email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
269 Amazing Sex GamesA History of MarriageA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyActionAll the WayAmerica UnzippedAmerica UnzippedAmerica's Sexual TransformationAmerican EugenicsAmerican GirlsAmerican HookupAn Interpretation of DesireAnarchism & SexualityAnatomy of a BoyfriendAnatomy of LoveAnthony GoicoleaAnticlimaxArt and HomosexualityArt/PornAssuming a BodyAutoportraitBachelors and BunniesBecoming OrgasmicBehind the Red DoorBest Sex Writing 2005Better Sex Through YogaBetter Sex Through YogaBetter Than EverBetween Mom and JoBeyond Diversity DayBeyond SexualityBeyond SpeechBeyond ToleranceBig Porn IncBill HensonBodies in DoubtBody ImagesBonkBoys Don't CryBreasts - A DocumentaryBrothelBuying SexCase Studies in Communication about SexCase Studies in Sexual DevianceCaught in the WebCelibaciesChildren and SexualityChildren and the Politics of SexualityChildren with Sexual Behavior ProblemsChildren, Sexuality and SexualizationChristy ReportClay's WayClinical Manual of Women's Mental HealthClose toYouClumsyCold HitCollege SexComing of Age in AmericaConfessions of the Other MotherCybersexCyborgasmDare... to Make Love with 2, 3, 4... or MoreDare... to Try BisexualityDating: Philosophy for EveryoneDeadly ButterflyDebating Same-Sex MarriageDeep GossipDeparting from DevianceDesire, Love, and IdentityDigital DiariesDilemmas of DesireDirty MindsDirty StoriesDisorders Of DesireDisorders of Sex Development:Doing ItDoing ItDoing It Down UnderDown and Dirty Sex SecretsDude, You're a FagEarly Embraces IIIEmerald City BluesEmotionally InvolvedEnjoying Guilty PleasuresErotic CapitalErotic InnocenceErotic PassionsEthics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about ChildrenEveryday PornographyEvolution and Human Sexual BehaviorExploring TranssexualismFade to BlackFagbugFaking ItFamilies Like MineFast GirlsFinal JeopardyFinding H. F.Fire on the Mountain DVDFor Lesbian ParentsFor The Bible Tells Me SoForbiddenFrictionFrom Disgust to HumanityFrom Shame to SinFuckologyGay, Straight, and the Reason WhyGender in the MirrorGender OutlawsGeography ClubGetting OffGetting RealGetting the Love You WantGirls & SexGirls Gone MildGirls Gone SkankGLBTQGoddess WorshipGoing DownGood GirlsGood PornGood Sex IllustratedGreat Answers to Difficult Questions About SexGuide To Getting It OnHandbook New Sexuality StudiesHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHard to GetHardcore from the HeartHear Us Out!HeterosyncraciesHit & MissHomosexualitiesHookedHooking UpHow Sex Became a Civil LibertyHow Sex ChangedHow Sex WorksHow To Be GayHow to Do Things with Pornography How to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Have Magnificent SexHow to Make Great Love to a ManHow to Make Great Love to a WomanHow to Make Love Like a Porn StarHow to Think More About SexHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenHysterical MenI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'll Be Your MirrorIf Men Could TalkImpotenceIn a Queer VoiceIn Praise of the WhipIn the Mood, AgainInsatiable WivesIntense Games DVDInvestigating Young People's Sexual CulturesIt's Perfectly NormalIt's Perfectly NormalItís Your HourJane Sexes It UpJock SturgesJust Between UsKama-Sutra--The Secrets to the Art of LoveKids Gone WildLegalizing ProstitutionLegalizing ProstitutionLet's Get This StraightLets Talk about SexLetters to Penthouse Vol. 50Likely to DieLittle ChicagoLoose GirlLosing Matt ShepardLoveLove and DesireLove and SexLove JunkieLove Lust DesireLove SickLustMad for FoucaultMagical ThinkingMaking American BoysMaking Babies the Hard WayMaking Chastity SexyMaking Peace with PornMaking ScenesMale SexualityMalefemaleMaster BreastsMating in CaptivityMedicalized MasculinitiesMelancholia and MoralismMenMental Health Issues in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Communities MiddlesexMoney ShotMoral Panics, Sex PanicsMy Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me UpMy HeartbeatMy Horizontal LifeName All the AnimalsNatural BeautyNerveNerveNew Sex Now DVDNightswimmingNone of the AboveNormalNormalNot GayNot My ShameNot The Marrying KindNot Under My RoofNothing PinkOedipus WreckedOn Being RapedOne Hot SecondOne Hour in ParisOpenOrgasmOrgasm Inc.OrgasmologyOrgasmsOver 100 Truly Astonishing Sex TipsOverexposedPeekPeriod PiecesPervPhilosophizing About Sex Philosophy of Love, Sex, and MarriagePin-up GrrrlsPINSPlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPolicing SexualityPolyamory in the 21st CenturyPornPorn NationPorn StudiesPorn UniversityPornifiedPornlandPornographyPornographyPornography, Sex, and FeminismPosition Of The Day PlaybookPray the Gay AwayPredatorsPremarital Sex in AmericaPrinciples and Practice of Sex TherapyPrivate Dicks - Men ExposedPrivate Practices DVDProblem GirlsPrudePsychopathia SexualisQueer PhilosophyRapeRape Is RapeRated X - A Journey Through PornRazmatazRecruiting Young LoveRedefining GirlyRedefining RapeRegulating SexRelax, It's Just SexRethinking Gender and Sexuality in ChildhoodRethinking RapeRunning with ScissorsSatan's Sex BookScreening SexSelling Sex ShortSexSex & Single GirlsSex (Ed)Sex and SpiritSex and the American TeenagerSex and the SoulSex and the Soul, Updated EditionSex and WarSex at DawnSex by NumbersSex DetoxSex Fiends, Perverts, and PedophilesSex in CrisisSex ObjectSex OffendersSex on the BrainSex PositionsSex Q & ASex, Family, and the Culture WarsSex, or the UnbearableSex, Therapy, and KidsSex, Time and PowerSextasySexting and Young PeopleSexual ArtSexual Boundary ViolationsSexual DevianceSexual DisordersSexual EcstasySexual EthicsSexual FluiditySexual IntelligenceSexual Orientation and Psychodynamic PsychotherapySexual Orientation and School PolicySexual PleasureSexual PredatorsSexual Teens, Sexual MediaSexuality in AdolescenceSexuationSexyBookShameShamelessShy GirlSlutWalkSmall FavorsSmutSocial Control of Sex OffendersSome Assembly RequiredSplit ScreenStir-FryStraight to JesusStrange BedfellowsStripped BareSurviving Sexual ViolenceSymptoms of Being HumanTalkTalk to Me FirstTechniques of PleasureTestosterone RexThe Anthropology of SexThe BabiesThe Better Sex Guide to the Kama SutraThe Big Book of PornThe Birth of the PillThe Blue Moon Erotic Reader IIIThe BodyThe Breast BookThe Breath of Tantric LoveThe Busy Couple's Guide to Great SexThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Chemistry Between UsThe Clitoral TruthThe Education of SophieThe Emergence of SexualityThe End Of AliceThe End of SexThe Erotic EdgeThe Erotic Lives of WomenThe Essential KamasutraThe Evolution of BeautyThe Fate of GenderThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Gay Baby BoomThe Good Vibrations Guide to SexThe Happy Hook-UpThe Hite ReportThe Humble Little CondomThe Illustrated Guide to Extended Massive OrgasmThe Illustrated Story of OThe Love CureThe Madness of WomenThe Men They Will BecomeThe Mirror of LoveThe Miseducation of Cameron PostThe Moral Panics of SexualityThe Naked Truth About SexThe Nature of Sexual DesireThe New Erotic PhotographyThe New Gay TeenagerThe Notebook GirlsThe Only Girl in the CarThe Order of the Poison OakThe Origins of SexThe Other HollywoodThe Other PlaceThe Other Side of DesireThe Perils of MasculinityThe Perversion of YouthThe PervertThe Philosophy of PornographyThe Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary ReadingsThe Pleasure's All MineThe Politics Of LustThe Porn TrapThe Pornographer's GriefThe Pornography IndustryThe Praeger Handbook of TranssexualityThe Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender RoleThe Purity MythThe Real Truth About Teens and SexThe Right to Be ParentsThe Secret Lives of GirlsThe Sex Addiction WorkbookThe Sex Lives of TeenagersThe Sex MythThe Shared HeartThe Sleep of ReasonThe Smart Girl's Guide to PornThe State of AffairsThe Story of SexThe SurrenderThe Ten Minute Sexual SolutionThe Tenth CircleThe Transformations of GwenThe Transformations of GwenThe Trauma MythThe Ultimate Guide to Sex and DisabilityThe Vagina MonologuesThe ValleyThe Violence of CareThe Virgin BlueThe Virginity ClubThings Tom LikesThinking KinkThinking XXXToo Hot to HandleTransTransTransgender Children and YouthUltimate JudgementUltimate SexUndoing GenderUnlikelyUntangling the WebVirginVirgin NationVirgin Sex for GirlsVirgin Sex for GuysVirginity LostWhat Does Consent Really Mean?What Women WantWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for BoysWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for GirlsWhat's Happening to Tom?What's Wrong with Homosexuality?When Jeff Comes HomeWhen Sex Goes to SchoolWhen the Piano StopsWhere Do We Fall When We Fall in Love?Who Has What?Who's Been Sleeping in Your HeadWilhelm ReichWired for IntimacyWomen and Child Sexual AbuseWomen and MadnessWritten in the FleshYou Know Me WellZen Sex
Unlike psychology, where sexual desire has long had a central place, philosophy has paid it much less attention. Thus, James Giles' The Nature of Sexual Desire is a welcome and needed addition to the relatively scant philosophical literature on the subject. The broader and multidisciplinary field of sexology has suggested two divergent lines regarding the basis of our sexual desire. On the one hand are the biological essentialists, such as sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, who maintain that the origin of our sexual desires lies in our genes and is directed to reproduction. According to this view, human sexual desire is universal, and while there may be changes over time and place regarding what particular things give rise to particular preferences or behaviors, sexual desire itself exists independently of time and culture. Social constructionists deny these claims and insist instead that human sexual desire is entirely the product of what we make of it. In its most radical form, social constructionists maintain not only that such things as societal perceptions of homosexuality, monogamy, and fetishes are constructed, but also that sexual desire itself is radically amorphous and open to any inscription, independently of any physiological function.
Giles rejects both of these accounts opting instead for a phenomenological approach that seeks to explain "sexual desire [as] ... an existential need that has its roots in specific experiential features of the human condition" (180). The particular features of human existence that make us special are, as Kant put it, that we belong to both a phenomenal, material world where determinism is true, and a noumenal one where we have the capacity to choose for ourselves. This "disequilibrium," as Giles calls it, is our self awareness that we are not only biological organisms. Yet, since we still have needs that are an "inherent and universal feature of the human condition," (181) they are not the product of social construction. They are, rather, "existential needs."
More particularly, Giles maintains that "[s]exual desire is a need based ... on ... an awareness ... of having a gender, which implies a sense of incompleteness that calls out to be fulfilled by the gender of another person." Reason acts upon this "self awareness (together with the awareness of others)" to make "me see this as a problem that needs to be resolved, and imagination enables me to picture or fantasize ways -- namely, baring and caressing of the desired gender -- of trying to solve it." Sexual desire, then, "is the need to deal with this problem" (181-182).
An essential part of sexual desire, according to Giles, is that it involves a component of mutuality; i.e., "the desire for mutual baring and caressing between oneself and at least one other person (real, fantasized, or symbolized) (93; his emphasis). This opening of oneself to others is actually a display of our vulnerability, and is a signal to them, as it were, that we want to be cared for; indeed, that we need to be cared for (see, e.g., 87). As such, sexual desire has much in common with romantic love, which Giles addresses in the penultimate chapter of his book. The difference between the two resides in the level of mutuality. In romantic love, not only do I have a certain desire "toward the other person concerning our mutual vulnerability and care," ... I also "desire that the other person have similar desires toward me, that is that I have desires concerning the other person's desires" (174). Giles maintains that in sexual desire, "the schema is not so complex. For although I have certain desires directed toward a mutual baring and caressing of the other person's body, I need not also desire that the other person has desires for a mutual baring and caressing directed toward me" (174).
Giles' thesis is reminiscent of a number of earlier accounts of sexual desire and romantic love -- for example, of Thomas Nagel's claims in his influential 1969 article, "Sexual Perversion," which argued that the difference between perverse and non-perverse sexual desire lay in whether the desire was mutual, or of Aristophanes' account of romantic love in Plato's Symposium, that love is a search for wholeness or completeness that can be attained only by finding our 'other half'. Yet, it is an original, intriguing and, I suspect, fecund account. Moreover, Giles does a masterful job of weaving together material from psychological, biological, and religious sources as well as philosophical ones. The following remarks ought to be taken, then, not as criticisms per se but rather as a dialogical response to some fascinating material and ideas.
Giles reaches his conclusions through a phenomenological methodology, which, he claims, allows us to uncover "the nature of reality by an examination of ideas or how things present themselves to us. By turning to this presentation --- "to the things themselves," as Husserl puts it -- we free ourselves from anticipatory ideas and other prejudices that obscure our perception of reality" (7). Many object that this is an impossible task since we cannot free ourselves from the context of our lives. As a result, though phenomenological inquiry presents itself as neutral, it is actually, critics claim, susceptible to the personal biases of the investigator. As such, the approach can lead us not to some sort of objective reality but to a reality as it 'presents itself' to a particular individual. Giles is not alone in having to deal with this issue. Despite claims to objectivity, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists have been notoriously sympathetic to a right wing political agenda, while social constructionists have, alternatively, promoted a left wing agenda about sex.
That others have the same problem doesn't resolve the issue, however, and so Giles needs to demonstrate that his account is not simply the result of personal bias. And, on the face of it at least, Giles' account seems best to fit heterosexual and 'typical' sexual desire as opposed to homosexual or paraphilic, atypical ones. This stems from his claim that sexual desire starts with awareness of our gender, and indeed of "an awareness of the incompleteness of my gender. That is, my gender presents itself as only half of an interlocking twoness" (123). It is easy to see how this description fits male-female interactions well: my incompleteness as a male is overcome by sexual intercourse with a female. But how is a female completed by another female or a male by a male, not to mention more complicated cases like bisexuality and intersexuality? To his credit, Giles attempts to answer these questions in Chapter 4 where he explores the notion of gender in detail. To be very brief, Giles maintains that for homosexuals the difference between you and your sexual partner is a felt or perceived shortage of your own gender. "The homosexual is someone who intensely admires the attributes of same-gender persons. The homosexual does this because he feels himself to be lacking in these attributes" (128). In this way, then, hetero- and homosexual desire is the same experientially, Giles maintains, because it is based of a felt shortage that can only be completed in another.
Consider voyeurism as just one example of the paraphilias, which Giles examines in Ch. 3. He admits that the voyeur appears only to be interested in watching another expose him or herself and that the object of the voyeur's gaze isn't even aware of being viewed, let alone doing so for the voyeur's pleasure. And yet, he argues, because the voyeur typically masturbates while or shortly after spying, he "is nevertheless baring and caressing himself [and in so doing] ... he is both bestowing and receiving caresses" (87). Moreover, the "part of the sexual interaction that is lacking in the voyeur's activity -- that is, mutual baring and caressing -- can then be fantasized to take place" (88). Surely Giles is right in saying that this can or that it could happen in this manner: whether all cases of voyeurism, or masturbation for that matter, must occur in this manner is doubtful, however, and Giles owes us an argument why his account covers paraphilic desire in general.
Though one might now always agree with him, Giles covers a wealth of material and presents detailed, articulate arguments in support of his views. The Nature of Sexual Desire is well worth the read.
© 2009 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Cape Breton University, Sydney, NS, Canada