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College SexReview - College Sex
Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits
by Michael Bruce and Robert M. Stewart (Editors)
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Review by Christian Perring
May 31st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 22)

The Wiley series Philosophy for Everyone is pitched to a general reader interested in philosophy, and so professional philosophers will find books in the series mainly of interest as possible sources of articles to introductory courses in applied philosophy.  I had reservations about another book in the series, on Porn, so I was pleased to find this College Sex title has more to recommend it.  It is split up into four sections, with some connection to experiences of being a freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.  Most of the contributors are philosophers, but some are in psychology and communications, and so some of the papers are not philosophical in a sense that most academics would recognize the term.  However, this means that the book addresses issues from a variety of directions, and the collection as a whole has a good deal of coherence.  The chapters are somewhat scholarly -- most refer to the philosophical literature, and have endnotes.  They are more casual in their arguments or more surveys of ideas than would find in a scholarly journal, but that will not worry the average reader.  More important, many of the chapters are interesting and provocative, and could be used either in an undergraduate course on sex and love, or could be used by faculty as a source of ideas about how to teach such a course. 

The four sections are on hook-up culture, friends with benefits, the ethics of college sex, and sex and self-respect.  There is considerable overlap between these, but there's enough difference in focus for the division to be helpful.  The most provocative piece for me was in the first section, examining the idea of sexual experimentation -- readers can find the article "Sex and Socratic Experimentation" by Sisi Chen and George Hole online here.  They point out that people in college will often try different sorts of sexual experiences, and that there can be troublesome consequences of these experiments that were not foreseen by the students.  Yet often students can learn valuable lessons from their experiments, and Chen and Hole argue that this can be part of a Socratic enterprise of examining one's life and discovering one's values.  Hole teaches an undergraduate course on love and sex, and he encourages students to participate in a sexual experiment and then to philosophically reflect on it.  The exact instructions that he gives to his students are, disappointingly, not completely spelled out in the paper, but one might assume that they are related to the more general instructions he gives about doing an experiment on his website, Thinking About What Matters.  There are four main steps, and the first is to think about the experiment.  He advises:

Consider changes (in behavior, attitude, action, situation, or feeling) you would like to make in your life. After reflecting on possibilities, choose one change that you would be willing to make. In regard to the item you are willing to change, briefly describe and evaluate what you are currently doing or not doing about it.

The second step is to plan the experiment, and make a prediction about what will happen, paying attention to the risks involved.  After the experiment has been performed, the third step for the subject is to evaluate how it went and what he or she learned.  The final step is to philosophize about it. 

Describe (and feel free to develop a line of inquiry for) any questions, conjectures, observations you have about the meaning of your life, experimenting with change, or self-knowledge. For one or of them free write, that is, write without censoring your thoughts or words-on-the-page.

In the book chapter, we are given a couple of examples of student experiments.  One student says she is in a cycle of unsatisfying relationships because she is scared of being alone.  She connects her problems to alcohol and resulting poor judgment, so she decides not to drink when socializing.  She found that she made stronger connections with her friends and broke out of the pattern of getting into bad romantic relationships.  The second example is of a female student who found it difficult to trust men emotionally after she had a bad break up with an abusive boyfriend.  So she made an effort to be more emotionally open with a man she was dating, and she found that she ended up in a more satisfying relationship with him. 

The skeptical obvious comment about this experimental process that many philosophers will want to make is that there's nothing distinctively philosophical in realizing that drinking is leading one to make poor choices or that not all men are the same, and even if one man is abusive, another can be trustworthy.  That's true, but Hole's experiment does invite students to then reflect philosophically on their experiment.  Whether there is rich philosophical material to be found in such experiments is unclear -- the chapter here explores the issue rather briefly.  It is, however, worth investigating further.

Many faculty members on reading about these experiments will have concerns about the danger of a faculty member getting involved in the emotional and sexual lives of his students.  The authors explain that the two cases given are "far more serious than the usual ones," but still, the students are changing their lives as a result of their philosophy course.  While Hole's experiment is not explicitly tied to a particular theory, it is reminiscent of approaches used in rational emotive therapy and existential therapy where people have to identify the reasons for their behavior and come to work out how to break out of their existing life patterns.  Academic deans and department chairs may worry about the dangers of such experiments: what would happen if they went badly, and the student suffered harm as a result?  The authors do not address this concern, but since Hole has been writing about his experiments for several years, and is able to continue them, the powers-that-be at his school are presumable aware of his teaching methods and are content for him to continue them -- indeed, he is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at Buffalo State.  So while Hole's approach is unusual for a philosophy department, it is an exciting model for connecting critical thinking to changing one's behavior.  The chapter also indicates the need for further exchange of ideas about undergraduate teaching sex and love courses, either in a book or scholarly journal, or more informally in an online blog or discussion forum. 

The other chapters in this section examine modern college sexual culture in different ways: Bassam Romaya talks about how gay students will experiment with straight sex in college, Michael Bruce discusses the way that technology has changed the process of meeting and interacting with people, Brett Lunceford discusses the meaning of the walk of shame after a one night stand, and Bill Puka examines long distance relationships.  They examine meanings, gender, morality and commitment.  The papers are thoughtful, but they are more observations of modern life than conceptual analysis or ethical argument. 

The second section, on friends with benefits, has three papers.  William Stephens discusses whether Epicureans would be in favor of casual sex with friends without romantic attachment.  He argues that they would be suspicious of the practice because of its dangers in destroying the friendships, which are more valuable than the pleasures of sex.  It's a nicely argued paper that would work well in a philosophy class.  Timothy Levine and Paul Mongeau examine the meanings of friends with benefits, and discussing its pros and cons.  Kelli Jean Smith and Kelly Morrison describe a survey they did on friends with benefits with college students and set out the results.  They find, unsurprisingly, that sex between friends can cause strong emotions and leads to problems. 

The third section has five papers.  Andrew Kania argues that sexual relationships between professors and students are no morally worse than friendships between professors and students.  He argues against Deirdre Golash's article "Power, Sex, and Friendship in Academia," where she argues that sexual relationships between professors and students are especially problematic, because of the powerful feelings that they are likely to elicit, while friendship between professors and students is worthwhile.  Kania counters that the benefits of a loving sexual relationship can be great, and that the dangers can be avoided.  It is an interesting argument, although professors may feel rather awkward in presenting it to their students in a classroom.  It is certainly true that it may not be the professor-student relationship that makes a romance between two people problematic, but rather differences in age or levels of experience.  Kania argues that colleges may do better to address the problems that sexual relationships between students and professors raise in other ways rather than simply forbidding them or regulating them.

Danielle Layne discusses the actual relationships between three well-known philosophers and their students: Socrates and Alcibiades, Abelard and Heloise, and Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.  She sets out the complexities of the different episodes, pointing out that these were not simple cases of exploitation by a powerful person of a more vulnerable one.  It's a paper with some interesting information, but no clearly developed thesis.  Ashley McDowell develops the idea that epistemology can help people in their love life.  Her basic claim is that good epistemologists are more rational and so will be better able to achieve their goals.  This makes sense, although it does not seem a surprising claim that people can be more consistent and thoughtful.  It is more controversial whether studying epistemology as a scholarly discipline makes people more rational.  Guy Pinku discusses the relation between sex and love, showing that the claims that sex must involve loving attitudes and that sex can be easily separated from love are not so simple, and the truth may be more complicated when one considered interpersonal attitudes.  Matthew Brophy contributes a paper with a series of examples from modern culture of the ways that students sell themselves in sexual ways in order to pay for their college education.  He sees this as a problem resulting from the rising costs of higher education.

The final section has four papers all addressing basically the same issues.  Robert M. Stewart gives a rather general discussion of the meaning of sex and how sexual activity can be related to higher values.  John Draeger explores similar themes related to the difficulty for young women appearing in videos like Girls Gone Wild to retain their self-respect, and the value of having a thoughtful sexuality.  Yolanda Estes discusses the importance of mutual respect in sexual relations, and she explores some of the threats to mutual respect that come from objectification and sadomasochism.  Antti Kuusela finishes the book with a discussion of Sartrean approaches to sexuality, exploring ideas such as authenticity, the Look, and bad faith.  All these papers are done well, and they provide some different ways to explore important ideas in the philosophy of sexuality.  One could use any of them in a college course on the philosophy of sex and love, but one would probably not want to use more than one or two of them in any single term. 

Overall then, College Sex is a valuable collection.  Most readers will want to skip and dip around the essays, looking for those that are most helpful to them.  Many of the essays are not traditional philosophical approaches, but the use of communications and psychology scholarship in the book fits well with the philosophical discussion.  Furthermore, the level of the writing is pitched well for lower level undergraduate courses in the philosophy of sex love: I plan to use some of the chapters here for my future courses


© 2011 Christian Perring        


Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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