Some Philosophizing About Sex

by Ben Best

CONTENTS: LINKS TO SECTIONS BY TOPIC

  1. INTRODUCTORY REMARKS
  2. SEX AND GENDER
  3. SEXUAL PERVERSION
  4. SEXUAL PRACTICES
  5. SEX AND EGO
  6. SEX AND EMOTION

I. INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

To philosophize is to think about things in an abstract & general way in order to reach abstract & general conclusions. Philosophizing involves speculation, analysis and reflection on facts. I believe that philosophizing at its best is not an Ivory Tower exercise practiced by academics, but is a thoughtful endeavor that leads to wisdom about life. And those who can think most productively about the life experience are those who have lived most deeply — experienced the world.

I seek wisdom about sex, but I cannot make special claims for worldliness about sex. Like Ivory Tower academics I have done far more thinking than doing, to my enormous regret. But as long as I am alive I hope to expand my experience & thought. I must start from where I can start if I am to achieve anything, in this case using philosophy as part of my struggle for understanding.

I am male heterosexual so I discuss sex mainly from a male heterosexual viewpoint (although I had some homosexual experiences as an adolescent).

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II. SEX AND GENDER

Many of the differences between males and females are common to nearly all mammals. Males are on average larger than females — and more aggressive. Males are inclined to fight with each other and to attempt to copulate with as many females as possible. Human males are more cooperative than males of most other mammals, however. Human females are even more cooperative than human males, having less drive to dominate and more inclination to nurture. Females babies reflexively smile to an extent not seen in male babies.

Historically, males have sought & held power in virtually every human society. This power has been political & economic. Women have power too, although it is less often acknowledged. In civilized society women are not the property of the strongest males. Women inherit most of the wealth. Women have the power to reject the sexual advances of men. Rape is not permitted in civilized society.

The industries of pornography & prostitution indicate broad differences in the sexual positions of men & women. To some, these industries symbolize the economic power of men and the capacity of men to treat women as commercial objects. To others, these industries demonstrate the sexual neediness & sexual scarcity experienced by men. Men have emotions and men fear sexual rejection by women (women's power). In the market for sex, men are overwhelmingly the buyers and women are the sellers — although some male strip clubs for women do exist.

An attractive woman is like a lion trainer with a whip in a cage of lions. The trainer has power as long as the whip is not dropped. An attractive woman can enjoy arousing men and can dress provocatively to increase that arousal — resulting in more attention, gifts & favors. But in the wrong situation or with the wrong man an attractive woman can experience aggression, rape or worse. Sometimes women are blamed for provocative dressing & actions, but if men are not to be regarded as animals they must always be held accountable for their conduct. A robber must be blamed for robbing, even when the victim must be held accountable for lack of caution or for entering the robber's domain (dark alleys at night).

Males in general have less stringent requirements for the relationships they have with sexual partners. Females are less likely to seek or enjoy sex that is not in the context of a long-term relationship. A woman must be more sure of her sexual partner because being less muscular she is more in danger of being overpowered. Culturally, a man who has many sexual partners is respected by both men & women, whereas a woman who has many sexual partners is condemned by both men & woman. The man's sexual vitality is respected, but the woman's is not. Men who would be attracted to her are threatened or angered by the competition.

Male homosexuals have no difficulty — and typically enjoy (where the danger of disease can be avoided) sex with great frequency and with a wide variety of other men. Lesbians usually have one faithful mate and typically have sex much less frequently. These phenomena would make it appear that in general males have a greater sex drive. But the vulnerability, both physical and social, which surrounds female sexuality makes it hard to say how strongly it could be expressed in a safer social milieu. That there are many women with an strong desire-for and appreciation-of sex cannot be questioned. Comparable to the pornography industry there is a vast industry in romantic novels — many of which are quite lusty — mostly read by women. These phenomena may simply reflect the fact that men are more visual and women are more verbal.

Women are certainly sensitive to visual appearance or they would not devote so much attention to fashion & cosmetics — much of which is intended to impress other women. Women can enjoy the attention they garner from men by sexy dress & appearance while sometimes being naive about the passions being evoked. Naive young women have been surprised at having been raped as a result of their innocent attention-seeking. Women do not wear low-cut dresses exposing cleavage because they are in need of ventilation — they enjoy watching male eyes wander below the neckline.

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III. SEXUAL PERVERSION

In no area of life are the issues of normal & perverse more central than in the area of sexuality. For those who hunger-for and are capable-of social acceptability, a normal manifestation of sexuality is a holy grail. Fulfillment of normal sexual desires in the normal way means success & self-esteem. Those who cannot accept or adapt to wider cultural norms either find acceptance in a subculture or resort to hidden private practices (although few sexual practices are truly public).

To contrast perversion with normality does not answer the question of what perversion is or what the defining criteria of perversion are. A person who fails to achieve normal sexual fulfillment may be subnormal or abnormal rather than perverse. Women are not uncommonly nonorgasmic and I have met a heterosexual man who was unable to have an orgasm except by masturbation. Another man I once met was baffled by the fact that he had no sexual feeling whatsoever.

Perversion cannot be defined on the basis of unnaturalness of behavior. Anal intercourse or sex between an animal and a person are natural in the sense of not violating any law of nature — nature gives people the means to do these things. Nor is cultural censure of a behavior a sufficient criterion for perversion because murder is a censured behavior even though a murderer is not regarded as a pervert. Aesthetic revulsion is close to a criterion for perversion, but even this fails for the case of a person who never bathes — who is regarded as disgusting, but not perverted.

To be called perverted a behavior must be both an expression of a sexual desire and be offensive. Offensivity is both a personal and a cultural phenomenon. Homosexuality (even homosexual pedophilia) was reputedly a normal part of life in ancient Greece — part of how young men learned. More commonly, male homosexuality has been regarded as a perversion. In particular, male homosexuality has been especially offensive/threatening to males. In 19th century England male homosexuality was illegal and harshly punished, but the law was silent on female homosexuality. A similar phenomenon is seen in contemporary Latin American culture where masculinity is given great prominence. By contrast, homosexuality is increasingly accepted as normal in North America & Europe — a cultural shift — even though most heterosexual males probably feel some discomfort or awkwardness in connection with it.

Although the judgement of perversion is largely based on aesthetic grounds, aesthetic revulsion is mixed with moral condemnation. As homosexuality is increasingly regarded as something innate — like type 1 diabetes — it cannot be a matter of moral responsibility. Homosexuals discover their sexual identity rather than choose it. By contrast, pedophilia is regarded as perverted more on moral grounds than on aesthetic. Having sex with an animal is the converse — the offense is more aesthetic than moral. Necrophilia is offensive in a peculiar way that is more aptly described as "eerie weirdness" than aesthetic or moral.

Fetishism is perhaps the least offensive of perversions. It is normal to be erotically aroused by sexy dresses and negligee. To be unable to experience erotic arousal without negligee would seem more abnormal than perverted. By contrast, a person who smears feces on a partner in order to be erotically aroused would seem perverted.

Exhibitionism & voyeurism manifest feelings that seem normal or perverse depending on the context. For a woman to wear a sexy dress — or even to strip on stage — would be regarded as normal exhibitionism. For a woman to expose genitals in a public place would seem abnormal (and is rarely heard-of). For a man to do the same would seem perverted. The distinction lies in the offensiveness associated with male aggressiveness. Peeping is regarded as a cowardly form of male perversion. If women have the urge to peep they are more likely to do so by changing diapers. For a woman to dress in a way to expose cleavage is normal. In almost all activities related to sex, a man's motivations are viewed with far more suspicion than a woman's.

Bondage and even sado-masochistic practices have increasingly gained acceptance as not being perverted when performed between consenting adults. Bondage can be a means whereby many people can deal with power & guilt issues. A person can display trust and provide a feeling of safety by allowing themselves to be tied-up. Or being tied-up can be a means of experiencing sex in a way that abdicates the sense of guilt that might accompany freedom & responsibility.

That bondage usually involves a pretending of non-consent gives it much in common with many sadomasochistic practices. In most sadomasochistic practice the partners not only pretend that bondage is non-consensual, they pretend that physical abuse is non-consensual. "Safe" words are a protective device for preventing fantasy from drifting into an unpleasant reality. Spanking, for example, is not really painful when done in a restrained manner to the buttocks. Spanking becomes a means of playfully experiencing power or surrender to power.

The pleasures of sadomasochism can extend into regions of real pain, discomfort & humiliation — which may be fetishistically pleasurable. During sexual arousal some things that might otherwise be painful (such as the application of ice) can be pleasurable. But some people will allow themselves to endure real pain or humiliation if they feel the pleasure or rewards of a relationship still outweigh the benefits. A person may endure cruel treatment or even beatings for the sake of love or hot sex. In some cases the treatment is a cost paid for a rewarding relationship, in some cases it adds " spice" — or there may be a confusing mixture.

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IV. SEXUAL PRACTICES

As society becomes increasingly tolerant of sexual practices that have no victim, the number of "normal" choices for manifesting sexual feelings increases. Masturbation, exhibitionism, oral-genital sex, genital-anal sex, homosexuality, bisexuality, polyamory and even bondage or sadomasochistic games are practices that have moved (or are moving) from being regarded as perversions to being accepted as varieties of normal sexual expression. Reflection on these practices shifts from why they might be regarded as perversions to why people choose one practice over another — and what the choices mean.

Homosexuality & polyamoury show an intriguing relationship between sex & love. Homosexuality at face value describes sources & sinks of sexual arousal. Yet the primary love-partner of a homosexual is typically a person of the same sex. Homosexual thus means homoromantic. In practice lesbians are far more likely to be "married" and male homosexuals are more likely to be "swinging singles". There are, of course, many male homosexuals who have long-term committed relationships with a single partner.

Polyamory, in a linguistic sense, is the opposite of homosexuality. A term describing love manifestation also describes (some might say "is a euphemism for") sexual manifestation. Multisexual might equivalently describe multiple sex-love partners. A distinction is often made between promiscuity and long-term committed sexual/romantic relationships with multiple partners — but committed polyamorous relationships would not be expected to be as lasting as monogamous ones. (The Catholic Church presumably still regards serial monogamy — with divorce — as a perversion.) Long-term monogamy does have the very practical advantage of creating an environment in which it is safe to enjoy the pleasures of sex without a condom.

Sexual partners may differ in their williness to experience the pleasures of unprotected sex. Men are typically seen as being less concerned if a unwanted pregnancy results — regarding it as the "woman's problem" — not the kind of attitude one would expect from a caring relationship. The partners should both have an equal concern about the risk of the pleasures of sex without a condom leading to a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD). An uncaring partner may knowingly transmit a disease for the sake of sexual gratification. But I once had a woman who apparently loved me tell me of her venereal warts only after we had sex (she "hated" condoms and I was less cautious about disease at that time). Fortunately, the condition was curable, but other STDs like herpes are not curable and some STDs, like Hepatitis B virus are not only as potentially fatal as AIDS, but can pass through condoms. Condoms cannot protect against pubic lice. Medical tests for STDs by potential lovers — and sexually exclusive relationships with verifiably STD-free partners — are a prudent precaution when the risks are so great.

Genital-genital sex and whole-body naked embrace are typically regarded as simultaneous manifestations of sexual/sensual pleasure. Such sex has an outward manifestation of mutuality & equality even when this is not actually the case — as when a woman consents to intercourse as a means of expressing love or experiencing closeness without having sexual pleasure. Genital-anal sex may be mutually sensual/sexual, but is more likely to be unequal than genital-genital sex. Whether any manifestation of heterosexual sex is truly equal can easily be questioned — especially in light of the fact that no one is in a position to subjectively compare a man's sexual experience with a woman's.

Oral-genital sex can seem like an unequal form of sexual expression that clearly distinguishes between a giver and a receiver. Yet many people experience more pleasure in giving than in receiving — and not only because the oral sexual technique of their partner is poor. Genitals can be an intimate, personal part of one's body to expose to another person — with an intense capacity to experience pleasure or pain. To be able to deliver intense pleasure to a person can provide a sense of efficacy or personal power — in addition to being an expression of love.

Although some men enjoy being intimate with women's vulvas, others find vulvas aesthetically repellant or are so focused on penile fulfillment that they see no point in performing oral sex. Women who perform oral sex may not want semen in their mouths — even when AIDS or other STDs are not a risk — depriving their partner of experiencing orgasm during the oral-genital experience. Or if the man does ejaculate in her mouth, the woman may still prefer to spit rather than swallow (which she should by all means do, if that is her preference). When such aesthetic preferences cannot be "re-programmed" they can represent barriers to sexual intimacy & fulfillment. How substantial or significant these barriers are depends upon the two people.

Short-term "re-programming" is usually associated with "seduction" — a word that connotes indirectness and/or manipulation. Nonetheless, erotic arousal can be coaxed, and this can often be done by creating the right mood, creating a feeling of safety, familiarity & pleasure in touching — and by expressing appropriate consideration & interest. Being "seduced" can be a pleasant kind of attention — an enjoyable game played by two consenting adults. In such cases "seduction" can be a gentle way for one or both participants to safely explore how far they really want to go. Some people attempt to find aphrodisiacs to simplify the process, but there is no aphrodisiac that compares to enthusiasm — finding the keys to a person's personal erotic interests (when they exist).

Some people dislike experiencing oral-genital sex. Self-consciousness or discomfort about being a receiver can be a psychological barrier. Oral-genital sex can be the most intense sexual experience for some and never more than a prelude to penetration for others. These preferences may be subjective/physiological qualities not amenable to analysis or understanding or they may be manifestations of some psychological attributes — as alluded to above.

With respect to orgasms, women have special problems. Sigmond Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, did not help matters by defining an orgasm achieved through clitoral stimulation as "immature orgasm" as distinct from an orgasm achieved through vaginal stimulation (intercourse) which he called "mature orgasm". For most women orgasm cannot be achieved through intercourse alone. The clitoris is the primary organ of sexual pleasure for women (aside from the brain) and the clitoris is not usually stimulated during missionary-position intercourse. Most women do have sensitive areas in their vaginas that can be stimulated to orgasm, but this physiological fact is unrelated to "sexual maturity". Although there are erotically sensitive tissues on the anterior wall of the vagina [ACTA OBSTETRICA ET GYNECOLOGICA SCANDINAVICA 65(7):767-773 (1986)] many gynecologists doubt that there is a distinct anatomical structure of vaginal orgasm (the Grafenberg Spot, "G-Spot") associated with the paraurethral glands [AMERICAN JOURNAL OF OBSTETRICS AND GYNECOLOGY 185(2):359-362 (2001)].

Although men cannot fake an erection, women have the capacity to fake orgasms. Many women have never had an orgasm because they have never learned to masturbate. Women who experience pain on intercourse often need nothing more than an artificial lubricant. Pretending to have experienced orgasm for the sake of pleasing or impressing undermines the basis of good sex. Sex has the capacity to be a project for mutual pleasure & fun. Deception indicates lack of trust & intimacy — and it is ultimately self-defeating. A partner who is given the wrong information can never learn to deliver real pleasure. Nearly two-thirds of women have reported pretending orgasm at some time in their lives. Although not model behavior for an ideal sexual relationship, pretending orgasms may be prudent when dealing with sensitive male egos and understandable in women who do not feel safe in expressing true feelings.

Sex has the potential to involve two people pleasuring each other in ways that are sensitive to individual needs — rather than be an anxiety-filled performance of two people trying to impress each other with simultaneous orgasms. If orgasms are regarded as the key focus, there is still no reason why two people cannot take turns in helping their partner achieve an orgasm — or any other form of sexual fulfillment. An ejaculation need not be regarded as "premature" and a woman need not fake an orgasm in an atmosphere of mutual sexual trust & support. Nonetheless, mutual simultaneous arousal is necessary if a woman wants an erect penis in her vagina.

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V. SEX AND EGO

Attempts to understand the relation of ego to sex underscores the key issues in the concept of ego. For some people their ego is primarily associated with how they are viewed by society at large, others are more concerned about their peers (or subculture), others are primarily concerned about how their significant-other regards them and for some a sense of self-worth is what is most important. People are often neither clear nor honest about these distinctions. People who are most adament that they "do not care about what people think" are often the very ones most sensitive to public opinion. Not only do they intensely care what others think, they don't want it known that they care and may not even admit it to themselves. Many find shame in admitting emotional dependence upon the judgements of others and their ego is attached to their self-image of being emotionally autonomous.

Sexual ego has many possible attachments — the ability to have a mate or sexual partners others (and/or self) find desirable, the ability to have children, the ability to give sexual pleasure to a partner and an appearance of sexual attractiveness. The public display of success is a kind of exhibitionism, although the word "exhibitionism" is usually restricted to body displays. But where peer-group attachments are strong, sexual partners & sensual experience can be secondary to the value of "wait until I tell the guys" (or show the gals). A sexual ego status-seeker may be unable to "get it up" (have an erection) because erotism is not his real motivation or objective.

Some sexual partners are not prepared to deal with hearing that their sexual performance is less than spectacular. In such cases, ego is a real barrier to communication, mutual learning and an improved sexual relationship. Rather than being open to suggestions as to how to make things better, such partners will be uncommunicative, deeply hurt and reluctant to participate in future sex. It may well be that the only way to deal with such partners is polite silence or even reassuring words or actions — hopefully in a way that will open the door for future communication.

Female body exhibitionism intended for an audience of other women tends to stress elegance and sophistication, whereas exhibitionism intended to arouse male attention & interest is more erotic. When the audience is female the exhibitionism is an end in itself, whereas when the audience is male the exhibitionism may or may not be a means to an end. Women often use sexual attraction when the real intention is "bait-and-switch" — meaning the woman may have little or no interest in sex, but be seeking attention for its own sake, a companion, economic support or father for her child. Of course, many women who have these objectives may much enjoy sex as well.

There is male body exhibitionism associated with dress & body sculpturing (creating a muscular body at the gym), but the term "exhibitionism" most commonly refers to men exposing their penis. If there were no women who enjoyed penis display there would be no incentive for men to do it. But even for women who enjoy seeing men expose themselves, when it is done unexpectedly in a private place by a stranger concern for safety can make the experience frightening.

Breast size & penis size are often significantly associated with sexual worth. Surgery can be used to enlarge a breast or enlarge a penis, but not without risk of unpleasant side effects. (Penis sizes are more similar for erect penis's than flaccid ones — and the best way to have healthy erections is to have good cardiovascular health.) Although male ego may be associated with being able to display a large penis to partners & peers, penis size also can be relevant to the ability to deliver sexual pleasure to a partner.

Considering how much interest exists in the subject of sex, it is remarkable how little science is devoted to the subject or how distrusted the authorities are. Difficulties with being open & honest about sex contribute significantly to lack of understanding. Facts about penis size are a good example of this. Sexual advisors frequently say that penis size is not critical to giving sexual pleasure. Such conclusions are based on speculations about anatomy (often the critical importance of stimulating the clitoris) and/or a not-very-honest desire to reassure sensitive male egos. A scientific study of 375 women giving birth at a hospital, however, found that 21% of the women regarded penis length to be important and 32% regarded penis width to be important [EUROPEAN UROLOGY 38(1):426-431 (2002)].

I once knew a "couple" who were unable to consummate their relationship because his penis was too large to fit in her vagina. Penis size is certainly very important in such cases.

Even to say that size of breast or penis is important does not really answer the question of how important. Very few men would chose a sexual partner — and certainly not a wife — on the basis of breast size alone. People probably worry about their own body parts much more than others are concerned about them. General attractiveness, physical fitness & personality would nearly always be of much more importance than organ size — for both men and women.

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VI. SEX AND EMOTION

Sex can profoundly impact a person's sense of self-worth. It is common to dismiss the shallow machismo of men who pride themselves on their sexual accomplishment ("conquests"). But the achievement of a sexual liaison can produce a profound sense of pride, especially after an experience of frustration, failure & humiliation.

People who master sex manuals and are obsessed with sexual technique can also have a strong element of pride associated with sex. Of course good sexual techniques can add a great deal to the pleasure of sex. But for many people, impressing their partner with technical prowess takes precedence over purely sensual enjoyment.

Sexual technicians are often a subcategory of those who have a need to be in control (of themselves, of their partner & of the situation) at all times. People who are unwilling-to — or afraid-of — loss of control are lacking in trust. Such people miss a lot of spontaneity & fun — and may find it difficult to be sensitive & responsive to their partner. Too much lack of control, however, could lead to unwanted pregnancies or venereal disease for those who cannot resist the temptation to experience the intense pleasures of sex without a condom.

Sexual situations are like many social situations insofar as they can arouse considerable anxiety. The partner may not be a trusted friend or the partner is loved, but not trusted to make kindly judgements if sexual performance is not up to "standard". Sex may be attempted as an effort to fulfill social expectations rather than be driven by genuine sexual desire. Under such conditions men fail to get erections and women fail to have orgasms.

The pleasure of sex can be a powerful narcotic — like heroin for a heroin-addict. People often sacrifice their lives to obtain this substance — taking on debt, responsibility and a dead-end job to sustain a life which provides sexual gratification. When one partner has a higher sex drive than the other, the partner with the least sex-drive can deliver sex in carefully metered doses as a means of controlling the behavior of their mate — if there are no other factors to tip the balance of power in the other direction. A sexually indifferent woman can passively accept sex, but a sexually indifferent man leaves his woman out-in-the cold.

Women commonly have fantasies of being raped. In their fantasies the rapist is an attractive & powerful man driven by lust. As in bondage, the woman is absolved from guilt or responsibility for the act, while at the same time feeling the pleasure of being the object of intense desire. Most women are sensible enough to know that real rape is often committed by men they would find physically repulsive and carries the terrifying risk of beating, mutilation or even murder.

I once had a neighbor who provided a home for mentally retarded adults. One woman in his charge would repeatedly go to the park where a rapist — the same man every time — would have sex with her and then beat her. Although the first occasions may have been a rape, subsequent experiences could not have been or she would not have repeatedly gone to the park knowing he would find her (she wasn't "that dumb"). According to my neighbor, she loved her "rapist" — love as an expression of gratitude because no one else had ever taken such a personal interest in her. But she was distressed that he would always beat her after sex. My own analysis is that when having sex with her he was gratifying his physical urges, but that afterwards he was confronted with his own humiliation at having to copulate with such a "lowly" creature. His beating of her was thus an expression of frustration and self-contempt. I am speculating, but that's what philosophizing is about.

(For the relation of sex to love, see my essay Some Philosophizing About Love).

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