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Is extreme (very violent) consensual sadomasochism morally wrong? If so, should

Is extreme (very violent) consensual sadomasochism morally wrong? If so, should it be against the law to cause injury by this practice? Or would it be a 'private' matter?

The old principle of liberty that one can do what one likes so long as it doesn't harm others (famously formulated by John Stuart Mill) is challeneged by this sort of issue. What if someone consents to being harmed or even asks to be harmed? Can one consent to be another's slave? My view is that liberty has been found to be such a good thing that it should be maximized. But it does have limits. Sometimes those limits have to do with advancing collective, social, or political goods, like education and equality. Sometimes they involve protecting people from themselves. Why should people be protected from themselves? Because our actions towards ourselves as well as towards others are not matters of simple will disconnected from the structures of character, coercive power relationships, psychological manipulation and pathology, deceit, and plain old stupidity.

On this score, I vote for maximal sexual liberty. And so I support undermining compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory binary relationships, and fixed sexual and gender identities. I find limited sado-masochism permissible. But experience and history suggest that extremely violent relationships are likely pathological, abusive, exploitive, sexist, and deceptive. For these reasons, sado-masochistic practices that lead to serious injury (broken bones, loss of life, hospitalization, trauma) should be prohibited by law. Games of Russian roulette and "consensual" slavery are impermissible for similar reasons.

Me and a friend were arguing about this question:

Me and a friend were arguing about this question: Is sex ultimately for reproduction or pleasure? I said reproduction, but he argues that you can have sex and never have a child, which would prove sex is for pleasure and children are the aftermath of a choice when having sex (to ejaculate and fertilize the egg). Is there any way to clear this up with the logic of evolution (to evolve, one must reproduce)?

It depends what you mean by "ultimate purpose".

Sex and all that goes with it (the associated pleasures, the urges, the courtship-instincts) has clearly evolved because of its role in reproduction. It wouldn't exist if it didn't play this role. So if something's "ultimate purpose" is to serve that role the playing of which led evolutionarily to its existence, then, yes, sex is ultimately for reproduction.

This is true, I think, even though this notion of purpose is, I take it, problematic on evolutionary grounds. One complication is that a thing (a process, a feature, a characteristic) may be a mere evolutionary by-product, and so not have a purpose in this sense. Moreover, things that evolve for one reason might start to serve new purposes, and persist and spread because of this. And finally a thing's evolutionary purpose(s) (if any) might be entirely indiscernible to us. I presume, though, that none of this applies to sex. In fact, sex is probably the only thing that I (from my armchair) feel safe attributing a specific evolutionary role to. That sex exists because of its evolutionary role in reproduction isn't disproved by cases of unsuccessful copulation, or intentional non-reproductive uses by humans, bonobos and other enlightened beings.

In any case, "ultimate purpose" in this evolutionary sense doesn't have much pull on me when it comes to determining what role an activity should play in my life. Indeed, it's a special ability of ours that we can, and should, find purposes and meanings (be they secular or religious) consciously and reflectively. And in doing this we sometimes, and with some success, diverge from the instinctual urges that move us. Most people, of course, view sex as important for reproduction (though there are now other options). But many also view it as something that can be unobjectionably pursued for non-reproductive purposes--intimacy, novelty, ritual, the sheer physical pleasure... And I see no reason why these can't be justifiably viewed as the various purposes (plural) of sex. (See how easy it is to squander your chances for political office.)

So far, I've been strictly clinical in my answer. I would, though, like to riff off an interesting dimension of your question. It's not uncommon to spend years, even decades, trying not to reproduce while having sex, to only then decide to have children and find oneself in the position of having sex in order to reproduce. This change in intentions can make for interesting differences in the sexual experience itself--some of them quite wonderful and "natural"-seeming. I would tell you more, but this site is rated G.

What's the moral problem with pornography? As far as I can understand it, it

What's the moral problem with pornography? As far as I can understand it, it hinges on the concept of 'objectification', which seems to mean treating someone else as a means to your own ends rather than as an end in themselves. But if I go to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk, aren't I treating the guy behind the counter as a means to my own ends (buying a pint of milk) rather than as an end in himself? Does buying milk have the same ethical status as pornography?

But also note that there is a lot of reasonable debate about this, and there are those who defend the moral permissibility of pornography as a form of commercial exchange in which all parties who participate voluntarily benefit. Note also that communities and subcultures vary quite a bit in attitudes towards pornography. One does have to consider the facts at some point: what is the psychological effect of consuming pornography on its consumers; what is the impact of pornography on those who model or act? What is the impact on social values and the treatment of others? There is surprisingly little consensus regarding these data.

Hi, I really don't like the sex toys my girlfriend uses, I believe I can offer

Hi, I really don't like the sex toys my girlfriend uses, I believe I can offer her as much as she desires, and I like to put all those plastic sex toys in the trash can, but she objects. Once I mentioned "This area belongs to me, no trespassing whatsoever by plastic competitors!", and her response made me confused: "This area belongs to me, and I don't like to talk about it anymore." (I am not a bossy person who believes he owns his girlfriend - friends consider me a very gentle person.) So, do I have any right to a claim like that? :)

You write both: "This area belongs to me" and "I am not a bossy person who believes he owns his girlfriend." There's no contradiction if (1) you meant the first as a joke [even if a suspicious one], or if (2) one can own another's genitals yet not own the (whole) person. Kant thought not, but his sexual metaphysics are odd. We might put the problem this way, as a conflict between Roger Scruton (Sexual Desire), a sexual conservative, and Betty Dodson, the guru of female masturbation-as-liberation. Scruton thinks that any woman who plays with herself (be it digitally or mechanically) while with her man (her husband, ideally), commits an obscene display that destroys the unitive meaning of the sexual act--even if (if I read him properly) the woman's engaging in some digitalizing helps them achieve orgasm together or nearly together (unification). Scruton doesn't consider that some men might get turned on watching their companions fool around with themselves down there. Or if he would, the men, too, would be engaged in objectionable obscenity. Maybe you should develop some of this outrageously obscene depravity. (Call me Dr. Phil or Dr. Ruth.) Dodson, by contrast, applauds all forms of female masturbation. A woman must learn to love herself and her genitals (Dodson often says "cunt," which I here mention; but I won't use that word). Further, every woman has the right to sexual self-fulfillment, and may exercise that right no matter what sort of obtuse dude happens to be in her presence or in her life. There's more to be said. Why not try turning the tables? Get out one of those whack-a-jack thingies and sit there during a ball game with an erection for 3 quarters or so. Maybe she'll then better understand what you are feeling when she gets out Mr. Lovejoy from her dresser or night table. Or she won't give a darn--which possibility brings us to another thought. You are merely GF and BF. You are not married. You have made no vows to each other, let alone vows to keep each other supremely sexually happy for the rest of your lives (St. Paul's marriage debt, 1 Cor. 7:2-5). So, as Johnny Carson once said, on TV, to the Governor of Nevada, "lighten up." I think you agree; after all, you ended your question with a smiley face. If and when you and your lady decide to proceed more deeply into a relationship, sexual likes and dislikes should be discussed comprehensively. (Good advice; rarely followed. Some exceptions are, perhaps, Bertrand Russell, Albert Ellis, and Hugh Hefner--womanizers, but at least honest ones.) If your GF's acrobatics with Mr. Lovejoy annoy you that much, go find yourself a lady who appreciates exclusively you and your body parts.

What sorts of questions are considered in the philosophy of sex? Beyond

What sorts of questions are considered in the philosophy of sex? Beyond questions of sexual ethics, it seems like most of the questions I can think of are better dealt with via anthropology or psychology.

I have but five things, now, to say in reply to this question. (1) Might you post several of the questions that you can think of that are not questions of sexual ethics and seem to you to be anthropological or psychological, not philosophical? Maybe I could show how they are, after all, philosophical, or could be approached philosophically as well as anthropologically, etc. (2) Here is a philosophical task for you: please define "sexual act" for me. I do not mean describe it ("it feels sooooo good"); I mean provide what some philosophers call an "analysis." What is it about sexual acts that make them sexual and that distinguish them from other kinds of acts? This task is not as easy as you might think (and it has practical import; recall Clinton and Lewinsky). (3) Might I suggest that the philosophy of sex deals with ontological, metaphysical, conceptual, historical/textual, and normative (ethical and nonethical) matters? If so, sexual ethics might be a rather small part of the terrain. (4) For a discussion of the various branches of the philosophy of sex, see my encyclopedia entry at -- however, this essay is slightly dated. For a more complete account, write to me for a pre-print of yet another essay on the subject, which won't be pubished until early 2006. (5) Even if the philosophy of sex were exhausted by ethical questions, we would not have world enough and time to explore or answer them all.