Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Desire for Sex

Today, as promised, I am going to write about sex.

Specifically, I am responding to a comment that G-man made to an earlier post:

Consider . . . the fact that our current values are by no means the values we *should* have. Does that mean, then, that if our values can be adjusted (say, for instance, the desire for sex or the desire for personal freedom), would there be anything wrong with that state of affairs? I can't think of any reason why it would. Of course, I have a personal aversion to losing my desire for freedom and for sex - but it's still worth a thought, I guess.

Yesterday, I wrote about the desire for freedom. I presented an argument that the love of freedom is something that we have many and strong reasons to promote regardless of whatever else we may happen to desire – because freedom gives the authority to make decisions on what action to perform to the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent – the actor himself.

Today, I want to talk about the desire for sex.

As it turns out, we do have ways to alter the desire for sex, at least in certain parts of population. We may not have effective methods for altering the object of sexual desire (though this may simply be a matter of further research), but we certainly have ways of altering the strength of sexual desire among males.

The two options available are (1) castration, and (2) regular injections of methoxyprogesterone. Methoxyprogesterone fits into the brain receptors for testosterone in the brain, blocking the testosterone, thus weakening or eliminating the desire for sex.

Given that these options is available, the question, “Should I act so as to weaken my sexual desire?” is a legitimate question.

A desire for sex is a desire that a particular state of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of one’s sexual desire are true. It is clearly the case that the term ‘sexual desire’ does not describe just one sexual desire. It involves a wide range of desires where the object of desire fits under the general heading of a ‘sexual situation’. It includes not only intercourse, but desires that one’s sex partner have particular physical and mental properties, particular actions, and particular surroundings.

Yet, if this is truly a sexual desire, then castration or injections of methoxyprogesterone will influce the strength of that desire.

Another fact to note about a sexual desire is that it is an appetite. Appetites are desires that dissipate when fulfilled, only to grow in intensity at a later time. Hunger is an appetite – a desire to eat that goes away when it is fulfilled, then returns a few hours later. Thirst and sleep are also appetites. These are contrasted with, for example, the aversion to pain or the desire for the well-being of one’s children which persists even when it is fulfilled.

However, what G-man wrote about is not the desire for sex, but the desire for the desire for sex. He reports not only a desire for sex, but a desire for a desire for sex.

Because these are distinct and separate desires, it is not impossible that a person can have a desire for (a particular type of) sex, and, at the same time, have an aversion to having that desire. This is true in the same way that a person can have a desire to be drunk or high and have an aversion to having that particular desire. I, for example, have a desire for high-calorie foods (cholesterol being one of the best-tasting substances ever discovered), while at the same time wishing that I did not have this desire.

Is it possible to defend a “desire for a desire for sex” as a good thing?

This depends a lot on the nature of the sex that one desires. Is the desire for sex itself of a form that tends to fulfill or thwart other desires?

If a person’s desire for sex is a desire that tends to thwart the desires of self or others, then there are reasons not to promote a desire for that particular type of sex. Indeed, there is a reason to promote an aversion to that particular type of sex, and to motivate those who have such a desire to take action that will either change the object of that desire (to something less harmful) or change the strength of that desire.

On the other hand, sexual desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others are desires that we have reason to promote or encourage.

I cannot think of any clear examples of this second type of sexual desire – a desire that fulfills the desires of others. Most sexual desire, it seems, falls in the third moral category – neither bad (promoting acts that tend to thwart other desires) or good (promoting acts that tend to fulfill other desires), but neutral (promoting acts that neither fulfill or thwart other desires).

All sexual desire is either neutral (something people generally have no reason to promote or prohibit) or bad (something that people generally have reason to inhibit). There is no such thing as a good sexual desire.

This does not imply that there is anything wrong with a given individual having a desire for (morally neutral) sex, or a desire that he have a desire for (morally neutral) sex. Just as the desire for sex is morally neutral, the desire for the desire for sex is morally neutral.

Some Implications

In the realm of sexual morality, I often hear the claim that people do not choose their sexual desires. This is supposed to have some sort of moral significance, as if, “I did not choose a desire that P; therefore, bring about state of affairs P should be considered morally permissible.”

We typically see this argument with respect to homosexual acts. However, the argument is clearly invalid. We can clearly see this if we replace P with a desire to rape and torture young children, a desire to burn down buildings, a desire to take things that belong to others, or a desire to drive extremely fast through residential and school neighborhoods.

This argument gives the impression that somehow people are supposed to have an opportunity to sit down, weigh the plusses and minuses of having a particular desire, and deciding, “I choose a desire that P.”

Nobody ever does this for any of their desires – even their desires to burn down buildings or to rape and torture small children.

I suspect the next response would be, “How dare you compare a desire for homosexual acts with desires to burn down buildings or to rape and torture small children? These desires are totally different. The homosexual does not desire anything that implies harming others.”

My answer to this is, “That’s exactly my point! Choice is not the issue. The question is whether or not people generally have a reason to promote or inhibit the desire in question. People have no reason to inhibit homosexual desires precisely because they are not desires that tend to motivate people to threaten others. People do have reasons to inhibit the desire to burn down buildings or to rape and torture small children. These facts sit as the foundation of the moral difference between these desires, not ‘choice’.

The fact that there is such a huge variety of sexual desires strongly argues that this is not based entirely on genes. Any who want to argue that social conditioning does no good against homosexual desire needs to explain how it could possibly make sense to explain all of this variety through genetic factors alone. If social factors have any affect at all on sexual desire, then people generally have reason to ask for the most efficient way of inhibiting desires they have reason to inhibit. If social factors have no affect on sexual desire, then how is it that people can acquire so many different sexual desires, and why is it that the factors responsible for this variety are all outside of human control?


I want to add with this: If one has a sexual desire that tends to thwart the desires of self or others, I would like to make it known that the strength of that desire is a matter of choice. It might be difficult to change the object of that desire (I am no expert in this area), but reducing the strength of a sexual desire is clearly on the “can do” list. It would be a service to others and to oneself to free oneself of such a desire that thwarts the desires of self and others.

See a doctor. Get the condition taken care of. It is the right thing to do.


G-man said...

Thanks for the response. The issue of freedom, in particular, was put in a new perspective for me.

Anonymous said...

Overall, I agree with the post. But the argument about genetics and the diversity of sexual desires overlooks that there's more to biology than genes. Some of the more promising research on sexual orientation and gender identity has found links to hormonal balances within the womb.

There's no question though, in my mind, that all desires are interpreted through culture. That's why we see homosexuality realized in different ways across the globe.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, you wrote:

"I cannot think of any clear examples of this second type of sexual desire – a desire that fulfills the desires of others."

I like to think that my sexual desire tends to fulfil that of my wife and vice versa. Does this not count for some reason?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


No, your example does not count in the sense in which I am talking about - a desire that tends to fulfill other desires generally.

Certainly, your wife has reason to desire that you have a desire for sex that is compatible specifically with her desires. However, there is no desire for sex that people generally have a reason to promote in everybody through praise and reward.

It is the latter type of desire that I am talking about.

Anonymous said...


I am not quite convinced.

A desire that tends to fulfil some other desires (eg my wife's sexual desire) and thwarts none, surely counts as a "good desire" in the desire utilitarian scheme.

Furthermore, perhaps, if we were consistent, and if enough of the negative consequences could be avoided, we ought to promote sexual promiscuity, as something that tends to satsify the desires of others, generally. It is not something I have a mind to promote, but I am not entirely satisfied with my reasons for not wishing to promote it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Yes, your desire does count as a 'good' desire in this context. However, it is a non-moral sense of good. It is a good desire in the same sense that a particular apple pie can be a good apple pie. It's not the type of 'good' that suggests a duty or obligation.

As for your primiscuity, it is true that I can invent situations in which there could be an obligatory sexual desire. For example, if the natural desire for sex were weak to the extent that the future of the human race were in doubt, then a desire for procreative sex may be obligatory - something we have reason to encourage through moral praise. However, that is not this world.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I thought I understood desire utilitarianism up to now.

I was suggesting that a) me desiring my wife, and b) (perhaps, in an unmarried person) promiscuity, might be superogatory, and therefore praiseworthy. I wasn't suggesting that either is obligatory - although I should think the first is obligatory because I have made a promise to do it.

I understand the distinction that says a morally good desire is one that tends to fulfil desires generally - so you seem to be saying that if the fulfilment is too specific and limited, this is no longer a moral question. It is hard to see why. If I asked instead whether a general desire to love one's wife was a good desire, it surely would be - it would tend to fulfil the desires of most wives. Hurrah for people who love their spouses and boo to people who neglect them! So why does it stop being a good desire in a specific instance?

Similarly a tendency to promiscuity will tend to fulfil the desires of other promiscuous people. Equally, I guess a tendency to monogamy will tend to fulfil the desires of another monogamous person - so perhaps both are equally good when practised honestly.

But celibacy would be less good by this standard.

The objection to all this that works for me is that while, yes, it might be nice if fewer people were celibate, any kind of pressure against celibacy is trampling on people's freedom, and this freedom is a far greater good than a bit more loving.

Megan Timbit said...

Have to agree on that one my friend