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Philosophy of Sex and LoveReview - Philosophy of Sex and Love
An Opinionated Introduction
by Patricia Marino
Routledge, 2019
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Oct 15th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 42)

Patricia Marino's Philosophy of Love and Sex: An Opinionated Introduction is a wonderful addition to the growing literature – and indeed growing number of textbooks – in this area of philosophy, which is still only a few decades old. The subtitle of the book raises two questions. The first is in what way this book is an introduction to the philosophy of sex and love, and the second is why Marino calls it an opinionated introduction. The answer to the first question, I believe, is because Marino does not assume prior expertise in the area and hence provides succinct but very clear background information on various issues she discusses. The book is opinionated in the sense that Marino eschews neutrality in favour of promoting her own theories of the contested issues in question. Most textbooks avoid this opting instead to explain a variety of positions that have been taken on the issues in question allowing the reader/student to make up their own minds. This approach could be seen as inappropriate for an introductory text, but Marino overcomes this problem by being fair and non-dogmatic. Moreover, though this book is opinionated, it is not idiosycratic. Very briefly, Marino is an analytic, feminist philosopher who stresses the importance of both autonomy and equality. This is far from being an eccentric approach as a great many philosophers accept these background beliefs or paradigm. Having said that, however, adopting this paradigm will indeed "challenge some basic, though often implicit, assumptions and values of modern, liberal, capitalist societies…. Historically, love, sex and family life were protected from the individualism and self-interest of public life because they were thought to be the site of special norms: if sex takes place only in heterosexual marriage, and marriage creates a unity of the wills of two people, then family life creates a context in which negotiations and competition are not required…" (4,5). Unfortunately, however, this unity of wills has traditionally meant that the will of the woman/wife/mother in the relationship is made subservient to the will of the man/husband/father. As a result, much of the writing and thought about sex and love has not adequately represented women's autonomy and equality. In Marino's opinion, this needs to change.

One reason that women's autonomy has been inadequately considered in the philosophy of sex and love, Marino argues, is that it has assumed an atomistic conception of autonomy where a person's choice is conceived as occurring entirely within the agent's control. As a result, the social context in which decisions are made is elided. However, the social context of decisions about sex and love is obviously relevant and indeed essentially important in understanding why people make the choices they do. Hence, Marino argues that we must adopt a relational view of autonomy rather than an atomistic one. Consider, for example, how this affects how one ought to view pornography, as Marino does in Chapter 2. "[B]ecause of social factors, objectifying women and people in other marginalized groups raises special issues: it's not that objectification and pornography are inherently wrong or bad but rather that in a social context that overvalues women's sexual attractiveness at the expense of their other qualities, and hypersexualizes other specific groups, objectification becomes a problem. … [Hence] for pornography to challenge rather than reinforce racist and discriminatory stereotypes, we need women and people of color in the roles of directors and writers" (36, 37).

Marino employs her paradigm to argue in favour of her opinions about a variety of issues within the philosophy of sex. For example, with respect to sex work, Marino builds upon the work of Laurie Shrage's influential article, "Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution?" to argue that though sex work may not be bad in and of itself, it is so in certain patriarchal and sexist social contexts where female sex workers are badly damaged by their work. "If sex as part of work means our sexual autonomy is reduced, then maybe the problem is as much with the demands of modern work [in a modern, capitalist environment] as it is with sex itself" (68).  

Included in Marino's book are welcome chapters that don't always appear in works on the philosophy of sex and love such as sex, love and race; sex, love and disability; the medicalization of love as well as of sex; the economics of sex and love; and ethical nonmonogamy. In each of the chapters devoted to these topics, Marino does an excellent job both of providing a concise but fully adequate background on the issues and arguing for a position based on her analytic feminist approach coupled with her concern for (relational) autonomy and equality.

Marino also has chapters on the "union theory" and "concern theory" of love. In his version of the union theory, Robert Nozick says that romantic love changes individuals from an "I" to a "we." Becoming a we changes our sense of well-being, autonomy and identity. Our well-being expands to include our lover – their pleasures and pains are now ours too. Autonomy is altered because the couple rather than just one of the individuals in it now make important decisions 'jointly'. Finally, our identity changes: in a romantic, loving relationship, I am no longer 'Scott,' but some version of 'Scott/Barbara.' In Harry Frankfurt's version of the concern theory of love, individuals are not merged as in the union theory. However, there is a dramatic change in the way we care for and about our loved one.  We develop a special attitude for our loved one where we want what is good for them for their own sake. Marino rejects both of these theories of love. Very briefly, she claims that once we abandon a view of love where the woman subsumes her interests into her man's, the union theory is incapable of dealing adequately with the invariable conflicts of interest that arise in relationships, even loving ones. According to the union theory, conflicting interests shouldn't really be possible because there are no longer two separate selves but one combined identity. But this is inconsistent with the facts that many couples struggle to negotiate and/or compromise about such as whether to have children (or how many), whether to move to another city (say, for a new job opportunity for one person in the couple), or remain where they are. Though the concern theory maintains it is distinct from the union theory, similar problems arise with it, according to Marino. "Both theories have difficulty identifying excessively deferential behavior or explaining why it is bad. And both theories have difficulty with the idea that some forms of individual self-interestedness can be healthy for relationships…. Like the union theory, the concern theory thus ultimately elides the distinction between the lover and the one who is loved" (99, 100).

Marino develops her own theory of love that she hopes can avoid the problems of the union and concern theories and which is also consistent with fairness and equality between the romantic partners. Doing so, however, requires that we abandon the idea that loving relationships are a distinctly different sort of thing than other types of relationship, according to Marino. Instead, she argues, we need to employ a balanced and shared egalitarian view between actual individuals that may have different and even competing interests. In this way, we shall begin to see that the kind of caring that exists in intimate relationships exists on a continuum with the care that exists between strangers.

Marino's Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Opinionated Introduction is a wonderful book. While I don't always agree with Marino's position, I appreciate her book being clearly written, well researched, and engagingly argued. Despite being opinionated, it would make a superb text for an introductory course in the philosophy of sex and love. Indeed, were it not for the fact that I use my own co-written text for such a course; I would seriously consider choosing this one.


© 2019 Robert Scott Stewart


Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University. He and Laurie Shrage published Philosophizing About Sex with Broadview Press, in 2015.


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