This is a somewhat lengthy post. You can read to tl;dr summary if you scroll toward the bottom.
In Ann J. Cahill’s article, “Sexual Desire, Inequality, and Transformation,” she argues for an ethical transformation so that your sexual desires do not reflect the sexist or racist inequalities of our culture. For example, there may be someone who is attracted to Asian women because they are stereotypically associated with submissiveness, passivity, and fragility. While her insights are intriguing and thought-provoking, I was more interested on what she had to say next: one solution to change these racist and sexist desires is to change the actions, such as avoiding Asian women in social contexts. Change the behavior, one may transform the desires.The ethics behind this solution is to move the bodily behavior toward the mental, where we transform behavior, but not desires. Cahill is skeptical of this solution. The problem is that “it seems to provoke, perhaps necessarily, a structure that associates sexual desires with the body and a commitment to racial justice with the mind, thus perpetuating mind-body dualism” (289). The problems is that it not only buys into mind-body dualism, but it sets up a mind-body hierarchy as well.
So what’s the problem with mind-body dualism, at least the way she mentions it in the article? For one, it’s contrary to our human experience. Second, it “is deeply implicated in inequalities of all sorts, particularly those associated with sex/gender, sexual orientation, and disability” (290). Unfortunately, she doesn’t go further to explain why, but mentions that she and others working within the feminist project have made these points before. You can get a glimpse of those various arguments here. Basically, in the history of philosophy, the separation of mind and body has been correlated with male and female respectively in that the male has been associated with the mind and that attaining rationality is a key feature of philosophy; the female has been associated with bodily features and material aspects, so attaining rationality is more challenging. These dual aspects privilege one side over the other and the male side just happens to be on top of the hierarchy. Cahill, instead, argues that a phenomenological perspective seems more accurate in that we are embodied beings.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that the feminist criticism is correct. For Cahill, our sexual desires are embodied, or at least should be embodied. If there’s a separation between our mind and bodies when it comes to sex, we feel “not at one.”
Is there empirical research to show whether our sexual desires are embodied, or whether they are “separate from us” where we feel “not at one?” Luckily there is. We can turn to the science of sexual arousal and desire through the work of Meredith Chivers, whom you can read about here. Chivers got mainstream attention in 2009 when she revealed that men’s and women’s sexual concordance are drastically different. Sexual concordance is the mapping of people’s subjective sexual arousal and their physiological responses. So, for example, if a person’s subjective sexual arousal perfectly matches with her physiological response, then we say that we have a 100% concordance. Now Chivers’s work revealed that men’s concordance was about 66%, which is pretty high. If a man has an erection, then, most of the time, he will subjectively say that he is aroused. Women, however, have a concordance of about 26%. They would say that they were subjectively not turned on, but their bodies were. Or as the author of the article put it, “their minds and vulvas were out of sync.” How could you desire one thing, but your body desired another? Or more specifically to Chivers’s work, how is it that you have an aversion to something, but your body desires it? Gay women’s concordance was a bit higher, but not as high as men’s.
Because women have a stronger non-concordance, they may not feel “at one” with their sexual bodies, which can lead to sexual dysfunction. I think it’s partially due to sexual non-concordance, but also because of the dual control model and response sexual desire (links are NSFW), which are, on average female features of sexuality. We are living in a world where male sexuality is considered the universal form, and if anyone doesn’t follow into that framework, one is dysfunctional, “broken,” or not normal.
Now here, it seems if we go back to Cahill’s analysis, this analysis looks similar to mind-body dualism. Many women’s experiences suggest that they don’t feel at one with their bodily sexual arousal. Could we still be embodied beings even with Chivers’s analysis? I think this is where Cahill’s ethical analysis comes in, not about changing sexual desires, but more about “building” an embodied sexual being. It seems that the more in tune people are with their sexuality, the more sexually embodied they are.
In short, the argument I’m extracting from this is if the worry that mind-body dualism entails gender hierarchy, and not being in tune with one’s experiences can make people’s minds feel separate from their body, then there is an ethical project to close the gap and try to feel (be?) embodied. If not being sexually in tune with one’s body is to feel disembodied, then there is an ethical project to go through various practices to become sexually embodied.
Now what sort of practices could there be? Here are three that I captured from the article about Chivers:
1. Mindfulness. Lori Brotto has suggested a therapy that could help women be more in tune with their bodies (and hence feel embodied), and that is mindfulness. It’s a bridge to have better sexual awareness. As the article states, it’s makes you more aware of the desires you have, or don’t have: “Approached in this way, sexuality is a window into one of the greatest human mysteries: communication between the mind and the body, and how we can better align the two.” She’s currently writing a mass-marketed book to discuss how mindfulness can help people be more present during sex instead of being caught up with internal judgments.
2. Masturbation. From the article: “Research has found that women who masturbate more often have a higher concordance rate: they’re more sensitive to their genital signals. Masturbation holds a clue to men, too. Men on the whole masturbate more frequently than women; far more men than women do it multiple times per week. Men, with their higher concordance, also tend to just check in with their genitals more often, adjusting and prodding them throughout the day.”
“Chivers has also found that the higher a woman’s rate of sexual dysfunction is—distressingly low desire, the inability to orgasm, and so on—the lower her concordance.”
3. More Awareness of Gender Dynamics. Both Chivers and Brotto have a hunch that as children, our environment shapes the way we judge our sexual feelings, such that it’s gross or wrong, and this can also influence how we see our sexual bodies. Over time, this can lead to the dissonance—which is what concerns Cahill. From the article on Chivers and Brotto:
Repeated negative messages could lead girls to dissociate from their bodies, to avoid the normal process of touching and exploring themselves and forging genital-neural pathways. This feedback could result not just in girls ignoring their sexual impulses, but also in their being unable to make sense of them at all.
Why is men’s concordance higher than women’s, on average? Part of it has to do with anatomy, but another part has to do with the cultural messages relating to that anatomy. Women are constantly being bombarded with messages that sexuality, and with their sex specifically is dirty. They are told to keep their hands to themselves and to never touch. Over time, the message is that their sexuality is seen with shame, but also they aren’t in tune with their bodies, which makes their sexuality give the appearance of “mystery.” Moreover, women are told how to look so that they can be attractive and be desired. Doing so means that they focus on their performance of sexiness, but they never get in touch with what they really find sexually desirable or arousing. The answer is to formulate a healthy sexual self-image, where people can understand their sexual bodies, which will make them more in tune with their arousal and pleasure. These practices can help make their desires externalized and explore what it means to be a sexual being: adventure, curiosity, seeking novelty, sexual experimentation, focusing on sexual practices. If there is still anxiety surrounding their sexual contexts, it could mean a lack of communication, which evidence suggests could therefore decrease their use of contraceptives, but also create the dissonance and make the sexual concordance weaker.
Now I’m sure there are more practices out there, but what I find interesting in these practices is that these are not cognitive therapies to resolve the sexual dysfunctions; rather, these practices are somatic. They are practices of the body rather than changing cognitions of the mind. Body practices has become a new route to curing our ails. We see this especially in physical therapy, but there’s been a call to use our body for political and social ends. You can read more about that here and here. And if you want to see how we can use the body for political and social ends, see here.
tl;dr: I wanted to explore the idea that not being in tune with one’s sexual desires could cause sexual dysfunction, which would make one feel disembodied. According to Cahill, this is troublesome in that it perpetuates mind-body dualism, which has been associated with deep inequalities in the past. Thus, there is an ethical push to close the gap so that one feels embodied. Chivers and Brotto investigate various practices that can close the gap which include mindfulness, masturbation, and more awareness of the gender dynamics.