Many pundits and media presenters are horrified that we are living in a sexual liberated world where a “hookup” culture is prevalent. Indeed, the presumption is that casual sex and promiscuity are so morally objectionable that this needs to be stopped. This presumption is that our culture may publicly critique casual sex and promiscuity, but may secretly engage in it. (After all, if this “hookup” culture is prevalent, then a lot of people must be privately engaging in it, while publicly critiquing it.) With younger generations, they respond that casual sex is more or less acceptable, but that it is still seen with distaste. But why have this presumption? What makes casual sex and promiscuity so wrong? Perhaps one main reason why people find this morally objectionable is because they view the participants morally objectifying each other. Since objectification is wrong, and participants engaging in casual sex or promiscuity objectify their partners, casual sex and promiscuity is wrong. Is this true? I’ll be looking at Raja Halwani’s article, “On Fucking Around” to investigate the morality of causal sex and promiscuity.
With a title like this, I had to review this article. Halwani has become involved in the philosophy of sex and I really enjoy his writing. He has combined virtue ethics with sexuality, something I’m very sympathetic with. I couldn’t find a separate article because it’s in an anthology that Halwani co-edited. If I find a separate article, I’ll post back and re-link.
THESIS: Given a pessimist view of sexual desire, casual sex and promiscuity necessarily objectify, and if they don’t, they most likely objectify. Despite this objectification, casual sex and promiscuity might be overall morally permissible.
In this article, Halwani argues that casual sex and promiscuity may involve objectification, but they don’t necessarily. However, they are likely to objectify another person. Regardless, even if there is objectification, the wrongness of objectification can be overcome by other considerations. Therefore, casual sex and promiscuity in general may be morally permissible. Quickly, the argument of the whole paper is structured like this:
- Casual sex and promiscuity (CS&P) may involve objectification.
- Objectification is prima facie morally wrong.
- If one can overcome the wrongness of objectification, then the activity in general may be morally permissible.
- CS&P may overcome the wrongness of objectification.
- Therefore, CS&P in general my be morally permissible.
It’s a bold claim. How do we start? I will begin by looking at the definitions of casual sex, promiscuity, and objectification. After defining them, I will investigate whether people engaging in casual sex and promiscuity do indeed objectify each other. In this specific post, I’ll look at the definitions.
Casual sex and promiscuity are considered morally wrong by many people, mainly because the people involved objectify the other person.
To start, we need some definitions. We need to define “casual sex,” “promiscuity,” and “objectification.”
Casual Sex: no strings attached sex, such that the consent of the parties implies no commitment beyond the act. There are three criteria:
1. A necessary condition is that the people involved do it for sexual pleasure.
2. A sufficient condition is that the people involved are not married nor do they have any sort of relationship commitment to each other.
3. A necessary and sufficient condition is that the people involved intend, hope, or desire that the sex act not lead to any commitment.
In other words, people who engage in casual sex want no relationship, and they often do it for sexual pleasure.
Here, Halwani recognizes that he may be leaving out some aspects to his definition. One example is when X and Y engage in casual sex. X does not hope that this would lead into a relationship, but Y does. Is this casual sex? What about where X and Y know they shouldn’t be in a committed relationship and so they intend the sex between them does not lead to commitment? Yet, they both want love so they hope that it does. Is this casual sex? Hard to say. Yet, these complications are side-stepped because Halwani uses his definition for the purposes of the article.
If I could concentrate on the complications, Halwani mentions that the consent of the people involved does not imply a commitment beyond the act. Indeed, he states that they would not see each other again, even for the purposes of sex. Here, I think Halwani is too strict. If this is the case, this would mean that strictly sexual relationship, friends with benefits, or “booty” calls would not be considered casual sex. I don’t understand why Halwani mentions this. After all, what I just mentioned fits with the definition and criteria of casual sex above. I think if people see each other again but they have sex, and intend not to form a committed relationship beyond the act, I would still consider this casual sex.
Promiscuity: a person who engages in sex with multiple people in a certain time period.
This definition is easier. A promiscuous person must have sex with different people. If John has sex with Mary many times, and neither of them want a relationship, we wouldn’t call them promiscuous. Likewise, a person may have had ten sexual partners within a 20 year time span, but we wouldn’t call that promiscuous behavior either.
With these definitions so far, Halwani is going to focus on people who intentionally engage in casual sex or promiscuity, and he’s also going to focus on those who engage in CS&P for sexual pleasure. Thus, while prostitutes and porn stars engage in CS&P, their motive may be money as well as sexual pleasure. Halwani just wants to focus on the people who solely do it for sexual pleasure.
Objectification: objectifying a person is to treat the person only as if an object.
This idea is mainly coming from the ethics of Immanuel Kant. Here’s the argument:
- Objectifying someone is to treat that person only as if an object.
- To treat a person only as if an object is to bring that person down from the level of being a person to the level of being an object.
- To bring a person down to the level of being an object is degrading or dehumanizing that person.
- Being a person has a special quality or property that other objects lack; this property could be dignity, rationality, autonomy, self-consciousness, being created in God’s image, or something along these lines.
- To objectify someone is to neglect or bypass this special quality or property, which is degrading or dehumanizing.
- Degrading or dehumanizing a person is morally wrong.
- Therefore, objectifying someone is morally wrong.
We should note a few things. First, we can unintentionally objectify someone. Thus, if engaging in casual sex necessarily objectifies the sexual partner, one could objectify him/her without intending to objectify. Second, regarding someone as an object is not the same as treating someone as an object. Suppose person A regards person B as an object. We would say that A has a defect or has a vice, but this doesn’t mean that B has been dehumanized or degraded because of A’s regard. Rather, it’s how A treats B. For actual degradation to occur, some from of treatment must occur. Finally, in the same spirit as Kant, we do treat each other as objects (it’s unavoidable), but we shouldn’t treat each other as mere objects.
What are some other ways we can objectify a person? Halwani relies on Nussbaum and Langton.
- Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her own purposes.
- Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
- Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
- Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.
- Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
- Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something owned by another, can be bought and sold, and so on.
- Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
And then from Langton:
8. Reduction to body: One treats the other as identified with his/her body, or body parts.
9. Reduction to appearance: One treats the other primarily in terms of how the other looks.
10. Silencing: One treats the other as silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
Now with this list above, we can treat people as objects or not. But the way to treat someone as an object is to only treat that person as an object. I cannot treat someone as denial of autonomy, meaning that I see her as lacking the ability to make choices and that I can use her for my purposes because she lacks freedom, yet simultaneously treating her as someone that can make choices and exercise freedom. This applies with everything in the list above, with perhaps the exception of instrumentality. I can treat the waitress as a bringer of food (so she’s an instrument for my needs), yet I can see her as a person who has her own ends, goals, feelings, and subjectivity. We can see the Kantian influence. Thus, with the exception of one (instrumentality), treating X as merely O (where O is a way to objectify someone from the list above) is to objectify X, which is morally wrong. So far, I’m on board. With this given list, does CS&P avoid objectification? This will be investigated in the next post.