How’s that for a sexy title?
Here’s part 3 of my series on Nagel on sexual perversion—just in time for Valentine’s Day, and the long-awaited opening of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” In the first part of the series, I laid out the argument of Nagel’s 1969 paper, “Sexual Perversion.” In the second part, I raised some methodological objections. In this part, I start with a basic methodological problem and use it to diagnose the problems in Nagel’s more substantive argument. Some of what I say here overlaps with stuff I said in the combox discussion of part 2 with my friend Michael Young.
In the first part of the series, I pointed out that Nagel’s paper is a phenomenological account modeled in part on Sartre’s in Part III of Being and Nothingness. It is, we might say, analytic Sartreanism (by analogy with analytic Thomism or Marxism)—Sartreanism detached from Sartre’s existentialist metaphysics, and cleaned up for consumption by the clarity-loving readers of the Journal of Philosophy. (Incidentally, Nagel’s paper is obviously influenced by Freud as well; in some ways, it reads like a modernized version of Freud’s “Three Essays on Sexuality.”)
The basic problem with Nagel’s account is that at the end of the day, it’s a phenomenological account of the only sexual phenomenology accessible to Nagel—his own, and perhaps indirectly that of his partner or partners. Problem: how do you get from one man’s phenomenology to an account that’s supposed to be normative for human beings as such? No matter how much backpedaling Nagel does at the end of the paper, if his claims about perversion have any content, they face some version of this problem. They’re intended as an account of human sexual perversion, not of Thomas Nagel’s likes and dislikes. But they read like the latter.
Phenomenology in this context consists of introspective investigation on the nature of one’s own sexual desires (or one’s own desires, considered under idealized conditions). Putting aside the question of whether Nagel’s introspective account is correct, it is unclear why such an investigation would yield any information about the ideal structure of other peoples’ sexual desires. I’m the first to admit that this is not just a problem for Nagel, but for anyone engaged in an inquiry of this sort, and not just a problem for a philosopher of sex, but a problem for anyone whose subject-matter concerns the mind. But it’s a problem, and problems aren’t resolved by saying that other people face them.
I make heavy weather of this because whether you call it “phenomenology” or “analytic philosophy,” the fact remains that Nagel’s account is an account of the psychology of sexual desire—moral psychology, I suppose. But moral psychology is at the end of the day answerable in part to empirical study of human psychology: if claims in moral psychology have no hope of being confirmed by empirical psychology, we have no hope of being epistemically justified in believing them. Philosophers tend to be resistant to this, partly because the use of psychology (and social science generally) has become a kind of problematic fad in certain precincts of (what used to be) analytic philosophy. What used to be physics envy has now become social science envy. The problem with Nagel’s account is just the reverse of that fad: he proceeds as though questions of empirical verification were entirely beside the point in an account of sexual perversion.
But that can’t be right. Nagel is making claims about ideal sexual development, and is saying that deviations from the developmental structure he describes are, if distant enough, perversions. At a bare minimum, we need a way of measuring “distance from the developmental ideal.” But we also need some way of verifying that exemplification of the ideal is somehow correlated with sexual satisfaction and that deviation from it is somehow correlated with dissatisfaction. It makes no sense to produce an account of sexual perversion that entails that a person can lead a joyous, healthy, sexually satisfied life that is completely perverted, or that he might well be reduced to misery by exemplifying the developmental ideal.
Nagel plays with the preceding thought near the end of the paper, but it reduces the claims of his paper to nonsense. The suggestion seems to be that deviation from a developmental ideal can be better for you than exemplification of it. That strikes me as a blatant self-contradiction. A developmental ideal just is an ideal such that exemplification of it is better for you than deviation from it. If an ideal doesn’t satisfy that platitudinous description, I would say that it’s misformulated. Contrary to Nagel, then, it really makes no sense to say that perverted sex can be better “as sex” than non-perverted sex. If we found that that was the case, we’d have to revise our conception of perversion and normality. We couldn’t just proceed by saying, “hey, let’s all be perverts.”
As I’m sure he knows (being an active participant in some famous debates about Freud), Nagel faces an analogue of the problem faced by Freudian psychoanalysis: how are Freud’s hypotheses about development to be confirmed? It’s a cop-out to say that they can’t be confirmed. If they can’t be confirmed in any sense at all, then they have the status ascribed to them by a psychiatrist I once met, who called them “the activity of magic forces in Freud’s spiritual shadow world.” (This psychiatrist had all twenty-four volumes of the Standard Edition on the shelves of his waiting room, so it’s not as though he was speaking from ignorance.) If they have a more elevated status, we need evidence to believe in them. At some level, it’s that simple.
Nagel’s anti-empirical handwaving creates a natural tendency to go to the other extreme and reject the very idea of phenomenology or introspection. That tendency explains the rise of behaviorism in psychology: behaviorism was a supposedly empiricist response to the anti-empiricism of Freudian (and post-Freudian) psychodynamics. From what I gather*, some form of behaviorism (or behaviorism lite) still seems to dominate academic psychology to this day. A graduate student in, say, a master’s program in counseling psychology will unconsciously imbibe behaviorist dogmas from the very first day of her time in the program—whether from her professors, or her textbooks, or the journal articles she reads. On this account, “empirical” means “directly observable” by third parties, and that, in turn, means “testable under laboratory conditions.” Obviously, no part of Nagel’s account satisfies this conception of “the empirical,” which means that much of it would, in the current climate of psychology, be dismissed as non-empirical—i.e., as Nagel’s “subjective opinion.” The difficulty is that as written, Nagel’s account deserves precisely that criticism. The danger is that in rejecting Nagel’s version of phenomenology, we might go to the behaviorist extreme of rejecting the empirical credentials of introspection altogether.
That said, let me offer some hit-and-run attacks on specific claims Nagel makes about sexuality. One problem throughout is that Nagel’s claims are hand-wavingly anti-empirical. Another problem is one of question-begging. And a third is one of localized but cumulative incoherence.
(1) For one thing, Nagel basically gives the game away when he comes out and tells us that while his account posits a conception of ideal sexual development, he has no non-circular way of articulating the normative standard on which the ideal is based:
The concept of perversion implies that normal sexual development has been turned aside by distorting influences. I have little to say about this causal condition. But if perversions are in some sense unnatural, they must result from interference with the development of a capacity that is there potentially….We appear to need an independent criterion for a distorting influence [from the ideal], and we do not have one (pp. 48, 50).
We do not. It follows that Nagel does not, and that the argument of the paper begs the question. The first three sentences in the excerpt highlight the basic flaw or omission in Nagel’s analysis, and highlight the need for an empirical component to any further inquiry on the subject.
(2) Second, Nagel’s argument involves some very large and consequential non-sequiturs. After telling us that there is such a thing as a gastronomic perversion, he infers that that proves (or makes plausible) the claim that there are sexual ones. There are sexual ones, he continues, because sexual desire is complex. The complexity of sexual desire implies (or makes plausible) that sex is inherently interpersonal, and its interpersonal character implies (or makes plausible) that ideal sexual activity involves a form of reciprocity and mutuality that rules out the use of sex toys and pornography, and also rules out (voluntary) sadism and masochism.
These claims involve some very large inferential leaps, and they are much less plausible to people today than they appear to have been to Nagel’s readership in 1969. Nagel’s discussion of food is not particularly plausible or well-developed, and even if it were both, it might not have any particular implications for sex. Further, sexual desire need not always be complex. When it’s complex, it need not be interpersonal. When it’s interpersonal, it need not involve reciprocity or mutuality of the sort that Nagel envisions. The Romeo and Juliet thought-experiment that Nagel offers to explicate his analysis is very interesting (pp. 45-46), but he himself concedes that it’s “somewhat artificial” (p. 45), and that admission limits the scope of its application to less artificial cases. (Roger Scruton has some useful comments on this aspect of Nagel’s view in Sexual Desire, pp. 24-25.)
(3) Third, what Nagel says about reciprocal sexual interaction is not entirely consistent. On the one hand, he says that “The object of sexual attraction is a particular individual, who transcends the properties that make him attractive” (p. 42). One obvious objection—which rose like a chorus from my CO 350 students—is: what about three-somes or four-somes or n-somes? Read carefully, Nagel’s formulation doesn’t quite pass judgment on such arrangements; what I think it implies is that sexual multitasking is impossible, not that three-somes or four-somes are perversions.
A few pages later, however (pp. 49-50), Nagel seems to be saying that within consensual, monogamous heterosexual relations, “it would appear that any bodily contact between a man and a woman that gives them sexual pleasure is a possible vehicle for the system of multi-level interpersonal awareness that I have claimed is the basic psychological content of sexual interaction” (pp. 49-50). The two claims don’t seem consistent with one another. If the object of sexual attraction is the individual, then unperverted sexual desire ought always to be focused on the object—on the person qua person. In that case, sexual desire ought always to transcend the properties that make the individual attractive. If so, how can any bodily contact that gives them sexual pleasure be assumed a priori to be a possible vehicle for interpersonal awareness? Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn’t. But it can’t be assumed a priori.
Suppose X is focused on a certain body part of his partner Y and is attracted to that. Suppose that sexual relations involving that body part gives X pleasure without necessarily putting Y off. Suppose that sex aside, X loves Y. In this case, the object of sexual attraction is a body part, not the person. But activity involving that part can produce pleasure. Shouldn’t Nagel be saying that the pleasure in question is perverted? I think so. But he doesn’t. (Thanks to my student Caitlin Baard for pointing out the inconsistency in Nagel that give rise to my objection.)
(4) Finally, in the spirit of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” consider Nagel’s critique of (voluntary) sadism and masochism. His claim is that the sadism impedes “awareness of [the sadist himself] as a bodily subject of passion in the required sense” (p. 50). Masochism impedes awareness of agency (p. 50). Personally, I find these claims plausible, but they presuppose the claim that our sexuality ought to exemplify some proper balance in the awareness of ourselves as subjects of passivity and as agents. They also require a lot more empirical work than Nagel himself has done; he himself concedes that his “descriptions may not be generally accurate” (p. 50).
The problem is that Nagel’s critique of S&M sits in tension with his defense of the non-perverted nature of homosexuality. The rejection of S&M implies that there is some fixed balance in the proper awareness of self as active and passive. The implicit model here is a rather stereotyped account of heterosexual relations (p. 51).** On this model, the man is more active than passive; the woman is more passive than active. Hence, a man ought ideally to be aware of his passivity in the sexual act, but more aware (than that) of his agency; the reverse is true of a woman. This suggests that for Nagel, ideal heterosexual sex, while not quite sado-masochistic, still exemplifies an ideal of (relative) aggression and passivity. Nagel’s first-line defense of homosexuality is to suggest that gay couples can in principle exemplify the same ideal: because gay couples can be like straight ones, and straight ones aren’t perverted, gay ones need not be perverted. His second-line defense is to suggest that perhaps the ideal isn’t quite as fixed as he first suggested. Maybe people can vary in the degree of activity and passivity they enjoy in sexual relations, and the degree of visibility of each thing they ought to pursue.
This is not a consistent set of claims. If there is a fixed active/passive balance whose paradigm is a certain conception of heterosexual relations, then if gay couples don’t exemplify that balance, they are perverted. If there is no fixed active/passive balance constituting the ideal, then many combinations of aggression and passivity are possible, and the combination involved in S&M relations could, for all that he’s said, be*** one of them. Though what Nagel says about S&M is suggestive, at the end of the day, his claims about it are too entangled in problematic claims about other things to constitute a plausible critique.
So I don’t think Nagel’s account succeeds. Nor do I think that an improved account could really build on what Nagel does. A better account would simply have to remedy what he gets wrong. The basic task would be to get clear on the criterion of “normality” that Nagel fails or declines to articulate. A secondary but important task would be to formulate one’s claims so as to be amenable in principle to empirical verification of some kind, while avoiding a head-long fall into the positivism, behaviorism, determinism, and relativism that one finds in contemporary psychology. A tall order.
*Freudian slip? When I first wrote this sentence, I typed: “From what I father….”
**I couldn’t help thinking here of Ayn Rand’s notoriously reactionary essay, “About a Woman President,” in The Voice of Reason, which makes similar sorts of claims.
***I revised this last phrase after posting.
Thanks to Caitlin Baard, Kate Herrick, David Riesbeck, and Michael Young for helpful discussion on the material discussed in this series.
Gratuitous video add-on:
“I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele. I realize that my retention of deliberate control may impede awareness of myself as a bodily subject of desire in the required sense, as Nagel suggests. But with a cutie like you right here in front of me, and this Beyonce song blaring in the background, I find I can’t quite focus on Nagel right now….”
Postscript, February 15, 2015: I haven’t read or watched “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but this column by Ross Douthat, “The Caligulan Thrill,” rings true. I was amused by this passage:
But the essential dream of our age isn’t conflict; it’s a synthesis, in which the aristocratic thrills of libertinism are somehow preserved but their most exploitative elements are rendered egalitarian and safe.
The hope, in other words, is that we can eventually have the fun of Rome without all the nasty bits: Contraception and abortion will pre-empt the inconvenient infant, age-of-consent laws will make sure that young people’s initiation doesn’t start too early, and with enough carefully drawn up regulations for initiating intercourse we can all experience the courts of Tiberius and Heliogabalus without anybody getting hurt.
Well yeah. He says that like it’s a bad thing, but the whole point of middle class life is to have the fun of Rome–or medieval feudalism–without the nasty bits. Has Douthat ever considered the Plantagenetic thrills of home ownership? “A man’s home is his castle,” as they say, and his lawn is his estate. What is that but an attempt to preserve the aristocratic gratifications of medieval serfdom while rendering its most exploitative elements egalitarian and safe? Instead of serfs, we employ undocumented Central American landscapers; instead of wheat, barley, or oats, we grow green, weed-free grass, non-GMO tomatoes, and arugula. Perhaps it doesn’t entirely work–the inevitable frictions arise–but if you attack lawns and gardens wholesale, you’re basically attacking the foundations of bourgeois existence.
The same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of safely transgressive sex. (One hell of a mutatis mutandis, I realize.) Once you reject the conservative Catholic dogma that sex aims at unity and procreation, sex comes to aim, in part, at fun. Fun is a serious business, and aristocrats are the world’s experts at that business. Obviously, we can’t literally emulate them; they were in many respects moral cretins. But they got something right, so we emulate or appreciate them at-a-safe-distance. Couldn’t the same be said of the writings of Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas? Or the aesthetic wonders of Chartres Cathedral, Hagia Sofia, and the Louvre? Or the joys of Bach and Handel? We learn from them, and enjoy them, without inculcating, wholesale, the cultural values that gave rise to them. If it weren’t for aristocracy, after all, we wouldn’t have culture: it’s not so easy to throw aristocracy out with the bath-water.
Incidentally, my not having read/watched “Fifty Shades” is not a matter of moral scruple or aesthetic snobbery, but sheer lack of time. If I had the time to watch it on the big screen, I would. But I don’t. Of course, by the time it comes out on DVD, it’ll be old hat. One of these days, I’ll get around to seeing 9 1/2 Weeks and Last Tango in Paris, too. All on my bucket list. So much arty smut, so little time.
Postscript 2, February 16, 2015: My friend Ole Martin Moen, a philosopher who splits his time between Oslo and Oxford, has a commentary on “Fifty Shades of Grey” at Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog (ht: Kate Herrick). He doesn’t just spoil, but gives away the whole plot, so don’t read the piece if you want to retain the element of surprise.