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.