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Provocations Philosophical

From Loving To Wolfing

Peter Cave toys with love, sex and other objects.

“Darling, I missed you.”

“Well,” she replied, “You must fire again.”

Assume that our young lady misunderstood his intentions, and that her lover was no wolf with a gun but sincerely in love: what was it that he missed about her? Assume, too, that he is not about to give a list mentioning the ironing, sewing and roof fixing: what was it that he missed about her as the one he loves?

Objects Of Love

The question of what is it that we love sets traps. Let him say her coquettish walk, the smile that lightens her face, her compassion and curves, her sense of colour and wonder at sunsets and rainbows. Add if he must the skilful ironing and roof fixing. Whatever is said, may she not rightly retort, “Ah, so you just love me for properties x, y, z and so on”? Once he has given such a list, it would seem she can then reasonably add, “So anyone else with those properties would have received your love? If we popped another person in my place, but with the same coquettish walk, smile and so on, then you would love her?” Her lover would be well-advised to pause for thought before answering this loaded question. At least in intimacy, we commit to its being this individual that we love, not just anyone of the desirable type. Yet it remains mysterious what the this is, if it does not come down to properties repeatable in others.

We may explain the this by stressing that there is always a particular story of how the lovers got together. Maybe they met under a table, the worse for wear and wine. No one else could have that particular history with the beloved. And that’s true: but we may then wonder why the history should count for so much. We may also reflect that, were the history so important, would not anyone else under the table have done as well as the future lover?

Sometimes we sigh sadly that we want lovers to love us for ourselves – the ‘essential me’. But whatever is that? I suspect that just as we suspend down-to-earth belief when watching a play, an opera, or reading a book – we fall into the story and believe in the characters – so too when in love we fall into our story of love, where we float on air with skies a-blue, speaking of being meant for each other. When in love, such romantic fictionalism within which we live may hold out for whole days – sorry, I mean decades.

The above concerns romantic love, but similar puzzles arise with sexual desire which we will fearlessly touch upon. Quite what is it that we desire when we desire someone sexually? It cannot be simply the physical pleasure, for if it were, then any other means to generate the same sensations would do just as well. Perhaps sexual desire is desire to have sexual intercourse – but even that is not obviously so. We may have a sexual desire, yet not want it satisfied – perhaps because of legal or moral constraints. Further, sex-working girls may typically desire sexual intercourse without having any sexual desire at all. Some have suggested that sexual desire is ‘desire for physical contact which generates pleasure’. But of course, boxers and wrestlers may well desire physical contact with their opponents to knock them to the ground, gaining pleasure. That is a long way away from what is at the heart of sexual desires – well, the more common ones.

Just as there are puzzles about love, and indeed, sex and desire, there are related perplexities concerning the treatment of people as sex objects.

As a Lemon Sucked Dry

Bakers, butchers and candlestick makers – or for that matter, nurses, judges and street cleaners – do not typically rail against being used as (if I may introduce the term) ‘job objects’. Yet some women, especially feminists, do indeed rail and rage against being treated as ‘sex objects’. They argue that men frequently (if not always) regard them thus; at work, in the street, and even in bed. Men are wolves, ever ready to pounce on women as meat to be violated and devoured. Indeed, where sexual relations are concerned, it seems that woman is but:

“An object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, she is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry… all motives of moral relationship cease to function, because as an object of appetite she becomes a thing and can be treated as such by everyone.”

Curiously, this quotation derives (admittedly with some modifications) not from an obvious extreme feminist, but from the great Eighteenth-Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. I modified his comment as if it were directed solely towards the sexual treatment of women, but Kant did not discriminate: to him, both men and women are treated as objects in the sexual relation. Sexually, we use each other solely as means to our ends; when the ends are just sexual pleasures, we degrade each other into mere instruments. The sexually abstemious Kant appears ignorant of the interplay of reflections, emotions and explorations in sex. But what of the ‘sex object’ complaint that is made by women when not in bed? There is, of course, the basic empirical question of whether women typically are treated as sex objects. But what is a ‘sex object’?

Various features cluster round the concept ‘sex object’. It sometimes does involve being treated merely as a tool for others’ use or pleasure. Sometimes there is the idea that the woman’s experiences and free choices matter not at all. Sometimes she is treated as if lacking free will, rationality and interests; sometimes that it is acceptable for her to be violated. Sometimes there is stress on her being replaceable – that anyone with her sexual characteristics would do. This clustering of ideas makes it difficult to give simple answers to this question about being a sex object. Let us consider a comparison.

Male builders wolf-whistle at an attractive woman walking by, purely on the basis of her sexual allure. She is not treated as a person but as flesh on legs, replaceable by any other piece of like or better quality. But this frequently-given example may also be taken as insensitively identifying some people as job objects. Builders are, in part, employed on the basis of their physical characteristics; and they are replaceable, and often replaced. Moreover, taxi-drivers are whistled at for their taxi- driving, and if the first cab is taken, the second will do. Arguably, these are poor analogies: being a woman is not an occupation and walking by is not usually indicative of an occupational role.

In any case though, although we choose builders because of their muscles and abilities as builders, we do not thereby treat them as objects. We treat them as agents who have freely taken up the occupation. When a woman is whistled at because of her curves, it does not follow that she would be treated merely as a curved thing in any resulting relationship. Even women have been known to fall in love at first sight, yet we should not conclude that they would treat the man sighted as nothing but an object manifesting the visually desirable. Identifying people by their bodies, being attracted by their physical features, employing them for their muscular prowess (or even consulting them for their reasoning powers) should not lead us to think that therefore we are bound to deal with them as nothing more than bodies, sets of physical characteristics, brawny muscles, or reasoners.

The ‘sex object’ complaint is sometimes justified, of course. Consider cases when a woman’s sexual desirability forms the basis for a job promotion judgement which should be made on other grounds. Consider other cases when women, hurrying to work, are badgered because of their sexual desirability. But even in these cases, caveats need to be entered. No one seriously thinks that the way many men and women dress has nothing to do with displaying sexual attractiveness or improving promotion prospects. No one seriously thinks that many women and men do not enjoy being found desirable. It can be fun (so I hear). The problem is assessing when flirtations, invitations and innuendoes are appropriate. After all, some women are pleased to receive wolf whistles – as are some men.

© Peter Cave 2008

Some elements of the above derive from Peter Cave’s recent collection, Can a Robot be Human? 33 Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles where more is said. The book continues to be unputdownable: the glue holding it together stuck to my fingers.

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