B. de Sousa and Kathryn
Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto,
(This is a corrected version of a paper published in Atlantis, A Journal of Women's Studies Vol 13.2:1-10, (1988) Special Issue on Feminism and Philosophy, ed. S. Sherwin. The article was not proofread, resulting in numerous misprints, including one which seems to negate our main conclusion. Hence this corrected version.)
The view prevails in the English language philosophical community that sex is a marginal subject, a suspiciously bent twig off a branch of Social Philosophy. Our aim is to persuade you that sex is an important, exciting area of study for philosophers. We shall also argue more specifically that the present vitality of the philosophy of sex stems largely from the contributions of feminist thinkers.*
1 Three Senses of Sex
It might seem that questions about sex are straightforwardly biological. But, as we shall see, it is not very clear what it is for a question to be "merely biological''. And on the biological level itself the issues are controversial.*
The word 'sex', in fact, defines three different areas. We can call these gender-sex, erotic sex, and sexual politics. All three terms require a gloss.
(i) Gender sex.
This refers to feminine and masculine, female and male. These are two different distinctions, and we shall introduce an appropriate terminological refinement in a moment. But both distinctions are merged when we speak of 'the sexes', 'the opposite sex', or 'the war of the sexes'. Three questions arise about gender-sex: What exactly differentiates the sexes? How many are there? How and to what extent does sex affect gender?
The word 'sex' refers to the biological aspects of maleness and femaleness: gametes, chromosomes, the anatomy and functions of internal and external reproductive organs. It also refers--at least prima facie--to certain hormonal differences and to secondary sex characteristics. 'Gender', by contrast, refers to the normative psychological constructs of femininity and masculinity. It embraces sex roles ''played out'' in a social context, and typically includes culturally variable features such as style, language, and dress. The term 'sexual dimorphism' is used both of gender and sex. It should not be assumed as a matter of definition, however, that there are just two genders or sexes (see Morgan 1979). Though usually ascribed at birth on the basis of biological sex, gender does not appear to be determined by sex. Were the case otherwise, our (normative) descriptions of ''masculine women'' and ''feminine men'' would be pointless. Feminist thinkers have stressed that the defining features of gender are ideological, and are coercively enforced by individual men and institutions in patriarchal (i.e. practically all) societies.
(ii) Erotic Sex.
The second area of sex includes sexual experience, sexual behaviour, and sexual relation. What is it that makes an experience, a mode of behaviour, or a relationship sexual?. We shall make no attempt to define erotic sex here. But the reader can easily see, by trying to formulate some universally valid criterion, that the erotic is indeed as difficult to define as any other (Wittgensteinian) game.
Consider two scenarios. In one, a woman is manipulating the vagina of another woman reclining on a couch. In the other a man is watching other men play football. Which scenario is sexual? Is the first not obviously so? But now add that the woman in the first scenario is a gynecologist examining a patient, while the man in the second is enjoying detailed sexual fantasies about the players that he is watching? (See Smith 1980.) And what if we add that the gynecologist is also the patient's lover? And what if the whole scene is on a movie set? And what if it's part of a pornographic movie being filmed? Our answers will in part depend, to an extent that will vary from one culture to another, on questions of gender. As knowledge about context increases, moreover, our judgment of whether some behaviour is sexual may flip-flop. (Cf. Solomon 1975.)
If we do make bold to define erotic sex, we have a methodological choice. One option is to give a minimal or spare definition of erotic sex, and then examine separately questions about the relation of eros in that minimal sense to other emotional, psychological, social, and political issues. A rich definition, by contrast, will lay down answers to those related questions as part of the essence of real sex.
The first option is argued for by Alan Goldman (1977), for whom ''plain'' normal erotic sex is defined in terms of contact with the body of another to produce pleasure in oneself. But such a definition raises many questions: is skin contact really necessary? And is physiological arousal either necessary or sufficient? Does the definition countenance dead bodies (a theme dear to many a classic fairy tale featuring dead or comatose women) as the object of erotic interest?
A rich definition will tend to settle such questions, but not without begging a lot of questions about the concepts of 'perversion', 'sublimation', 'repression', 'liberation', and 'normality'. The most elaborate rich definition of sex, and also the most influential, is the reproductive model articulated by Aquinas (1967). In Aquinas' view the following claims are all integrally related: that the emission of semen has the natural function of causing reproduction, that all sexual activity ought to be potentially reproductive, that marriage must last for ever, and that women must be subject to men.
(iii) Sexual Politics.
The third area is the one that has received the greatest amount of attention from moral and political philosophers. Philosophical journals as well as popular magazines have lately seen a plethora of articles on such questions as sexual objectification, the ethics and politics of discrimination and affirmative action, reproductive rights, such as abortion and surrogate motherhood, and the right to sex education in light of AIDS. There are also political issues about erotic sex and, of course, the more familiar territory of sexual morality. Typically these are issues about freedom of sexual choice. These too sometimes depend on gender. In Canadian law, for instance, a male of 14 years or more may have sexual relations with a partner of 14 years, unless the partner is male, in which case they must wait until both are 21. (See the Canadian Criminal Code, secs. 140, 146, and 158.)
Questions about the morality and the politics of sex are usually considered in isolation from issues about gender and erotic sex. Yet they often presuppose unexamined answers to the latter questions. One example concerns the distinction between the private and the public. One might at first think that questions about gender-sex belong to the public sphere, while erotic sex belongs to the private. But feminists have drawn attention to the extent to which public ideology permeates allegedly private experience. This occurs most obviously through established institutions such as marriage, including the permissibility of marital rape (which was made illegal in Canada only in 1983 and is still legal in many U.S. states) but partly also through the quasi-institutionalization of compulsory heterosexuality in the form of differential access to privilege. Civil, social, and economic security--inheritance, pension plans, ''family'' health plans, adoption, job security, lodging, immigration--are all affected by ''private'' sexual orientation.* Even explicit human rights legislation can leave these privileges intact: the Province of Ontario, for example, recently  passed legislation against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation; yet provincial health care family benefits continue to be restricted to heterosexuals. [NOTE ADDED 1996: This has now changed in Ontario, but remains true in most other countries].
Few questions about sexual justice, about the institutionalization of gender-sex and of erotic sex, or about the private and public relations between the sexes can be adequately answered without reference to theories about the nature of sexual difference, sexual experience, and sexual relations. Socio-political proposals--conservative or radical--inevitably come with theoretical presuppositions about the essence of sex in both of its primary senses. It is therefore curious, if not a little scandalous that philosophers have devoted so little energy so far to those apparently more fundamental questions. We shall speculate about some of the reasons for this in a moment.
Talking about Sex
In both of its primary senses, but for different reasons, sex is hard to think about. Gender sex, though easy to describe, is difficult to focus on as the object of philosophical inquiry because social practice often appears to have a certain obvious naturalness about it, particularly for those in a position of power. Erotic experience is difficult both to think and to talk about. This is, to begin with, because of the embarrassment that many people feel, particularly about their own experience. The elaborate and uninhibited vocabulary available to describe oral pleasures forms an instructive contrast here. In the gastronomical equivalents of orgies, the flavours, aroma, colour, texture, and arrangement of food are celebrated openly around the tables of public restaurants. Starving, feeling hungry, experiencing appetite, and a zest to eat can all be expressed without reserve. The pornography of cookbooks is neither censored nor prosecuted; cookware boutiques exist to enhance our pleasure, and people are not ashamed to be seen fondling the objects displayed in them as they relate their fantasies. The discrepancy demands analysis.
One obvious cause is that we almost entirely lack a useful vocabulary in which to speak of erotic sex. Some words are rated ''vulgar'' or unprintable; others are strictly medical in connotation; and still others are euphemisms requiring hearers to assume what they don't say. All tend to come with implications that a philosopher should challenge.*
Three quick examples. The most common of the unprintable words for erotic-sexual activity--'fuck', 'screw', 'bang', and many others--all carry the implication in their very syntax of activity on the part of the male and passivity on the part of the female (see Baker 1984) so that the very language rules governing this descriptive vocabulary entail male dominance.
For a second example, consider the terms used most often by men to refer to women. Such terms may represent women as various kinds or parts of animal (e.g. 'chick', 'bird', 'fox', 'pussy', 'tail', 'piece of ass', 'cow'); as playthings (e.g. 'babe', 'doll'); as fetishised body parts (e.g. 'cunt', 'puss', 'piece'); as frivolous edible products ('sugar', 'honey', 'cupcake', 'cookie', 'crumpet', 'dish', 'peach', 'cherry', 'tart').*
Third, given all this, it is not surprising that our most common euphemism for erotic sexual activity is also ''gender-corrupted''. 'Intercourse' is a fine word on the road to swift degradation. Not because of its use in a sexual context, but because of its systematic and now all but unavoidable misuse in that context. Properly used, any erotic mode of relating--whether heterosexual, gay or lesbian, and including not only the genital but also the ocular, the oscular, and even the merely jocular--ought to count as ''sexual intercourse''. The literal meaning of the phrase fits it to be used as one of the widest and vaguest terms available to describe erotic interaction. But in current usage, 'sexual intercourse' (or worse, unqualified 'intercourse') is very precisely Penile Intromission into the Vagina with Male Orgasm (or PIVMO, as a logically correct sexual discourse might have it). We need to struggle to become aware of the moral and political implications of our sexual vocabulary.
Models of the Person
We turn now to the very general questions of how erotic sex fits into our conception of the human person. Broadly speaking, there are three competing models.
(i) The Pythagorean, or Orthodox Polar Model.
We are compounded, on this view, of a material and a spiritual part. All appetites belong to the material part, and erotic sex is an appetite. So far this is merely a structural description, but of course its power comes from its relative evaluation of the various parts. According to the orthodox version, the material part is lower, the spiritual is higher.
It is crucial to understand how such models affect the way we think and feel about human sexuality. On the Polar Model, sex is clearly consigned to the category of an animal appetite. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre argues that we experience sexual desire as the invasion and clouding of consciousness by the body (see Sartre 1956, esp. III.2 and 3). Similarly, Alan Goldman (1977) claims that our experience of sexual desire reminds us that we are animals. Sexual desire is seen as inferior, but as having the power to subjugate intellectual and moral function. Carried to the extreme, it becomes the deadly sin of lust, or the female-specific personality disorder of nymphomania. Thus, along with other bodily experiences, sexuality becomes a victim of the general attitude of somatophobia (see Spelman 1982, 1983). It is feared, derogated, and suppressed.
(ii) The Lawrentian or Inverted Puritanical Model.
The evaluative element, however, is logically separable from the structural one, and so we might expect sometimes to encounter a simple inversion of the evaluation that preserves the essential structure. Just as the mainstream view leads to the derogation of sex, so the inverted view leads to its exaltation in sexual Libertinism. De Sade, W. Reich, Walt Whitman and D.H. Lawrence are perhaps examples of writers who took the view that the person is indeed dual, but that of our two parts the real, the higher self, is that expressed in eros.
The mainstream view as well as its Lawrentian inversion might be dubbed puritanical views. Puritanism in this sense is not the claim that sex is bad. It is the more abstract view that the value of an act or state of mind is to be gauged in terms not of their consequences, but of their origins. If an act of state of mind has its origin in the best or most real part of the self, it is ''pure'', otherwise it is polluted. Now you might think that the rational part of the soul is the good or authentic one, or you might assign that place to the instinctual and sexual alone. To be morally pure is to follow the higher agency whichever that happens to be. Thus there can be puritans of sex as well as (the more common) puritans of antisex.
(iii) The Pansexual Model.
The third model is the descendant of a view expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium. It roughly amounts to the thesis that erotic sex and philosophy are one and the same thing, because erotic sex is at the core of all motivation in the person as a whole. (Freud might also be classed as espousing this model.) On this third view, there is no necessary polarity between differently evaluated parts of the person. Different activities and impulses can of course be judged variously good, but the model of the person involved does not automatically assign an evaluation to every act on puritanical grounds in our technical sense.
How are erotic sex and gender sex related? In the mainstream view, they are assumed to be two aspects of the same thing.* The rationale for this position is something like this. Once you understand that there are two sexes, then it stands to reason that sexual attraction is the result of the natural difference between them--whether defined as complementarity, polarity, or privation. Conversely, there would be no need for a systematic difference between the sexes if it were not for the biological or perhaps metaphysical requirement of sexual attraction. This heterosexist assumption seems to be widely taken for granted. (See Marabel Morgan 1973, Scruton 1986.)
In keeping with our preference for lean definitions over rich ones, we shall take it, with Plato, that the two aspects of sex are indeed conceptually independent. This would enable us to look critically at what relations are to be found between the two, without assuming that no such enquiry can succeed unless it is blessed with analyticity.
But What is Philosophic?
Since the above questions and speculations are intuitively philosophical, it is curious that they have all been almost totally ignored by philosophers. Even now, proponents of courses in the philosophy of sex encounter considerable resistance within the philosophical community. The prevailing attitude is: this isn't really philosophy. But is it plausible that a subject that plays such an overwhelmingly important role in our lives should turn out to be unworthy of philosophical interest? In its various guises, sex affects our laws, our political and economic life, the patterns of violence prevalent in a given culture, the degree of access of individuals to the public domain, and opportunities for sport and physical development. It permeates our consciousness of ourselves, our gestures, our fantasies, our notions of mental health and beauty, and, of course, our art. How much would be left of Shakespeare if we truly censored all those aspects of plot, passion or springs of character that can be referred directly to sexuality in any of the three senses we have distinguished? Without erotic sex, some plays--Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew--would make no sense at all. To remove references to gender-sex, we should have to eliminate from the comedies all those plot devices that rely on the business of cross dressing. We would also probably have to question much of the motivation in those more military tragedies and histories, where manliness is all.
Perhaps the extraordinary denial of the philosophical relevance of sex is motivated by an unexamined philosophical prejudice in favour of the view that sex is ''just an appetite.'' Or perhaps there is a different assumption that would justify it. But whatever that assumption could be, it must involve a thesis about the nature of sex and its place in human life. The rejection of sex as a philosophical topic is itself just an unsupported thesis in the philosophy of sex. This rejection, therefore, lacks credibility on two counts: it is self-refuting, and at its core there is merely the refusal of argument--but is this not the cardinal philosophical sin?
The claims we have just made presume some intuitive notion of what philosophy is. They call for justification--or at least explication. So let us backtrack a moment for a dogmatic compression on the theme: What is philosophy?
One defining feature of philosophy that it aims at insight through argument. As in science, the emphasis on argument is important for what it excludes: there are no sacred texts, no prophets, no privileged revelations, in short, no authorities. That is what makes philosophy essentially subversive and democratic. But what is the relevant sense of argument involved here?
Three Ways to Insight through Talk .
In one sense it simply involves the acquisition of belief in a proposition that appears as the bottom line of an inductive or deductive argument. Usually a mere change in belief of this order lacks the visionary quality that is connoted by the word 'insight'. The second way is typical of communication about aesthetic matters (Isenberg 1949): it consists in directing someone's attention. That can be done by pointing, or by a combination of pointing and describing, but in the end insight must come from just seeing what is there to see. The sudden ''gestalting'' of something not seen before is part of what gives visual arts their special magic, and on a metaphorical plane it is also something to which philosophy at its best aspires.
Critical communication however is not strictly speaking argument. So how can philosophy manage the analogous trick on the basis of real argument? One answer is that when enough beliefs change, and change radically enough, ''vision'' follows. That is true. But there is also another answer, appealing to a method which is a hybrid of the other two. It draws attention to facts which have passed unnoticed, and then inferring to the best explanation of what seems at first sight inexplicable about those facts. By this method it is sometimes possible to see what was invisible though it was, in a sense, always in full view.
When properly applied, this method will hunt out those premises that lie deepest in a philosopher's conceptual edifice: the unexpressed assumptions, the unargued presuppositions. What must Berkeley have assumed, to find it so obvious that nothing is ever immediately present to the sense but ideas? Those sorts of questions are the hardest to answer, because the deepest assumptions are often shared between those who think they hold opposite views. But they are also, for the same reason, the most revealing, the most likely to yield that liberating novelty of vision which we have suggested is a central ideal of philosophy. (See Russell 1959, 153-161.)
But what is this, if not consciousness-raising? Speaking in the context of the Women's Movement, Joan Cassell (1977, quoted in Spender 1980, p. 130) describes the process of consciousness-raising as a subjective state which can refer to ''...becoming conscious of something which one did not formerly perceive, of raising something from the unconscious to the conscious mind, to heightened consciousness of oneself or a state of affairs''. This process of realization does not result in piecemeal shifts in perception but, rather, involves a transformation wherein the individual 'switches worlds'. But that is a pretty fair characterization of philosophy itself. (Compare Wittgenstein 1953, sec. 144: ''I have changed his way of looking at things....'')
Let us look at this method at work in a relatively modest context. If you claim to be or know a liberated feminist family man, try this innocent question: Do you help with the housework and babysit the children? Yes, of course: Is he not a liberated feminist man? And that sounds plausible enough--for a moment. But then ask yourself whether you would have asked the same question of a married mother. And would you expect her to reply: ''Yes, of course I help with the housework and babysit!''? The question and the answer now have a completely different ring: for the terms ''helping'' or ''babysitting'' imply an auxiliary role, by someone whose real responsibility is elsewhere. Often the deepest (patriarchal) attitudes are revealed in the presuppositions of an innocent phrase.
A similar example serves to reveal the depth as well as the invisibility of heterosexist attitudes. There are liberals who think themselves creditably tolerant of homosexuality, but at the same time insist that it should not be flaunted. For is not sex a private matter? And is it not therefore out of place to advertize your sexual preferences? Now honestly--let us address the heterosexual reader--does this not sound entirely reasonable? Yes, until we draw your attention to the fact that heterosexuals are always out of the closet. Can you imagine locker rooms and faculty clubs, dinner parties and office gossip, where etiquette required that no one ever mention engagement rings, husbands, wives, ''girl-'' or ''boyfriends'', at least not in such a way as ever to reveal the preferred gender of their real or imagined sexual partner? The world in which the homosexual is asked to keep her sexual orientation to herself, is a world where the majority make of theirs a constant exhibition. They flirt, hold hands, kiss each other goodbye in public, embrace, and so on. More significantly, where access to privilege, economic benefit, civil rights, job security, and historical legitimacy are granted on the public display of heterosexual affiliation, there is much to be gained through such heterosexual flaunting. What does the inference to the best explanation suggest here? Clearly, that the so-called liberal still acts as if any but the heterosexual choice violated a norm of nature. A concept of erotic sex as purely private fails to account for the ways in which heterosexuality is intensely public.
Sandra Bartky has suggested the term ''feminist phenomenology'' for examples such as the foregoing (Bartky 1979, pp. 252-258). But phenomenology is, here as elsewhere, only a beginning. Feminism can make at least to additional contributions to philosophy. First, it offers a point of view from which far-reaching criticism of other disciplines can be undertaken, both on the metholodogical plane and in the sphere of conceptual reconstruction; second, the use it makes of that interdisciplinary work casts new light on some of the deepest and most ancient questions about human nature, including the significance of gender-sex and the nature of erotic sex.
Feminism as Philosophy of Sex
Before we offer illustrations of this claim, we must attend to a link still missing in our argument. Why, it may be asked, have we been implicitly identifying feminism with the philosophy of sex? Why not speak simply of philosophy of sex and its importance, leaving to fall wherever they may arguments for one thesis or another?
It must be acknowledged that even a minimal definition of feminism, such as the following by Janet Radcliffe Richards, refers explicitly to a thesis, not just a method or a topic, and is at least implicitly committed to a particular motivation:
"[W]omen suffer from systematic social injustice because of their sex. ...I shall be taking that proposition as constituting the essence of feminism, and counting anyone who accepts it as a feminist." (Richards 1982, 13-14)
A feminist philosopher is not merely someone who has become interested in a conceptual analysis of sexism, sexual injustice and other forms of gender-based oppression, though excellent conceptual analyses do now exist. (See, for example, Ayim and Houston 1982; Frye 1975.) She or he is also committed to their eradication through philosophical critique. Is not this, the pure philosopher will ask, just too parochial and too contaminated by practical goals to count as a philosophy? And would one not be better off characterizing the subject matter we are interested in strictly in terms of method or topic?
Our first reply is that the distinction appealed to in this objection is illusory. Thesis and method are often convertible in philosophy. Many of the great schools of philosophy can be characterized alternatively either in terms of a central thesis or in terms of a method or topic. Try it for empiricism: the thesis is that all knowledge must be based on experience; the method follows. In existentialism the thesis is one about human nature as defined by consciousness. That thesis generates an ethics, and constrains method in philosophy (and psychology too: for existentialism bans the experimental method as false to ''subjectivity''). It also limits the topics that will be of interest (there is not much existentialist philosophy of mathematics.) Analogously, consider how this works for a radical feminist whose central thesis is that ''the personal is political''. Such a theorist would be committed to the philosophical methods best fitted to test that thesis: the conceptual analysis of concrete situations and alleged paradigm cases, and the phenomenological investigation of apparently private domains of subjectivity such as sexuality and love. So there is no reason why feminism cannot legitimately belong to the tradition of schools of philosophy that are defined partly by a thesis, partly by a characteristic set of methods, and partly by moral ends. (See Jane English 1980.)
The second defense is that the existence of a normative motivation may actually provide a heuristic perspective that will prove critically fertile. In a moment we shall see how this applies to feminist critiques of non-philosophical disciplines. Many feminist philosophers, moreover, question the other implicit premise on which the objection rests: namely that there is a level of dispassionate philosophical interest, devoid of any motivation but curiosity, at which are to be found a thinker's best chances of objective discovery. We need to consider at least the possibility that the conceptual framework challenged by feminists runs so deep that it literally cannot be seen except through a conscientious effort to construe even apparently neutral phenomena as pervaded with distortions induced by an ideology of male supremacy and heterosexism. (The form of this experience will be familiar to anyone that has undergone Freudian analysis.)
Concrete illustrations of this point are not hard to find. Generally, throughout Western thought and practice women have been regarded as less rational than men either because their intelligence is seen simply as lesser in degree or inferior in kind (Lloyd 1984; Morgan 1987). In turn, this claim then justifies denying women full participation in forms of moral, social, political, religious, and theoretical life. Sex research in the empirical disciplines often seems directed toward this end. In historical perspective, the lengths to which science has gone to justify this sexist axiom is quite extraordinary. Nineteenth century brain researchers, for example, were anxious to prove that men were more intelligent than women. The method was to find something--it really didn't matter what--that correlated with intelligence, and of which women had less on the average than men. So, for example, it was at one time maintained that the seat of intelligence was in the frontal lobes. But as soon as it was found that frontal lobes did not tend to be smaller in women, the very propounder of the original thesis quickly declared that we now knew that intelligence resides not in the frontal but in the parietal lobes. (See Easley 1981; Hubbard 1982; also Longino and Doell 1983).
This illustrates one of the identifying characteristics of pseudo-science: pseudo-science starts with a conclusion and looks for any available method of establishing it. The difference from true science is relatively subtle here, because all science has to start with some hypothesis to be tested, (and sometimes the scientist earnestly hopes that it will turn out to be true). All science must also make a great many auxiliary assumptions, which will normally remain unquestioned unless the investigation runs into trouble. But scientists do not view the discovery of favourable evidence as their principal task. For pseudo-science--for the aficionados of ESP or astrology--negative evidence simply doesn't count. Since the direction of progress has been defined ahead of time, evidence can only count as advancing the ''science'' if it confirms it.
Two other identifying features of pseudo-science are the crucial roles of the rush to explanation on the basis of imaginary evidence, and the positive-biased statistical illusion. For example: much pointless intellectual energy is spent trying to explain the powers of dowsers, or the disappearances of the Bermuda Triangle. The ''explanations'' are invariably fanciful; but more important, the original ''factual observations'' which one strives to explain never occurred at all (see Giere 1984, 378). In what passes for respected psychological research on sex differences, Paula Caplan has found many of the features of pseudo-science just listed (see Caplan 1979, 1985; also Kinsbourne 1980).
Philosophy itself is not immune to distortions of this sort. For an example, consider a well-known paper by Tom Nagel (1969), in which Nagel is reluctant to acknowledge that no hint of perversion could attach to homosexuality, though that conclusion is clearly entailed by his theory. (See Moulton 1969.)
In the rest of this paper we explore a specific feminist critique of erotic sex. We then conclude with some remarks on the important implications of recent feminist work on our conception of human nature.
The Feminist Critique of Eros.
Beginning with Simone de Beauvoir, contemporary feminists have produced powerful critiques of sex and love.* We shall consider just one example of a radical analysis of erotic sex in the narrowest sense.
Karen Rotkin (1976) has argued as follows. When speaking of erotic sex, our use of language evinces a concept of sexual activity that is exclusively based on heterosexual male experience. We commonly ignore a straightforward factual difference between the male and female sexual and reproductive anatomies. The fact in question is that the main organ of sexual pleasure for the man is the same as the organ of reproduction, the penis. In women, the sex-equivalent of the penis is the clitoris (of which the penis is the homologous organ).* We are not now speaking of internal reproductive organs, such as testes, prostate and vas deferens, uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tube. For none of these are relevant to reproductive behaviour. In terms of reproduction, and in terms of typical male pleasure, Rotkin argues, the vagina does seem to be the organ corresponding to the penis. But in point of anatomical fact as well as in many women's experience the vagina is of relatively little importance for a woman's sexual pleasure. (For further empirical support, see Hite 1976.) The contrary assumption, apart from its anatomical inaccuracy, entails a view of the very nature of heterosexual activity that is entirely male-centered.
The resulting conception of erotic sex as consisting essentially of Penile-Intromission-into-the-Vagina-with-Male-Orgasm defines in colloquial, legal and medical usage the necessary and sufficient conditions for the performance of ''THE ACT''. In ordinary language ''going all the way'' means penis-vagina intercourse. Similarly, the quasi-legal definitions of female virginity, marital consummation, adultery, and heterosexual rape are all conceptually focussed on penis-vagina intercourse. These linguistic practices--and omissions--support a phallocentric interpretation of human sexuality which maintains that at least one erect penis (or phallic substitute) is necessary for erotic sex to occur. In some historical periods, this phallocentric conviction has led to the theoretical denial of the possibility of lesbians and lesbian eroticism (see Frye 1983). The underlying prejudice infects the medical profession: the clitoral silence in gynecological textbooks and sex education materials deprives girls and women of the full realization of woman-centered eroticism (Weiss 1977; Morgan 1984).
Given the undeniable truth of Rotkin's basic observation, we find persuasive her surmise that it might partly explain the most common sexual ''dysfunctions'': those of impotent men and non-orgasmic women. It must be difficult to be stimulated to orgasm if you happen to be misinformed about the function of the relevant organs. And for a man it is indeed an awesome responsibility to have to assist in an impossible task. (At least heterosexual men had less trouble when they were brought up to believe that the question of sexual satisfaction is not one that could arise for a woman at all).
The most intriguing implication of Rotkin's observations, however, is this: that our entire culture has in effect been blind to biological facts absolutely central to the nature of what passes for the paradigm of the natural side of human being: not the rituals of sex, not love, or marriage, or courting, but the natural conditions of sexual pleasure have been distorted by unexamined ideological assumptions. This is an instance of what we might call androcentric solipsism, the equation of male experience with human experience (reflected in the lingering practice and ardent defense of the use of the pseudo-generic pronoun ''he''). Such solipsism easily leads men to appropriate women's bodies while women are taught a complementary sexual ethic of erotic altruism. (Think of all those sexual advice manuals which urge women to simulate orgasm). (See Daly 1974, Dworkin 1978, esp. chs. 6 and 7.)
Are we dealing here simply with the prejudices of fallible individual men, philosophers, and scientists? In part, no doubt this is so. But there is more, and of deeper philosophical interest. It is not simple malice, nor mere stupidity, that continues to distort so much thinking about sex into the shape of pseudo-science. Much of this distortion can be traced to the deeply ingrained philosophical myth that there is an essence of maleness and masculinity, and an essence of femaleness and femininity, there to be studied. This is gender essentialism.*
To see this, let us make a detour through the mysterious topic of gender identity. The provoking question here is this: How do we know to what gender-sex we properly belong? The possession of a certain genital configuration is neither necessary nor sufficient, as the case of transsexuals shows, for the acquisition of a gender identity that fits one's outward anatomical sex. Other biological marks of sex such as gonadal sex, internal reproductive organs, or even chromosome configuration sometimes fail to converge; yet others, such as hormonal balance, are not dichotomous but continuously variable. The one strictly dichotomous characteristic--the ability to bear children--could not be used as an actual defining criterion of femaleness without considerable gerrymandering. So what is sex-gender identity? One of the most influential theoretician in the field has suggested that we acquire a sex identity in the same way as we acquire a language. John Money posits an innate capacity to acquire some gender identity or other, just as we have an innate linguistic capacity. But that innate capacity, like the analogous linguistic capacity, leaves it entirely open which specific gender identity or language is actually learned (Money and Tucker 1975).
The parallel is intriguing. But what exactly is it that we learn? Ayim and Houston (1985) have shown that acquiring gender identity cannot consist in inductive learning of the ''core'' characteristics of sex--menstruation, gestation, lactation, ejaculation and impregnation. For gender identity generally becomes immutable somewhere between eighteen months and four years of age; that is too soon for such a solid grasp of those particular facts of life. Nor can it be a matter of learning specific patterns of behaviour: for Money claims that in spite of the immutability of gender identity ''A sufficiently strong stimulus--physical, hormonal, neural, or social--can push you over practically any behavior line or barrier'' (Money and Tucker, p. 73). The hypothesis seems mysterious, unless one assumes that it is known a priori that there is such a thing as the essence of each sex, and while essential characters are frequently tied to this or that more or less accidental ones, only the essence is immutable. But the immutable essence continues to elude us.
Consider menstruation. This is often taken to be a paradigm of objective biological fact, partially definitional of womanhood. Is menstruation, at least, an unalterable fact of female biology? It is not. !Kung women do not have what is considered in Western women part of a female's destiny: a monthly menstrual cycle. In fact some women might menstruate scarcely a dozen times in their lives. The cycles are apparently regulated by a combination of lactation patterns, nutrition, and other socially conditioned factors, which result in an average of several years without menstruating between pregnancies (Short 1984).
Closer to home, we know athletes who are able to cease menstruating at will for as many months as they please simply by stepping up their training to suitable thresholds which alter their body fat ratios to the extent necessary. Where then is the inevitable destiny in the natural fact of menstruation?
Other studies have attempted to document invariant sex differences in strength, sweat production, size, performance, musculature, bone growth, height, hormone production, brain size, ratio of brain suface to body surface, mathematical and visual-spatial ability, brain lateralization, and levels of testosterone. Seemingly purely natural, each of these areas has been shown to vary and be corruptible by shifting cultural condititions (see Lowe 1983; Fee 1983).
Nevertheless, the search continues. Why? Perhaps the systematic elusiveness of that immutable gender essence strongly suggests that in the last analysis it is, like other essences, an entity that only patriarchal (or matriarchal) faith sustains.
Gender essentialism is a pervasive feature of theoretical as well as of ordinary discourse. Essentialism of any kind, as applied to the biological level or higher, is a dubious dogma (de Sousa 1984). But it is particularly pernicious in the field of sex. The search for sex differences is, in important ways, a search for the natural man. We use the phrase advisedly: for it is part of the mythology of gender sex that women have been viewed as nature to men's culture. For this reason, we conclude by suggesting a normative definition of feminism:
Feminism is the rejection of essentialism, applied to both
and erotic sex. The anti-essentialism of feminist philosophy challenges
not only the specific ways that women and men are distinguished; it
the distinction itself.
1. Since this paper was written, a large and strongly anti-feminist book (Scruton 1986) has appeared.
2. The biology of sex poses three problems. (i) There is nothing
necessary about the existence of exactly two sexes for reproduction.
species have no sexes at all, reproducing either by mitosis, or by some
form of parthenogenesis. (For one example see Cole 1984.) It is one of
the great unresolved questions of evolutionary biology how the manifest
disadvantages of meiosis --the effective halving of each gene's chances
of transmission at every generation--can be outweighed by the
of sex (see Williams 1972, Maranto and Brownlee 1984). (ii) Even given
the fact of reproduction by genetic recombination, how do the gametes
to be dimorphic--with a big one, identified by conventional definition
as the female, and a little one, conventionally defined as the male?
The dimorphism of phenotypes or grown up individuals is again a
different question. All three questions are independent of problems
by any further differences between the sexes.
3. Here feminism owes some debt to Marxism, and especially the Marxist concept of false consciousness, which makes it possible to view what are phenomenologically private and individual choices as constrained by material historical factors. But Marxists have not generally included reproduction under the general heading of production. Nor have they had much to say about heterosexism, its meaning, and its consequences. On heterosexism, see Rich 1980. On the politics of reproduction, see O'Brien 1981, Clark and Lange 1979.
4. One striking exception, as Dale Spender has pointed out (Spender 1980, expanding on a point made by Muriel Schultz), is the word for rape: why isn't it, or some synonym for it, obscene? It is a troubling paradox that a sexual word, 'fuck', is used in slang to denote a hateful aggressive act, but that the word for sexual aggression remains emotionally neutral. (See Spender 1980, p. 180)
5. Baker (1984) discusse these first three categories. Our student,
Ms Loretta Castellarin has explored the fourth category, noting that
males are referred to in edible terms, (e.g. 'hunk of beef'), they are
seen as the main course, whereas women are in the dessert or snack
6. Remarkably, Plato--unlike Aristotle, Aquinas, or D.H. Lawrence--did not make this assumption. No doubt Plato was helped in this bit of conceptual liberation by being homosexual.
7. See, for example, Barry 1979; de Beauvoir 1952 (especially the chapter "The Woman in Love"); Firestone 1970; Koedt 1973; Morgan 1986.
8. This is the biological term for a pair of organs that develop out of the same original structures. The functions of homologous organs may or may not be identical. Organs that do not stem from identical origins and have similar function are said to be "analogous".
9. Gender essentialism is not confined to patriarchal thinking. For a recent example of feminist gender essentialist thinking, see Dworkin 1987, as well as the work of many French feminist theorists.
Aquinas, Thomas. 1967. On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, Book 3 ''Providence.'' Trans. Vernon J. Bourke. New York: Doubleday.
Ayim, Maryann and Barbara Houston. 1982. ''A Conceptual Analysis of Sexism and Sexist Education.'' In Philosophy of Education: Canadian Perspectives, ed. D. Cochrane and M. Schiralli. Don Mills, Ontario: Collier Macmillan.
Ayim, Maryann and Barbara Houston. 1985. ''The Epistemology of Gender-Identity: Implications for Social Policy,'' Social Theory and Practice 11:25-59.
Baker, Robert. 1984.'''Pricks' and 'Chicks': a Plea for 'Persons'.'' In Baker and Elliston (1984).
Baker, Robert and Frederick Ellison, eds. 1984. Philosophy and Sex. 2nd ed. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
Barry, Kathleen. 1979. Female Sexual Slavery. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1979. ''Toward a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness.'' In Philosophy and Women, ed. S. Bishop and M. Weinzweig. Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1952. The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc.
Caplan, Paula. 1979. ''Erikson's Concept of Inner Space: A Data-Based Reevaluation,'' American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 49:100-108.
Caplan, Paula J., Gael M. MacPherson, and Patricia Tobin. 1985. ''Do Sex-Related Differences in Spatial Abilities Exist? A Multilevel Critique with New Data,'' American Psychologist 40:786-799.
Cassell, Joan. 1977. A Group Called Women: Sisterhood and Symbolism in the Feminist Movement. New York: David McKay.
Clark, Lorenne and Lynda Lange, eds. 1979. The Sexism of Political Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Cole, Charles J. 1984. ''Unisexual Lizards,'' Scientific American 250:94-100.
Daly, Mary. 1978. Gyn-Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press.
de Sousa, Ronald. 1984. ''The Natural Shiftiness of Natural Kinds,'' Canadian Journal of Philosophy 14:561-580.
Dworkin, Andrea. 1974. Woman-Hating. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Dworkin, Andrea. 1987. Intercourse. New York: Free Press.
Easley, Brian. 1981. Science and Sexual Oppression, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
English, Jane. 1980. ''Is Feminism Philosophy?'' Teaching Philosophy 3:397-403.
Fee, Elizabeth. 1983. ''Woman's Nature and Scientific Objectivity.'' In Lowe and Hubbard (1983).
Firestone, Shulamith. 1979. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: William Morrow.
Frye, Marilyn. 1975. ''Male Chauvinism.'' In Robert Baker and Frederick Elliston, Philosophy and Sex, 1st ed. (1975). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
Frye, Marilyn. 1983. ''To See and Be Seen: The Politics of Reality,'' in The Politics of Reality. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press, l983, pp. 152-174.
Giere, Ronald. 1984. Understanding Scientific Reasoning. 2nd Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Goldman, Alan H. 1977. ''Plain Sex,'' Philosophy and Public Affairs 6: 267-287.
Hite, Shere. 1976. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality. New York: Macmillan.
Hubbard, Ruth. 1982. ''Have Only Men Evolved?'' In Ruth Hubbard, Mary-Sue Henifrin and Barbara Fried, eds., Biological Woman: The Convenient Myth. Cambridge, MA: Schenken.
Isenberg, Arnold. 1949. ''Critical Communication,'' Philosophical Review 58: 330-344.
Kinsbourne, Marcel. 1980. ''If Sex Differences Exist, They Have Yet to Be Discovered.'' Commentary, in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3:241-242.
Koedt, Anne. 1973. ''The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.'' In A. Koedt, E. Levine, and A Rapone, eds., Radical Feminism. New York: Quadrangle.
Lloyd, Genevieve. 1984. The Man of Reason: ''Male'' and ''Female'' in Western Philosophy. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.
Longino, Helen and Ruth Doell. 1983. ''Body Bias and Behaviour: A Comparative Analysis of Reasoning in Two Areas of Biological Sciences,'' Signs, 9:206-227.
Lowe, Marion. 1983. ''The Dialectic of Biology and Culture.'' In Lowe and Hubbard (1983).
Lowe, Marion and Ruth Hubbard, eds. 1983. Woman's Nature: Rationalizations of Inequality. London: Pergamon Press.
Maranto, Gina and Shannon Brownlee. 1984. ''Why Sex?'' in Discover: A News Magazine of Science vol 5, Feb. 1984.
Millett, Kate. 1970. Sexual Politics, New York: Doubleday and Co.
Money, John, and Patricia Tucker. 1975. Sexual Signatures: On Being a Man or a Woman. Boston: Little, Brown.
Morgan, Kathryn. 1984. ''The Moral Politics of Sex Education.'' Paper delivered at the National Association for Women's Studies, Rutgers University.
Morgan, Kathryn. 1986. ''Romantic Love, Altruism, and Self-Respect,'' Hypatia 1:117-148. Repr. in Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, ed., Women and Men: Interdisciplinary Readings on Gender. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside (1986).
Morgan, Kathryn P. 1987. ''Women and Moral Madness,'' Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Special Issue on Science, Morality, and Feminist Theory, ed. M. Hanen and K. Nielsen. Repr. in S. Mullet, L. Code, and C. Overall, eds., Feminist Perspectives: Philosophical Method and Morals. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1987).
Morgan, K. P. 1979. ''Sexuality as a Metaphysical Property.'' In S. Bishop and M. Weinzweig, ed.s, Philosophy and Women. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Morgan, Marabel. 1973. The Total Woman. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell.
Moulton, Janice. 1969. ''Sexual Behavior: Another Position,'' Journal of Philosophy 65:5-17. Reprinted in Soble (1980).
Nagel, Thomas. 1969. ''Sexual Perversion,'' Journal of Philosophy 66. Reprinted in Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1979).
O'Brien, Mary. 1981. The Politics of Reproduction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Rich, Adrienne. 1980. ''Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,'' Signs 5:631-660.
Richards, Janet Radcliffe. 1982. The Sceptical Feminist. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Rotkin, Karen. 1976. ''The Phallacy of our Sexual Norm.'' In A.G. Kaplan and J.P. Bean, eds., Beyond Sex Role Stereotypes: Readings Towards a Philosophy of Androgyny. New York: Little.
Russell, Bertrand. 1959. The Problems of Philosophy. London and New York: Oxford University Press.
Sartre, J.-P. 1956. Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.
Scruton, Roger. 1986. Sexual Desire. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
Short, R.V. 1984. ''Breast Feeding,'' Scientific American 250:35-42.
Smith, Michael. 1980. ''What Kind of Sex is Natural?'' In Vern L. Bullough et al., eds., Frontiers of Sex Research. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Soble, Alan, ed. 1980. The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings.. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield Adams & Co.
Solomon, Robert C. 1974. ''Sexual Paradigms,'' The Journal of Philosophy 71:336-345.
Spelman, Elizabeth V. 1983. ''Aristotle and the Politicization of the Soul.'' In Sandra Harding and Merrill Hintikka, eds., Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and the Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht: Reidel.
Spelman, Elizabeth V. 1982. ''Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views.'' In Feminist Studies 8:109-131.
Spender, Dale. 1980. Man Made Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Weiss, Kay. 1977. ''What Medical Students learn about Women.'' In C. Dreifus, ed., Seizing Our Bodies: The Politics of Women's Health. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 212-222.
Williams, George C. 1972. The Evolution of Sex. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. l953. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.