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Philosophizing About Sex Review - Philosophizing About Sex
by Laurie J. Shrage and Robert Scott Stewart
Broadview Press, 2015
Review by Shaun Miller
Aug 25th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 35)

When it comes to introductory books about the philosophy of sex, there is not much of a selection.  There are a few that make the cut such as Alan Soble's Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Introduction in its second edition and Raja Halwani's Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage: An Introduction.  And then there are anthologies such as the thickThe Philosophy of Sex in its sixth edition which was edited by Alan Soble, Raja Halwani, and Nicholas Power, as well as Philosophy and Sex in its fourth edition which was edited by Robert B. Baker and Kathleen J. Wininger and Talk About Sex edited by Robert Scott Stewart.  The anthologies can be a bit much for students who are introduced to philosophy, let alone the philosophy of sex, which leaves Halwani's or Soble's text as the next available options.  The difference between those two and this new book by Shrage and Stewart is that the latter focuses primarily on sex whereas the former looks at marriage as well as love. 

          The book is divided into twelve chapters with each chapter focusing on a particular topic.  Some of the topics are what you would expect in a philosophy book about sex (e.g. objectification, perversion, and defining sex), but Shrage and Stewart fill in many lacunae that one does not see very often in an introduction to the philosophy of sex, such as sexual privacy, cyber-rape, teledildonics, street harassment, and medical studies of science.  The book not only uses academic journal articles to discuss the topics, but there are many references to articles that one can easily access and is for a general audience such as HuffPost, Alternet, NYtimes, and NPR.

          A nice benefit to this book is that the authors provide historical context to show how an issue became important.  For example, with new technology coming out, sexting has become an issue, especially among teenagers.  But the laws reflect a time when no one was sending naked pictures through a phone.  Sending nude photos of people who are minors is considered a criminal offense and may have to register as a sex offender.  And yet, when teenagers do it, it seems that the laws are too strict to enforce two teenagers to register as sex offenders, not only because one possess the photo of the sender, but because the sender is also not of age and so the sender possess a naked photo of him/herself which, under the law, constitutes as child pornography.  By giving adequate background, the authors nicely sum up the details which helps the readers explain what the issue is.

          The style of the book covers certain ideas and briefly presents what some of the positions are, although it would be nice if the arguments were explicated in more detail, which is one flaw of the book.  I'm not sure if this is a pedagogical purpose so that the reader can decide what to make of the idea, but for a philosophy book, I would expect to have more rigorous justifications, logic, and arguments to explain the ideas.  However, the authors nicely explain what is at stake and why the issue is important, but I mostly got a sense of once they explained the issue, I was left wanting.  Perhaps it is my own personal style, but I wanted more.  Instead, the authors present the issues, and mostly leave it to the reader to decide how to proceed from there. In some issues, the authors do make their own case displaying their own cards on the table.  For the most part, however, they leave the issue up to the reader to pursue one's own inquiry.  This is not to say it is a bad thing; it is definitely enough to whet your appetite to the ideas presented, and it is up to the reader to either read the primary article that the author's cite, or—and I think this is part of the benefit of the book—the readers must think through the issues themselves and formulate their own ideas surrounding the issue.  Nevertheless, the book would benefit by having more developed arguments supplementing the issues presented.

          There are a few spots where the authors do develop an argument by relying on philosophers to make their point.  To give an example, most lay people would argue that consent is enough to make sex moral.  The authors cite Seiriol Morgan to show that consent is not enough, and that having good intentions makes the sexual act necessary, but not sufficient, condition.  This discussion, then, leads to what more is needed, which discusses autonomy.  It's a brief discussion, but it certainly leads one to think more about autonomy and how it relates to consent.  As one is thinking through these issues, the authors eventually lead into objectification.  As such, the authors usually do not make their own conclusions, but they do agree with some of the authors they cite, and they usually do so by refuting the other side.

          What is refreshing is they discuss issues that are currently relevant.  I will mention just a few of these issues.  The first is polyamory, but they do not just merely mention it as if it was a fringe that is not worthy of further discussion.  Rather, they detail the intricacies of the issue by citing many philosophers and authors.  They look at both sides of the issue by citing evidence from evolutionary biology, history, the law, and op-ed pieces.  In a later chapter, they investigate Dan Savage's "monogamish" claim by analyzing whether we have special obligations to help our partners achieve sexual fulfillment, even if part of the fulfillment cannot come from us.  The second is sex education by looking at the historical beginnings, which leads to the questions of who should be teaching sexuality to children and adolescents.  The third is sexual humor by looking at various theories of humor and scrutinizing whether certain sexual jokes are funny, offensive, or both.  The fourth, which they dedicate a whole chapter to, is sexual privacy, which includes whether one ought to "come out" and issues around sexting.

          Sexual responsibility was a particular nice chapter that captured the major issues and the authors presented them in a nice, narrative fashion.  For example, do people have a responsibility to reveal their sexual past to their partners, particularly if one has HIV?  Being infected with HIV can seriously affect one's life, but with the advancement of drug therapies, the problem is that if the law is involved, those infected with HIV can be stigmatized and discriminated against those who have a serious but manageable health condition.  Because criminalization can create fear, and does nothing to prevent the transmission of HIV, the authors argue that "there is no reason our laws should single out people who are HIV-positive, rather than treat all people with serious and incurable infectious diseases alike" (197).

          Overall, this book is a nice introduction to the philosophy of sex.  If one is using this as a route to get engaged in the philosophy of sex, it will help one get introduced to the issues, but there are no heavy arguments.  They do engage with a lot of material, but in the end, one will end up reading the primary sources if one is inclined to delve further into the issue.  In terms of using this book for teaching, one can use this as a stand alone book to discuss some topics, or as a supplement, depending on one's teaching style. 


© 2015 Shaun Miller


Shaun Miller is in the PhD philosophy program at Marquette University.


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