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The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary ReadingsReview - The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings
Sixth Edition
by Nicholas Power, Raja Halwani, and Alan Soble (Editors)
Rowman & Littlefield, 2012
Review by Christian Perring
May 14th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 20)

The sixth edition of The Philosophy of Sex marks a significant change in the approach to this long-running textbook.  The readings always change a good deal from edition to edition, and this means that it is not just change for changes' sake (and for publisher profits).  These changes are well motived.  The book is a bit bigger, with 618 pages compared to the 550 in the previous one.  Not only does this edition include several worthwhile articles not previous in the older editions, but many of them were specially written for this collection, although sometimes they are just updated versions of essays that appeared elsewhere, rather than completely new papers.  The preface says that it has 13 new essays, and there is more emphasis on LGBT issues and some deeper Kantian approaches to objectification and rape. 

I have been following this collection through many of its incarnations, and I have taught undergraduate courses in the philosophy of sex using both the 5th and now 6th edition.  The new edition contains the old standards: Thomas Nagel on Perversion, Janie Moulton's reply, Alan Goldman's bizarre effort to define sex as the fulfillment of desires for bodily contact with another person for pleasure, the well-known articles by Thomas Mappes, Howard Klepper, Robin West, Alan Wertheimer and David Benatar on the nature of sexual consent and sexual use.  There's still Martha Nussbaum's classic article arguing for the legalization of prostitution.  Some might regret that the editors don't include any work by Robert Solomon setting out his communicative view of sex, since many authors in the book still make reference to that view.  One might question whether it is still valuable to include Nagel's historically important article.  Although the view he sets out is intuitively implausible, there is not much in the way of a justification of the idea in the paper, and the paper is full of digressions which are just confusing for students, and his hesitation over whether homosexual sex should count as perverted or not is based on old-fashioned ideas of gender roles in same-sex relationships.  Maybe it is time for someone to write a new defense of Nagel's view that is more useful and less confusing for lay readers.  Students do invariably warm to Greta Cristina's Are We Having Sex Now or What? But since it is available on the Internet as a blog post, it's not so clear it is worth including in the book, especially since it is more a piece to provoke question than one that argues for a particular definition of sex.  I have found more philosophical pieces to work well in the debate over perversion, specifically Graham Priest's skeptical article "Sexual Perversion," and  Kristie Miller "On the Concept of Sexual Perversion" and I will use those to supplement the discussion when teaching the course.  These and many other articles are listed in the Bibliography at the end of the book, so the editors' are certainly aware of the literature.  The selection they provided is definitely a good one.

Maybe the editorial decision that stands out as particularly taking a stand is around pornography.  They include just two articles, one by Joan Mason-Grant defending a view close to that of Andrea Dworkin on how to understand the harms of porn, and a rebuttal specially written by Nicholas Power.  The book pays only minor attention to the growing analysis or pornography provided by Rae Langton and the responses to her work.  The book also ignores the growing area know by the eyebrow-raising phrase "Porn Studies" and that makes sense since it is focused on philosophical articles, but it can help the discussion in a class to steer the discussion the nature of pornography as it actually is rather than a theoretical or dated conception of porn.  So again, this is a part of the book that can be supplemented in a variety of ways.

The new section on Queer Issues is definitely the most vibrant one in the book, with some very helpful articles.  The debate on same-sex marriage is very timely, and the articles work well enough.  One wonders whether the best representative of a defender of the so-called "traditional" view of marriage is Stanley Kurtz; he argument that allowing gay marriage will open the doors to polygamy seems both politically unrealistic and to beg the question of what is important about marriage, if anything.  Students seem wedded to the idea of marriage as involving 2 people, but they have a hard time articulating a clear defense of that idea.  Cheshire Calhoun does a much better job at describing conservative view, which she then shows to be flawed.  It would be good to have a more sophisticated defense of the conservative view from someone who really believes it.  Claudia Card's very limited defense of same-sex marriage (premised by the conviction that marriage as a social  and legal institution is evil) is certainly provocative, even if it fails to convince most readers.  Kayley Vernallis' advocacy of the possibility of multiple marriages for bisexuals is similarly interesting without garnering much support.  The standout piece in this section was for me William Wilkerson's discussion of sexual orientation; it argues for an important view, and moves the debate towards the politically difficult question of how to address sexual preference when it is as much of a choice rather than a genetically or psychologically fixed inclination.  It is also good that the section contains two strong articles on transgender issues.

It's not surprising that students tend to prefer the less academic pieces in this collection: Susan Brison's "Surviving Sexual Violence," which is more memoir than philosophy, is an important and helpful work that enriches the collection.  John Portmann's more popularly aimed defense of sex chatting in chat rooms is provocative and helps to generate discussion.  Then there are the pieces that are academic but really generate controversy, such as H.E. Baber's "How Bad is Rape?" -- II" where she argues that the harm of pink collar jobs is generally worse than that of rape in the long term.  It is tricky to strike a good balance between provocation and depth, especially when as a teacher of a course, one knows that it is likely that several  students in a class will have experienced rape.  This collection takes risks and most people who are familiar with the literature would have made some different editorial decisions.  It is good that several of the articles included are recent and will challenge undergraduate students, although they can be a challenge to teach when they start to refer to technical areas of philosophy that require a good deal of background explanation. 

This sixth edition of The Philosophy of Sex is a welcome change and is certainly the obvious choice for use in undergraduate courses on the topic.  It will also be interesting to other readers with some background in philosophy, who are intrigued by what philosophers have to say about sex, although it may be a difficult collection to get a lot out of without the guidance of a teacher.  The philosophy of sex is obviously one of the main growth areas in philosophy in terms of popularity, and this collection continues to show that it is also an area in which thoughtful and challenging philosophy is being done. 


© 2013 Christian Perring        


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


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