Nagel on sexual perversion (part 1 of 3): the argument

After a brief interlude on identity politics, I’m back to a far more savory topic–sexual perversion. I mentioned two posts ago that I was going to be discussing Nagel’s 1969 Journal of Philosophy paper, “Sexual Perversion” in my ethics classes. (By chance, I happen to be covering the same paper with a student who’s doing a senior thesis on BDSM. You really have to wonder whether the people who pay the tuition bills for these students bargained on their studying any of this at a nice, respectable Catholic institution like Felician, The Franciscan College of New Jersey. “How will any of this help my son or daughter find remunerative work?” Hmm.) Anyway, having pored over Nagel’s paper, I thought I’d discuss a bit here. This first post of two just lays out Nagel’s argument. The next post will offer my criticisms, and draw some lessons. (And yes, the second post is already written, so this isn’t one of my perennially broken promises about multi-part postings.)

Here’s the structure of the argument. It’s meant as a pointillistic summary of Nagel’s claims, not as representing the steps of a formally deductive argument. (Incidentally, I’m using the version of Nagel’s article that’s reprinted in the 1979 British edition of his book, Mortal Questions.)

The ground-setting argument: uncontroversial preliminaries

  1. We have a concept of ‘sexual perversion’; by unpacking it, we come to understand the nature of sexual perversion.
  2. There are three platitudes about sexual perversion that structure the inquiry from the outset, so it’s justifiable in this context to adopt them without argument. (a) First, what is sexually perverse is in some sense “unnatural,” though this is precisely the controversial concept in need of explication and defense. (b) We’re entitled to start with a list of uncontroversially perverse activities, and use them as fixed points for the rest of the inquiry, e.g., shoe fetishism, bestiality, sadism. (c) Perversions are in essence inclinations, or structured forms of desire. They are not best understood as particular actions divorced from some appetitive etiology.
  3. In addition to the platitudes in (2), there are two fundamental assumptions that also structure the inquiry, not quite as basic as the platitudes, but still essential to the inquiry. They require some argument, but not much. (a) Sexual perversion has a complex psychological structure. That’s because sexual desire isn’t a simple biological drive (like, e.g., digestion or circulation), something we can more easily come to see by reflection on hunger (which is itself not a simple biological drive). (b) Sexual desire is desire for the particularity of a particular individual. Or as Nagel himself puts it, “The object of sexual attraction is a particular individual, who transcends the properties that make him attractive” (p. 42).

The quasi-Sartrean appeal to phenomenology

  1. A good point of entry into the concept of sexual perversion is Sartre’s account of sexuality in Part III of Being and Nothingness. Unfortunately, taken at face value, Sartre’s account is—though insightful—somewhat obscure and leads to absurd results. It also makes very large presuppositions that can’t be defended or even explicated) in a journal article, so for present purposes (meaning Nagel’s purposes in the original article) our point of entry has to be Sartre-inspired view rather than a textually-faithful adoption of Sartre’s own. The essential Sartre-inspired view is as follows:
  2. Sexuality is an embodied reciprocal interaction that affords a specific form of mutual visibility to both partners.
  3. The interaction mentioned in (2) involves a complex interplay of voluntary and involuntary factors: arousal is involuntary, the choice to express it is voluntary, but the actual expression is a complex combination of voluntary and involuntary. In one sense, it’s controlled by the agent; in another sense, the agent allows himself or herself to act spontaneously, controlled by desire itself. So the aim of sexual activity is to make visible the complex interplay of voluntary and involuntary forces at work in oneself to the other (and vice versa).
  4. Nagel repeatedly insists that sexual desire is experienced, phenomenologically, as an ‘assault’—language later taken up by Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity to suggest that desire as such is experienced, phenomenologically, as an ‘assault’. It’s not clear whether this claim is essential to Nagel’s thesis, and if so, how: I’m inclined to think that it’s an idiosyncratic add-on, but I’m not totally sure. (The language of “desire-as-assault” is essential to Korsgaard’s thesis, and Raymond Geuss correctly takes her to task for it in the discussion section of Sources of Normativity. I think Geuss’s criticism of Korsgaard probably applies to Nagel as well, but again, I don’t know what, if anything, that ultimately implies for Nagel’s thesis.)
  5. The preceding phenomenological account–especially the “visibility-affording” conception discussed in [3]–is the sexual ‘norm’ against which desires that don’t conform to it are deviations. The extreme deviations are perversions.
  6. Among the (to Nagel) more obvious perversions are “narcissistic practices and intercourse with animals, infants, and inanimate objects” (p. 49). Nagel doesn’t explicitly discuss masturbation, so it’s not clear whether “narcissistic practices” is a euphemism for masturbation or denotes a broader category of pathologically narcissistic activities that overlaps with narcissistic instances of masturbation. (In Sexual Desire, Roger Scruton distinguishes between masturbation conceived as relief for “a period of sexual isolation…guided by a fantasy of copulation” and masturbation conceived as a replacement for sexual encounter itself [p. 317]. Arguably, Nagel’s “narcissistic practices” refers to the latter, not the former, but he doesn’t explicitly say.)  Though Nagel doesn’t explicitly discuss pornography, he regards voyeurism and exhibitionism as perversions; since pornography is arguably an instance of both, I think it follows that Nagel’s view entails that (the use of) pornography is a perversion. But that’s my inference, not Nagel’s claim.

The difficult cases

  1. The cases discussed in the preceding section are ones that Nagel regards as relatively obvious. Near the end of the article, he turns briefly to discussion of the difficult cases: sadism, masochism, and homosexuality. Nagel clearly means to be discussing voluntary cases of sadism and masochism, but I wonder whether what he says about voluntary sadism is also meant to apply to cases of sexual assault. If so, sexual assault–or at least cases of sexual assault where the infliction of pain was intended and/or involved–would be cases of sexual perversion.
  2. Sadism and masochism turn out to be perversions “because they fall short of interpersonal reciprocity” (p. 50).
  3. “Sadism concentrates on the evocation of passive self-awareness in others, but the sadist’s engagement is itself active and requires a retention of deliberate control which may impede awareness of himself as a bodily subject of passion in the required sense” (p. 50). In other words, if visibility is the aim of sexual relations, sadism serves to render one’s passive nature invisible.
  4. “A masochist on the other hand imposes the same disability on his partner as the sadist imposes on himself. The masochist cannot find a satisfactory embodiment as the object of another’s sexual desire, but only as the object of his control” (p. 50). At some level, masochism is a failure in the “awareness of oneself as an object of desire.” (Though I think he’s on to something, I find Nagel’s discussion of masochism obscure and hard to gloss.)
  5. Meanwhile, Nagel regards it as “doubtful” that homosexuality is a perversion. Nagel’s judgment about homosexuality will strike twenty-first century readers as overly hedged, but in mitigation, recall that the paper was written in 1969, four years* before the American Psychiatric Association changed its collective mind about homosexuality. At the time, I think that Nagel was taking a somewhat unpopular minority position (but I’m a little hazy on the sociology).
  6. Having said that, Nagel suggests uneasily that what makes the issue unclear is that homosexuality seems as though it could be a case of arrested heterosexual development. “There is much support for an aggressive-passive distinction between male and female sexuality” (p. 51) which Nagel thinks is missing from homosexual activity. I think what Nagel is really gesturing at here is the idea that in heterosexual relations, men and women are in some sense sexually complementary, male aggression and female passivity being a (stereotypical?) proxy for that. So he finds himself wondering out loud whether there is any such counterpart in homosexual relations. He concludes that there probably is (or easily can be) and thereby concludes that homosexual activity is not a perversion

The convoluted coda: perversion and all-in moral judgment (or: what does it all mean?) 

  1. Nagel ends with a somewhat contorted discussion about the relationship between perversion, sexuality, and all-things-considered moral judgments. It turns out that when we say that X is a perversion, the claim we’re making about it is a very weak and equivocal one about what to say or do about it.
  2. If X is a perversion, then non-X sex is “better as sex” than perverted sex.
  3. But (according to Nagel), X can be a perversion and yet be preferable to unperverted sex, even if it’s not better “as sex.”
  4. X’s being perverted sex doesn’t necessarily mean that acting on X is morally wrong; faced with a choice between perverted sex and no sex, there are cases in which perverted sex is preferable to no sex, hence morally justified.

I know I’m supposed to leave the criticisms for the next post, but I can’t resist a general comment right here before I get to it. Then as now, Nagel’s paper strikes me in the way that so much of Nagel’s work strikes me—a mixed bag, but more worth reading than most work in analytic philosophy, despite lacking the “rigor” of a lot of analytic philosophy, and despite being relatively unintegrated with “the literature.”  On the plus side, the paper is (like just about everything Nagel writes) clear, profound, learned, original, insightful, fruitful, provocative, and right about a lot of things. On the negative side, the paper is also maddeningly hand-waving, question-begging, and glib, while managing simultaneously to be simplistic, ambiguous, and convoluted.

To its credit, “Sexual Perversion” reads more like an old-fashioned essay than a standard-issue “peer reviewed journal article,” but that very fact leads one to wonder how it got published in JPhil in the first place, i.e., what “peer review” meant in New York philosophical circles in 1969, and whether its meaning one thing in 1969 and another thing in 2015 has any bearing on what counts as good and bad philosophy from one decade to the next. Anyway, ambiguities aside, suffice it to say that there’s enough in the article to make getting through it well worth the trip.

Feel free to comment on Nagel’s argument or my rendition of it in the combox. I’ll offer some criticisms and other observations in my next post.

*I corrected an error in this sentence: I originally misstated the date of the APA’s decision as 1970. It was 1973.

Postscript, February 7, 2015: My friend Michael Young, who’s been lurking in this discussion, sends along this piece, “Guys and Plastic Dolls” from the online magazine Narratively. It’s about–you guessed it–guys who have romantic relationships with plastic dolls. I take it that the behavior described in the piece counts as a Nagelian perversion, since it satisfies both the “narcissistic practices” and “inanimate objects” provisos. I can’t wait to bring this one to the attention of my ethics students at Felician. I think I already know what they’re going to say, if they can manage to articulate their response in words. I guess the Narratively piece gives new meaning to a line from Lady Gaga’s song, “Paparazzi“: “We’re plastic, but we still have fun!”

6 thoughts on “Nagel on sexual perversion (part 1 of 3): the argument

  1. Pingback: Nagel on sexual perversion (2 of 3): methodological issues | Policy of Truth

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  3. I think it can only be a virtue of Nagel’s account that it includes romantic “relationships” with plastic dolls as a perversion. I’m not sure on what level of analysis the concept of a perversion has its home — maybe Nagel is mistaken to think that we can analyze sexual desire as such in terms of internal standards supplied by its essential telos, and the concept of a perversion is an essentially ethical one that imports a standard of judgment external to sexual desire itself — but if the concept of perversion has any legitimate applications, surely that’s one. Perhaps some sort of quasi-Randian analysis in terms of “faking reality” might be more illuminating?


    • I think that’s too charitable a reading of Nagel, given what he actually says. He opens the essay by saying that there are paradigmatic instances of perversion, “such as shoe fetishism” (p. 39),then concludes without argument that “intercourse with animals, infants, and inanimate objects” is a case of the agent’s being “stuck at some primitive version of the first stage of sexual feeling. If the object is not alive, the experience is reduced entirely to an awareness of one’s own sexual embodiment” (p. 49).

      As an argument, that (what Nagel says) just seems to me like hand-waving and bluffing. Well of course anything described as a “fetishism” is going to count as a perversion, because “fetishes” are implicitly conceived of as species of perversion. But that suggests that an analysis of “perversion” requires an analysis of “fetish,” and Nagel not only doesn’t offer one but doesn’t acknowledge the fact.

      In the absence of any discussion whatsoever of masturbation, the rest of the analysis seems to me very premature (so to speak). For one thing, even if sexual gratification via inanimate objects ended up being a perversion, it couldn’t be one just like pedophilia and bestiality. Using a vibrator really isn’t in the same moral ballpark as having sex with an infant (!). Further, masturbation is a case of being reduced to one’s own sexual embodiment (except, I suppose, insofar as fantasy of others is involved), but it doesn’t follow without qualification that that’s a sufficient condition for perversion. I find it simply amazing that Nagel just rushes through the analysis without even pausing to mention masturbation.

      Re the plastic dolls, I think one has to distinguish between carrying on a relationship with one, and using one as a masturbatory aid. I don’t mean to suggest that the latter is definitely not a perversion; I just mean that they’re very different sorts of case. The first case seems to require self-deception. The second need not. A successful account would have to take stock of that difference.

      I think you’ve hit on the basic problem with Nagel’s view–the claim you make between the dashes. Nagel insists that we analyze sexual desire in terms of what seem to me mythological “internal standards” while abstracting from a standard of judgment external to the “internal standards” of any “practice.” If you read his paper “Personal Rights and Public Space” (which I cited somewhere nearby, I think) you see the essentially political rationale: he thinks that if sexuality is governed by a broader ethical view, we’re led to paternalism, which he wants to avoid at all costs. That’s a separate argument, but I think the bottom line is that his analysis of perversion is a failure.


  4. I’d have to go back to the essay to see just how he uses these appeals, but to my mind there’s nothing objectionable about starting from intuitive judgments about what does and doesn’t constitute a perversion and attempting to formulate a theory that accounts for those judgments. What would be objectionable, or at least problematic, is if the theory has no justificatory support independent of its accounting for those judgments. As I see it, the problem with his account is that he doesn’t do enough to support it independently of the intuitive judgments that it’s designed to explain, and that he says next to nothing to address objections of the sorts you’ve raised.

    I’m not convinced that there’s no defensible account of standards internal to sexual desire as such whereby some instances of it might be accurately judged defective; I’m fairly sure, though, that those standards would have at best a very indirect connection to any reasons we might have for avoiding defective sexual desire. The analogy of hunger and eating seems apt (and Nagel’s treatment of it seems to me bizarre for precisely the reasons you point out in part 2 of 3): we can, I think, appeal to the teleological function of hunger and eating to show that some possible manifestations of hunger are defective or perverted. If, to borrow one of Aristotle’s examples from the chapter on brutishness, I had a desire to eat dirt, or if I were to develop an insatiable appetite, or an appetite only for protein-deficient foods, we could rightly assess these desires as defective on the grounds that they do not contribute to or even obstruct my nourishment and health, which is the function of hunger and eating. But it of course doesn’t follow that I should only eat for the sake of nutrition and never simply because I just enjoy it; what I should and shouldn’t eat is only partially determined by the teleological function of eating, and depends on additional criteria external to that function. We could say the same thing for sex and it would seem to me trivial: the biological function of sex is procreation (and perhaps emotional intimacy, if we think that’s an independent feature with a functional psycho-biological explanation), but it doesn’t follow from this that I should only ever have sex for the sake of procreation (or intimacy, or intimate procreation). If that conclusion is true, it must be at least for additional reasons, if not entirely for independent reasons. I think biological normativity is real, but only indirectly relevant to ethics, because the biological function of any one of our parts or faculties is only one of the (sub-)ends we have as complex rational animals, may not be essential to flourishing as rational animals, and need not be in conflict with other uses of that part or faculty.

    But in any case, if Nagel is driven by the thought that we’ll be led to paternalism if we concede that sexuality is governed by ethics, then he’s pretty remarkably stupid. But you know I think we shouldn’t be afraid of paternalism in principle anyway.


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