Desire without objectification

For those embarassing abstraction leaks.

I’ve seen a few people link to the article Why sexual desire is objectifying – and hence morally wrong, and whilst it seems like it’s obviously bollocks, it seems worth talking about why.

My problem with the article isn’t that it addresses that something that’s a concern, namely, the dehumanisation of people in the name of desire, but that the worldview seems skewed, albeit in an interestingly western way.

Firstly, the article starts with the (almost explicit) assumption that the body, and what we call “selfhood” are separate:

Once desire becomes suspect, sex is never far behind. Kant implicitly acknowledged the unusual power of sexual urges and their capacity to divert us from doing what is right. He claimed that sex was particularly morally condemnable, because lust focuses on the body, not the agency, of those we sexually desire, and so reduces them to mere things. It makes us see the objects of our longing as just that ­– objects. In so doing, we see them as mere tools for our own satisfaction.

This dualism, the split of mind and body, usually known as “Cartesian” dualism, seems to have the same roots as the separation of the sacred and the profane in western culture. That what is valuable and beautiful about life is somehow separate from the mechanisms by which life happens, physically, biologically, etc.

Focusing on the body as an object, implies that the body is separate somehow, from selfhood, rather than the embodiment of another self, and the vehicle of experience, and so pleasure. Fundamentally, it assumes that the experience is of a 3rd person, rather than a second, an “it” as opposed to a “you”.

It is however absolutely and undeniably true, people don’t always relate to each other as persons with their own experiences, perceptions, &c, but view each other as merely objects to be used in a dehumanised manner. And more subtly, we can dehumanise someone whenever we reify our view of them, and treat the ideal as being a better guide to the person than the person themselves.

But there’s a snag. The capacity to reason is what makes people ends in themselves, worthy of moral respect, according to Kant. And what’s objectifying about sexual desire is its ability to numb a person to reason, both in themselves and in others.

I’d disagree on two fronts here, 1) that reason is what makes a person valuable, and 2) that sexual desire is always coupled with irrationality. They try to excuse the latter, with the rather awkward:

I’d object to the former by saying that any being with the capacity to experience beauty has inherent value; but it’s the kind of thing that deserves a carefully thought out treatment, so I’ll leave it there.

Is it possible to have sex without objectification? Of course. Prostitutes do it all the time. So do many long-term couples. They have sex with people whom they do not desire.

It’s totally true that strong strong emotions can fuck with your reason; but just at the same time, if your emotions are compromised, then rationality lacks a useful compass. As an example, in Antonio Damasio’s research, he found patients who had experienced brain injuries to the area that governed emotions, had immense difficulty making decisions.

Conversely, it’s entirely possible to experience intense emotion, but not be driven by them; although I’ll freely admit this might seem alien to most. For one, many of the later Buddhist schools developed practices that worked with strong emotions, rather than avoiding them as the earlier schools are reputed to. This usually meant that practitioners were better able to deal with whatever life throws at you, whether it be tragedy or the throes of passion. Being able to surf the waves of emotions, rather than being drowned by them, if you will.

And you could well argue that sex workers are more likely to view their clients as objects, in that their primary relationship is based around an exchange of services for money. But using that as a counterpoint seems almost like cheating.

Finally, it’d be a travesty that there aren’t huge problems with how people are dehumanised with sex and objectification, but a big reason part of why it’s difficult is that sex, relationships, emotions are generally categorisable, but they tend to get awfully nebulous and woolly around the edges. For a long time, sex was generally assumed to be only proper between a married man and woman, probably because that’s how children came about. But, it turns out, that men have sex with men, and women with women, and eventually people came to accept that consenting adults sometimes like to do things that seem weird, or even disgusting to others.

There are definitely approaches to life and relationship that view don’t treat the body as a rather odd, profane appendage to be managed, rather than celebrated. But a good start is to soften the I/it duality, what our basic understanding of who a person is mediated by bodies; our senses, and their expression. And importantly, remember that we’re both “you” in the others’ experience; not objects, but a pair of selves.