Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What is Sex?

Let's try "Things I Unsuccessfully Sought in College" for $400, Alex.

StudentA, on behalf of Aspazia's Philosophy of Mind class asks,

"What is the definition of sex?/What is sex?"
In deference to my dear blog friends pm and R. Porter, I believe that this was not a request for pointers, although I suppose there is space provided for comments with these posts for a reason...

The Naive View

When we ask for a definition of anything, we are asking for a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. A is a necessary condition for B if B requires A -- that is, no A, no B. A is sufficient for B if A, by itself, is enough to bring about B -- that is, A, then necessarily B. If A is necessary and sufficient for B then whenever you have A, you have B and whenever you don't have A, you don't have B. This is what we want in defining characteristics. So the question is "what would be a necessary and sufficient condition for sex?"

As I understand it, someone in the class posited what we will call the received or naive view that the definition of sex is penetration of a penis into a vagina. A fine starting point (for the discussion, that is, in other cases foreplay would be needed). The question now is whether this is either a necessary or sufficient condition. Let's start with necessity.

If this is necessary, then an interesting thing happens -- questions about the morality of gay sex are rendered moot because now gay sex becomes impossible. This is not a definitive counter-example, that is, it does not rule out the naive view as failing to be a necessary condition, but it should give us the intuition that something here is problematic. Let's see if we can flesh out this intuition by asking whether you can have sex without intercourse.

We do refer to genital stimulation by mouth as "oral sex" and rectal penetration as "anal sex." It does seem odd to say that acts that are standardly referred to using the term "sex" are not sex, but one could argue that the use of the term is metaphorical, not literal. We could call this defense of the naive view, the "Newt Gingrich defense" because in the 1995 Vanity Fair article "The Inner Quest of Newt Gingrich," Anne Manning, a former mistress of the former House majority leader said,
"We had oral sex," Manning revealed. "He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'"
We can reasonably take the phrase "slept with her" to be synonymous with "had sex with her," so the claim is that oral sex is not real sex.

Every single one of my critical thinking students ought to see the word "real" in that sentence and immediately think of the fallacy (although in this context, I suppose it could also be labelled a "phallusy") question-begging definition. This reasoning error consists in taking a term as it is commonly used and redefining it in such a way that a seemingly empirical claim becomes true by definition. Is that the case here? Is Gingrich's definition intentionally non-standard or is the term ambiguous in this way.

There is no doubt that vaginal sex is linguistically privileged. There certainly are contexts in which "sex" refers only to heterosexual intercourse, something inherent in, if not causally traceable back to, the commodification and fetishization of female virginity. A woman is seen in some social contexts as more desirable or valuable as a potential wife if she is a virgin, in other words, has not had sex, and it is not an absurdly idiosyncratic use to limit this to exclusively vaginal intercourse. In other words, one could argue that the crude utterance, "Sure she's given a few blowjobs, but she is still a virgin" is not self-inconsistent, it is not a contradiction in the way, "Sure he's had a few affairs, but he's not an adulterer" is.

So while there is reason to take the naive view as explicating one common usage, the term "sex" is clearly ambiguous. Indeed, the reason Gingrich wanted to have only oral sex was so that he could utter "I didn't have sex with that woman" and have it both be true in some sense of the sentence and yet give rise to a belief in his listeners different from that which renders the sentence true. Gingrich was guilty of equivocation as well as adultery.

So, in the most standard usage of the term "sex," penis/vagina penetration is not necessary, it is too narrow a condition because it excludes acts that ought to fall within the extension of the term. We need to have a condition that captures everything that is to be included in the extension -- yes, for analytic philosophers, size matters.

But while a condition can be too narrow, it can also be too broad. Is this the case with the naive view? This brings us to the question of the sufficiency of the naive view. Heterosexual intercourse may not be necessary for sex, but is it sufficient? In other words, is it possible that one could have penis/vagina penetration and not have sex?

There are meaningful utterances like, "We didn't have sex, we made love." But here, it seems that the initial clause is best understood not as a denial of having had sex, but as a denial of merely having had sex, that the act was not only physical penetration, but an emotional or spiritual connection as well. So this doesn't undermine the sufficiency claim.

We would need to consider limiting cases. One possible line of attack on the sufficiency of the naive view could be the necessity of intent. Could it be said that two people did not have sex if the penetration was accidental? To posit a hypothetical case, suppose two people of different sexes were sleepwalking nude while having arousing dreams and simultaneously tripped over unseen objects on the floor causing them to fall against each other thereby resulting in the slightest bit of penetration. If the fall suddenly awoke both parties and they saw what accidentally ended up where, would they have to say that they had had sex? I don't know. What do you think?

Alternate conditions

So, if the naive view is not necessary, and possibly not sufficient, what takes it place? The obvious suggestion is genital stimulation. Is this necessary and sufficient?

It seems necessary. It successfully differentiates sex from other intimate personal behaviors such as passionate kissing, heavy petting, hickey-creation, stimulation of generally inaccessible regions like breasts, thighs, and wings.

But sufficiency fails quickly. Masturbation, for example, would then fall in the category and while it is an act sexual in nature, it doesn't seem to be something we want to include. If one were to claim to have had sex every night and yet had been alone all of those evenings, surely one would not, and should not, receive the expected lauding of his prowess.

We need to broaden the condition, perhaps to mutual genital stimulation. Here, there are necessity concerns. For example, in the case of oral or anal sex, one partner may not have his or her nether regions stimulated (although it is standardly considered polite), yet we want to say there is sex. So the definition needs to be broader still.

Let's try, genital stimulation of one person by another. But now we run into sufficiency problems, we're overly broad now because of cases of accidental stimulation.

So, let's include intent. Sex is intentional stimulation of someone's genitalia by another. Again, this seems too broad because we could imagine intentional genital stimulation for non-sexual reasons such as medical diagnosis, for example.

We need to make the intent more direct, say, intentional genital stimulation for the purpose of gratification. This would require a definition then be given for the vague term "gratification." But there are cases in which there is sex, but the intent is not gratification. Anyone who has had a hard time conceiving will know that scenario well. Sex for impregnation is not necessarily sex for gratification, but yet, it is to be considered sex.

To be honest, not sure exactly where to take it from there. Analytic philosophy gets fun when it gets tricky like this. Maybe we're beating around the wrong bush here and there is no necessary and sufficient condition. Might we be looking at something that is more a term whose meaning comes from what Wittgenstein called a "family resemblance"? Is "sex" like "game" in that there is not a single necessary and sufficient condition for everything that falls under it, but that there is a set of conditions and you can have some, but not all and still be in the extension? Dunno, but I think we'll leave off at this point having made it abundantly clear why philosophy courses don't have lab sections. And also having made it abundantly clear why Continental philosophers got more dates... sigh.