Sexual Equality: Are You in the 1 Percent or the 99 Percent?

If sexual pleasure is an intrinsic good, maybe it should be "allocated" better.

Posted Nov 16, 2015

This is a guest post by my friend and fellow philosopher Patricia Marino (University of Waterloo), which originated on her fantastic blog The Kramer Is Now. I thought it particularly well-suited for Psychology Today, and is reposted here with her permission. Be sure to check out her blog for more fascinating thoughts, follow her on Twitter, and at the end of this post read about her latest book.

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I was thinking recently about sex in the modern world, and particularly the particular rage and indignation that people have related to issues about sex. And I got thinking about how maybe, in unseen ways, some of this bad feeling has to do with deep and unrecognized value conflicts.

Specifically, I found myself wondering about the conflicts between sexual liberty, on the one hand, and sexual equality and justice on the other. All these values are, I think, things that people care about. But -- much more than I think is typically recognized -- these values don't always fit together. More of one often means less of the others.

When I talk about sexual "liberty" here, I'm not thinking of the manifestation of liberty that has to do specifically with LGBTQ rights. Actually I think that form of liberty doesn't create value conflicts.

What I'm talking about is the more general idea that everyone gets to craft their own vision of the sexual good life. If you're into monogamous marriage, do that. If you're into hook-up culture, do that. If you're into polyamory commitments, knock yourself out. If you don't want to have sex at all, that's fine too.

I would say in addition that an important component of sexual liberty is that everyone has a kind of unchallengeable right to decide when and with whom they want to have sex. You don't have to give a reason or justification. In a deep sense, it's your right to choose however you want.

As I've touched on before, if that's sexual liberty, then in some ways more sexual liberty means less sexual equality, in the sense that some people are going to have way more of it, and way more of the kind they want, than other people. Hot young women, rich status-y men, and mysteriously cool people are going to get lots, while a socially awkward 7-11 clerk may get nothing. There are going to be sexual winners and losers. There may even be, effectively, a sexual 1% and a sexual 99%.

Is that a bad thing? Is there a value of "sexual equality" that is thus transgressed? I think the answer is yes. If sex, and especially having the opportunity to have the kind of sex you want to have, with people you want to have it with, is one of the good things in life, then it's pretty sucky if some people don't get any of it. And it's even worse if the have-nots have to deal with the existence of the sexual equivalent of trust-fund children.

The idea of sexual justice might be a bit more multifaceted and complex, but I think one idea out there is that it seems especially egregious if people who are good, kind, and sexually generous turn out to be the ones not getting any sex and people who are unreciprocating assholes do great. It doesn't seem fair.

But sexual liberty does seem to lead to sexual injustice, because the reasons people find other people attractive are complex and mysterious. They often track aspects of ourselves we can take no credit for: looks, or status, or being charismatic. As is often wryly noted, sexual success itself makes people more sexually successful. The result is that there's this great thing in life, and whether you get a lot of it often has little to do with your generosity, or hard work, or other virtues.

As much as I love sexual liberty and wouldn't want any less of it, I think it has to be acknowledged that certain forms of social sexual constraints block some of these effects. When sex takes place only in monogamous marriages (gay or straight), there's a huge levelling off.

With respect to equality, in that context, most people get one or maybe a handful of sex partners. There isn't that sense of huge winners and losers. Plus there's a cascade effect. If everyone has to pair off, this removes the more attractive people from the pool of partners. So if you're one of the people less likely to be found attractive, there will be others around of your preferred sex/gender who might want to pair off with you.

With sexual justice, too, monogamous marriage means that you're only going to want to pair off with people you'll want to spend the rest of your life with: the ones you'll bring into your family, eat breakfast with, share bank accounts with. Of course in that context, all things being equal, good and generous persons will get more sex than self-centered jerks.

If this is at all on the right track, then I wonder if some of the indignation and unhappiness people feel around sex is related to these values conflicts. I'm sure you've heard heterosexual men complain bitterly about being a sexual have-not, and about women having sex with assholes instead of nice guys. It drives straight women crazy when men choose women who are young and good-looking.

Sometimes I feel like there's an attempt to explain what feels wrong about these things in terms of sexual "shoulds": people shouldn't be so shallow, they should want to have sex with these people, in these circumstances, they should have reasons for why they find certain people sexually attractive at certain times in certain contexts.

But for all kinds of reasons I find these shoulds of sex suspicious. Often they're presented as if they're moral truths. But to me they often feel like a sneaky end-run around sexual liberty, an ad hoc way of moralizing to get an end result that seems right.

Why not just acknowledge that, as so often in life, there are trade-offs? Then maybe we can talk about other ways to increase sexual equality and justice, ones that don't require a return to ubiquitous monogamous marriage and don't require the ad hoc moralizing either.

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McGill-Queen's University Press
Source: McGill-Queen's University Press

For more on the problems introduced by multiple and often conflicting values, be sure to check out Patricia Marino's book Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World (McGill-Queen's University Press). From the publisher's website:

Moral diversity is a fundamental reality of today’s world, but moral theorists have difficulty responding to it. Some take it as evidence for skepticism - the view that there are no moral truths. Others, associating moral reasoning with the search for overarching principles and unifying values, see it as the result of error. In the former case, moral reasoning is useless, since values express individual preferences; in the latter, our reasoning process is dramatically at odds with our lived experience.

Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World takes a different approach, proposing an alternative way of thinking about moral reasoning and progress by showing how diversity and disagreement are compatible with theorizing and justification. Patricia Marino demonstrates that, instead of being evidence for skepticism and error, moral disagreements often arise because we value things pluralistically. This means that although people share multiple values such as fairness, honesty, loyalty, and benevolence, we interpret and prioritize those values in various ways. Given this pluralistic evaluation process, preferences for unified single-principle theories are not justified. Focusing on finding moral compromises, prioritizing conflicting values, and judging consistently from one case to another, Marino elaborates her ideas in terms of real-life dilemmas, arguing that the moral complexity and conflict we so often encounter can be part of fruitful and logical moral reflection.

Aiming to draw new connections and bridge the gap between theoretical ethics and applied ethics, Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World offers a sophisticated set of philosophical arguments on moral reasoning and pluralism with real world applications.

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