What constitutes sexual perversion? This question has certainly been addressed time and again throughout history. Each time the general social attitude toward sexuality changes so does the answer. Some who argue from an unchangeable, dogmatic position have maintained their views – but the question remains, and even these institutions have amended their views to some degree. The sexual liberation of the sixties and seventies brought with it a new line of questioning. Sex was free again, or so the argument went. Now the question of just what is acceptable sex was compelled to the forefront of public discussion. Religious and political pundits have offered their views, so have many Philosophers. I will be discussing the arguments of two such Philosophers who wrote in the midst of the sexual liberation. Thomas Nagel and Robert Solomon have closely related arguments with some points of agreement and some in contention. I feel that Robert Solomon makes better use of the “sex as communication” metaphor that is present in both their arguments. Solomon presents an argument that, to me, is a good place to start, though I do not feel that either Nagel or Solomon has created an indisputable view of what constitutes sexual perversion.
Thomas Nagel establishes the “sex as communication” metaphor when he presents his own argument for what constitutes sexual perversion. Before he makes his case he offers what he calls the “skeptical argument”. This argument contends that sex is an appetite like any other, with a number of ways of being sated. None of these ways, as odd or irregular as they may seem, should be considered unnatural. Therefore, once something has been established as sexual, the question of whether or not it is natural, or perverse, no longer applies. This argument looks something like this:
-Appetites are all normal
-Sex is an appetite
-(Conclusion) All sex is normal
Nagel’s counter to this argument is simply that we can think of some appetites we would consider as being not normal. With this objection out of the way, Nagel proceeds to describe a hypothetical situation with Romeo and Juliet in a bar. Through a rather complicated back and fourth exchange the participants realize they are being observed with obvious desire flowing between the two, until as Nagel describes it, they are “saturated” with sexual desire. From this point we are to believe that the next natural step is intercourse. This sets up Nagel’s argument, that sex is a complete conversation between two persons:
-Sex is fundamentally a relation between persons
-(Conclusion) Sex is normally reciprocal
-Some sexual practices cut short relations between persons
-(Conclusion) Some sexual practices do not meet the requirements for normal sex
-(Conclusion) Some sexual experiences are perverse
Nagel offers some examples to clarify this position. Voyeurism, exhibitionism, sadism and masochism are, according to Nagel, incomplete forms of communication. Nagel addresses homosexuality, and concludes that using this argument one can hardly call homosexuality perverse, since two persons of the same sex can certainly have complete communication. But in this way he reinforces his early assertions about fetishism, bestiality, and sex with more than one pair of partners.
Nagel offers an interesting argument, and one that establishes fairly well what he considers to be perverse sexuality. However, certain questions are quickly raised in my mind. For one, Nagel makes no room for masturbation, unfortunately not addressing it at all. I say unfortunately because masturbation is so commonly called into question in the discussion of what constitutes sexual perversion. Nagel’s hypothetical situation is far too vague to truly establish an argument on. I wonder if there is any measure for how saturated with sexual desire one is? Also, as many have wondered, would any type of sexual expression between Romeo and Juliet have been acceptable. Nagel’s argument is critiqued more completely by Robert Solomon, who also offers an amended argument for what constitutes sexual perversion.
Solomon questions Nagel’s Romeo and Juliet scenario in much the same way I do. He adds another dimension to this critique, however, by adding that he flaws the “liberal American sexual mythology,” which he claims Nagel relies heavily upon. According to Solomon the liberal American sexual mythology claims that the essential aim of sex is enjoyment (orgasm), that sexual activity is private, and that all forms of sexual activity are equally valid. This is the mythos born of the sexual liberation of the sixties and seventies in America. It seems clear that Nagel believes the sexual act between Romeo and Juliet to be private, since he never discusses it. Also, since he is never explicit about the act it can be inferred that the type of act that occurred would be fine as long as it ended with enjoyment – the essential aim of sex. Solomon contends that there is much more to sex than orgasm. Relating it to the metaphor of conversation, he places emphasis on content rather than form. The satisfaction that comes from sexual acts has more depth than simple satisfaction with pleasure. If the only aim of sexual acts were orgasm, then Solomon wonders why anyone would bother with anything other than masturbation: since according to his research it allows the most enjoyable and intense orgasms. Solomon is quick to remind us that masturbation frequently involves imagined partners, fantasies, pornography, etc. He quips, “no masturbation, without representation”. This further supports the claim that there is more to sex acts than simply arriving at a pleasurable outcome. There is something more, something significant, about the content of the act itself. This leads to Solomon’s conclusions about what constitutes perverse sex. The greatest violation of communication is a lie claims Solomon; its analogue in the sex act might be fantasizing about someone else while you are with your lover, or acting a certain way just to receive sex. This is a tenuous position to arrive at, as it still leaves many acts in a grey area. Solomon agrees with Nagel on the issue of bestiality as well as fetishism. However, after reading both arguments I fail to see how fetishism is linked with broken communication. If a fetish enhances the communication between two lovers, then how is it seen as a perversion? Solomon addresses masturbation, and dismisses it from the perverse by relating it to a conversation with one’s self – amusing. Homosexuality as well, according to Solomon, can hardly be considered perverse by this model. The voyeur and exhibitionist are still seen as entertaining broken forms of communication; however, Solomon defends the sadist and masochist as perfectly capable of complete communication, with which I agree. The metaphor of sex as communication has been revised. Nagel’s focus on form falls short of Solomon’s focus on content, which makes a clearer case for just what constitutes sexual perversion.
The sex as communication metaphor is useful in forming a basis for evaluating sexuality, though I think there are still certain things that fall into grey areas. Are the stars of pornographic films perverse? Is the act between them a broken form of communication? It is complicated to apply this model to all sexual acts and find convincing results. I think that Solomon’s revision of Nagel’s argument is an applicable standard, though it will be up to the individual to decide when it comes to situations that escape the sex as communication metaphor. The concept of creating a standard for what is and is not perverse sexuality is problematic to me, for a number of reasons. Foremost is the question of who decides; and beyond that, though just as important, who will the decision apply to? Is it realistic for one society, one culture, to decide universally what will be considered normal sexual practice? I do not intend to foster a relativistic position, which would be just as troublesome. I certainly think that bestiality is sexually perverse, as well as incest, rape, and child molestation of any form. I realize that this is partially because of the culture I am a part of, but I would be comfortable with people observing these as perverse universally. Kantian ethics aside, I understand that some cultures will have completely different views on some of these acts and I find it difficult to make moral evaluations in those cases. I think sex acts involving defecation or urination are perverse, but one must acknowledge that these acts are not perverse when judged by the sex as communication metaphor – if they enhance the content of the communication. I think a standard can be established for what is acceptable sex, but depending on who forms the standard different acts will be admissible. The difficulty arises in deciding who shall have the privileged view, which culture or society will decide for the rest of the world if it is to be a universal standard? Is it even realistic to think a standard would be adopted universally? I hardly think so. Solomon and Nagel address a question that will never go away. Within societies there will always be a diversity of views on what is acceptable sex. It seems obvious that as the question is applied through time it focuses on different acts. While once we pondered the acceptability of non-missionary position intercourse, we now question the acceptability of homosexuality, foot fetishes and sadism-masochism. The standard changes over time as well. We are in the midst of another, albeit smaller scale, sexual liberation. The public view of homosexuality is changing, if not at least being challenged. To me, this is evidence that even if we establish a standard it may be ephemeral; though this does not dissuade me, or a number of other philosophers, moralists, and ethicists from doing so.
– Quincy Faircloth
Nagel, Thomas. From “Sexual Perversion.” Philosophy of Love and Sex.
Ed. Trevas, Zucker, and Borchert. NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997. 232-239.
Solomon, Robert. From “Sexual Paradigms.” Philosophy of Love and Sex.
Ed. Trevas, Zucker, and Borchert. NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997. 241-246.