Sexual Desire

One of the most popular readings I assigned this semester was “Sexual Desire”, by Chistopher Hamilton (“Sexual Desire: Some Philosophical Reflections”, Richmond Journal of Philosophy,Vol 7, Summer 2004). He is a lecturer at King’s College London. Since romances have a little something to do with sexual desire, I thought I would share a bit about it here.

Hamilton, by the way, who has strong research interests in the intersection of philosophy and literature, is also a “philosophy misery memoirist” whose latest book is Middle Age (Guardian review here). Hamilton was profiled last year in the Independent UK.

In this essay, Hamilton starts with what he considers “the most profound philosophical account of sexual desire”,  Jean-Paul Sartre’s.  In L’Être et le néant [Being and Nothingness], Sartre rejects the idea that sexual desire is just about pleasure. Normally sexual desire attaches itself to an object. Otherwise, masturbation would be as fun. Remember the scene in Sex and the City (Hot Child in the City, Season 3, Episode 15) when Charlotte finds husband Trey  — who has had trouble getting aroused — masturbating in the bathroom?

Later during a visit to the therapist…

Charlotte: He said he wasn’t a sexual person!
Trey: It wasn’t sexual! It was tension release. It helps me sleep.
Therapist: I understand. This may be difficult, Trey, but I want you to tell me specifically which magazine you were using.
Trey and Charlotte in unison: Juggs.
Therapist: All right. We can try and see this as a positive thing.
Charlotte: How? How is this a positive thing?
Therapist: Trey was masturbating to Juggs. At least we know he isn’t gay.
Trey: Excuse me, what exactly is the problem here? It was tension release, it had nothing to do with my wife.
Therapist: Interesting choice of words, Trey. Maybe that’s the problem. We have to find a way to integrate your wife into your sexual routine.
Trey: How are we supposed to do that?

Sartre would recognize a real problem here. Here’s how Hamilton summarizes Sartre’s account of sexual desire:

If I desire you, I do not desire your flesh. Rather, I desire you in your flesh. It is you I want to exist as flesh for me. I want to possess you, not as mere flesh, but through and as revealed in your flesh.

It may be important to be embodied to take a walk together (we need legs), but when we do that we are not interested in each other as embodied. Being desired in one’s flesh is a very intoxicating feeling. It “clogs our consciousness” by forcibly reminding us of our embodied state.

Sartre has a complicated account of consciousness and freedom. For him, what we desire is to capture the other’s freedom. But if we do that, it is no longer free. The caress just is the gaze or touch of the Other, reminding us of the other’s conscious existence, apart from ours, of his or her freedom. But we can never possess the other entirely. So sexual desire is doomed to frustration. Orgasm, far from being the ultimate fulfillment, functions as a reminder of this paradox.

But Hamilton, noting that all pleasures can be kind of frustrating, looks for another way to capture the paradoxical nature of sexual desire, a way that doesn’t depend on Sarte’s complex ontology. He suggests that:

in desiring a given individual, one also desires him or her as man or woman, as a representative of the male or the female sex. There accordingly seems to be a way in which what one wants in the sexual act is two things that one cannot have: one wants this individual man or woman and one wants all men or all women. That is, one wants all men or all women in and through this one individual. But this is impossible.

I see this language all the time in romance. References to maleness, femaleness, the adjectives “masculine” or “feminine”, etc.

Hamilton is interested in capturing the sense in which sex can be deeply significant, without at the same time making casual sex some kind of moral error. He rejects other philosophical accounts that equate sex with pleasure, such as Igor Primoratz’s, not only because they can’t capture this deeper significance but also because they imply that non-pleasurable sex isn’t actually sex:

Indeed, it seems to be the case that many people long for their sexual desire to be provided with deeper forms of expression. But some accounts of sexual desire do not seem to be able to make sense of this. One such is that provided by Igor Primoratz, who has argued that sexual desire ‘is sufficiently defined as the desire for certain bodily pleasures, period’.* The reason that such an account of sexual desire makes it hard to see how such desire is capable of finding deeper forms of expression in human life is that it assimilates sexual desire to something like the desire to scratch an itch, and the possibilities of a deepened understanding of itch-scratching are severely limited, to say the least. [*Ethics and Sex (London: Routledge, 1999, p. 46]

Hamilton discusses a third account of sex, and finds that it, like Sartre and Primoratz, contains truth, but misses something crucial:

But if we were to try to find some fundamental reason why they are not complete as accounts of sexual desire, why they do not do enough to open up a deepened understanding of sexual desire, then I think that we would have to note that central here is that none of them makes anything of the connection between sexual desire and procreation. And we can see that this connection is crucial by the simple reflection that a species of creature which had all our experiences of sexual desires but in whom sexual desire had no connection with procreation would have a profoundly different understanding of sexual desire from the one we have. As so often in philosophy, the real problem is to find a helpful way of expressing this point.

At one point D. H. Lawrence writes:

Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe, the attraction, the repulsion, the transit of neutrality, the new attraction, the new repulsion, always different, always new. The long neuter spell of Lent, when the blood is low, and the delight of the Easter kiss, the sexual revel of the spring, the passion of mid-summer, the slow recoil, revolt, and grief of autumn, greyness again, then the sharp stimulus of long winter nights. Sex goes through the rhythm of the year, in man and woman, ceaselessly changing: the rhythm of the sun in his relation to the earth. . *D. H. Lawrence, ‘A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”’, in Phoenix II, Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (eds) (New York: Viking Press, 1970), p.504.

For Hamilton, Lawrence gets at something the philosophers miss: the connection of sex to the cycle of life, birth, death, regeneration, conception, procreation, etc. The cycle is both familiar and strange, just like sex. This explains why are deeply interested in sex, why we wonder at it, despite its being so normal and natural.

We are always aware, on some level, of the natural cycle of life, but sex brings us up close to it. The mystery of life casts a shadow over sex, just as mortality casts a shadow over life, says Hamilton, and sex wakes us up to who we are what what we are, just like a near fatal car accident forcefully reminds us of our mortality.

Hamilton is trying to capture one undertheorized way in which sex matters. He recognizes there are others, and he also recognizes that not all sex is or should be meaningful.

He goes one to talk about disgust, which has a charge of attraction along with the repulsion. Taking his cue from philosophers David Pole and William Ian Miller’s work on disgust, Hamilton cites organic decay as the core of disgust.

As William Ian Miller* says:
[S]exual desire depends on the idea of a prohibited domain of the disgusting. A person’s tongue in your mouth could be experienced as a pleasure or as a most repulsive and nauseating intrusion depending on the state of relations that exist or are being negotiated between you and the person. But someone else’s tongue in your mouth can be a sign of intimacy because it can also be a disgusting assault.* William Ian Miller, An Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p.137.

Hamilton recognizes that this claim may seem in odd light of the fact that there is so much sex in Western cultures, everywhere. Can we really be disgusted in it? Yes, if we consider that the sex on our TV screens and movies theaters is highly sanitized “pornographied” sex.

Hamilton’s own Catholic upbringing no doubt has made it easier for him to embrace the “disgust” pole of sex. From the Independent article:

His sense of corruption and self-disgust, he says, “preceded my parents’ divorce. Growing up Catholic, you learn that lots of things are wrong with your body.” He vividly recalls a driving holiday in Scotland at 13 or 14, when he woke one night to discover his greedy and overweight father being violently sick into the bedroom sink and he was seized by “an insight into adult life as being something irredeemably squalid”. His parents’ appetites, for food (father) and sex (mother), left him paralysed with fastidiousness. “I think there are human beings who have a more complex relationship with their own body than other people, and I happen to be one of those.”

But he brings together these two ideas, that sex is deeply enlightening, and that sex has disgust at its core, in his final argument that sex is consoling. It can be an act of mutual forgiveness, representing a longing for redemption. Yes, he is talking about sex n quasi-religious terms, and he actually quotes John Berryman in his defense:

‘Our Sunday morning when dawn-priests were applying/Wafer and wine to the human wound, we laid/Ourselves to cure ourselves down…’.

Returning to the point that sex is complicated, and the different aspects of sex can come to the fore in different encounters, Hamilton concludes:

Yet one can also be glad of this discrepancy in our experience of what sex is, since it makes of sex one of those mysteries of the human condition which help us hold on to the sense that life is worth living because what it offers us is inexhaustibly rich and varied.

I found it interesting that many of my students preferred this account to Primoratz and other “sex is just a body function, but you can make more of it if you want to” accounts we read. Many of them seem appalled by religious accounts of sex that morally criminalize masturbation, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage, but they long for an understanding of sex that matches their own sense that it matters. I don’t know if Hamilton is the ticket, but I’m glad the 21st century is bringing us some more nuanced accounts of the philosophy of sex.

17 responses

  1. D. H. Lawrence may have stated that “Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe” but what explanation would he have had for same-sex sexual activities?

    Hamilton emphasises “the connection between sexual desire and procreation” but this again seems to prioritise heterosexual sex, and in particular penetrative (penis in vagina) sex between two fertile individuals. This would seem to exclude, or render abnormal/deviant, many other forms of sexual activity and a great many individuals who cannot, or do not wish to, reproduce. You also write that “Hamilton’s own Catholic upbringing no doubt has made it easier for him to embrace the ‘disgust’ pole of sex.”

    Sartre’s ideas about desire seem to be based on certain assumptions about gender and seem to reflect the fact that he was an intellectual. When he writes that “in desiring a given individual, one also desires him or her as man or woman, as a representative of the male or the female sex,” this seems to be based on the assumption that
    (a) desire is heterosexual desire
    (b) that every individual can represent something essential about everyone else who is the same sex and
    (c) that sex with the Other will also allow some intellectual penetration or in-sight into the Other.
    So for Sartre, sexual desire is the desire for knowledge of the other 50% of the population.

    On the basis of the examples given here, it seems to me that “it matters” in different ways for different people, depending on their personal experiences and preferences, cultural background, etc. This suggests to me that (a) trying to find one single explanation of why “it matters” is a bit futile and (b) that “sex is just a body function” but because it’s one that can (but does not always)

    * take up a lot of people’s thoughts/energies
    * create new life
    * lead to death/ill health
    * convey and produce a wide range of emotions and sensations

    many societies and individuals attach a range of meanings to it. As humans we tend to attach a wide variety of meanings to things, events and activities that are important to us, including food (comfort, community, nurture, gluttony, displays of power etc) and shelter (home, safety, a cage etc).

    Re Sartre’s comment that “Normally sexual desire attaches itself to an object. Otherwise, masturbation would be as fun,”some people would insist that it’s also more fun to eat/drink/live etc with other people. However, I rather suspect that some people derive equal enjoyment from both solitary and shared versions of those activities, and some people will prefer the solitary versions of them.

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  2. Hey, your link is incorrect for the pdf file it tries to pull the file from your site instead the external site. Will try to read the document and your post later.

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  3. sex with the Other will also allow some intellectual penetration or in-sight into the Other.

    Eh, well, I’ve had this feeling, albeit only about one person, that somehow sex with that person would infuse me with other qualities he had that I wanted, and that it wasn’t about sexual desire per se, but about a transfer of characteristics (or at least the planting of the seed wherein I could grow my own–heh).

    Whether my sexual attraction to him was pheromone-driven or intellect-driven or admiration/hero-worship-driven or just wanting something of his soul to transfer to me, I don’t know.

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  4. Wow. There is so much to chew on here.

    That is, one wants all men or all women in and through this one individual. But this is impossible.
    I see this language all the time in romance. References to maleness, femaleness, the adjectives “masculine” or “feminine”, etc.

    Laura may be right that Hamilton is thinking heterosexually here, but it doesn’t preclude a man wanting all men or a woman all women. I think, though, that this language does turn up mostly in m/f romance. Interestingly, I think that just as, for instance, a heroine may see the hero as an embodiment of “primal maleness” (e.g. he smells “male” ) and vice versa, characters can also see themselves that way–the other’s desire makes her feel primally female and powerful, for instance. It may make her experience her own body differently, see it through the lover’s eyes (also something that people describe in real life). That language is less common, but I’ve seen it in romance, too.

    For me, there’s a paradox here. Sexual desire may focus us on our own and another’s embodiment, but if it also connects us to our whole gender, it’s kind of disembodying. Lots of people seem to experience sex, or at least orgasm that way (there’s sure a lot of romance novel language that suggests so–flying, shattering, falling, etc.).

    I can’t stand Lawrence, really, but if you drop off the first sentence of that quote, a lot of what he’s saying about sex as connecting people to the cycles of nature need not be tied to procreation. Sexual desire and its satisfaction are a kind of cycle of their own (and there’s the orgasm as “little death”).

    I think I agree with Laura, though, that any essentializing, universalizing account of desire is bound to be somewhat unsatisfactory. And that’s why no one romance novel is enough, and they aren’t actually all the same.

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  5. Hi Jessica,

    The links are wonky. Clicking on the ‘PDF’ gives a sever 404 error and clicking on the’ guardian’ goes to the ‘independent’ profile.

    I am in the midst of Christmas cooking for a family party tomorrow so need to not sit here for a while thinking and typing! So briefly, my first thoughts are about being interested in the ‘why’ of our desire for sex to have meaning. I find the Satre viewpoints you mention resonating with me. Having read the profile of Hamilton I would think anything he writes about sex is suspect; without having read the PDF I wonder if he needs it to have a particular meaning as a way of recovering from his family of origin. I agree with Laura that it doesn’t address none m/f sexual desire. I also wonder if thinking about the concept of ‘desire’ rather than ‘sexual desire’ is a useful thing – I don’t know….

    Anyway, I will be back!

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  6. @Laura Vivanco:

    seems to prioritise heterosexual sex, and in particular penetrative (penis in vagina) sex between two fertile individuals.

    Yes, that’s definitely a concern. However, I am not sure that saying sex can be significant because of its procreative aspects necessarily marginalizes non heterosexual sex, any more than it marginalizes sex between post menopausal or infertile people. For one thing, anyone who has sex organs has to be aware of their link to procreation, whether they personally desire to or can procreate. And for another, gay people have procreative organs and do procreate. The m/m romance I am currently reading features a gay man with a son, for example. I’d rather not cede talk about the reproductive function of our bodies to conservatives who want to use it to demonize no heterosexual or non procreative intercourse.

    @Laura Vivanco:

    Sartre’s ideas about desire seem to be based on certain assumptions about gender and seem to reflect the fact that he was an intellectual.

    Sartre had an extremely varied, active, and unconventional sex life. I think his intellectual stature and work contributed to that. I personally find the claim that when we desire a body, we desire the person in the body to be entirely persuasive, not just based on my own experience, but based on the many experiences of sex I have read in the romance genre, in memoir, etc. I don’ think this sets the bar too too high though. Sartre didn’t think you had to be in love, for example. But he thought that what attracted us to other humans was their personhood, their freedom, their spontaneity, and the elusiveness. this is why we don’t seduce dogs or trees unless there is no other alternative, and why most people find sex with plastic unsatisfactory as an alternative to sex which involves other human beings. Do some people treat other sexual bodies like pieces of meat? Sure.

    On the basis of the examples given here, it seems to me that “it matters” in different ways for different people, depending on their personal experiences and preferences, cultural background, etc. This suggests to me that (a) trying to find one single explanation of why “it matters” is a bit futile

    So each sexual experience is individual? We can’t talk at all about the human experience? We can’t even talk about the modern Western experience? I guess my question for you would be what you think philosophers of sex and love should be doing and how they should be doing it. Is the enterprise doomed from the start?

    As humans we tend to attach a wide variety of meanings to things, events and activities that are important to us, including food (comfort, community, nurture, gluttony, displays of power etc) and shelter (home, safety, a cage etc).

    I agree with you, and I do not see evidence that Hamilton disagrees. But does it follow that we can’t do the kind of reflection Hamilton is doing?

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  7. For one thing, anyone who has sex organs has to be aware of their link to procreation,

    Are hands, mouths, etc “sex organs”? When people have sex, they use a wide variety of body parts, not all of which have much to do with procreation. The clitoris, for example, isn’t a reproductive organ.

    I personally find the claim that when we desire a body, we desire the person in the body to be entirely persuasive

    But there is a lot of objectification of bodies, and people have sex while looking at/thinking about the bodies of people they’ve never met. Is that really a desire for the person in the body?

    We can’t even talk about the modern Western experience?

    I don’t think there is one “modern Western experience.” I think there’s far too much variation in people’s cultural backgrounds, personalities, circumstances etc. for there to be only one experience.

    I guess my question for you would be what you think philosophers of sex and love should be doing and how they should be doing it.

    I don’t know what their aim is, so I wouldn’t presume to tell them what they should do or how they should do it. Although you didn’t describe them in detail, I suspect I was just expressing broad agreement with the

    “sex is just a body function, but you can make more of it if you want to” accounts.

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  8. the possibilities of a deepened understanding of itch-scratching are severely limited, to say the least

    I love that. I agree that most of us experience desire, and the fulfillment thereof, as more meaningful and more profound than just scratching an itch. There are so many levels, types, dimensions of desire!

    I’m also a little jealous that you can discuss sex with your students. And by that I mean discuss, with your students, sex. Important distinction!

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  9. @Moriah Jovan: LOL, well this is the problem with trying to understand Sartre via Hamilton-Tripler -Vivanco. It’s like playing telephone. Sartre well knew we were embodied, and that the flesh was very important in sexual desire, but I guess that did not come across.

    @heidenkind: Well, he broke Simone de Beauvoir’s heart more than once.

    @Laura Vivanco:

    I don’t think there is one “modern Western experience.” I think there’s far too much variation in people’s cultural backgrounds, personalities, circumstances etc. for there to be only one experience

    In specifics, no, but where does that leave us?

    In other words, when is it legitimate to theorize? It sounds from your objection that the answer is “never, because we might be in danger of leaving out someone’s differing viewpoint.” Even if you got down to interviewing one person about her take on sex, you would be in danger, because she could change her mind the next day.

    But the view that sex is just a bodily activity onto which individuals may subjectively graft whatever they wish, is a popular one, and we covered it in class. I’m attracted to it for the reasons you state in your first comment, but I’m also attracted to an account that builds in some more significance.

    @Julia Rachel Barrett: One of his best roles!

    @SonomaLass:

    I’m also a little jealous that you can discuss sex with your students. And by that I mean discuss, with your students, sex. Important distinction!

    It is never easy to get them to discuss it in class. Too personal, I guess.

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  10. when is it legitimate to theorize? It sounds from your objection that the answer is “never, because we might be in danger of leaving out someone’s differing viewpoint.” Even if you got down to interviewing one person about her take on sex, you would be in danger, because she could change her mind the next day.

    It seems to me that it’s only a problem for theorists if they want to come up with a single explanation or description of things. If, however, they’re open to there being a variety of valid explanations/descriptions, then there isn’t a problem. They could just list or describe some of the more common ways that people experience desire, and leave open the possibility that there are many more which they haven’t been able to describe.

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  11. I go back to my question about ‘desire’ from the perspective of a woman living with chronic illness and disabilities. People with disabilities live in our bodies differently and indeed stuggle with the dichotomy of being embodied (defined by our bodies) but also disassociated at the same time. We are not seen as desiring or desirable. I don’t really feel that this (below) applies to us because we are not seen as representative but as other either that, or it is the philosophy that underpins the obvious facts of our bodies undesirability:

    …in desiring a given individual, one also desires him or her as man or woman, as a representative of the male or the female sex.

    This para also leads me to think about romance novels as being about this desire for the representative other.

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  12. @Laura Vivanco: Yes, ok, I see the value in that. But lists and descriptions are empirical. It’s a little different from the method Hamilton is using. For one thing, he is doing moral philosophy, something you can’t read off of people’s preferences.

    @Merrian: Thank you for that perspective. In some ways, it is another version of Laura’s point, that no one account of sexuality can capture the diversity of sexual experience. I agree completely that that the romance genre is all about the representative other, and that much of its status as fantasy depends on that. I think it is happening to some extent, but I would like to see more romance taking disability seriously, and more romance scholars doing the same.

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  13. Sartre has got to be one of the sexiest philosophers. Definitely the sexiest of the 20th century. Even if he was kind of an ass hole.

    Like

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