Let’s Talk About Sex- and Philosophy

To talk about sex in the sense that we will talk about is not to talk about sex in the narrow biological sense, but from the philosophical perspective.

Though Freud claimed to be grounding psychology in the science of biology, he, as Eric Fromm pointed out, actually was working from a “materialist philosophy.”

Instead of uncritically assuming one narrow philosophical perspective we will look at sex from the perspective of broad philosophical categories, questions, and problems: the relationship of the knower to the external world, knowledge vs. opinion, the fundamental principles behind reality and choices, ethical and moral theory, the meaning of freedom, the mind-body question, and the human being in society.

Lucretius: Sex as a “Storm of Delusion.”

Lucretius was a Roman philosopher and poet (99 BC-55 BC).Lovers’ passions are, he says, “storm tossed …by waves of delusion.” Sexual attractiveness (“a pretty face”) gives nothing but “Insubstantial image.” As a thirsty man tries to “drink in his dreams” by clutching at images so lovers are teased by images. Sex distorts the lover’s knowledge of his loved one.

Lovers notoriously have a poor understanding of their sexual partners, usually exaggerating, Lucretius observes, their better qualities. On the question of what is opinion and knowledge, sex is obviously opinion, the generator of illusion not truth: sex creates distress, frenzy and gloom, a kind of madness.

Schopenhauer: the Metaphysics of Sexual Chemistry.

Where a sexual love impairs knowledge, according to Lucretius, sexual love, for Schopenhauer, is a clue to understanding the meaning of the truth behind human behavior and nature.

Love drives us to sexually procreate because humans are less than rational, driven by a force within all humans and nature, the will-to-life; this, Schopenhauer says, is the “ultimate aim of all love affairs”.

The philosopher Alain de Botton draws out the implications of this for human courtship and the “dating” scene.A person chooses one sexual partner over another because sex is not about “just sex” but about the continuation of the human species: lovers are chosen because we unconsciously see them as the means for giving us beautiful, intelligent children.

Yet how do we explain same- sex sexual passions where no procreation is possible? And what about the felt need for same –sex marriages?

Plato: Searching for a “Higher Sexuality.”

Plato however had no problem with same-sex loves, and in fact explains it. As contemporary philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum observes Plato’s dialogues (in particular the Symposium and the Phaedrus) contain several speeches that put male-male love in a positive light, seeing it as means of helping the lovers find the meaning of friendship, the good and the beautiful.

Attraction to a beautiful body was the impetus to going beyond just the physical to the higher realm of the Forms, the ultimate archetypes that constitute Ideal Beauty and the Good. However sex merely for sex’s sake was rejected by Plato.

Like Lucretius, he warns of the power of images—poetic images—to foster these feelings that cause discontent and misery (The Republic). One of the speeches in the Symposium by Pausanias criticizes lovers who seek only physical gratification and praises those who seek a deeper spiritual communion.

Kant and “Family Values”

Kant also finds sex for purely personal gratification unacceptable. All sex outside of marriage is morally unacceptable: people should be treated as ends not means.

Consensual sex outside of marriage because the lovers “make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts…” degrades humans. Thus only sex within a marriage, where the partners give the whole of themselves—“person, body and soul for good and ill—in a “union of human beings,” can avoid degrading the partners. “This is where “higher sexuality” can be found.

Sex between members of the same sex is also degrading for Kant because the end of sex is “to preserve the species [echoing Schopenhauer] without debasing the person.”

Same-sex sex does not meet this test hence “humanity is dishonored” thereby. Likewise for prostitution: because a person is used to satisfy another’s lust for profit it degrades humanity.

There is no recognition by Kant of sex as either an act of love separate from procreation or when sex in a marriage is forced. (“marital rape”).