Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Introduction to the Rationality of Sex; Ambiguity of Sexual Orientations and Desire or What Gays Want

Frank: Oh, hang your machine! Do you believe we mean the same thing by the word “believe”?

Epistemologist: Do I believe it? Just a moment while I check with the machine. Yes, it turns out I do believe it.

Frank: My goodness, do you mean to say that you can’t even tell me what you believe without consulting the machine?

Epistemologist: Of course not.

Frank: But most people when asked what they believe simply tell you. Why do you, in order to find out your beliefs, go through the fantastically roundabout process of directing a thought-reading machine to your own brain and then finding out what you believe on the basis of the machine readings?

Epistemologist: What other scientific, objective way is there of finding out what I believe?

Frank: Oh, come now, why don’t you just ask yourself?

Epistemologist (sadly): It doesn’t work. Whenever I ask myself what I believe, I never get any answer!

Frank: Well, why don’t you just state what you believe?

Epistemologist: How can I state what I believe before I know what I believe?

Frank: Oh, to hell with your knowledge of what you believe; surely you have some idea or belief as to what you believe, don’t you?

Epistemologist: Of course I have such a belief. But how do I find out what this belief is?

Raymond Smullyan, An Epistemological Nightmare

 The title of this note no doubt seems to be a self-contradiction. How can sex be something rational, subject to knowledge, understanding and reason? If anything, it seems to be the most “mysterious” and irrational thing on the face of this earth. Isn’t it something which you just “feel” or “know” without proof, justification or deduction or even understanding? Isn’t it fundamentally “subjective” and cannot possibly be diffused by “objective” third-person reasoning?

The burden naturally would be upon me to prove this rather counter-intuitive thesis, however the overall purpose of this note is to introduce some convenient conceptual tools for thinking about sexual desire, to show that far from being an “intuitive” or “obvious” thing which “immediately” strikes one’s consciousness (immediate in the “Hegelian” sense), it is actually quite ambiguous and somewhat subject to our cognitive understanding and our systems of beliefs, and therefore subject to the ambiguities which comes from thinking within a system or constellation of ideas, etc. Since this note is meant to be an introduction, I will focus less about rigorous deduction and more upon examples, or what Daniel Dennett calls “intuition pumps”, to illustrate the arguments in this note. I hope at the end if not to settle any issue decisively, at least to provide some concepts for moving forward.

I shall advance my arguments in two broad steps: (1) I shall argue that sexual desire is qualified and determined by our understanding and beliefs about the object of desire, (2) I shall then argue that the course of desire itself is determined and framed by our understanding concerning the broader context which informs what “possession” and “desire” means.

To that end, although throughout my writings I have repeated this quote from Roger Scruton ad nauseum, but it remains the starting point for most of my arguments concerning this topic.

Sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person, not his or her body, conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines and who confronts me eye to eye, and I to I.

(italics mine)

Desiring Things versus Persons

Let us put side by side the Scruton’s affirmations and denials.

Sexual desire is NOT the desire for…

(1) Sensations (2) A Body, conceived as an object in the physical world

Sexual desire IS the desire for…

(1) A Person (2) An incarnate subject (3) A subject “in whom the light of self-consciousness shines”

Here is a convenient way to think about the difference between desire for a sensation/physical object and the desire for a person. What’s the difference between the enjoyment of, say, eating an ice-cream and of appreciating a joke? To enjoy eating an ice-cream, you just have to literally physically lick the ice-cream and the pleasure of the taste of the ice-cream is “immediately” communicated to you. You don’t have to understand or possess any third-person cognitive knowledge about what an ice-cream is, or how it is made, etc, just feed it to a child and watch them get addicted to it. The experience is “unmediated” by third-person knowledge but produces “immediate” enjoyment by virtue of the taste sensations.

This is different from appreciating or enjoying a joke. To appreciate a joke, you need to “get it”, that is, you need to understand the logic of the joke, the twist, the irony, or whatever. The enjoyment and appreciation of a joke is intrinsically bound to third-person reasoning, understanding and knowledge in a way that the enjoyment of eating an ice-cream is not. This is why you can “explain a joke” and yet not be able to “explain” what-it-feels-like to enjoy an ice-cream.

Now sexual desire involves a very subtle dialectic between the two sorts of “enjoyment” which I have already elaborated in this post. Suffice to say, what I shall do is to give some examples to illustrate how this dialectic is applicable to the case of sexual desires.

Now suppose a woman was married to a man who happens to have a very evil identical twin whom the woman loathes. Suppose one day, this evil identical twin cleverly tricks the woman into having sex with him. Let’s ask an interesting question: Has she been raped?

Now at first thought, there might be prima facie reasons for considering that she has been raped. First, technically, she “consented” to only have sex with her husband, his twin is not her husband, she did not consent to have sex with him, and therefore had been made to have sex with him without her consent. But consider the oddity of saying that she has been raped. This judgement of rape is made from a third-person point of view independently of her subjective experience. What distinguishes the evil twin from the husband? It cannot be anything physical or anything to do with sensational experience. Her subjective emotional/sensational experience of sex with the twin can for all intents and purposes be relevantly identical to that of her husband, he looks the same, behaves the same, feels the same, (heck, even smells the same), etc. The only difference between the twin and her husband is her knowledge of who they are as a person, her beliefs and understanding of their characters, their life history, etc, not her sensational experience of their physical persons. One of the twin is her husband, which is not a physical experiential fact but an objective social fact, the other is not.

So oddly enough, to be a victim of a rape is a third-person objective fact independently of one’s subjective beliefs or experience. Let’s build upon our example to illustrate our point better. Now, suppose the wife remains in ignorance that she has slept with the evil twin but the husband discovers the deception. However, knowing how psychologically fragile she is, he decides to keep this a secret from her and pretend that it was with him, and not the twin, whom which she slept with, so that she won’t get tramautised, etc. This decision can only make sense in the light of the truth that our third-person beliefs and understanding can change the meaning and experience of our sexual experience. Although the twin maybe physically identical and produce the same empirical impressions and sensations, but the third-person knowledge and understanding of the person, their life history, their characters, over and above just their mere bodies, can dramatically and qualitatively change the sexual experience. Knowing that it is her husband making love to her would constitute a vastly different sexual experience from being in possession of the knowledge that it is his evil twin trying to make love to her, it could be all that makes the difference between marital love and rape.

The Ambiguity of the Sexual Experience

So far I have demonstrated how third-person understanding and beliefs can alter qualitatively our sexual experience and desires. Now I shall attempt to demonstrate how the fact that sexual experiences and desires can be qualified by third-person understanding and beliefs render judgements about sexual experiences ambiguous. 

In the 18th century novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, the powerful Squire Booby repeatedly attempts to have sex with the pure and virtuous Pamela, whom he has got imprisoned in his house, but who by some fortuitous miracle manages to get out of all his rape attempts. Finally, he devices a scheme to get what he wants. He plans to trick Pamela with a mock wedding with him and then, being the good and virtuous girl she is, she would have no scruples about sleeping with her “lawfully wedded” husband and would not resist him this time.

Although in the novel this scheme was again most miraculously foiled, let us suppose that he did succeed and Pamela, under the impression that he is her lawfully wedded husband, does proceed to sleep with him. Suppose on discovering the deception she cries “rape”. But suppose we ask her what exactly is her reason for charging Squire Booby with rape? She could no doubt say that she “consented” to have sex with her husband, Squire Booby is not her husband, ergo, she did not consent to have sex with him and was raped.

But while this seems reasonable, Squire Booby can equally and slyly reply that Pamela consented to have sex with Squire Booby, and the fact of his martial status with her, or lack thereof, is peripheral to the object of her consent. It would be on par with arguing that a woman got raped because she had sex with a man, believing him to be a millionaire CEO while he is only a poor artist, the fact of him being a CEO or artist is not a significant enough factor of a person’s identity to be a relevant consideration for whether he is the proper object of consent. While it might be debatable that being a husband is a significant enough factor of a person’s identity to be a relevant consideration for deciding whether he is in fact the proper object of the consent to love making.

I raise these examples not to attempt to settle them but merely to illustrate that sexual desire or experience is bound to third-person cognitive beliefs and understanding, because sexual desires has as its proper object persons not strictly bodies, persons of a particular life history, character, etc, which are not mere physical traits which constitutes our empirical sensations. But precisely because sexual desires have as its proper object character and not strictly physical traits, it therefore partakes of all the likewise ambiguities which goes into our knowledge and understanding of personhood, character, etc, and that ultimately, sexual desire is not an “obvious” immediate experience or fact but is in fact mediated by a lot of third-person conceptual systems.

Desire… to do what?

We have seen how the quality of our sexual desire and experiences can be altered by our third-person cognitive understanding and knowledge of the object of that deisre, e.g. the person’s life history, character, etc. However, the very meaning of what “desire” itself, or what Hegel would call the “course” of desire, can also be altered by our understanding of what does it mean to even “desire”.

We often use the word “attraction” and “desire” rather uncritically, we speak of being attracted to people, gender types, etc. But what does it really mean to be attracted to or desire something? Suppose you say, “I want some chocolates now”. A relevant question would be, want to what end? What do you want to do with it? In the case of chocolates, to consume and eat it of course. If you desire a piece of music or a work of art on the other hand, you don’t desire to eat it. You desire to enjoy listening to it, or looking at it.

So there seems to be another dialectic at work here between “desire” in the sense of enjoyment and “desire” in the sense of possession. When the phrase “I desire that work of art” is used, it does not merely mean that one enjoys appreciating the work of art, it also means that one wants to possess it too. One wants to legally own it and acquire property rights over that work of art. While no doubt this is to the end of being able to enjoy it as and when one pleases, it is important to note this additional “possessive” connotation to the concept of “desire” because when it comes to sexual desire or desiring persons, the enjoyment/possession dialectic would become a little confusing, if not blurred.

But for now, what is important to note is that this “desire” to “possess” only makes sense in a social context which recognises the concept of “property” and “ownership”, etc. In a true pure communistic society for example, the concept of “possession” would make no sense because there is no such thing as “property” in such a society, everything “belongs” to everyone, and if there is no such concept of property, there would be no such concept as possession, and by extension, desire in the possessive sense. I bring up this example merely to point to how the meaning of “desire” and “want” can be altered by changes in our social contexts and circumstances, and that something as “subjective” and “personal” as desires and wants are mediated by such “external” systems and contexts.

Now, let us apply this reasoning to persons and sexual desires. Suppose the boss of a company says concerning a worker of a competitor company, “I want that guy”. What does it mean to “want” in this context? Well, it is clear that he desires that guy to be his employee. But what does it mean to say that you desire a person? What is the context governing this phrase? It could be that you simply desire to possess that person. But what does it mean to “possess” someone? Own that person under a slave contract?

Again, it is not my interest to spell out exactly what does “possession” mean in the “romantic” context, the sense which I have already explicated in the above mentioned link. However, the sense in which I am interested in the course of desire, what does it mean to have one’s desire fulfilled or even “consummated”, etc, especially as it relates to the idea of “sexual orientation”. In the property or consumption context, to “fulfill” one’s desire just means to possess a legally recognised title deed or to eat some delicacy or watch a performance or to just look at an art piece.

But what does such desire and attraction mean when it comes to persons, especially sexually, and what does such desire/attraction have to do with sexual orientation?

What Gays Want

Suppose we accept the prima facie definition that to possess a homosexual orientation means to be simply “attracted” to and desire a person of their own gender. Again we raise the question, desire to what end? Do they just want to admire the beauty of their physique and stare at their bodies? Have sex with it? The answer is however not as obvious as might seem which I shall illustrate with an example.

A friend of mine once said that someone was gay if he wanted to have sex with a person of the same gender, and thus, not just take pleasure or enjoy the image of the person’s physique. Then I ask what does it mean to want to have sex with the person of the same gender, is it to desire to have anal sex, oral sex, or simply masturbate in the presence of another person of the same gender? While understandably grossed out by the question, my friend just answered yes to all the above. Then I asked a further question, if a person masturbated in front of a mirror naked, being aroused by this image of his own body, would that mean a person had a gay “sexual orientation”? To which he then answered yes.

The problem with this answer is that it postulates that to be gay or to have a homosexual orientation it is sufficient just to be aroused by the physique of one’s own gender, to take sexual pleasure in the image of bodily form and physique, but without the actual desire for bodily engagement or “intercourse” with the other person. Thus, in a very strange and odd sense, to be gay just means to take pleasure or appreciate for the bodily form or physique of one’s own gender, to the point of ejaculation but not necessarily involving sex.

The more interesting question we come to is whether or not one could “consummate” such a desire even in a heterosexual relationship. After all, remember, on this conception, it is not the intercourse which constitutes the gay desire, it is merely the pleasure and appreciation for the bodily form or physique. One could simply consummate one’s pleasure and desire for one’s own bodily form in the opposite sex’s desire and “worship” for his own body.

To put this in a more concrete setting, there is an interesting class of gay pornography which consists exclusively of heterosexual sex, but catered for a (male) gay audience. Thus the videos mostly focus upon the guy instead of the girl in these types of pornography and are recorded for the pleasure of gay audiences. But herein is the curious thing, according to some definitions, if being gay means to want or desire to have sexual intercourse with a person of one’s own gender, or even to take sexual pleasure in it, then technically, there can be no such pornography. That is, technically it is impossible for there to be such a class of gay pornography because by definition no gay will ever want to watch a guy have straight sex. But that there does exists such porn would force this either-or:

(1) Having a “gay” sexual orientation is compatible with desiring, appreciating and even taking pleasure in a straight sexual intercourse and relationship. Therefore “sexual orientation” merely defines the bodily form which one appreciates or takes pleasure in, but does not by itself define the sort of sexual relationship one desires.

(2) Homosexuality by definition must be restricted and confined to those who desire gay relationships AND gay intercourse, not merely take sexual pleasure or appreciation for the bodily form or physique of one’s own sex. Thus, there cannot possibly be such a thing as gays who want to watch guys have heterosexual sex! Those people are not gay!

I am not interested one way or another in wrangling over the meaning of the word “gay” or “homosexuality”. The point is simply to note that the category and concept of “sexual orientation”, especially in relation to “sexual desire”, is in fact more ambiguous then we think, denoting more of a range of attitudes and mindset rather than a “fixed” course or “desire”, and might actually be more fluid than we imagine it to be.

Conclusion: Severing Orientation from Desire

The concept of sexual desire and orientation I trust have been sufficiently illustrated to be rather ambiguous concepts. We have seen how sexual desire can be qualified and even radically altered by third-person knowledge. We have seen how to “desire” permits of many shades of interpretations, depending on the extent and course of one’s own desire, and we have seen how in relation to this, the concept of sexual orientation is itself an ambiguous concept, and that “obvious” definitions of sexual orientation collapses in the face of particular examples and phenomena which doesn’t quite fit into the standard concept.

The concept of sexual orientation is probably not more than a century or old and today it has become as concrete and as certain a fact as gravity and atoms. (For a discussion on the difference between past practices of homosexuality and the present concept of homosexual “orientation”, see here.) Worse, most of the Christian world today has more or less accepted this concept as a matter of course and decides to re-calibrate Christian ministry and theology around this idea. This is supremely represented by the Roman Catholic Church which has effectively bought into the concept and encoded it into their Catechism, condemning all “gay” persons to a life time of celibacy.

The problem of course with the concept of sexual orientation is that it is long on prescriptions and short on actual content. To be a “gay” prescribes an entire system and form of life, e.g., must necessarily want to have gay sex, can only desire gay company, cannot enter or appreciate heterosexual relationships or sex, etc. But when it is asked what exactly constitutes or make one a gay, the answer proves to be rather incoherent and unclear.

This is how we can have an open gay man who nevertheless has chosen to enter into a heterosexual marriage, and even a Rabbi whose has a ministry dedicated to pairing gays to lesbians.

To end off, there is a reason why I mentioned the example of masturbating in front of a mirror, that is because if “being gay” was just about appreciating or taking pleasure in one’s own body, then such appreciation can occur even in a heterosexual relationship, and thereby “gay desires” can be consummated even in such a context, to which I’ve elaborated at length in this post based on Roger Scruton’s rather insightful book on sexual desires where the woman acts as a “mirror” in some sense.

Thus, in the end, the Church is not confronted with the option of either forcing through a “change of sexual orientations” or celibacy, but rather, we should not take them at face value as the world defines it, but rather interrogate them thoroughly, and then ask how we can reconcile them to Christian theology, instead of adapting Christian theology to the categories of the world. Let us remember also, that gravity and atoms can go through radical scientific redefinitions with General Relativity and particle physics, even more should our concepts of sexual orientation be likewise be subject to such rigorous interrogation.

6 comments on “Introduction to the Rationality of Sex; Ambiguity of Sexual Orientations and Desire or What Gays Want

  1. Pingback: “What Do You Do When Your Son is Gay?”; Erm, Ask Him what does he mean? | The Rationality of Faith

  2. Pingback: A Conversation on Pinkdot, Sexual Orientation, Discrimination and Marriage | The Rationality of Faith

  3. Pingback: Sexual Orientation as a Mythical Construct; Is Sexual Orientation as “Real” as Witchcraft? | The Rationality of Faith

  4. Pingback: Sexuality, Marriage and Gays | The Rationality of Faith

  5. Pingback: Defining the Gay and the Orientation-Act Ambiguity; Engaging the Health Promotion Board FAQ Hooha | Creakings of a Cog in the Machine

  6. Pingback: Why Discourses and Arguments on Homosexuality are so Poor and Unpersuasive; The Subjective Experience as an Unanalysable “Black Box” | Creakings of a Cog in the Machine

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This entry was posted on June 7, 2013 by in Sexuality and tagged .
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