Various Philosophers on Sex

I posted an overview on various philosophers on erotic love, flirting and marriage.  Here, I’ll be looking at the philosophy of sex and many sub-categories with it.  As before, if there’s something that I’m missing, please let me know.  This list is not exhaustive.  These are mainly articles or books that I’ve either read or skimmed through.  Please note that if you do contribute, it may not be here immediately as I would like to at least skim it.

* = Really good
** = Must read

General Overview


  • Wasserstrom argues that adultery isn’t wrong in itself, but because of the lying.  Indeed, open marriages allow multiple partners.  Does that constitute adultery?  In other words, adultery isn’t always wrong.  That requires another argument.
  • Wreen argues that adultery is always immoral because we can’t universalize adultery under Kant’s categorical imperative, and that sexual exclusivity is a necessary condition for marriage, at least in western culture.
  • J.E. and Marry Ann Barnhart argue that adultery may not necessarily be wrong as long the people involved agree to some degree of extramarital sexual intimacy.

Gender Roles and Issues

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Feminist perspectives on sex and gender.
  • Irigaray argues that the tradition has ignored sexual difference and that we need to pay attention to it.
  • Judith Butler’s famous book about how gender is a performative speech act.
  • Do we regard intersexed individuals as “abnormalities,” and thereby preserve our traditional understanding of biological sex as a binary, or do we regard intersex individuals as counterexamples to our traditional understanding of biological sex?  Anne Fousto-Sterling explores this and frames a new look on how we construct sexuality.  Hear her: 
  • What are female chauvinist pigs?  Ariel Levy explains.
  • Women are caught between a rock and a hard place.  Laura Kipnis looks at all facets to see how and why that is.
  • history of female sexuality.  Fascinating!
  • **Robert B. Baker is concerned that our language of crude words is tainted with sexism.  For example, “Jack fucks Jill” makes sense in our society.  But “Jill fucks Jack” sounds weird?  Why?  It’s because the fucker is doing the acting while the fuckee is the passive recipient.  But this makes the actor into the superior, thus leading to a patriarchal framework.  Unfortunately, I can’t find the article, but you can get it from this book.


  • Thomas Nagel’s classic piece on how normal sexuality is where the people involved are mutually sensing each other.  Anything that doesn’t do that is by definition a perversion.  Examples would include fetishism, bestiality, voyeurism, and necrophilia.  There are no complete arousal systems in those behaviors.
  • Robert C. Solomon argues for a communication model of sexuality.  Anything that doesn’t follow this paradigm is deemed perverse.
  • Sara Ruddick argues that unnatural sex that doesn’t lead to reproduction.  However, she has no moral judgment about perverse sexuality.  (Link is a summary.)
  • Roger Scruton gives his take on what perverted sex is and how to have a fulfilling sexual life.


Proper Sexuality

  • *I’m not sure if this fits under the category of proper sexuality, but maybe under a general category of desire.  This comes from Plato’s Republic, Book I.  In it, the first person that defines “justice” is Cephalus.  Before this, however, Socrates first approaches Cephalus and indirectly asks him, “How’s your sex life?”  (You’ll have to read between the lines, but it’s there.)  Cephalus’ answer is really interesting.  Basically Cephalus is an old man and he says that it’s so much better being old because once you’re old, sexual desire has gone away and you can finally control yourself and do what you want to do instead of following what your sexual desires want to do.  It’s as if once the sexual desire is gone, the burden has been lifted off of your shoulders.  Typically with young people, fulfilling sexual desires is a great pleasure and if it is a burden, it’s not as drastic as Cephalus makes it.  Amusingly, I can imagine a young Cephalus going over his business books and saying to himself, “Let’s see how my accounts are going with the different cities today so that I…Ah damn it I’m horny again!”  I wish I could read a paper–or better yet, write a paper–on this topic.  It probably has some similarities with St. Augustine where the sexual desire really isn’t you, but is something that controls you and as soon as that sexual desire is gone, it’s such a relief.
  • *Epicurus gives a hedonistic account of how sex is an unnecessary desire because the pleasures derived from satisfying these desires in some cases may not be worth it, since they are likely to create as many problems (pains) for ourselves as benefits (pleasures).  Be moderate in ones pleasures.  Sexual gets the people involved into unnecessary needs and vulnerabilities.  It goes like this: Lust –> infatuation –>consummation –> jealousy or boredom.  Thus, it leads to anxiety or distress and that process continues.  The only pleasurable thing in that whole process is the sex itself, but it’s not worth it.  The question is still being posed on whether Epicurus got it right.
  • For St. Augustine, sex is always shameful: it controls the inner will, this sexual appetite is like an robber invading your mind.
  • **Kant’s view of sexuality is extremely strict, but it fits with his categorical imperative.  However, I find that it only pushes the question back because the metaphysics only seems to work in a religious context.
  • The Vatican states that sex is only permissible in a loving, committed heterosexual marriage with the purpose of procreation.
    • Not so fast.  Luc Bovens argues that discordant heterosexual couples should be able to use condoms because it’s still compatible with Catholic doctrines such as the Doctrine of Double Effect.
  • **According to Alan Goldman, sex is just plain sex!  There’s nothing special about it.
  • Russell Vannoy writes that sex without love can be enjoyable.
  • To have good sex, you must first value yourself according to Ayn Rand.
  • When is sex morally ok?  According to Thomas A. Mappes, sex is permissible if and only if when the parties involved are freely consenting.
    • According to Howard Klepper, consent isn’t sufficient.  Beyond consent, we must be considerate of the other’s needs, such as privacy, their feelings, and make sure that the relationship is non-exploitive.
    • Vincent Punzo agrees with Klepper saying that sex is is an expression of one’s moral self by affirming some values that one has and that there is a mutual commitment.  This can only be done in marriage.
    • *Ah yes, but what is consent in the first place?  Robin West wants to know.
  • David Benatar finds a dilemma within sex: the pleasure view (which means rape and pedophilia ok) or some deeper significance view (within some form of commitment or love).  The former is morally repugnant, the latter makes noncommittal sex wrong.  What to do?  Perhaps a hybrid of the two.
  • Casual sex reveals what kind of character one has.  Raja Halwani, coming from virtue theory, shows that it actually doesn’t ruin people’s characters.
  • Roger Scruton argues from traditional morality, but he finds puritanism flawed.
  • The benefits of casual sex.
  • There will be a new book coming out on Christian Sexual ethics.  You can see the table of contents here.  To get a glimpse of the essay, you can read some of it here.  Basically, the author argues for the ontological status of one flesh while arguing for a phenomenological basis in natural law theory.
  • Raja Halwani argues that casual sex and promiscuity may lead to objectification, but that objectification could be overcome.  I’ve blogged about it: part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.



  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on feminist perspectives on rape.
  • *Lois Pineau argues that current laws surrounding date rape are already biased against the victim.  Instead, the presumption should show that the perpetrator did not rape the victim.

UPDATED: 8/31/11 I’ve added an essay on the benefits of casual sex.

UPDATED: 9/18/11  I’ve added an essay of a forthcoming book on Christian sexual ethics.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Books, Experts, Gender, Pornography, Sexuality, Values and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Various Philosophers on Sex

  1. thekillerj says:

    I didn’t read Solomon or Nagel’s articles in their entirety, but at face value, I’d say Solomon is more on base. Nagel’s presumption that sexuality is considered normal when the people involved are sensing each other does not take in to consideration the pedophile’s “compliant” victim. Most are repulsed by the thought of an adult acting out sexually with a thirteen year old, therefore, this behavior would be considered wholly unhealthy by all except the freaks of NAMBLA. Due to confusion, manipulation via the perpetrator, biologically responsive sexual arousal, and other factors, some victims of sexual abuse comply with their perpetrator. The fact that the victim and perpetrator both experienced a range of sexual arousal does not mean the sexual encounter was healthy. Maybe Nagel addressed this in his article, but I didn’t catch it if he did.

    • shaunmiller says:

      You make an excellent point and that has been a troubling aspect for Nagel. Solomon agrees with Nagel, but he finds a lot of flaws with it. So Solomon takes what Nagel has and builds upon it, trying to fix up the flaws. In a way, Solomon does have the advantage, but Nagel set up the groundwork. So I guess I want to clarify what Nagel says and see how Solomon improves upon it.

      For Nagel, perversion is all psychological, not physiological. The two people have to be reflectively mutually recognizing each other. Can the victim of pedophilia “reflectively mutually recognize” his perpetrator? I guess it depends on what those words mean, but generally, probably not because there is no mutual relationship between the two. It means that “proper” sexuality is when the partners are not only aroused by each others’ bodies and and touches, but they are also aware of each others’ awareness of the touches and bodies.

      Solomon improves on this communication model and suggests that it is akin to language. If the people are speaking to each other, and understand each other, then they have communicated properly. If not, then there’s a breakdown of communication. So with sex, there is mutual communication and if the communication breaks down, then that sex is perverted. This makes sense in cases of voyeurism and exhibitionism because there is no communication between the two (or more) people. In the case of the pedophile, communication breaks down because the perpetrator and the victim aren’t “speaking the same language” and so they can’t understand (specifically the victim) what the other wants to do. Thus, it’s perverted.

      Admittedly, the communication model is very popular, but I find it flawed. But that’s another point. I’ll tell you why it’s flawed if you really want me to.

  2. thekillerj says:

    The “reflective mutual recognition” thing makes sense, and is essentially what we use to counter sexual abuse perpetrator’s assertions that the sex was consensual. We say even though your victim went along with the sexual encounter, and may even have considered themselves in a relationship, they are too young and developmentally immature to truly consent. Therefore, they achieved compliance, but not consent. No consent=rape.

  3. Pingback: Various Philosophers on Relationships: Polyamory, the Family, Friendship, and Singledom | Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  4. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  5. Howard Klepper says:

    “Beyond consent, we must be considerate of the other’s needs, which means one must be married to the other. Thus, sex is permissible if and only if when the parties involved are freely consenting and are married to each other.”

    Mr. Miller, this is not what I said at all. I hope you will correct your badly mistaken summary of my essay, or simply delete it if you cannot take the time for that.
    Howard Klepper

    • shaunmiller says:

      Dr. Klepper, my apologies. I wrote this long post in a few years ago and, in haste, I misattributed your views with someone else as I was writing this. I have fixed the summary of your essay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s