Sexual desire is a unique and complicated human trait. There are various different accounts of what sexual desire is and what it aims at. Some may argue that it is obvious that sexual desire is the desire for sex, the desire for the simple bodily pleasure gained through contact with another person. However, there are many who hold alternative views and claim that there is considerably more to having a sexual desire than mere bodily gratification.
The traditional view of sex and sexual desire, often termed the ‘procreation view’, holds that sexual desire aims at reproduction. This is a primarily naturalistic view point which claims that nature and evolution have created humans in such a way that
they have sexual desires that result in copulation and possible procreation. This seems like a simple and obvious explanation for sexual desire – yes, we can gain pleasure from sexual desires, but this is because we have evolved in such a way as to make that pleasure a crucial part of reproduction. The female orgasm has apparently no purpose but pleasure, however, this pleasure is an incentive for the female to have sex. Her sexual desire for pleasure is nature’s way of ensuring procreation. This is an easily understood view and is the basis for a more theological conception of sexual desires.
The Christian explanation of sexual desires is also that they aim at reproduction and procreation – God wishes for the human race to propagate and consequently human beings have sexual desires which cause them to seek a partner to reproduce with. The Christian view of sexual desires, unlike the naturalistic view, is highly morally loaded. Sexual desires entail a normative element – they ought to aim at procreation within the legitimate constitution of marriage. The idea that sexual desires might aim at bodily pleasure is not an element in the theist account of sexual desire, indulging in pleasure seeking activities is often seen as ‘giving in’ to a weakness in character. Sexual activity that does not aim at, or allow for the possibility of, procreation is a sin. Homosexuality, masturbation, the use of contraceptives and all other forms of sexual activity which do not involve a heterosexual couple capable of having children are an aberration of Gods purpose and consequently morally wrong. This view is often considered to be strict, oppressive and extremely conservative. However it is the foundation for much of the discussion regarding the moral status of a large number of sexual acts – the latent stigma still attached to homosexuality is a prime example of the influence of the theological standpoint on sexual desires.
Despite retaining some influence on the way we think about certain sexual practices the traditional theist conception of sexual desires is often widely ignored in modern times. A primary objection to the viewpoint is that it is an almost empirically observable fact that sexual desires do not necessarily aim at procreation. The massive use of contraceptives throughout the modern world is evidence that people desire sex for many reasons besides reproduction. The sexual desires of those who enjoy fetishism, exhibitionists, bondage enthusiasts and pornographers along with the desires of homosexuals show that sexual desire can have no relation to the production of children. So what is sexual desire? What does it aim at if it is not procreation?
One answer to this question is pleasure. Human beings gain a variety of types of pleasure from sexual activities. These pleasures need not necessarily be purely physical. Roger Scruton expounds a theory of human sexual desire that is based on the uniquely “human phenomena” of individualised intentionality. Scruton holds that sexual desire is considerably more complex than the simple pursuit of bodily pleasure. Individualised intentionality means that desire is directed towards something, towards a certain person, not just on the basis of any bodily pleasure that may be gained from that person but on the basis of certain beliefs and attitudes that one might have about that person as an individual. On Scrutons account the best kind of sexual pleasure is gained through intimate and monogamous relationships with the person you desire. Sexual desire has a complex nature which can only be satisfied within the framework of a loving, commitment relationship-it is only in this framework that one can truly know and appreciate your partner. The consequences of Scrutons theory is a conservative sexual morality that advocates the fulfilment of sexual desire in loving relationships – not through causal sex.
Scrutons thesis has some positive implications. The idea that the ‘best’ sexual activity occurs within a monogamous and loving relationship can help promote an Aristotelian flourishing in some people. To understand yourself to be loved, to have an intimate relationship with someone that is not only based upon physical pleasures but the desire your partner has for your personhood and to have reciprocal feelings for that person seems to be something that many people seek. People who have such relationships are commonly said to be in ‘happy’ relationships.
However, Scrutons account of sexual desire has the consequence of implying that sexual activities such as casual sex and group sex do not result in the same level or intensity of pleasure as sex in a monogamous situation. It could be argued that this is clearly not the case. Those who indulge in casual sex often do so because it affords them a level of intensity and satisfaction that they find lacking in a relationship. The desire for sex, sexual desire, often seems very separate from the idea of love. Scruton may be correct in thinking that some of the time sex is the precursor to a deeper, more meaningful relationship – for some people this is the case. However it is more common that the desire for sex appears to be a desire for simply that – sexual intercourse. One night stands and the phenomenon of “fuck buddies” – those people who have platonic arrangements to have casual sex – indicate that sexual desire is primarily the pursuit of bodily pleasure, not a desire for intimacy with particular individuals.
When we consider sexual desire in a modern context it seems that most of the time human beings aim at bodily pleasure. The procreation view and Scrutons account of sexual desire fail to take into consideration the vast number of sexual practices and activities which aim solely at bodily pleasure. Although we can concede to Scruton that many people have sexual desires in the context of loving relationships it seems that there are numerous counter examples that show that people have sexual desires that are in no way related to an individual person.
If we consider the accounts of sexual desire we have just examined we can see that they locate the aim of sexual desire outside the act of sex itself. In doing so they have added certain normative requirements to different kinds of sexual activities, they have created a sexual morality.
In contrast Alan Goldman sets forth a simple, morally neutral and almost hedonistic account of sexuality which is grounded in his own definitions of sexual desire – “desire for contact with anther persons body and for the pleasure that contact produces” . Goldman argues that other accounts miss one of the crucial facts about sex – it is a highly pleasurable activity. He wishes to give an account of sexual desire that is based simply on sex itself. Sexual desire aims at pleasure so the best sex is the kind which affords it participants the most physical enjoyment. In contrast with Scrutons account Goldman can explain certain sexual phenomena with his stark and simple rationalization of sexual desire. Casual sex, group sex and promiscuity can all be justified comprehensively by Goldman whilst Scruton is forced by his commitment to individualised intentionality to saying that such activities “depersonalise” the participants. Goldman’s account has other positive aspects in that he allows that sex can have other purposes besides pleasure – reproduction and communications of love between partners. He also includes an element of intentionality in his argument – the desire is for contact with another body – but does not add the problematic individuality component that Scruton retains and consequently avoids the problems he faced.
However, the element of intentionality does make the explanation of one extremely common sexual activity difficult for Goldman – solo masturbation. Masturbation seems to be the result of desire for mere pleasure, not for contact with another body. Of course Goldman could argue that masturbation is the product of unrealised sexual desire – the desire is for the contact with another body but as this is not available masturbation is the substitute. This amendment goes someway to help Goldman’s view but any account which requires supplementation shows itself to be weak. It is also the case that Goldman has not really understood the true nature masturbation – it does not satisfy any desire for contact with another body, it simply satisfies the desire for pleasure. Primoratz notes this fact about masturbation and develops Goldman’s account of ‘plain sex’ into what he terms ‘plainer sex’. For Primoratz sexual desire is the desire for physical pleasure and nothing more. This explanation allows us to account for all kinds of sexual behaviour, including masturbation, and attributes no normative element to sexual activities.
I personally find the Goldman and Primoratz accounts show a common-sense understanding of sexual desire. It seems obvious, particularly in the modern world where the institution of marriage is fast becoming obsolete and people are becoming more and more aware of themselves as sexually liberated beings that sexual desire is primarily about pleasure. As a mentioned at the beginning of this essay sex may have originally been about procreation, with pleasure being the incentive we had to reproduce, but with the development of our species the purpose of sexual desire has become increasingly about the pursuit of physical gratification.
Goldman and Primoratz claim that the plain sex account is morally neutral, understanding sexual desires as aiming at physical pleasure has no implications for sexual morality because there is no such morality. It is only if you hold a theist procreation view or agree with Scruton that any moral implications arise from holding that sexual desire aims simply at pleasure. It might be argued that the pursuit of sex for the simple gratification of bodily pleasure may result in wrongful treatment of other people – using them as mere means to your own pleasure and not respecting the personhood they have in themselves. There are actually many examples of this occurring – people routinely lie to those they wish to sleep with, it is a common humorous story told in the pub of people waking up in the morning and sneaking away from the person they had told faithfully the night before that they were interested in for more than just sex. The plain sex view seems to leave the way open for this sort of behaviour to be acceptable. The plain sex response to this sort of objection is quite simple. These sort of actions, along with more extreme cases such as paedophilia and rape, are not morally wrong because they are sexual acts. They are wrong because they use people, harm people and coerce people.
Overall I think the plain sex view expounded by Primoratz and Goldman shows the greatest understanding of human sexual desire in the modern world. We have become more hedonistic and feel justified in pursing pleasure for its own sake. The evidence that we pursue sex for pleasure is great – the massive use of contraceptives, the variety of sexual practices people indulge in and take pleasure from, and the acceptance of those who gain pleasure from what would have once been considered perversions, all show that we no longer consider sexual desire to be about procreation at least. I appreciate some of the aspects of Scrutons account and feel that he is correct in claiming that sexual desire can quite often be for more than bodily contact and pleasure. Our desire for relationships and companionship and the pleasure many people take in their long- term monogamous partnerships shows that sexual desire can have a more complex nature. Scrutons account also demonstrates why we have moral feelings about certain sexual acts. However, I feel that to account for the scope of sexual phenomenon that we have in the modern world, to account for the deviations from the ‘norm’ that we now accept, we have to understand that sexual desire primarily aims at physical pleasure.
Primoratz, E, Ethics and Sex, Routledge, 1999