Raja Halwani’s “On F***ing Around” (Part Five)

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.

In part two, I investigated Halwani’s first attempt at the first strategy to see if casual sex and promiscuity (CS&P) avoid objectification, and what the pessimistic view of sexual desire is.

In part three, I investigated various attempts on whether CS&P lead to objectification.  In the end, Halwani argues that CS&P may lead to objectification, but I offered some criticism of that view.

In part four, I investigated Halwani’s argument on why CS&P likely objectify people, and possible ways to defend CS&P.

In this final post, I will look at Halwani’s second option (that CS&P likely objectify, but the immorality of objectification isn’t so serious), and my final thoughts on this article.

Not my image

Not my image

Recall that in part four, the defender of CS&P had two options.  The first option was to lessen Kant’s strict view of objectification.  The problem is that if we do, we ignore the pessimistic view of sexual desire, which is what we want to assume in the first place and not take the easy way out.  Thus, we are left with option two:

Option 2: Accept that CS&P are objectifying but that the immorality of objectificaiton is not so serious.  This strategy asks the question: “what’s so bad about sexual objectification?”  Maybe we can say that sexual objectification is wrong, but not a serious wrong (except in special cases, like rape) and that other factors play a role to make sexual activity possibly morally permissible.

This is the strategy Halwani takes.  Sexual objectification is not a serious wrong because it’s usually consensual, attentive and not harmful.  If we look at lying or stealing, this is considered a wrong because they involve using the other as a mere means or lack of consent, and they often harm.

Sexual objectification avoids this because:

  • there can be consent,
  • even though it involves the use of each other and of themselves as mere instruments, there is no harm involved toward themselves or other being; and
  • they are attentive to each other’s sexual desires and needs (even if for selfish reasons).

With CS&P, they have certain goods, like:

  • it’s pleasurable;
  • it’s recreational; and
  • there’s sexual variety and the lack of sexual commitments for those who don’t have time nor desire monogamy, love, or a relationship.

Notice with option 2, this still leaves my worry that I mentioned in part four: this solution may apply to CS&P, but it opens the door to all types of relationships that involve sex, including marriage and loving couples.  After all, people want sex and they can be animalistic and the other person will be a release.  And as long as they both consent to the activity, there is no moral problem.  If this works in marriage, why doesn’t this work in CS&P?  To employ the second strategy is to implicitly say that sexual activity is objectifying even in cases of marriage and love.  But this is proving too much.  This is why I think employing option one (lessening Kant’s strict view) is better with the understanding that the burden of proof rests on the pessimist.

Such is Halwani’s article.  What is really powerful, and something that I think needs to be emphasized and discussed, is that fact that sexual objectification may be there, but it can be overcome.  Another interesting question is whether sexual objectification is bad, and it can be overcome, or whether there is “good” sexual objectification and “bad” sexual objectification.  That’s another issue that Halwani doesn’t mention (yet, I’m assuming it’s going to be the former since he thinks that objectification can be overcome, which has the presumption that sexual objectification is bad), yet the question of objectification is developed into an analytical discussion about whether it is always wrong in all cases.  Halwani argues that it doesn’t.

Overall, it’s a very promising article, but I have some qualms with it.  Let me review some of the problems:

Problem 1:  Is the pessimistic view of sexual desire true?  It may be true, but I don’t think it is necessarily true.  The truth behind sexual desire is not within the nature of sexual desire, but within the person who has it.  Person A may see sexual desire as an insatiable desire that needs to be fulfilled and if that means finding someone to satisfy it, so be it.  For person A, she has the pessimistic view of sexual desire.  Person B may look at sexual desire as a way to fulfill some union with another person in order to share some grand sharing pleasure, love, or some other feature of unitive moments.  For person B, she has the optimistic view of sexual pleasure.  Person C may see sexual desire as an imposed, external, vicious feeling and that it would be best if she never had it in the first place.  Person C, then, sees sexual desire as an imposition, something that she wishes she never had.  Person D may look at sexual desire as another feeling similar to other emotions: they are there, and one can flow with that emotion, or one can ignore it and let those energies dissipate.  Person D sees sexual desire as neutral, neither an imposition nor as a blessing.  In all of these cases, sexual desire is how the person views it; the nature of sexual desire is not within the sexual desire itself, but on how the people do with that sexual desire.  Of course, Halwani’s project is to assume that the pessimistic view of sexual desire is true in order to defeat the opponent of CS&P.  It’s a project that is coherent, but it is a presumption that I would disagree with.

Moreover, there is something wrong with the argument on why CS&P necessarily involves  objectification.  Recall 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.

My problem is with 2C.  It could be that the antecedent and the consequent are reversed: in other words, it is possible that if people use each other for their selfish or self-interested sexual pleasure without regard for the other, then they are using each other as objects or tools.  2C merely gives a definition of what it means to use each other as tools, whereas I think my reversal gives an explanation of what it means to be selfish.

Problem 2:  Avoid sexual objectification all the time would undermine sexual desire.  This isn’t something that Halwani discusses, nor is this a direct problem with Halwani’s argument.  Rather, this is a problem with the pessimistic view of sexual desire.  Suppose the objectification happens because of selfishness.  To avoid objectification, then, means that would would perform the sexual activity for the sake of the other.  While it may be possible to do this, it seems very doubtful to do this all the time, for each and every instance one engages in sex.  This is, of course, an empirical question, but it seems that our psychological makeup suggests that the main motivation to have sex is for the sake of pleasure.  There may be instances where we engage in sex for compassion for our partner, or to give our partner pleasure, but I doubt this happens all the time.  Moreover, objectification isn’t escaped because while you may be satisfying your sexual partner for the sake of your partner, your partner may want the pleasure purely, and thus is objectifying you.  There is no escape from objectification.  The way out is if both are having sex but their motivation is to give the other pleasure, and that neither of them are motivated to have sex to gain pleasure.  Again, this seems very doubtful.  For these reasons, this is why I think Halwani’s argument against instrumentality has merit.

Problem 3: Halwani’s argument isn’t restrictive to CS&P, but to all relationships that are sexual.  If the problem is that CS&P sometimes objectify each other because of 2C, then why restrict this to casual sex acquaintances?  Indeed, married people can engage in sex and try to gain sexual pleasure for selfish reasons.  Perhaps Halwani could reply that he wanted to focus on casual sex and promiscuity since the stigma against them is strong, while sex within married people has no stigma.  That may be true, but I think if he brings in the possibility that married people can objectify each other sexually, that would only help his case and it would help his argument that the stigma against CS&P has no bearing if one uses objectification as the reason to argue against it.  In other words, if opponents of CS&P say that it’s wrong because of objectification, one could respond that the same could happen in marriage.

Overall, I really enjoyed this article and it gives some clearing about the ethics of casual sex, something which I think needs to be discussed in sexual ethics.  By investigating the ethics of CS&P, one may look into the “hookup” culture with a more critical eye instead of impulsively denigrating it at first glance.  Halwani’s article is a step of doing just that.  The problems I’ve raised aren’t damning; if anything, they can only help his case.  If these problems could by implemented into the discussion, I think this could further reach against the stigma of CS&P and have a better dialogue of what sexual objectification is and how to fight against the bad kind rather than saying that it’s bad wholesale.  The question remains: is sexual objectification always bad, yet it can be overcome (as Halwani thought)?  Or is there such a thing as “good” sexual objectification and “bad” sexual objectification?  Perhaps that would be a new paper or post topic.

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.
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1 Response to Raja Halwani’s “On F***ing Around” (Part Five)

  1. Pingback: Various Philosophers on Sex | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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