30 December 2016
A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 1: starting with the end
In a private communication, I got some interesting pushback on my recent blog post which attempted to demonstrate, pithily, how certain traditionalist ends required a certain radical logic to reach them – and vice-versa. In particular, this gentle reader of the blog noted that when discussing the pelvic issues – pornography, prostitution and their relationship to ‘rape culture’ – I seemed to be importing categories, language and reasoning from social constructivism and 1970’s second-wave feminism (through Hedges). He wondered, in particular, how I squared that importation with the otherwise thoroughgoing realist High and Radical Tory categories I was using to describe the other forms of reciprocation and symmetric duties.
I had thought a bit about the best way to approach this question, and wondered if it wouldn’t be better to explore the realist resources on these specific topics and work my way from the back end, instead of trying to reason myself into an ad hoc agreement with positions with which I might sympathise, but whose philosophical assumptions I don’t share. After all, I have on this blog posted both qualified support for, and qualified criticism of, the feminist position; suffice it to say, I have very little sympathy for feminist censoriousness, joyless prudishness or sublimated Puritanism. I should be sorely dismayed should my own criticisms of pornography or the sex ‘trade’ fall into the same category.
Let’s start from the basics, then. What did the first realists think? What were the attitudes, firstly, of Plato and Aristotle toward sex? Plato and Aristotle certainly did not live in a polis which disdained, censored or irrationally feared expressions of sexual appetite, and therefore it would not be fair to either of them to categorise them as prudes. (Personally, I lean toward Plato more, so please do not take it amiss that I privilege his treatment of the subject here.) In Plato’s case, even though ‘platonic love’ is now a byword for a wholly-celibate kind of love, what he says about the erōs between a man and a woman (or between two men) is more interesting. He has, in fact, a deep and thorough appreciation for the erotic urge – far deeper and more thorough, in fact, than his predecessors, who saw it primarily as the means by which men begot heirs. The sexual drive is a powerful creative force which can inspire the greatest and most sublime works of art and poetry and philosophy. Alternatively, it can drive a man or a woman to the depths of madness and isolation.
This kind of madness at first appears, and indeed can be, a highly-destructive evil. But in the cases of divine or oracular inspiration which outwardly appears to be madness (or rather, beyond the reach of human reasoning), it serves the good. The way in which erōs serves the highest good, Plato argues, is if it is yoked to a kind of philos: if the pre-rational, divine/animal appreciation of the flesh can evoke, toward the same person, a rational appreciation of the soul. The classical Platonic view, therefore – which indeed was adopted by classical Christianity – is that sex and sexual desire serve purposes beyond the merely biological. It is indeed procreative, as the pre-Socratics were wont to teach. But it is also an urge which comes from a part of the human soul beyond the reach of reason, which can touch the divine, and bring forth all manner of good from the soul. But all the better, if it is further yoked to a kind of friendship and companionship that unites two souls as well as their bodies!
This realist, and, dare I say, Tory view of sexuality, is hardly Puritanical or censorious; the appreciation of the flesh – pre-rational, animal, ecstatic, playful, Dionysian – is very much there and at the forefront. But there is still a philosophical appreciation of what sex is for, what purposes it serves, and how it can build people up as well as getting them off. And there is an understanding that there’s more than a bit of danger involved, when we touch on matters that go directly to a person’s most private nature – directly, that is, to where they withdraw from society, and become (if I may be allowed to abuse Aristotle’s observation a bit) either a divinity or a ravening animal. Or either, depending on the mood. Or both.
What we are really asking when we speak of prostitution on ethical grounds, is this question: is sex a form of labour which can be likened to other forms of labour? Should having sex be considered a ‘job’ or a ‘trade’ like being a plumber or an electrician or a farmer? Or, considering the dangers of venereal disease, abuse, exploitation, and so forth: should having sex for a living be considered analogous to being a factory worker or a miner, who are subject to similar forms of exploitation and grievous bodily harm? Let’s consider, then: what is at stake for the factory worker or the miner? ‘On the job’, the coal miner’s body is indeed exposed to the dangers of injury and chronic illness, such that their lives are drastically shortened and the ends of their lives are often a choking, gasping misery. But when he is working, is he ever deliberately exposing to his fellow miners, to his boss, or to his boss’s clients, those private and vulnerable aspects of his pre-rational divine/animal nature, that would appear to a lover during an act of sex? Is that vulnerability ever put on display?
Even to ask the question is to point out, in part, the absurdity of the analogy. Those who follow my blog know full well that I don’t want to trivialise the travails of the working class, particularly not those who have been as badly-treated and abused as coal miners. But there is a definite difference in kind between sex ‘work’ and the sort of bodily abuse they are subject to ‘on the job’. Coal miners do not have an enviable job, but many would say that there is a dignity in what they do, and they guard that dignity fiercely.
But with a very, very few exceptions (and those notably in societies where received wisdom about sex, traditional gender roles and so on have been actively suppressed by majoritarian demand), women and children in the sex ‘trade’ do not have and cannot claim that same dignity. Leaving aside trafficking: physical assault, rape, shell-shock in proportions seen only in combat veterans – and the fact that nearly nine out of ten women and children in the ‘trade’ want to leave it – point to a reality that the sex ‘trade’ is not one comparable to and analogous to other jobs. Taking the most vulnerable and most private aspects of a woman’s personal life and the most private parts of her body – which can and ought to be a source of divine madness and inspiration in the men who would pursue her! – and making them a commodity to be consumed in the marketplace to whomever would pay, is an egregious capitalist abuse of erōs, rather than any expression of it a philosophical realist is obliged to acknowledge as healthy or desirable!
Slightly trickier is the depiction of sex in art. After all, erotic imagery, and appreciation of the visually- and audibly-arousing, does indeed have a place in that ‘divine’ inspiration Plato’s Socrates esteemed so highly, from which flows forth art and poetry and philosophy; and one needn’t delve very far into the history of the Western visual arts and poetry to figure that one out. From a realist perspective, there’s nothing wrong with art that hints at, or even drips with, sensualism and erotic longing (otherwise, we’d have to take entire books out of the Bible, for one thing). But there is a quality that distinguishes erotically-charged art and literature and so forth, from pornography, that is not merely the presence or implication of ‘naughty bits’. But what is it?
Referring back to the ‘realist’ position above, I wonder if the distinction to be drawn is not, after all, a kind of ‘short-circuit’ or a level-confusion that happens. Just as there is a distinction between the ideal form and its representation; just as there is a distinction between philosophy and poetry; and just as there is a distinction between the object of artistic inspiration and the work of art representing it, surely there is also a distinction between the object of sexual longing and the depiction of that longing? If the depiction of sexual desire becomes the object of sexual fixation, are we not doing violence to our own sexual drives, in the same way as we would do violence to our reason if we pretend that a landscape painting is actually a mountain range, or to our faculties of enjoyment if we refuse to suspend our disbelief when watching a movie? Again leaving aside the questions of sexual exploitation explored in brief above, there strikes me as a kind of cheating that occurs with pornography, that does damage to our own reasoning and capacity for true æsthetic appreciation, that doesn’t happen when we read Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example.
So where does this leave us? Hopefully, in a position where we can take principled stands against the chattel exploitation of the bodies of the poor and vulnerable, and against the commercialisation of our sexual natures which belong within the intimate society of the home. But also, hopefully, where we can avoid the opposite extreme of prudishness and Puritan prying and censuring of others’ sexual tastes, desires and private lives.