"How Do Philosophers Talk About Sex, Love, and desire?" Why? Radio episode with guest Sarah LaChance Adams
5:16PM Oct 11, 2021
Jack Russell Weinstein
Sarah LaChance Adams
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Hi, I'm jack Russell Weinstein, host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today's episode we'll be asking how philosophers talk about sex, love and desire. Our guest is Sara Lee chance Adams. It's often difficult to talk about sex without it becoming sex. I don't mean that such conversations can lead to physical contact. Although this is obviously true. I mean that discussing it triggers our imagination, which in turn causes arousal. When this happens, the point of the conversation may shift from being about ideas to being about the arousal itself, then it's not just talking anymore. The imagination is an essential human capacity. It provides us with memories and possible futures connecting each moment of our existence, liberating us from a perpetual now, it intertwines our physical and mental experience, it bridges sensation and meaning. It identifies touches intimacy or as threat. The imagination categorizes bodies as subject or object, it turns sex into play. But because the imagination is a complex mixture of nature and nurture of the conscious and subconscious of social expectations and individual need, it infuses our desires with normative judgment. It tells us that it's okay to want some things and shameful to want others. It labels our needs as normal, transgressive or forbidden. Psychologists sociologists, anthropologists tried to describe why specific people or societies are more susceptible than others to certain judgments. Why for example, history is made some cultures more heteronormative than others are more misogynist or more risk averse. But if norms are nothing but accidents of the past, whereas our agency, What part do we play in the formation of our own erotic meaning? Can there be something called sexual authenticity? These are not questions for the social scientist, they are puzzles for the philosopher. For most people, the philosophy of sex is reduced to ethical questions is premarital sex moral, who is able to consent to sexual activity, which sex acts, if any, are reprehensible. But such a limited understanding of the role of philosophy suggests that sex is both simple and transparent. It implies that we can distinguish between natural or unnatural desires whatever that might mean, or that there is a common sexual experience that all people share, regardless of how their bodies are constructed, or how they self identify. Famously, the sitcom Seinfeld pointed out that we don't even have a definitive understanding of when sex actually begins. Jerry's answer was when a woman shows off her nipples. And if we don't even know what sex is, how can we begin to address the myriad of questions that follow. Our guest today works in the philosophy of sex. She's currently developing a theory of seduction, asking both what it means and how it has been misinterpreted. She's also co edited an anthology that re examined sex, love and desire for our new reality, a world that strives to recognize the moral worth of polyamory of people who are intersex, a feminist protest. I call this a new reality not because these things did not exist a century ago. But because there is a new willingness in politics and pop culture to accept that diversity extends to our deepest and most intimate experiences. Sex for baby making is a much more marginal notion when we validate the transgender, the sex worker and the kingster. In today's exhibitionistic and voyeuristic cultures, reproduction may be beside the point.
We have, I believe, come out the other side of a second sexual revolution. The 1960s put forth the idea that sex for pleasure was worth celebrating, and that women as well as men deserve to experience it. It's a realization we're still negotiating. The last decade, however, has seen what I would call the digital sexual revolution. It has shown us that sex is something that can and will happen at great distances that one need not touch one another, to be intimate. With dating apps that create a veritable supermarket of potential partners to toys someone's lover can operate remotely to telephones that give each of us the ability to create pornography on a whim. We have collectively acknowledged that while sex may still involve our own body, it doesn't necessarily involve someone else's. The digital revolution reaffirms that eroticism is a product of the imagination, before it is a byproduct of our physiology. If I'm right, if this new reality endures, than the role of the philosopher sex will become even more important than before. It isn't just that we'll have to redefine cheating or privacy or the impermissible we'll also have to come up with a new understanding of intimacy. Without that we won't have love or camaraderie or cooperation. The old rules tell us that sex necessarily involves touch and cohabitation. But we now know this isn't true if we stubbornly adhere to obsolete mores, if we ignore the philosophical assumptions that make sex, love and desire, what they are, will forever block satisfaction will create an even larger wedge between our minds and our bodies, and will wallow in shame rather than acceptance. If we don't create a new philosophy for the new digital age, no matter how hard we try, we'll never be able to distinguish between sex and video games. And now our guest Cyril chance Adams is the Florida Blue Distinguished Professor and Director of the Florida Blue Center for Ethics at the University of North Florida. She's an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, religious studies, the author of the book, bad mothers, bad mothers, and what a good mother would do, and co editor of three anthologies, including new philosophies of sex and love thinking through desire. Sarah, welcome to why.
Thank you, jack. Three, happy to be here.
If you'd like to participate, share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is at why radio show why radio show you can always email us at why Radio email@example.com and listen to our previous episodes for free at why Radio show.org Alright, so Sarah, I want to begin by asking a vocabulary question. When academics write about sex, they tend to use the term desire, but non academics tend to use the word lust, are they the same thing?
Thinking about this jack, um, I think lust is really a much more narrow idea than desire. To me, lust seems to indicate something much more finite. lust, it seems to me is something that can be satisfied. And I think one of the central ideas for philosophers when we think about desire, is first and foremost, that it's not something that is fundamentally satiated. And also that lust seems to have is also finite in the sense that it seems to imply say, orgasm or, you know, having conquered a partner or, you know, it's like lusting for a sandwich, and then you eat it, and then the sandwich is done. And you know, your lust is over. It seems to have that sort of finitude to it. But desire for philosophers is often something that's self perpetuating, it's sort of, the more you have it, the more it grows, and often is for something that can't really be completely had. So I think it's a much broader, more complex, beguiling notion really than lust.
I wonder, though, when you talk about desire not being satiated, does that imprison us in an unfulfilled life? Are we always lacking something? Because we don't achieve that goal? Is that is is is the idea of desire? Fundamentally, I don't know pessimistic?
Well, I mean, what would it mean to have a fulfilled life? I guess, is the question that I come to there, I mean, is a fulfilled life, one in which you have finished everything. I think a lot of times for philosophers of desire, there's the sense that life is this constantly unfinished thing we're in, you're continually pulled to live more. So it's not something where the best live life would be the one that's the most finished but the one that is most enticing. And so I don't think that it's pessimistic at all to say that desire is unfulfilled In fact, I think it points to a life that is continually open to new possibilities. So you could say for example, if I lost my partner, I could be satisfied by my partner, but if I desire my partner, I could be satisfied by them, but I can continue to desire them ongoingly maybe in ways that I can't even anticipate
so I have a bunch of students yelling in my ear as as I hear that and and there have capitalism right and and and the sort of the manufacturing of desire and the endless need for Acquisition how is this different right i mean if i mean i don't even mean the slippery slope thing of like if you desire one thing that your desire everything because we know that's a fallacy, but this idea that if desire leads to more desire, it's a trap. Do you think that the desire that you're talking about the the second Desire, the love, desire is distinct from the commodified capital's desire, or are they related?
Well, as a good critical theorist, of course, my response is that capitalism appropriates everything. Of course, of course it appropriates desire to, that can't be helped, but acquisitiveness. Uh, you know, part of what makes acquisitiveness is that you get something, and then you have it. But when you desire something, and you get it, you don't have it. And so the nature of desire is, again, that it's always unfinished. So whereas something like lust or hunger, or the desire for a consumer object is something that satisfied and then being satisfied is inherently sort of dissatisfying because it's something that is, is done, once you have it, it's over, it's done, you no longer want it anymore. And so it's in its completeness. It doesn't really motivate you anymore.
Do you think that this discussion has been fundamentally continuous? since it started in philosophy with Plato and his discussion of arrows? Do you think that Plato would recognize what we call desire now? Or do you think that there's a break somewhere in that two millennia history? And a modern conception of desire is unrecognizable, or qualitatively different than say, what the classical Greeks had in mind?
Gosh, I don't really know. I think that I think that the way many of us think about desire currently is influenced by Plato, but I don't know that Plato could recognize it. himself.
One of the things I talk about with my students is how the categories of homosexuality that we're used to don't really fit in the Greek world, because men who identified as heterosexual and had wives also had male lovers and women had female lovers, and that the strict sort of regulation of identification that even now the new generation is is really focused on was not attended to in that way. So do you think that if the objects of desire are different, that desire can be different? Or do you think that what we're calling desire now is separate from what we're pursuing? I don't know if that question makes sense. It's a bit abstract. But, um, I'll take a shot.
Well, I guess I'm trying to reframe the question, because I think there are a lot of things in it. But one thing I can say is that I don't think the ancient Greeks really had a notion of one's object of desire, defining one's identity, so that my desire for something didn't make me a certain type of person. So, you know, you might say, Well, I'm a woman who desires women. Now I know who I am, I am a lesbian. I have I have figured out myself, I don't think that that was a part of the ancient Greek, you know, worldview. Like right now, I might say, well, I desire a new pair of shoes. I'm a shoe sexual, you know, or like, my daughter and I, we made a joke the other day, we have a little dog who likes to help the pillows around the house. So we have decided he's a pillow sexual. Like that's just not a category that exists. And I think for the ancient Greeks, sexual identity wasn't what it is for us today. So in some ways, it's it's a difficult question to answer because the framing I don't think really makes sense for the ancient Greeks.
I think that's a great answer, because it really illustrates what some of the central debates are now with sexuality, which is the categorization and the labeling and, and the what community Do you find yourself a part of and where the stigma fits in? And I think you're right, that that that kind of thing wasn't in the Greek mind. But it it, it helps us understand where we are, which then leads me to, I mean, this is a sort of sideways way of ask this question. But one of the classical ways that in the last couple 100 years, we have sort of identified women's sexuality as Madonna versus whore right, the Holy Mother versus the Puritans. Sexual creature, your book before you publish the anthology on sex and love was about motherhood. There are going to be some people who see that shift as unnatural as going from focusing on philosophy of motherhood to philosophy of sex. Do you think that that's a fair way? I mean, obviously, motherhood is the consequences of sex, right? But, but um, in your work, do you? Do you come head to head with the Madonna whore complex? Or is that just something that that it doesn't concern you?
I mean, I, of course, I have to laugh a little bit, because as you said, motherhood does sometimes have to do with sex. Certainly. I come, I come across the Madonna whore complex, I guess most often with teaching. And, you know, as a professor talking about sex to students, or in front of colleagues, some of who have been my mentors. There's a bit of self consciousness, I feel in talking about it as though it's unprofessional to talk about sex, even if this is a legitimate area, philosophical research. But I think a lot of other feminists have certainly dealt with this really well. And I'm grateful to them for working on it ahead of me. But certainly it is a it is an ongoing battle, too. And something that needs to be faced and confronted. I'll be interested to see if young women these days feel like they're confronting it. I mean, certainly, they're still dealing with the same double standards that are, you know, a part of the Madonna whore complex. There's no doubt about that.
One of my favorite podcasts other than this one, of course, is called sex with strangers. And they have an episode where they interview sex researchers and one of the ongoing complaints of sex researchers is that they say that sex research is really marginalized, that it's not valued, that it's it's it's it's not real research. It's not, you know, trying to cure cancer or something like this, that, that there's it's just lower on on the hierarchy. Do you find that to be the case, with philosophy of sex. We had Daniel de Souza on a few months ago, where she talked about philosophy of motherhood. And one of the points that that she made was that she read almost nothing about motherhood in the history of philosophy, and she was really surprised how little of that discussion took place. Is that is that the same thing? I mean, do you find that philosophy of sexes is belittled or dismissed as as as lesser philosophy? or or or is it on an equal playing field?
Yet again, I mean, listen, the way I do philosophy is that some problem bothers me or I have some question. And like, Danielle, I look for books about it. And then maybe, occasionally, I get frustrated, and I say, Why the heck isn't anybody writing about this? This is so interesting, this is so compelling. And like her, I couldn't find really anything about motherhood. And so, in graduate school, myself, and a few other students organized a conference on motherhood, and it's my knowledge, it was one of the first philosophy conferences on motherhood. And we really had to stretch and strain to find people to come and talk about motherhood. Now, it's, it's kind of an exploding field. It wasn't so much the case with philosophy of sex and love. There were people talking about it. But the manner of speaking of it was just not as compelling to me. I wanted to see people talk about the ambiguity of it about how confusing It is about all the dissonance that comes up around it. I didn't want to read things where people told me Okay, this is right. And this is wrong. I wanted people to genuinely be engaging with how uncertain to how uncertain it is, with how many unresolved questions there are, with how those unresolved questions bring you to yet more unresolved questions. And so I think that that sort of philosophizing about sex and about love is what I don't see enough of which I'm starting to see more of, and that that's what gratifies me. So it's not that it hasn't been talked about. It's just, it hasn't been talked about in the ways that I find most interesting enough.
You did something in the answer that that that I noticed that was sort of different. than what I did I keep talking about philosophy of sex. And you refer to philosophy of sex and love. There's there's a parallel, I do political philosophy but but often people do social and political philosophy. How much pressure is there to talk about sex and love in the same sentence? I mean, historically, certainly in in Christian mores and, and Islamic mores. sex outside of a love context is much more questionable, often sinful. Does that same stigma permeate and so philosophy of sex has to be couched in philosophy of love as well? Or is it just a matter of convenience, or a matter of habit that these two things get categorized as a single sub discipline?
So forgive me, jack, I'm gonna be a real philosopher here. I'm gonna, I'm going to answer the question that I want to answer. Okay.
To me, there's, there's an aesthetic to it. For me, it's the interesting question. And I mean that when I say aesthetic, I also have an ethical judgment here. Like, the interesting questions. To me, that's what drives me. And I think, when I'm asking questions about sex and love in an intertwined way, that's the most interesting to me, because I think I can ask questions about sex and love separately, but I think it's much more messy, to ask them together. Um, and so I think it's much more interesting when it's more messy, and so I'm not as concerned with what other people are pressuring, you know, or expecting as I am with what's interesting, and so that's why I'm motivated to talk about sex and love together. So that is not the question you asked me, but it's the question I like,
okay, I read that, that's fair enough. And and, and, and I and I want to ask, before we take a break, how much of a sense of humor Do you have to have to do this stuff? And I'll tell you why I'm asking this. Because when you said, you know, the philosophy is more interesting when it's messy, right? My head went, well, you know, so sex, right? But as as up as a professor, right, I mean, College is a place of tremendous sexuality and sexual exploration, but but to be a professor, one has to really contain one sexuality, one has to have very, very strict boundaries. The professoriate is actually a fairly a sexual profession, despite the sort of legends of affairs and things like that. Do you have to be on guard for that sort of transgression when you do this stuff? Or can you have the kind of sense of humor that I tend to have where you're looking for puns and you're looking for innuendos, and you're looking for the things that that make the inquiry a bit a bit more playful, even if it pushes some of those boundaries?
Yes, to all of it, I think you need to have a sense of humor. And you also need to be extraordinarily sensitive to who your audiences at any given moment. So here I am talking to you. I'm not talking to my students, and I'm not in a class right now. And so I'm taking liberties that I wouldn't take with them. Um, so And also, we have to be extraordinarily sensitive to power dynamics, and to gender dynamics, and what's at stake and what's at stake for who and, and the difficult thing about is that we have, I mean, 99% of us have no training and how to do that at all. I'm fortunate I'm very fortunate, I think, in that I taught for a couple of years in Women's and Gender Studies before being set out there as a professor, and I learned a lot about power dynamics, and intersectionality, and all of those things. But as far as I know, in a traditional graduate school philosophy program, that's really not much of what you learn unless you pursue it on your own. And I think that for anybody who's interested in philosophy, of sex, philosophy, of love, philosophy, of mothering anything in that area, they should really be careful to educate themself, to know about power relations in the academy, and to learn to apply that in the way that they speak and in the way that they teach. And be aware of what context they're in when they do it. And then yes, humor Absolutely. But also with compassion and with, with kindness and with being gentle toward oneself and others, because there's so much trauma and harm that people can walk into a room with, and then also so much that can be perpetuated. So there's a lot to juggle and negotiate. And I think maybe that's why conversations in philosophy about it, maybe have been more cut and dried than I would have liked in the past, because it's safer. And maybe that's, maybe that's better for some people to do it that way.
When we get back from the break, I want to pull some of those threads I want to talk about gender roles and power relations and trauma and generosity. And I want to start with your work on seduction and the ways in which that can be ethical and unethical. But we'll get to that in just a second. You're listening to Sara Lee chance Adams and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions but Abdullah, we'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions at everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, I'm talking with Sara Lee chance Adams about the philosophy of sex, love and desire, and asking how this manifests itself both in professional philosophy, but also just in the questions that we need to ask. And these sorts of conversations often make me reflect on my own life, and I am 52 year old man, I turned 52, just a couple days ago, and I was raised it at a time in a context where I was expected to be the aggressor. And even though I was raised in sort of a complicated fashion in half the time in an all female household and half the time in all male household, there was an I tried very hard to be gentle and understanding and open minded, there's no way there is no way as a college male or, or a male in his his 20s in America, that I didn't hurt somebody that I didn't cross a boundary that I didn't just inadvertently cause someone harm. And I look back at that, and it breaks my heart. And there are of course, some people in my life that, that if I could go back to and have a conversation and, and reconcile with I would I would certainly do that. But it's the people that I not aware of. It's the people that I don't know, I hurt that really haunt me. And I suspect, most male identified people have that experience, I suspect, certainly most people and most men of my generation have that experience. And in part that's because of the legacy of what seduction is, and the legacy of how one is supposed to acquire, persuade, even manipulate other people to be sexual partners. And so I offer that Sara, as as anticipation of your discussion on seduction is hitting on people is making sexual advances is seduction, always an aggressive act? And if it isn't, how do we shed the legacy of the power relations as you talked about it, that it carries with it?
So I want to say I think that's a great place to start. And I want to add that I think that individuals who identify as male and who have for a long time aren't the only ones who need to think about that. At some points in my life, I've had pause to think of that as well. And I think it has to do with the exact same gender dynamics that you're referring to. We think of men as the aggressors. And the other part of that as we think of men as invulnerable, so they aren't able to be hurt, and they always want sex. And you know, this is the stereotype of course, and it's not true. And so what can follow from that is the belief that you know, you can't rape the willing like A man can never be harmed sexually. So people have There is also acts of sexual aggression toward men, that, you know, others may perpetrate without realizing it, as you say, because they think that men are always supposed to want it. And so men sometimes feel like they aren't allowed to say no for that reason. So there's, there's more ways to think about guilt. In this regard,
for just a second, I apologize. But yesterday, I was reading a Reddit thread, where someone asked, What's the worst thing about being a man, and that over and over and over and over again, the men who responded, presumably the men who responded said, I feel very alone, no one cares about my emotions, people think that I am just as you say, indestructible and, and people don't attend to my inner life. So I mean, I just want to I want to underscore what you just said, because in my experience, but certainly as the internet is describing it, this is a very, very, very common experience that men have that, that their emotional life is just not regarded as, as worth attending to at all.
Right? And, you know, it's, it's quite possible that, as you say, you may have harmed someone without knowing it, it's quite possible that I may have harmed a man without knowing it in a similar fashion. And if that if I'm with a man and getting mugged, you know, if I jump behind him, you know, is he not as capable of, you know, being wounded as I am? Of course. So I think the gender binary hurts us all. And, and so it's important to think about it in those terms. So can you bring me back to the show? Question?
Sure. So the question is about your, your the paper that you're writing now, in your work on seduction? How do we talk about seduction, where we can first acknowledge the the gender roles and the power relations that we have now, and then shift to a different model, or is seduction inherently corrupt, because it involves making someone convinced they want to do something they don't really want to do.
So I think at its best, seduction entails a mutual vulnerability, where both people are opening themselves up to having their worldview and their self concept challenged. And ideally, it's in a playful manner, in which both people have some sense of control, and some sense of openness. And so there's, there's an ambiguity that's happening on both ends of it, where there's an uncertainty on both ends, but a playful uncertainty, where power is both shared and also yielded. So it's a very, it's a difficult thing to describe. And it's very much in opposition to the sense that one person is in control and trying to deceive and persuade the other. You
offer in your paper, the model of seduction that you want to challenge and you talk about the pickup artist, can you talk a little bit about that what's objectionable about that and where philosophy grows out of that?
Well, so just to be clear, the pickup artists are a self identified group of people. They're not a group that I'm identifying. For sure. There's a great massive body of literature and videos online, and there's the VH one TV show called the pickup artists and so on. And so they are a group of coaches, their self identified male, heterosexuals, who are attempting to pick up seduce sleep with as many women conventionally attractive in their, in their view, as many as they can. And their their philosophy is very much a hetero normative. You know, their views are, women are withholding sex, and it's a means to women use that for power. And so this game is already set up. And they're trying to teach the rules of this game that's pre established to other men so that these men can win win at this game. So they're teaching them the way to outsmart and get the prize, which is to have sex or in some cases, relationships with women. And this involves deception involves oftentimes preying on the insecurities of women tapping into their traumas, sometimes creating new trauma for them buying, confusing them, rushing them into acts that maybe they normally wouldn't want to rush into. So there's there's a lot of tips and strategies that they provide for making this happen. So that's the group that I'm talking about. And the rest of your question.
So the question then becomes, there are going to be listeners who think that sexuality in general can't be divorced from the idea of predator and prey, that there is always going to be someone who was trying to win their goal. And they're going to find the target of that. And sometimes, you know, and for some of these people, feminism will mean Well, okay, women can be the predator as well as prey, right? That's what equality means. What's wrong with that? I mean, what's wrong with the idea? That sex because it's our, let's say, our most animalistic instinct is modeled on the natural kingdom. And there's the attacker in the attack the the, the the, I don't know that, you know, the, the predator and the prey? I don't need more synonyms there. What's wrong with that? I'm assuming something is, and and how do we? How do we get past it?
Well, I mean, there's so many things wrong with it, I almost don't know where to start. But one of them is that the animal kingdom isn't like that entirely. I mean, animals have many ways of having sex. They aren't, I mean, predator, and prey usually has to do with two different species, first of all, consuming each other. When we're talking about sex, we're not necessarily talking about two different species, right? I mean, inherently, we aren't. You have been oboz, who are extremely sexually playful. And they do it in all sorts of circumstances. Between you know, the same sex partners, they do it for reconciliation, they do it for play, you know, you have creatures that are, we'll do it for reproduction, and do it for not reproduction. You have monogamous species, you have non monogamous species. So the animal kingdom is incredibly sexually diverse. So to say humans are like this, because it's natural is already to make a lot of assumptions about nature that aren't true. Second of all, it's just to its to make assumptions about human behavior that are very narrow. So anthropologically speaking, humans don't behave the same way in every culture, either. It's also to make a lot of insulting and sad assumptions and narrow assumptions about what human beings do. And so we see even in our own culture, that there are a lot of different kinds of sexual behavior. And usually, the assumption about nature is meant to restrict people, it's more of a normative statement than an actual empirical or factual one. So if we consult those who study human sexual behavior, we see it's actually incredibly diverse. So to say that, when humans are actually acting as predator and prey when they're being sexual, is is really to say, that's how they should be. It's not saying that's how they are because those who study it, they say that that's not how we are, that we act to know in a wide variety of ways, sexually speaking, as humans,
does the idea of should have a place in the philosophy and sex and love and I want to bracket for a second, the question of consent, although obviously that's a tremendous, tremendously important question. Is there a should in the sense of how people should engage in sex, what they should desire? what they should consider healthy or unhealthy? Or is it just the things are so diverse, that this becomes a personal preference or maybe a cultural preference? What What is the role of normativity of should newness in sex and love?
Yeah, I guess for me when it comes to asking questions about that, I think that we can look at human being And as diverse as we are, there are also things that help us to flourish and things that can destroy us. And so, sex with children, it destroys, it destroys the child, it's not good for them. Things like that forcing, you know, sex can be used to oppress, we've seen that. I mean, it's well documented, and it's well studied. So I don't think that we really have to look that far or that deeply, to find things that shouldn't be done.
Dan Savage refers to what he calls the campsite rule, that a relationship is good when the other person is better off because you were with them, it's modeled off the idea that when you go to a campsite, it should it should be in better condition when you start and he first developed the camp, the campsite rule, when he had questions of relationships with significant different age, especially, he was originally talking about with gay men who would date much younger men that that if the the younger man was much better off, when the relationship was over, it was a good and moral relationship. And then he extended it, that that sounds a lot like what you're talking about that that anything that destroys anything that undermines anything that lessens a partner or partners, is something you shouldn't do. But as long as there's thriving, there's, there's betterment, that that that makes, that that makes that that makes the sexual behavior moral. So does that mean that sex is a consequentialist? A mean to an ends? Not in a good in itself? Or is there a standard of should that looks at sex? For I don't know, just the value of the sexual act itself, as opposed to the effect it has on people? Again, I don't know that that's the best way of asking the question. But can you talk normatively about sex while thinking about sex in and of itself?
I think I do like Dan savages way of putting it, I tend to think about the terms of Aristotle, which is, you know, what, what causes a human being to flourish, what does a human being need and what helps them to be their better, best version of themselves. And in any human relationship, we can make each other better, or we can make each other worse. And we don't always know right away immediately, if that's happening. But we certainly can know it given time, and we often know it right away. And if we're helping each other, be better. And we agree that we're helping each other be better, then it's, it's for the good. And if we aren't, then it's for the worse, and it shouldn't be happening. I mean, we need to eat. And not all food is good for us. And some of us really need sex and not all sex is good for us. What's going to make us healthier, what's going to make us more robust and stronger and smarter and more capable of doing the things that have value to us. And some sex will do that and some sex will destroy us.
I want to bounce back to a word you used in an earlier answer and a word that I used in my monologue and it's something that academics are very, very familiar with, but but not all of our listeners will be in that's this notion of heteronormativity what what it means for something to be heteronormative and and I say that in part because I do have students frequently, who use that word, a little snidely judge mentally, the way that the students who were talking in my ear, you know, use the word capitalism that it's it's an older generational way of of oppression. I wonder if you talk a little bit about what you understand the term heteronormative to mean, and how it fits into the debate of philosophy of sex in this in our modern world in our modern context, what is heteronormative normativity? Why is it important? And how should we feel about it?
I guess I I tend to feel the way your students do I feel a little snide about it. To me, heteronormativity is about a narrowing of a narrow view of what's possible for human beings. So it has this view of a human being that is born. A human being is born with a certain kind of body, a certain kind of biology. That's a certain genetics that yield a certain bodily effect. anatomy in a certain kind of brain and a certain kind of hormones, and that that set of biological factors yields a gender, and that gender is strictly either male, or female. And depending on whether one is male or female, that lends itself to a certain set of personality characteristics and proclivities that we're familiar with. So if one is male, one is aggressive, and rational, and maybe domineering. And if one is female, one is feminine, and nurturing, and all the set of qualities that we know. So essentially, another term that goes with that as they are along the gender binary. And then if one is male, and masculine, then one is attracted to the female or feminine. And if one is female, or feminine, one is attracted to the male and masculine. And so that's the hetero Part one is heterosexual. And so the normative part is also the part that says, Well, this is what's correct. So not only is it natural, but it's the correct way to be. So it's a set of values. And it's also a set of beliefs about what is natural and what is normal. And so the reason it, your some of your students take it with derision is because they think it's false. Both that it's false empirically, it's it's not true, that this is the way things always are, but also that it's not always the best way for things to be
if you abandon the notion of hetero normativity, and you allow for a much more flexible conception of what people are attracted to and their behavior does the idea of transgression disappear I mean, there's there's a lot of people who I'll say think hetero normatively, but who get off on who find pleasure in transgressing. And so a man who identifies as a man but likes to cross dress or likes to be pegged. Have someone use a strap on for anal penetration? And, and that, and that it's not simply the act that turns them on, but it's the act of breaking social norms and, and crossing lines that maybe they would be embarrassed to admit that they were doing once you walk away from the heteronormative context? Do you lose the the erotic power of of transgression, or just transgression come from a different place?
That's a really good question. I'm not really sure because we don't, at least here now we still have the norms. And yet, it seems to me that a lot of the people well, I don't know, I feel like we just can't say because the norms are still there. Even though the a lot of the people who enjoy what we might call transgressive acts are are often people who are comfortable in questioning the norms, they're still subject to the the fact that on a wider societal view, they would still be considered transgressive. So I don't know if we're in a place where we know whether or not that would be the case. Is
Is there a, for lack of a better term and take this with a grain of salt? inherent value in transgression? I know that in a democracy, for example, rebellion has a certain moral power. And with raising a child, you really don't want your child to be too obedient, even though as a parent, sometimes you think you do. Um, and there is a sense that standing up from the crowd, being your own person pushing the boundaries of what's normal, is part of what it means to be a full person and part of what it means to make a society or even humanity progress. Do you think that transgression can play that same role that transgression is something we might want to encourage with in sexuality? Or do you think the transgressive is largely reactive and more about just the erotic power of that some people find and breaking the rules?
I guess I off the top of my head, I can't think of something inherently value about transgression. I mean, it seems to me that, at least initially, it might arise out of a culture or it may be as a cultural obsession in a culture that considers itself to be restrictive. Yeah, perhaps in reaction to a culture that considers itself restrictive, but then it almost seems like we're sort of obsessed with talking about it, because it isn't. I don't know, there's a food coding idea there, but I'm forgetting what it is. Do you know what I'm talking about?
I think so. I mean, is
it the discursive hypothesis? Is that what it is, I that
makes sense to me that that the existence of the rules create the transgression, and that insofar as the rules become an again, this isn't the ideal language more permissive or more inclusive, the idea of transgression is going to be diminished. And so if we, if we live in a purely inclusive world, then there can be no concept of transgression? Is that a goal? is a goal to be in a purely inclusive world? I don't think Foucault would would think so. But in your work with with sex and love, is inclusivity a value that is worth pursuing?
Well, not complete inclusivity. I mean, like I said, I think that things that help people plot, thrive and flourish are just fine, you know, but that includes a lot. I don't I don't I guess I don't see. I guess I don't really? I don't know, I'm sorry, I don't think I have that. Anything very interesting to say about it, because I don't find prohibition and transgression to be a very I don't know. I guess it's not it's not really, it's not really either here nor there to me, as long as people are not hurting each other.
I think that's, I mean, I think it's a really interesting, sort of road, a dead end, for lack of a better term, because I think that that, no, and I'm trying to figure out how to say what I want to say, um, if the goal is flourishing, and if the goal is creating moral sexuality, then how can immorality have a value and transgression implies breaking that immorality? Do you think? Um,
alright, let's look, morality is more about custom, and what's considered acceptable socially, and I know people define these things differently. But I guess I don't, I don't care about that so much as I do care about the good life and what causes us to flourish. And I feel like those can be pretty different topics.
That's wonderful that that that's a really nice pivot, because, you know, one on one, you know, anyone who teaches intro to ethics, will talk to their students about the distinction between an act based ethics that devalues you know, is this act moral either because of the intentions or the consequences as opposed to a more Aristotelian virtue ethic kind of approach that talks about not the act, but the flourishing and the happiness and the goodness and so. So with that pivot? It seems like what your work suggests and what you're suggesting in this conversation is, it's wrong to ask, is sodomy moral? It's wrong to ask is this particular particular sexual act or behavior or desire? ethical, rather, the question is, are the participants happy? Are the participants flourishing? Are the participants good? And so sexuality in your frame is is is a much larger, more contextual, more fluid notion than just the traditional sort of, we are going to outlaw this act and we're going to allow this act is that is that a fair depiction?
That is yes. Thank you for expressing it. For me. That's That's exactly it. And it helps it helps to explain why I felt it was so important that we needed another anthology on philosophy of sex and love because a lot of when I was looking for things to read and assign for a class like that, I found these articles on things Like, they'd have some controversy, like, is homosexuality, okay? And I was like, Yes, it is. Why are we talking about this? Like, I that's not a question I really want to discuss, like, I don't even want to frame questions that way. Like, to me that's, it's not interesting. It's not like, not only is it not like it's not ethical to even ask that in my in my view like I would be happy to discuss why I don't think that's an ethical question. But I don't I just don't even think it's worth asking that kind of question. I think it's, it's worth asking what kinds of questions are worth asking when it comes to the philosophy of sex, but asking which acts are okay, I mean, I think it's pretty clear that there are some that aren't. And there's a whole bunch that are just fine. But it has to do with are these life affirming, you know, in an Aristotelian way, in a Nietzschean way, you know, are we living more? Are we strengthening ourselves? are we celebrating life? Or are we diminishing it? Are we oppressing others? Are we crushing their will to live? Are we being nihilists when we do this? That's really the way that I look at it more so than is this morally wrong, you know, to be pegged? Like, who cares? I don't, you know, to me, I don't I don't get why people care about that sort of thing.
You know, it's interesting to see the way that I think my students have have followed that path as well. I taught intro to ethics. I mean, my entire career, I was still teaching it for a long time. I taught it as a class and I and I moved towards a thread of sexual ethics, we read a book, which is now obsolete in the same way, that thing gonna tell you is a called female chauvinist pigs by Ariel Levy, who is a wonderful writer on gender. And at the end, their paper was his consent, the primary consideration of ethics, and they were supposed to talk about it. And I showed the film, The bird cage, the American version of it, and and one of the things I said to them was, you know, you have to talk about gay marriage. And if you are going to criticize gay marriage, you have to suggest that the characters in the movie, were not in essence married, even though they weren't legally married. And what happened probably about four or five years ago, is it stopping controversial? I just couldn't use that question anymore. No one cared. There were always you know, one or two students who had biblical objections. But other than that, there was nothing interesting about it, there was nothing compelling about it, no one could get worked up about it. And it felt again, not just like the controversy was resolved. But like, all of a sudden, it was the wrong set of questions. And yeah, I wonder if you talk a little bit about the way the anthology establishes an agenda for the questions. What questions Did you see as, as coming out of your discussion with the authors and coming out of, of the writers and the reviewers? Is there a different agenda? For the contemporary? Yeah. Or let me rephrase that? Because obviously, there is, what agenda Do you see the anthology setting for the future of philosophy and sex and love?
That's a great question. You know, for a long time, we knew what we were looking for, but we really couldn't. And when we selected the essays, we knew which ones were right. And we had the hardest time explaining it to the publishers when we were coming up with the idea, or when we were putting it together, and coming up with a title and writing the introduction showing what it was that we were doing. And ultimately, I guess, we knew that we wanted something interdisciplinary. So we felt like for us philosophers, really, it was important to see them engaged with other other disciplines and the ways in which we could draw from them in thinking about our questions. So that was really important. So you see in the anthology, there's, there's engagement with filmmaking with bio, medical research, you see political research in there. All of that seemed really relevant. So not just thinking about the questions in the abstract, but bringing it into conversation with even therapy, and so definitely not just taking the hypothetical. That was really key to us. And I feel that way about a lot of the other philosophical work that I do, in part, not just to ground the philosophy, but to make sure that that we're not just talking to ourselves. So we knew that was something that was really important. But also to be looking at questions and problems, that we're not trying to resolve questions, but to open up more questions and to show greater ambiguity. So let's see if I can think of an example. I'm trying to think of a specific one. Maybe there's one of your favorites we could talk about.
In a minute, I want to talk about AI, there is something that I want to talk about, but I don't think it answers the question. So if you can't think of anything at the moment, that's that's that's perfectly fine. But I'm wondering, but but I don't want to answer that question for you. Or or give. Okay, I can think of one point something. Yeah.
So Chiara pssc, Chapter loving, romantic living room. So this is a question about that this chapter three, it's about how do we define love? So it sounds like this is going to have a definitive answer. But really, ultimately, the point is that we don't define love within a limited way. There are certain characteristics that it has, but that the openness of that, leaving it open as part of the point. And I think that a lot of the articles have that tone. So also the article by quill kukula, who's writing as Rebecca kukula at the time, is about feminine sexuality, what is feminine sexuality? How do we understand feminine desire, there's a similar kind of conclusion on conclusion, which is that the more we try to pin it down, the less we really get what it is. Similarly, Louis, rupprecht, article on arrows, what is arrows, what is, we might also say, what is desire, the more we try to narrow down what it is, the less we really get it. So there's a less analytic bent to the essays, then there is an opening up in an ambiguity and looking at the in between this, which I think is really appropriate for pieces on love and sex that don't have to do with the individual. But what happens in between people, and what happens in the space in between even oneself.
I really like the way that your description of of the agenda mirrors your earlier comments about the nature of desire, right? That it isn't resolved, that it builds on itself, that it's unending, that it adds more rather than, than then ends. And so, you know, in a certain sense, or at least analogously, the way you're describing it suggests that the philosophy of sex creates a desire for more philosophy of sex, right, that and philosophy of love. And that if you were to resolve the questions, or attempt to resolve the questions, you would be working against yourself in the project. And I think that there's, there's a therapeutic role in the contemporary discussion of sexuality, especially younger generations and the internet generation, and that, that therapy helps liberate us from some of the stigma, stigma and heteronormativity that we talked about earlier. Because the, the, the, the thing that that really stuck with me was, um, Amy, and I mentioned this to you in our in our preparatory material, Amy Taylor's essay talking about Michael, who has cancer treatment, and he can't have an erection and so he uses an aide he uses a dildo to have penetrative sex. And there's an analogy that the dildo takes the role of a cane as a blind person would have a cane to help them walk. And what strikes me about that analogy is that it completely abandons or or I should say, I'm jettisons the stuff that you were objecting to before the act based ethics, the the notion of transgression. It's not about transgression. A blind person's cane isn't about transgression. It's about About flourishing, it's it plays a therapeutic role it plays in enabling role. Do you think that? Um, do you think that a philosophy on sex and love is intertwined with therapy? And do you think that the sort of the new openness to toy toys and other apparatus is an enlarging of the human experience? I mean, that's, I feel like that's a loaded question. But yeah, I mean, you know, a leading question, but but but you know, where I'm going with this? I mean, to what extent does that model of therapy of assistance of helping people reach their goals? To what extent does that permeate the entire discussion of philosophy of sex and love? Or is that just is, am I do you see it as more narrow than that I'm suggesting,
I guess a for me, philosophy is very therapeutic. But I also have a background in therapy as a trained therapist. So you know, I can't speak for all philosophers on that, because it speaks so directly to, to the way I do philosophy and what it means to me. And I think this essay in particular that you're speaking of, it's called, being through love the collaborative construction of a sexual body. And for Michael, it is very therapeutic to use this dildo with his female partner, to have new experiences of his body sexual experiences that are even better than he's ever had before. He lost the ability to have erections with his his own penis, now he's having erections with a prosthetic penis, we could call it, a strap on dildo at the suggestion of a lesbian friend of his, he's now having the best sex of his life. And it's so unexpected that this is happening. And we were speaking of heteronormativity, before, this is completely non heteronormative. Right, that this, that this should be the case? And I'm sorry, I'm forgetting your initial question again?
Well, the the question, the question was really just the role of therapy and all of this, and whether whether therapy is an expansive filter, that we can look at the philosophy of sex and love through, or whether it's narrower than that, and you and you seem to be suggesting, you know, through your own experience, and your own history, that that you see at present at all, always, and, and what strikes me is, again, the podcasts that, that I listened to the conversations I've had, over and over again, when you do something that involves philosophy of sex, or talking about the diverse sexual behaviors, you get people who email or tell you, you know, this was really important. This helped me understand myself, This helped me get over some neurotic resistance to something that I knew was good for me. And there is something tremendously healing about the philosophy of sex and love. And certainly the way that you're doing it in the anthology, that for lack of a better term is incredibly Noble. That, that that takes the reader to a place that then makes them better off. So I guess, I guess the last question I want to ask because we're running out of time is how much of this is an academic? purely for inquiry purposes, project for you, you know, people have to get tenure, people have to get promotion, people want to go to conferences, right? How much of it? Is it about the inquiry? And how much of these questions are about contributing to the world, healing the reader making a healthier sexuality because I know that there are a lot of academics and philosophers in particular, who are very, very happy being in the ivory tower. And we're very, very happy not being relevant to the larger discussion. But there are also lots of philosophers myself included, hence this radio show who thinks that they're contributing? Do you think that you And do you think that the authors in the anthology see themselves as contributing to the larger cultural and world and healing conversation or do you think that that that folks have a much more narrow and academic interest not suggesting one is inherently better than the other
you know, I my philosophical upbringing was Very, it's To me, it's always been about the philosophy and the people involved. And the ideas involved. My first job out of graduate school, I was not necessary for me to publish to get tenure. And it was very teaching intensive. And I did it because I needed these books to exist. And so I never felt like I had to write a certain way, I never felt like I had to write about something that would appeal to the Academy. And so I feel very fortunate that I could just write how I wanted and write what I thought was important and would reach people. And that would make a difference to them. And so that's what I've done. And somehow I was fortunate enough to be rewarded for that, that people liked what I was doing. And so now I get to keep doing that. And, you know, I just, I feel very grateful. But to me, it's all about what seems important and what seems needed. And what I think actually the first few drafts of this, I had students read in philosophy of love and sex, my class, and I said, Hey, what do you think? What notes do you have for the authors? And so my undergraduates who were not even philosophy majors, they read these as works in progress. And we sent notes to the authors. And, you know, I said, this is relevant to you, what do you think needs to be added? And, and so it's always been about the people involved, and the exchange of ideas and trying to get at the truth. And, you know, really, the academic professional benefits have come with it. And I just amazed that those two things can sometimes come together and life. Wow, can't believe that happens. But I guess it does once in a while.
Where the students comments a distinctly different in content perspective, attitude, then yours and your colleagues? Or was there a continuity, that you felt that that despite age difference, or or, you know, time of life, that you were really participating in the same conversation? Because, you know, certainly as I get older, the way that my students experience the world, there are some things that that make perfect sense to me. And then there's some things that even though I understand where they're coming from, I can't, you know, it takes a lot of effort to enter into that perspective, do you think that you and the students were and your colleagues were in a similar place? Or do you think the students really brought something new and different and in intergenerational to the conversation?
I mean, I think they, they just got it, you know, I don't think they were. So have such a different mind. I really don't. I mean, they, they understood what they were reading, and their comments were valuable, and every one of their names is in the acknowledgments. Um, so yeah, I don't I don't see them as being so different from us. And I often think that philosophy is, it's, I don't think of it as an elitist activity, not the way that I do it. I don't think that I necessarily have the best insights, I just have more experience. And so we asked for their genuine feedback, and they gave it and I think the book is better because of it. And I think, in addition to that, you know, I think it was an important for experience for them to see that. They're, you know, they know how to philosophize? And as you know, and as I know, oftentimes it's it's the novice who has the most profound question that can knock our socks off, and we need them. And I didn't want to just tell them that I wanted to show them that by taking their questions seriously, and, and adding their insights into this book.
Well, I can't think of a better ending to the conversation because I certainly would sign my name to that and see this project as as as in sharing and that experience, and it's it's really wonderful to hear how that influenced the project. I will of course link to the book and your other books on our permanent page. The books super interesting and super relevant and helped me see and I think will help a lot of people see a lot of new things about philosophy of sex and love that they hadn't seen. So Sarah, thank you so much for joining us on why.
Thank you, jack.
You have been listening to Sarah a chance Adams and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions of everyday life I'll be back with a few more thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions about everyday life I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we've been talking with Sarah chance Adams about the philosophy of sex and love focusing in particular on her anthology with a bunch of other writers exploring the various nuances of new ideas about sex and love. What does it mean to have a new idea in philosophy, that's a complicated thing, because the newest ideas are always grounded on or a response to the long tradition. And of course, sex and love is maybe the longest tradition there is right? Human beings have always had sex, human beings have always loved and human beings have always made rules for that behavior. Although sometimes those rules feel almost evolutionary, or biologically grounded. For some reason. That's where the idea that the notions of sex and love can be objective in some sense. But we are in a new world. And we are exploring the discussion of sex in new ways, and we are having sex in ways that even if they're not new, are acknowledged in a very different, more public more accepting way. The philosophy is going to reflect that. And the anthology that she co edits is going to reflect that. And the questions that we ask are going to reflect that. And at the heart of this are two notions first, that sex and love help people flourish. And second, that discussions of sex and love and sex and love in itself can be therapeutic. Why, because those two things are two sides of the same coin. In order to flourish, we have to have therapy, in order to be better, we have to heal from our trauma, we have to walk past and come to closure in some sense, with both the wrongs that we've experienced, that we've been engaged in ourselves and that we suffered through. You can't flourish without therapy, and you can't have therapy without aiming for flourishing. And the idea that sex and love are essential parts of that, that not just reproduction, or not just strict, narrow definitions of proper sex, sex, but the idea that sexuality and that play, and that different versions of different behaviors are both therapeutic and elements of flourishing. I think that's the newest idea, at least for our contemporary world, right? Some of these ideas were present in the ancient cultures, right? Some of these ideas popped up and down at different cultures at different times in history. But in America, in 1950, in 1940, in 1960, we arrested people, for loving the wrong kind of person, we arrested people and punish them for engaging in the wrong act. We have to get past that. And in this sense, the best way to do that is to engage in a philosophical discussion that makes us healthier, that makes us happier. And that makes us more accepting. I love the fact that philosophy gives us a framework to talk about controversial, intimate and difficult issues. I just wish that we could all talk about sex easier, with more openness, and with more play. I hope we did some of that today. You've been listening to jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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