Why Sexual Morality Doesn’t Exist

His words, not mine.

Whilst I agree that all morality is contrived, Alan H. Goldman, Kenan Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, presents his position that sexual morality is not divorced from any morality. It’s not particularly a special case. I agree in principle, but his argument is lacking.


Sexual desire aims directly at the pleasure derived from physical contact

Alan H. Goldman

He states that ‘As other philosophers point out, pleasure is normally a byproduct of successfully doing things not aimed at pleasure directly, but this is not the case with sex. Sexual desire aims directly at the pleasure derived from physical contact. [The] desire for physical contact in other contexts, for example, contact sports, is not sexual because it has other motives (winning, exhibiting dominance, etc.), but sexual desire in itself has no other motive. It is not a desire to reproduce or to express love or other emotions, although sexual activity, like other activities, can express various emotions including love.’

Pleasure is normally a byproduct. 

Sure.

This is not the case with sex.

OK. Elaborate.

Sexual desire aims directly at … pleasure.

I'm still following.

Sexual desire in itself has no other motive, which is pleasure.

Damn. You lost me.

I might agree that pleasure (let’s ignore the fact that this is another weasel word) may be the motivation behind sexual desire, but we don’t really have means to determine motivation or intent, and we certainly can’t assess one attribute over another.

Power is everywhere because it comes from everywhere — Michel Foucault

Foucault may have argued that the motivation is power—perhaps each side is making their own power calculus. Given the state of current knowledge, this is not ascertainable. Prof Goldman may feel that pleasure is the motive; one may even argue that power yields pleasure. I’ll not traverse that rabbit hole.

Later, he asserts that ‘More controversial is whether any consensual sex between willing partners is wrong’. I won’t debate this position, but there is no good way to full assess consent.

I’ll outline a fairly stereotypical scenario—excuse me for opting for a heterosexual situation, but the pronouns are easier to track. Say a man and a woman have met in a social setting—perhaps they’ve been dating for some period—, and they ‘mutually’ decide to engage in sex. We’d call this exercising agency, two consenting adults.

But what of ulterior motives? Following the stereotype, perhaps he feels that he is conquering her, and she feels she is securing a stable mate; or perhaps they don’t feel this at all. What is the actual intent? Not to go full-on Freud, but are they playing out some latent urge? Is this just some deterministic eventuality. There’s really no way to tell. Any story I tell is as speculative as the next.

So, to end on a tangent, a significant problem underlying philosophy, psychology, and jurisprudence is the issue of intent. The term is bandied about on most cop shows and legal dramas, but it is another just another vapid notion that we accept as valid. Of course, if we dispense of the notion, our legal systems would just unravel.

Yet again we’ve reached a point where the only truth is rhetoric.

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