Tag Archives: Sexuality

Fifty Genders of Facebook

Sexuality confusion

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Facebook now offers its members to select from among 50 genders. These include the old school heterosexual genders as well as the presumably Spinoza inspired pangender. Since I am awesome gendered, I believe that Facebook should offer that as choice 51, but only for me. However, I suspect I will need to endure the pain of being limited to a mere 50 options.

Upon learning of these fifty options, I was slightly surprised because I was not aware that there were fifty options. However, my colleagues who specialize in gender matters assure me that there is an infinite number of genders. If this is the case, that Facebook is still rather limited in its options.

While mocking Facebook can be amusing, the subject of gender identity is an interesting subject and it is a sign of the progress of our society that this can be a matter of legitimate concern. For folks like me who are comfortable existing within an old school gender identity (in my case, awesome straight male), these fifty options might seem to be of little or no importance. Honesty compels me to admit that I initially laughed at the 50 genders of Facebook—in fact, I thought it was something cooked up by the Onion. However, a little reflection on the matter made me realize that it is actually of some importance.

For those who are dedicated to the traditional genders, these options might seem to be signs of the moral decay of the West.  As such folks might see it, having Facebook offer 50 gender options shows that traditional gender roles are being damaged (if not destroyed) by the media and Facebook. Given that some states have legalized same-sex marriage, the idea that Facebook has embraced gender diversity must be terrifying indeed.

However, the world (and Facebook) does not (as Leibniz noted in one of his replies to the problem of evil) exist just for me. Or for you. It exists for everyone and we are not all the same.

As such, to those who do not neatly fit into the two traditional genders, this change could be quite significant. Although this is just Facebook, having these gender identities recognized by the largest social network on earth is a mark of acceptance and is likely to have some influence in other areas.

As I noted above, I comfortably occupy a traditional gender type. I’ve never questioned my sexuality nor felt that I was anything other than a straight male. This might be due to biology or perhaps I merely conformed perfectly to the social norms. Or some other factor—I do not know for sure why I am this way.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware of the cognitive biases and fallacies that can lead a person to believe that what is true of herself is also true of everyone else. As such, I do not assume that everyone else is the same as me. As part of this, I also do not assume that the people who see themselves as belonging to one of the non-traditional genders are doing this simply because they want attention, want to rebel, are mentally unbalanced or some such similar negative reason. I also do not assume that they are just “faking it.” I also recognize that a person might feel just as natural and comfortable being transgender as I do being a straight male. As such, I should have no more problem with that person’s identification than that person has with mine. After all, the universe is not for me alone.

Because of this, I hold that people should be free to hold to their gender identities without being mocked, abused or harmed. While I have obviously not been mocked for being straight, I am quite familiar with being called a fag or accused of being gay or like a woman—after all, those are stock insults in our society that are thrown out for the most absurd reasons, such as not doing perfectly in a video game and not acting like the meatheads. As such, I have some small notion of how such attitudes can hurt people and I favor steps to change what underlies the idea that genders can be used as insults. Expanding the range of gender identities can, perhaps, help with this a little bit. Then again, I am sure that some folks will looking at the list of fifty for new terms to use in their hateful comments.

As a final point, one obvious reason why I think that a broader range of gender identities is fine is that another person’s gender identity is not my business—unless that identity causes legitimate harm to others. And no, being offended or disgusted are not legitimate harms. As such, if having a broader range of choices is meaningful to some people, then that is a good thing. It does no one else any harm and does some good—as such, it seems quite morally acceptable.

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Orientation & Ethics

English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

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When discussing the ethics of sexual orientation, it is not uncommon for people to draw comparisons between being gay and being a rapist, pedophile, practitioner of bestiality or a necrophiliac.  My stock response to such comparisons is that there is at least one glaringly obvious difference between being gay and engaging in the sexual behavior mentions. To specific, rapists, pedophiles and so forth engage in sexual behavior that does not involve the consent of their victims. This, in part, makes their behavior immoral. There is also the fact that cases involving sexual coercion inflict harm on the victim. As such, consensual sex between homosexuals would seem to be nothing like those other things. Obviously enough, homosexual rape and homosexual pedophilia would be wrong—but because of the rape and pedophilia.

While it seems impossible to deny that consensual homosexual sex differs from rape and such in regards to consent, there are those who do claim that homosexuality is itself wrong. The question is, obviously enough, this: in what does its wrongness consist?

I’ll run through some scenarios and questions that I hope will lead to some consideration and discussion.

Imagine two married couples: Sam & Ashley and Mel & Fran.  Suppose that Sam and Ashley have the following relationship: they love each other, treat each other well, only have consensual sex, and are faithful to each other. Suppose that Mel and Fran have the following relationship: Mel does not love Fran, Mel treats Fran badly, Mel rapes Fran when Fran is unwilling to consent, and Mel has affairs regularly.

Given just this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashley are the same sex while Mel and Fran have different sexes. Given this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashely are different sexes while Mel and Fran are the same sex. Is this worse than the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a straight couple? Why? Or why not?

Based on arguments I have seen before, some might argue that the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a same sex couple is impossible. That is, people of the same sex cannot love each other, or have only consensual sex, or treat each other well, or be faithful. This could, of course, be argued—but arguments would be what is needed. However, even if it is argued that the scenario could not occur, there would still be the interesting question of whether such a (hypothetical) scenario would be morally superior to the scenario in which the straight couple’s situation involves rape, infidelity and abuse.

Overall, this matter can be distilled down the following question: what is intrinsically wrong, if anything, with being homosexual—even in the context of what would be considered an ideal relationship if it held between heterosexuals.

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Homosexuality & Choice

English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

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Since the matter of choice is rather interesting to me, it is hardly a shock that I would be interested in the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. One obvious problem with trying to settle this matter is that it seems impossible to prove (or disprove) the existence of the capacity for choice. As Kant argued, free will seems to lie beyond the reach of our knowledge. As such, it would seem that it could not be said with confidence that a person’s sexual orientation is a matter of choice. But, this is nothing special: the same can be said about the person’s political party, religion, hobbies and so on.

Laying aside the metaphysical speculation, it can be assumed (or perhaps pretended) that people do have a choice in some matters. Given this assumption, the question would seem to be whether sexual orientation legitimately belongs in the category of things that can be reasonably assumed to be matters of choice.

On the face of it, sexual orientation seems to fall within the realm of sexual preference. That is, in the domain of what a person finds sexually appealing and attractive. This seems to fall within a larger set of what a person finds appealing and attractive.

At this time, it seems reasonable to believe that what people find appealing and attractive has some foundation in neural hardwiring rather than in what could be regarded as choice. For example, humans apparently find symmetrical faces more attractive than non-symmetrical faces and this is not a matter of choosing to prefer one over another. Folks who like evolution tend to claim that this preference exists because those with symmetrical faces are often healthier and hence better for breeding purposes.

Food preferences probably also involve hard wiring: humans really like salty and sweet foods and the usual explanation also ties into evolution. For example, sweet foods are high calorie foods but are rare in nature, hence our ancestors who really liked sweets did better at surviving than those who did not really like sweets. Or some such story of survival of the sweetest.

Given the assumption that there are such hardwired preferences, it is conceivable that sexual preferences also involve some hardwiring. So, for example, a person might be hardwired to have a preference for sexual partners with light hair over those with dark hair. Then again, the preference might be based on experience—the person might have had positive experiences with those with light hair and thus was conditioned to have that preference. The challenge is, of course, to sort out the causal role of hard wiring from the causal role of experience (including socialization). What is left over might be what could be regarded as choice.

In the case of sexual orientation, it seems reasonable to have some doubts about experience being the primary factor. After all, homosexual behavior has long been condemned, discouraged and punished. As such, it seems less likely that people would be socialized into being homosexual—especially in places where being homosexual is punishable by death. However, this is not impossible—perhaps people could be somehow socialized into being gay by all the social efforts to make them be straight.

In regards to hardwiring for sexual orientation, that seems to have some plausibility. This is mainly because there seems to be a lack of evidence that homosexuality is chosen. Assuming that the options are choice, nature or nurture, then eliminating choice and nurture would leave nature. But, of course, this could be a false trilemma: there might be other options.

It can be objected that people do chose homosexual behavior and thus being homosexual is a choice. While this does have some appeal, it is important to distinguish between a person’s orientation and what the person choses to do. A person might be heterosexual and chose to engage in homosexual activity in order to gain the protection of a stronger male in prison. A homosexual might elect to act like a heterosexual to avoid being killed. However, this choices would not seem to change their actual orientation. As such, I tend to hold that orientation is not a choice but that behavior is a matter of choice.

 

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Sexbots: Sex & Consequences

Sexbot-ColorAs a general rule, any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Even if it shouldn’t. In accord with this rule, researchers and engineers are hard at work developing ever more realistic sexbots. By science-fiction standards, these sexbots are fairly crude—the most human-like seem to be just a bit more advanced than high-end sex dolls.

In my previous essay on this subject, I considered a Kantian approach to such non-rational sexbots. In this essay I will look at the matter from a consequentialist/utilitarian moral viewpoint.

On the face of it, sexbots could be seen as nothing new—currently they are merely an upgrade of the classic sex dolls that have been around for quite some time. Sexbots are, of course, more sophisticated than the famous blow-up sex dolls, but the basic idea is the same: the sexbot is an object that a person has sex with.

That said, one thing that makes sexbots morally interesting is the fact that they are typically designed to mimic human beings not merely in physical form (which is what sex dolls do) but in regards to the mind. For example, the Roxxxy sexbot’s main feature is its personality (or, more accurately, personalities). As a fictional example, the sexbots in Almost Human do not merely provide sex—they also provide human-like companionship. However, such person-like sexbots are a still a thing of science-fiction. As such, human-mimicking sexbots of this sort can be seen as something new.

An obvious moral concern is that the human-mimicking sexbots will have negative consequences for actual human beings, be they men or women. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns are analogous to existing moral concerns regarding pornography.

Pornography, so the stock arguments go, can have considerable negative consequences. One of these is that it teaches men to regard women as being mere sexual objects. This can, in some cases, influence men to treat women poorly and can also impact how women see themselves. Another point of concern is the addictive nature of pornography—people can become obsessed with it to their detriment.

Human-mimicking sexbots would certainly seem to have the potential to do more harm than pornography. After all, while watching pornography allows a person to see other people treated as mere sexual objects, a sexbot would allow a person to use a human-mimicking object sexually. This could presumably have an even stronger conditioning effect on the person using the object, leading some to regard other people as mere sexual objects and thus increasing the chances they will treat other people poorly. If so, it would seem that selling or using a sexbot would be morally wrong.

People might become obsessed with their sexbots, as people do with pornography. Then again, people might simply “conduct their business” with their sexbots and get on with things. If so, sexbots might be an improvement over pornography in this regard.  After all, while a guy could spend hours each day watching pornography, he certainly would not last very long with his sexbot.

Another concern raised in regards to certain types of pornography is that they encourage harmful sexual views and behavior. For example, violent pornography is supposed to influence people to engage in violence. As another example, child pornography is supposed to have an especially pernicious influence on people. Naturally, there is the concern about causation here: do people seek such porn because they are already that sort of person or does the porn influence them to become that sort of person? I will not endeavor to answer this here.

Since sexbots are objects, a person can do whatever he wishes to his sexbot—hit it, burn it, and “torture” it and so on. Presumably there will also be specialty markets catering to particular interests, such as those of pedophiles and necrophiliacs. If pornography that caters to these “tastes” can be harmful, then presumably a person being actively involved in such activities with a human-mimicking sexbot would be even more harmful. Essentially, the person would be practicing or warming up for the real thing. As such, it would seem that selling or using sexbots, especially those designed for harmful “interests” would be immoral.

Not surprisingly, these arguments are also similar to those used in regards to violent video games. The general idea is that violent video games are supposed to influence people so that they are more likely to engage in violence. So, just as some have proposed restrictions on virtual violence, perhaps there should be strict restrictions on sexbots.

When it comes to video games, one plausible counter is that while violent video games might have negative impact on the behavior of some people, they allow most people to harmlessly “burn off” their desire for violence and to let off steam. This seems analogous to sports and non-video games: they allow people to engage in conflict and competition in safer and far less destructive ways. For example, a person can indulge her love of conflict and conquest by playing Risk or Starcraft II after she works out her desire for violence by sparring a few rounds in the ring.

Turning back to sexbots, while they might influence some people badly, they might also provide a means by which people could indulge in desires that would be wrong, harmful and destructive to indulge with another person. So, for example, a person who likes to engage in sexual torture could satisfy her desires on a human-mimicking sexbot rather than an actual human. The rather critical issue here is whether or not indulging in such virtual vice with a sexbot would be a harmless dissipation of these desires or merely fuel them and drive a person to indulging them on actual people. If sexbots did allow people who would otherwise harm other people to vent their “needs” harmlessly on machines, then that would certainly be good for society as a whole. However, if this sort of activity would simply push them into doing such things for real and with unwilling victims, then that would certainly be bad for the person and society as a whole. This, then, is a key part of addressing the ethical concerns regarding sexbots.

(As a side note, I’ve been teaching myself how to draw-clever mockery of my talent is always appreciated…)

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Men, Women and Consent

A little while ago I flagged up a new interactive philosophy experiment that deals with issues of consent. It’s now been completed by well over a thousand people, and it’s throwing up some interesting results. In particular, and I can’t say I find it surprising, there seems to be a quite a large difference between how men and women view consent.

(What’s to follow will make more sense if you complete the activity before reading.)

I’ve analysed the responses to two of the scenarios featured in the experiment. The first asks whether you would be doing something wrong if you went ahead with a sexual encounter in the knowledge that your partner would almost certainly come to regret it later. The second asks whether you would be doing something wrong if you went ahead with a sexual encounter in the knowledge that your partner (a) had been drinking (albeit they remain cogent); and (b) would not have consented to the sexual encounter if they hadn’t been drinking.

The data shows that 68% of women, compared to only 58% of men, think it would be wrong to go ahead with the sexual encounter in the Future Regret case. And that 79% of women, compared to only 70% of men, think it would be wrong to go ahead in the Alcohol case.

These results are easily statistically significant, although, as always, I need to point out that the sample is not representative, and that there might be confounding variables in play (e.g., it’s possible that there are systematic differences between the sorts of males and females who have completed this activity – e.g., age).

Sex When Drunk – A Moral Dilemma

Here’s a very quick moral dilemma. I’d be interested to hear what people think about this situation.

Let’s assume that in the absence of previously established consent (as, for example, might exist between a married couple), it’s morally wrong to have sex with somebody if they’ve ingested some X  amount of alcohol (because it undermines their ability to give informed consent). For the purposes of this dilemma, it doesn’t matter what this amount is – just that there is some amount.

Okay, so this is the twist. Suppose somebody says this to you:

I want to want to have sex with you, but I never want sex unless I’m high or drunk. I can’t relax and I don’t enjoy it. But look, I’ll start drinking, and hopefully there will come a point where my inhibitions are sufficiently lowered and I’m relaxed enough so that we can go ahead. But realize I’m not consenting right now to have sex with you later, I’m simply telling you that I’m making the choice to drink in the hope that I will come to want sex later on. If that happens, I’ll let you know, but it might not.

This person then starts drinking, ingests some X + 1 amount of alcohol (i.e., past the point at which under normal circumstances you would consider it wrong to have sex with them), and then tells you they are ready to have sex with you.

We need to get clear about a few things before posing the (obvious) question.

First, this person is not approaching unconsciousness, they are able to reflect reasonably cogently on their desire to have sex with you, but it’s counterfactually true that in the absence of the alcohol, they would not have consented, and also that this would be true of some non-trivial percentage of other people who had drunk this much, even in the absence of the particular psychological dynamic that exists here. (I realize that this stipulation might conflict with the claim that it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this dilemma at what point alcohol undermines the ability to consent. If you think this happens when somebody approaches unconsciousness, then just assume it’s been stipulated that it occurs earlier than that.)

Second, this person would deny that they are psychologically vulnerable. They would be offended if anybody suggested that they were being taken advantage of just because they never want sex while sober. They know their own mind – they want to want to have sex.

Third, you have no particular reason to think they will come to regret any sexual encounter that takes place. They might, but they might not.

So the question is:

In this situation, would it be wrong to go ahead with the sexual encounter, and if so, why?

No hugs please, we’re atheists

Over at In Living Color, Jean Kazez has a post in which she comments on the new code of conduct adopted by American Atheists to guide attendees at its conventions in the difficult task of keeping themselves nice.

Jean approves of some of the code of conduct (I’m not so sure I do , but we’ll leave that for another day), while expressing her disapproval of one particular passage that reads as follows:

You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders — and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

I think it’s worth quoting at some length to convey just what she finds impractical and offensive about this:

What exactly is wrong with negotiating these things as we do the rest of the time – by paying attention to non-verbal cues? It’s better that way, most of us think. We don’t go through life constantly asking “I haven’t seen you for a long time – may I hug you?” Or “I’d like to show solidarity and sympathy – may I touch your arm as I say this next sentence?” We don’t, because (let us count the problems) -

(1) If we explicitly asked, then we’d put the person we want to touch/hug in the awkward position of having to say “no” if they don’t want to be touched/hugged. It would have been so much more thoughtful to notice the cues and not call attention to their sensitivity.

(2) If we had to explicitly ask, we’d ruin spontaneity – so most of us would just do less touching and hugging.

(3) If we asked, it would highlight what is better left subterranean – that touching has some mild sexual undertones, touching is ever so slightly intimate, touching can be gross to some people, some people may find me in particular gross.

If I were thinking of going to an American Atheists convention (to be honest, I am not), I’d find it off-putting to be told how to negotiate touching (“no touching other people without asking”) or even just be “encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent.” This crosses the line from what’s the conference’s business [...] to what’s not. It’s up to me, I think, how I handle the vast number of decisions that are in the realm of etiquette, not law or even ethics. I’d be appalled if a conference organizer issued instructions about what to say after belching, whether and when to hold doors for other people, when to address someone by their first name, etc. It’s paternalistic and infantilizing – suitable for managing a bunch of 10 year olds, but not for running a conference attended by adults.

It’s interesting that a lot of the opposition to the current push from some directions to create detailed and intrusive codes of conduct to try to control our behaviour is coming from women who resent being infantilised. This plays against the narrative that codes of conduct are being developed for good feminist reasons. I would say, in fact, that the suspicion of these codes is motivated largely by feminist concerns that all this officiousness is providing just one more opportunity to infantilise women, who are portrayed as mentally weak and socially incompetent.

In any event, Jean goes on to talk about the contrast with religious communities, where, as she puts it, “there is constant touching between acquaintances.” She mentions the reform Jewish temple that she sometimes attends, describing it “an extremely touchy place” … and adding:

Before, during, and after the service you see constant physical interaction. Ask permission? You’ve got to be kidding. There is also a lot of synchronization – people stand up and sit down at the same times during the service. All this synching and touching is part of feeling collective joy, sorrow, etc. – all feelings evoked at times by a religious service.

But it’s not just (some) religious communities that are “extremely touchy” in this way. As I mentioned in the comments on one of Jeremy Stangroom’s recent posts on the ethics of hugging, the science fiction community (whose conventions I’ve been attending for over 30 years now) tends to foster the physical expression of warmth and goodwill through hugging and touching – and from my more limited experience the same probably applies to other literary and artistic communities. About five weeks ago now, I attended Continuum 8, the 2012 national science fiction convention in Australia, which seemed to be highly successful. Many people (of both sexes) commented afterwards on what an enjoyable convention it was, and part of what they liked so much was the feeling of warmth and goodwill among the attendees, often expressed through physical affection.

I suspect, but can’t prove, that this is driven in part by a feeling among the attendees of such conventions that, “These are my people!” If you are closely involved in literature and the arts, you may have a feeling of being under siege, to some extent, in a wider world that can, rightly or wrongly, seem hostile. At a convention of “your people” there is special feeling of community, camaraderie, and solidarity. For whatever reason, literary and artistic communities tend to build up such feelings, expressed in relatively free displays of physical affection such as hugs. This includes hugs between heterosexual people of the same sex – literary and artistic communities sometimes have a polyamorous vibe going on, but it’s certainly not just that.

Seen from that point of view, a code of conduct that explicitly problematises hugging is a bad idea. It starts to undermine the very solidarity and mutuality that you’d think an atheist group in America (where atheists really are somewhat under siege in many parts of the country) would want. A conduct provision like this sends a paradoxical message to convention goers who are forging something of community, much as science fiction professionals and fans have forged a community over, say, the last sixty years.

It’s true, of course, that some people dislike physical contact and do not want to take part in hugging and the like. Fine, this is the sort of thing that has to be negotiated, much as Jean Kazez describes. But it isn’t all that difficult to convey through body language that you are one of those people who, for whatever reason, do not want to be hugged or otherwise touched by others. There is no reason to have a policy that infantilises us at all by suggesting that we are helpless to navigate these familiar social situations.

In all, the anti-hug policy is intrusive, infantilising, officious, badly thought through, and generally, to say the least, unfortunate – not to mention impractical, as it applies beyond hugging to many forms of socially accepted rather minimal touching that lose their point if they must be preceded by words asking permission (Adam touches Ben on the back of the shoulder to attract his attention to say hello, Jill flirtatiously touches Jack on the elbow while they’re caught up in an intense, wonderful conversation, Steve gives Eve a reassuring squeeze to her shoulder after she’s just had a bad experience right in front of him, etc., etc.).

The policy makes American Atheists – and atheists more generally – look silly. It suggests an undue suspicion of physical interaction and the body that you’d think might be more the province of religion (though clearly not all religion, as above with Jean Kazez’s description of her reform Jewish temple). It also suggests a kind of clanking, clueless literal-mindedness about how human interaction actually works, playing into the unfair stereotype of atheists as socially challenged dorks. All in all, this is not a good look, and I hope that common sense will prevail. Even if the rest of the policy is acceptable (as I said, we can get to other reservations another day), the sentences that problematise hugging and touching ought to be excised at the earliest opportunity.

On Spontaneity and Hugging

Russell Blackford has flagged up an objection (here & here), which undoubtedly has force, against my hugging argument. Here’s my version of the objection.

Spontaneity, when employed kindly, is a good. If we overregulate social behaviour, then – by definition – this will lead to less spontaneity (and it will also have the effect of infantilizing people). The sort of cautionary principle I talk about is a form of self-overregulation, since its likely effect, if universalized, will be to undermine spontaneity, and, in a sense, pathologize forms of behaviour – such as hugging – that are themselves a good.

Okay, so let’s break down the argument to see if it flies (and I should say that I’m looking at my version of the argument here, not Russell’s, which might be a lot stronger, etc).

1. Is spontaneity, when employed kindly, a good? At first thought that seems an entirely plausible claim. But actually it disguises a lot of complexity. So, for example, maybe the claim is a counterfactual claim – a world with lots of spontaneity is better than a world with only a little spontaneity. Thing is, even if that’s true, it doesn’t show that spontaneity is good in and of itself, it merely shows that more often than not people get their spontaneous acts about right (and remember that it’s possible to employ spontaneity for kind reasons and get it wrong).

2. So is spontaneity good in and of itself? It’s quite hard to know what to make of this idea. Obviously there are large issues to do with how we want to define spontaneity (which I’m not going to get into). But I think I’d want to argue that it doesn’t make much sense to think about the value of spontaneity without focussing largely on outcomes. I don’t think it’s particularly counterintuitive to suppose that if a spontaneous act has a clearly bad outcome, then regardless of whether we think spontaneity if meritorious in and of itself, we’d judge the act as being unfortunate (albeit whether we thought the agent was culpable might depend on a lot of other factors).

3. If spontaneity is not good in and of itself (or not good enough), then the charge against overregulation must be that overall it reduces good outcomes. So, for example, in the case of my hugging argument, the charge would be that my self-overregulation leads to less good stuff (affection, warmth, intimacy) and perhaps more bad stuff (social wariness, nervousness, infantilization, etc). For that charge to be effective, then (1) it has to be empirically warranted; and (2) it has to trump other, at least partly non-consequentialist, moral concerns (particularly to do with the “rights” of individuals).

4. Is it empirically warranted – in other words, is it true that my cautionary principle if applied across the board would result in less good stuff and more bad stuff? Okay, so to recap, my cautionary principle, broadly speaking, holds that:

It is morally problematic to engage in physical contact that has a mild sexual dimension, and one should avoid in engaging in it, unless you have good reason to suppose that you have informed consent, which includes an awareness that the act has a sexual dimension (so de facto consent isn’t enough).

The first point to note is that in this context informed consent does not mean “no touching other people without asking first”, which is a ludicrous rule. It doesn’t mean this because informed consent can be implied. So the example I gave in my original posting was a couple who had been engaging in flirtatious behaviour, etc: in such a circumstance it is reasonable to suppose that de facto consent, which might merely be implied consent (e.g., through body language, etc), is informed consent vis-a-vis the sexual element of the physical contact.

It is also the case that informed consent can be implied by a couple’s shared history. Russell gives an example of a “treasured ex-girlfriend” at the end of his comment here.

And, of course, if physical contact is non-sexual – which might be the case in the sort of ritualistic setting Jean Kazez describes (though it might not be) – then there is (usually) no issue of informed consent over and above de facto consent. Moreover, this will generally be the case if a person is wired up in such a way that the the world is only minimally sexualized (because presumably they’re not going to experience a sexual frisson in the context of ostensibly non-sexual physical contact).

5. This all means that the set of physical acts where my cautionary principle might result in less good stuff and more bad stuff is far from being exhaustive of the set of all physical acts, which clearly lessens the force of the objection (but doesn’t by any means extinguish it).

6. Okay,let’s concede, for the sake of argument, the point that my sort of cautionary principle will result in less good stuff of a certain sort (affection, warmth, etc) and more bad stuff of a different sort (social wariness, infantilization, etc). Is that the end of the empirical argument? It isn’t, because if one is looking at consequences, one has to factor in that by no means everybody is comfortable with spontaneity, physical contact, familiarity, etc. This might be regrettable – in my view it is regrettable – but it isn’t trivial.

For these people, the knowledge that a cautionary principle is in play, together with its purported knock-on effect in terms of a decline of spontaneity, certain kinds of affection, etc., might be a relief. It might make them more likely to put themselves in potentially rewarding situations where they would otherwise fear – perhaps without justification (whether the fear is justified or not isn’t relevant from a strict consequentialist point of view) – they might be subject to unwanted physical contact (and don’t forget people can find it very difficult to say “No” – I find it difficult to say “No”.) For a certain subset of people, then, what would be the overregulation of social behaviour for most people, would be just the right amount of regulation.

This is not to claim that there is a balance here, but it is to claim it is necessary to weigh up the consequences of a decline of spontaneity, warmth, certain kinds of affection, etc, in both directions.

7. But let’s bite the bullet, and assume the consequentialist calculus comes out against my cautionary principle. Is this decisive?

Well, no it’s not, and it’s not decisive for one of the reasons that consequentialist arguments in general tend to run into trouble (and remember, we’re treating this as a consequentialist argument – see point 2). It isn’t clear that the “greater good” justifies potentially infringing on the “rights” of particular individuals. (I should say that I don’t like talk of “rights”, I can’t really make sense of it, but again for the sake of argument we’ll just go with it.)

In particular, it is at least arguable that people have rights against unwanted physical contact, regardless of what that means in consequentialist terms. So, for example, none of us are going to think that it’s okay to beat up on a person just in the case that it turns out that some large number of other people find it entertaining. (And yes, of course, there are layers and layers of complication here to do with the difference between act and rule utilitarianism, for example, and a lot of other things.) Likely, many of us won’t think this is justified even if the person being beaten up consents to their beating.

At the very least, then, there’s a tension between a concern with average outcomes and a concern with individual rights (and indeed there may be a tension between different sorts of individual rights).

In terms of my cautionary principle, then, there are two central issues (if we bite the bullet, and accept the consequentialist calculus comes out against the principle).

1. How careful do we need to be that we don’t infringe on people’s right not to be subject to unwanted physical contact (where the argument is that in the case of hugging de facto consent does not equate to informed consent)?

2. How do we resolve the tension between an interest in maximizing the good things in life (on average) and protecting individual “rights”?

I’ll leave those two questions for another time – or other people – because this has gotten too long and I’ve run out of steam. But just some very quick closing remarks. This issue is complex, and I’m largely making this stuff up as I go along (and yes, I’m sure that’s obvious). So it’s important to remember the position I’m arguing against here is my version of Russell’s objection. No doubt Russell’s take on his own position would be very, or at least somewhat, different, and I’m sure much better for it.

On Hugging

If you’re a woman I find attractive, and you want a hug, then I’m not your guy. (Yeah, I know, women the world over are currently sobbing into their pillows.) Here’s why.

I find you attractive. This means if you have your body up close to my body, I’m going to be aware that you’re a sexual being, that you’ve got curves and soft bits that I find appealing. (If you find that thought shocking, tough luck.) I know some men will tell you that they’re not aware of that sort of thing, and that their hugs are purely platonic, and it’s even possible some of these fellows are telling the truth, but I’m not one of these guys. I’m aware.

This brings the issue of informed consent right to the fore. I think it’s likely that most women would not want to hug me if they were fully aware of the nature of the psychosexual dynamic in play. But, even if that is not so, and only a few women would be deterred, a cautionary principle is in force: you have to be sure you have informed consent for close physical contact, especially if it has an attached sexual frisson, and given that people don’t tend to see hugging as being sexualized (and, yes, yes, I know, lots of people will claim that it is not – don’t believe them, I say), I don’t know that I have informed consent, so I can’t take the risk. This means I don’t hug women. (If you’re a man, it’s normally very easy to avoid being hugged. Body language is your friend. Also being a misanthropic recluse helps.)

A few points of clarification here.

1. Obviously, if you experience no sexual frisson when hugging somebody you find attractive, then there’s no issue here, assuming you have consent (however that is communicated). But don’t kid yourself about it just because you want to get your arms around somebody you find alluring.

2. I’m not talking here about men and women who are enjoying an encounter that is by its very nature obviously sexualized (whether it be a fleeting encounter or whatever) – then it’s a different ball game (because one can assume that both parties are aware of the sexual dynamic, etc). But again, don’t kid yourself about it just because you want to get a thrill.

3. There are some female friends I will hug (almost always at their instigation). But only if they know perfectly well that I find them attractive, and that I’m aware of their sexuality, etc. (Oddly enough, this knowledge hasn’t put them all off – hurrah!). Obviously, the better you know somebody, the more open and intimate your relationship, the more likely it is that this will be the case.

4. This is not a plea for a conservative sexual morality. As far as I’m concerned, the world would be a much better place if people were not hung up about sex and bodies and monogamy, and spent their time shagging left, right and center. But unfortunately we don’t live in that world, and informed consent is crucial – for Kantian reasons, if nothing else.

5. There are risks here of infantilizing women. I’m aware, of course, that women are quite capable of making their own choices about the people they want to hug. The worry here isn’t about women not being able to make choices. It’s about the possibility they don’t have access to all the information necessary to make an informed choice. Of course, it’s also true that people aren’t going to be naive about the dynamics in play here (and there will often be behavioural clues if a man is deliberately seeking a sexual thrill in a hug). But again, a cautionary principle has to hold sway.

6. Male and female sexuality is not identical (on average, etc). This means the situation is different in the other direction (though not as a matter of principle).

7. Yes, of course – there are exceptions to this general rule. If somebody is in distress, for example, or whatever – there clearly are occasions where the sexual aspect just isn’t obviously in play, and in those situations the moral calculus is different.

8. And just because there has been a lot of talk in a less salubrious corner of the internet about sexual harassment policies, I should say this is not an argument either for or against such a thing. That’s a different issue (though obviously not entirely divorced from these sorts of observations).

I realise this all sounds rather pious, so… well, sorry about that! I blame Kant.

The Ethics of Porn

English: Porn star Cytherea at XRCO Awards in ...

“No porno has ever lost money”, or so said a running friend of mine when he quoted one of his economic professors. This was some years ago and it appears that it is no longer true. Ironically, porn has been a victim of the internet. Much as video killed the radio star, the internet has killed the porn star.

At this point, most folks are probably thinking “that cannot be true! Far from killing porn, the internet is for porn.” This is both true and not true: the internet did kill porn. But the internet is also for porn. Fortunately, this is not some sort of Schrodinger’s Porn in which the porn is neither alive nor dead until it is observed. Rather, the situation can easily be explained without any odd quantum physics.

While I am sure that the readers of this blog have never witnessed this in person, the internet tubes are jammed with porn. Because of this, the traditional porn industry (like the newspaper industry) is in hard times (which is surely the name of a porno). After all, when people can get their porn anonymously and  for free (or at least very cheaply) on the web, they are unlikely to buy the traditional porn movies. As such, it is no surprise that the traditional porn industry has gone from a money making giant to being in its death spiral. As such, the internet has killed (traditional) porn, while the internet is most definitely for porn. Interestingly enough, this decline of the traditional porn industry does raise some ethical concerns.

One point of concern is one that arises whenever an industry is in a death spiral, namely a concern for the people who work in that industry. While some porn stars have been able to achieve success outside of porn, the fall of the traditional porn industry will leave most of the performers in a rather hard situation (which, I am sure, is also the name of a porno). To be specific, many of them will have no qualifications beyond having sex on camera and will have little in the ways of savings and opportunities. While some will be able to switch careers, some will not. As such, it seems worth being concerned about these people.

One obvious reply is that this sort of industry death is just the way of things and economic causalities are inevitable. After all, the rise of the steam engine, electricity and so on killed many industries and the internet is just the most recent example of a economic re-definer. As such, while the economic woes of the folks in porn  is regrettable, we have no special obligation to support those who elected to enter a dying industry. They can, of course, avail themselves of the usual support offered to the unemployed and they can attempt find employment elsewhere.

A second reply is that the death of the porn industry can be seen as a good thing. After all, feminists have long argued that the typical porn is demeaning and harmful and thus morally wrong. Religious groups and moral conservatives have also argued against porn because of its corrupting influence (often unconsciously duplicating Plato’s classic arguments for banning the corrupting influence of art from the ideal state). Thus, the death of porn is a good thing.

The rather obvious reply is that the death of the porn industry is not the death of porn. As noted above, porn is thriving on the internet. To use an analogy, the state of porn is somewhat like the state of newspapers: while the traditional professional industry is dying, the amateurs are flooding the web with words and porn.

Given this fact, it might be expected that those who worked in the professional porn industry can flock to the electronic frontier and make a living in web porn. After all, if Facebook can rake in billions allowing people to post about eating a bagel and to share cat photos, surely something like F@ckbook could be created to provide a home for porn performers.

The obvious reply to this is that the people using Facebook do not make money and presumably the porn performers on F@ckbook would be in the same boat-although someone else would probably get rich. As far as the performers working on the web, one has but to look at the financial success of the typical blogger to get an idea how well going amateur typically pays on the web. After all, people are generally not inclined to pay for what they can get for free. This is not to say that clever people are no longer able to monetize porn, just that the performers will almost certainly be worse off in the new porn economy.

A final point of moral concern is whether or not the porn viewers have a moral debt to those who make it possible for them to see porn. This is not, of course, unique to porn and a similar question arises when it comes to journalism, music, books, non-porn movies and so on. After all, people can readily acquire almost anything digital for free (legitimately or by theft) on the web.

Since I have argued about digital theft in other essays, I will simply note that an excellent case can be made that stealing digital content is morally wrong. As such, the arguments I have made elsewhere would seem to apply to stealing porn as well. However, there is an interesting potential twist here: perhaps the moral dubiousness of the porn industry can provide a moral justification for stealing porn. That is, doing something bad to a bad industry is not bad.

While this has a certain superficial appeal, it can easily be countered. First, stealing from the porn industry is still stealing. Second, stealing from the porn industry does not seem to do anything to counter any moral badness of the industry-that is, the theft cannot be justified on the grounds that it makes things morally better. It could, of course, be justified on the grounds that it might be denying income to the wicked. But, of course, this leads to the third counter: a person steals porn to use porn, thus any moral high ground is clearly lost. This would be somewhat like a person arguing that it is okay to steal drugs to use from drug dealers because drugs are bad. This would, obviously, be a rather poor moral argument.

As far as the free content goes, while giving such product away for free might not be the wisest business model, availing oneself of free stuff is clearly not morally wrong. However, there is still the question of whether or not one should simply free ride an industry rather than contributing to it financially.

On the one hand, a person obviously has no moral obligation to support an industry because s/he has taken free stuff from said industry. After all, it is free. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is some obligation. After all, if the person values what they get for free, then they should contribute to what makes it possible for such stuff to be available for free.

The rather obvious counter to this is that it is up to a business to do what it takes to get customers to support them. If they elect to adopt an approach to business that provides potential customers with everything they want for free, then they have no grounds to complain when those potential customers never actually buy things. While it would be nice of the users to give back to the business, business cannot be sensibly based on this sort of model. As such, it is not so much that the internet killed porn. Rather the porn industry is committing suicide with the internet.

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