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Thinking with Sex

Lecturer: Peter Banki

Originally Taught: Summer School 2016

Sex has never constituted one of the great philosophical questions or themes. And yet, it is undoubtedly one of the strongest forces in many of our lives. In this course, we will look at what some of the great philosophers have said about sexuality and love and how they have sought to distinguish the two. We will also consider why sex has so often been linked to animality, immorality and evil and whether these evaluations are justified. As practices that affirm the right to question social norms and the apparent givens of experience, philosophy and sex may have more in common than one might think.

Course Outline

1. Classical philosophical approaches that may be termed "sex negative" (Plato, Augustine, Kant): Such approaches argue that sex should be restricted to procreation and not pursued for its own sake or for that of pleasure. Through these approaches, we will consider the relation of sexuality to questions of self-mastery, moderation, freedom and happiness. How do these classical approaches inform thinking about the human in its relation to animality, as well as contemporary debates about prostitution and pornography.

2. Philosophical approaches that are not "sex negative" (Nietzsche, Freud, Bataille, Schlegel, de Sade): Beginning with Nietzsche's transvaluation of values, we will look at the work of modern philosophers, including Freud, who have given more space to sexuality in their thought and what the consequences of this are both for their philosophical practice and their understanding of ethics. We will also evaluate some negative responses on the part of the tradition to these different approaches.

3. Foucault's History of Sexuality, Part 1: This is a landmark work, which denounces the so-called "repressive hypothesis": the idea that western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century. During this period, Foucault argues, discourse on sexuality proliferated enormously and people's identities became increasingly tied to their sexuality. In this session, we will read and evaluate the central theses of Foucault's text.

4. Debates about Sexuality and Gender in Feminist Theory: Since the 70's feminist scholars have debated (sometimes acrimoniously) issues related to sexuality, gender, pornography, erotic representation, prostitution, sadomasochism, trans-women, and so on. In this session, we will explore these debates and how they relate to the history of philosophical responses to sexuality.

5. Lacan's thesis "Il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel". Lacan explicitly plays on the double meaning in French of the word rapport, so the sentence can be translated as both "there is no sexual relation" and "there is no sexual rapport." Lacan does not wish to suggest that sex does not happen, but that it does not happen in the way that we normally think. By referring to the interpretations of Jean-Luc Nancy and Avital Ronell, the session will attempt to show how a careful reading of Lacan's thesis can be used to critique much of the literature in the growing fields of adult sex education and porn studies. The paper will also examine the consequences of Lacan's thesis for any inquiry into the "relation" between philosophy and sex.

Planned Learning outcomes

By the end of this course you should be able to:

  1. Evaluate claims made for and against sex as an activity pursued for its own sake or for the sake of pleasure only;
  2. Explain how the concepts of sex and love have been related and distinguished both in ancient and modern philosophy;
  3. Explain the basis on which philosophy has linked sex to animality and immorality and how these linkages have informed contemporary debates about pornography and prostitution.
  4. Discuss what philosophy and sex as questioning practices may have in common, but also how they may be incompatible with one another;
  5. Evaluate claims made for the politically radical nature of certain sexual practices and the socially normative character of others;

Suggested Reading

  • Anne Dufourmantelle, Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy Catherine Porter (trans.) University of Illinois Press, 2007.
  • Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality, An Introduction, Volume 1 Robert Hurley (trans.) Pantheon Books, 1978
  • Georges Bataille "Madame Edwarda" in My Mother/Madame Edwarda/The Dead Man Marion Boyars, 2000.
  • Selections from: Plato The Symposium; Kant, I, Lectures on Ethics, Saint Augustine The Confessions, Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil
  • Elizabeth Grosz, Elspeth Probyn Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism Routledge 1995.
  • Judith Butler Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Luce Irigaray "The Fecundity of the Caress: A Reading of Levinas Totality and Infinity, 'Phenomenology of Eros'" in An Ethics of Sexual Difference New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc Corpus II: Writings on Sexuality New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.