Thursday, 27 May 2010

Rapacious Desire

There has been a fair amount of debate about the above video on YouTube over the last week or so and the discussion has provoked me into examining a number of issues which demand further scrutiny. The video comes as a response to feminist opposition to the sex industry due to its objectification of women. The counter argument posed by this video sees such opposition as an infringement of the right to use one's body in whatever way one chooses. This is a classic "liberal" argument which, at first glance, seems both logical and fair but which ignores the fact that a lack of boundaries doesn't necessarily coincide with a reduction in potential harm. If we were free to do as we wish with our bodies, would it be acceptable to sell one of our kidneys, one of our eyes, or even something more life-threatening or to offer our bodies for others to punch and beat in return for cash? If a market exists for such things, as it undoubtedly does, then there's money to be made. But as we all know, money corrupts. People are willing to do all kinds of things for money which they would never otherwise volunteer to do. Accepted, there are many unpleasant or dangerous occupations which only money can compensate for but usually these don’t disable or degrade the people doing them and if they do, every effort is made (or should be) to minimise this risk and compensate for it.

The American philosopher Michael Sandel has some fascinating views on the subject of prostitution and commercial surrogacy which are relevant here. He argues that such practices "corrupt the good bound up with the moral meaning of the human body and sexuality". Whilst we might wish for greater clarity here, I would agree with Sandel about what he identifies as an "impoverished conception of freedom that is concerned only with individual or consumer choice in the marketplace." Sandel argues for an alternative to consumer or market freedom which he terms "civic freedom" which:

"actually encourages men and women to think of themselves first as citizens, at least for political purposes, not first as consumers… This isn't really about restricting freedom, it's about enlarging and making more demanding the understanding of what freedom is. The freedom of citizens to deliberate about the common good, not just the freedom of consumers to pursue their own self-interest unimpeded."

One of the most powerful objections against calls for the legalisation of prostitution is that it's rarely, if ever, offered willingly, but rather as a result (direct or otherwise) of poverty, drug abuse or corruption. It's certainly difficult to imagine how anything but money could compensate for such a vocation, but the important thing to recognise here is that underlying this perception is often a more pernicious and insidious “commonsense” injunction against prostitution: the view that it’s somehow unclean, dirty, filthy, seedy, sleazy, sordid, base, squalid, nasty, foul, disgusting and repulsive. If ever a list of synonyms was a clear indicator of social disapproval, this is undoubtedly it. Most of these terms are inevitably and unthinkingly directed at the workers themselves to the point where it's very difficult to determine which is actually the more degrading: the job, or society's portrayal of the people who perform it. The stigma derives from prostitution’s longstanding historical association with sexually transmitted diseases, but at another level the attitude is also perpetuated by - and intricately intertwined with - more deeply seated puritanical values about the vices of carnal acts - with all their attendant primitive urges and bodily humours. However, it's always clear when such arguments are mobilised, particularly ones which resort to yuk responses, that this is simply a shorthand for "I haven't really thought this through and I'm just accepting what I've received from popular opinion."

Putting social circumstances aside for the moment (which may appear as one abstraction too far), what’s the essential difference between “normal” sex and sex with a prostitute? Normal sex involves reciprocal sexual desire whereas prostituted sex does not. It’s this deceptively simple yet fundamental difference which has such profound repercussions for our understanding of sex and sexual relations. The reason that many people have an aversion to prostitution is not so much because it's sleazy (for some this would be one of its attractions) but rather because it’s selfish (previously I wrote "inauthentic" - see the comments). And by this I mean that the desire involved is a one way street: its not reciprocal, simply consensual. Sex and sexual desire should never have to be measured against something as prosaic as consent. Consent is a nadir not a zenith; it’s a bare minimum; the lowest possible denominator below which is nothing but rape.

I think we need to make an extremely important distinction between two radically different kinds of sexual desire: reciprocal desire and rapacious desire. Reciprocal desire gives itself actively and freely and with one condition: that this desire is shared, whereas rapacious desire is a predatory desire distinct from lust by being particularly self-serving rather than simply impassioned. Rapacious desire treats others as things; as means to an end; as objects. Rapacious desire is exactly the self-interested pursuit of consumption which Sandel spoke of above and we need to be extremely vigilant about how and why we might wish to cater to this desire.

For this reason I disagree with the “Making Sex Work” video. I realize that the situation is deeply complex with far too many conflicting agendas to cover in a blog post, but of all the current ways of dealing with this morass of opinion and argument I think the Swedish Model is by far the most rational: decriminalize prostitution and support and provide legal protection for prostitutes but criminalize the users of prostitution. Target rapacious desire.

There’s a world of difference between the freedom of expression and the freedom to be abused.


Fred McVittie said...

Some great thoughts here. I particularly like your distinction between 'reciprocal desire' and 'rapacious desire' (although some might find the use of the word 'rapacious' a bit inflamatory). You should pick up a camera and make a video about it.

Forever Becoming said...

If society is constantly pushing certain ideas upon us - who we should be fucking, how we should be fucking - and if only a certain minority within a society is able to attain these dreams (those with the necessary qualities); then what do we do with those who don't make the grade?

Prostitution can be a way to attain a dream; to know what it feels like, even if it is only "fake". It seems hypocritical for a society to condemn those who seek to realise images that the collectivity has pushed upon them; when perhaps their greatest error is to have taken these images too literally (to have not been fortunate enough to be able to not take them literally).

People are things; we are objects. Is objectification always a bad thing?

And what if prostitution was actually in the interests of the collectivity? We can't all be as mature and as disciplined as illustrious abstainers like the Dalai Lama. Within a society there will always be the weak and the immature. Is it not the role of the stronger to care for the weak? To give them a place?

It seems that before any of this, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the images that the collectivity is constantly pushing upon its members, crafting their dreams and desires from a very young age. Everything is sexualized now.

There is also this slant to prostitution:

Thanks for the text Jim, I found it really interesting.

J. Hamlyn said...

@Forever Becomming: Thanks so much for your insightful comments - someone else also pointed this out to me yesterday. I'd originally intended to address this issue too but decided not to since the post was starting to get too long. I will definitely come back to it though in my next post.

@Fred - me, pick up a video - hmm - if I could do the ol' solvitur ambulando even half as well as you, I might consider it but reading from the screen's just doesn't do it for me.



dyske said...

If I understand you correctly, you are trying to say that individuals have an obligation to compromise their individuality to some degree for what the society at large wants. Like the concept of social contract, individual needs and wants alone cannot determine what's right and wrong. It's a matter of arriving at a reasonable compromise. So, I see your point, but I would still question what the appropriate compromise is.

I've had a similar debate with my friend about smoking at bars when smoking was banned in NYC. I was defending the ban as a social contract, and my friend was all about "civil liberties".

Forever Becoming makes a good point. What should a society do with men who are so unattractive and awkward that they simply cannot get any women to have "authentic" sex. I personally know a few such men who may even be virgins in their 40s because of their disabilities. They might view your philosophy as coming from someone who is blissfully ignorant of how lucky you are that you can have "authentic" sex.

I would also question the validity of this concept "authentic". I've known a few men who are so attractive that they had no problem getting laid every night with a different woman. Is that "authentic"?

I would also question the assumption of "authentic" being superior to "inauthentic", which is essentially the same binary pair as "reality" versus "simulation". In the minds of these highly attractive men, what exactly is going on? Is their experience "real" or "authentic"? What goes on in the minds of the men lucky enough to have sex with Scarlett Johansson? Are they "making love" to Scarlett Johansson or "Scarlett Johansson"?

In your thesis, it appears that what makes the sexual intercourse "authentic" is dependent solely on what goes on in the minds of the women, but even if they are more than willing, it does not mean that what goes on in their heads is "authentic". They might be fucking "Brad Pitt" too, instead Brad Pitt the person.

"We can't all be as mature and as disciplined as illustrious abstainers like the Dalai Lama."

In the West, abstinence is seen as a positive deed. This is a prejudice that adds bias to social policies. Buddhists do not see abstinence as a virtue. It just so happens that it allows them to understand how their mind works. If it turns out that having sex everyday works better in understanding themselves, they would start fucking everyday. They are not making any value judgment on the act of sex itself. In that sense, they might indeed be "disciplined" but "mature", they are not. They are just doing what they want to do (which is to understand themselves). In fact, some of them might practice abstinence (or Buddhism in general), BECAUSE they are so immature and out of touch with who they are.

The reason why "inauthentic" sex becomes a social issue is because "authentic" sex involves two people. Masturbation for instance is not a social issue. In this sense, "inauthentic" sex could actually be a solution, not a problem if the social component of it can be eliminated.

Eating artificially flavored food is inauthentic but is not a social problem. It can contribute to the overall obesity problem, but the obesity problem was not a social problem until recently. It became so because of the sheer size of the problem. The real culprit is the unhealthy food environment and our eating habits. Framing this in terms of "authentic" and "inauthentic" could lead to confusion, and even to injustice.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Dyske,

Crikey, you don’t let me get away with much do you? !-)
Seriously though, Thanks for your formidable list of comments. I’ll try to address them one at a time.

In the blog post which follows this one I’ve tried (as best I can) to address the important point both you and Forever Becoming have raised about the challenge of people unable to access sexual experiences. I certainly don’t claim to have a complete answer to this question but then again I don’t know of a single society which does have a satisfactory current solution either.

“I've known a few men who are so attractive that they had no problem getting laid every night with a different woman. Is that "authentic"?”

Another brilliant question! I’m willing to acknowledge that my use of the term “inauthentic” may raise some hackles but it was used as a means to differentiate between reciprocal desire and rapacious (or self-centred) desire. I would argue that the example you gave is an case of two people consenting to the mutual facilitation of rapacious desire. So in the terms of my argument this is not “authentic”. However it is the type of sex which has been given such exalted status through such representations as James Bond movies and many other male oriented representations. I would view these as a manipulative representations which perpetuate rapacious desire.

“I would also question the assumption of "authentic" being superior to "inauthentic"…”

Though I didn’t explicitly make such a suggestion I can see that this comes as a consequence of my use of the term “inauthentic”. But are all satisfactions of desire equal? Are all desires equal? In actuality I think many men believe that they’d much prefer to satisfy their rapacious desire rather than reciprocal desire: “wham bam, thank you ma’am”. I think instead of constantly exalting male oriented representations which view women as sexual conquests, we should instead recognise at that these representations, as you said (in an admittedly different context) “lead to confusion, and even to injustice” – hence this whole debate.

“In your thesis, it appears that what makes the sexual intercourse "authentic" is dependent solely on what goes on in the minds of the women…”

My thesis seeks to distinguish between two kinds of desire – one of which is self-serving and leads to a distorted use (abuse) of others (predominantly women) since it views and treats them as a means to an end. All my assertions lead from this hypothesis, nonetheless I acknowledge that the use of the term “inauthentic” has complicated the issue. In future I’ll replace this by the term “selfish”.

“The reason why "inauthentic" sex becomes a social issue is because "authentic" sex involves two people. Masturbation for instance is not a social issue. In this sense, "inauthentic" sex could actually be a solution, not a problem if the social component of it can be eliminated.”

Spot on! This is exactly the point I make in my next blog post. Rapacious desire is self-centred and therefore should be satisfied by means of the self: through masturbation and we need to be absolutely unabashed about this - as Woody Allen famously said: "don't knock masturbation - it's sex with someone I love."

Vivian Oblivion said...

You'll be a fantastic father. What a lucky child (girl)! Teacher, student, philosopher, feminist, theorist... Too many are raised by misogynists, mercenaries, molesters, and other maladjusted, callous father figures, not to mention the absentees.

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