30 December 2016

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 1: starting with the end

Καλλίπυγος Αφροδίτη

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.


  1. A couple thoughts:

    1) You seem to collapse the difference between the "high" and "low cultures (to put it crudely) of sensuality. Socrates and Plato were aristocrats, and as such, they enjoyed the fruits of an aristocratic lifestyle that had lavish drinking parties with high-end courtesans and prostitutes, whether women or boys. Much of the sensual emerges from this, with statuary, mosaics, drinking bowls etc. This is not the sensual appetite of the pleb. I think you are conflating them due to a form of Romanticism. I am not a Puritan, and I am generally hostile, but you totally mischaracterize them here. They represented a more earthy view of romance, combined with a sense of sin in Human actions. They rejected what they perceived to be a tendency of non-marital eroticism that was a part of courtly life. They tried to protect the female body. If you think they were prudes, you clearly know nothing of the Puritans. This is a myth that has been debunked, over and over, despite American pop-fiction like Miller's Crucible and Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.

    2) And, at least according to the Symposium, Socrates/Plato did not believe bodily sex was a proper object of eros, otherwise he would have consummated his attraction with dashing young Alcibiades. Instead he leaves the love unrequited. The Platonic emphasis on eros found in Christianity actually scorns the flesh, because the flesh is merely something to pass on over to the spiritual Real. Plato would have sneered at the Kallipygos as a shadow on the wall. This is not loving a woman as a woman, but loving a woman as a conduit for something else. This is the essence of pornography. DBH deals with something similar at the end of the Beauty of the Infinite, where our consumerism is more a product of gnostic tendencies than materialist ones. So, your account so far makes sense for the production of pornography, not its abolition.

    3) The private-public distinction is a novel idea, emerging from the late 18th and early 19th century. Sure, this is "Tory" as long as we're thinking 19th century Disraeli Tory, not, say, the Tories of Queen Ann or the High-Church establishment of Charles II, who was quite infamous, in the most baroque way, of having plenty of mistresses. This might be a good line of argument to chase, but its a part of the liberal changes of a bourgeois establishment, not prior or a part from it. This is prudery, but that might be a bullet you bite, and say, so what, it's still for the public good.

    I hope these criticisms help. I appreciate the work you do.

  2. Hi Cal; thank you for the pushback! This was actually meant to be the first part of a series and you touch on several points I meant to pick up on later, but I'll engage them briefly here.

    1a.) This is actually two points that I want to break out and respond to separately. I actually tend to think the reverse: that you are somewhat caricaturing Socrates and Plato (and in particular putting an inappropriately Gnostic cast on his doctrine of the Forms), and misreading the Puritans somewhat. I'll respond to the bit about the Puritans here.

    The problem with the Puritans was partially that, yes, they were prudes (pace the Calvinist revisionists). They thought of sex in primarily legal terms. They gave us the tendencies that directly led to the shaming of Matt Taylor for his colourful T-shirt. They weren't the frustrated Arthur Miller caricatures that we ended up becoming familiar with, but they did hedge matrimonial sex about in all sorts of (if you'll pardon the expression) Apollonian and legalistic language of duty and 'due benevolence'. The reason for this, I believe, is somewhat paradoxical, and that is: they rejected the mediæval (and, let's be honest, Antique) cultus of virginity.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that retaining a cultus of virginity, a means of living within which celibacy is not only a negative duty but in fact a positive good - a sublimation of erōs not into art or poetry but into prayer - was the factor that allowed erōs in other realms of life to flourish in joyful and healthy ways, ways which acknowledged the divine/animal genius rather than seeking to domesticate it through legalist thinking. The earthy sensuality, the playfulness and often downright bawdiness which is to be seen in Anglo-Saxon poetry, in Chaucer, in mediæval minnesang, is entirely absent from Milton and Cowper, let alone the very character of the Puritan sermons you are likely to cite as counter-examples.

    1b.) I'm not unaware of the irony in marshalling Socratic-Platonic ideas against the very social reality in which they themselves lived, a social reality which included sex work of many various sorts, both 'free' and 'unfree'. But the direction that Platonic thought eventually took in its later applications (for example, in the works of S. Gregory of Nyssa, of the Cambridge Platonists, of Vladimir Solovyov) turned it directly against the institution of chattel slavery. That leaves open the question of why prostitution (as common practice in Antiquity as slavery was) should be treated differently?


  3. 2.) Believe it or not, I actually agree with you on this one. Sort of. Plato and Socrates certainly did not believe that all erotic desires ought to be consummated, even if they are fully aware of their presence and their power. That insight actually provides a great deal of the force of my analysis here, if you read it carefully. But, as mentioned above, you seem to be filtering this insight through a Gnostic lens that both Socrates and Plato would reject - a lens which is all the odder given your above note about how men of Plato's station enjoyed erotic encounters with women and boys on a regular basis, and Plato doesn't put paid to that!

    As for Plato's attitude toward art and poetry (including that which is erotically charged), I think Phaedrus provides some hints about his attitudes toward that, which are somewhat more nuanced than you're allowing for here.

    I agree with you, of course, that Plato would indeed think of pornography as a kind of self-deception. But he wouldn't think of all artistic or poetic descriptions of the flesh, or all love songs, as being ipso facto pornographic, and your certainty that he would view the Kallipygos as such, strikes me as incredibly strange. The question is rather: does the erotic urge feed on itself, or does it point to some higher and more sublime truth?

    3.) The public-private distinction is actually Aristotelian, not modern. It was re-appropriated and borrowed by several of the neo-Platonists, and was around to be critiqued by several of the Early Church Fathers. But what I'm using here isn't a narrowly propertarian view of the public-private distinction. The question is one of what modes, and what practices, of being sexual allow for public dignity. Objecting to the buying and selling of body parts, and to deliberately making poor women more vulnerable than they already are to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the powerful, is not prudery. And furthermore, it is a reaction against the Whiggish view that levels sex to a commodity or a service that is commensurate with any other; and it is not a reaction that relies on a bourgeois legalism. The reaction is instead one that seeks to preserve the pre-rational, primal, divine/animal element to sex. Or, if you like, the aristocratic, or the existential element. (So perhaps 'private' was not the best word to use, since it implies something already reified as 'property' in the bourgeois sense.)

    Again, thanks for the pushback; I honestly think some of it was a bit misaimed, but I appreciate the intent!


  4. Elaboration on 2.) I found that Solovyov quote I was looking for!

    'In the Symposium and the Phaedrus, [Plato] clearly and definitely separates and juxtaposes the lower and higher activities of erōs--his action in the animal-instinctual man and in the super-animal man. Yet one must recall that even in the higher man, erōs acts, creates, generates, and does not merely think and ratiocinate. Here, too, [erōs'] main object is not intellectual ideas, but full, bodily life.'

  5. I enjoy the debate:

    1a) Here, we're at the level of assertions. But, what's clear is that you are being historically irresponsible with the term. I guess we should elaborate. When I hear Puritan, I think of a distinct movement in and around English ecclesial history, whether in the CoE or outside it as Separatists, that existed in the early to mid 17th century. New England Congregationalists, which is primarily what I think of when I think "Puritan", wrote a lot of things on marital love, erotic longing etc etc. It was not prudish, not in the least. Cowper is not a Puritan.

    But this gets to the historical irresponsibility. You flew from a 21st century example of a t-shirt debacle to the 17th, to the 18th, and then back to the 14th. The causal effects of cultural artifacts that you attribute are way too broad brush to mean anything. Yes, I think New England Puritanism left a legacy, but I'm not sure it is what you think it is. The state of New England's congregational churches, by the beginning of the 18th century, let alone during the Revolution, was radically different than its founding. To chalk Feminist outrage about a t-shirt to Puritanism is not tenable. Of course, it's a pejorative nowadays, so it can mean what one wants it to mean (e.g. sexually immature, cruel, stern, rigid, neurotic etc etc.)

    1b) My main point was the difference in art. Plebs did not have anal sex and pederasty plastered on their wine goblets. This was the world that Plato and Socrates were within. Socrates was executed, contrary to popular myth, for being a potential 5th column for the recently deposed 30 Tyrants (pro-aristocrats & pro-Sparta). A major complaint among Puritans was that the Stuart court was full of homosexuals and orgiastic parties. This, I think, was a politics of sexuality partially rooted in class difference. I think this is important to think about when we talk about sexual policy. While it has certainly become much fuzzier, it still exists.

    1. 2) I think pornography proves Plato's point: eros should be not about the flesh. Platonic philosophy was not an embrace of the dionysiac or of Human flesh! I'm not saying it was gnostic, it's a part of a chain-of-being metaphysic where matter is inherently unworthy by definition when compared to the spiritual. This implies sexual consummation is unworthy because of the fact it involves material bodies. If you could feel the ecstasy of sex through an erotic interior experience in the soul, Plato would approve. The movie Don John does a good job explaining the phenomenon of porn's attraction even when someone gets plenty of sex. It also is even in video games, like Mass Effect, where one character's form of sex is a "mind-meld". This isn't gnostic, not exactly, but a spiritualizing. This is what, fundamentally, set the Origenist monks, and Evagrius Ponticus, a part from other monks. It devalues the flesh. Pornography, for Plato, I argue, makes more sense than actual sex, because it engages the mind without the body. I guess I don't know how Plato would read the Kallipygos. Is a woman's derrier in marble a sublime testament to the Good, which per Neo-Platonism, was the One who is self-referrentially worthy (hence Venus staring at herself)? Or is it vulgar aristocrats too mired in the flesh to understand eternal things? I don't know. But it certainly does not result in a Platonic love of matter, namely the actual female creature, Christian or Pagan.

      3)The Aristotelian binary is polis/oikos, city/family, which does not map out exactly to the public/private. I misunderstood what you were getting at exactly.

      As far as it stands, I don't think a left argument against prostitution and pornography can coexist with a "Tory" high-culture argument. The romanticization of royalty and chivalry is a bourgeois phenomenon, like Middle-Class America's fascination with cowboys and westerns. It can channel critique, but it doesn't offer another vision of reality. The pleb version of the Kallipygos is the blonde in lingerie on the xxx website. The difference is what people do with it, and common people lack the reified aesthetics.

      I think, if you gave it more attention, the Puritans would be more your friends on this than anything, especially the New England Puritans. You see your goals, and have real-life data stock-piled, but your romanticist aesthetics and sense of history, and Platonic anthropology, have you in a snag. Personally, my growing attachment to Orthodoxy has made me more hostile to Platonism and more sympathetic with radical Reformational groups. But I digress.

      I'll end my comments here. To summarize my major concerns: 1) you aren't paying attention to class difference in assessing sex, society, and politics in the arts and policy; 2) Neo-Platonism actually hamstrings your argument, not because they're Realist, but because of Chain-of-Being metaphysics that degrade the material, even if it doesn't totally eject it as gnostic. It seems you want to rebuild a bawdy medieval court, the mythical Merry Ol' England peasantry, and a Neo-Platonic Medieval Monastery. But I don't think any of that actually existed except in romanticism and as justification for a destructive social order.

      When you finish writing all of your pieces, I'll try to respond more comprehensively. I care because I think realist left concerns are good, but I'd rather not go down dark alleyways. Anyway, this is all very helpful for me in my own thinking. Thanks for sparring with me! :)


  6. I wonder if the primary change is from looking at family as the seat of production (a smallholder culture where families run businesses and produce children) vs one where family is the seat of consumption alone (and therefore marriage and love is just about buying a little bit of happiness).