Sexual Ethics: The Intentional View of Sexual Desire

As some of you know, my colleague Eric Wiland and I are co-teaching a course called “Sexual Ethics” this semester. Eric Wiland delivered today’s lecture. It was quite interesting. So I thought I would summarize a few of the points here.

Most of the lecture concerned the so-called “intentional view of sexual desire.” On this view, sexual desire really isn’t desire in the strict sense in which desire is a longing for something you don’t have. Sexual desire, on this view, involves bodily pleasure and certain mental states. Sexual desire is more akin to emotions, such as love and caring, than it is to desire in the normal sense of the word.

In one of the examples that Dr. Wiland brought up, Johnny, who is on drugs and in trouble with the police, is having a sexual encounter with a police officer. Part of what fuels Johnny’s sexual desire is his thoughts about the very fact that his sexual partner is a police officer. In some sense Johnny is getting revenge, and the thoughts of that contribute to his sexual arousal.

In another example one man is dating two women and one of the women is aroused by the fact that she is having sex in a bed in which her sex partner has had sex with her rival.

On the intentional view, what may look like pure physical arousal is in far the most cases much more complicated. Dr. Wiland mentioned an example of two people having sex anonymously (they have pieces of cloth over their heads). This may seem like a case of pure physical pleasure but the thoughts of the anonymity probably contribute to (or subtract from) the sexual desire, in which case the sexual desire is not purely physical.

Sexual desire in this (partially mental) sense can be morally wrong, even if everyone involved consented to the act in the fullest sense. It can be wrong if, for example, the thoughts directed toward the other person are morally reprehensible. Dr. Wiland discussed a scenario from the film Dangerous Liaisons. The situation here is one in which a charming and good-looking man, who can get almost anyone he wants, starts to get bored because everything is so easy for him, so he plans to seduce a woman who despises him because of her virtues. His sexual desire, in this case, would be fueled by the thoughts of her willfully abandoning her moral principles. This kind of sexual desire may be thought to be morally reprehensible, not because it involves deceit, but because the thought-components of the desire are morally criticizable.

Morgan, S. (2003). “Sex in the Head”, Journal of Applied Philosophy 20: 1-16.

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