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Sexual Perversion.


American Philosophical Quarterly

Primoratz, Igor


The distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" or "perverted" sex has always been part of traditional sexual morality. It tends to play a prominent role in everyday discourse about the varieties of human sexual experience. Every major philosophy of sex has something to say about the distinction; in some of them, the distinction is given a highly important place. Yet, in both everyday and more theoretical contexts, the use of the term "sexual perversion" is plagued by considerable inconsistency and confusion.

This paper explores whether this term has a reasonably clear meaning and can be put to use to some useful purpose. I take a critical look at a number of attempts by philosophers to capture its proper meaning and delineate its correct application, and argue that none have succeeded. In view of that, I suggest that we simply drop it once and for all, and get on with saying whatever needs to be said about human sexuality without first trying to have its varieties classified as either "natural," or "unnatural" or "perverted."

Before turning to philosophy, it might be useful to say a few words about the non-theoretical, everyday use of the term "sexual perversion."

In ordinary discourse, to say of a type of sexual behavior or orientation that it is unnatural or perverted is not only to say that it has certain important traits; normally, it is also to condemn it, perhaps harshly, and also to imply that there is an objective reason, reason dictated by nature, that grounds the condemnation. Types of sexual behavior traditionally seen as unnatural or perverted would include homosexuality, sexual sadism, sexual masochism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, transvestism, pedophilia, necrophilia, and zoophilia. The list is incomplete, but does include the main sexual perversions. Some of the terms refer to quite specific types of behavior, while others (homosexuality, fetishism) cover a wide array of types of inclinations and acts.

Not much more can be said in general, for a closer look at ordinary use displays considerable inconsistency. I have tried to establish the main contours of such use by inviting each class of students in my undergraduate course on sexual ethics over some years to answer a number of questions about the way they tend to use and interpret the term "sexual perversion." It appears that the term is indeed hardly ever used in a purely descriptive sense; it always seems to convey disapproval of some sort. But it is not clear of what sort. When the term is applied to pedophilia, necrophilia, or voyeurism, the disapproval tends to be moral; but when it is used to characterize fetishism, that does not seem to be the case. With regard to cases in which moral condemnation is implied, it tends to vary in seriousness: it is quite serious, indeed harsh, when the subject is pedophilia or necrophilia, but not at all very serious when it comes to voyeurism. Whether or not some sort of moral condemnation is implied, the term expresses a clearly negative judgment of taste: most people tend to find most of the main traditional sexual perversions quite distasteful -- but, again, in varying degrees. Moreover, there is often a suggestion of disorder or sickness on the part of those who exhibit peverted sexual preferences, which should be cured in their own best interest. Finally, the willingness to apply the qualification of perversion to sexual behavior seems to be related to the relevant statistical facts; but even here there is not much consistency. It is often assumed that what is natural should also be typical or statistically normal and the other way around. Thus it could be expected that once we discover that a certain type of sexual preference traditionally labeled perverted is not at all quite atypical, characteristic of a tiny minority, but is much more widespread and can be found in a significant part of the population, we should withdraw the label. Something like that seems to have been the case with homosexuality in quite a few Western societies. On the other hand, it is not at all clear that, if we were to make a similar discovery with regard to, say, necrophilia or zoophilia, we would be as ready to declassify it as perversion and come to think of it as but another unproblematic sexual orientation.

Ordinary use is thus quite unhelpful, and there is not much point nor, indeed, much chance of success in attempts to formulate a definition of sexual perversion that would capture the meaning of the term in ordinary discourse. The major philosophical accounts of sex should be a different matter.


There seems to be a strong connection between the notion of sexual perversion and that of unnatural sex. We would not say that a certain type of sexual behavior is a sexual perversion, but nonetheless quite natural for humans to engage in. This connection between the unnatural and the perverted is emphasized in particular in the traditional view of sex as bound up with procreation and marriage. This view condemns all but reproductive marital sex. The condemnation is based on the argument that procreation is the natural purpose or function of sexual organs and acts, which implies that types of sexual behavior condemned for not being in accordance with that purpose or function are also unnatural, abnormal, perverted. This tying of the idea of sexual perversion to the notion of nature and the distinction between the natural and the unnatural seems to give the condemnatory moral use of the term a particular force, as well as a certain veneer of objectivity and, in certain contexts, of almost scientific authority. The immorality implied is not merely human, conventional, but rather seems to have a much more solid, objective ground. Nature itself condemns the perverted practice.

Of course, not everything the procreation view condemns is condemned as unnatural or perverted. For instance, adultery is, or can be, quite in accordance with the nature of sex as conceived in this tradition; it is wrong because it offends against the institution of marriage, which is claimed to be the sole appropriate framework for bringing up offspring. The same is true of pre-marital sex or rape. But every type of sexual behavior that is not meant for procreation, or could not result in procreation under normal circumstances, whatever the intentions of the partners is, indeed, considered unnatural, perverted, and therefore wrong. Thus, all traditional perversions would count as such. In addition, it would pronounce masturbation, petting to orgasm, intercourse in which some sort of "artificial" birth control is employed, as well as oral and anal sex between heterosexual partners, to be unnatural, perverted, and therefore morally impermissible.(1)

One problem with this account of sexual perversion is that it is much too inclusive. It applies to all the main traditional perversions, which might be thought an advantage (although homosexuality is no longer considered a perversion as widely as it used to be, and with good reason). But it also classifies as unnatural and perverted some sexual practices which most of us cannot see in these terms, if only because we know that they are so widespread as to make it odd to call them unnatural (masturbation, petting to orgasm, oral sex, contraceptive sexual intercourse).

Another problem of this conception of sexual perversion is but a specific case of a basic difficulty plaguing claims about natural purposes or functions. Such claims have an appearance of factuality and objectivity. But when interpreted as factual, they are often easy to refute. Sex is a case in point. As a matter of fact, human beings engage in sex not only for the purpose of procreation, but also for the pleasure of it, or in order to express certain emotions and attitudes. As a matter of fact, sexual intercourse is well capable of doing all these different jobs. If it is claimed that, when having sex with any of the latter two purposes in view, people are deviating from the "true" purpose or function of sex, it becomes obvious that what is being put forward is not an ordinary factual statement, but rather a normative one. The veneer of objectivity and factuality is gone, and the need for a convincing argument showing just why sex not geared to procreation is unnatural, perverted, and therefore also immoral, becomes apparent.

Still another problem is a result of the expressly and emphatically moral character of the procreation view of sex and sexual perversion. Even if we could give some sense to the idea of procreation being the natural purpose or function of sex -- perhaps by defining the natural function of sex as its biological function -- the gap between the natural, thus defined, and the morally proper would remain. For it is not at all obvious that whatever is natural, i.e. biologically functional, is ipso facto morally good or required, and the other way around. Even if a certain type of sexual behavior or preference -- say, homosexuality, or pedophilia -- is indeed biologically dysfunctional and in this sense unnatural, it is not at all clear that it is also immoral, and immoral for just that reason. Actually, many would maintain that homosexuality is not immoral at all, however biologically dysfunctional it may be. On the other hand, most of us would agree that pedophilia is indeed morally unacceptable; but we should surely do so for reasons that have nothing to do with its being non-procreative.

Of course, difficulties of the last type can be avoided by disconnecting the procreation view of sex and sexual perversion from its traditional theological underpinnings, and stripping it of its moral import. This has been done is Sara Ruddick's paper "Better Sex." Ruddick defines "natural sex" in terms of "the evolutionary and biological function of sexuality -- namely, reproduction."(2) "`Natural' sexual desire," she maintains, "is for heterosexual genital activity, not for reproduction.... It is so organized that it could lead to reproduction in normal physiological circumstances."(3) Accordingly, "natural" sexual desire has as its "object" living persons of the opposite sex, and in particular their postpubertal genitals. The "aim" of natural sexual desire -- that is, the act that "naturally" completes it -- is genital intercourse. Perverse sex acts are deviations from the natural object (e.g., homosexuality, fetishism) or from the standard aim (e.g., voyeurism, sadism).(4)

Ruddick emphasizes that this conception of natural and perverted sex is morally neutral. In cases where no extrinsic moral considerations apply, perverted sex acts are preferable to natural ones, if they are more pleasurable. To be sure, it is sometimes claimed that perverted sex is less pleasurable than natural sex. But such claims still have to be substantiated by evidence. Moreover, "to condemn perverse acts for lack of pleasure is to recognize the worth of pleasure, not of naturalness."(5)

But this account still faces other problems of the traditional procreation view: it is just as overinclusive as the latter. On Ruddick's account, just as on that of Thomas Aquinas, not only the main traditional sexual perversions, but also such common practices as masturbation, petting to orgasm, and oral sex will have to be characterized as unnatural and perverted. While the former (with the likely exception of homosexuality) might be thought appropriate, the latter implication is surely quite unattractive.

The view of sex as bound up with love, like the traditional version of the procreation view, interprets sexual perversion as an emphatically moral notion. According to Roger Scruton, whose philosophy of sex offers the sole elaborate and philosophically sophisticated statement of that view, perversions are "all deviations from the unity of animal and interpersonal relation." By this, Scruton means all deviations from his account of distinctively human sexual desire as characterized by "individualizing intention," i.e. directed at another human being as the embodied particular person he or she is. Sexual perversion is, thus, all impersonal sex. As such, it is "morally contaminated," since it amounts to "complete or partial failure to recognise, in and through desire, the personal existence of the other," and thereby sets our sexual experience apart "from our moral commerce ... in a realm that is free from the sovereignty of a moral law, ...in which the body is both sovereign and obscene."(6)

This account of sexual perversion might be thought to apply neatly to most traditional perversions. Zoophilia is so much removed from interpersonal sex that Scruton pronounces it "a paradigm of perversion."(7) Necrophilia "shows the process of perversion at its most accomplished, with the separation between sexual impulse and interpersonal emotion made absolute by death."(8) In perversions such as pedophilia or sadism the personality of the other is present, but only in a reduced or unacknowledged form. Homosexuality, on the other hand, does not qualify as a perversion, but that may be an advantage, rather than a problem.

However, the problem with this account of sexual perversion is that it is much too inclusive and indiscriminate. Under the heading of "depersonalized" and therefore perverted sex, it lumps together such practices as necrophilia or pedophilia, and types of sexual behavior that admittedly do not live up to Scruton's ideal of distinctively and fully human sex but, apart from that, have very little in common with the first group: casual and mercenary sex. Such sex is impersonal in the sense that the other is not engaged as the particular, unique person he or she is, but not in the sense of being reduced to something less than a person, and banished beyond the pale of moral concern.(9)

While the traditional procreation view and the view of sex as bound up with love accord a central place to the notion of sexual perversion and give it an emphatically moral interpretation, in the other two major philosophies of sex, the view of sex as language and the "plain sex" view, sexual perversion is no longer a moral concept, nor indeed one of central importance.

The view of sex as language is presented in two important papers by Robert Solomon. He argues that sex among humans is best understood as a type of body language, which we use to communicate to others our important and difficult-to-verbalize feelings about them and ourselves. Solomon is somewhat ambiguous about the idea of sexual perversion. Being a type of language, he argues, sex admits of breaches in communication, and that is where "what little is left of our conception of `sexual perversion'" should be located. The concept itself is no longer a moral one, but rather a "logical category". Actually, we would be better off replacing the term by something like "sexual misunderstanding" or "sexual incompatibility."(10) But he then goes on using the term, and actually offers an account of its meaning in terms of his own theory of human sexuality.

Solomon distinguishes between perversions proper and "gross abuses" of sex as language. Perversions proper are various types of absence or breakdown of communication. They include traditional perversions, such as pedophilia, zoophilia, and fetishism, but also any kind of insincerity and deceit in sex -- the nonverbal equivalent of lying -- such as entertaining private fantasies, or "pretended tenderness and affection that reverses itself soon after orgasm."(11) Moreover, the language of sex, just as any other language, can be mastered poorly or well, and spoken with skill and sophistication, or in infelicitous, clumsy, or vulgar ways.

It is because sex is a language that demands subtlety and artfulness that over-frankness and vulgarity are, if not perversions, at least gross abuses of the language, as very bad poetry might still be considered poetry. This explains, e.g., why overt propositions and subway exhibitionism are generally offensive, which is a mystery if one considers sex, as most people do, one of the "appetites."(12)

It might be thought that people have reasons other than the quasi-aesthetic one brought up by Solomon to be put off by such things as subway exhibitionism. For one thing, their sense of privacy might be offended. But the main criticism of Solomon's account has to do with what he says of sexual perversions proper: that they are basically instances of unsuccessful communication by means of sex as a body language. This is too inclusive, and implies that much too much in what goes for common, everyday sex among human beings is actually perverted. In sex, as everywhere else, breakdown of communication among humans is a very common occurence. If every case of such breakdown is to count as perverted sex, the idea of perversion will no longer refer -- as it presumably should -- to something uncommon and strange.

On Alan Goldman's "plain sex" view, sexual perversion is certainly an atypical sexual preference. Indeed, the distinction between natural and unnatural or perverted sex becomes a matter of statistics. The unnatural or perverted is a deviation from a norm, but the norm is merely statistical, rather than moral or aesthetic. Goldman defines sexual desire as desire for contact with another person's body and for the pleasure such contact provides, and sexual activity as activity which tends to fulfil such desire of the agent. These definitions are meant to capture the central facts of human sexuality, rather than express some ideal superimposed on it. When somebody has a desire for something other than contact with another person's body -- say, for merely looking at another's body, or at other people engaging in sex, or for contact with another person's clothes rather than body -- and the satisfaction of such desire produces the kind of pleasure the overwhelming majority of human beings achieve through contact with others' bodies, the desire and the relevant activity are statistically abnormal and perverted. This notion of sexual perversion is disconnected both from moral considerations that apply to sex and from the idea of sex that is good as sex. The three distinctions -- between natural and unnatural or perverted sex, between moral and immoral sex, and between good, i.e. pleasurable, and poor or bad sex, i.e., sex devoid of pleasure -- are completely independent. Perverted sex may be more or less pleasant than natural sex, and moral or immoral as well. To be sure, some perversions (e.g., sadism or voyeurism) are clearly morally unacceptable; but that is not on account of being perversions, but rather because they offend against certain moral rules that hold for sexual and nonsexual conduct alike.

Goldman is aware that, in grounding his account of sexual perversion on the facts of human sexual behavior, he is deviating from the facts of usage of the term "sexual perversion." He does not deny that in ordinary usage the term is used to evaluate, and evaluate negatively, rather than merely describe. What he does deny is that we can find a norm, other than that of statistically usual desire, against which all and only activities that properly count as sexual perversions can be contrasted. Perverted sex is simply abnormal sex, and if the norm is not to be an idealized or romanticized extraneous end or purpose, it must express the way human sexual desires usually manifest themselves.... The connotations of the concept of perversion beyond those connected with abnormality or statistical deviation derive more from the attitudes of those likely to call certain acts perverted than from specifiable features of the acts themselves.(13)

This empirical account of the idea of sexual perversion makes its application relative -- a function of changes in the field of human sexual preference and behavior. Goldman does not see this as a flaw: "It is not true that we properly could continue to consider acts perverted which were found to be very common practice across societies."(14)

It could be objected that, on Goldman's view, neither pedophilia nor necrophilia would qualify as sexual perversions. But this objection does not have great weight, as his definitions of sexual desire and activity can easily be amended so as to rule that out. There is a more damaging criticism. If this is all there is to sexual perversion, the very notion of such perversion seems to have become redundant. If, properly understood, sexual perversion is merely a statistically abnormal, atypical, unusual sexual preference, and a preference that is atypical at a certain time, but need not be so at some other time, then the most accurate term may be simply "atypical" or "statistically abnormal" sexual preference. "Sexual perversion" has a very long history of condemnatory use, and it may not be possible to dissociate it clearly and definitely enough from that history and the rich connotations of extremely strange, incomprehensible, distasteful, and morally repellent sex it still has most of the time in ordinary discourse. If all that is to go by the board, so should the term itself.


Some philosophers who have discussed the idea of sexual perversion take a stance opposed to that of Goldman's. They believe that, if the idea is to retain its usefulness, we should preserve, and indeed emphasize and justify, its distinctively moral connotations.

One of them is Sara Ann Ketchum who, in order to develop a moral interpretation of sexual perversion, wants to break a connection acknowledged both in ordinary usage and in almost all philosophical discussions: that between sexual perversion and unnatural sex. The aim of her analysis is to situate the notion of sexual perversion in an account of sex that is both good as sex and morally valuable, or at least acceptable.

Sexual relations are interpersonal relations. Such a relation may or may not be reciprocal, i.e., such that the parties have as objects of their awareness the other person's awareness. This reciprocity of awareness, again, may or may not be symmetrical. Finally, the symmetrical thoughts or feelings may or may not be capable of joint realization or satisfaction. For instance, A may be sexually aroused merely by B's body, without being interested in, or even aware of, any particular thoughts or feelings on the part of B. Such relation between the two persons is not reciprocal. A may be sexually aroused not merely by B's physical attractiveness, but also by certain thoughts or feelings by which B responds to A's arousal. That is a reciprocal relation. If B responds to A's arousal with annoyance, or embarassment, or fear, then the relation is reciprocal, but asymmetrical. But if B is sexually aroused too, and aroused in response to A's arousal, the relation is both reciprocal and symmetrical, mutual. It is also one of complementarity: the satisfaction of each side's arousal and desire is complementary with the satisfaction of the other's. Such a case would be one of good sex.

This conception of good sex requires that sex should involve communication and mutual consent. Reciprocity involves communication, while complementarity means that both parties desire the same and pursue it willingly, in concert. And "it follows from the requirements of mutuality and common objects of desire that to the degree that a sexual relation is a good sexual relation, each of the partners is getting good sex, since the relation is symmetrical."(15) Bad sex, on the other hand, is characterized either by non-reciprocal, or reciprocal but asymmetrical or noncomplementary relations. Sex devoid of communication of thoughts and feelings, or involving communication of mutual hostility, contempt and the like, or nonconsenusal sex would be examples of bad sex.

Perverted sex is a type of bad sex: The concept of perversion should be stronger than the concept of the merely bad. A perversion of x is not simply something which does not match up to the ideal, but, rather, a preference in which the ideal is reversed.... If mutuality is a criterion of good sex, then universalizability will be a criterion of nonperverted sex. A person with sexual desires which are, in principle, nonuniversalizable -- in particular, a sexual desire such that the lack of reciprocity or mutuality on the part of the other is part of the object of the desire -- has a Perverted sexual attitude or preference.(16)

Ketchum illustrates the distinction between perverted and merely bad sex with two types of rapists. One is indifferent to the wishes of his victims; he simply ignores the requirement of mutuality. Such a rapist will have sex with the person chosen whether that person consents or not. The other type is not indifferent to the victim's wishes, but wants the victim to reject his advances; he does not ignore the requirement of mutuality, but deliberately offends against it. Such a rapist might be called sadistic, since he desires an asymmetrical sexual encounter, and one that will be bad for the other person. The sexual preferences and behavior of the sadistic rapist are perverted, while those of the nonsadistic rapist are merely bad.

This analysis of sexual perversion has the advantage of being in tune with the usage of the word "perverse" in non-sexual contexts: to act in a perverse way in certain circumstances is to deliberately do the opposite of what the rules pertaining to such circumstances enjoin. In applying this general idea of perversity to sex, Ketchum assumes that the relevant rules would be, or include, moral rules. Now according to a view widely accepted in contemporary moral philosophy, moral rules apply to those actions that in some way affect others, and not only the agent. Hence Ketchum points out that her account "does not, and is not intended to, provide a framework for evaluating noninterpersonal sexual acts such as masturbation."(17) It does provide reasons for saying that such traditional perversions as sadism, pedophilia, voyeurism, or exhibitionism are indeed perverse. On the other hand, by confining the whole question of perversion to interpersonal contexts, it implies that some of the other traditional sexual perversions, such as necrophilia, zoophilia, fetishism, or transvestism, are not perversions. It might be thought that this is a rather unattractive conclusion to have to draw.

To be sure, Ketchum might not worry about this. She might point out that her account of sexual perversion is expressly prescriptive, so that its implications cannot always tally with ordinary use of the term. Hers is a moral conception of sexual perversion, and it is quite appropriate that traditional perversions which we have no good reason to regard as immoral should not qualify, however strange, alien, or even repulsive they might be.

Ketchum argues that sexual perversion is not simply something that falls short of the sexual ideal, but "a preference in which the ideal is reversed." Accordingly, the term is to express moral condemnation significantly stronger than that of "merely bad." We might think that this is as it should be, if we take the defining trait of perverted sex to be its non-universalizability, its essential non-reciprocity or non-mutuality, and adopt sadistic rape as the paradigm, as Ketchum does. Sadistic rape is without doubt the worst type of perverted sex, thus conceived. However, by focusing too much on her chosen paradigm, Ketchum loses sight of the moral complexity of her subject. In the cases of sadistic rape, sadism, and pedophilia, very strong moral condemnation is called for. On the other hand, however, voyeurism and exhibitionism are also perverse, and for the same reason. But if the former is morally wrong, it is surely much less wrong than, say, sadism. And some might say that the latter is not morally wrong at all, however ridiculous, embarassing, or even disgusting it may be. Ketchum's acount of sexual perversion implausibly lumps together all these as morally wrong, for the same reason, and in the same high degree.

Another important moral interpretation of the idea of sexual perversion is that of Donald Levy. Unlike Ketchum, Levy wants to preserve the Connection between the perverted and the unnatural; he defines the former as a type of the latter. The unnatural or, more accurately, the unnatural as far as human beings are concerned, is defined in terms of basic human goods. Such goods are basic in that they are desired no matter what else is, since they are necessary for the achievement of any other goods. While those other, non-basic goods are many and varied, the list of the basic human goods is quite short: it includes life, health, control of one's bodily and mental functions, knowledge (and the capacity for it), and love (and the capacity for it). Unlike nonbasic goods, the basic human goods are desirable without qualification; one cannot have too much of such a good. And they help define human nature: "Any creature, however rational or articulate, who does not value the basic human goods is not human.... Principled lack of concern for them by a creature is a sufficient condition of the creature's nonhumanity."(18)

Accordingly, it is unnatural for a human being to deny a person (oneself or another) a basic human good, except when that is done for the sake of another basic human good, e.g., when one makes a sacrifice in terms of one's health in order to persevere in one's pursuit of knowledge. But to act so as to deny oneself or another a basic human good (or the capacity for it) for the sake of attaining a non-basic good is, according to Levy, to act in an unintelligible and unnatural way. Pleasure is a good, but not a basic human good: it is not desired no matter what else is, one can have too much of it for one's own good, and a principled lack of concern for it would not strike us as incomprehensible, unnatural, non-human. When one sacrifices a basic human good (in oneself or another) for pleasure, one acts in an unnatural, and also perverted way. To find pleasure in acting in a way that questions one's humanity is degrading, and immoral because degrading. Therefore all perversion is degrading and immoral. When the pleasure one finds in acting in an unnatural way is sexual, the perversion is sexual too.

How does this account apply to sexual preferences and behavior traditionally considered perverted? Levy professes to find its implications concerning homosexuality a moot point. I should have thought it clear that his account absolves homosexuality of the charge of perversion: it need not endanger any of the basic human goods. On the other hand, Levy tries to show that pedophilia and necrophilia would qualify as perversions. The pedophile is liable to damage the child's health or capacity for love, while the necrophile "has lost the ability to love another human being sexually."(19)

I suppose Levy would extend the latter explanation to zoophilia, fetishism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and transvestism. It is not a good explanation, however, for several reasons. In order for a type of behavior to qualify as perversion on Levy's account, it must endanger, damage, or destroy a basic human good of the agent or someone else. But, first, one might take exception to Levy's inclusion of love (and the capacity for it) in the list of such goods. Levy is aware of this objection, but seems to think that it could be put forward only by someone who held that love was not a good at all, and tries to refute that view.(20) But that, of course, will not help much; for in order for love to carry the weight Levy puts on it, it is not enough that it should be a good; it must be shown to be a basic human good. And it is not at all clear that it is; it satisfies at best one of the three criteria by which Levy distinguishes between basic and non-basic goods. Perhaps there is no such thing as too much love (and capacity for it). But love is certainly not desired no matter what else is, as a precondition for Attaining whatever else one might want. And a person who had no capacity and no concern for love would no doubt strike us as strange, but surely we would not find such a person utterly incomprehensible, alien, not really human. Second, there is a necessary and highly significant, but unacknowledged move from "love" to "sexual love" in Levy's explanation of the perverted nature of necrophilia and, presumably, other traditional perversions mentioned. Whatever one might think of Levy's claim that love (and the capacity for it) is a basic human good, to make that claim about sexual love (and the capacity for it) would obviously be quite implausible.

Moreover, Levy's argument fails even apart from these flaws in the theory of human goods that provides its basis. For to act in a way that shows that one has lost the capacity for sexual love of other human beings, and to act in a way that endangers, damages, or destroys one's capacity for sexual love of other humans, are not the same. Indeed, the former rules out the latter: one cannot endanger, damage, or destroy something one does not have in the first place. Now what Levy says, and can plausibly say, of necrophilia and other traditional perversions mentioned, is the former. That is, actually, a fairly common view of the necrophile, the zoophile, etc.: they resort to corpses, to animals, etc., because they are psychologically incapable of engaging sexually other human beings, including sexually loving them. Their unusual behavior is the result, rather than the cause, of the lack of that capacity on their part. But if so, then what follows from Levy's attempted explanation of the perverted character of necrophilia is that necrophilia, zoophilia, fetishism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and transvestism, are not sexual perversions.


In view of the inconsistent and, indeed, confusing use of "sexual perversion" in ordinary discourse,(21) and the difficulties plaguing philosophical accounts of such perversion, one might be tempted to conclude that the idea of sexual perversion should be discarded altogether.

Some philosophers have actually proposed just that. One was the Marquis de Sade. He developed his notorious sexual libertinism as an alternative to the traditional view of sex as by nature (and God) ordained to procreation, and legitimate only within marriage. That view rules out a wide array of sexual practices as immoral, condemning with particular harshness those that are considered immoral because unnatural, perverted. De Sade's moral philosophy does without God, but not without nature. However, his view of nature is quite different from that adopted by the tradition; it is tailored to generate the views on morality in general, and sexual morality in particular, which have made him infamous. The natural is the yardstick of the moral; but nature is merely the sum of natural laws, and everything that happens happens in accordance with these laws. That means that nothing that happens, nothing that people do, can ever be unnatural, perverted nor, indeed, immoral. Homosexuality, pedophilia, incest -- and, of course, sadism and masochism -- are neither unnatural, perverted, nor immoral and criminal, for nature is behind them all. Nature makes it possible for human beings to commit such acts, that is, allows them to do so. Moreover, nature is the real instigator, as it puts the inclinations to commit such acts in human beings. "There is no extravagance which is not in Nature, none which she does not acknowledge as her own," says de Sade. Therefore "there can exist no evil in obedience to Nature's promptings..."(22) Sexual preferences and acts traditionally, depicted as unnatural, perverted, and censured and punished as crimes against nature, are merely preferences and acts at odds with the conventional tastes in sex.(23)

Michael Slote, too, argues that the notion of unnatural or perverted behavior, including sexual behavior, is idle and should be dispensed with. Slote notes that "unnatural" and "perverted" have both descriptive and expressive meaning. The former has proven extremely difficult to capture by a definition, while the latter is easy to characterize: both words express horror. Whatever we may mean by saying of a type of behavior that it is unnatural or perverted, we always express our fear or horror of such behavior. It is this horror that points to the true descriptive meaning of these words in their ordinary use: to call a way of acting perverted or unnatural is to say that it is not to be found in nature, that it does not exist in nature. By banishing it from nature, we also banish it from our world. Both these claims are supported by the fact that people who are especially knowledgeable about human behavior are neither horrified by ways of acting most of us find horrible, nor given to calling such behavior unnatural or perverted, the way most of us do. Unlike most of us, they know, and are willing to acknowledge, that such behavior is to be found in nature, that it is part of our world.

But why should we be attempting to put those human acts that horrify us outside nature, outside our world? Because such acts are very strongly prohibited by society and most of us nevertheless have certain impulses towards them, impulses which frighten us and threaten our self-image, and which we are extremely unwilling to acknowledge. As depth psychology tells us, most of us have some deep, unconscious, repressed tendencies towards incest, homosexuality, and possibly some forms of fetishism. We repress such impulses and keep them unconscious by determining that such behavior is unnatural or perverted. "By calling it `unnatural' [and `perverted'] we think of it as banished to a world other than ours, and this helps to reassure us that the impulse toward such behavior is not in us."(24)

Of course, all such claims are false, because there is no such thing as human behavior that is not part of nature or the human world. The ordinary notion of the unnatural or perverted is therefore inapplicable in principle. Those who employ it do so because they are ignorant of its inapplicability.

I do not find Slote's philosophical cum psychological account of the idea of unnatural or perverted sex convincing. His claim that the terms "unnatural" and "perverted sex" express horror is not accurate in the general form in which he presents it. They do, when applied to perversions such as pedophilia, necrophilia, or zoophilia. When applied to other perversions, however, their emotive connotations are surely not so heavy. In calling fetishism or transvestism unnatural or perverted, we probably evince nothing stronger than distaste. When saying the same of exhibitionism or voyeurism, we may also be expressing embarassment, annoyance, and possibly anger too. But all these are a far cry from horror. Moreover, now that a good many tenets of depth psychology have been part of general education for decades, many of us probably do not find it all that difficult to own to the possibility of having had certain incestuous or homosexual impulses at some point in our lives. But most of the traditional sexual perversions are a different matter. I suspect that it is simply not true that many of us have, or may have had, inclinations towards, say, necrophilia or zoophilia; no amount of psychoanalysis would succeed in bringing such inclinations to the fore. If so, Slote's thesis, plausible as it may be with regard to homosexuality or incest, is not at all plausible with regard to other traditional sexual perversions.


Thus I cannot accept Slote's inapplicability thesis nor, for that matter, de Sade's simplistic naturalism in sexual ethics. But I do think that the idea of unnatural or perverted sex is best discarded. As we have seen, ordinary use is inconsistent and confusing. More importantly, none of the philosophical accounts discussed succeeds in giving the idea a plausible and helpful interpretation. And the philosophical accounts I have discussed cover between them the main lines of argument the subject seems to offer. When we put them aside, the descriptive content of the term amounts to no more than "unusual sexual preference or behavior." The term has rich evaluative connotations; but they tend to vary greatly, not only in intensity, but also in quality. In view of all this, it can safely be said that the term serves no useful purpose. We should therefore drop it.(25)

The consigning of the concept of sexual perversion to intellectual and moral history need not prevent us from saying whatever needs to be said about the traditional sexual perversions. One of them, homosexuality, is sufficiently characterized as minority sexual behavior. Others are more properly described as atypical, unusual, perhaps very unusual sexual behavior. As for their moral status, some, such as fetishism or transvestism, are surely morally indifferent. Others, such as pedophilia or necrophilia, do raise moral questions. But these questions are neither answered nor, indeed, best put in terms of the distinction between natural and unnatural or perverted sex.(26)


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