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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Tennis and Pair Figure Skating Sexual Models

When it comes to having sex with one, a few, or lots of peole, sexologists consider this sociosexual orientation, or sociosexuality. Let get some terms down.

Sociosexual orientation, or sociosexuality: the willingness to engage in sex outside of a committed relationship. Now this orientation can be broken into two different components.

  • Unrestricted sociosexual orientation: more willing to engage in uncommitted sex and usually without any sense of emotions or closeness.  
  • Restricted sociosexual orientation: less willing to engage in uncommitted sex, and they prefer to have emotions involved and some type of commitment.

One detail to note is why and how these are orientations. Of course, this gets to the terminology, the history, and the meaning behind “orientation.” There has been so much written about that and I don’t want to focus on that in this post. I’ll leave the word “orientation” in for now, but I will dedicate a future post to orientation and see what that means.

One aspect of sociosexual orientation is the desire to have sexual variety. Those who have unrestricted sociosexual orientation are more likely to desire to have more sexual variety; those who have restricted sociosexual orientation are more likely to desire to have less sexual variety.  Most sociologists, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists give explanations as to why people desire sexual variety or not. These explanations can differ among the cultures, genders, socioeconomic status, and race. While this is all fascinating, I want to give a different approach, if I can.

The approach I’m considering is perhaps phenomenological, but it has to do with a specific approach to desiring sexual variety. It is not because of hypermasculine expectations or peer expectations in terms of what is expected of you, but more of a developmental understanding of your sexual self, particularly whether you’re more of a diverse approach, or more of a just one-to-one approach. Perhaps an analogy would help. It’s going to be a bit cumbersome, and there will be some disanalogies, but I’m hoping that you will see my point through the analogy.

Tennis match clip art danasokc topPlaying Tennis. Think of tennis players, especially those who are pros. For them to develop their craft, they need to experience playing with different tennis players. I’m not talking about novices vs. experienced players. I would suggest that even experienced players like to play among different players just to help develop their skills. Indeed, the more players you play, the better you are as a player. Playing a diversity of players makes you not only better at your craft, but a more well-rounded tennis player. You expand your sense of “tennis self” through playing different people. Maybe Pete Sampras swerves the ball one way and Andre Agassi hits the ball in another way. Maybe Serena Williams’s backhand has a certain force where you need to learn how to handle it that no other player has. Maybe Maria Sharapova is really good at delivering approach shots. In short, playing these different players makes your tennis skills more virtuous (aka excellent), but also gives you better sense of your own particular “tennis identity.” More players, therefore, means heightened sense of who you are as a tennis player.

With a variety of tennis players, you not only get a variety of players, but a variety of moves, techniques, and skill sets. There will always be different players and their skills will always surprise you. Sometimes you’ll be thrown off where you thought you could play your best, but it wasn’t your best moment. Other times, you had a matched player where the combined skill sets of you and the other player had an excellent match and both look forward to playing each other again. Whatever the case may be, tennis players seems to expand their skills sets and their athleticism as a tennis player bey playing with a variety of players. In short, the maxim for tennis players, it seems, is that to be better at tennis, play with a variety of tennis players.

Image result for pair figure skating clip artPair Figure Skating. On the other hand, there are certain activities where having a consistent and constant partner helps you become a better player. Let’s call this the pair figure skating model. For many good figure skaters, they have to find a perfect partner to play with. Why? They have to somewhat match with their skills, technique, styles, personality, and their goals. The two figure skaters help each other build each other’s skills. If they were to play among a variety of different figure skaters, their skills won’t be honed and their craft at pair figure skating will be so diversified that they won’t be a master at pair figure skating, but continue to be a dilettante among these different skaters. Sure, you may capture a sense of certain moves that various people may do, but to become really skilled, it is best to stay with the one player so that your routine can get better and better.

But now let’s change the rules a bit, if I may. Suppose we went beyond the Olympic rules and the players could do any move, even the illegal moves. And let’s make it more risky where there is no routine; they have to improvise the moves. This may seem far-fetched, but let’s suppose it can be done. With the improvisation, the partner’s must really know each other very well in order to understand and respond to each other’s moves, style, technique, and body language. With this one particular person, you will know each other’s specific moves, and while the other person may know your own specific moves, there may be occasions where they may surprise you. They don’t want to perform the same moves over and over since that would be too predictable. But by learning how to play against you specifically, the other person has learned how to read your ice skating skills, and has learned how to understand what sort of moves you would do. By doing so, the other person may give you different challenges or do something different. There are many reasons why, but the main reason is that if the other person knows what you’re going to do, then the other person will do something different to spice up the moment. Maybe your partner has learned a new technique. Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps you’ve learned how to move differently doing a death spiral which makes your overall movements more functional and efficient. Doing so makes the bodies more in sync with each other.

So why am I bringing up tennis players and pair figure skating? For those who have unrestricted sociosexual orientation, maybe they’re like tennis players in that they prefer having a diverse of experiences (which, in this context, means a diversity of partners) so that they not only hone in on their skills and craft, but to get a better sense of who they are sexually.  They may find the pair figure skating approach as either stifling, boring, monotonous, and/or limited. But more importantly for the purposes of this post, they see this lifestyle as limiting themselves where their identity and knowledge of their sexuality is…well, restricted. The diversity is not something that they prefer; the diversity is part of their identity in the same way as the essence of a virtuous tennis player is playing against multiple people. In a way, it’s much like having many friends helps one have a better sense of who one is.

For those who have restricted sociosexual orientation, maybe they’re like pair figure skaters in that they only want the one partner so that they can focus on their craft and skill. Having one partner and only one partner at a time means that they can put their focus and energy on just one person rather than multiple people. Indeed, trying to have muliple partners can be daunting because they would have to start over in learning about the other person but also about themselves in relation to this other person. They may look at the tennis player approach as a watering down of their experience, a way divesting to much of themselves into others rather than honing on their skills and reading another person’s body language in one person.

In both of these examples, this isn’t to say that one specializes and the other doesn’t. They both focus and specialize in developing their sexual self, but they do so in different ways, and they may consider the other side as not specializing in their self. The tennis player approach may see the figure pair skater approach as specializing, but only on a tiny specific thing, which is just a blip of knowledge. The figure pair skater approach may see the tennis player approach as a dilettante, or a jack-of-all-trades type without truly being a master.

In both cases, they may regard the other as not being the specialist and that their craft is the true specialist. My approach is that they are different sports, if I can stick with the analogy. Some people like the variety of tennis, others prefer just the one-to-one approach to pair figure skating. In both cases, they develop their skill and craft and form their own identity in their own unique ways. Both approaches, in other words, are not only reasonable, but valuable. It depends on what each person values, wants, and desires, and of the term is applied correctly, their orientation. Unrestricted or restricted approaches are two different types of developments of our sociosexuality. However, the restricted approach is considered better in our cultural understanding of sexuality. There is a hierarchy of relationships and sexuality and it seems that the monogamous, married, heteronormative approach is at the top. You can see this in Gayle Rubin’s famous article. But I want to give credence to the other side and suggest it has value. Again, this isn’t to say that the unrestricted approach is better. Indeed, it may be more risky since they are having many diverse sexual and relationship experiences, but it is what gives them a sense of who they are and a way to develop their identity. If that is what they are oriented toward, then the vital information that they need is more education, not stifling their experiences or shaming their desires. 

Indeed, simply knowing about sociosexual orientation could be helpful for both restricted and unrestricted people. They not only will learn about their own orientation and give meaning to their experiences because they have a term for it, but they will also understand that other people’s preferences and desires are stemming from their orientation, values, and experiences. In many ways, this is a helpful understanding in that teaching this gives epistemic credence to the people of themselves and others. In the end, what’s wrong with that?

This was also published on medium.

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Preventing a Harm by Doing a Harm

Consider a couple, Sam and Tracy.  Sam and Tracy have been together for a long time.  We could even imagine them being married if you’d like.  Lately, however, their relationship has been rocky and has slowly become unstable.  Whatever the details may be, Tracy is taking the initiative and trying to break the relationship.  Sam, however, has a history of depression and has had suicidal tendencies.  Sam tells Tracy that if the relationship ends, “I don’t know if I could move on.  I would seriously kill myself.”  Sam seems to be genuine in this proclamation.  I should note that Sam is not saying this as a threat or as a way to coerce Tracy to stay in this relationship.  Sam really would commit suicide if the relationship were to end.  Of course, Sam is getting help either through therapy or through medicinal means, but it is a slow recovery and the relationship is taking a huge toll on Tracy.  In fact, it is affecting Tracy’s health overall and Tracy cannot wait for Sam to be mentally stable.  Yet, Tracy does care for Sam as a person.  Tracy does not want to Sam to commit suicide or cause serious harm.  Thus, Tracy is torn.  On the one hand, staying in this relationship is not healthy and it is going to cause a strain to both of them individually and the relationship between them could get worse.  On the other hand, if Tracy initiates the relationship, then Sam would be so devastated that Sam would cause self-harm or even suicide.  Thus Tracy decides not to end the relationship. However, the relationship is taking a toll and Tracy wants to end the relationship. So if Tracy won’t end it, perhaps Sam will? Tracy decides that the best route is to somehow make it so that Sam would initiate ending the relationship.  But how?

One way is to convince Sam that the relationship is going to make everyone involved worse off.  This, however, is tricky because the information cannot come from Tracy directly.  After all, if Sam were to hear from Tracy that this is not a healthy relationship, Sam would interpret this as Tracy ending the relationship, which gets back to our initial problem.  Perhaps if Tracy could convince one of Sam’s friends or one of Sam’s relatives that this isn’t healthy.  However, unless somehow one of Sam’s friend or Sam’s relatives is so in tune to the relationship, the friend or relative may interpret this message as Tracy wanting to end the relationship.  In which case, the friend or relative could give the message to Sam that Tracy is wanting to end the relationship and Sam may be even more agitated because the message did not directly come from Sam.  So unless the friend or relative is in tune with Sam’s health, this plan may not fully work.

The other plan is make Sam not enjoy the relationship by either seeing many problems with the relationship itself, or seeing that being with Tracy is not a good option.  And so Tracy does certain actions that would be interpreted as not investing into the relationship. Tracy would also ghost, ice, or simmer away from the relationship. In other words, Tracy neglects Sam and does not put any investment into the relationship.  As time goes on, Sam feels that Tracy is drifting away and not putting much into this relationship. Of course, Tracy’s strategy is slow going, but eventually Sam would start to see that this relationship may be taken for granted and not enjoyable.  Eventually, Sam starts to see that this relationship is no longer enjoyable and ends the relationship.

Are Tracy’s actions ethical?

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Dealbreakers and Gamechangers

Quite some time ago, I went to a dance club. At some point, I got off the dance floor and took a break and sat on some couches.  These couches just happened to be near the ladies’ room. There were a group of women near the entrance and I couldn’t help but overhear a young woman explaining the possibility of dating a possible suitor.  Here is how her conversation went. (I’m condensing and filtering lot of details.)

“You guys. I’m seeing this guy, and I don’t know…I mean, he lives in his mom’s basement, he plays video games all day, and he’s not much into animals.  But then, I found out he makes really good poached eggs, he teaches yoga, and put his hair up in a manbun. Oh my god you guys, gamechanger!”

I’m sure I’m reducing a lot of the features of what this woman liked and disliked about the guy. The content isn’t really important.  What I want to focus on is the first set of things she found intolerable (living in his mom’s basement, playing video games all day, and not being in to animals). This set is what I will call “dealbreakers.”

Dealbreakers, at least the way I’m thinking about them, are various character traits where if a potential intimate partner has those traits, one will immediately not want to have any further contact with that person much longer, perhaps at all.

I think when it comes to potential partners, everyone has dealbreakers.  Yes, I know it depends on the context, but I’m sure there are few that you can think of that are more or less absolute.  They can be considered a big deal or superficial. To see what the biggest dealbreakers are, see here.

But what about gamechangers? Do they really exist, especially for long-term partners? I consider a gamechanger as some sort of characteristic, or perhaps some new information that changes that situation into either a positive or negative way. In a way, negative gamechangers are dealbreakers. Positive gamechangers are uplifting experiences where you feel a special closeness with the other person. Both dealbreakers and gamechangers are pivotal transformative moments in how you deal with your potential relationship.

In the context that I gave above, a gamechanger would have to be significant enough to overrule the dealbreaker. But are there such significant gamechangers? Well, according to the person in the story above, then yes. But how do these dealbreakers and gamechangers cash out?

Here’s a possible way to look at dealbreakers: a dealbreaker is enough of a negative feature so as to no longer invest or even start a relationship. It seems that the longer you’re in a relationship, the more tolerant one is with the dealbreakers. After all, maybe a dealbreaker is seeing a potential mate eating with their mouth open. But if you’ve already dated for a number of years, maybe that characteristic isn’t so bad. So dealbreakers can change quantitatively. Moreover, they seem to change qualitatively. The dealbreaker you have now may not be a dealbreaker in the future. Likewise, maybe you’ve gained some dealbreakers that you’ve never had before. So what’s the relationship between dealbreakers and a person? We could probably formulate it like this:

If a person has dealbreaker-1, dealbreaker-2, dealbreaker-3…dealbreaker-n, then we would very likely not want to continue with that relationship. Note: it’s hard to say whether these dealbreakers are conjunctive or disjunctive. It probably depends on the person, and how qualitative the dealbreaker is. If they are conjunctive, then there’s a certain threshold that someone meets in order for someone to leave to potential to continue the relationship.

Now gamechangers are positive features that overcomes the dealbreaker. The gamechanger, in many ways, are surprising elements where you least expect it. We may have a list of what dealbreakers are, but it’s hard to imagine a list of gamechangers because gamechangers are very much in the context. Gamechangers seem to have a quantitative and qualitative feature as well. If quantitative, they seem to work best in a conjunctive manner. Moreover, our gamechangers seem to change over time, meaning we could lose or gain gamechangers.

What’s the relationship between gamechangers and a person? The formula seems to be something like this:

For any dealbreaker (or conjunction thereof), a gamechanger (or a conjunction thereof) overrules the (conjunction of the) dealbreaker(s). Note: the gamechanger has to be more significant than the dealbreaker. Why? I think it’s because a dealbreaker is a such a negative situation that it needs tremendous positive info to overpower that negative info. In other words, the positive of the gamechanger has to be very positive to overpower the dealbreaker. It isn’t enough for the gamechanger to cancel out the dealbreaker. Since the dealbreaker was a transformative experience in the negative, the gamechanger is a positive transformative experience of the transformative experience in the negative.

Here we get to the psychology or even the metaphysics about pains and pleasures. I don’t want to get bogged into details here, but it seems that overcoming a negative is not just finding a positive to counterbalance the feelings, but the positive has to dramatically overrule the negative. Thus, the gamechanger has to be such a huge deal to overpower the dealbreaker. Maybe we have a formula:

potential relationship < dealbreaker(s) << gamechanger(s)

But there’s a time sequence here too. Suppose the gamechanger happened first. You may be so elated with this positive information, but then sometime after that, the dealbreaker happens. No matter how positive the gamechanger was, the dealbreaker after the gamechanger still overpowered the gamechanger.  Thus, for the gamechanger to really be a gamechanger, it has to happen after dealbreaker.

Of course, if you’re already in the relationship, the dealbreaker may lose it’s force over time. After all, you’ve developed a history with that person and that history, it seems, has more prominence than the dealbreakers you have. Of course, there may be absolute dealbreakers where no matter how long you’ve been with that person, the relationship ends if the other person broke one of your absolute dealbreakers.

This isn’t to say that looking at dealbreakers and gamechangers should only be thought about abstractly. Having dealbreakers and gamechangers are psychological, and it’s best to know what your dealbreakers are so that you know what your boundaries are in relationships.  This way, you will have healthy relationships. At the same time, also be aware that your dealbreakers can soften or change over time, and even with the same partner. Likewise, gamechangers are contextual in that they are not just new information that can overpower the dealbreaker, but they are also informed by the length of the relationship, how bad the dealbreaker was, the situation that you’re in, and the overall quality and quantity of the dealbreaker and gamechanger. Gamechangers are hard—if not impossible—to know what they are. But at the same time, gamechangers seem to be a cautious virtue in that it keeps yourself open to the possibility that an investment may still be worth it, and that worth can overpower the dealbreaker. This isn’t to say that if there’s a gamechanger, it should always overpower the dealbreaker. You must know your boundaries, expectations, needs, and desires. But it does suggest that gamechangers are possibly related to virtue ethics, at least related to the virtue of being open-minded or being open to possibilities of your relationship with others.

This is just a very brief sketch of the epistemology, psychology, and metaphysics of dealbreakers and gamechangers. With this, there is the possibility to have an ethics of dealbreakers and gamechangers, but that opportunity will be left to another time.

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The Ethics of Recognizing Sexiness Part Two

In my last post, I looked at Lintott’s and Irvin’s article about changing the way we perceive people as being sexy. They argue that we ought to see people as sexy subjects, meaning that we can respect people and also “see their body as infused with an expression of self and animated by their own sexual identity.” But now I have some concerns with this project.

My Five Concerns:

1. The first is definitional. It seems that they’re redefining sexiness based on someone being confident and assured of their sexuality. What’s troublesome is that, at least in our society, many men are confident and assured of their sexuality, even in heteronormative ways. Many women are not simply because social norms and oppressions consider that inappropriate. After all, in our society, most women are not confident about their sexuality; they may like sex but because of systemic pressures and cultural expectations, her confidence of her sexuality may not be as high as men’s. Thus, it seems that through the author’s reevaluation, many men are considered sexy, but many women are not. After all, it’s rare to find an Amy Schumer or a Lena Dunham compared to the millions of women who don’t like to express their sexuality. Moreover, it’s much easier to find men who are confident about their sexuality than it is to find women.

2. The authors state that being genuine in their sexiness is what makes them sexy. Being genuine could mean “originality, comfort, confidence, playfulness, and a sense of improvisation, whereas conformity, discomfort, insecurity, and strict adherence to norms will be evidence of a lack of genuineness in sexual expression” (306). Many people may not be confident of their sexuality until they’ve reached an age of figuring out who they are in terms of their sexuality and especially their sexual identity. Take for example many adolescents. Most of them are not sexually confident. Sure, the majority of American have had sex by the age of 17, but they may not be confident of who their sexual identity is. In high school, most of them are concerned with fitting in and not standing out. If being sexually confident is to stand out, then they are very likely going to avoid that. And if being sexy is to be sexually confident, then many high school students wouldn’t be considered sexy based on the author’s criteria. If it’s true that most people don’t have a strong sense of who they are when expressing their sexuality, then most people wouldn’t be considered sexy. It seems odd that we shouldn’t consider someone sexy because they aren’t sure of their sexual identity.

3. There are many people who aren’t sure what sort of sexual identity to have, which may make them lose confidence as to how to express their sexuality. Many trans* folks may still be confused as to how to express themselves, for example. People who are LGBTQIA+ may try to figure that out. If sexuality is fluid as most sexual researchers say, but we live in a society that sees sexuality as more or less stable, then those who are sensitive to being flexible may be misinterpreted as not being confident. Indeed, those people may not be confident because they aren’t sure how to express themselves sexually. We still see this in our culture where bisexuals are not considered a serious orientation because they “haven’t made up their minds” or are “faking” their sexuality. These messages could undermine one’s confidence and thereby not willing to express their sexuality. So then people in the LGBTQIA+ community may not be considered sexy, according to the author’s criteria since many of them may not be sexually confident.

4. Could sexiness be taken away? Suppose you’re in a large city that embraces sexual diversity and they have no problem with your sexual expression. But now suppose you move to another city that is smaller and conservative. They follow heteronormative standards rigidly. Being new to this town could affect how you are treated if you were able to express your sexuality fully. Because of these rigid constructs, you feel uneasy to express yourself. It seems that this new town has affected your confidence and thus your sexuality. This new town, therefore, has taken away your ability to express yourself and thereby your ability to be sexy.

5. Finally, is it possible to go overboard with the sexiness to the point of ridiculousness? This may not be a good example, but imagine various people on the Jerry Springer or Maury Povich show who flaunt their sexuality, but over dramatically so. The flaunting isn’t done in a sexy way, but it almost parodies the flaunting nature. Of course, this could be because the producers and editors make the clips in such a way where the presentation is overly dramatic, and to be honest, I’ve never encountered this overly dramatic flaunting nature in real life, but we can still imagine it and even witness it on a tv show.

There are many people like this where they flaunt their sexuality and they don’t care what others think of them. They are definitely confident and they are “see[ing] their body as infused with an expression of self and animated by their own sexual identity.” But are they sexy? The authors would have to say yes, but I’m not so sure. Yes, seeing someone expressing their sexual identity is sexy, but the way they flaunt this isn’t sexy, at least not to me. I wouldn’t even say it’s flaunting. Rather, it’s just being narcissistic. Now, I’m sure the producers overplay this just to get ratings, but suppose these are real representations. Granted, maybe something is wrong with me and I have to go through an internal ethical project where I have to change my perspective to see them as sexy. Nevertheless, should we consider them sexy? I can’t empathize with them. Again, is that my problem? The authors state that we should consider someone as desirable, not necessarily someone you experience desire for. Thus, a lesbian could consider a man sexy, according to the authors. Maybe that’s my problem: I can’t even consider the people above as desirable. But perhaps if I shifted and expanded my concept of sexiness or desirability, maybe I could?

Undergoing the Ethical Project

Next, the authors state that we ought to cultivate the habit of recognizing sexiness. But how do we do this? This is a psychological question more than anything. How do we learn to experience this person now as sexy when we didn’t originally before? Is the sher will doing the work here?

First Example: Queer Pornography

The authors suggest Sins Invalid—a site dedicated to people with disabilities who perform—as a way to expand our view of sexiness to disabled performers where we can expand our sexiness without objectification. Another project would be the queer pornographic site Pink and White Productions or the Crash Pad Series. It’s controversial whether there can be ethical porn. I’ll leave that an open question. However, with these sites displaying queer pornography, it breaks down the stereotypical pornographic standards of both men and women. Rather, the site shows many different sexual encounters and breaks the rules of beauty and sexual norms, yet portrays it in a sexy way. Examples include trans* folks being sexual, people who identity as queer, disabled porn performers, and bodies of all types. Indeed, assuming it is ethical, the authors may contend that we have an ethical obligation to desire feminist and queerporn, that is assuming that such porn can be ethical, but also to expand our concept of what is sexy so as to undermine the conventional standards of what is sexy. After all, mainstream porn hyperfocuses on social standards of beauty.

Second Example: Artificial Intelligence

If sexiness isn’t about external bodily beauty standards, but more about how such beings carry themselves in a sexualized way, could this be true for nonhumans? Take, for example, Samantha from the movie Her. Could Samantha be considered sexy in the way the authors have suggested? Samantha is an artificial intelligence operating program and who eventually gets involved in a relationship with a user. I hope I’m not giving any spoiler alerts, but she seems to carry herself in a sexual way, perhaps to the point of what the authors consider sexy. What makes this interesting is that Samantha doesn’t have a body. Well, not really. I mean, she’s in the computer and she’s in the user’s phone. But since she can leap from the computer to the phone, then she’s in the cloud in order to do the leaping. But the cloud isn’t really a place (forget about how it’s all storage in some unit in Silicone Valley). If the leaping can be done wirelessly, then Samantha’s body is diffused throughout space and as long as you have a strong Wi-Fi (presumably), then you can access her. So Her actually makes a stronger case for the author’s claim: it’s not the outward appearances, but the way you carry yourself in a sexual way. However, the author’s do say that “[t]o find a person sexy…is to see their body as infused with an expression of self and animated by their own sexual identity” (305, my emphasis). And yet, Samantha has no body, but we could still say that she carries herself, her persona, and is animated by her own sexual identity. I do think she has a sexual identity, but she has no body that performs that, unless you count the various bodies she has (e.g. computer, cell phone, human surrogate). But again, her body becomes exceptionally fluid and she can leap from body to body. Is she still sexy? According to the author’s criteria, I’m not sure.


And so we reach the end of this post. I’ve looked at Lintott’s and Irvin’s article about changing the way we perceive people as being sexy and I’ve given five concerns about this project. Moreover, there are a couple implications we can gather from this project too. Overall, I think this has a fine contribution in bodily aesthetics and the importance of what it means to be sexy. Their new criteria could use some improvement, but it certainly has improved the old standard model of sexiness = mere sex object.

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The Ethics of Recognizing Sexiness Part One

Not my image

Suppose someone said to you, “you are sexy.” How would you respond? It obviously depends on the context, but let me offer two possibilities.  On the one hand, you might experience something negative simply because you are seen as an object. The negative emotion could be anger, revulsion, shame, embarrassment, or disgust. Notice that you could say, “thanks” but still feel a negative emotion because the thought that someone would think of you as sexy is revealing: the other person considers you within some sexual realm (whatever that may mean). It isn’t that you are simply attractive or beautiful; you are someone that is sexually arousing, causing sexual desire. And, depending on the context, can make you very uncomfortable, embarrassed, or feel awkward.

On the other hand, another response is that you may experience something positive. You may be excited, thankful, happy, filled with self-confidence or self-esteem, empowered, and you may consider yourself more attractive. You may see yourself as an object, but not essentially. You may still see this sexy object and feel something positive that you are this object, and that you recognize yourself as this object.

Notice with both accounts, you are still an object. It just happens that you consider yourself in relation to this object as something positive or negative.

But what if someone goes deeper and says that they don’t see you as a sexy object, but as a sexy subject? How would you respond? I think most would consider that confusing, but maybe thankful (in that you are not considered as a mere object) or maybe deflated (in that you are not considered as an object at all). Sheila Lintott and Sherri Irvin are investigating what it means to be sexy and argue for a positive reclamation of sexiness from a feminist lens. The article tackles many meanings of what it means to be a sex object. I’ll be referencing the article in the book, Body Aesthetics.

Sexy Subjects

Here is what the authors contend: In one way, being sexy is objectifying, but on the other hand, denying sexiness is also denying her subjectivity. What I’m interested in is what the authors set out to do in part III: a normative conception of sexiness that also accommodates respect for persons. What this means is to respect people, in that we see people as legitimate autonomous beings. But seeing someone as sexy is also recognizing that, as sexy subjects, people are free to desire and pursue the sorts of pleasures they find worthwhile. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with seeing someone as sexy as long as you are respecting that person’s subjectivity and not trivializing (reducing?) that person into an object. Let me bring some context and background from the authors in order to move the argument forward.

First, sexiness is not an attribute anyone has, but a way of being. It is how one engages with the world with certain mental states and attitudes, and not something anyone has.

Second, sexiness is not to be tied to bodily attractiveness, but to see their subjectivity for what it is, to appreciate it, and regard it as sexy without necessarily being sexually attracted to that person. In short, the author’s revisionist project is to change our conception of sexiness in such a way where we can say that someone is sexy without being sexually attracted to that person.

Third, expressing one’s sexuality gives a positive, and perhaps even an empowered sense of that person’s identity. To deny that is to deny an aspect of that person’s identity.

With that background, the authors thesis is striking: there is an ethical obligation to recognize people as sexy subjects. “The respectful notion of sexiness merges a concern for the subjective and embodied life of a person with an assessment of their body as a sexualized one. To find a person in this sense is to see their body as infused with an expression of self and animated by their own sexual identity.” (305). So we can see someone sexually appealing, but not sexually arousing. We ought to reevaluate how we appreciate people’s sexiness without it being connected to being sexually attracted to them. To respectfully see people as sexy is to consider their subjective life and how they are in charge of their sexual agency. They are intrinsically appealing based on their own terms instead of finding them sexy based on external standards. But what’s the ethical push here? Why do we ought to regard people as sexy?

The way I understand it is that by viewing people as sexy subjects, we not only undermine cultural norms of what ought to be sexy, which is usually objectifying, but it gives people a sense of empowerment and it recognizes people’s subjectivity. It’s not just subjectivity in a Kantian universal-rational sense, but it’s to see their particular individuality. You see the person qua person, not person qua rational being, which is to say that people are sexy not because they follow certain social standards of what is sexy (e.g. beauty standards, dressing a certain way, external fashions), but more about how people carry themselves in that the way they express themselves are sexy.  It’s the way people infuse their sexuality to their body. They don’t provide any examples, so I’ll try to provide one and I hope it’s a good representation of what the authors are suggesting.

Many people in the media have had a complicated relationship with Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham’s expression of their sexuality.Both of them talk about sex and sexuality in honest ways and they are not ashamed of it. On the contrary, they seem to speak about it with such confidence and a genuine expression of what they want. On the other hand, both of them don’t follow conventional social norms of what is sexy: they are both slightly overweight, they talk about sex in detailed ways which isn’t socially acceptable for many women, they don’t follow the social standards of what is sexy, and they discuss controversial issues regarding feminine or sexuality. Yet, they are in charge of their sexuality whereby they are sexually appealing, and not necessarily sexually arousing. This isn’t to say that they could be sexually arousing, but that’s not the essential thing. More than that, maybe they can be sexually arousing because they are sexually appealing. Overall, it’s to recognize sexiness on their own terms and not societal expectations. To see their genuineness in sexuality also involves empathy. Therefore, Schumer and Dunham could be considered sexy according to the authors of this article.

(As an interesting question, would the authors suggest that part of their ethical project is to reevaluate sexiness such that seeing someone sexually arousing is an effect of seeing their sexual subjectivity?)

So far, I have only given the argument from Lintott and Irvin. But are there some concerns? What are the implications of their theory? While I find their project fascinating and positive, I have some concerns. I’ll reserve those thoughts in the next post.


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Explaining CRISPR

First, let’s get an understanding of what CRISPR is. In an extremely oversimplification, CRISPR is an editing tool where a genetic engineer can cut and edit out parts of DNA—usually unhealthy bits—and replace them with benign parts. It has the promise of curing hereditary diseases, cancer, and other genetic defects. For a better visualization, see this:

Now, check out how a biologist explains CRISPR to people of five different levels of knowledge: a seven-year old, a high-schooler, a college student, a grad student, and a post-doc expert on CRISPR:

What I find really interesting is that with the seven-year old, the biologist basically has to start with the basics of biology and already the kid’s mind is blown. But as we advance to higher levels of knowledge, the conversation slowly leaves biology and into philosophy, specifically the ethics behind CRISPR. With the high school student and the college student, the biology is briefly explained, and then they get into the ethics. With the grad student, they hardly discussed any biology and just went straight into the ethics. With the post-doc, they discussed a little biology and ethics, but I think they were discussing the philosophy of biology and science. I have to admit, I was a little lost with the post-doc, but the point is is that it’s remarkable that with this idea, they immediately went to the philosophical implications.

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