex with a spouse, but doing so anyway for some other reason, they take precisely opposite stances: one endorses the second but not the first, the other the first but not the second.

(The Catholic, a guy called John Finnis, is also a fucktard on numerous levels, such as explicitly claiming that people who thinks that non-procreative sex brings them emotional intimacy or personal connection are “deceiving themselves” and pursuing “an illusion” without the possibility of fertilisation. But let’s look past that*)

That’s intriguing, isn’t it? That the same sorts of concern – that people should aim always to help themselves become ‘integrated’, to be whole – should be appealed to in support of opposite views of the importance of physical pleasure. How does this work? What can it teach us?

Finnis says that the “disintegrity” (is that a word?) of, say, masturbation, or any activity motivated purely by pleasure, consists in “treating one’s body as a mere instrument of the consciously operating self, and…making one’s choosing self the quasi-slave of the experiencing self which is demanding gratification”.

For West, conversely, the potential harms of undesired, unpleasurable sex include that “the psychic connection, so to speak, between pleasure, desire, motivation, and action is weakened or severed. Acting on the basis of our own felt pleasures and pains is an important component of forging our own way in the world – of ‘asserting’ our ‘selves’…these harms – particularly if multiplied over years or indeed over an entire adulthood – may be quite profound.”

Compare these arguments. In the second case, it’s fairly clear how a certain connection is being ‘weakened or severed’ – the connection between certain feelings and motives, and certain actions. And that connection is said to be important to ‘self-assertion’: someone who routinely acts contrary to their feelings will be less able to identify and act on their feelings when they want to.

I can kind of see that. More could be said about how to estimate the significance of this kind of effect, or whether it really happens, but West’s explicit goal is just to ‘open a dialogue’ and it makes enough sense for that. The other one seems kind of a mess.

Why should I even divide myself into a consciously operating self, a choosing self, and an experiencing self? Why does acting for the sake of the ‘experiencing self’ make me a (quasi) slave of it? Don’t I get a choice? Or rather doesn’t ‘the choosing self’ get a choice? And why is my body an instrument?

Sure, the lube, or the RampantRabbit, is clearly an instrument, and pleasure is the end I employ it for. But why assimilate my body, which has a far more complex relationship to my sensations and feelings, to that same model? Because it plays a role in my pleasure – but so does my mind. Because I consciously direct and act upon it with a goal in mind – but I also direct and act upon my mind*.

So I find the Catholic philosopher unpersuasive: no doubt this is shocking to all who know me. Indeed, if we suppose that there’s anything at all to what West says, then Finnis’ doctrine – that sexual activity directed towards ‘mere’ pleasure should always be avoided – might even be actively harmful, not only in the small matter of endorsing discrimination and possible violence against millions of people, but also in encouraging everyone to ‘weaken or sever’ the link between certain sorts of feelings and desires, and action.

Indeed, this isn’t remotely a new or unusual doctrine. It is distressingly easy to find great philosophers and millenia-old traditions talking in glowing terms about self-control, and giving very unconvincing reasons why the desires in question need to be controlled. Except that they’re icky. Or that they disintegrate you in some dubious way. Or that it’s not normal. Etc.

One might almost be led to suspect that self-control is not a regrettable necessity for this frame of mind but a more positive value than pleasure. But why would self-control be so considered intrinsically valuable? I mean, sure, people like being in control, they like having power (very broadly construed here), but isn’t controlling your own desires just as much ‘being controlled’, an unpleasant thing? I mean, you do, after all, still identify with your desires and your pleasure, don’t you? That is still part of you?

Because if the reason why self-control is so valorised, and pleasure so disparaged, is that you’re playing a mental trick, where by identifying with the controlling part, but not with the desiring or pleasure-feeling part, then you know what you’re doing? You’re dis-integrating yourself, splitting yourself in two, i.e. doing exactly what’s supposed to make masturbation, sodomy, lesbianism, and lesbian sodomy all so bad.

*It might be wondered whether it makes sense to ‘act on my own mind’. Well, a clear case would be something like mentally repeating a motto to inspire myself, or visualising a certain scene to calm myself. Once the possibility is accepted it seems that much of mental life might fit that label if pushed.

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