Philosophies of Masturbation
Alan Soble, Ph.D.
Research Professor and
on the special virtues, and not only the vices, of adultery,
prostitution, group sex, sadomasochism, and sex with anonymous strangers
is a valuable exercise. Indeed, when thinking about sexuality, it is
mandatory to compare these practices with a privileged pattern in which
two adult heterosexuals love each other, are faithful to each other
within a formal marriage, and look forward to procreation. Some people
sincerely strive to attain this pattern; some live it effortlessly; the
sexual lives of others are more complex. It does not matter how
widespread the privileged pattern is. Regardless of its extent, the
contrast between the pattern and the practices mentioned above provides
the raw material for philosophizing, conceptually and ethically, about
sex. Masturbation, too, violates the spirit and letter of the privileged
pattern: it is unpaired, nonprocreative sex in which pleasure is
relished for its own sake. A philosophical investigation of masturbation
is therefore bound to bear fruit.
uncannily mocks the categories of our ordinary sexual discourse. It is
sex with someone whom I care about, to whose satisfaction and welfare I
am devoted. It is incestuous. If I'm married, it is sex with someone who
is not my spouse and hence adulterous. It is homosexual. It is often
pederastic. And it is sex we occasionally fall into inadvertently
("if you shake it more than twice, you're playing with it").
Given the weirdness of masturbation, it is not surprising that we
advertise our marriages and brag about our affairs, but keep our
masturbatory practices and fantasies to ourselves. The sexual revolution
has made living together outside matrimony acceptable; it has encouraged
toleration of homosexuality; it has breathed life into the practices of
the sons and daughters of the Marquis de Sade. But to call a man a
"jerk off" is still derogatory. Masturbation is the black
sheep of the family of sex, scorned by both the Right and the Left.
the middle of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas laid the foundations for
Catholic sexual ethics.
According to St. Thomas, intentional acts that are sexually unnatural
are morally wrong. Such acts violate God's plan, design, or commands.
Further, for Aquinas, the "sexually natural" is a biological
notion. Its content is determined by the rational inspection of the
world as God created it. On his view, God designed the male penis to
enter the female vagina in an act of procreation; the purpose of the
penis as a sexual organ is to deposit semen in that place. It follows,
for Aquinas, that nonprocreative sex--for example, homosexual anal
intercourse, heterosexual fellatio to orgasm--is unnatural and hence
immoral. Male masturbation, since it, too, involves the intentional
ejaculation of semen somewhere other than in the vagina, was, for
Aquinas, a mortal sin.
continuing problem with Aquinas's line of thought is the difficulty of
formulating an intelligible account of the design of nature, an account
that perceptively illuminates human (and not merely mammalian)
sexual nature. For Patricia Jung and Ralph Smith, two theologians of a
nontraditional yet self-proclaimed Christian bent, being gay is like
being left-handed, which is "part of God's original blessing."
Homosexual desire and behavior are merely a natural variation in the
wide spectrum of human possibility. Consider, similarly, Christine
Gudorf's Christian defense of the pursuit and enjoyment of sexual
pleasure for its own sake:
the placement of the clitoris in the female body reflects the divine
will, then God wills that sex is not just oriented to procreation, but
is at least as, if not more, oriented to pleasure.
that Gudorf's argument has exactly the same structure as Aquinas's, only
she has discerned, through a rational investigation of the design of
nature, that the clitoris, useless for procreation, has no other purpose
except the provision of sexual pleasure. She concludes that
nonprocreative sex is, for that reason, perfectly acceptable for
Christians to engage in. At least female masturbation, if not also male
masturbation, is consistent with God's design of the human body.
narrowly Thomistic thinking has continued in the 20th century, and not
only among popes, cardinals, bishops, and the priest on the corner. For
example, the contemporary philosopher Michael Levin has employed a
modern evolutionary or sociobiological version of Aquinas's Natural Law
metaphysics in arguing that homosexual "acts involve the use of the
genitals for what they aren't for."
One standard reply to this sort of argument is that neither God nor
evolution has designed the various parts of the human body so that they
must serve a discrete set of functions. Was the tongue made for licking
a clitoris? No, that is not what it is for, goes the argument.
The tongue is only for talking, tasting, and licking postage stamps.
hundred years later, around 1780, Thomistic sexual philosophy reappears
in the sexual ethics of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his
deliberations about sexuality, however, Kant begins by avoiding an
appeal to Natural Law, preferring to ground sexual ethics in his famous
ethics of respect. Kant observed that human sexual interaction by its
nature involves one person's merely using another person for the
sake of pleasure:
is no way in which a human being can be made an Object of indulgence for
another except through sexual impulse. . . . Sexual love . . . is
nothing more than appetite. Taken by itself it is a degradation of human
nature. . . . [A]s an Object of appetite for another a person becomes a
asserts that the intentions involved in sexual activity--to get pleasure
for oneself through the vehicle of the other's body and compliance with
one's wishes--are morally suspicious. In portraying sexual acts as by
their nature objectifying and instrumental (i.e., they fail to express
full respect for the other as a person), Kant seems to imply that
celibacy is morally required. But he sidesteps this conclusion:
sole condition on which we are free to make use of our sexual desire
depends upon the right to dispose over the person as a whole. . . . [I]
obtain these rights over the whole person . . . [o]nly by giving that
person the same rights over the whole of myself. This happens only in
marriage. . . . In this way the two persons become a unity of will. . .
. Thus sexuality leads to a union . . . and in that union alone its
exercise is possible.
is not claiming that the marital pledge assures that even if the spouses
are a means to each other's pleasure in the marriage bed, they are not
treating each other only as means but also as ends, as persons to whom
respect and consideration are due during sex. Instead, Kant justifies
marital sex by abolishing the logical possibility of instrumentality
altogether; he literally unites two persons into one person by marriage.
But is this not to justify marital sex by reducing or equating it to
masturbation, the sex of a single (even if larger or more complex)
notion that the marital union of two people into one cleanses sexuality
of its essential instrumentality apparently has two radical
implications: that homosexual marriage would similarly cleanse same-sex
sexuality and that solitary masturbation is permissible. Kant, however,
resists both conclusions, asserting (here he shows his debt to Aquinas)
that masturbation and homosexuality are crimina carnis contra
naturam [crimes of the flesh against nature]:
. . . is abuse of the sexual faculty without any object. . . . By it man
sets aside his person and degrades himself below the level of animals. .
. . [I]ntercourse between sexus homogenii . . . too is contrary
to the ends of humanity; for the end of humanity in respect of sexuality
is to preserve the species.
concludes his denouncement of these aberrations nastily: "He,"
the masturbator or homosexual, "no longer deserves to be a
and Sexual Desire
about contemporary philosophy? Three influential accounts of sexuality,
proffered by thinkers within the sexually liberal tradition,
nevertheless yield the conclusions that solitary masturbation is not a
sexual activity at all, is perverted sexuality, or is "empty"
sexuality. These conclusions are surprising. I propose to examine them
begin with Alan Goldman's definitions of "sexual desire" and
desire is desire for contact with another person's body and for the
pleasure which such contact produces; sexual activity is activity which
tends to fulfill such desire of the agent. (74)
Goldman's view, sexual desire is strictly the desire for the pleasure of
physical contact itself, not for anything else, and so does not include
a component desire for, say, love or progeny. Goldman thus takes himself
to be offering a liberating analysis of sexuality that does not tether
sex normatively or conceptually to the emotions or procreation. But
while advocating the superiority of his notion of "plain sex,"
Goldman forgot that masturbation needed protection from the same
(usually conservative) philosophy that obliged sex to occur within a
loving marriage or to be procreative in order to be morally proper. On
Goldman's analysis, solitary masturbation is not a sexual activity to
begin with: it does not "tend to fulfill" sexual desire, viz.,
the desire for contact with another person's body. Solitary masturbation
is unlike mutual masturbation, which does tend to fulfill the desire for
contact, since it involves the desired contact and hence is fully
sexual. It is ironic that masturbation is, for Goldman, not sexual, for
the conservative philosophy that he rejects would reply to his account
of "plain sex" like this: by reducing sex to the
(meaningless) desire for the pleasure of contact, what you have analyzed
is merely a form of (mutual) masturbation.
phrase "tends to fulfill" in Goldman's definition of sexual
activity presents problems. Goldman intended, I think, a narrow causal
reading of this phrase; actually touching another person's body is a
sexual act because by the operation of a simple mechanism the act
fulfills the desire for that contact and its pleasure. The qualification
"tends to" functions to allow bungled kisses to count as
sexual acts, even though they don't do what they were intended to do.
Kisses tend to fulfill desire in the sense that they normally and
effectively produce the pleasure of contact, prevented from doing so
only by the odd interfering event (the hurrying lips land on the chin).
The qualification also functions to allow disappointing sex, that which
does not bring what anticipation promised, to count as sex. Masturbation
is not a sexual act, despite the sexual pleasure it yields, unlike the
not pleasurable but still sexual bungled kiss, because in this sense of
"tend to fulfill," masturbation cannot "tend to
fulfill" a desire for physical contact. Suppose we read "tends
to fulfill" in a causally broader way. Then giving money to a
prostitute--the act of taking bills out of a wallet and handing them to
her--might be a sexual act (even if no sexual arousal accompanies it),
because doing so allows the patron to fulfill his desire for contact
with her body. Handing over $100 would be a more efficient
sexual act than handing over a ten. But even on this broader reading,
masturbation would not be a sexual activity; despite the causal
generosity, masturbation is still precluded from fulfilling sexual
desire in Goldman's sense.
however, does acknowledge one sense in which masturbation is a sexual
or viewing a pornographic movie qualifies as a sexual activity, but only
as an imaginative substitute for the real thing (otherwise a deviation
from the norm as expressed in our definition). The same is true of
masturbation as a sexual activity without a partner. (76)
this view, masturbation done for its own sake, for the specific pleasure
it yields, is not sexual; masturbation is a sexual act only when
done as a substitute for the not available "real thing." But
on what grounds could it be claimed that masturbation's being an
"imaginative substitute" for a sexual act makes it a sexual
act? In general, being a substitute for a certain kind of act
does not make something an occurrence of that act-kind. To eat soyburger
as a beef substitute is not to eat hamburger, even if it tastes exactly
like hamburger. Eating a hamburger as a substitute (better, compensation)
for the sex I want but cannot have does not make my going to Burger King
a sexual event.
the other hand, given Goldman's definitions of sexual desire and
activity, the claim that masturbation done for its own sake is not a
sexual act makes sense. If the masturbator desires the pleasure of
physical contact, and masturbates trying (in vain) to get that pleasure,
the act--by a stretch--is sexual, because it at least involves genuine
sexual desire. By contrast, if the masturbator wants only to experience
pleasurable clitoral or penile sensations, then the masturbator does not
have sexual desire in Goldman's sense, and activity engaged in to
fulfill this (on his view, nonsexual) desire is not sexual activity. But
now we have a different problem: what are we to call the act of this
masturbator? In what category does it belong, if not the sexual? Note
that Goldman argues (75-76), along the same lines, that if a parent's
desire to cuddle a baby is only the desire to show affection, and not
the desire for the pleasure of physical contact itself, then the
parent's act is not sexual. Goldman apparently assumes that if the
desire that causes or leads to the act is not sexual, neither is the
act. But if so, a woman who performs fellatio on a man for the money she
gets from doing so is not performing a sexual act. It does not fulfill
the sexual desire "of the agent," for, like the baby-cuddling
parent, she has no sexual desire to begin with. Thus the prostitute's
contribution to fellatio must be called, instead, a "rent
paying" or "food gathering" act, since it tends to
fulfill her desires to have shelter and eat. This provocative conclusion
to the philosopher Thomas Nagel, self-consciousness plays a role in
human sexuality that is absent from animal sexuality.
A human being responds with arousal to the recognition that another
person is trying to arouse him or her with a properly timed or placed
touch or glance or by the wearing of clothing or cosmetics. Further,
humans respond with arousal to the recognition that the other person is
experiencing arousal in response to us--to our body, our mannerisms, our
touches. At the beginning of a sexual interaction, I am aroused by
merely "sensing" (touching, looking at, smelling) you, and you
are similarly aroused at this basic, even animal, level of sexuality.
But as our interaction proceeds, I respond with arousal to noticing that
you are aroused in response to sensing me, and in that response I
perceive myself as the object of your sexual interest. Before this
point, while I am merely aroused by looking at or touching you, I
perceive myself only as sexual subject. But when I notice that you are
aroused by sensing me, my consciousness "expands" and I start
to perceive myself as also a sexual object. (Think about holding hands
sexually with another person for the first time. The tightness of the
mutual grip increases as each person becomes aware of the other's
arousal in response to the pleasure of the touch.) I am aroused by
noticing that your looking at or touching me arouses you, and if the
same is true for you, we both perceive ourselves at once as both subject
and object in the sexual interaction. This makes human sexuality
distinct from, and more interesting than, animal sexuality. Nagel's
account thus implies that for sexuality to be psychologically natural
(what he calls "complete"), a person must allow himself or
herself to be an object in the consciousness of another, and to be aware
of this feature of their interaction, in addition to being a sexual
subject. Objectification, then, is not alien to human sexuality but
essential to it.
Nagel's account of natural human sexuality, voyeurism is an excellent
example of a psychological sexual perversion. The voyeur does his or her
best to remain at all times a sexual subject, keeping himself hidden
from the look or the sensing of the other person, and so never descends
into the self-conscious embodiment of being a sexual object of someone
else's sexual attention. Nagel also suggests (49) that what is perverted
about sadomasochism is that one person, the sadist (or "top"),
remains fully a sexual subject in control, never an object, while the
other person, the masochist (or "bottom"), remains fully a
sexual object, never becoming a subject. (But, as Nagel admits, the
psychodynamics of sadomasochistic sexual encounters are more complex
than this; they may well include reciprocal awareness of arousal.)
Another illuminating implication of Nagel's account is how it captures
what happens when a prostitute pretends to enjoy the sex for which he or
she is paid. (Or when a husband or wife pretends, for the sake of the
pleasure of the other spouse, to be enjoying the boring sexual activity
in which they are engaged.) To be rid of the client and conserve time,
the prostitute wants the client to reach orgasm quickly. He or she
feigns arousal, knowing that when this "arousal" is perceived
by the client this will increase his arousal in a Nagelian spiral: he
becomes conscious of himself as both subject and object. Finding this
state of awareness blissfully arousing and pleasurable, the client
theory, because it is about natural sex and not about the essence of the
sexual, does not entail that masturbation is not sexual. However, the
judgment that solitary masturbation is perverted seems to follow
from Nagel's account. Solitary masturbation, unlike mutual masturbation,
does not exhibit the completeness of natural sexuality; it lacks the
combination of an awareness of the embodiment of another person and an
awareness of being sensed as embodied by that person. This is apparently
why Nagel claims that "narcissistic practices"--which for him
include solitary masturbation--are "stuck at some primitive version
of the first stage" (48) of the spiral of arousal. Masturbation is
sexually perverted because it is a "truncated or incomplete"
version "of the complete configuration" (47).
case can be made, however, that the nature of effective sexual fantasy
allows masturbation to be complete enough in Nagel's sense to be
natural. Consider someone who masturbates while looking at erotic
photographs. This act avoids incompleteness insofar as the person is
aroused not only by sensing the model's body, but by recognizing the
model's intention to arouse or by sensing her real or feigned arousal,
as much as these things are captured by the camera or read into the
photograph by the masturbator. Completeness seems not to require that X's
arousal and pleasure as a result of X's awareness of Y's
arousal occur at the same time as Y's arousal. Nor does it
require that X and Y be in the same place: X and Y
can arouse and cause each other pleasure by talking over the telephone.
Further, if X masturbates while fantasizing, sans
photograph, about another person, X might be aroused by the
intentions expressed or arousal experienced by the imagined partner.
(Nagel does allow  that X might become aroused in response to
a "purely imaginary" Y.) If the masturbator is aroused
not only by sensing, in imagination, the other's body, but also aroused
by noticing (having created the appropriate fantasy) that the other is
aroused by sensing X's body, then X can be conscious of X-self
as both subject and object, which is the mark of complete sexuality.
philosopher Robert Solomon also distinguishes sharply between animal and
human sexuality. On his view, human
sexuality is differentiated by its being "primarily a means of
communicating with other people" (SAP, 279). Sensual
pleasure is important in sex, but it is not the main point of sexual
interaction or its defining characteristic (SP, 58; SAP,
277-79). Sexuality is, instead, "first of all language" (SAP,
281). Sex, as "a means of communication," "is . . . essentially
an activity performed with other people" (SAP, 279). Could
such a view of sexuality be kind to solitary masturbation? Apparently
sexuality is essentially a language, it follows that masturbation, while
not a perversion, is a deviation. . . . Masturbation is not
"self-abuse" . . . but it is, in an important sense,
self-denial. It represents an inability or a refusal to say what one
wants to say. . . . Masturbation is . . . essential as an ultimate
retreat, but empty and without content. Masturbation is the sexual
equivalent of a Cartesian soliloquy. (SAP, 283)
sexuality is communicative, solitary masturbation can be sexual;
conversing with oneself is not impossible, even if not the paradigm
case. The flaw of masturbation, for Solomon, is that communicative
intent, success, or content is missing. Hence solitary masturbation is
"empty," a conclusion that follows from the idea that
sexuality is "essentially" a way persons communicate with
denouncing masturbation as a "refusal to say what one wants to
say" slights the fact that one might not have, at any given time,
something to say, or that there might be nothing worthy of being said.
Further, even if, by analogy, the masturbator is merely babbling to
himself, he or she still enjoys this harmless pastime as much as does
the infant who, for the pure joy if it, makes noises having no
communicative intent or meaning. Hence, to call masturbation
"self-denial" is wrongheaded, but at least a change from the
popular, sexually conservative criticism of masturbation as a failure
of self-denial, a giving-in to temptation, an immersing of the self in
the hedonistic excesses of self-gratification.
is no warrant to conclude, within a model that likens sexuality to
linguistic behavior, that solitary masturbation is inferior.
Solomon meant the analogy between masturbation and a "Cartesian
soliloquy" to reveal the shallowness of solitary sexuality. But
Descartes's philosophical soliloquies are hardly uninteresting, and I
suspect many would be proud to masturbate as well as the world-famous Meditations
does philosophy. Diaries are not often masterpieces of literature, but
that does not make them "empty." Some of the most fruitful
discussions one can have are with oneself, not as a substitute for
dialogue with another person, or as compensation for lacking it, but to
explore one's mind, to get one's thoughts straight. This is the stuff of
intellectual integrity, not preparation for public utterances.
concedes that "masturbation might, in different contexts,
count as wholly different extensions of language" (SAP, 283;
italics added). But this qualification implies that Solomon's negative
judgment of masturbation is unjustified. Sometimes we want to converse
with another person; sometimes we want to have that conversation
sexually. In other contexts--in other moods, with other people, in
different settings--we want only the pleasure of touching the
other's body or of being touched. Sometimes pleasure is the central goal
of sexual activity; even though communication might occur, it is not the
desired or intended result but only an unremarkable or merely curious
side effect. In still other contexts, we will not want to talk with
anyone at all, but spend time alone. We might want to avoid intercourse,
of both types, with human beings, whose noisy chitchat we try to escape
by running off to Idaho--this is not an "ultimate retreat" but
a blessed haven. For Solomon to call masturbation "empty" in
the face of such facts about the importance of context to human
sexuality implies that he did not fully understand his own
liberation has not done much better. Consider the views of the writer
John Stoltenberg, a student of the feminists Catharine MacKinnon and
Stoltenberg rightly complains about the "cultural
imperative" according to which men in our society must
"fuck" in order to be men, and he rightly calls
"baloney" the idea that "if two people don't have
intercourse, they have not had real sex."
Stoltenberg also observes that "sometimes men have coital
sex . . . not because they particularly feel like it but because they
feel they should feel like it." This is a reasonable
philosophy of men's liberation. But Stoltenberg fails to draw the almost
obvious masturbatory conclusion. Indeed, it is jolting to behold
Stoltenberg, in an argument reminiscent of religious objections to
contraception (it turns women into sexual objects), laying a guilt trip
on men who masturbate with pornography:
your money and imagine. Pay your money and get real turned on. Pay your
money and jerk off. That kind of sex helps . . . support an industry
committed to making people with penises believe that people without
[penises] are sluts who just want to be ravished and reviled--an
industry dedicated to maintaining a sex-class system in which men
believe themselves sex machines and men believe women are mindless fuck
Kant's view of human sexuality as essentially instrumental and
Stoltenberg's criticism of the social imperative that men must fuck
women to be men, surely something can be said on behalf of
masturbation. The men's movement attack on oppressive cultural
definitions of masculinity and feminist worries about the integrity of
sexual activity between unequally empowered men and women suggest that
men's masturbation is an attractive solution to a handful of problems. A
man pleasing himself by masturbating is not taking advantage of
economically and socially less powerful women. He is, instead, flouting
cultural standards of masculinity that instruct him that only wimps jerk
off, and that he must perform sexually with women in order to be a real
man. Yet fantasizing and the heightened sexual pleasure that the
imagination makes possible (44)--the things I mentioned in arguing that
masturbation is psychologically complete, in Nagel's sense--are what
Stoltenberg points to as constituents of wrongful sexual
objectification. He does not merely condemn masturbating with
pornography (35-36, 42-43, 49-50). Fantasy per se is a fault:
Stoltenberg condemns men's masturbating with memories of and passing
thoughts about women, even when these fantasies are not violent (41-44).
Why? A man's conjuring up an image of a woman's body or its parts is to
view her as an object, as a thing.
Stoltenberg, men's mental objectification causally contributes to
violence against women (54-55). Stoltenberg's reason for thinking this
is flimsy. He supposes that when a man fantasizes sexually about women,
he reduces them from persons to objects. Further, when a man thinks of
women as things, he has given himself carte blanche in his
behavior toward them, including violence: regarding an object, "you
can do anything to it you want" (55). The last claim is false;
there are innumerable lifeless objects to which I would and should never
lay a hand, either because other people value them, and I value these
people, or because I dearly value the objects. Therefore, reducing a
woman to a thing--or, to describe it more faithfully to men's
experiences than Stoltenberg: emphasizing for a while the beauty of only
one aspect of a person's existence--does not mean, either logically or
psychologically, that she can or will be tossed around the way a young
girl slings her Barbie.
underestimates the nuances of men's fantasies about women; his
phenomenological account of what occurs in the minds of fantasizing
men--the purported reduction of persons to things--is crude. Her smile,
the way she moves down the stairs, the bounce of her breasts, the sexy
thoughts in her own mind, her (oh eternal optimism) lusty yearning for
me--these are parts of her. But fantasizing or imagining these
things while masturbating, or driving my car, or having coffee, need not
amount to, indeed is the opposite of, my reducing her to plastic.
These are fantasies about people, not things. My fantasy of her (having
a) fantasy of me (or of my [having a] fantasy of her) is structurally
too sophisticated to be called objectification. The fantasizer makes
himself in his consciousness both subject and object and imagines his
partner as both subject and object. Recognizing the imagined person
ontologically as a person is hardly a superfluous component of men's--or
women's--fantasies. That Stoltenberg overlooks the complex structure of
men's fantasies about women is not surprising; the primitive idea that
men vulgarly reduce women to objects in their fantasies is precisely
what would occur to someone who has already objectified men, who has
reduced men from full persons to robots with penises.
legal scholar John Finnis claims, plausibly, that there are morally
worthless sexual acts in which "one's body is treated as
instrumental for the securing of the experiential satisfaction of the
Out of context, this
passage seems to be condemning rape, the use of one person by another
for mere "experiential satisfaction." But rape is the farthest
thing from Finnis's mind; he is not talking about coerced sex, but about
sex that is fully voluntary. When is consensual sex instrumental?
Immediately, Finnis mentions, creating the impression that these are his
primary targets, that "in masturbating, as in being . . .
sodomized," the body is a mere tool of satisfaction. As a result of
one's body being used, a person undergoes "disintegration": in
masturbation and homosexual anal coitus, "one's choosing self
[becomes] the quasi-slave of the experiencing self which is demanding
gratification." We should ask--since Finnis sounds remarkably like
the Kant who claims that sex by its nature is instrumental and
objectifying--how acts other than sodomy and masturbation avoid this
problem. Finnis's answer is that they do not; the disintegration and
worthlessness attaching to sodomy attach to "all extramarital
sexual gratification." The physical character of the act is,
therefore, not the decisive factor; the division between the wholesome
and the worthless is, for Finnis, between "conjugal activity"
and everything else.
what is special about the conjugal bed that allows marital sex to avoid
promoting disintegration? Finnis replies that worthlessness and
disintegration attach to masturbation and sodomy in virtue of the fact
that in these activities "one's conduct is not the actualizing and
experiencing of a real common good." Marriage, on the other hand,
its double blessing--procreation and friendship--is a real common good .
. . that can be both actualized and experienced in the orgasmic union of
the reproductive organs of a man and a woman united in commitment to
can grant that being married is conducive to the worthiness of sexual
activity. Still, what is wrong with sex between two single consenting
adults who care about and enjoy pleasing each other? Does not this
mutual pleasuring avoid shamefulness and worthlessness? No. The friends
might only be seeking pleasure for its own sake, as occurs in
masturbation and sodomy. And although Finnis thinks that "pleasure
is indeed a good," he qualifies that concession with "when
it is the experienced aspect of one's participation in some intelligible
good" (italics added). But for Finnis's argument to work, he must
claim that pleasure is a good only when it is an aspect of the
pursuit or achievement of some other good. This is not quite what he
says. Perhaps he does not say it because he fears his readers will
reject such an extreme reservation about pleasure, or because he
realizes it is false: the pleasure of tasting food is good in itself,
regardless of whether the eating is part of the goods of securing
nutrition or sharing table.
why must we employ our sexual organs to achieve the common good of
procreation? And why must the burden of achieving a common good be
centered on procreative sex? The friends might say they do have a common
good, their friendship (and their joint nonprocreative interests), the
same way a married couple has the common good that is their marriage. If
"their friendship is not marital . . . activation of their
reproductive organs cannot be, in reality, an . . . actualization of
their friendship's common good," Finnis rejoins. But the reply is
obscure. He tries to explain, and in doing so reveals the crux of his
common good of friends who are not and cannot be married (man and man,
man and boy, woman and woman) has nothing to do with their having
children by each other, and their reproductive organs cannot make them a
biological (and therefore a personal) unit.
began with the Kantian intuition that sexual activity involves treating
the body instrumentally, and he concludes with the Kantian intuition
that sex in marriage avoids disintegrity since the couple is a
"unit," insofar as "the orgasmic union of the
reproductive organs of husband and wife really unites them
biologically." In order for persons to be part of a genuine union,
their sex must be both marital and procreative. The psychic falling
apart each would undergo in nonmarital sex is prevented in marital sex
by their joining into one. Finnis's argument, even if it shows the
worthlessness of sterile homosexuality and masturbation, has no
relevance for heterosexual friends, for those people who are not, but
could be, married. After all, if marriage has the "double
blessing" of procreation and friendship, heterosexual friendship
can have the same double blessing. Perhaps if these friends are
committed to each other for a lifetime and plan to have children by each
other, they are married and hence their sexual interactions are
fine. But Finnis does not assert this. Others in his school make it
clear that marriage requires more than an informal agreement between
people to live together indefinitely; no genuine commitment (or love, or
union) exists without a formal compact, since a promise too easily fled
is no promise at all.
Finnis, the self is so fragile that sex for sheer pleasure threatens to
rip it apart. For Roger Scruton, another conservative philosopher, the
self is in continual danger of being exposed as a fraud: "In my
[sexual] desire [for you] I am gripped by the illusion of a
transcendental unity behind the opacity of [your] flesh."
We are not transcendental selves but material beings; "excretion is
the final 'no' to all our transcendental illusions" (151). We are
redeemed from this horrible state only through "a metaphysical
illusion residing in the heart of sexual desire" (95). Our passions
make it appear that we are ontologically more than we are.
Sexuality, then, must be treated with kid gloves, lest we lose the
socially useful and spiritually uplifting reassurance that we humans are
the pride of the universe.
requirement that sex be approached somberly translates, for Scruton, not
only into the ordinary claim that sex must be educated to be the partner
of heterosexual love, but also into a number of silly judgments. While
discussing the "obscenity" of masturbation, Scruton offers
the woman who plays with her clitoris during the act of coition. Such a
person affronts her lover with the obscene display of her body, and, in
perceiving her thus, the lover perceives his own irrelevance. She
becomes disgusting to him, and his desire may be extinguished. The
woman's desire is satisfied at the expense of her lover's, and no real
union can be achieved between them. (319)
has contested the tradition, revived by Scruton, in which the clitoris,
the organ of women's masturbation and pleasure and a symbol of their
autonomy, is suspicious. Even if, in rubbing
herself during coitus, a woman asserts independence from her partner,
must that be bad? One reply to Scruton is that without masturbation, her
desire might be extinguished and his desire satisfied at the
expense of hers, and still there is no union. We could also recommend to
the man who "perceives his own irrelevance" that he become
more involved in his partner's pleasure by helping her massage her
clitoral or some other region or doing the rubbing for her; even when
they are linked together coitally, he will find the arms long and the
body flexible. But Scruton's claim is false (in this country) that most
men perceive a woman's masturbation during coitus as
"disgusting." Her doing so can even help the couple attain the
very union Scruton hopes for as the way to perpetrate our metaphysical
illusion, by letting them experience and recognize the mutual pleasure,
perhaps the mutual orgasm, that results.
does Scruton judge the woman's masturbation an "obscene
display"? When masturbation is done in public (a bus station), it
is obscene; it "cannot be witnessed without a sense of
obscenity," he says. Scruton then draws the conclusion that all
masturbation is obscene, even when done privately, on the grounds that
"that which cannot be witnessed without obscene perception is
itself obscene" (319). Scruton fails to notice that his argument
proves too much; it implies that heterosexual coitus engaged in by a
loving, married couple in private is also obscene, if we assume--as he
would--that this act "cannot be witnessed" in public
"without obscene perception." The fault lies in the major
premiss of Scruton's syllogism. Whether an act is obscene might turn
exactly on whether it is done publicly or privately. Scruton has not
acknowledged the difference between exposing oneself to anonymous
spectators and opening oneself to the gaze of a lover.
masturbation is obscene, for Scruton, also because it "involves a
concentration on the body and its curious pleasures" (319).
Obscenity is an "obsession . . . with the organs themselves and
with the pleasures of sensation" (154), and even if the acts that
focus on the body and its pleasures are paired, they are
"masturbatory." "In obscenity, attention is taken away
from embodiment towards the body" (32), and there is "a
'depersonalized' perception of human sexuality, in which the body and
its sexual function are uppermost in our thoughts" (138). A woman's
masturbation during coitus is obscene since it leads the pair to focus
too sharply on the physical; she is a depersonalized body instead of a
person-in-a-body. Thus, for Scruton, this obscene masturbation cannot
sustain, indeed threatens, the couple's metaphysical illusion. But if a
woman's masturbation during coitus is greeted with delight by a partner,
rather than with disgust, and increases the pleasure (even union) they
realize and recognize in the act together, then, contrary to Scruton,
either not all masturbation is obscene (the parties have not been
reduced altogether to flesh) or obscenity, all things considered, is not
a normative or metaphysical disaster.
Models of Sexuality
may come as no surprise that the conservatives, Finnis and Scruton, are
suspicious about masturbation. But our liberal philosophers, who are
unconventional enough to reject traditional or religious views about
sex, have also scorned solitary masturbation. Why? Even as they reject
particular conservative or religious judgments about sexual behavior,
these thinkers still hold the deepest global assumption of their
ideological foes. Their accounts of sexuality, that is, exemplify a binary
model: reference to an interaction between two persons occurs in
their accounts of the essence or nature of sexuality or in their
description of the best or paradigm kind of sex in a typology or
hierarchy of sexual behaviors. They thereby bestow logical, ontological,
or normative primacy on paired sex and examine and evaluate the rest of
the sexual world from this perspective. The sexually conservative or
religious theorist embraces a binary model either by taking seriously
the Genesis story, in which God deliberately created the human
pair, or by assimilating human sexuality to sexuality in the animal
kingdom, where they find paired sex galore. But there is no obvious
reason why liberal theorists should embrace a binary model. Given that
both Solomon and Nagel want to distinguish sharply between human and
animal sexuality, it is disappointing that they construed human
sexuality as only a variant of the paired, albeit less sophisticated,
sexuality of animals.
binary model is clearly exhibited in Goldman's definition of
"sexual desire" as the "desire for contact with another
person's body" (74). Goldman claims that sexual desire is directed
at and hence logically depends on another body. In Nagel, sexual
desire is directed at another person: it is "a feeling about
other persons"; the sexual "has its own content as a relation
between persons" (42). Solomon, too, assumes a binary model,
although for him sexual desire "is not desire for pleasure" (SP,
59). Rather, "the end of this desire is interpersonal
communication" (SP, 55); sex "is essentially an
activity performed with other people" (SAP, 279). While for
Solomon, sexual desire is a binary desire to talk with other people, for
Goldman it is a binary desire to touch them.
of sex presupposing a binary model will not illuminate the full range of
human sexuality. Ordinary, everyday sexuality includes a desire for
physical contact with another person (anyone at all or a specific
person). And, we know, much paired sex occurs. But we should still ask: why
is paired sexual activity so common and desired? In trying to fathom
these facts, we formulate a theory of sex. But a theory that presupposes
a binary model will not help. It is trivial to say that people behave in
a paired sexual way because by its essence sexuality is paired, in the
same way that the dormative power of morphine (in Molière's joke) does
not explain why it knocks us out. An alternative type of account of
sexuality is worth exploring, one that exemplifies a unitary model,
in which sexuality is not by its nature a relation between persons and
sexual desire does not necessarily attach to other persons or their
bodies. In a unitary model, sexual desire is the desire for certain
pleasurable sensations; in disagreement with Goldman (74), sexual desire
is conceived as aiming at particular sensations that are both
developmentally and analytically "detachable from [their] causal
context." Hence a unitary model does not entail that solitary
masturbation is logically secondary or peripheral in the domain of
sexual acts. If a theorist of sexuality wanted to distinguish sharply
between the instinctual paired sexuality of animals and endlessly varied
human sexuality, presupposing a unitary model seems the way to do it.
Further, a unitary model leaves room for interesting explanations of
pairing that refer at some point to the desire of persons for
pleasurable sensations. The expression and development of that desire
within specific social and cultural contexts would be invoked to explain
why people want physical contact with persons of the other biological
sex, or the same biological sex, or contact with both, or contact with
neither. The value of a unitary model is that it allows the exploration
of the etiology of our contingent sexual preferences: whatever it is
that we eventually cathect requires explanation. It is a drawback of a
binary model that it tends to obscure these questions.
are we to decide whether the deep nature of sexual desire is
"really" captured by a unitary or by a binary model? Is Freud
right that the infant simply desires pleasure and discovers that the
mother and her breast can provide that pleasure; or are the
object-relations psychoanalysts right that the infant has a primitive
desire for contact with the mother and her breast and discovers
willy-nilly that satisfying that desire also yields pleasure? This is an
intriguing philosophical puzzle, a kind of chicken-and-egg conundrum.
But it can be ignored. A unitary model, even if not "really"
true, seems better suited for providing a framework for studying
sexuality in all the empirical disciplines.
a unitary model, the simple desire for pleasurable sensations is taken
as logically primary, and the task is to explain both the common paired
pattern of sexuality as well as apparent "deviations" from it.
All aims, objects, and targets of sexual desire, and the means of
satisfying it, are seen as contingent facts requiring explanation. By
contrast, within Nagel's binary model, for example, the "complete
configuration" is taken as logically primitive and as part of human
nature, and hence the common paired pattern does not require
explanation, indeed is not susceptible of explanation. Asking for
its explanation is senseless, since the primitive is the end of the
line. In this approach to sexuality, only deviations from the complete
configuration require explanation. Of course, when we ask for an
explanation of valium's calming effect, we are rightly disappointed if
we are told that it is an anti-anxiety agent. But that is because we
think that the calming nature of valium is explainable in terms of the deeper
nature of the drug, its chemistry, and of the biological system with
which it interacts. We were asking not merely for the nature of valium
but for its deepest, genuinely primitive nature. This is what Nagel must
be attempting to provide in his account of the psychologically complete
configuration, on pain of succumbing to Molière's joke. I think,
however, that Nagel candidly recognizes the problem faced by his
approach. Given that the "complete configuration" is
primitively natural, the task is to explain the existence of deviations,
i.e., patterns of sexuality that result from factors that interfere with
the normal or automatic blossoming of the natural pattern. Speaking
about this task, Nagel writes, "We appear to need an independent
criterion for a distorting influence, and we do not have one" (49).
A unitary model, by contrast, appears not to need such a criterion.
order to highlight the difference between the two models, let us
consider an example made plausible by recent advances in technology.
Suppose there is a life-size doll whose covering feels like skin, whose
genitals have the odor and flavor of the genitals of either sex, and
which is programmed to rub, to squirm in response to being rubbed, and
to emit soft noises. An account of sexuality that presupposes a binary
model would say that any activity between this doll and a human being
does not count as bona fide sexual activity--it is either
nonsexual activity, perverted sexuality (no different from masturbating
on a shoe), or "empty" sexuality (no different from talking to
a can of baked beans). Or the account might say, instead, that to the
extent that there is anything sexual about such activity between a
human and the doll, it is because the doll reminds us of a person
(which is like saying that solitary masturbation is sexual only to the
extent that it involves fantasies about other persons); and to the
extent that such activity is not perverted, it is because the doll
is filling in as a substitute for something that is preferred but not
available. A unitary model allows us to avoid these judgments, which I
take to be advantageous. On a unitary model, there is no conceptual
difference between activities between two people and activities between
a person and the doll, as long as the doll is capable of producing the
pleasurable sensations its user demands of it. A unitary model does not
distinguish activity with a person from activity with the doll by using
the categories "sexual" and "perversion." It does
allow that actual persons will have contingent preferences for either
contact with a person or with a doll, but insists that these preferences
require an explanation that goes beyond a mere binary definition of
Nagel's use of the word "intercourse," in his phrase "intercourse with ... inanimate objects" (48), to talk about the solitary masturbation of the shoe fetishist, illustrates how his employment of a binary model has colored his view of the sexual. If we take paired, genital intercourse as logically primary or paradigmatic, then even the rubbing of the penis on or in a shoe will be seen as intercourse. We will try to make it fit a binary model, even though a shoe is not a person. On the other side, employing a unitary model might lead us to see paired intercourse as masturbatory (for a reason different from that provided by Kant). If the rubbing of skin for the sake of the pleasure it produces is paradigmatic of the sexual, then even the ordinary insertion of the penis into the vagina will be seen as simply another instance of the rubbing of skin for the sake of the pleasure it yields. I think this is an implication of a unitary model that is worth exploring.
 See his magnum opus, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge, Eng.: Blackfriars, 1964-76), especially 2a2ae, question 154.
 Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 23.
 Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994), p. 65.
 "Why Homosexuality is Abnormal," The Monist 67:2 (1984): 251-83, at 253; reprinted in Alan Soble, ed., The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings, 3rd edn. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), pp. 95-127.
 Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 162-71, at p. 163.
 Ibid., pp. 166-7.
 "If a fusion of one and the other truly exists, . . . the very possibility of using an other as a means no longer exists" (Robert Baker and Frederick Elliston, "Introduction" to their edited collection Philosophy and Sex [Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1975, 1984], 1st edn., p. 18; 2nd edn., pp. 26-7).
 Lectures on Ethics, p. 170.
 A notable contrast is Russell Vannoy's humanistic treatment of masturbation in Sex Without Love (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1980), pp. 111-17.
 "Plain Sex," Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977): 267-87; reprinted in all three editions of Soble, ed., Philosophy of Sex (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980; Savage, Md., 1991; Lanham, Md., 1997). Page references are to the reprint in the 2nd edition, pp. 73-92.
 "Sexual Perversion," Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 5-17; reprinted in all three editions of Soble, ed., Philosophy of Sex. Page references are to the reprint in the 2nd edition, pp. 39-51.
 See "Sexual Paradigms," Journal of Philosophy 71 (1974): 336-45; reprinted in all three editions of Soble, ed., Philosophy of Sex (page references are to the reprint in the 2nd edition, pp. 53-62, and are preceded by SP); and "Sex and Perversion," in Baker and Elliston, eds., Philosophy and Sex, 1st edn., pp. 268-87 (page references to this essay are preceded by SAP).
 See Goldman, "Plain Sex," pp. 80-83, and Hugh Wilder, "The Language of Sex and the Sex of Language," in Alan Soble, ed., Sex, Love, and Friendship (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1997), pp. 23-31 (also in Soble, ed., Philosophy of Sex, 1st edn. only, pp. 99-109).
 For example, see, respectively, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987) and Intercourse (New York: Free Press, 1987).
 Refusing to Be a Man (Portland, Ore.: Breitenbush Books, 1989), p. 39.
 See his contribution to "Is Homosexual Conduct Wrong? A Philosophical Exchange" (between Finnis and Martha Nussbaum), The New Republic (15 November 1993), pp. 12-13; reprinted in Soble, ed., Philosophy of Sex, 3rd edn., pp. 89-94. For a more complete statement of Finnis's position, see his "Law, Morality, and 'Sexual Orientation,'" Notre Dame Law Review 69:5 (1994): 1049-76. More criticism of Finnis can be found in Paul Weithman, "Natural Law, Morality, and Sexual Complementarity," in D. Estlund and M. Nussbaum, eds., Sex, Preference, and Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 227-46, and "A Propos of Professor Perry: A Plea for Philosophy in Sexual Ethics," Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy 9 (1995): 75-92.
 Sexual Desire (New York: Free Press, 1986), p. 130.
 See, for example, Shere Hite, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality (New York: Dell, 1976).
 For a more complete account of masturbation, and further discussion of Aquinas, Kant, Goldman, et al., see my Sexual Investigations (New York: New York University Press, 1996), chapters one and two.