In part one, I investigated Halwani’s definitions of “casual sex,” “promiscuity,” and “objectification.” With objectification, Halwani went through the different senses of objectification by going through Nussbaum’s and Langton’s list. Recall from part one the thesis:
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 post, I’m going to see if casual sex and promiscuity (CS&P) avoid objectification, and what the pessimistic view of sexual desire is. Given the pessimistic view and objectification, I will analyze Halwani’s first argument that CS&P avoids objectification.
Does Casual Sex and Promiscuity Avoid Objectification?
One who answers “yes” to this question would make this argument:
- Objectification is morally wrong.
- Objectification is a necessary feature of casual sex.
- If objectification is morally wrong and is a necessary feature of casual sex, then casual sex is necessarily wrong.
- If promiscuity is multiple instances of casual sex with different people, promiscuity is also necessarily wrong.
- Therefore CS&P are necessarily morally wrong.
Is this argument sound? Halwani wants to tackle premise two. So why would people argue for premise two? Perhaps this is the argument:
2A. In engaging in CS&P, people have no-strings attached sex for sexual pleasure.
2B. By doing so, participants use each other—meaning they treat each each other as objects or tools—for the purpose of gaining pleasure.
2C. By using each other as objects or tools, they use each other for their selfish or self-interested sexual pleasure without regard for the other.
2D. Therefore, CS&P involve objectification because the participants involved use each other’s bodies for the satisfaction of their sexual desires.
Is 2A-2D true? If so, it supports what Halwani calls a “pessimistic view of sexual desires.”
Pessimistic view of sexual desires: the view that sexual desire consists of five components:
(1) Sexual desire targets people’s bodies and body parts.
(2) Satisfying sexual desire means to engage in deception and lies by downplaying our defects and highlighting our assets.
(3) Sexual activity can be so pleasurable and consuming that parties to it lose control over themselves and have no regard for the humanity of the other.
(4) Satisfying sexual desire means that reason is subverted and we do irrational stupid things to have people have sex with us, or during the sexual act.
(5) When we attend the other’s desires, we do so because we find it pleasurable, or we desire to get sexual attention in return.
Halwani implies that this may not be true in a long-term relationship (which I will argue against later), but it does seem to epitomize the features of CS&P. In a typical no-strings attached liaison, those engaged in CS&P target the body parts; emphasize assets and deemphasize defects and they can be rationalized because there’s no future commitment to each other; give up to their sexual abandonment because of no future commitment; put each other at risk because of no future commitment; and engage in giving the other pleasure as a means to receive pleasure.
This scenario has interesting prospects, but is it pessmistic in a bad way? Suppose X and Y want a NSA (no strings attached) sexual encounter. Imagine if X asked Y what Y’s hobbies are. Y asks, “why are you asking me?” X’s response: “So that I can treat you as a full person and not just some object.” I could see Y just rolling her eyes at that response. While I can see the pessimistic view to be true, is it necessarily true? In other words, those engaged in CS&P may not hold onto the pessimistic view of sexual desire. Maybe X will give Y pleasure for the sake of Y. When X and Y engage in NSA, are they doing it for selfish purposes? One escape from this is to say that the pessimistic view of sexual desire is the false view. At least, that would be my strategy. Those engaging in NSA can give the other pleasure for the sake of the other. There may be no necessary selfish aspect to this. Sure, there are those who only want sexual pleasure for themselves and don’t care about the desires of the other, but not all people are like that. Still, the strategy that Halwani takes is rather good: let’s assume that the pessimistic view is correct. After all, we want to know if CS&P objectify and in order to do that, we must accept the worst about sexual desire. If not, we’re taking the easy way out. After all, what if the pessimistic view is correct? Thus, we will hold onto the pessimistic view to see if premise two is correct.
So what are some possible strategies that the defender of CS&P could give?
First strategy: Deny premise two.
Second strategy: Even if CS&P do objectify, other factors may override it where NSA is not morally wrong.
Let’s start with the first strategy: that CS&P are not necessarily objectifying. Halwani gives two attempts at the first strategy. I’ll be focusing on the first attempt in this post.
First Attempt at the First Strategy:
In engaging in casual sex, does one treat the other as an object? To know this, we would have to go through the list that Nussbaum and Langton give above. Halwani argues “no” to the above. Let’s see why:
- Instrumentality: No, as long as the people involved don’t treat the other as mere tools or objects.
- Denial of autonomy: No. Those engaged in CS consider the other to have autonomy and self-determination.
- Inertness: No. Those engaged in CS consider the other to have agency.
- Fungibility: No. If X tries to find a CS partner in a bar, X treats the people in the bar as fungible. Yet, X is not treating the others wrongly.
- Violability: No. Those engaged in CS consider the other to have boundaries and integrity by not treating the other contrary to her desires and by treating her in accordance with her desires.
- Ownership: No. Those engaged in CS consider the other not as an owned object.
- Denial of subjectivity: No. Those engaged in CS consider the other to have experiences and feelings that need to be taken into account.
- Reduction to body: No. Those engaged in CS can take each other’s desires and wants into account, thus even though they focus on each other’s bodies, and perhaps engage in CS because of physical appearances, they do not treat each other as mere bodies. If I focus on a chef’s hands, it does not follow that I objectify her.
- Reduction to appearance: No. Those engaged in CS can take each other’s desires and wants into account, thus even though they engage in CS because of physical appearances, they do not treat each other as mere physical appearances. If I focus on the dancer’s shapely legs, it does not follow that I objectify her.
- Silencing: No. Those engaged in CS can take each other’s desires and wants into account and considers the other as a non-silent being.
Let me go through a few of them in detail.
Number one, instrumentality, is where Halwani argues is the tricky one and I agree. The way around this is how they treat each other. As long as the people involved don’t treat each other merely as tools. Treating each other as ends is key where X respects Y’s wishes. By analogy, this can work in nonsexual interactions. Here’s the argument:
- People use each other as tools in nonsexual interactions.
- During these interactions, we act in accordance with one’s desires and wishes.
- Doing this makes the objectification disappear.
- In casual sex, people use each other as tools.
- During these interactions, the people involved act in accordance with one’s desires and wishes.
- Therefore, doing this makes the objectification disappear.
Number four, fungibility, seems weak and I wish Halwani expanded on this. Here’s a way to offer some substance to it. Suppose you go to a coffee shop and you don’t like what they offer. So you go somewhere else. When you do that, you’re treating the owner as fungible with other coffee shop owners. Yet, if she protests that you have wronged her, meaning that you objectified her. That would be just silly. That would be like me being morally appalled if you went to someone else instead of me for being your teacher. Similarly, if X goes to a bar search for casual sex, there is no demand that X must go to Y as opposed to Z or W or whomever. Here’s the argument:
- Going to coffee shop A over B is treating both coffee shops as substitutable (they are fungible).
- The owners of the coffee shop do not have the demand to be morally appalled.
- Thus, they are not objectified.
- Going to a bar to pick up person X over Y is treating both people as substitutable (they are fungible).
- The people do not have the demand to be morally appalled.
- Thus, they are not objectified.
- Therefore, by analogy, unless I have some preexisting obligations, no one can demand of me that I purchase coffee from his shop rather than another shop or that I have sex with him instead of someone else.
So fungibility cannot be objectification because there are cases where treating people as fungible are not morally wrong. The reason why it seems wrong is because it’s like treating people like other objects that we substitute all the time. For example, if my pencil doesn’t work, better get a new one. However, this only works with it comes with the actions that are already wrong. In which case, fungibility isn’t the problem. For example, if I owned five slaves whom I treated like pencils, and I just throw one away if it doesn’t work anymore, I would be treating them as if they were fungible. But the wrongness here is not the fungibility; the wrongness is treating them like objects in the first place.
If I kidnap my neighbor’s dog, and bring back another dog from the shelter, and I say, “have this one, it’s just as good as your other dog,” that’s wrong. The wrongness is fungibility, but only because I acted wrongly. Similarly, if I were cruising at a bar finding a one-night stand, looking for potential partners, I would be treating them as fungible. I view them with their individual quirks and see what they offer. But none of them can make a demand of me that I sleep with her. Since I can’t sexually impose myself on anyone, or demand anyone of them to sleep with me, in treating them as fungible, I not only not wrong wrong them, but I’m also not objectifying them.
Number nine, reduction to appearance, is interesting. Halwani states that this feature is more telling because those engaged in CS&P expect and even want to be treated primarily in terms of their appearances. If one is proud of their shapely thighs or their chiseled abs, they might want their partners to pay sexual attention to them.
So far, this is showing that CS&P are not necessarily objectifying because one can treat the other as a person and not a mere object. Thus, CS&P are not necessarily objectifying. Does this work?
In the next post, I’ll detail some flaws with Halwani’s first attempt and certain responses he makes.
Update: Originally, I had mentioned consent in Halwani’s article. However, I conflated “treatment” with “consent,” which is problematic. With my updates, I hope I have been more faithful to Halwani’s argument.