What Philosophy Can Tell Us About Sex and the Human Condition

Dr Damon Young is an associate in Philosophy, and the author of several acclaimed nonfiction books, including Philosophy in the Garden (MUP 2012) and The Art of Reading (MUP 2016). His most recent book is On Getting Off: Sex and Philosophy (Scribe 2020) which looks more closely at this most intimate (but often disparaged) part of the human condition. We spoke with Damon about this book, and about the art of the public philosopher.

Could you tell us about the genesis of this project and how you came to write it?

Writing On Getting Off, I was chiefly pushed along by curiosity and suspicion.

As a philosopher, I’m especially curious about everyday habits; routines we keep up daily, but which we might overlook or even misunderstand. I’ve written about gardens, exercise, martial arts, distraction – all of which can be explored for their distinctive ideas and values. Sex is similarly common, but more elusive. It’s often practiced privately, and – even in our more progressive cultures – seen as a topic to be avoided in polite conversation. But I was very curious about what exactly it is, and how we value it. Sex is obvious a primal urge, but we’re not just bundles of reflexes and bags of hormones. What else is going on?

I was also suspicious because philosophy, at least in the Western European tradition, has often been opposed to sex: trivialising or vilifying it, or just ignoring it altogether. From Plato to Schopenhauer, sex has been cast as a demonic urge, undermining our attempts to be rational and good. Aside from the very occasional celebration – with the French philosophes, for example – it’s all very pearl-clutching until we get to Friedrich Nietzsche. I wanted to explore sex more fully, without this atmosphere of gloom or horror.

What are some of the central questions addressed in this book?

There are many questions explored in this book. Here are two big issues.

Why is sex so damned funny? I discuss how the root of comedy is often some incongruity, and sex provides this amply. With sex, we’re often dealing with tensions or conflict between seemingly opposite notions: inside and outside, freedom and necessity, self and other, pain and pleasure, mine and yours. When safe, these contradictions are hilarious; when unsafe, they’re terrifying or disgusting. So the bedroom can have very sudden changes of tone: from arousing seriousness, to abject disgust, to mocking hilarity. I talk about when we ought to laugh this off — and when laughing is cruel.

How can we give someone pleasure, when we can’t know this pleasure ourselves? It’s obvious that different people enjoy very, very different pleasures. The sexual techniques that might make me groan with joy, might make you cringe or feel unsafe. And the same techniques can feel differently to the same person, at different stages of life – or even at different parts of the day. In short, even if you and I have exactly the same stimulation, we might not feel it as pleasure. And this works for same sex couples as much as for straight couples. I discuss how to understand pleasure, and why we’re able to give it without knowing it.

In the book, you describe sex as ‘an invitation to philosophy’. Could you elaborate on this?

Philosophy often arises from tensions between our ideas. Our neat categories suddenly seem clumsy, and our confidence misplaced. We have to look more carefully about what these ideas are, and how they hang together. Sex is constantly offering up circumstances like these.

For example, one of the big themes in pornography is necessity: the idea that sex must happen, and that everyone involves cannot help surrendering to their primal passion. It’s often not convincing, but it doesn’t need to be: the audience is very willing to suspend their belief. Yet this vision of necessity wouldn’t be arousing – at least, not to most of us – if everyone involved were merely mindless bundles of nerves and goo, pulsing and squirting. It’s only because we are relatively free beings that our giving in to urges is sexy. Put simply: consent is often what makes sex sexy. In this tension between freedom and necessity is the beginning of a philosophical discussion.

Are there any general views or frameworks in philosophy that you draw on in the book, for example about ethics, personal relationships or human flourishing?

On Getting Off draws on a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and biology, to fiction and poetry. I’ve found the novels of authors like Jordy Rosenberg, Zadie Smith or Deborah Levy as helpful as Plato or Merleau-Ponty. Literature offers experiences of richness, subtlety and vivacity. Novelists and poets have also often been more willing to explore these matters than scholars; more attentive to the details, or simply more brave.

I did find the work of philosopher Irving Singer especially helpful. Singer divides sexual experience into three categories: libido, eros, and romance. The first is our reproductive instincts, the second our aesthetic attractions, the third our recognition of other selves. Sex can involve one or all of these at once; it can change between these in a life or a day. Singer’s categories are clear but flexible, and unburdened by earlier philosophical hang-ups.

What key thinkers or texts would you recommend as starting points when it comes to philosophical writing about sex and intimacy?

The dialogues of Plato are an excellent start for philosophy in general, and sexuality in particular. Plato was a gifted author as well as a talented thinker, and his works are emotionally rich: they provide a view of Athenian life alongside the abstract ideas of goodness, beauty or justice. For a sense of philosophy and theology’s enduring concerns about sex, Plato is an excellent guide. He had the typical Greek willingness to discuss these things without fear, but a somewhat alien fear of lust and physical intimacy. In this, he was very philosophical.

For a more modern (and often liberated) philosophical discussion of sex, I’d turn to Soble and Power’s collection The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings, published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Could you talk a bit about writing philosophy for a popular audience? What opportunities and what challenges does it pose for the academically trained philosopher?

In the humanities at least, it’s very difficult to share a discipline’s achievements without reaching a general audience. A scientist or engineer might help to create a widget of sorts, but we have no widgets. Our ideas only reach the public when they can think these for themselves. This either happens directly – by writing nonfiction or fiction – or indirectly, as other scholars or students popularise our ideas. I don’t believe every academic has a responsibility to write for the general public, as some work best as specialist researchers or lecturers. And their precise and systematic work is vital. But those of us who can write for a general audience, and who – shock and horror – actually enjoy it, should do so.

The challenge is understanding what, in our work, will appeal to a general audience, and then having the skills to convey this well. Often, what thrills the specialist is incomprehensible to the layperson. And jargon can be intimidating, obscuring, or just dull. Often, we have to relearn how to write; how to explain ourselves with clarity, emotional depth, and wit.

On Getting Off is my thirteenth book, and fifth book of nonfiction, and I keep finding new challenges. How to express this problem? What tone or metaphor works? I can’t say I always succeed, but it’s thrilling to see my intellectual interests taken up by strangers all over the world.

Damon Young (@damonayoung) received a BA (Hons) in philosophy and literature and then a PhD in philosophy at Swinburne University, under Dr Arran Gare. He then took up a Research Fellowship at the University of Melbourne.

The Times Literary Supplement described Damon’s “well-developed inner critic”, while the Literary Review praised his “delightful combination of humour and insight”.The Telegraph called him “bumptious”. Damon has also published poetry and short fiction, and is a regular radio guest and newspaper columnist. Damon once played a Mafia thug in a Jackie Chan film.