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.

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Kealey, Women-as-Job-Perks, and Feminism from First Principles

Readers may have come across this story, in which vice-chancellor at a British university publically advises (male, straight) academics to leer at their female students as ‘a perk’. It has, predictably, sparked outrage from many and defense from many others, and I’m not going to repeat that stuff – partly because, this seems to be the sort of thing where some look at it and intuitively get that this is objectionable, while other people may simply not ‘get it’, and more forceful articulations may remain too intuitive to ‘get across’ effectively to the opposite group.

The same sort of thing applies to most of the media; plenty of people can agree that, yes, people of a certain race are rarely seen in films outside of certain roles and settings, and yes, adverts feature female bodies presented as bodily more often than they do male bodies, and yes, this Kealey fellow speaks as if the only sexual question is between male professors and female students. But so what? People just need to man up and deal with it. And yes, the phrase ‘man up’ is a gendered expression, but people need to man up and deal with that too.

Perhaps a more theoretical argument may be persuasive to some such people; if not, perhaps it might be useful and worth consdering. That is, if we think that these phenomena are not just distasteful but pernicious, we might think it worthwhile to sketch how that relates to something rather like ‘first principles’. And if we find that different people draw the same conclusion from different premises, that’s something worth learning.

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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.

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I Do Know What I Think About Pornography

A while ago I wrote a post entitled “I Don’t Really Know What I Think About Pornography“, in which I explained my uncertain fence-sitting on the issue of whether pornography is a bad thing from a feminist point of view. Thinking recently, I realised that my views had actually become more settled, and that I wasn’t particularly interested in being ‘against porn’ in any meaningful sense. So I figured I might as well explain a bit about how I’ve reached that view.

To be clear: I’m talking about the consumption of porn, not about its production and the people involved. That’s certainly a big issue – probably a bigger issue. But it’s not the same issue – it’s an issue of consent, employment, exploitation, etc. rather than an issue of cultural images and messages. As can be seen by observing that a lot of porn isn’t produced using any models, such as comics, stories, or computer animations.

The first thing to note is that it’s often claimed by anti-porn feminists that, in some vague sense, the meaning of our actions and statements isn’t something we can completely control – we can’t, for example depict a black person as a monkey without inadvertantly drawing on a history of racist images and actions. We carry cultural baggage and whatever we put out into society carries that baggage with it.

This is used to argue against attempts to trivialise pornographic images that, say, show women being raped and loving it – regardless of how they are intended, it is claimed, these draw upon a history of trivialising rape and ignoring women’s refusals.

But this has to work both ways.

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Workers of the World, Emasculate! Women of the World, Proletarianise!

This is the final post in the series of the previous 3, on the historic connection between radical feminism (the abolition of gender) and communism/socialism.

In my last post I talked about how a weakening of gender identification would enable socialist revolution to progress without being prevented or deflected by the preference for domination (power over others) relative to freedom (power over personal circumstances) that is engendered by the masculine identity (and the ineffective passivity engendered by the feminine identity). I summarised this by saying that communists and other socialists should look not merely to ‘the proletariat’ as a revolutionary agent, but to ‘the genderqueer proletariat’.

But the creation of this genderqueer proletariat was left unexplained.

Is it something simply ‘to be created’ by going around telling people not to identify strongly with gender identities? That seems to place too much weight on voluntary decisions, as if social change can just be willed into existence by a few dedicated agitators.

Or is it something that will just happen, as an inevitable consequence of impersonal social evolution? That seems to place too little weight on voluntary decisions, as if social change is something that happens independently of the actual people who make up society.

In my view, the great merit of class analysis in Marx’s tradition is that it manages to get between these two extreme options, to reconcile the undirected nature of social change with the need for individual effort – by making that effort, specifically in the form of class struggle and class agency, a key part of social change.

So what I want to do today is to locate the weakening of gender identification as the consequence of a class struggle. In doing so, I will draw heavily on previous posts about the idea of ‘sex classes’, male and female groups defined by their relationships to sex(ual access to women) which becomes a resource in sexist society.

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Socialism and Feminism: Emasculating the Proletariat

Over the last few days I’ve been talking about why the apparently sound premises of the revolutionary equation (1. the proletariat has the capacity to revolutionise society, 2. the proletariat has an immediate motive to revolutionise society, 3. a proletarian revolution will bring about socialism) have not produced their conclusion.

The answer I had been working on was concerned that the motive mentioned in point 2., the resistance produced by the frustrations and antagonisms of capitalist society, might take the form not of a desire simply for more power (which would include power over one’s own circumstances, i.e. ‘freedom’) but specifically for the satisfactions of exerting power over others, what I have called ‘domination’. To the extent that this happens, it will conflict directly with point 3., since an equal society doesn’t offer much opportunity for even vicarious domination. The result is various forms of ‘deflection’ of rebelliousness into dead-ends.

But what I want to discuss now is why this problem might arise.

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Berlusconi and Promiscuity

Silvio Berlusconi has been in the news recently for having quite a lot of sex with lots of women in various arrangements and situations (up to the point of driving his wife to divorce him).

Now, personally I don’t see much point in getting hugely het up about this, given that there’s plenty of other stuff to hate Berlusconi for (rampant corruption, electoral coalitions with Fascists, and racist policies spring to mind) but it seems to have been picked up at least in the media. And I stumbled across this article, entitled ‘Naughty, Silvio, but nice one’, the main thesis of which is, look, men just want loads of sex and so we all secretly admire this guy and wish we were like him, because, look, I believe in sexual equality and everything, but men are polygamous by nature and women are monogamous by nature* so there’s always going to be a tension between those two and we shouldn’t worry too much about.

A nice quote is “[Berlusconi’s behaviour] brings a smile to the face and puts a spring in the step” of this Telegraph writer.

And of course there’s the recurrent trope “Men and women are made differently, think differently, act differently…Men are simple creatures and, in matters sexual, are bound by a rudimentary arithmetic. Two women are better than one, three women are better than two.”

Now, this ‘made differently’ is one possibility. But let’s recall Occam’s Razor: if a phenomenon can be explained in a simple way by already known causes, we shouldn’t introduce some alternative cause to complicate the picture. And whatever trend there is of more promiscuous men can be very simply and parsimoniously explained by reference to a known fact.

That fact is that society defines men as people and women as objects. This is undeniable for up until the last 50 years or so in the West, and if people want to suggest that those millenia of history have been entirely undone in the last few decades, well, they can go ahead but I’ll ignore them. Note that both of these definitions are wrong – humans are both people and objects.

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