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ROBERT SOLOMON "SEX, CONTRACEPTION, AND CONCEPTIONS OF SEX" P.95

Notes by Christian Perring, copyright 1999.

It is often thought that in the USA in the 1950s, most people were sexually conservative and repressed, while in the 1960s the "sexual revolution" happened: people became sexually free, experimenting and breaking normal codes of conduct. This version of events is clearly a gross oversimplification. Not everyone changed their behavior, unconventional sexual attitudes had been taken before the 1960s, and plenty of people kept to traditional values after the 1960s. Nevertheless, there were some important changes, and one of them was the arrival of the birth control pill. This article was written in 1987: you might consider whether America's thinking about sex has changed since then. When reading it, also consider how it relates to Wasserstrom's article.

Robert Solomon discusses the link between contraception and sexual behavior. In the first page he quotes Philip Larkin's poem which mentions "CHATTERLY." This is a reference to the novel "Lady Chatterly's Lover" by D. H. Lawrence, which was banned in Britain because it was considered obscene, although by today's standards it is relatively tame -- many of the novels in the fiction bestseller lists are just as explicit. In 1963 the ban on the book was overturned.

One of Solomon's most eye-catching claims is that "sexuality is still at the heart of morality." (page 96). He goes on to say that sex is much more than a matter of biology: "Sex is ideas". But his main claim in this essay is that "attitudes about sex determine the acceptability of contraception, at least as much as the availability of effective contraception determines attitudes about sex." (p. 96). What has this historical claim got to do with morality?

Solomon starts his argument talking about the teleology of sex. What does 'teleology' mean? Biologically, the purpose, he says, is for reproduction. From the biological point of view, all the other features of sex are incidental or are just means to an end. But from most people's points of view, those other features are much more important. So we must distinguish between our purpose in having sex, and nature's purpose. (p. 98). So then the question becomes: is there any link between the human purpose, and the biological purpose? Next he points out that the human use of sex can be much more than the gaining of pleasure. What other purpose does he discuss here? (p. 97-8).

Solomon makes brief references to philosophers such as Derrida, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Dennett, and the psychologists Kraft-Ebbing and Jung. You don't need to know who these people are to understand the article, (although it could help). Kraft-Ebbing was a famous 19th-century sexologist who cataloged sexual behavior, especially perversions, in a scientific way.

One of Solomon's main points is that there is a large range of meanings for sex, and that we probably never desire sex just of its own sake. Indeed, he thinks it is hard to identify what is sexual and what is not. Taking the example of Claire's Knee, he says that not all sexual desire is the desire for intercourse. (p. 99).

What is the "standard view" that Solomon argues against on p. 101? What is his argument against it? What is the 'Squeal Rule' that he considers stupid, and what does he think is wrong with it? What is "functionalism" and what does Solomon see as wrong with it as an explanation of sexuality? (page 101).

Solomon thinks not only that sex is more than biology, but also nature is more than biology. He says "Our concept of 'nature' is inherited from Aristotle, the Greeks, the church, the Enlightenment." (p. 101). My dictionary defines the Enlightenment as an 18th-century philosophical movement stressing the importance of reason and the critical reappraisal of existing ideas and social institutions. Who does he mean, do you think, by "the Greeks" and "the church"? His point here is that there is no neutral definition of 'natural sex': any definition comes from an ethical and political standpoint, and to understand sexual behavior it is more important to look at "the social politics of classes" than the availability of contraception. What counts as sex? Must two people have intercourse in order to count as having "had sex"? Must they have orgasms? Must at least one have an orgasm? Solomon is saying that how you answer these questions will inevitably depend on your political outlook. (p. 102.)

The political aspect of the definition of sex becomes clearest when considering homosexuality. Is same-sex sexual behavior natural or unnatural? Solomon is saying that we cannot look to biology to discover whether homosexuality is right or wrong, because there is no neutral definition of 'natural sex'. (p. 102). The definition of what is 'natural' will depend on what one takes to be the paradigm of sex, and he says there are four basic paradigms: reproductive, pleasure, metaphysical and intersubjective. He discusses each of these in turn. (p. 103).

The Reproductive Paradigm defines the purpose of sex purely as to produce children: any other use of sex is perversion. (p. 103). Does anyone, or any religion, believe completely and solely in this paradigm? Solomon says that this paradigm is used mainly for conservative purposes.

The Pleasure Paradigm is often thought of as 'liberal': if it feels good, do it. Interestingly, Solomon relates it to Freud's 'drive theory', where the reason people have sex is to discharge sexual energy, which provides relief and pleasure. (p. 104). We have already discussed in class some of the problems with Freud's 'hydraulic' drive theory: Solomon points out that it comes from a male-oriented perspective. (p. 105). He also says that it fails to capture important parts of sex, which are emphasized by the last two paradigms. He ends this part of the discussion with three criticisms of the pleasure paradigm. (pp. 106-7). Summarize these.

The Metaphysical Paradigm says that sex is the expression of love between two people who are made for each other. (p. 106).

The Intersubjective Paradigm, Solomon's favorite, is neither biological, nor simply focused on pleasure, and it is not as simple as the Metaphysical Paradigm. Solomon says that sex, on this view, essentially involves conflict between two people, a battle of domination and freedom. (p. 106). It is to do with defining one's partner and oneself. Sex is like a conversation between two (or more) people. Does this make any sense to you? Consider the ways in which sex might and might not be like a conversation. What sorts of conversations would correspond to different kinds of sex?