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.