Roger Scruton on Sex: What in any of this requires heterosexuality?

I just finished Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy (1996). I’d planned on summarizing and responding to each chapter in order. But I gotta jump to his chapter on sex.

Glenn Branch, an reviewer, says that Scruton claims “a uniquely privileged moral status for heterosexual monogamy.” Thing is, in this chapter at least, Scruton can’t even really be said to claim any such thing. He does say he argues it in another book. And maybe he argues it well there. But I can’t help but feel that here he’s blind to the obvious – that his arguments in this chapter really support the inherent equality of homo- as well as hetero- sexual arousal. His arguments work for subjects, for humans. Nothing he says requires any distinction between male and female.

First, he describes right sexual desire as the mutual desire of two persons, two subjects (versus objects) — the whole person is desired (not just sexual organs). “Perversion and obscenity involve the eclipse of the subject, as the body and its mechanisms are placed in frontal view” (129-130). There’s a mutual discovery, mutual awareness, a mutual recognition of each other – as whole persons.

Second, the subject, the person is not only revealed through conscious or voluntary actions, but equally by reactions which cannot be willed at all – e.g., blushing, unguarded glances, and smiles. “[I]t is precisely my loss of control over my body, and its gain of control over me, that create the immediate experience of an incarnate person” (131).

Scruton wants to emphasize (again and again) that science simply cannot explain much of human experience and perception. That’s why he emphasizes the intentionality of human-human arousal (i.e., the focus on one person when aroused on one other fully-free embodied subject, fully-free person), something science has no way of explaining. Sexual desire is not our desire for an object (though it can be, and that’s when it’s perversion), but for another conscious and independent other.

Third, the interpersonal nature of sexual desire means that the choice to risk involvement with another person is just that – a risk: “the self is, or may be, in danger.” That’s one of the reasons, according to Scruton, that “the sexual act is surrounded by prohibitions.” He goes on to say that if we correctly understand sexual desire as being “such a compromising force,” 1) there’s no way we could argue for a “morality of pure permission” (whatever exactly that means) and 2) “as I argue in Sexual Desire, the traditional morality, in which monogamous heterosexual union, enshrined in a vow rather than a contract, is the norm, shows far more sensitivity to what is at stake than any of the known alternatives” (134).

If I had to guess what he means by vow versus contract, I’d say it’s something to do with the traditional (i.e., female-male) vows being couched in a sacred history and thus being a more powerful bond. But the weight of sacred history could be made to bear just as easily on female-female or male-male vows as female-male vows (it’s all human-human vows, after all).

Fourth, “Sexual desire does not forbid desire: it simply ensures the status of desire as an interpersonal feeling…. Sexual virtue sustains the subject of desire, making him present as a self in the very act which overcomes him” (137). Here Scruton is emphasizing again that right desire is desire for another free person. And even fantasizing is, in the end, a desiring of an object, precisely because the other person is in essence enslaved, within the fantasy, to one’s desires, to one’s control. The mutuality is gone.

But again, by arguing against any and all objectivizing in sexual desire, doesn’t Scruton end up arguing for – or, at the very least, opening up the way for – the desire of man for man being just as virtuous as the desire of woman for man? These points are foundational to his ethics of sex. And they really do make a lot of solid sense. I mean, how could any one argue against anything he says here, especially about right sexual desire being that which is between persons as subjects and never human bodies as objects?

And, if so, what in any of this requires any distinction between female and male?? It all works perfectly with human and human.


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