Three Pictures of Sexual Autonomy and Sexual Consent: Looking at the Third View

This is a condensed talk that I gave a few weeks ago at UW-Parkside. I have  been dividing that talk into three separate posts. This is the third post.

In the first post, I looked at procedural autonomy and consensual minimalism.

In the second post, I looked at substantive autonomy and consensual idealism.

Both views, I argued, are inadequate to fully explain sexual consent. Thus, I have come up with a new view of sexual autonomy and sexual consent.

Weak Substantive Autonomy

With the problems of both procedural and substantivist autonomy, is there another route that keeps the advantages and discards the disadvantages? Diane Meyers has offered a route which has been known as weak substantive autonomy.


Weak substantive autonomy has normative constraints, but not on the contents of people’s preferences and values. Meyers’ account suggests that agents must have autonomy competency, meaning there must be a collection of skills and capacities so that individuals reach self-realization whatever this may mean for each individual. It is a skills-based view of autonomy. The agentic skills that Meyers has in mind include introspection, communication, memory, imagination, analytical reasoning, self-nurturing, resistance to pressures to conform, and political collaboration. Meyers sees self-realization as crucial to self-respect. If traditional gender socialization compromises women’s capacities to achieve full autonomy and damages their self-respect, this kind of socialization is oppressive.

Meyers further asks whether all desires deserve the same weight. After all, if desires come about due to their oppression, should those desires be given credence? If yes, then we seem to be feeding into the oppression. If not, then we would ignore their experiences, which is a form of disrespecting them. Meyers’s answer is not all desires have the same weight. If the desires come about autonomously—meaning through the exercise of skills of self-discovery, self-definition, and self-direction—then those desires should be given more weight over desires which have not been critically reflective because they are built into the social norms and expectations. So, the content of the desires is not the focus like those who endorse substantive autonomy, but neither is the lack of external constraints the focus either. Rather, it is whether those desires have been acquired or endorsed autonomously and, for Meyers, the acquisition or endorsement comes about through competent skills. Applied to sexuality, to be sexually autonomous entails one needs certain skills such as knowing when one is ready, communication, courage to say “no,” and emotional intelligence.

The Complexities of Sexual Consent

What view of consent comes from weak substantive autonomy?  For one, the previous theories miss out on the conext. The participants may have different standards on what counts as affirmation. For example, one person may consider enthusiastic consent as too high of a standard such as long-term couples may still engage in sex consensually, but not enthusiastically. Or consider novices of sex, or even having a new partner can cause trepidation or stress which can inhibit any enthusiasm, even if the partners are more than willing to have sex. From a different angle, some people may find the broadest view as too low of a standard. They may want to constantly check-in, maybe continually ask questions to make sure their partner is comfortable with the activity. On the other hand, many people may find this cumbersome, even ruinous to the flow of the sexual experience, and instead preferring the affirmation be ongoing rather than a disjointed check-in.

Second, what is more complex is the latest scientific research sexual responses vary between males and females as revealed by Emily Nagoski’s explanation of the latest scientific studies.

Dr. Emily Nagoski (not my image)

Let me briefly bring up three differences and suggest how these differences make consent more complex. The first discusses sexual concordance which is the (mis-)match between one’s subjective sexual response and one’s physiological sexual response. For example, if you say that you are aroused, and the machines detecting your physiological responses suggest various sexual responses perfectly (e.g. blood flow, penis erection, vaginal fluid), then we have a one hundred percent sexual concordance. In the literature, men typically show a concordance fifty percent of the time whereas woman only show a concordance ten percent of the time. In the case of women, they will say they are not subjectively turned on, but their physiological responses suggest otherwise.

Not my image. Notice with men, they have a 50% between how much their bodies respond and how turned on they feel. For women, it’s 10%.

The second difference has to do with various systems in play when it comes to sexual arousal. There is the sexual excitation system—which Nagoski calls the sexual accelerator—and the sexual inhibition system—which Nagoski calls the sexual brake. Every person has this, and some accelerators and brakes may be more sensitive than others. The sexual excitation system notices relevant information in the environment so that one can be aroused (e.g. partner’s appearance, ways your partner makes you feel, novelty). The sexual inhibition system notices relevant information in the environment to suggest good reasons not to be aroused (e.g. stress, body image, trauma history, relationship conflict, sleep deprivation, reputation).

Not my image. To see the whole comic, please visit Nagoski’s blog here.

On average, men appear to have a more sensitive sexual accelerator and women have more sensitive sexual brakes. Nagoski discusses that when we want to turn our partner on, we often think that we just need to press the accelerator more. However, since women are more likely to be attuned to their brakes, they may need to release the brake pedal so that sexual arousal can initiate. Simply turning people on is not merely a matter of touching or caressing, but setting up a context where they are comfortable and already set in a situation where they could be easily aroused. Or, as Nagoski puts it, “arousal is the process of turning on the ons and turning off the offs.”

Finally, the third difference involves the genesis of sexual arousal. We often think of sexual arousal happening spontaneously: sexual arousal appears out of nowhere, and we want to have our sexual desires fulfilled. This narrative is so strong that we assume it is a universal human condition. However, Nagoski points out that spontaneous arousal typically works maybe seventy-five percent of men and fifteen percent of women. Conversely, other people typically have response sexual arousal, which is when arousal arises after the accelerator has been pressed and/or the brake pedal has been released. In other words, the person is in a state of arousal in response to a context that fosters sexual arousal. This form of arousal occurs in roughly five percent of men and thirty percent of women.


Not my image


With these factors in play, consent becomes complex. To see why, suppose we have a typical woman who has these typical responses named Tonya. If Tonya’s sexual concordance happens twenty-six percent of the time, she may not be sexually aroused, but she may be physiologically aroused. How would she be subjectively aroused? Here is where the other two features are helpful. If her brake pedal is on more so than the accelerator, then it seems having more acceleration would hardly work when releasing the brake pedal would be more efficient. Now, to release it, she would either have to self-release or someone else would have to help her release it. In short, Tonya would have to get turned on through manual or external stimulation. The motivational push hinges on the last feature: the response sexual desire.

If Tonya’s sexual desire is responsive rather than spontaneous, then it seems she typically becomes aroused as a response from external sources rather than a spontaneous genesis. Thus, her experience is such that she is more likely to engage in sexual relations from an external source where the context is set up just right and she is nudged to have a sexual encounter. This is not to say it should happen all the time, but if Nagoski is correct, then the typical woman would respond to sexual initiation from her partner. In Tonya’s experience, she has a hard time initiating sexual encounters because she may not currently be in the mood, but she could be given the right physiology (i.e. possible sexual non-concordance) and right context (i.e. release of brake pedal) from a good external source (i.e. responsive desire from her partner as opposed to someone with aggressive sexual tactics). In this sense, perhaps a playful nudge, a soft persuasion, a positive pressure, or a helpful sway would be ethically permissible. If we are having trouble imagining this imagine an ideal society without any unethical sexual actions, the helpful sway may still be unproblematic to bring forth ethical sexual conduct.

Perhaps what makes this experience more accurate—and more complex—is that of high school female students. Most high schoolers are novices when it comes to sex and, for many young women, discussing and thinking about sex—especially sexual pleasure—is still taboo. Thus, many young women in high school may not know what their boundaries are, what sort of pleasures they have, what they desire, what they are willing to do, or what they may not want to do. At the beginning of many sexual experiences, Tonya as a high school student may feel awkward at first. But over time, she learns about her subjective sexual arousal, how to release her sexual brakes, and environment in which she is responding to various stimuli that arouses her sexual desires. In short, she consents to sex because of the context which enables her to build her arousal mechanisms, and thus increase her desire at which point she consents.

Ok, that’s it for this post. In the next and final post, I’ll be applying this view and see what this new type of consent looks like in the practical world.


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Three Pictures of Sexual Autonomy and Sexual Consent: Looking at the Second View

This is a condensed talk that I gave a few weeks ago at UW-Parkside. In the last post, I talked about the first view of sexual autonomy and sexual consent: procedural autonomy and consensual minimalism.

In this post, I’ll be looking at the second view: substantive autonomy and consensual idealism.

Substantive Autonomy and Consensual Idealism

The substantivist form is more robust and is packed with a stronger view of what it means to be autonomous.  If a choice is made under certain conditions and/or the agent is of certain type, then we can say that the agent is autonomous.  The decision is not based on a subjective decision, but also some “external” criteria.

AutonomyMorten Ebbe Juul Nielson explains why:

formal conceptions of autonomy that are meant as action-guiding are said to be so, but it remains unclear why. If one launches a formal conception of autonomy and adds that “autonomous choice should be respected,” we would like to know why. If choice is not linked to some sort of value—for instance, to a conception of human flourishing—it is hard to see why we should respect it. Formal conceptions of autonomy, then, stop short of providing us with reasons.

Part of the answer in the quote suggests that for any form of autonomy to be substantial, it must be because autonomy is either grounded or part of human flourishing, however we define that. Notice that if humans cannot flourish, they are not substantially autonomous. Moreover, the necessary conditions for an action to be consensual are voluntary, informed, and competence. However, for substantive autonomy, a choice must also foster the conditions for flourishing. Therefore, there is something underlying the autonomy, and what underlies it is some sort of virtue ethical consideration in order for the autonomy to get off the ground.

Under substantive autonomy, if someone has not met the normative conditions for autonomy typically identified by philosophers, including choices which have criticizable moral contents, then that person is not autonomous despite the freedom of external constraints. People’s psychology ought to hook up to the world in the right way. Whatever the case may be, the content of people’s preferences and values must correspond to some objective criteria of what is good for people. In other words, substantive autonomy is value-laden and oppression is never valuable. To be autonomous, then, is to be free from oppressive constraints, and these constraints can unconscious. 


The type of consent that corresponds to substantive autonomy is what I call consensual idealism. Under this position, representatives argue that consensual minimalism is necessary, but not sufficient for the sexual activity to be ethical. Rather, there is a moral requirement that people ought to acknowledge and be responsive to each other’s needs, desires, and feelings.


Representatives of this position include West, Pineau, and Estes. I have mentioned West before. Pineau considers that our sexual relations should be based on a communicative model rather than the contractual model. Pineau extracts her communicative model from Kant in that we have the obligation to take the ends of others as our own. Thus, Pineau’s model of consent suggests that “if a man wants to be sure that he is not forcing himself on a woman, he has an obligation either to ensure that the encounter really is mutually enjoyable, or to know the reasons why she would want to continue the encounter in spite of her lack of enjoyment.”  

Yolanda Estes adds two additional criteria: “each sexual partner exhibits concern for the other’s interests and needs insofar as their wellbeing includes and extends beyond their sexual wellbeing” and “each sexual partner attend to the other’s desires.” Starting with the first, without attending to the other’s interests and needs, the sexual interaction could undermine wellbeing. She points out that “sex without desire results in sensual or emotional dissatisfaction at best and physical or psychological trauma at worst.” If there is no interest in the partner’s needs and interests, Estes argues, then there is no concern for the partner. In shorter, non-committed sexual relationships, it becomes more imperative for clearer, explicit, and specific communication.This means we ought to take the time and communicate what the other person desires in order to mitigate any misunderstandings:

We can take time to gain some sexual knowledge of our partner by proceeding cautiously and unhurriedly in the initial stages of a sexual relationship. This increases the chance of correctly interpreting and addressing expressions of consent, expectation, and desire. Before, during, and after sexual interactions, we can solicit more explicit, specific expressions of our partner’s thoughts and feelings; observe our partner’s reactions carefully; and reflect diligently on what we hear and see. This enhances the possibility of reciprocal consent, concern, and desire while improving our sexual technique and our opportunity for a repeat performance.

Consent alone provides no immunity to moral reproach. Insofar as people show a respectful regard for a potential sexual partner, we cannot ignore our partner’s desires.

Problems with this account:

Let me offer some problems with substantivist autonomy and consensual idealism. A common substantivist problem is that there is a conflation between personal autonomy and moral autonomy—which is self-determination regarding how one ought to act. If substantive autonomy provides normative constraints on when people are autonomous, then, under this rubric, people are autonomous only if they make the moral, correct choice. Thus, the conflation: being autonomous does not necessarily mean being moral.

One problem with consensual idealism is that it seems false where one has no mutual desire or exhibiting some care or concern entails that the act is unethical. For example, sex workers, those who have sex to maintain the relationships (aka maintenance sex), and those who have sex purely for the sake of reproduction would not meet this criterion. In each of them, they want an end and which sex sex is a means to reach that end.

A second problem with consensual idealism is that some of the features are too high of a standard. For one example, suppose a newly couple wants to have sex. We can even assume that there is strong chemistry, and they consent to having sex. However, once they start, there is a bit of awkwardness: they see each other naked for the first time, one of them may be self-conscious, they fumble during sex which makes the experience sub-par, and perhaps one (or both) are thinking not directly about fulfilling the desires of the other, but more on the mechanics of sex, which detracts from their enjoyment.  Both are disappointed when the act ends. Yet, they want to give it another round at a later time. It seems that they did not mutually try to satisfy each other’s desires, nor did they exhibit concern for the other’s sexual well-being, at least not directly. This is not the ideal sex act, but it does not make the act unethical.

Another problem—which relates to the last—is that people, especially when they are novices or feel uncertain about sex, may not know what they want. They may engage in various activities for curiosity, experimentation, trial and error, or simply “just to try it out.” There is no mutual desire to be had since one is not sure what sort desires one has. Moreover, younger people are still figuring out their own sexual-well being, which includes what sort of values and boundaries they are comfortable with. They may not enthusiastically say “yes” because they are not sure what they are enthused of, yet they still want to have the sexual experience for the reasons mentioned above.

In short, consensual idealism ignores the context of the sexual actors and possibly places too high of a standard.

Full Picture

Let’s take stock and see where we’re at right now. In terms of consensual idealism and consensual minimalism, we can see that they have different standards and different perspectives on what is permissible or not. Consensual idealism has higher standards and therefore, anything that falls below that standard makes the sexual activity morally impermissible. Remember the case of Monica in the last post? We can place her on the chart and see why consensual idealists would find that what happened to her is unethical, but the consensual minimalists would consider what happened to her as ethical, albeit perhaps not the best of all situations.


These two views of consent have been the dominating pictures, but they seem to have many problems. I suggest we need to relook at consent, and I can do so by looking at another view of autonomy.

In the next post, I’ll be looking a third picture of sexual autonomy and sexual consent.

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Three Pictures of Sexual Autonomy and Sexual Consent: Looking at the First View

This is a condensed talk that I gave a few weeks ago at UW-Parkside. I’ll be dividing that talk into three separate posts.

Sexual consent has been getting a lot of attention lately. We often hear news about sexual campus assaults, rape culture, and affirmative consent. But what, exactly, is sexual consent? I want to contribute to the discussion by noting some various differences among three different theories of sexual consent and remarking what these different types entail. Sexual consent is based on the sexual choices, preferences, desires, and wants of the people involved. And yet, the ability to make choices, to exercise one’s preferences, desires, and wants of the individual is based on autonomy. Therefore, to discuss sexual consent, we must also talk about sexual autonomy. I will also show that these three different pictures of sexual consent correspond to three different types of sexual autonomy. I want to investigate these three different types, various advantages and disadvantages, and see what sort of individual best expresses sexual autonomy.

Procedural Autonomy and Consensual Minimalism

When discussing personal autonomy, there is a distinction between procedural and substantial autonomy. 


Procedural autonomy means that an agent is autonomous when that person can freely choose an action. This view seems to be the most common, but this conception suggests that it does not matter what the action is or what kind of being the agent is. The content of people’s desires, values, preferences, and beliefs are irrelevant. All that matters is that the agent makes a choice through, at the very least, some critical reflection. Procedural autonomy is based on how the decision was made.  Through this account, we ought to respect persons because they are autonomous. In short though, a person is autonomous as long as there are no constraints.

Free Person

The first type of consent is what is known as consensual minimalism.  Under this view, the necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as consent is a voluntary informed agreement. The best representatives of this view are Mappes, Wertheimer, and Steutal and de Ruyter. In short, this position entails no coercion, deception, or incapacitation may take place otherwise, the action is unethical.  At minimum, provided the people involved give permission to the sexual act, then the sexual act is morally permissible. Mappes applies Kant’s second Categorical Imperative and derives moral and immoral sexual activity. According to Mappes, sex is morally impermissible if at least one person involved in the sexual activity treats the other as a mere means, whereas morally permissible sexual relations comes about when the participants have voluntary informed consent. To undermine the other’s voluntary informed consent means that one coerces, deceives, or takes advantage of the other’s desperate situation.

Another way to look at consensual minimalism is to say that it is contractual.  Raymond Belliotti argues that the

nature of these [sexual] interactions is contractual and involves the important notion of reciprocity. When two people voluntarily consent to interact sexually they create obligations to each other based on their needs and expectations.  Every sexual encounter has as its base the needs, desires, and drives of the individuals involved.  That we choose to interact sexually is an acknowledgement that none of us is totally self-sufficient.  We interact with others in order to fulfill certain desires which we cannot fulfill by ourselves.  This suggests that the basis of the sexual encounter is contractual; i.e., it is a voluntary agreement on the part of both parties to satisfy the expectation of the other.

While a voluntary agreement with another person is necessary for consent, to say the agreement is contractual makes it seem like the sexual relation is more of a business deal rather than a reciprocal agreement of fulfilling wants and desires. However, Belliotti does mention that this contract is based on the expectations of fulfillment of reciprocal needs. Moreover, there is a guide of reasonable expectation, and this is what the sexual contract entails: we are to help fulfill our sexual needs and desires and, in return, there is an implicit expectation to help fulfill the other person’s wants and needs, but not necessarily an obligation to do so.

We can see how procedural autonomy entails consensual minimalism.


Problems with this account:

There are many problems with consensual minimalism, but I’ll offer one.

Robin West and Lois Pineau have argued that consent in this framework is problematic. West has argued that traditional consent has mainly been for the benefit of the male. It is possible for a woman to have consensual, non-coercive, non-forceful, non-criminal, yet harmful sex. These harms, however, may be hard to discover. Many women consent to sex even when they do not desire it, and it is usually not pleasurable. So then why do they engage and consent to sex if they do not desire it or if it is not pleasurable? Through several vignettes, she reveals how engaging in sex multiple times under this context can be harmful: her self-assertion and self-possession is weakened, her integrity is lessened, and, most importantly for our discussion, her autonomy is draining. Having consensual but unwanted sex over time can take a toll on her. Since it is wrong to act in ways that cause (unjustified) harm to oneself or others, not all sexual activity engaged in under conditions of voluntary informed consent is morally acceptable.

Pineau discusses on a young woman who goes on a date with someone. She feels an attraction to him and believes that he feels the same way about her. She goes out hoping there will be mutual enjoyment with mutual interest. However, the mutual and reciprocal interest is not realized. The man uses aggressive, coercive tactics to have sex with her.  She feels immense pressure to have sex with him, though she does not want to have the kind of sex he does. She is having trouble disengaging his body from hers, and wishes he would just go away. But she feels stuck because she feels afraid to say “no” lest his aggression become more violent. Instead, she goes along with him just to get it over. He does not even notice she finds the encounter disagreeable, and probably still would not have changed course if he had. He congratulates himself for his aggressive tactics in that they paid off. She, however, does not feel quite right with the experience. This woman described by Pineau could also be someone whom Robin West describes in her vignettes: she engages in sexual activities with a man for economic sustenance, or to lessen some violent outburst. For simplicity, let us call this woman Monica. (Keep this in mind as I’ll refer to her in future posts.)

There are also problems with procedural autonomy. The main critique against procedural autonomy is that it cannot explain away oppressive measures. How could the theory explain such deleterious activities such as selling oneself into slavery, the deferential wife who wishes to be subservient to her husband, or anyone that has effectively internalized oppressive norms and treats those norms as their own ends? Can we really say that those ends are really their own? Specifically, with internalized oppressive norms, what if society is structured in such a way that we are not really autonomous, but we think we are?  These preferences influenced by oppressive norms cannot be autonomous but are really “adaptive preferences,” meaning that our desires and preferences change based on our surroundings. Thus, various choices we make may not be beneficial. Indeed, it can be detrimental to the self, even if we think it is a beneficial choice. For example, we may consent to prostitution or pornography not because this agreement was a full expression of our self, but perhaps because of economic hardships. For a less extreme example, a woman may “consent” to being a dutiful housewife but only because the society she is in expects her to not only have a future of being a dutiful housewife but also to enjoy doing so. Thus, if we cannot make a difference between desires that are one’s own and desires brought about through oppressive norms, then we cannot, among other things, know between desires that are one’s own, and desires that come about through oppressive norms. In that case, it is difficult to ascertain whether a decision is done through one’s autonomy or because of one’s socialization. In short, the critique of procedural autonomy is based on what the agent prefers without any obstacles but it does not consider that the agent’s preferences could be oppressive or adaptive.


In the next post, I’ll look at the second picture of sexual consent and sexual autonomy.

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Casual/Committed Sex/Love

In a previous post, I discussed sociosexual orientation. Sociosexual orientation is the willingness to engage in uncommitted sex or not. There are two types:

  • Unrestricted sociosexual orientation: these are individuals who are more willing to engage in uncommitted, casual sex that doesn’t have to involve emotions or intimacy.
  • Restricted sociosexual orientation: these are individuals who are unwilling to engage in casual sex and prefer to have sex that involves love, commitment, and emotional closeness.

These are unlikely the only two options. After all, if sexual orientation, gender, and relationship style is on a spectrum, then sociosexual orientation could also be on a spectrum too. We could say that some individuals are somewhat restricted in varying degrees.

In our culture, we can readily see these different approaches to sexuality. And we usually associate like with like: those who enjoy casual sex tend to sexually associate with those who also enjoy casual sex, and those who prefer committed sex tend to sexually associate with those who prefer committed sex. With these two different approaches to sexuality, we can see the spectrum. This will follow suit with the Kinsey scale:

Sociosexual Orientation

But we seem to only focus on the sexual aspects. Is it possible that love or perhaps being emotionally involved with someone could fall in the same scale? If you want, we could call it the “socioamorous orientation.”

There are people who readily enjoy being in love and can do so with ease. They seem to be swept up by love casually and, perhaps, even enjoy falling in love easily. In other words, they can casually love easily. They readily agree that “love at first sight” is a truism and that if there was no instant chemistry at the beginning, then it was a sign that love would not develop. Perhaps the best description of these people are that they have unrestricted socioamorous orientation.

And then there are people who prefer to take their time when falling in love. It’s more of a process rather than an instant for these people. They still enjoy the company and find pleasure in the person they are intimate with, but to love that person is a slow rise, a bubbling up instead of a quick-paced movement. We could describe these people as having restricted socioamorous orientation.

And just like sociosexual orientation, it seems that socioamorous orientation could also be on a spectrum.

Socioamorous Orientation

The difference is that “orientation” may have different meanings. In sociosexual orientation, the people are oriented toward a certain disposition. They could go the other direction, but they prefer not to. I think mainly it’s because goes against their values, and it may also find the other side unfulfilling.

Socioamorous orientation, on the other hand, almost feels innate, as if going the other direction is not something they could enjoy.

Of course, people may not be stable in these positions, or they may change over time. People can be flexible and they may change positions due to context, age, biopsychosocial circumstances, and other variables.

Now, what if we could combine these features to give a grid?

Table of Socio

Let’s see what we can make of each of the squares.

In grid A, individuals have both restricted orientations. People in this category consider loving someone as a slow process and not something to be rushed. They want to get to know the person and spend time with that person and through their activities, the emotion of love shines through. Indeed, we could possibly say that the activities and the time constitute the emotion of love. Likewise, individuals would not want to rush to having sex with this person either. They are the type that waits to have sex until, at least, they are in love, and/or in some committed relationship. With the buildup of both the loving emotion and having sex, these individuals prefer to take their time and let the emotion “slow cook” as it slowly peaks out. Indeed, they may find out that they are in love as a something they slowly realized instead of some specific event. And they may see themselves getting more and more intimate until they feel ready to have sex.

In grid B, individuals can easily love or have an emotional attachment to another with ease. In a sense, maybe they “wear their hearts on their sleeve.” Also, they wait until they love the person or have some sort of emotional attachment before they have sex with that person. But here’s the question: do they wait until some time frame in order to get to know the person before they have sex? Or is the emotional attachment the tipping point? Those who have restricted sociosexual orientation typically prefer for a commitment to happen. But if they love someone or have developed an emotional attachment, could this be enough? This is where the fluidity comes into play and those that are somewhat restricted may be comfortable having sex if love or an emotional attachment develops, but no commitment. Granted, it seems unlikely that any type of relationship like this happens. After all, why would the people who are in love not get in a relationship? Of course, there are numerous factors as to why, but these seem to be mitigating circumstances, or perhaps it’s just the preferences of the people involved.  Whatever the case may be, it seems that people in this grid are similar to the individuals in grid A in that they will wait to have sex until they love or have developed some emotional attachment. But if this comes about sooner and quicker than those in grid A, the waiting period may not be that long, especially if both individuals are in grid B. Many people may think that these people “rush” into having sex so soon or that they declare their love so soon and that they mistakenly think they are doing this to have sex. But I think it’s more complicated than that. People can easily fall in love or have loving attitudes and simultaneously prefer to wait to have sex until they love someone. The love, however, just happens quicker and people may take this as a sign of immaturity. But I don’t consider this a problem with the people in grid B; rather, it’s a problem of those who regard people in grid B.

In many ways, grids A and B are probably the most traditional view of relationships, sex, and love. Indeed, these types of sexual and relationship style is so pervasive, it may be considered the default structure. There is nothing inherently wrong with this structure, but with this picture being the default, it is rather heteronormative and so the danger is to know whether people are in either A or B because they genuinely desire so, or if it’s an expectation based on social norms. Perhaps with A, the story is that people are carefully collected in loving someone and so that may make the love better so that they are not rash in their decisions. However, there is a lot of support for B in that love is a frenzied, blind, perhaps irrational monster and we can’t help but fall in love. And having sex with someone we love makes the whole thing better. In either case, we have an interesting contrast of stories, but they both fit the heteronormative norm: as long as you’re falling in love or in the process, this structure is ethical. Indeed, the structure here is that sex is the aftermath of falling in love.

In grid C, individuals take their time to love someone, and the emotional attachments are a slow process. Indeed, they may not be conscious of their emotional attachment until some event makes them aware of their emotional attachment. This realization could be a particular person, but they may be aromantic or greyromantic. They are somewhere on the aromantic spectrum. However, they can still engage in causual or non-committal sex with ease. Involving emotions with sex is something that may or may not be possible, but there is no necessary connection between love and sex. Indeed, sex is something that is probably the closest to some sort of intimate connection. In our narrative, the person who engages in sex before love puts the cart before the horse. But maybe this is just the style that this person prefers. And if it’s an orientation, then it is either a strong desire claim and/or part of one’s identity. Now, off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone like this in popular culture or in my personal life. But I don’t doubt that there are people like this.

In grid D, individuals love to fall in love and can do so easily. The emotional process is quick. They can also engage in casual sex with ease. What makes this complex is that these people must be super aware of what they are doing. After all, they may easily like this person to fall in love with them, but they may use sex as a tool or a substitute to make the emotions come into play. Indeed, people in this grid may have a hard time distinguishing between the pleasures of love and the pleasures of sex. But if they are critically engaged in what they’re doing, then they may distinguish between the two. For people in this grid, they may begin to love those who they are casually seeing. Perhaps they have to think if this is a sign that they ought to commit to this person, or if they’re comfortable seeing multiple people that they love. Of course, that is up to the individual, but it would be best if they were aware of their boundaries so that they can pullback if they know they’re engaging in something that won’t help them flourish, or perhaps adjust their standing so that they can be happy. On the other hand, people in grid D may realize this and can be happy knowing that they can love others and have sex with others without problems.

This is all just speculating as to whether the people in these grids actually experience the way that I’ve described. Of course, the best way to determine that is to do some studies and empirical research to capture their experiences and see if there are any patterns with these different combinations of sociosexual and socioromantic orientations. But the upshot is that sexual orientation and romantic orientation can be separated, even practically. And that there could be this new concept called “casual love,” at least in the best way that I could have described it.

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Rocky Mountain Sex and Intimacy Summit: Reflections on Al Vernacchio

Not my image

I mentioned in the last post that I went to the Rocky Mountain Sex and Intimacy Summit held in Salt Lake City. I discussed Marty Klein’s talk and analyzed some philosophical features from the talk. In this post, I want to focus on the second talk.

The second talk is from Al Vernacchio. He is a successful sex educator and he has a new notion to help students become better engaged with sexual topics. He’s noticed that students become really bored with sex education because many sex ed classes are too rule-based, sterile, mechanical, and lack of enjoyment. However, the main motivation people have sex is because of enjoyment and pleasure. And so, it is the sex educator’s job to make this appealing. Actually, I’d say the job of any teacher is to make their topic approachable, appealing, and filled with content to get the students to think.

To have a healthy sexuality, one must also have an accurate and positive view of the different aspects of our sexuality and having the ability to interact in the world comfortably with those aspects.

With this, he has three different models of sexuality education, which are basically three different paradigms of how we think about sexuality.

The “Disaster Model.” This model teaches people that sexuality should not be considered or thought about, especially before marriage. But go out and have a healthy sex life after marriage. This model in no way prepares students to view themselves as healthy sexual beings. They are bombarded by messages that sex is to be avoided, filled with shame, and simply immoral, but through marriage, it metaphysically becomes moral. (Don’t ask me how. In fact, many abstinence-only sex educators I’ve talked to have had a difficult time explaining how.) And so when you’re having constant messages that sex is dirty, shameful, unkept, perverted, and wrong, you begin to incorporate these messages and whenever you have sexual thoughts or have sex for the first time, you may feel extreme guilt and ashamed.

The next model is the “Porn Model.” Basically, people try to emulate their sex lives based on pornography and that people assume that this is a healthy sexuality. Indeed, since people are not getting their sexuality information through their parents and schools, children and adolescents are getting their information that is easily accessible and filled with sexual content: pornography. Besides the content, the message behind pornography is that no matter what you’re doing, it always leads to sex and the goal is for the man to finish. Moreover, the sex that people are having is disconnected to the rest of our lives and there’s no integration. To see this played out in the specifics, see this great article by Peggy Orenstein. Her book is also fantastic.

Vernacchio offers a new model which he dubs as the “Nourishment Model.” Before we get to this model, we have to conceive of how our society structures sexuality.  Our default conceptual model of sexuality, even if we don’t even think about it, is baseball. How so?

  • There are teams and they are always competing against each other.
  • It’s male-oriented typically—you’re “playing the field.”
  • There’s a pitcher and a catcher.
  • The sets of rules are made as to what the bases signify. You can’t skip the bases, you have to go in a certain order, and the point of the game—the goal—is to score a home run. If you don’t do that, then you “struck out.” You don’t stay in one base. Indeed, if you can steal a base, all the better.
  • “Batter up” is when someone is up and ready to score.
  • There are no time outs.
  • “Playing for the other team” signifies that one is gay or lesbian.
  • “Switch hitter” signifies that someone is bisexual.
  • You know where you stand and so you have to stay in your rigid place.

Vernacchio wants to change the conceptual model from baseball to pizza. He’s really famous for his pizza metaphor when it comes to thinking about sexuality:

With pizza:

  • You start with your internal desire. “This is what I feel like.”
  • You have a shared experience. “What about you? What are you in the mood for?”
  • The rigidity of binary roles disintegrates. It’d be odd if pepperoni was just a male thing, and olives were just a female thing.
  • Your expectations are not rigid. Sometimes you feel like savoring the pizza, other times you just want the pizza fast, other times you want to share the pizza and have a mutual experience.

From here, you must have a conversation to determine what your preferences, your values, and your satisfaction. The upshot is that is you don’t start with moralizing. “Oh you don’t like anchovies?  What’s wrong with you?” You simply regard them as a preference and leave it at that. The Nutrition Model is a way to get people to think about sexuality that diversifies and legitimizes a plurality of preferences and when it comes to preferences, we typically say that the participants prefer them because they desire them and unless those desires are somehow mitigating their sexual well-being, then those preferences are respected. Indeed, nourishment has many routes. Likewise, you can be sexually nourished too: hugging, kissing, cuddling, showing emotional appreciation, etc. Analogously, we respect a multitude of ways people desire their pizza with their toppings, how they eat it, the type of crust, and if the toppings can be negotiable depending whom you’re with.

My analysis: I really enjoyed Vernacchio’s talk. The Nourishment Model and the pizza metaphor are certainly better motivations to move our sexual health forward and they changes our conceptual model of sexuality for the better. The Nourishment Model would be our baseline, our default of sexuality. With Vernacchio’s view, he’s offering a macrosocial model and to change our current macrosocial structures. Indeed, one of Vernacchio’s last points is that sexuality is connected to social justice. The change, however, is going to be really complex and challenging. You can change people’s minds, but to change the whole structure and challenge the system itself is a beast of its own. How can we change the whole structure? I don’t have an answer for this. It’s such a complex problem where you’ll need multiple solutions. Off the top of my head, there is a top-down approach and a bottom-up one. A top-down approach would be the state making the laws which would filter down to the populace in the hopes that later generations will have these new laws as part of their moral psychology. This would mean that the government or school board would have to have a comprehensive sex education and the schools would adopt it, and then the students would eventually gain this education. A bottom-up approach is a grassroots collection of people who gain mobility and leverage so that enough people begin to see the problems of the current situation and gain enough motivation to change the structure themselves. The bottom-up approach requires a collection of people to constantly challenge the system, which can be difficult. In both cases, it’s a long route, but I think changing social structures are going to be long and generational rather than a swift overall change, especially when those structures are cultural and not just legal.

The Disaster Model is very much in tune with abstinence-only sex education, but I see it in some comprehensive models too, although lightly. In the Disaster Model, sexuality isn’t just a feature that can corrupt you, but it now makes your character tainted. We can especially see this when people contract STIs. When someone contracts one, they are immediately “dirty” and avoidable. We hardly treat other infections like that. In comprehensive sex education, that notion is never challenged. Sure, they help with risk assessment, but they still focus on behavior and don’t get to the core of who the person is. It’s a focus on what they do, or rather what to avoid. But sexuality is much more than just avoiding something.

The Porn Model is fascinating since there are lots of info about young adults and adolescents watching porn to know what it looks like and perhaps gain some tips. Indeed, Peggy Orenstein remarks that many young women watch porn in order to know how to perform oral sex on the guys they’re seeing, but the narrative of porn is that the guy receives oral sex, and the woman performer hardly receives any. This gap is part of the problem because some people consider this as “normal” sexual behavior. It’s the baseline in terms of what is appropriate sexual behavior and apparently, the default is that men are entitled to oral sex; oral sex for women is a privilege. It’s become a problem that some locales are considering porn as a public health crisis. But they’re blaming the symptom. The way out is to increase a better sex education rather than simply blaming porn.

The Nourishment Model provides and excellent alternative. It provides a much better route than the previous models and I think it offers a way to challenge the current models. I’d like to supplement it. With the pizza metaphor, we start with our preferences, desires, and shared experiences. But what if our preferences, desires, and experiences are aligned with either the older models? What if we don’t know what we like? Sometimes, I may be in the mood for pizza, but I’m not sure what type or kind. Or what if we pick a pizza that is not particular to our individual unique taste? Maybe one needs to develop a taste for pizza in order to know what it’s like. I’m not saying one needs to be a connoisseur, but in order to know what you prefer, you’d either have to try things out by taking a stab in the dark.

Or someone has to perhaps nudge you, giving you a direction so that you yourself can answer and figure out what you like. So maybe the starting point isn’t what kind of pizza do you prefer. Rather, it’s what are the conditions for you to realize what sort of pizza preference you have? Applying this to sexuality, we don’t start with “what do you prefer?” because we can fall back into the old models of societal expectations (e.g. the baseball metaphor). Rather, we should help the students figure out what they prefer and get them out of the standard narratives and into their own unique preferences. Maybe the way to do that, then, is getting them engaged and in tune with their body, emotions, boundaries, realistic expectations, and case studies to help them prepare for the real thing. Obviously, talking about pizza isn’t the same as having pizza. Likewise, talking about sexuality isn’t the same as expressing your sexual being or having sex, but at least the conditions can be set up so that one can have a healthier attitude toward their sexuality and have better sexual well-being. Thus, to know your preferences, it seems, is a combination of realizing what your preferences are plus experiences. From there, we get enter into the pizza model and then ask, “so what kind of pizza do you want?” and there you can readily answer.

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Rocky Mountain Sex and Intimacy Summit: Reflections on Marty Klein

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This past weekend, I went to the Rocky Mountain Sex and Intimacy Summit held in Salt Lake City. It was a fantastic weekend and I certainly gained from it. I made some great friends, was surrounded by many people who were sex positive, and received some excellent goodies. You won’t see this kind of swag at a philosophy conference. There were four speakers total, but I want to focus on two of the speakers.  I won’t go into the entirety of their talks, but I wanted to focus on some salient philosophical points that I can extract from their talks.

The first is from Dr. Marty Klein, a sex therapist.

Klein had two talks, and I’m going to focus on the first one which was on sexual intelligence. In the talk, Klein discusses what people really want from sex. To find that out, you have to talk people, but not just simply say, “hey, what are you into?” You have to help them swim through the clutter of social expectations so that they don’t focus on those things, and instead help them focus on what they really desire. The way to do that is get them to focus on their experience. Here are some strategies on how to do that:

  • Hardly should you ask “why?” when they are talking about a sexual experience. Instead ask “what was it like when…?” This gets straight to their lived experience rather than thinking in categories.
  • When you say something like, “how come x happens?” and the client says, “oh you know.” You can respond with, “yeah I know, so tell me again, how come x happens?” It puts the client back into the experience so that they actually have to answer about x.
  • Focusing on whether you’re a good person or sexually competent makes enjoyably-related sex impossible. Help people relax and the way to do that is get to them to pay attention to the experience, which will help them change their relationship to sexuality.
    • We have narratives about sexuality which constructs our relationship toward sexuality. But sexuality doesn’t have any inherent narrative. We’re the ones that give it meaning and these meanings are infused with our cultural upbringing and they’re hard to shake off. With that, we can design our picture of sexuality to help people with their relationship to their sexuality. And the way to do this is to reexamine our stories and narratives. The starting point is to ask what is that like for you? People focus too much on sexual content and not enough on the sexual experience. Don’t ask “what should we do?” but ask “how do I want to do it?”
      • “Normal” sex disrupts many sexual relationships. But there’s no inherent hierarchy of sexual activities. Once you say something is normal, you start to demarcate what is deviant.
      • So we need a new vision of sexual “functioning” which should include information, emotional skills, communication, and pleasure.

My analysis: I think Klein is correct with his phenomenological route to have a healthy sexuality. It’s tough to be self-critical and self-reflective when it comes to sexuality. With the proper tools such as a therapist who can ask the right questions, one can hopefully escape the narrative of what is socially expected of you to one where you get to formulate a sexuality that pertains to your own subject.

Another note: during this talk, I was struck by this slide:img_0574

Inherently, then, sex isn’t the problem. Ah, but then it almost sounds like he’s saying you are the problem. We are the problem because the destructive narratives are still there. While I agree with Klein that we are constantly bombarded with narratives and that it’s hard—if not impossible—to escape them, he did suggest that we are responsible for these narratives. Here, I can interpret this in two ways. The first is to say that we made these narratives and so we should take responsibility for these narratives. But how can we be responsible if these narratives are ingrained in us from our culture? How can they be conscious decisions? Here, we are “actively” responsible because we’ve consciously chosen these narratives.

The second way is to say that we are responsible for these narratives because we continuously allow them to pass, but it’s up to us to change them so that we can change the narrative—and eventually the culture—of sexuality. So we are responsible for them because we “passively” accept them.

I don’t think either one is tenable, however. For the first, why would someone actively choose a destructive narrative? Perhaps it’s so that we can fit in the social mold of sexual/gender expectations. But the ethical import would challenge this and get out of this narrative. After all, if the narrative isn’t working and making people unfulfilled, unhealthy, and unhappy, then we should get rid of and not choose the narrative. The second suggests that we choose the narrative because we passively allow it. But if people don’t realize that the narrative is destructive, if they don’t know any other options, if they don’t even see or understand that they are operating in a narrative, how are they responsible? In a way, it almost feels like victim blaming.

The only way this second option could work is if someone told us there was a narrative and offered us alternatives and these alternatives are better than the standard narrative. Thus, if I give you knowledge about other routes, but you still take the same route that is destructive, then you are to blame. So Klein’s work is to get people to see and understand these narratives, and break out of the current narrative because the current model is destructive. Well, is this true? If doing x is destructive and you don’t know any other path, then I don’t think you’re to blame. But if I told you that there are other routes such as a, b, c, and, d, but you still choose to do x, are you to blame? I’m not so sure. Doing x has been a big part of your life and doing otherwise feels jarring and uncomfortable. You’ve been so habituated to doing x that doing otherwise feels, well, wrong. Hopefully the slow steps away from x toward another route is a better route and immediately blaming someone for not doing the alternative when that person is so used to doing x is too demanding. Granted, Klein’s talk gave of the highlights of his therapeutic practice and perhaps I’m missing the bigger picture, but that part was the most jarring to me. Still, I think that questioning our narratives is key to live more fulfilling lives and the way to do that is not just experience, but a resource that tells you that the current narrative you live in may not be enriching enough or provide you with well-being.


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Sexual Objectivity vs. Sexual Empowerment

If you look here, the author tries to make a distinction between sexual objectification and sexual empowerment. The claim is about power and who has the power. While I think power plays a role, I don’t think objectification and empowerment are mutually exclusive.


From the link above

After all, sexual objectification is a metaphysical claim: one can be objectified whether one realizes it or not. The nature of sexual objectification is complex, but the usual go to for the philosophy of sexual objectification is Martha Nussbaum’s analysis. You can see what the list is here along with Rae Langton’s additions. Notice with this list, one can be objectified without realizing it. And because of the social structures and historical institutions, it is typically women who have been objectified in the past. Thus, sexual objectification is a metaphysical component.

Sexual empowerment, on the other hand, is a psychological claim. To be sexually empowered is to feel in control of one’s sexual expression. I don’t think it makes sense to say that one is empowered but doesn’t know it. To be empowered means to psychologically take charge of one’s sexuality and to control it in whatever way one wishes.

With this analysis, it seems that one can be sexually objectified and feel sexually empowered. One can feel like one is in charge of one’s sexuality, but really is being objectified.

So there are two directions here: One, the common consensus is that sexual objectification is bad, so there must be ways to mitigate sexual objectification. And two, sexual empowerment is good, so there must be ways to uplift people’s empowerment and embrace their sexuality which can help with their sexual well-being.

Starting with the first, I am in line with Patricia Marino’s article on the ethics of objectification. I did a three-part analysis which you can see here, but the short run is that sexual objectification is morally wrong in a strong sense, but not in a weak sense. See the link to give an analysis and explanation as to why. Thus, following Marino, I would say that sexual objectification isn’t morally wrong if done in a weak way. Now if it’s in the strong sense, then that needs to be corrected and the way to correct this is to call out the other person and show why it’s morally wrong.

With the second, uplifting people’s sexual empowerment seems a bit tougher. It’s easier to say what you shouldn’t do. But to give prescriptions to uplift yourself, to help you flourish, to achieve well-being is harder because they can vary from person to person, especially in the sexual domain. There are many routes to gain sexual empowerment, but perhaps one way is to build self-confidence and shame resiliency so that you build up a shield against those who may shame you. The other route is more exploratory where you have to be somewhat adventurous, risky, and maybe even step outside the comfort zones a bit just to see what really empowers you. You may discover, or even invent various activities, desires, wants, or preferences that can make you feel more like you. That’s empowerment!

For something to be empowering entails that when I am doing an activity, I am not only agreeing to the activity, but the activity makes me more self-directed, controlled, powerful, and perhaps even confident in my life.  Usually when people say they are sex positive, they often mean that sex ought to be empowering, that sex is a way to have control over one’s sexuality rather than following the dictates of society’s standards.  When people do an action that is not the norm, but the participants involved have critically reflected on the activity and are enthused about doing the activity where doing the activity helps one have self-direction, control, power, and perhaps confident in that action, then that action can be empowering to that individual.

Empowerment is also a complex topic, but briefly, I would suggest that Zoë Peterson’s view is correct: empowerment comes in degrees rather than all-or-none.  Empowerment is multidimensional: one can be empowered in time t1 under context x, but not quite empowered at time t2 under context y.  No one is completely empowered in the same way no one is completely flourished; just like well-being, empowerment is a lifelong goal that we all approach.  With this in mind, one can see what sort of sex-positive sexual ethic could look like.  Embracing one’s sexuality is not only empowerment, but is also a form of maximizing one’s autonomy.

I also take empowerment as an outcome of substantive autonomy, but I will have to save that for another post.

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Parable of the Polygons

This cute game explains how our harmless choices can make a harmful world.  By playing the game, along with the explanations throughout, our implicit biases and choices can have huge consequences.  Check it out.  Fun stuff!

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Love: From Qualities to the Person

Imagine a set list of qualities that you want in a potential intimate partner.  Most of these qualities, I would imagine, would include intelligence, good sense of humor, attractiveness, kind, loyal, respectful, and so on. This list can be as detailed or as broad as you want, and it can include a lot of qualities, or as little as you want. Let’s call this set of qualities [S].


When you meet someone with [S], you are instantly attracted to them and the more the person has the qualities of [S], the stronger of a connection you may have with that person. However, what is it that you love: the person or [S]? This question goes back to Plato.  Do you love a person because of [S], or do you love [S] because of that person?

If the former, you really love [S] and the person just happens to be a vehicle to carry [S]. You are already recognizing value in the beloved, and that is the reason why you love that person.  You love the person because of the value you see in that person.  You’re saying that x loves y because x finds the features of y valuable or attractive. Philosophers call this the appraisal view because the person has [S] and you are appraising the person based on [S]. I love x because I already see some value, namely [S], in x.

Appraisal View

Appraisal View of Love

(As a side note, Alan Soble calls this erosic love.)  The value of x exists first.  I love x arises as a response to this antecedent value.  But this means that love is the dependent variable: love is explained by the fact that x possess valuable properties.

There are at least two problems with the appraisal view that philosophers have brought up.

One problem is that love is non-constant. When we love a person, we typically think of love being a constant thing. Even if you happen to be angry, disappointed, or anxious at the person you love, it doesn’t change the fact that you love the person. However, if you happen to love the person because of [S], what happens when [S] changes? Well, according to this theory, I should not love x anymore because remember, the reason I loved x was because of [S].

Another problem is that love is no longer exclusive. If I love x because of [S], then presumably I could happen to love anyone because of [S]. After all, [S] was the reason I love x. As a side note, this problem is easily solved through practices of ethical non-monogamy, but that’s for another post.

So let’s go back to Plato’s original question: Do you love a person because of [S], or do you love [S] because of that person?

On the other hand, if the latter, then there’s a more romantic involvement that you love the person and you begin to appreciate and notice [S] because of that person. By loving that person, you don’t recognize the value that is in the person.  Rather, you are seeing the person valuable because you love that person.  You’re saying that x finds the properties of y to be valuable because x loves y. Philosophers call this the bestowal view because loving the person bestows value on that person and only after does [S] become lovable.

Bestowal View

Bestowal View of Love

(Following Soble, he calls this agapic love.) Notice with this view if we ask why we love someone, we can’t give any reasons (otherwise it’s the appraisal view). There is no justification as to why we love someone, which is why we sometimes say “love is blind.” I love x means that I see value in x, and not some preceding [S]. Notice with the bestowal view, love is creative and not simply a response to something valuable. By loving x, I am putting value in x that was not there before. I find certain qualities of [S] valuable because I love x. The love is doing the creative work: it explains why I find [S] valuable.

Philosophers have also had problems with the bestowal view and they are quite similar to the problems of the appraisal view.

First, the bestowal view also makes love non-constant. If I love x without any reason, then what’s to stop me from not loving x? In other words, if I love x for no reason, it doesn’t follow that I will continue to love x later.  Just as love “magically” came into existence, it might also “magically” go out.

Second, love is also non-exclusive. If I love x for no reason that has to do with x, what’s to stop me from loving another person, say z?  At least with reason-based love (the appraisal view), there’s some conceptual limits on me loving people other than x. As a side note, I don’t really consider this a problem metaphysically, but we socially and logistically find this troublesome. 

And so, philosophers have been bickering back and forth between these two views since Plato. Is there a way to have both? Philosopher Troy Jollimore thinks there is. He argues that appraisal is like perception: we are simply responding to something out there in the world. Bestowal, however, is like action: we are actually doing something creatively. When it comes to ordinary perception, it depends on our actively directing our attention and using concepts, interpretations, and arguments to perceive things accurately. Likewise, when we see our beloved’s value (appraisal), it also depends on actively attending to them and interpreting them (bestowal). When we love someone, we are attending to the valuable properties that the person already has, and when we attend to them, we do so in such a way that it gives us reasons to love this person. These values, however, come to you in such a special way that you appreciate these properties in a significant way.

So suppose you initially find someone attractive and over time, you fall in love with this person because this person is good looking, intelligent, and has a good sense of humor. Those features are part of [S]. As the relationship grows, you begin to tolerate certain things that you initially can’t stand (e.g. snoring, that s/he watches reality TV). But you also begin to bestow certain properties to this person that you initially were indifferent to.  More than that, you find them charming (e.g. the way that person laughs, the way this person sings to the radio, or the fact that this person eats the whole pizza, but then saves the last slice for you). So you begin to endow more and more properties of that person with value.

Perhaps we can say that Jollimore’s picture is like this: Appraisal (reason-based) → initial attraction → bestowal (non-reason based) → love. Here’s the illustration:

Jollimore's View

Jollimore’s View of Love

Ah, but does this lead to the problems we’ve mentioned before? Wouldn’t we see these same values in another person?  Jollimore says sure, we could appraise the same values in another person.  However, we wouldn’t bestow them on another person because loving the first person “silences” any possibility to bestow value on another. In other words, I may appraise a person and find her attractive, but I wouldn’t bestow any value onto that person and thereby would not love her. This seems to follow the standard narrative that we can find many people attractive, but only love one person. In other words, we can like many people and find many people attractive, but I wouldn’t love them because I already love this one person and loving this one person cuts out any possibility of loving others.

So for Jollimore, we would not bestow value on a new person. But why? He doesn’t give a reason.  Thus, love may not be blind, but the “silencing” is basically blinding ourselves to others.  In other words, I have a reason why I love x.  But I don’t have a reason for why I don’t love z. It still doesn’t solve the problem fully of exclusivity or constancy.

I think Jollimore’s insight makes sense, but the “silencing” doesn’t. It precludes the possibility of loving multiple people. Thus, the underlying assumption of Jollimore’s assessment is monogamy. However, he needs to argue for that position. Otherwise, there’s no justification for this “silencing.” So while I think he has a good explanation of resolving the appraisal/bestowal view, I’m not sure he fully solves the problems of either of the two positions.

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Satisfying Sexual Desires

For the longest time, I’ve always thought that sexual needs were analogous to other bodily needs: hunger, thirst, good temperature to stay alive, sleep, etc. But the more you think about it, sexual needs don’t quite fit into that schema. After all, you don’t need to satisfy your sexual desires in order to stay alive. On the other hand, you do need to satisfy your hunger desires or your sleep desires to stay alive. I think it’s because we are used to the language of sex being a drive, in the same way we have thought of hunger and thirst as a drive. But what are drives? (Note: I’m getting most of this info from Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, mainly pp. 229-239)

I. Sex isn’t a Drive

Drives are leveling-off systems, meaning that if there is something that goes below the minimal threshold where if we feel hungry, sleepy, thirsty, we will do whatever we can to get back to those leveling-off thresholds. If you don’t satisfy those those desires, those leveling-off systems will get worse and worse and you’ll be unhealthy, and perhaps die if they’re not taken care of. In short, we have certain baselines to meet and if our systems go below the baseline, we feel a push within us to satisfy various needs to go above the baseline. These pushes are hunger, thirst, fatigue, and thermoregulation. These mechanisms push us from a below-the-baseline spot to a comfortable baseline.

Sexual desires aren’t like that. Sure, it seems like we have leveling-off systems where if they’re not satisfied, then we feel like…well, what? We don’t die, we aren’t immensely suffering. We may be more cranky, impatient, frustrated, or susceptible to be more annoyed if those desires aren’t met, but to say we won’t survive is a stretch. Is it possible that we won’t be unhealthy? Maybe, although I have to qualify what it means to be unhealthy which I’ll explain later in this post.

So then, if sex isn’t a drive, what is it? It is an “incentive motivational system.” Instead of being pushed by an uncomfortable internal below-the-baseline experience, you are pulled by an attractive external stimulus. Nagoski presents it like this:

Drive—–>survive. Pushed by an unpleasant internal state, which ends when you return to the baseline.

Incentive—–>thrive. Pulled by an attractive external stimulus (the incentive). It ends when you’ve obtained the incentive.

There are a lot of reasons why it’s important to understand that sex isn’t a drive. One is the accurate biological mechanism and the truth behind that. The other is the socio-political importance to know that sex isn’t a drive. I won’t go into the details here. If you do, please read Nagoski’s book, particular pp. 231-233.

However, I do think that sexuality, for the most, part is an important aspect of who we are. Let’s frame this in terms of desires.

II. Categorizing Desires

Even though we need water, food, and sleep, we also desire them. Let’s call them survival desires. These are the desires that one has to have in order to survive.  Without these desires being satisfied, we would surely die.

There are other desires that we want satisfied in order to flourish, or to thrive as Nagoski puts it. These needs include friendship, belonging to a community, love, not feeling alienated in your work. Now you don’t need these in order to survive, but notice that if you don’t have them, you wouldn’t be living a very good life. You’d be living a life that is stunted, minimal, and not to the best of what you could potentially be. I’m hesitant to call these “incentive motivational systems” because these things aren’t motivations. We may be motivated to have friends, but friendship itself isn’t a motivation. Taking my cue from virtue ethics, I think friendship, love, belonging to a community, and even sex are flourishing desires. Let me be clear. These are not biological desires; rather, they are eudaimonic desires. They may be eudaimonic needs or wants, but that’s parsing into territory that I’m not familiar with, and the notion of wants/needs may be too dichotomous for my purposes here. So, if I can simplify them, let’s call these flourishing/thriving desires, where we can go above the minimal standards of survival.  Fulfilling these desires not only gives us fulfillment, but a sense of well-being.

Finally, there are desires that we often think of as desires: listening to our favorite band, watching our favorite show, eating our favorite food, taking a bath as opposed to a shower, etc. There’s a whole foray of activities you can think of here. Let’s call these preferential desires, or simply call them preferences for short.

So far, we can make a list of surviving desires, flourishing/thriving desires, and preferential desires.


So let me provide an example to show a difference between flourishing desires and preferences.

Suppose partner A gets sexually aroused when there is pornography playing in the background during sex.  It gives partner A intense pleasure but partner B has no desire to engage in that activity.  Partner A will have to forgo having this desire fulfilled.  Surely partner A will be disappointed, but does this mean that partner A cannot be sexually fulfilled?  There are many tastes and desires that each individual has and we need to make a compromise.  It could be that this desire, while it can give partner A intense pleasure, is not something that partner A needs in order to be sexually fulfilled.  Partner A, it seems, will have to forgo this desire or somehow make a compromise with partner B in order to have this desire fulfilled.  Thus, having pornography playing in the background seems to be a preferential desire.

On the other hand, suppose someone was a homosexual in a region or time period where homosexuality was not only forbidden, but criminally prosecuted.  Having same-sex relations would help this person achieve sexual fulfillment.  Not having this desire fulfilled would not only hinder this person’s sexual fulfillment, but it could stifle this person as a human being.  Having tastes and desires could be superficial like desiring a specific type of car, or having an exquisite breakfast every morning.  But other tastes and desires could be important desires, not like food or water, but important in that it helps one achieve well-being.  That is the question: is obtaining sexual fulfillment a mere preference, or is it an important desire?  

I do not have enough knowledge in this area, but I would venture that fulfilling same-sex relations is more like a important desire, a desire where fulfilling it constitutes well-being, and that desiring to have a certain sexual position in every sexual encounter is similar to having an exquisite breakfast every morning, and that it is more like a preferential desire.  

For the most part, I would consider sex a flourishing desire in the same way I would also count love, a sense of belonging, and being part of a community a flourishing desire.  Notice with these desires, we can live without them, but we would not live a very good life. And yet, they are not merely preferences either. (Note: I should add that asexuals makes this more complex. Asexuality is a spectrum. Some have sexual desires but are not attracted to either sex, while others do not have sexual desires at all.)

But what about certain desires that are ambiguous as to whether they are flourishing desires or preferential desires? For example, are desires such as fetishes, BDSM practices, or being polyamorous flourishing desires or preferences?  How do we differentiate between superficial tastes and desires as opposed to important tastes and desires that helps one obtain sexual fulfillment?  The answers may vary on context, partners, time in one’s life, and how one see’s one’s sexual identity. The answers are going to be widely varied since each individual may see these different sexual components as either constituting their well-being or simply a fun experience to be had. In the end, it is up to each individual to learn what sort of desires are part of their well-being, or part of their preferences. The way to figure this out is partially through self-reflection, and partially through experience. Of course, this is also construed through each individual’s filter based on their own values, previous experiences, and how they identify. But the upshot is a greater understanding of who they sexually are.

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