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Although the sexual domain is clearly an arena of reciprocity, altruism, selfishness, emotional blackmail, dominance-submission, guilt-inducement, etc. etc. posing ethical and moral questions of various kinds, one feels that there is a conspicuous absence of philosophical theories and discussion concerning sexual intercourse and other sexual behaviours including flirting, foreplay, afterplay, etc. From a common man's perspective, it seems as though philosophers felt and still feel bound by ancient taboos concerning this area of human behaviour!

Although almost all religions contain dos-and-don'ts, which are mostly don'ts, such as, no unnatural sex, no premarital sex, no masturbation, etc., It appears that almost no religions and no philosophers prescribe any "dos" such as, for instance, "Thou shalt pleasure thy partner until he/she is satiated, Thou may use hands, mouth and various other body parts for the purpose".

Have any philosophers discussed the sexual domain and prescribed moral/ethical frameworks and boundaries for normal and routine sexual intercourse and behaviors between men and women?

If there is indeed a scarcity of philosophical exploration as I am conjecturing, what are the possible reasons for such non-exploration of this fertile area of human behaviors?

  • I believe utilitarian/hedonist would say "Thou shalt pleasure thy partner until he/she is satiated, Thou may use hands, mouth and various other body parts for the purpose". And hedonism has it's roots far in the history. Ancient Middle East was really hedonistic. And one might argue this was theology, not philosophy. But those question were exactly philosophical, even though they were justified through deities (which is metaphysics). – rus9384 Jun 15 '18 at 9:33
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In a very literal sense, this is not true. Discussions of the ethics of sex go back to Cynicism, (with Diogenes the Cynic masturbating in public on purpose) and forward to at least Schopenhauer and to psychoanalytic branches like Lacan. (Though still, much of this is about what is normal, and dispelling unconsidered condemnation, rather than about actual ethical reasons for actual sexual acts.) Critical Theory incorporates forms of feminism that involve strong attempts at analysing the ethics of sex.(Detour to advertise Starhawk and other "informal Critical Theorists", who make a definite point of not excluding sex as motivation, test case or general theoretical source material for her political/ethical positions.)

But in every other way, it is overbearingly obvious. Philosophy in the West after the Classical Period was hemmed in tightly by attempts not to contradict Christianity, and we still face direct refusals of students to even read the material on the basis of religious orthodoxy. So, much of this material gets very narrow circulation and little critical attention. (And therefore, much of it is absolutely awful, or hard to plough through as it comes couched in impenetrable framings for sheer self-defense of the author.) (I will not go back and edit that for overly-allusive language... I just.will.not...)

And sex is still something over which our society is deeply divided. Older concessions to the animal nature of sex, and the traditional disparity that places on the genders attracts more attention as soon as the subject arises in a critical forum than basic ethical treatment of sex itself as a real source of issues. You stop discussing sex and begin discussing gender- or oppression-based politics.

Further, as a general failing of ethics, we are too often looking at two extreme ends of a continuum of generality. Those at one end are obsessed with general principles, which will, of course, apply to sex as well as to anything else, which lets them ignore it without seeming to. And those at the other end cannot place judgement unless they are willing to go to a level of detail that most of us would find embarrassing to read.

Since Critical Theory, which tries to include both Freud and Feminism, aw well as Marx, this is slowly improving, as one cannot really 'feel' the problems of feminism or the male equivalent (which is usually some anti-hierarchical pacifism) without thinking through the crazy reduction of sex and violence to economic terms.

To pick a given framing that is not afraid of sex, I would point you at Starhawk's Truth or Dare, which is excessively political, but has that politics based in a pro-bisexual pacifist psychoanalytic reorientation of Marxist-feminism, and, despite that, can still be read. (Sorry to be repetitive, but she is really worth it.)

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The issues you list -- altruism, reciprocation, etc... -- are not specifically sexual, but are general ethical issues and therefore would be discussed outside of sex. Philosophers prefer general principles to specifics, so instead of studying sexual selfishness, they would study selfishness in general.

Which probably makes philosophers lousy lovers :)

This is one possible reason for the scarcity of sex in philosophy (heh) -- the lack of compelling, uniquely sexual philosophical subjects. So while philosophers find things like existence fascinating, fundamental and elusive, they find sex has none of these properties.

Or perhaps they're just not getting it (smirk).

In addition, in ancient philosophy, sex gets the short end of the stick (I know, I know) because of its perceived opposition to reason. Reason was so greatly valued by those philosophers that one's humanity was defined in terms of it. Naturally, anything that would conflict with reason was seen as less worthy at best or distrusted or even dismissed at worst. This is why we see reason/passion dichotomies and given sex's intense passions (sigh), it's clear why sex would be especially devalued.

With all that said, sex does come up (damn it!) now and then, but no major philosophy that I know of has given it a sustained treatment.

  • In yet another attempt to be cute, this is how Neitzsche opens Beyond Good and Evil, by declaring philosophers inept with women. And this obsession with generalities and lack of emotionality figure big in his diagnosis. But then he gets on with insulting people, and the book begins in earnest. – user9166 Oct 21 '15 at 21:03
  • @jobermark yeah, it's a generalization, although I wonder how many turned to philosophy because they failed in love? This doesn't invalidate what they had to say; after all, we often look under the hood only when the car breaks down. – R. Barzell Oct 21 '15 at 21:10
  • Not really a complaint, after all, you are agreeing with one of my favorite philosophers. Even if he never quit grew up... – user9166 Oct 21 '15 at 21:27
  • @jobermark ROFL! I'd like to know in what way you feel he never grew up. – R. Barzell Oct 21 '15 at 21:35
  • He gloried in insulting people, the more subtly the better, like a permanent adolescent. Some parts of Zarathustra are downright childish, layered in puns and the glory of simply being annoying. Ericson caught him a break by saying that perhaps the best way to do philosophy is to embody all ages of man, but to me, he just seems to have been a perennial late-teen. – user9166 Oct 21 '15 at 21:51
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I myself have wondered why I have come across so little discussion of sex among philosophers, especially since it seems to me that it would be a very serious question for ethics and philosophy of religion (i.e. why do sexual norms vary so much from society to society? Why are some religions so hung up on trying to control sexual behavior?).

If there is indeed a scarcity of philosophical exploration as I am conjecturing, what are the possible reasons for such non-exploration of this fertile area of human behaviors?

It might be that it is considered more the domain of psychology, sociology and anthropology, not philosophy.

Have any philosophers discussed the sexual domain and prescribed moral/ethical frameworks and boundaries for normal and routine sexual intercourse and behaviors between men and women?

  • I purchased a book called "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy" by Roger Scruton which had a chapter on sex. I found the book very poorly written and never got passed two chapters, so I don't know what he says exactly in the chapter on sex, but that might be a source for references and further study.
  • Many questions about sexuality and sexual norm would fall under the domain of feminist philosophy, so you might want to check there as well.
  • Freud is usually considered a psychoanalyst and neurologist, but he could be considered a philosopher. In his day, philosophy and psychoanalysis weren't as distinct as they are now, and his dissertation supervisor was a philosopher (Brentano). Considered as such, Freud would be a case of a philosopher who has written extensively about sexuality issues.
  • St Augustine, considered one of the most important medieval philosophers in the West, wrote about sex and celibacy.
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I'm not sure just how true this is; Badiou explicitly mentions love as one of his four truth-procedures and his philosophy is densely mathematical.

Psychoanalysis has been an explicit site for discussing sexuality - the Oedipus and Electra complex, the incest taboo; and again later with Lacan.

I'd also take the broad view, as does Badiou that philosophy builds on a wide substrate of all the liberal arts and muses. Then one need only note that poetry, tragedy, music, painting and literature quite thoroughly explores the many different variations of human sexuality in many, many different settings.

There's little point in thinking thought, when the foundations aren't there - though quite often it seems they aren't.

As to why religions explicitly speaks of don'ts rather than do: I'd probably locate this in Mary Douglas thesis of Purity and Danger.

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