Monday, November 16, 2015

Sexual Liberty And Its Discontents

I was thinking recently about sex in the modern world, and particularly the particular rage and indignation that people have related to issues about sex. And I got thinking about how maybe, in unseen ways, some of this bad feeling has to do with deep and unrecognized value conflicts.

Specifically, I found myself wondering about the conflicts between sexual liberty, on the one hand, and sexual equality and justice on the other. All these values are, I think, things that people care about. But -- much more than I think is typically recognized -- these values don't always fit together. More of one often means less of the others.

When I talk about sexual "liberty" here, I'm not thinking of the manifestation of liberty that has to do specifically with LGBTQ rights. Actually I think that form of liberty doesn't create value conflicts.

What I'm talking about is the more general idea that everyone gets to craft their own vision of the sexual good life. If you're into monogamous marriage, do that. If you're into hook-up culture, do that. If you're into polyamory commitments, knock yourself out. If you don't want to have sex at all, that's fine too.

I would say in addition that an important component of sexual liberty is that everyone has a kind of unchallengeable right to decide when and with whom they want to have sex. You don't have to give a reason or justification. In a deep sense, it's your right to choose however you want.

As I've touched on before, if that's sexual liberty, then in some ways more sexual liberty means less sexual equality, in the sense that some people are going to have way more of it, and way more of the kind they want, than other people. Hot young women, rich status-y men, and mysteriously cool people are going to get lots, while a socially awkward 7-11 clerk may get nothing. There are going to be sexual winners and losers. There may even be, effectively, a sexual 1% and a sexual 99%.

Is that a bad thing? Is there a value of "sexual equality" that is thus transgressed? I think the answer is yes. If sex, and especially having the opportunity to have the kind of sex you want to have, with people you want to have it with, is one of the good things in life, then it's pretty sucky if some people don't get any of it. And it's even worse if the have-nots have to deal with the existence of the sexual equivalent of trust-fund children.

The idea of sexual justice might be a bit more multifaceted and complex, but I think one idea out there is that it seems especially egregious if people who are good, kind, and sexually generous turn out to be the ones not getting any sex and people who are unreciprocating assholes do great. It doesn't seem fair.

But sexual liberty does seem to lead to sexual injustice, because the reasons people find other people attractive are complex and mysterious. They often track aspects of ourselves we can take no credit for: looks, or status, or being charismatic. As is often wryly noted, sexual success itself makes people more sexually successful. The result is that there's this great thing in life, and whether you get a lot of it often has little to do with your generosity, or hard work, or other virtues.

As much as I love sexual liberty and wouldn't want any less of it, I think it has to be acknowledged that certain forms of social sexual constraints block some of these effects. When sex takes place only in monogamous marriages (gay or straight), there's a huge levelling off.

With respect to equality, in that context, most people get one or maybe a handful of sex partners. There isn't that sense of huge winners and losers. Plus there's a cascade effect. If everyone has to pair off, this removes the more attractive people from the pool of partners. So if you're one of the people less likely to be found attractive, there will be others around of your preferred sex/gender who might want to pair off with you.

With sexual justice, too, monogamous marriage means that you're only going to want to pair off with people you'll want to spend the rest of your life with: the ones you'll bring into your family, eat breakfast with, share bank accounts with. Of course in that context, all things being equal, good and generous persons will get more sex than self-centered jerks.

If this is at all on the right track, then I wonder if some of the indignation and unhappiness people feel around sex is related to these values conflicts. I'm sure you've heard heterosexual men complain bitterly about being a sexual have-not, and about women having sex with assholes instead of nice guys. It drives straight women crazy when men choose women who are young and good-looking.

Sometimes I feel like there's an attempt to explain what feels wrong about these things in terms of sexual "shoulds": people shouldn't be so shallow, they should want to have sex with these people, in these circumstances, they should have reasons for why they find certain people sexually attractive at certain times in certain contexts.

But for all kinds of reasons I find these shoulds of sex suspicious. Often they're presented as if they're moral truths. But to me they often feel like a sneaky end-run around sexual liberty, an ad hoc way of moralizing to get an end result that seems right.

Why not just acknowledge that, as so often in life, there are trade-offs? Then maybe we can talk about other ways to increase sexual equality and justice, ones that don't require a return to ubiquitous monogamous marriage and don't require the ad hoc moralizing either.


Lisa said...

Interesting idea. I wonder if the resentment people feel for getting less sex than others is much more complicated. You see it as a distributive problem. People want sex, everyone is free to have sex with whomever they want and so they are somehow resenting the freedom of others to reject them.

There are two things though (1) the 'wants' are not brute or basic. Yes, evolutionary psychologists tell us they are but they are more likely nested with a social organization and hierarchy. Perhaps people are not aware of this but they can sense when someone has an advantage that is due to an arbitrary social lottery--and many of the advantages are due to this lottery. If for men it is power and for women it is beauty that attracts then these are not just distributed by nature alone. (Youth, obviously, is absolutely distributed this way) But even then the feeling older women may have about the unfairness of becoming sexually undesirable is due to the fact that when they are young and beautiful, they have less power--but when they get older and potentially more powerful men don't desire them because there is not parity in the situation between men and women in terms of what makes them valuable to others.

I'm not saying this is an injustice anyone can remedy, just that these judgments and dissatisfactions lie on top of social structures and norms that may not be fair.

There's another interesting thing your essay here raises which is that people sometimes conflate different moral categories in their minds. So the idea 'I'm just as good as everyone else' can get conflated with the idea 'everyone should like me just as much.'

I don't even think it is sex per se that is the thing people want distributed in some cases. The sex is sometimes a stand in for social status or worth. I think this is particularly true for young men. In their social circles, their own status with other men is dependent on the women they can attract. So a woman's refusal comes at a great cost because it lessens their social value altogether.

lonelyphilosopher said...

(I'm not sure if I submitted this correctly the first time, so if this turns out to be a double submission, feel free to delete it.)

Thank you for this post. As someone who's been a sexual have-not for most of my life, I can't tell you how good it is to see an article that takes seriously the idea that the circumstance I and others like me face is something genuinely unfortunate. When people like me are mentioned in the media, it's almost always to be ridiculed or vilified. The malicious stereotypes here are myriad: man-child, basement-dweller, entitled Nice Guy, creepy misogynist, disgusting neckbeard, future school shooter, etc. Your post is the first I've come across in philosophy that not only acknowledges those of us who, for whatever reason, find ourselves chronically rejected in sex and romance, but treats us like human beings.

Rebecca Rapple said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AnonGrad said...

Very interesting post. The tension between sexual liberty and sexual equality is something I've thought about before, but haven't seen explored much in philosophy. Here are a few brief thoughts:

"I would say in addition that an important component of sexual liberty is that everyone has a kind of unchallengeable right to decide when and with whom they want to have sex. You don't have to give a reason or justification. In a deep sense, it's your right to choose however you want."

Strictly speaking, I agree with this. People have a right to make their own sexual choices. As I understand it, this amounts to saying that people ought not to be coercively prevented from choosing when and with whom they want to have sex. And they do not, strictly speaking, *have to* give a reason or justification. It's important to notice, though, that all this is consistent with holding that they nevertheless *should* have a reason or justification.

If I understand you correctly, you're skeptical that people should have a reason or justification for their sexual choices. I have in mind the part of the post where you write, "But for all kinds of reasons I find these shoulds of sex suspicious. Often they're presented as if they're moral truths. But to me they often feel like a sneaky end-run around sexual liberty, an ad hoc way of moralizing to get an end result that seems right." I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "a sneaky end-run around sexual liberty," though. If nothing else, it seems to me that one can accept both (1) the view that people ought to have a reason or justification for their sexual choices and (2) the view of sexual liberty described above. That is, one can think that, while people's sexual choices ought to have some sort of reason or justification, people should not be coercively prevented from making their own sexual choices (even if their sexual choices turn out to be unreasonable or unjustified). In this respect, one's view of sexual choices might well be analogous to one's view of all kinds of other choices people make (e.g., choices of whom and whom not to be friends with).

Joel said...

This is a brilliant thought for an article I enjoyed reading very much. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I would be extremely curious to know if the same dynamic is equally present for same-sex sex. I've never met a gay man who had the same feelings of resentment that are common among straight male sexual have-nots, but am very aware that there's no reason to suppose my experience is representative.

I think that this might reveal some interesting answers to some of the questions Lisa's comment poses...

wibbs said...

When I read this a week ago I wanted to comment, if only to say that I appreciated someone acknowledging that satisfying our sexual desires is easier for some people than others, and damned near impossible for a few. Certainly some people whose sex lives are lacking are doing it to themselves (haha) but just as certainly at times the striking differences between person A and person B's sex life have more to do with random good fortune than something that can be efforted away. And that's so even though effort almost always helps in that necessary but not sufficient sort of way.

So as someone whose random good fortune isn't all that fortunate, I felt a bit of validation being noticed without being blamed. Then my thoughts shifted to definitions; is satisfying sex about frequency or type or freedom or whatever, and that's obviously subject to individual preferences. Then I thought that under conditions of relatively less sexual freedom, there are still haves and have nots, at least on the extreme ends of the spectrum of satisfying sex. So does more liberty change things that much?

What I came away with is the thought that more liberty is likely better than some. As conditions change, people will respond. I'm male, and as long as women continue to make strides economically, the trend toward women having less incentive to see wealthy men as sexually appealing will continue while the ability of men to essentially purchase sex appeal will continue to diminish. Women will be free to choose partners based on other criteria, and men will be motivated to present and enhance those criteria in the ways women do, or be left behind. That's happening now.

Looking ahead, while it's oversimplified, where I live in the US we make it very emotionally expensive for women to be open about their sexuality. Assuming a heterosexual pair, birth control, safety, and reputation concerns are still way disproportionately and understandably held by women as opposed to men, which probably leads to way more men being openly interested in less committed kinds of pairings than women are. As a hopeful but possible mediating factor, chipping away at the reasons women who might not be interested in a fling with a guy will likely help more moderately attractive men than the men who are already getting lots of sex. Those very attractive men do disproportionately well when women pay a price for a dalliance. Lower that emotional price, and women might, and likely would be more open to offers that are appealing but which don't bowl them over on the surface of things. Lowering the emotional price by supporting reproductive rights and creating a cultural environment where women are safer physically and emotionally when being sexual is a big challenge, but it's worth pursuing whatever the outcome regarding any imbalances, and at least it's a possible part of a path to more balance for people willing to get on board.

So if sexual liberty is paired with continued and hopefully accelerated economic gains for women, and if we can get over our slut shaming ways, then women will have more sexual liberty and men who can adapt a little bit will likely also. I see the chance for a bunch of win-win, really.