I have been thinking about sex more than is perhaps healthy recently. Longer-term readers - I wonder whether there is any other kind - will presumably be able to guess why, although not all my thinking has been of the one-handed kind. Some of my thinking has been second-order, thinking not about sex but about our thinking about sex, about the normative structures in which our sexual activity takes place, in which it makes sense, seems and is appealing. Some of this is doubtless an attempt at rationalising or vindicating some of the less attractive consequences of thinking about sex more than is perhaps healthy. So be it. Some of it, though, I think, is more substantive, less transparently self-interested, than that.
Although it is neither of the two literatures concerned are ones I know an enormous amount about, the relationship between the traditionally feminist critique of women's objectification in pornography and the Kantian requirement that other rational agents are treated never only as means but always also as ends seems like it would be interesting: the standard which is being invoked by criticising the depiction of women in pornography as objectifying seems to be circling around the idea that others should not be treated as tools, mere instruments for one's own satisfaction. The idea, insofar as I grasp it, is that pornography and erotica depicts women as the passive subjects of sexual desire, literally ripe for use by male power for its gain, which certainly does have a Kantian tone to it. Presumably, the standard is supposed to hold across sexual conduct: not generally in an enforcable manner, but presumably in the marital bedroom as much as in the sorts of shops men leave in large, concealing coats with brown paper bags under their arms.
The constraint, of course, on the requirements which such a standard for sexual conduct might impose is that sexual activity is hardly an epitome of the realisation of our fully rational natures. Indeed, given Kant's suspicion about the contingent, messy world of desire, imposing strict Kantian requirements on an activity which can hardly remove itself from that world might seem a little perverse - although, perhaps, for some quite enjoyable, precisely because of that strictness. Which is exactly the difficulty: there's something subversive about sex, about the way it co-opts and plays with, twists even, normal moral experience. It seems to rely, sometimes, on provocatively thumbing its nose at the usual rules, on the thrill of transgression. To put it more bluntly, whilst there may be f*cking in the Kingdom of Ends, f*cking does not seem to have to be about the sort of mutual respect which is traditionally thought to characterise the Kingdom of Ends.
Part of the problem with a stringent objectification requirement on sexual conduct seems to be that objectification is only something which can be done to a subject. No-one objectifies chairs or lumps of coal: they are already objects, and so there is nothing noteworthy about treating them as objects. There is a certain sense, then, in which objectification contains the means to counter itself, an admission of its own inaccuracy. This has a degree of pleasing dialectical serendipity, but more than that, I think it indicates ways in which objectification can avoid being morally troubling.
Obviously, the bare fact that something can only be done to a subject does not mean that it shows the proper respect to the subject to whom it is done: it is only in virtue of features of a person or an animal's subjectivity that they can be tortured, but that surely does not mean that torture shows proper respect to that subjectivity. The point about sexual objectification, though, seems to be that submission to the undeniably sometimes base demands of sexual desire, including, I guess, the base demands of someone else's sexual desire, is something that a subject can willingly cooperate in, and does not seem to have be either pitied or condemned for doing so. In some cases, respecting the personhood of others would appear to mean respecting their choice to temporarily renounce certain aspects of it. Respect here, of course, does not necessarily mean mere toleration: although respect may be grudging, certainly, it is clearly possible to tolerate something without respecting it.
This is not to deny the force of the objectification critique, I think. Much pornography is brutal and nasty, seeming to glory in the exercise of unmediated, casual power and little else, and it presumably does reflect, as many feminists claim, the normative effect of centuries of accumulated patriarchal oppression. Admitting that there may be situations in which stripping away some of the trappings of normal human agency is permissible and even valuable, is not saying that every such denial of subjectivity is permissible: recall the point about torture above. It is rather to draw attention to ways in which moral theory needs to be self-reflective, ways in which it must itself be subject to its own commandments, as well as to the way in which Kantianism can become rather formalistic. This latter point is I think more central. We need to remember not only that we need to apply the principle of toleration to philosophy itself, in Rawls' memorable phrase, but also that we are physically embodied entities, with brute physical needs and desires, who thus ought to be treated in ways which acknowledge that.
Consider tickling. I love both tickling and being tickled, yet there are only certain circumstances in which either is appropriate. Children, pets and lovers may tickle or be tickled, and I think that is pretty much it. The moral standing of the relationships involved in those three cases is presumably illustrative: those relationships are not like those we have with typical human adults but rather do not, either through a lack or a transcendence, construct from the Kantian ideal of autonomous agent the boundaries which are normally prescriptive for our interactions with others.
The lack, in the case of children or pets, is that of the kinds of capacities which seem to be necessary to acheive the status of an autonomous agent, at least in the Kantian sense, just as the the transcendence is, in the case of lovers. Features other than the capacity to form and pursue rational plans of life become morally relevant: rather than focusing on ensuring that people have the space and resources, both physical and social, to construct and carry out their projects, the physicality, the tactility of being a thing in the world which reacts in certain ways to certain stimuli becomes paramount. Think of a cat stretching its head up, beatific, to be tickled under its chin. That is, albeit in a cat, a kind of glorying in brute, though gentle, physicality, in being little more than a series of responses to stimuli, and one which is presumably totally morally untroubling. Some human submission to desire can surely be like that, and more than that, some human submission to sexual desire can surely be like that.
There is an awkwardness in talking about sex, and given the way in which it involves conceptualising others in ways which would be wholly inappropriate for the public sphere, that is understandable. I do not want to know very much, if anything, about the sexual proclivities, exactly how to flick exactly which switch, of your partner: that knowledge would be an intrusion into a relationship structured around norms which, in most cases, I ought not to be using as a basis for my behaviour towards either you or your partner. It is wrong for me to think of them like that, because that is not the way of thinking about people that goes with the way they generally should be treated - the idea, called in contemporary Rawlsania the priority of the right, that just social practices create, seamlessly as it were, preferences for living within the strictures of those practices.
This is usually linked, fairly I think, to the idea that that constitutes the full realisation of our nature as free and rational beings. The connection is that it is precisely by living out a life structured around treating others as I myself ought to be treated, I project my own status out into the world, come fully to terms with it by recognizing it in others who then reflect it back to me. Sometimes, though, it would seem, that is not the status we are required to accord to others: for all the awkwardness which naturally follows from that people might not always have that status, particularly in a forum constituted by that status, as the public sphere generally is, it strikes me as a worthwhile observation.