Is there Such a Thing as “Good” Sexual Objectification? (Part Three)

Let’s recall Marino’s argument:

  1. One can consent to objectification in the weak instrumental use.
  2. Consent is the morally significant feature that makes objectification permissible.
  3. Weak instrumental use is characteristic of the best sexual objectification.
  4. Therefore, consent should be the morally significant feature that makes sexual objectification permissible.
  5. If consent should be the morally significant feature that makes sexual objectification permissible, then the standard view is wrong and the libertarian view is correct.
  6. Therefore, the standard view is wrong and the libertarian view is correct.

In part one, I analyzed premise 1.

In part two, I analyzed premises 2 and 3.

In this final post on Marino’s article, I’ll analyze the remaining premises and give some final thoughts.

Not my image

Not my image


Premise 4. is just the conclusion from premises 2. and 3.

Premise 5. is a consequence of premise 4.  However, Marino brings up a possible objection:

Objection: Sex has this specialness behind it.  This specialness is the intimacy and the connection that the partners have.  Without that, the sex automatically becomes wrong because there is objectification.  For example, Kant considers marriage as the escape from objectification.  The argument is as follows:

i. Sex has a specialness feature that makes it distinct from other interactions.
ii. If there is a specialness feature in sex, then this specialness feature protects the people from objectification.
iii. Sex without the specialness feature is the libertarian view.
iv. Objectification is morally wrong.
v. Sex without the specialness feature entails sexual objectification.
vi. Therefore, sex without the specialness feature is morally wrong.
vii. Therefore, sex under the libertarian view is false.
viii. Sex with the specialness feature is the standard view.
ix. Thus, the standard view protects people from objectification.
x. Therefore, the standard view is correct, and the libertarian view is false.
xi. Either consent should not be the morally significant feature that makes sexual objectification permissible, or the standard view is correct and the libertarian view is false.  (Addition from x.)
xii.  Therefore, if consent should be the morally significant feature that makes sexual objectification permissible, then the standard view is correct and the libertarian view is false. (Implication from xi.) [This would be the denial of premise 5.]

Marino does some nice possibilities by trying to understand the objector’s notion of specialness in sex.  Exactly what does “specialness” mean here?  Premise ii. clarifies it up a bit, but there’s still an ambiguity on how the specialness of sex gets rid of the objectification.  Thus, Marino tries to clarify possible meanings of “specialness.”  If, it turns out, the term leads to inconsistent or illogical conclusions, then premise 1 is false.  The proponent of the standard view needs to go through this form to make the argument work:

  1. _______________.
  2. _______________.
  3. Therefore, sex has a specialness feature that makes it distinct from other interactions.  (notice that this was premise i.)

There are two candidates.  Let’s go through them.

Candidate 1: “Specialness” means “vulnerability.”  The proponent of the standard view argues that sex can make us vulnerable, which is why it is wrong to use people in vulnerable situations.  Marino provides an example where we can be in a vulnerable situation, yet people are being consensually used.  Suppose that I am ill and need to be cared for.  My partner takes care of me.  In a way, I may be using her so that I can be cared for, but I still respect her autonomy.  Moreover, her taking care of me can make us feel closer.  To make it more extreme, suppose that I’m really old and need lots of care.  My children or a caretaker may need to do a lot of caring for me, including bathing me.  I’m in a vulnerable situation, I’m using the person for my needs, I’m respecting the other person’s autonomy, and as a nice side-effect, the intimacy between us could be strengthened.  If it’s a caretaker, I can make sure that he or she is properly paid for.  That is how I respect the caretaker’s autonomy.

Candidate 2: “Specialness” means “non-commodification.”  The proponent of the standard view can next argue that when it comes to intimate relationships, the lovers involved can please each other out of lust, or simply because one wants to please the partner.  In other contexts such as prostitution, pornography, or casual sex, it looks more like a contract or a business deal which makes the sexual encounter commodified—the sexual practice and the people involved are treated as exchangeable goods.  Marino responds by giving an example of a sexual encounter where we exchange goods reciprocally, but have no moral problem with it:

If A expects that after giving B oral sex he or she will be deserving of a certain amount of reciprocity, and if B expects so too, this seems morally just fine, and sexually appropriate. But thinking this way treats sexual pleasure and sexual agents, in a way, as commodities to be exchange under certain agreed on conditions. So we already tend to think of sex as involving an exchange of services of a kind. (p. 360)

So why does A act to give B pleasure, or to forgo A’s own pleasure, or perhaps ignore B’s pleasure?  It’s because a chooses to do so, where mutuality and symmetry could come into play, but it’s not necessary.  Now, if choice is all that matters, then are leading toward Marino’s view: treating someone as an instrument can be “good” objectification.  If this is the criterion, notice that this entails the libertarian view, which means that pornography, prostitution, and casual sex can be morally permissible as long as everyone is consenting to the act and the background conditions are right.

Candidate 3: “Specialness” means “sacred.”  Marino only considers the previous two candidates.  However, there could be a third candidate of “specialness,” and that is sacredness.  We sometimes hear sexual conservatives complaining that sexual liberality is going to far because sex should be taken seriously rather than promiscuously.  (As if being serious and promiscuous were mutually exclusive.  After all, can’t one be seriously promiscuous?)  But what are the sexual conservatives getting at?  To say that sex should be taken seriously could mean that sex is sacred, and this is why sex should be taken seriously.  To say that sex is special because of some sort of sacredness has religious connotations, but can this view give a universal claim to everyone if a select group of people don’t believe it?  Imagine if another mundane activity, say conversation, was seen as sacred.  That would mean that we could only converse with our loved ones and intimates, but never strangers.  (I want to thank Dr. Marino for this example.)  Some people may look at it this way, but it won’t convince a good portion of the people.  But seems to be the sticking point: is sex a serious thing (whatever that means), or can it be a mundane activity?  Is sex “serious” in itself, or does the seriousness come from our perspective, meaning that we put the seriousness in sex?  Sexual conservatives would argue that that the seriousness is inherent in sex, but why is that?  It seems that the burden of proof is on them to explain why sex should be taken as “serious” inherently, and explain what they mean by serious.  This candidate is something that I’m thinking on my own, and it is an expansion of Marino’s paper.

Premise 6. is the conclusion from premises 4. and 5.

What can we say with Marino’s article?  Through my investigation, and my own comments given above, I really enjoyed this article and I think there’s something to be said about Marino’s view.  In addition, it’s refreshing to see an article where one is arguing against the tide that objectification is always wrong.  At the same time, I enjoyed Marino’s distinction between the standard view bisecting the pessimistic view and the libertarian view that we saw in part one.  In short, if proponents of the standard view claim that objectification is ok in intimate relationships because the people involved consent to it, then consent is actually the significant factor in when the objectification becomes moral, not the intimacy, which leads to the libertarian view.  And if proponents claim that pornography, prostitution, or casual sex is wrong because there is objectification, then the same proponents must also argue that objectification in any sexual encounter is wrong, which leads to the pessimistic view.  I think this is very telling and is something that needs to be addressed.  Holding onto the standard view can be detrimental.  Not only is it inconsistent, but it could lead to perpetuating gender norms and gender expectations surrounding sexuality.  If the standard view is that objectification is morally permissible except in cases of non-intimacy, and women are expected to be more intimate than men as part of the gender norm, and men are expected to be less intimate than women as part of the gender norm, then the standard view is asymmetrically harsher to women than to men.  It gives men freer reign to objectify women, and it prescribes women to have intimacy as part of the sexuality.  This view is frightening prospect.  To combat this, we need to explain to people that the libertarian view applies to all.  However, this is where the pessimistic view can creep in.  MacKinnon and Dworkin could respond that the standard view won’t work, and the libertarian view will just make it worse.  Thus, we need a new method.  Hence the pessimistic view.  I won’t go any further with this line of thought, but Marino’s paper could expand to gender norms and gender expectations, which is something I would like to incorporate in future work.

I want to give a special thanks to Jennifer Marra and J. Tyler Friedman for conversing with me on these ideas and helping me with the grammar on these posts.

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 Is there Such a Thing as “Good” Sexual Objectification? (Part Three)

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

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