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Agnes Callard’s Philosophy of Sex

photograph of wrinkled sheets

In a recent short article in The Wall Street Journal, University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard lays out an intriguing philosophy of sex that raises some important issues in this fascinating subfield of philosophy. Because her article is so short, I offer these reflections less as criticisms of her view, which in an expanded form would likely include answers to all of the problems I explore, and more as an attempt to elaborate upon her claims and move the conversation forward.

Callard’s view is composed of three claims. First, sexual desire is essentially reciprocal: it is “when I want you in such a way that all I want is for you to want me in exactly the same way.” Second, sexual acts are “enactment[s]” or symbolic “expression[s]” of the idea of such a desire, and thus a kind of ritual. Finally, the idea of consent “fails to capture what sex, the ritual, is about” because consent is “restricted to the domain of what can be directly, non-symbolically expressed,” but the idea that sex expresses is not expressible non-symbolically. Let’s consider each claim in turn.

On Callard’s account, sexual desire is a “second-order” desire. A “first-order” desire is a desire for something that is not itself a desire: a desire for ice cream, say, or to go for a walk. A second-order desire is a desire for a desire. For example, a drug addict may want to want to quit the drug but, at the same time, he may actually want to keep taking the drug. The drug addict has two desires: the first-order desire to take the drug, and the second-order desire to want to quit the drug. You can imagine such an addict saying something like: “I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to take the drug, but I’m not – at least, not yet.” Compare this to an addict who both wants to keep taking the drug, and also wants to want to keep taking the drug. You can imagine this person saying something like: “I want to keep taking the drug, and I’m content to be the sort of person who wants to take the drug.”

In Callard’s account of sexual desire, sexual desire is a second-order desire whose object is not the desirer’s own desire, as in the drug addict case, but rather the desired other’s desire: it is the desire that the other desire the desirer in the way that the desirer desires the other. Notice, though, that such a desire implicitly refers to two first-order desires: the desirer’s desire, whose object is the other, and the other’s desire, whose object is the desirer. In Callard’s account, then, a sexual desire is a desire that the other have a first-order desire that mirrors one of the desirer’s first-order desires. And Callard’s account fails to characterize the nature of these first-order desires.

This raises a few problems for the account. First, the most natural candidate for the first-order desires at play in sexual desire is the desire to have sex with the other, and the desire to have sex with the desirer. Plugging this into Callard’s account, we get the result that sexual desire presupposes a desire to have sex with another, and is a desire that the other desire to have sex with desirer. This latter desire is satisfied when the other desires to have sex with the desirer, and so desires the desirer in the same way as the desirer desires the other. But if this is right, then Callard’s account does not tell us much about the nature of sexual desire because, as we have seen, she wants to define sex in terms of sexual desire. This is akin to defining a “hoofed mammal” as an ungulate, and then defining an “ungulate” as a hoofed mammal.

In addition, that a desirer’s desire has a reciprocal desire as its object does not, by itself, seem to make that desire sexual. For example, I may want to take a walk with someone and want the person to want to take a walk with me. This latter desire has a reciprocal desire as its object, and so it is satisfied just when the other person wants to take a walk with me. But it is plainly not a sexual desire.

Finally, Callard’s account implies that it is impossible to have a sexual desire with respect to something that lacks the capacity to desire. But we routinely recognize that some people desire sex with objects, and there seems to be no reason not to characterize their desires as sexual.

The line of reasoning I have been pursuing so far suggests that Callard has things backwards: instead of defining sex in terms of sexual desire, we should define sexual desire in terms of sex. On this account, a sexual desire just is a desire to engage in sexual activity. However, any philosopher of sex will tell you that it is notoriously difficult to pin down the nature of sexual activity, and it is beyond the scope of this article to try to do that here.

Although Callard is likely mistaken about the nature of sexual desire, I think she does capture something important about sexual pleasure. At one point, she invokes Aristotle for the claim that “if you are a truly erotic person” faced with a choice between two lovers, you would choose a person who desperately wants to have sex with you but can’t over a person who “can and will, but doesn’t really feel like it.” On the one hand, this seems like an odd claim. Surely, the answer to the question which lover would satisfy one’s sexual desire is clear: the lover with whom one can actually engage in sexual activity. But it seems plausible that sex with someone who, while validly consenting, doesn’t feel like doing it may be far less pleasurable than the exquisite agony of sexually desiring someone who reciprocates one’s desire without being able to satisfy it. And it is surely less pleasurable than sexual activity with someone who does reciprocate. This suggests that a significant part of sexual pleasure lies in your awareness of your partner’s desire – that is, in the satisfaction of your second-order desire that your partner want you – rather than merely in the satisfaction of your first-order desire to have sex, your sexual desire.

Furthermore, even if Callard is mistaken about the nature of sexual desire, she may be right about the nature of sex. So, let’s consider this aspect of her account next. According to Callard, sex is a ritual – an enactment or symbolic expression of the idea of sexual desire. Callard’s idea here is intriguing: she is saying, at the least, that sexual acts belong in the same category as other bodily acts that convey meaning such as bowing, waving, or shaking hands. The specific meaning sexual acts convey is that the actor sexually desires the other. You might object that sex acts are a means of satisfying our sexual desires, rather than a means of conveying that we have those desires. Callard’s view appears to commit her to denying that sex acts satisfy sexual desires: for her, sexual desires are satisfied just when the desired other has desires that mirror the desirer’s desires, so sexual acts are unnecessary and even irrelevant to their satisfaction. But we have seen reasons to doubt this model of sexual desire.

Nevertheless, again I think Callard captures something important about, if not sex per se, then perhaps good sex. Sex acts can both be instrumental in satisfying desire and meaningful in conveying desire. For example, a passionate kiss may be a way of telling you something – that I want you – and at the same time, a way of fulfilling that very want. The fact that sexual behavior is culturally variable – kissing, for one, seems not to be a cultural universal – lends credence to the idea that it is ritualistic. Out of the many possible acts that could equally well serve to satisfy our sexual desires, we perhaps choose those which, partly as a matter of cultural convention, we know will also effectively convey the idea of our desires to the desired other. If what I said previously about sexual pleasure is right, we do this because it substantially enhances the pleasures of sex.

We finally turn to Callard’s last claim, that the idea of consent is insufficient to capture “what sex, the ritual, is about.” Her point seems to be that while sex acts are capable of expressing the idea of sexual desire, acts of consent cannot. That one can consent to sex without having any sexual desire – recall the lover in Aristotle’s thought experiment who is willing to have sex with you but isn’t really into it – clearly shows that sexual consent is not inherently expressive of sexual desire. If what I have said before is correct, it follows from this that consent is certainly insufficient for truly pleasurable sex, which, in my view, ipso facto makes it insufficient for good sex. There is indeed, then, something flat and thin about a sexual ethics that focuses only on issues of consent: it will not be able to deliver a full account of when sex is good. But in defense of consent-based sexual ethics, the role of consent was never to tell us when sex is good, but to tell us when it is permissible. As long as we bear in mind that the latter is not the only value question around sex, I do not see much of a problem for the prevailing sexual ethic’s emphasis upon consent.

Agnes Callard’s philosophy of sex may be less than persuasive at points – at least in the highly truncated form in which The Wall Street Journal presented it – but it gets at some of the key issues in the philosophy of sex: the nature of sex and sexual desire, and the role of consent in sexual ethics. For this reason alone, her contribution is laudable.

What It Means to Be a Hero

photograph of mural of DC superheroes

This is an article about oral sex, gender roles, and fictional characters who like to dress up in dark leather and hurt each other (specifically, DC’s Batman and Catwoman).

According to a recent interview with the executive producers of Harley Quinn, an R-rated DC-owned television show streaming on HBO Max, the corporate owners of the Dark Knight vetoed the showrunners’ intentions to include a sex scene between Batman and Catwoman where the Caped Crusader would have performed cunnilingus on Selina Kyle. Explaining their decision, DC told the producers that “…we sell consumer toys for heroes. It’s hard to sell a toy if Batman is also going down on someone” because “Heroes don’t do that.”

For many reasons, it’s understandable if you’re confused right now.

Why are comic book characters (ostensibly created as children’s stories) involved in sexual content? Why is Batman (a “good” character) having sex with Catwoman (a “bad” character)? And why don’t heroes “do that”?

The first two questions are answered fairly easily: since his introduction in the pages of Detective Comics back in 1939, Batman has developed into one of the most popular, recognizable (and, therefore, lucrative) characters in American culture. With dozens of live action and animated movies and television shows, video games, graphic novels, and more, it is safe to say that, in 2021, Batman is not just for kids — HBO’s Harley Quinn is on the list of properties like the Oscar-winning 2019 film Joker and the Arkham games from Rocksteady that are marketed more directly to older fans. (To be clear: this is hardly a new phenomenon: Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and plenty of other authors have been writing “adult” Batman stories for decades.)

Similarly, Catwoman has developed since her debut in 1940. While Selina Kyle was originally a simple jewel thief and burglar (and was famously portrayed as a straightforward villain by award-winners like Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt), recent decades have seen the character grow into more of an anti-hero who often trades flirtatious banter with Batman. From the latex-clad Michelle Pfieffer dating Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne in 1992’s Batman Returns to the most recent pages of Tom King’s take on the characters (which saw Kyle and Wayne in an overt romance), the sexual tension between the Cat and the Bat is a well-established element of their relationship.

So, what about the sex?

Although the quote doesn’t give us much to go on, it seems like there are at least two ways to interpret the studio executive’s warning to the Harley Quinn showrunners; “Heroes don’t do that” might mean:

1. “Heroes don’t have sex.”

2. “Heroes don’t give oral sex.”

For several reasons, option (1) seems unlikely: not only is sexual virility a common feature of the “masculine hero” trope in American cinema (think of everyone from James Bond to Captain Kirk to Indiana Jones), but the full quote suggests specifically that “Batman going down on someone” would hurt toy sales.

Again, there is more than one way to understand what “Heroes don’t give oral sex” might mean in this context:

3. “Heroes can’t be depicted performing sex acts.”

4. “Heroes don’t perform that specific sex act.”

And, again, option (3) seems unlikely: not only are sexual innuendos and double entendres commonplace on the silver screen — including even in animated DC superhero shows intended more overtly for children — but Batman himself has already been featured in sex scenes. Even if we rule out straightforwardly pornographic content, there is still plenty of evidence that heroes have sex of one kind or another on screen (or just off its edge, at the very least).

So, that leaves us with (4). In context, it seems like particular emphasis is on the term ‘heroes’ — other characters might “do that,” but heroes don’t. Why might someone think this?

Here’s where a little philosophy can be helpful. According to the French theorist Luce Irigaray, “Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters” (from This Sex Which Is Not One, published in 1985) — as many feminists have pointed out, the historical over-emphasis of men’s perspectives has traditionally led to the silencing of women’s perspectives. When it comes to sexuality and the experience of sex, Irigaray argues that oppressive cultural habits have turned the public understanding of sexual pleasure into something that properly “belongs” to men: “Woman, in this sexual imaginary, is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies.” So-called “good” women (in Kate Manne’s analysis of the term) will play their part within this misogynistic system, thereby allowing the patriarchal structure (that benefits men) to be upheld. Against this, Irigaray calls for a “rediscovering” of women’s pleasure (and, by extension, women’s perspectives and power): “in order for woman to reach the place where she takes pleasure as woman, a long detour by way of the analysis of the various systems of oppression brought to bear upon her is assuredly necessary.”

Ironically, the socially-constructed nature of various gender roles, although stereotypically beneficial for men in many ways, also serves to define expectations and norms for them that, when breached, can bring shame and ridicule down onto the offending man’s head. This is just one more disturbing element of so-called “toxic masculinity” that, in short, is much like Manne’s point about how misogyny can benefit “good” women: patriarchy can hurt “bad” men (or “men who are bad at being men”). Not only can this observation help to explain, for example, homophobic reactions to gay men (but not gay women), but, as philosopher Robin Dembroff argues, “Patriarchy, it turns out, doesn’t put men on top; it elevates men who are most mirrored within manhood — an ideal that was shaped, all along, to reflect that group of men. Or, to put it simply, patriarchy puts real men on top.”

It is not hard to see, then, why a corporate exec concerned with merchandise sales might worry about Batman giving Catwoman oral sex: in such a scene, the woman — and the woman alone — would (presumably) be experiencing sexual pleasure in precisely the way that the patriarchal system cannot compute. Were the characters’ positions reversed, and Catwoman were giving Batman oral sex, then consumers and toy-purchasers would likely interpret that as just one more risqué sign of the hero’s strength and power — in short, of his manliness. For Batman to “go down” on Catwoman might suggest instead that he is submissively giving up his masculinity — and, by extension, his right to be a hero.

By definition, heroes don’t do that.

Bella Thorne and Celebrities Inhabiting Shared Spaces

photograph of bella thorne on red carpet with crowd behind her

The age of technology has brought many new things into modern life, but arguably one of the most influential and important is social media. A radically new world was created online where everyone around the globe can be connected within seconds no matter their location. One of the groups to take advantage of this instant connection was celebrities as social media and online platforms allow them to connect with their fans directly and give audiences glimpses into their private lives, without having to actually even meet in-person. This has given rise to the phenomena of celebrity culture where the public can know almost any aspect of a star’s life. Some have used this trend to help build their fame and monetize their brands. While celebrities have every right to use these platforms just like any other member of the public, they enter into these spaces with an unfair advantage. They have a following and a brand, which usually disrupts some of the communities that are made up of the public, who might depend on these platforms to make a living. There’s a fine line here for celebrities to watch, as their introduction to these spaces threatens to undermine these platforms, and perhaps eliminate, or at least adulterate, this communal space.

Recently, one platform in particular, OnlyFans, has taken over the pornography market by allowing individuals to have autonomy over what and when they create. This form of pornography can be highly personal with subscribers getting to know the performers whose bodies and lives they are consuming. With OnlyFans, as long as you gain a following, anyone can make money through this form of sex work, without having to find a studio, or work in the public space. A new creator on the platform, actress Bella Thorne who started her career with the popular Disney show “Shake it Off,” broke records within 24 hours of her appearance on the site. She announced her introduction to OnlyFans with Paper Magazine where she wanted to discuss “the politics behind female body shaming & sex.” Immediately, she made headlines with her addition, which inevitably began sparking conversations around sex work and female sexuality — the discussion that she hoped would be happening.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to a celebrity of Bella Thorne’s caliber joining OnlyFans. Sex work has historically been a job that is not seen as a valid form of work and is criminalized in most countries around the world. As a consequent of this criminalization there are specific dangers that sex workers face in their line of employment, which are usually ignored by politicians, police officers, and society as a whole. If celebrities begin to partake in creating this type of content, however, a normalization may begin, which could work to validate and decriminalize sex work, and possibly address those issues that sex workers face daily. This appears to be Bella Thorne’s intention behind her move to OnlyFans. But she gravely miscalculated the responsibility she had to ensure that she didn’t hurt the very community she was trying to help.

Sex workers who rely on their income from OnlyFans faced a crisis as the website suddenly changed their policies, limiting the freedom and ability of performers to make a living off the platform. The catalyst to these changes was directly after Thorne made her debut on the platform, however, OnlyFans claims the two weren’t connected. Thorne made $1 million dollars within her first day on the site and $2 million after the first week. She also caused massive refunds after people paid for a nude photo, which in reality was not nude, and therefore many of those subscribers were demanding their money back from OnlyFans. Shortly after, the platform set limits on how much creators could charge for their content and the amount that consumers could give in tips to performers. Additionally, they lengthened the time that performers would receive their income to 30 days. A company that was once a safe space for sex workers to earn their living is now catering to the effects of celebrities. They profit from the audience that these big names bring on to their site, all the while ignoring the concerns of everyday sex workers whose livelihoods depend on the platform. For Bella Thorne, joining the platform is a way to have fun with her sexuality and popularity without the censorship or judgement of platforms like Instagram. She does not depend on that money for rent or food. She experiences little to none of the stigma that sex workers face daily. Her actions did not help the sex worker community, but actually severely hurt a community that is already one of the most marginalized.

What responsibility does Thorne even have in starting these conversations over sexual politics and female sexuality? How should she use her celebrity status and the privilege of millions of followers listening and watching her? One cannot ignore the fact that a lot of this increasing legitimacy of sex work has centered around middle-upper class white women beginning to explore the realms of sex work, while women of color continue to experience the stigma and marginalization of sex work. While sex work may slowly begin to be seen as a proper line of employment, there seems to be an otherness appearing in it, in which it is acceptable for certain women, but deplorable for others to take part in. This normalization is beginning to look more like a gentrification in which white women profit off the work that other women have been doing for decades, which would of course only continue to hurt a large portion of the sex worker community. So, perhaps it was not even Thorne’s place to be the catalyst to start those conversations she wants to have. Her attempt to make that conversation was centered around herself and her own experiences. Instead of reaching out to women already experienced in the industry, she decided to see for herself the inner workings of the industry. But, it is impossible for a celebrity like her to experience sex work in a way that accurately represents the issues that sex workers deal with in reality.

Bella Thorne, however, is not the only celebrity to hop on this trend. The biggest name to recently join the platform is rapper Cardi B, although she won’t be creating sexual content, but rather exclusive content on her life and music. Some other celebrities like rapper Tyga, or YouTuber Tana Mangeau are deciding to follow in Thorne’s direction and make sexual content for their consumers. All of these celebrities can bring waves of fans to the site looking to buy subscriptions for the exclusive content. Whether their selling sex or exclusive updates on music, however, they will be entering a platform that already has plenty of competition for subscribers. Sex workers and musicians depend on their subscriptions from OnlyFans to continue paying rent or buying groceries, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, which are concerns that none of these celebrities would ever have to troubles themselves with. While the platform may be useful for them to promote their albums, have fun with their sexuality, or connect with fans, all their profits are solely pocket money for them. They could accomplish all of those things through Instagram pages with their millions of followers, or with a multitude of opportunities that are not open to the public. Celebrities need to recognize the havoc that they can wreak on the lives of everyday people when they decide to turn their livelihoods into fun experiments on social media.

“Incels” and the Right to be Loved

Image of a man alone in a dark computer room

If you’re like me, you cringe when you hear the word “incel” and never use it without scare quotes. Of course, there have always been people who are involuntarily celibate, but when they band together as a named subculture, something’s seriously amiss. I’m pretty sure I’d see it that way even if there weren’t four recent cases of men venting their sexual frustration by slaughtering people—one having done so explicitly as an “incel.”

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Opinion: A Moral Defense of Monogamy

The Stormy Daniels affair is growing out of control for President Trump, amidst allegations of threats, extortion and hush money. The porn star has claimed that she had a sexual relationship with Trump, and it now seems that the president used funds from his political campaign (part of which comes from contributors) in order to silence her. The origin of this money (and not the payment itself, or even the adultery) is what is truly at stake, and could have further legal complications.

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Using Religion to Sell Sex: A Navratri-Themed Condom Ad

A Navrati ceremony

In the Indian state of Gujarat, Navratri, or “Nine Nights,” is in full swing with festivals and celebrations to mark the nine sacred days of the year in the Hindu faith. One of Hinduism’s most auspicious holidays, Navratri is dedicated to Maa Durga, with nine days of activities to celebrate each of the goddess’s avatars. However, this Navratri has not been completely tranquil, with a billboard ad campaign causing waves of controversy.  The billboard featured Bollywood actress Sunny Leone smiling coyly, with the tagline “This Navratri, play, but with love.” The slogan is accompanied by a pair of dandiya sticks and the logo for the condom brand, Manforce.

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Sex in the Age of Sex Robots

Editor’s note: sources linked in this article contain images and videos that some readers may find disturbing.

From self-driving cars to smartphones, artificial intelligence has certainly made its way into our everyday lives. So have questions of robotic ethics. Shows like Westworld and Black Mirror have depicted some of the more controversial and abstract dangers of artificial intelligence. Human sex dolls have always been taboo, but a new development in the technology of these sex dolls, specifically their upgrade to robot status, is especially controversial. The whole notion of buying a robot to have sex with is taboo to say the least, but can these sexual acts become unethical, even if they are perpetrated upon a nonliving thing? Is using a sex robot to simulate rape or pedophilia morally permissible? And to what extent should sex robots be regulated?

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Sexism in Birth Control Research

Changes in mood, pain, depression, increased or decreased libido, and weight gain are all common side effects for women who choose hormonal birth control. Recently, news broke that a study of hormonal injections as birth control for men was stopped earlier than planned after men experienced various adverse side effects – all of which women have been experiencing for decades when using hormonal birth control. Due to these effects, the study was terminated earlier than planned.

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Competing Desires: Casual Sex in a Monogamous Society

Last week, I spoke with an elderly couple. They’re both in the sixties now, but when they married each other, he was seventeen and she was eighteen. Sounds crazy, right? Furthermore, they were both virgins when they put the rings on each other’s fingers. A situation like this is nearly unheard of today—especially for millennials. On college campuses across America, casual sex has become the norm, and long-term relationships and marriage are generally regarded as an endeavor to undertake far in the future.

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