Philosophies of Masturbation

Alan Soble, Ph.D.

University Research Professor and
Professor, Philosophy Department
University of New Orleans

This essay, or its cousins, has been published many times in many versions in many places. This version is to appear in Martha Cornog, ed., Self-Love/Self-Abuse (San Francisco: Down There Press).

Everyone knows that you can't relieve an itch by stroking it gently.
Elaine Morgan

I have a simple philosophy. Fill what's empty. Empty what's full. And scratch where it itches.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth


Reflecting 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.

Masturbation 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.

Some History

In the middle of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas laid the foundations for Catholic sexual ethics.[1] 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.

A 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."[2] 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:

If 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.[3]

Note 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.

Nonetheless, 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."[4] 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.

Several 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:

[T]here 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 thing.[5]

Kant 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:

The 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.[6]

Kant 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.[7] 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) person?

Kant's 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]:

[O]nanism . . . 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.[8]

Kant concludes his denouncement of these aberrations nastily: "He," the masturbator or homosexual, "no longer deserves to be a person."

Sex and Sexual Desire

What 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.[9] I propose to examine them carefully.

I begin with Alan Goldman's definitions of "sexual desire" and "sexual activity":[10]

[S]exual 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)

On 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.

The 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.

Goldman, however, does acknowledge one sense in which masturbation is a sexual activity:

Voyeurism 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)

On 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.

On 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 is counterintuitive.

Psychological Completeness

According to the philosopher Thomas Nagel, self-consciousness plays a role in human sexuality that is absent from animal sexuality.[11] 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.

On 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 achieves orgasm.

Nagel's 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).

A 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 [45] 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.

Sex as Talk

The philosopher Robert Solomon also distinguishes sharply between animal and human sexuality.[12] 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 not:

If 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)

If 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 each other.

But 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.

There is no warrant to conclude, within a model that likens sexuality to linguistic behavior, that solitary masturbation is inferior.[13] 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.

Solomon 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 qualification.

Men's Feminism

Men's liberation has not done much better. Consider the views of the writer John Stoltenberg, a student of the feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.[14]   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."[15]  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:

Pay 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 tubes. (35-36)

Given 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.

For 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.

Stoltenberg 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.

The Marriage Bed

The 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 conscious self."[16]  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.

So, 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,

with 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 that good.

We 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.

But 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 sexual philosophy:

the 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.

Finnis 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.

Metaphysical Illusions

For 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."[17] 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.

The 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 this example:

Consider 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)

Feminism 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.[18] 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.

Why 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.

All 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.

Two Models of Sexuality

It 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.

The 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.

Accounts 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.

How 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.

Within 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.

In 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 sexual desire.

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.[19]

[1] See his magnum opus, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge, Eng.: Blackfriars, 1964-76), especially 2a2ae, question 154.

[2] Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 23.

[3] Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994), p. 65.

[4] "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.

[5] Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 162-71, at p. 163.

[6] Ibid., pp. 166-7.

[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).

[8] Lectures on Ethics, p. 170.

[9] A notable contrast is Russell Vannoy's humanistic treatment of masturbation in Sex Without Love (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1980), pp. 111-17.

[10] "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.

[11] "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.

[12] 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).

[13] 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).

[14] For example, see, respectively, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987) and Intercourse (New York: Free Press, 1987).

[15] Refusing to Be a Man (Portland, Ore.: Breitenbush Books, 1989), p. 39.

[16] 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.

[17] Sexual Desire (New York: Free Press, 1986), p. 130.

[18] See, for example, Shere Hite, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality (New York: Dell, 1976).

[19] 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.