To Wear a Mask or Not during the COVID-19 Pandemic

I wrote a piece for the Prindle Post about wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here it is:

photograph of groups of people walking on busy street wearing protective masks

The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon that has disrupted people’s lives and the economy. Currently, the United States leads COVID cases in the world and as of this writing, the United States has the largest amount of confirmed deaths, and ranks eighth in deaths per capita due to the virus. There are a number of factors that might explain why the numbers are so high: the United States’ failed leadership in tackling the virus back in December/January, the government’s response to handling the crisis once the virus spread throughout the United States, states’ opening up too early — and too quickly — in May and June, and people’s unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously by not social distancing or wearing face masks. Let us focus on the last point. Why the unseriousness? As soon as the pandemic hit, conspiracy theories regarding the virus spread like — well, like the virus itself. Some are so fully convinced about a conspiracy theory that their beliefs may be incorrigible. Others seem only to doubt mask-wearing as a solution.

Part of the unwillingness to wear face masks is due to the CDC and WHO having changed their positions about wearing masks as a preventative measure. From the beginning, the U.S. Surgeon General claimed that masks were ineffective, but now both the CDC and the WHO recommend wearing them.

Why this reversal? We are facing a novel virus. Science, as an institution, works through confirming and disconfirming hypotheses. Scientists find evidence for a claim and it leads to their hypothesis being correct. As time goes on, scientists gather new evidence disconfirming their original hypothesis. And as time continues further, they gather more information and evidence and were too quick to disconfirm the hypothesis. Because this virus is so new, scientists are working with limited knowledge. There will inevitably be back-and-forth shifts on what works and what doesn’t. Scientists must adapt to new information. Citizens, however, may interpret this as skepticism about wearing masks since the CDC and WHO cannot make up their minds. And so people may think: “perhaps wearing masks does prevent the spread of the virus; perhaps it doesn’t. So if we don’t know, then let’s just live our lives as we did.” Indeed, roughly 14% of Americans state they never wear masks. But what if there was a practical argument that might encourage such skeptics to wear a mask that didn’t directly rely on the evidence that masks do prevent spreading the virus? What if, despite the skepticism, wearing masks could still be shown to be in one’s best interest? Here, I think using Pascal’s wager can be helpful.

To refamiliarize ourselves, Pascal’s wager comes from Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, who wagered that it’s best to believe in God without relying on direct evidence that God exists. To put it succinctly, either God exists or He doesn’t. How shall we decide? Well, we either believe God exists or we believe He doesn’t exist. So then, there are four possibilities:

God existsGod does not exist
Belief in God+∞ (infinite gain)2. − (finite loss)
Disbelief in God4.   −∞ (infinite loss)3. + (finite gain)

For 1., God exists and we believe God exists. Here we gain the most since we gain an infinitely happy life. If we win, we win everything. For 2., we’ve only lost a little since we simply believed and lost the truth of the matter. In fact, it’s so minimal (compared to infinite) that we lose nothing. For 3., we have gained a little. While we have the truth, there is not infinite happiness. And compared to infinite, we’ve won nothing. And finally, for 4., we have lost everything since we don’t believe in God and it’s an eternity of divine punishment. By looking at the odds, we should bet on God existing because doing so means you win everything and lose nothing. If God exists and you don’t believe, you lose everything and win nothing. If God doesn’t exist, compared to infinite, the gain or loss is insignificant. So through these odds, believing in God is your best bet since it’s your chance of winning, and not believing is your chance of losing.

There have been criticisms and responses to Pascal’s wager, but I still find this wager useful as an analogy when applied to mask-wearing. Consider:

Masks Prevent Spreading the VirusMasks Don’t Prevent Spreading the Virus
Belief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus(1) (Big Gain) People’s lives are saved and we can flatten the curve easily.(2) − (finite loss) We wasted some time wearing a piece of cloth over our face for a few months.
Disbelief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus(4) (Big Loss) We continually spread the virus, hospitals are overloaded with COVID cases, and more deaths.(3) + (finite gain) We got the truth of the matter.

For (1), we have a major gain. If wearing masks prevents the spread of the virus and we do wear masks, then we help flatten the curve, lessen people contracting the virus, and help prevent any harms or deaths due to COVID-19. (One model predicts that wearing masks can save up to 33,000 American lives.) This is the best outcome. Suppose (2). If masks do nothing or minimally prevent the spread of the virus, yet we continue to wear masks, we have wasted very little. By simply wearing a restriction over our face, it is simply an inconvenience. Studies show that we don’t lose oxygen by wearing a face mask. And leading experts are hopeful that we may get a vaccine sometime next year. There are promising results from clinical phase trials. And so wearing masks, having a small inconvenience in our lives, is not a major loss. After all, we can still function in our lives with face masks. People who wear masks as part of their profession (e.g. doctors, miners, firefighters, military) still carry out their duties. Indeed, their masks help them fulfill their duties. The inconvenience is a minor loss compared to saving lives and preventing the spread of the virus as stated in (1).

Suppose (3). If (3) is the case, then we’ve avoided inconvenience, but this advantage is nothing compared to the cost (4) represents. While we don’t have to wear a mask, celebrating the riddance of inconvenience pales in comparison to losing unnecessary lives and unknowingly spreading the virus. Compared to what we stand to lose in (4), in (3) we’ve won little.

Suppose (4). If we decide (4) is the strategy, we’ve doomed ourselves by making others sicker, we’ve continually spread the virus, and hospitals have had to turn away sick people which leads to more preventable deaths. We’ve lost so many lives and caused the sickness to spread exponentially, all because we didn’t wear a mask.

Note that we haven’t proved that masks work scientifically (although I highly suspect that they do). Rather, we’re doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to determine what the best strategy is. Wearing masks would be in our best interest. If we’re wrong, then it’s a minor inconvenience. But if we’re right, then we’ve prevented contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 virus which has wreaked havoc on many lives all over the globe. Surely, it’s better to bet on wearing masks than not to.

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Interview with Queer Majority

I was interviewed by Queer Majority as part of their Business of Sex series profile. Best part:

The Sex In My Business: I research the philosophy of love, sex, and relationships.



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Building a Democratic Hedonism Part Three

In part one, I discussed how to build a democratic hedonism through sex education that was inspired by Joseph Fischel’s book Screw Consent. The first post focused on developing our sexual emotions and I offered that one route to do that is by bringing in guest speakers.

In part two, I applied educator Louisa Allen’s notion of “discourse of erotics” to help develop our sexual mind. The discourse of erotics is meant for people to understand each other’s perspectives and hopefully develop a loving attitude.

In this final post, I’ll be looking at ways to develop the sexual body by applying Philosopher Richard Schusterman’s notion of somaesthetics since our bodies have also been influenced by culture and social norms.

So what is somaesthetics? Somaesthetics is also meant to correct our bodily performances by improving certain directions of our body. One can see this in various movements such as dancing or zazen sitting. Shusterman also uses the Feldenkrais Method and the Alexander Technique as examples of involving different ways to perform the body in order to correct bodily performance so that one can live life more functionally and pain-free. We must condition our body, or sometimes we must pay attention to what the body really wants and go with the flow with the body. We have to bodily condition ourselves, and correct ourselves to get rid of our bodily bad habits and use the body as a site for bodily awareness, and not simply go through an unconscious trial and error to correct ourselves.By focusing on our intellectual bodily consciousnesses, our knowledge and performance improves what we are doing.

Challenging the oppressive nature of the body involves a somaesthetic diagnosis of the body as well as the feelings associated with the bodily habits. The diagnosis also includes ways and techniques that limits the body from institutional backgrounds which can formulate various methods inculcating them so that these oppressive measures can be overcome. The body is shaped through institutional powers, such as norms of bodily health, beauty, ways of movement, and even our categories of sex and gender are constructed in a way to reflect and sustain social forces.

How various influences around us inform our bodily habits

The example Shusterman gives is how women have been normalized to eat, speak, sit, walk, and copulate in a certain way that could “both reflect and reinforce such gender oppression.” Yet, challenging these norms are difficult because the body has been habituated to these motions. However, “[a]ny successful challenge of oppression should thus involve somaesthetic diagnosis of the bodily habits and feelings that express the domination as well as the subtle institutional rules and methods of inculcating them, so that they, along with the oppressive social conditions that generate them, can be overcome.” These bodily habits are so ingrained that we may display prejudices toward different races, genders, or ethnic groups even if we can rationally argue for tolerance, the visceral grip of the prejudices are strong even if we deny we have them. For example, many people may logically realize that being a racist is a vice. Yet, people may unconsciously show signs of apprehension or anxiety when they are around people of color in the United States. These feelings can go beneath our explicit consciousness, but they resist correction because while we can call racism wrong through argumentation, we forget to correct bodily expressions which have been ingrained with habituation. Often, we deny we have racial prejudices because we do not realize we feel them. Thus, not only is argumentation against the unjust social institutions needed, but so is a method to develop a way to control or expunge these bodily feelings. Being more aware of one’s bodily relations toward others can help ameliorate the conflicts between others and improve one’s behavior toward others in much wider social and political contexts.

Apply somaesthetics to sex. The partners involved experience their own interests and pleasures and maneuver their own bodies so that they increase pleasures as well. For example, by having a good body image, one will be more comfortable with the sexual act, and thereby gain more pleasure. Being present at the moment during the sexual act is a way of getting lost in the moment. If people are worried about the body, then they are not “in the moment” and the experience is ruined or blunted. If this is repeated, they may avoid sexual activities or sexual experiences altogether.

Good sex education will give students the opportunity to “work on themselves” by investigating the power relations in society regarding the sexual body. Dominant social norms can bring about somatic social norms such that people perform bodily habits but can actually be oppressive which could inform our sexual scripts. So how do we correct our bodily sexual habits?

My first example is simply interacting with others who are sexual minorities. People may be repulsed with transgender people, those who are same-sex oriented, or polyamorous people. People can react against them where the result is ostracization, harm, or death of the sexual minority. Even if people, in their mind, have no problem with sexual minorities, people may have a somatic reaction that is harder to control. Their body may react with contempt, disgust, or even some fetishized fascination. I do not have a notion of what sort of somatic corrective there can be. I leave that up to psychosomatic professionals. What I want to propose is simply being aware of what other people’s bodies are doing, which can be really challenging since they may not notice their own bodily reactions. Bodily habits could be ingrained and we consider those bodily movements as normal. It is not until we reach a point where someone points this out to us or we feel uncomfortable with our bodily movement where we recognize a problem. Again, like before, I am not offering any corrective; I want to acknowledge the problem and hope that others will recognize the issue. The corrective can come from psychosomatic therapists which can then inform sex educators.

My second example has to do with interacting with others via sexual pleasure. Many adult American women lack sexual knowledge and subsequently are fully aware neither of their sexual needs nor of how to fulfill them. Because most women learn about sexuality from peers and the media, they have already learned and incorporated many myths, stereotypes, and false information before they become sexually active. Many women prefer more sexual knowledge and they felt that their sexual education was lacking. Women in particular tolerate feeling uncomfortable in situations where they are forced to acquiesce to men. Society has taught us that from a young age, men’s needs, desires, and wants overrule women’s.

Discussion should not just talk about a generic body, meaning a body that is only looked at from a scientific or medical point of view. Rather, the body is sensual. If young people are assumed to be abstinent and simply learn refusal skills rather than positive affirmations, then it leaves young people, especially young women, without the tools needed to identify their sexual desires. They may feel uncomfortable to say “yes” to any sexual advances or to initiate sexual advances. They may lack communication skills with their sexual partners which can increase their disembodied experience.

How does one offer guidance to receive sexual pleasure educationally? One route to do that is through the website The website is dedicated to different masturbatory styles of young women whereby the user can click on a different style and the model discusses what movements gives her pleasure which can vary between speed, pressure, and range of motion. Even though the images and discussions are explicit, the discussions are somewhat clinical, yet inviting. By clicking on these different styles, people will not only learn what different techniques there are to obtain sexual pleasure, but they will gain the know-how so that they can perform them on themselves or with a partner. On all of the styles, the user can download a computerized vulva and with the movements of the mouse, the user can imitate the style that the user just learned.

Finally, a third corrective is to develop the somatic awareness of our prejudices. To have a better attunement with their body is to know more about what the body likes and desires. When people’s feelings are in tune with their body, their experiences can be more enjoyable. If people do not know what their feelings are, they are disconnected from their body and habitually they will be at a loss in the relationship with themselves. When that happens, they can become vulnerable to outside forces and especially from other people. They may follow with what society says we ought to feel rather than listening to the body to see if those are the true feelings of what the body actually does feel.

We can see this specifically with the sexes where men are taught to take up physical space, and women are taught to take up as little space. One is example is “manspreading” where a man will typically use up space when he is (usually) sitting in a crowded bus or train to the point where he will not allow others to be near him, let alone sit beside him. Women are taught to be small and fragile. Women cannot travel and move as much as men can. Indeed, women have been habituated where they see their bodies as a threat whereby her body is seen volatile. Women are expected to keep a close vigilance on their bodies by restricting, policing, and hindering their movements just so that they can be safe. Any movement outside the expected gendered space is dangerous since it can produce assailants to approach her. Thus, she learns and maintains to keep a close vigilance of her body in order to limit those risks. This, thereby, limits her autonomy by living in a culture that presumes and sustains this threat, especially against women.

These bodily comportments can consist of certain poses, gait, body language, and appearance. Using somaesthetics as a tool can show us how bodily comportments gives clues as to how men and women endorse various gender stereotypes. “Manspreading” is one example. However, liberation is not simply changing individual or small group’s ideas and bodily disciplines; it can only be done by changing the larger situation that defines what the genders can be, which means that the social, political, and economic conditions must change for true liberation.

Three different ways improving somaesthetic habits

This is my humble start for a more democratic hedonism. What do you think? Is this a good start? Anything we can build from here? Anything I missed? Anything essential that is needed?

Posted in Affirmative Consent, Books, Culture, Ethics, Relationships, Sex Education, Sexuality, Values | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a Democratic Hedonism Part Two

In a previous post, I discussed how to build a democratic hedonism through sex education that was inspired by Joseph Fischel’s book Screw Consent. I discussed that a revamped sex education is a way to do it and that one route is to work on our emotions by bringing in guest speakers. Bringing in guest speakers is helpful so that students can actually engage with another rather than thinking about the issue abstractly. In this post, I’ll be looking at a second way to do build a democratic hedonism and that is through a discourse of erotics.

Educator Louisa Allen calls for a “discourse of erotics” in sex education, which is to open up possibilities for young people “to experience themselves as sexual subjects in positive and self-determining ways” and to see and treat others as sexual subjects in positive and self-determining ways. 

A discourse of erotics consists of understanding other points of view and seeing why other people have different beliefs, preferences, and values. Interacting with others who are different and learning about their values is one element to combat heteronormativity—or any normative prejudice about sexuality—and is en route to developing a loving attitude, and to understand that sexual expressions are not universal.

The discourse of erotics can bridge the gap between different epistemologies of people with varying sexual values and sexual assumptions. Here are three ways a discourse of erotics could help people understand their own sexuality and help others understand other sexual desires and gender expressions: the erotics of women, the erotics of men, and the erotics of those in the LGBTQIA community.

  1. A discourse of erotics can focus on the erotics of young women (something that has been ignored in sex education). For example, the traditional discourse implies that women are passive and that their pleasures are more difficult to obtain. Female sexuality in our common discourse has been mainly reduced to reproduction, which means that women’s pleasures are ignored. Discussions of pleasure in the curriculum may help not only undermine the stereotypes of women being sexually passive, but it may also encourage young women to understand how to receive pleasure and even demand pleasure in precise ways. Women are taught to be sexual gatekeepers. To undermine this narrative, a starting point would be to note what sort of sexual pleasures she has for her sake rather than as a means for men’s sake. In a way, pleasure can be an equalizing force. In a classroom setting, the educator could teach both sexes about the orgasm gap and suggest that this fact leads to pleasure inequality. The men would learn that this inequality is unfair, and women would learn that they deserve their pleasures.
  2. Current sex education programs also constitute young mens’ sexuality as pure desire, which constitutes them as predatory. Indeed, part of the current discourse teaches men that it is normal and natural for men to be promiscuous, and that if they are not or do not desire to be promiscuous, then they are not normal. Because young men are expected to fit into the heteronormative masculine framework, young men may have a hard time saying “no” to sexual advances. Men are also considered the active pursuers (aggressors) and women are the passive pursued (avoiders). There is hardly any positive representations of male sexuality. This asymmetric frames men as sex-crazed beings and women as objects of pleasure for men. All men need to do find the right “combination” to get to the pleasure. To avoid this, Allen has done interviews and open discussions, but other forms of having a discourse of erotics could include journal writing, community boards, anonymous questions, and discussions with health educators. The discourse of erotics can help undermined men’s expectations about how they ought to behave and express their sexuality. 
  3. Finally, the current discourse in the USA also assumes a heteronormative framework: by focusing on women as sexual gatekeepers, it silences the experiences of lesbians. Do both of them remain gatekeepers assuming heteronormativity? Can one be a gatekeeper and still initiate sexual activity? On the other hand, there are studies that suggest that lesbian couples usually fall into traditional gender roles where one partner adopted the roles of the other gender. 

    Moreover, heteronormative discourse does not engage with the experiences of those in the gay community. For example, there are terms in the gay community known as being a “top” or a “bottom.” Do the notions of “top” and “bottom” follow the gender roles in our heteronormative society? Or are they simply descriptions of what various roles those in the gay community prefer?

    This is a complicated topic, a discourse of erotics can help students gain some insight not only those in the gay community, but also raise questions about various gender roles by noting how gender can be played out. Moreover, a discourse of erotics could be expanded to those who are transgender, intersex, attracted to those of the same-sex, asexual, and those who have different dating/relationship styles such as polyamory, aromantics, and demisexuals. By having a discussion and normalizing the different ways sexuality, gender, and relationships can be expressed, sex education may formulate a pattern in students’ minds to not only accept others, but also to develop an attitude to work on accepting others by conversing with others and trying to understand and possibly learn from others.

The Dutch sexuality education program has a Beat the Macho campaign. Since young men are pressured to follow hypermasculine norms, it is helpful for the young men to be vulnerable and talk about masculinity and macho behavior. By opening up in a small group, the young men can discuss the various attitudes, feelings, and thoughts regarding masculine behavior.

Moreover, the Netherlands has a major program that the majority of sex educators use: Lang leve de liefde, translated as Long Live Love. It is designed to not only help students prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs, but also to provide students with communication and negotiation skills for safe sex practices. It also takes into account the diversity of students including different cultures, value systems, ways of starting (sexual) relationships, and differences between boys and girls. Moreover, the sex education program offers a magazine for students that comes with a supplemental website that has the style of “choose your own adventure” scenarios where students determine what should happen next in various sexual encounters. 

What other ways could the discourse of erotics bring? How else can it bring forth a democratic hedonism?

In my next and last post, I’ll discuss a third way to build a democratic hedonism through soma esthetics.

Posted in Affirmative Consent, Books, Culture, Ethics, Paper Topic, Relationships, Sex Education, Sexuality, Values | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Building a Democratic Hedonism Part One

Joseph J. Fischel’s book, Screw Consent, has brought up some nice challenges to our notions of sexual consent. I would serious recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about sexual autonomy, sexual consent, and our sexual culture at large.

My time in Montreal while I ordered a matcha donut, a beetroot au last, and reading Joseph Fischel’s latest book.

Toward the end of the book, Fischel remarks on the #MeToo movement and he argues that what makes the movement standout isn’t necessarily that men sexually assaulting women are finally getting their comeuppance due to discrimination and harrassment. After all, the Aziz Ansari case is tricky in that it isn’t really sexual assault, or at least not a paradigm example of sexual assault. Nor is the movement necessarily about how we ought to pay attention to sexual consent. Again, the Aziz Ansari case is a good example where “Grace” wasn’t coerced. She may have been pressured, manipulated, or “didn’t want to make a scene.” And this leads to what Fischel’s point is: the #MeToo movement is more about how men are in powerful roles and they took advantage of that power. They want sexual pleasure at the expense of the victim. This is what Fischel calls undemocratic hedonism: there is an asymmetrical sexual access. The men try to gain the pleasure for themselves and sexual gratification by denying someone else’s. As Fischel puts it: “What if these #MeToo stories are not just stories of men abusing their power but also of men whose only card is their power?” (p. 181)

He asks how we can help less privileged people have more sexual access? How might we democratize sexual culture? How can we begin to form democratic hedonism?

I offer a small attempt on how to build a democratic hedonism. Because this is a complex idea that has multiple facets, I’m going to make this idea into three separate parts.

First and foremost, we really need to revamp or sex education. Sex education should definitely not be about “saying no” because many studies show that abstinence only education doesn’t work, and that it just reiterates heteronormative standards. Sex education isn’t just about sexual mechanics or avoiding unwanted consequences; it is about dismantling heteronormative assumptions. Our sexual culture is problematic in that we often hear that men are always desiring sex, women don’t want sex that often, “real” men try to sow their oats before they settle, and women are the gatekeepers of their sexuality. What we need is a sex education that develops our sexual subjectivity and respect others’ sexual subjectivity. Moreover, without a sex education to undermine these gendered norms, sex education is weak and reinforces undemocratic hedonism.

With that in mind, I take three features that touch on ways to help build a democratic hedonism. The three features our our sexual emotions, our sexual mind, and our sexual body. I’ll be focusing on our sexual emotions in this post.

Working on our emotions. In a sex education class, a good educator brings up topics in order to normalize discussions about sexual and relationship styles rather than associating those topics with shame or guilt. As an example, there are many people who are disgusted by homosexuality, polyamory, transgender, and intersex people. We can ask the students to see why they are filled with disgust. I’m willing to bet that the main foundation of their disgust would come down to what they value.

Now these values have normative import where the students believe it has a wide or almost universal claim. See below. Students need to see what they believe and value and see if there is any basis to those values.


If they find there is no basis for the belief, they need to have the tools and skills to eventually discard that belief and have the correct emotional response. So what are the tools and skills to discard these disvalued beliefs? Philosophy, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is needed in sex education. But concretely, I think facing people who have different sexual expectations, values, and norms are ways to also challenge your values in a good way. Overcoming these barriers works best when students can actually engage with sexual minorities instead of thinking about the issue abstractly. By engaging with people who do not fit the sexual norm, the students may see that people’s sexual and relationship preferences are not threatening, which would help change the belief, which would thereby change the emotion.

How can this work? In the fall of 2013, I taught a one-credit honors class targeted toward freshmen. The class was about sexualities and relationships that were outside the social and hence, moral norms. In one of those weeks, I assigned readings that discussed polyamory. A large majority of the students found the practicing appalling, and could not see any value of it. The following week, I invited a polyamorous guest speaker to be part of the class discussion and to answer students’ questions. The students asked wonderful questions and really wanted to know more about polyamory. The interactions were concrete, and the students could get involved with another person who was polyamorous instead of simply engaging with the idea of polyamory. The following week, I asked the class what they thought of the presenter and polyamory in general. It was almost unanimous: the class considered polyamory as a legitimate mating style and not something to be shunned. I then suggested to the class that when we think about ideas abstractly, we often judge those ideas compared to the social norms. After all, critiquing an idea is not harmful if no one holds the idea. But now that they meet a person who not only holds the idea, but affirms it as part of her lifestyle, the students can see the idea in action and not just abstractly thinking about the idea.

I ask the students to ponder what sort of prejudices we have had in the past. Many of them say same-sex relationships. I ask them to consider what sort of ideas we hold true, but could be considered prejudicial in the future. And I ask if judging people who are ethically non-monogamous could be a prejudice. Most agree, even if they prefer to be monogamous. They were slowly coming to terms that polyamory could be a legitimate type of mating orientation or relationship structure. This realization may expunge their disgust or negative attribution toward ethical non-monogamy. Perhaps if they hear about polyamory either through friends or the media, they are not so quick to judge. Indeed, they may be more comfortable talking about the issue, or befriend those who are polyamorous. And if the disgust is expunged and replaced with a sense of justice, they may quickly call out those who do judge those who have different mating orientations. This exercise could possibly be done with those who are transgender: I would invite someone who is transgender; the students have a discussion with the person. This generates a discussion and they possibly recast their beliefs about transgender people as those who are legitimate members of society. By seeing a person who affirms that alternative relationship or sexual mode of living, students may see someone exercising their sexual self and expunge the prejudicial belief, which, in turn, can help expunge the negative emotional response. 

Could we do the same for undemocratic hedonism? I think so. We need to form an emotional attitude that other people for sexual purposes are people with ends and that they should not just focus on their own sexual gratification but also on their partners. How so? This leads me to my second feature, which I’ll discuss in my next post delving into the sexual mind and discussing the “discourse of erotics.”

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Why Sex Education Needs Philosophy

Socratic Sex Ed

When we think of sex ed, we often think that the info is made up of a conglomeration of various subjects combined together under one theme: sociology to learn about the social construction of gender for example, biology for reproduction, literature for gender dynamics, social work for helping those who are disadvantaged, psychology for understanding our sexual desires, arousals, and our thought patterns, and queer theory to understand sexual orientation and disrupting heteronormativity. All of these topics make up a comprehensive sex education. However, where is philosophy in all of this?

Now, I can imagine that while having philosophy is an interesting subject, it seems too theoretical for a practical field like sex education. Sex ed is all about helping students become more knowledgable about who they are as a sexual person which can help them form better relationships, communicate sexual boundaries and needs, and perhaps develop resiliency and courage to set down those boundaries. Philosophy, on the other hand, it too theoretical, too abstract, and divorced from the real world. How can philosophy help? The list I’ll provide isn’t comprehensive, but here are some major reasons why philosophy is crucial for sex education.

  1. Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of what is real. A major discussion in metaphysics is what is real vs. what are mere appearances. So what is the metaphysics of sex? A major question to ask is what counts as sex. Why is this important? For many religious folks, they are concerned with maintaining virginity and the common understanding of virginity is PIV (penis in vagina) sex. Think about that. Suppose that really was the definition of sex. If that is the definition, then that means any other form of sexual behavior/activity doesn’t really count as sex. That means that anal and oral sex isn’t really sex under the PIV definition.  Many religious folks who are concerned about maintaining virginity, therefore, engage in oral and anal sex but still claim to be virgins. Another implication: if the PIV definition is true, then that means that gay sex and lesbian sex isn’t really sex. Notice that if something isn’t really sex, then PIV sex is the sex. It’s the paradigm of what is considered real sex and anything else are derivations of the real thing. So what, you might say? Well, with PIV being the center, then anyone who doesn’t engage in PIV sex isn’t really a sexual being. If anything, they are derivations of the real thing. They may appear to be sexual, but they are not. Thus, gays and lesbians aren’t really sexual under the PIV definition. You can see where this is going. Thus, gays and lesbians aren’t really one of us—meaning heterosexual people who do engage in PIV sex. Defining PIV as real sex automatically gets us toward heteronormativity and is a very restrictive view of sexuality. This is just one example of how our definitions of sex isn’t just a theoretical thought experiment, but it has serious implications: it can harm those who don’t engage in PIV sex.
  2. Ethics. Ethics isn’t just the study of what is right and wrong, but it also investigates our values and whether we have the right values or not. There are three main topics that I want to discuss:
    1. Values. When it comes to sexual values, people have a variety of them. Some people value casual dating and causal sex. Others consider monogamy a value. Others may see as remaining a virgin until marriage as a high value. And still others may want to develop feelings for the other person first before getting involved sexually. At the same time, many people may be value neutral or may see disvalues in some of the activities/attitudes I’ve mentioned. Some people see no value in casual sex and may find it appalling. Others may see monogamy as a take-it-or-leave-it value, or perhaps they may see monogamy as appalling and so see monogamy as a disvalue. Now we often consider values as pluralistic, meaning that that there are a diversity of values and we should all respect, or at least tolerate, different aspects of sexuality—up to a point, and this point, is usually consent. There are major things to consider: which values are the right values? Are values universal or purely subjective? Is it possible to have the wrong values? Suppose that someone values sex after marriage, and considers this as a universal value. Now if that was true, the implication is that sex before marriage isn’t a value universally. It doesn’t matter if someone believes it’s a good value. If sex before marriage is an absolute universal value, then any other value is wrong. The implication is that sex before marriage is wrong, and anyone who engages in sex before marriage is wrong. Moreover—and this relates to epistemology down below—it doesn’t matter what that person believes: having any other value is wrong and if people believe there’s no problem with having sex before marriage, then they simply have the wrong value.
    2. Sex Positivity/Negativity. Finally, one of the major proponents of comprehensive sex education is to be sex positive, which means to view sexual decisions as one’s own. No one can tell me what to do with my sexual relationships or how to perform my sexuality. It is purely subjective. However, this is a weak foundation. Subjectivity has never been a good starting point for any ethical position. After all, if subjectivity is the true ethical position, then virtually anything is permissible (e.g. I can do whatever I want sexually because it’s up to me to decide what to do which includes, rape, sexual assault, or causing sexual trauma). So we need to put constraints, and the constraint that people in the sex positive community give is consent. But now consider those who are sex negative. They wouldn’t call themselves sex negative, but they hold to certain values and positions that are opposed to the sex positive movement. They would argue for such values such as abstinence, sex until marriage, monogamy, sex only for reproduction. Now, I’m not going to go through their arguments, but their arguments are philosophically valid and they give various arguments as to why. These arguments can include naturalness, mitigating risk, promoting family values, and the virtue of temperance. Furthermore, the sex negative movement also has arguments against the sex positive movement: consent cannot be the necessary and sufficient conditions for ethical sexuality, pleasure cannot be the main motivation behind sexual activity, and that the sex positive movement has the wrong goal. So philosophically speaking, the sex positive movement has a weak argument as to why it’s true; the sex negative movement has solid arguments as to why it’s true AND why the sex positive movement is false. The sex negative movement, philosophically speaking, already has an advantage. We can see this more so in our education systems, laws, and politics. To make the sex positive movement more robust, it has to engage with the sex negative movement and debate their arguments on their own terms in the same way as the sex negative movement has argued against the sex positive movement on their terms.
  3. Epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, beliefs, and justification of those beliefs. There are a couple of ways we can look at this.
    1. Consistency. To be epistemologically sound, our beliefs must be coherent. Otherwise, we are contradicting ourselves based on our actions and beliefs. For example, people may believe, and gives reasons for this belief, that sex before marriage is never ok. However, these same people engages in sex with a partner whom they are not married to. Their behavior is inconsistent with their beliefs. To have philosophy as part of the program would help students investigate their beliefs and see if they are consistent. Otherwise, to be consistent, they would either have to change their beliefs or change their behaviors. Of course, there are different nuances behind this and I’m oversimplifying it a bit, but this is just one example of what people could do.
    2. Consent. Consent has a big topic lately. Consent is a major ethical issue, but I would also put it under epistemology. Why? I think most people understand that sex is wrong when it’s nonconsensual. However, I think the complexity is when is an activity consensual? In other words, how do you know the activity is consensual? This is an oversimplification, but I think we could use a matrix to analyze this issue.Grid

Let’s start with A. A is considered ethical: consent is happening and you know there’s consent. There’s no problem. Both parties are on the same page and there is no perpetrator or victim.

What about B? With B, consent is happening, but you don’t know/believe that it is consensual. You may act like it was, but you really don’t know. In this case, you just happened to be lucky…but why would you continually engage in sexual encounters where you’re not sure if i was consensual or not? The next time may not be so lucky, but it also suggests that you’re epistemically negligent. Imagine if you went hunting and you see a rustling in the bushes. You’re not sure what it is, but you shoot it anyway. Luckily, it just happened to be an animal, but what if it was a human being? Clearly, you’ve got to make sure that you’re in the clear before you proceed. More than that, if you don’t believe that it was consensual but you still proceeded anyways, you’re not only negligent, but you’re uncaring toward your partner and perhaps have the intention of being an assaulter. Now from the victim’s point of view, this is really fascinating. Is it possible to believe one is sexually assaulted, but in reality, that person wasn’t? I actually don’t know. With that, it comes down to not only the metaphysics of consent—hence why metaphysics is important to sexuality—but also whether the epistemic stance of the victim has higher priority than the metaphysics of the case. Is the victim playing “the victim card,” or is there something still seriously wrong here? A philosophical investigation, combined with other elements in sex ed, is required.

In C, consent is not happening. The perpetrator made a mistake and it was a costly mistake. Now, we often hear sexual assault cases happening and when we do, we often think it is with cases D: someone who doesn’t care about consent. I would wager that most non-consensual cases, from the perpetrator’s point of view, comes down to case C: someone who doesn’t know whether the other person consents or not. Let’s suppose that the perpetrator genuinely wants consent, but simply has no idea how to obtain it or even what it is. Again, the metaphysics is important here. From the victim’s point of view, this is a classic case of exploitation and depending on the extremities, manipulation. What does it mean to be exploited and manipulated? How does this relate to consent? Knowing the signs is helpful because one often doesn’t know one is being exploited.

Finally, in D, this is a clear case of sexual assault. The perpetrator doesn’t care that consent is happening, and the victim is clearly a victim of sexual assault.

I hope that with the philosophical  categories of metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology, we can see why sexuality is rich with philosophical analysis. Because it’s very complex and requires a lot of thought and analysis, I suggest that philosophy needs to be in sex ed. This means that educators and students need a good dose of it. For some books that have used philosophy in the sex education classes, check out Al Vernacchio and Sharon Lamb. Lamb has a website dedicated to her book about sexual ethics and even has a podcast dedicated to sex and ethics. These are good starts and I hope there is more to come.

Posted in Consent, Education, Sex Education, Sexuality, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Reflecting on AASECT 2018

This past week, I went to the AASECT 2018 conference in Denver. AASECT stands for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. The conference had a mixture of workshops, plenary speakers, exhibitions of products, and poster exhibitions. Overall, I had a good time. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. My favorite portion was the poster exhibition. Perhaps it’s the academic in me, but I love learning about new studies and see what sort of insight we can do with that information. Plus, I can talk to the scholars various questions and either produce more questions for further research, or clarify some points that can prove fruitful.
  2. I got to make some really good friends who are also at the beginning stages of their careers. It’s fun to meet like-minded folks to not only network, but to build lasting relationships where we can learn from each other. I’m assuming I’m the only philosopher there, so it helps me garner some new insight from other perspectives and hopefully they can gather some insight from me.img_1083
  3. Denver, as a city, is fantastic. It has the conveniences of a city, the environment of mountains, and many different places to explore. I also happened to be there during Pride Weekend.

    Here’s an electro-wand I tried out.

  5. One of the plenary speakers was Peggy Orenstein. She wrote a book entitled “Girls and Sex” which is informative on its own right, and has helped inform my dissertation as well.


With the many workshops I’ve attended, I felt there was something missing. I had similar feelings when I attended the National Sex Ed Conference in 2017. I couldn’t quite find the language as to why it felt off. I chalked it up to my philosophical background and how I wasn’t used to these different type of conferences. Philosophy conferences usually present ideas and arguing for those ideas. These sex ed conferences don’t have arguments per se, but they instead present possible ideas that they’ve tried out on their clients or schools. Or they give certain suggestions of what to do. It’s strategies and practical advice from one educator to another, from one therapist to another. All of this is well and good, but still, I found something missing. It wasn’t until the last day of AASECT that it started to click. One of the workshops I attended discussed how sex education is missing theory and why it was important to have theory. The speaker talked about the ontology and epistemology of sex and how this is needed in sex ed. I fully agreed with on this, and as I was thinking about the theoretical aspects of what more could be done in sex ed, I could see what was bothering me about these conferences.

In the sex ed conferences I’ve been to, almost everyone, I’m assuming, has some sort of background in some academic field: sociology, psychology, social work, education, marriage and family therapy. With those disciplines, people could go to these various workshops from others and learn about their discipline. With these conferences, it’s not as if people have to learn from square one; people in those disciplines already have the necessary background. The speaker is just adding more information or bringing forth new insight to further the discipline. But with these sex ed conferences, the workshops I’ve attended were either intuitively obvious, or I was completely lost. The obvious ones felt like the information wasn’t new and it was just a simple application of a theory that I was familiar with. I could see the students or the clients taking the information as a given, but without understanding why, the given could be questioned or not taken seriously. I understand that with sex education, you have to be practical and try to help the students and clients where they’re at.  In some of the workshops, in fact, people gave out data and other tidbits of information, but didn’t tie it all up. I felt like saying, “so what?” to some of them because I didn’t understand what made it important. I’m very weary when a speaker presents something and says, “I just found this interesting!” Great, but what can we do with this interesting information? Tell me why this is important. Why did you find it interesting? We need theory! The workshops where I was completely lost relied on various procedures and/or backgrounds that I was not familiar with.

Since everyone is coming from different backgrounds and educational disciplines, everyone is coming to this topic through their own lens and tackling a specific issue. But without a common background, we may be talking past each other, not understand each other, or find the speech intuitively obvious. Sex education has not been disciplined, or not in the same way as other disciplines are. We can make a coherent structure of philosophy, sociology, psychology, social work. We can see within those fields various specialties, sub-divisions, and what sort of questions people in those sub-divisions ask, even if we ourselves are not in that field. But with sex education, it’s a mixture of people from different educational backgrounds giving their two cents on sex education. We have no common background, no common language perhaps, no common…well…discipline. What do I mean by discipline? For starters, imagine if you could major and study sex education. You would have a discipline that would have structure, organization, and help students give the theoretical background to really help those that need sex education.

“But,” you might say, “sex education is tough to make into a discipline because there are so many factors to consider. Sex education is a combination of biology, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, gender studies, and education. Perhaps you need to bring in anthropology, history, and maybe politics in this discipline as well. It just seems to vast.” I understand that, but we have done made an inchoate matter of thought into a structured form. People can major in gender studies, feminism, and the liberal arts for example. There’s a combination of different disciplines coming together to form one structured discipline. Why couldn’t we do that with sex education? Now we could ask whether it’s a subset of education, or if it should be its own discipline. I’m fine with either, but the point is that we shouldn’t rely on sex education having different patches of education. Sex education, as of now, is like a bunch of quilt patches. But there’s no structure, no organization, no form. The theory of sex ed, or disciplining it, threads these patches together. Yes, application is important and we need it. Theory without application is in vain. But application without theory is blind.

This isn’t to point out the fault of sex education falls on one individual or a group of individuals. Because of the political climate, sex education hasn’t been seen as a serious endeavor and so it’s scattered to these disparate disciplines. Many people share the attitude that sex education is important. We have the numbers, but we now need to organize those numbers and start to formulate what we can do together collectively. We all have different ideas of what is the best way to do it, but all disciplines have different ideas, approaches, and theories as to what should be done. Let’s do the same thing with sex education.

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Ideas That Matter with Gregory Sadler

About two months ago, Dr. Gregory Sadler—also a public philosopher and also known as the YouTube Philosopher—and I had a discussion about my work. We discussed philosophy of sex, particularly with my research in the three different moral types of sex education classes in the United States. We also discussed consent, different ways of educating people, and sexual ethics in general. Check it out:

Posted in Ethics, Sex Education, Sexuality, Values, Video | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Savory, Mindfulness, and Qualitative Experiences

If any of you have dogs, you know that they love treats.  Just imagine your dog jumping for joy when they see their treats.  Their tails are wagging extremely fast, and they’ll do anything to get that treat.  It’s like candy to them.

Here’s what I don’t quite understand though: usually with sweets, you want to take your time and eat them.  It’s to savor the taste.  I’ve noticed that when people eat dessert, they usually eat it more slowly.  We like sugar and we look forward to dessert.

Dogs, however, they just instantly gobble it down.  So what’s the deal?  They don’t savor the flavor.  Why do dogs take in everything, both food and treats, without savoring the flavor?  They seem to look forward to the treats but they don’t slow down.  Why?

It could be that they don’t have the sensors to detect the “sweet” things.  But that can’t be totally right.  Animals have evolved to desire sweet things to get their burst of energy. What may be sweet to them may not be sweet to us, but that doesn’t deny the fact that they desire sweet things.

Maybe it has to do with savoring things.  Perhaps our human culture is structured where we generally savor sweet things and other foods we just passively eat.  So savoring things may be a cultural phenomena rather than a biological one.

Not my image

Maybe it’s more infectious than we thought.  To savor things, we savor good wines, good cigars, good perfume, and good paintings.  Yes, I know that savoring things is mainly dedicated to our gustatory and olfactory faculties, but I think the analogy could extend to our visual faculties too.

When we savor things, we like to take our time.  Why? We use this time to simply enjoy “the finer things in life.” However, time is often equated with money.  Those who have the extra time can either use that time for the object they are savoring, but also spend that money for this finer thing to savor. Savoring something seems to focus on the minute details of that beer, that soufflé, that cigar, that crushed velvet, that painting. It’s to increase the sensitivity of your sensory palate so that you can sense the various flavor notes, the smell the particular scents, to see the particular dots from the impressionist paintings. But from someone who has no need or a point to highlight these minutiae, it’s just a waste of time. To those who have no interest in developing these extra sensitive palates, savoring is wasting time.  Indeed, savoring seems to be an exercise among those who have extra time, or at least can spend the money to make the time. Perhaps savoring things is an elitist activity.

I would like to see a study to see if savoring things were mainly meant for the rich and aristocracies.  One hypothesis is that anyone could see a painting or smell perfume. But to distinguish the upper class from the rest, maybe the aristocratic class developed a route where having an extra sensitive palate was the mark of a distinguished person and that meant to use your time to develop an extra sensitive palate. The commoners didn’t have this extra time and so they couldn’t develop a high palate and just had a “common palate.” Savoring seems to be dedicated to the “high pleasures.”  These are the pleasures that are dedicated to the high arts, the pleasures that exercise the mental faculties, or those that supposedly make yourself into a cultivated person. And since the higher class considered themselves and distinguished and cultivated, they alone could experience and enjoy these “higher pleasures.”

Is it true that the more time you have, the more you can savor?  Well, we often say that time is money, but a recent study has shown wealthy people have a weaker ability to savor things. Maybe it was because nowadays, wealthy people are in a state of up keeping their wealth and so their focus is on the things to make the wealth flow. The aristocratic class, however, were already wealthy and did not really worry about losing it compared to today’s wealth perhaps. I’m not sure. I don’t know the history of economics or what the attitudes of the wealthy today are different from the wealthy of the past.

But perhaps this isn’t the correct picture of what it means to savor something. Maybe savoring isn’t about experiencing high culture, but simply experiencing period. Pop culture and pop psychology have suggested that savoring something means not only experience various objects, but to experience that experience. In other words, don’t savor simply to increase a heightened palate, but simply to enjoy the experience itself. We say things like “be in the moment” or “enjoy the experience” or “enjoy the journey.” Indeed, many millennials are spending money not on objects or material possessions, but on experiences.

I can see this as a route to savor something, and this route would shift the meanings and the point of experiencing something. Not only would this include paintings, wine, and perfumes, but also simply being with friends, taking a trip to where ever and record it on social media, and surrounding yourself with like-minded people to simply enjoy people’s company. The experiences where we can “savor the moment” are different than our everyday, mundane experiences. They are meant to be mindful of the experiences where we “soak up the experience.” The savory, here, isn’t so much about class or wealth, but more about what am I going to do with my time to make it meaningful?

I’m not here to show which is the correct view of savoring things. Perhaps, if anything, this is an observation piece just to notice what it means to savor something. But the shift has moved from an elitist position, to more of simply mindfulness…

But now isn’t mindfulness an elitist activity? We often hear about the benefits of mindfulness. There are numerous studies that show that mindfulness has health benefits by reducing stress. Those who practice mindfulness, it seems, are those who have the extra time. So isn’t there a worry that we just end up with the same problem? Maybe, but I don’t think mindfulness has to necessarily be considered as those who have extra time, but perhaps more about priorities. We often squeeze our time to make sure we can watch our favorite tv shows, see that extra Netflix episode, or stay up to fall into a YouTube hole. We make room to perform our hobbies and the things that we enjoy. We never consider mindfulness as another activity that is part of our routine. I have to admit, I try to get into mindfulness by meditating fifteen minutes a day. The longest stretch was three months, but then I stopped. Why? Because I had other things to take care of and when I was tired, I would rather mindlessly watch a tv episode rather than try and be mindful. I do think being mindful helped me out, but it is difficult once you start since your mind wanders constantly. However, I did notice that I was more present, more focused, and more in the experience through mindfulness practices. I guess you could say that I had a better ability to savor my experiences.

The savory shift from having things to experiencing things moves the savory aspects from those in the external world to our internal world. The external savoriness had to do with the more distinguished material thing: the more expensive the item was, the deeper you could savor that item. In a way, more money = a deeper savory experience from the external world. But for the internal savoriness, we aim toward quantity. The more experiences we have, the better. But what if you could deepen your savory experiences too? Perhaps mindfulness is the key so that you not only experience what you are experiencing, but making those experiences more present-like, more qualitative. Thus, the move, it seems, is that mindfulness = a deeper savory experience from the internal world.

Does this mean that we should all exercise mindfulness in order to really enjoy our experiences? Not necessarily. Many people enjoy their experiences without mindfulness. But I wonder: is it just the quantity of experiences, or the quality that people enjoy? This brings me back to the beginning of this post. Savoring is to momentarily use your time to take in the experience. It seems that savoring is correlated with qualitative experiences. This doesn’t mean that we should aim for quality instead of quantity. What it does give us is a route to know what it means to savor something, and that when we do, it seems that we focus on the quality. The more we can develop that palate, the more we can appreciate that specific experience. Savor it!

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Three Minute Thesis

A few weeks ago, I performed at the Three Minute Thesis at Marquette University with other fellow grad students. The purpose is to explain your dissertation work in three minutes or less. You can see the video here. The first thirty seconds the audio is off, but the rest of it is fine. Alternatively, you can read the transcript below.

Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey. We recognize these now-infamous names because they have been accused of sexual assault. They have taken advantage of their status and exploited those who are vulnerable. This is a sad consequence how people don’t take care of the sexual self. How do we prevent this? This cultural crisis calls for a new approach to sexuality education.

My research investigates the moral assumptions of sex ed programs in the United States. After looking at countless syllabi, I have determined there are three different moral foundations that underlie existing sex ed programs. The first are abstinence only programs, but this doesn’t work, empirical research shows that gender discrepancies are presented as inevitable.

The second model is what I call consequentialist sex ed, which emphasizes avoiding negative consequences such as unwanted pregnancies and STIs. This model is an improvement since it empowers students with essential knowledge such as anatomy and sexual mechanics. But this model is still limited because it fails to discuss many forms of sexuality and gender such as intersex and transgender folks.

The third model is what I call consent-based sex ed, which teaches sexual consent. With the cultural recockening of the MeToo movement, this is the best model since current conversations largely revolve around how to properly give and receive consent.

While this model definitely improves on the previous two models, there is still something lacking. Most importantly, this model fails to address the gender inequality at the root of the problematic power dynamics. For example, if to receive consent is to garner a yes, then all men have to do is manipulate woman to get that yes.

These three models focus on a person‘s behavior, but sexuality is much deeper. Therefore we need another model that focuses on what I call care of the sexual self.

For simplicity, I analyze care of the sexual self to three components: the sexual emotions, the sexual mind, and the sexual body. A comprehensive sex ed program helps students train the moral sexual character by disciplining whether those components are coming from their authentic character, or if these ideas were simply societal expectations. This model, thereby, helps students question their own social mores and understand various forms of sexualities and genders. The upshot is to implement this into public policy where the ethical considerations are to not only focus on avoiding assaultive behavior, but also cultivating a character where they wouldn’t want to in the first place and help reject the Weinsteins of the world.

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