Philosophy of sex  

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"the sexual impulse ... appears as a malevolent demon that strives to pervert, confuse, and overthrow everything" [...], Arthur Schopenhauer, "The Metaphysics of Sexual Love"

"Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than the ordinary experiences of humanity. Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness - pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one's consciousness, for death itself." --Susan Sontag in the "The Pornographic Imagination"

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Philosophy of sex is the part of applied philosophy studying sex and love. It includes both ethics of phenomena such as prostitution, rape, sexual harassment, sexual identity, and homosexuality, and conceptual analysis of concepts such as "what is sex"? It also includes questions of sexuality and sexual identity and the ontological status of gender. Contemporary philosophy of sex is rooted in Western feminism. Issues raised by feminists regarding gender differences, sexual politics, and the nature of sexual identity are important questions in the philosophy of sex.

Leading contemporary philosophers of sex include Alan Soble and Judith Butler.

Notable treatises of the past are Ars Amatoria (c. 1 B.C.) by Ovid, A philosophy of lasciviousness (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft, The Metaphysics of Sexual Love by Schopenhauer and René Guyon's The Ethics of Sexual Acts (1934). A special case is that of Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) by Marquis de Sade, which is only related to this subject by title.


History of the philosophy of sex

Throughout much of the history of Western philosophy, questions of sex and sexuality have been relegated to ethics. There have, however, been deviations from this pattern out of which emerge a tradition of speaking of sexual issues in their own right.

Questions in philosophy of sex

  • What is romantic love?
  • Is there an essential characteristic that makes an act sexual?
  • Are some sexual acts good and others bad? According to what criteria? Alternatively, can consensual sexual acts be immoral, or are they outside the realm of ethics?
  • Are sexual identities rooted in some fundamental ontological difference (such as biology)?
  • Is sexuality a function of gender or biological sex?

Sexual desire

Moral evaluations of sexual activity are determined by judgments on the nature of the sexual impulse. In this light, philosophies fall into two camps:

A negative understanding of sexuality, such as from Immanuel Kant, believes that sexuality undermines values, and challenges our moral treatment of other persons. Sex, says Kant, "makes of the loved person an Object of appetite" (Lectures on Ethics). In this understanding, sexual celibacy may lead to the best, or most moral life. Sometimes it is advised only for the purpose of procreation. (1 Corinthians)

A positive understanding of sexuality has been fashionable in Western philosophy since Wilhelm Reich.

Putative perversions


Thomas Nagel proposes that only sexual interactions with mutual sexual arousal are natural to human sexuality. Perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this reciprocal arousal is absent, and in which a person remains fully a subject of the sexual experience or fully an object.


Informed consent

See also

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