Marriage was ordained by God, instituted in paradise, was the relief of a natural necessity and the first blessing from the Lord; He gave to man not a friend, but a wife, that is, a friend and a wife too; for a good woman is in her soul the same that a man is, and she is a woman only in her body…
“The Marriage Ring; Or, the Mysteriousness and Duties of Marriage”, Bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)
Throughout my writings on the topics of marriage and sex, I have rarely, if never, mentioned anything about gender roles, or femininity or masculinity. I realise that of course there is a vast amount of literature, both philosophical and theological, out there about “feminine” qualities and “masculine” qualities, the former supposedly being more caring, tender, etc, while the latter being rougher and all that. Despite all that I have always throughout my writings defended heterosexual arrangements on the basis of child bearing fruitfulness. But yet the literature on gender have always suggested that sexual difference is one of the essence for the legitimacy of heterosexual arrangement (i.e. being made male and female), which leads me to wonder: Is it possible to find an a priori philosophical justification for heterosexual arrangement based on gender difference?
That was when I remembered an intriguing suggestion by Roger Scruton in his book, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation which might potentially solve our problem. The advantage of his solution is that it by passes all questions about gender characteristics and simply zooms in on the sheer fact of gender difference. That there is a difference in gender, can hardly be denied, but what that difference consist in, is not important to the argument which I will be developing. It only requires that there be a difference and that is all. Roger Scruton suggests in his book that it is an essential characteristic of heterosexual desire that one’s partner is mysterious to oneself, i.e. you cannot know “what it is like” to be the other gender, especially in sex. On the other hand in homosexual desire, the mystery is gone and one’s partner is essentially a mirror image of oneself. (By the way, although Scruton explains and notes that there is a real difference in homosexual and heterosexual desire, he abstains from passing any moral judgement about either) To develop this argument, I shall have to develop some concepts and use a lot, and I mean a lot of philosophical argumentation and shall invoke the spirit of Hegel to help us out here. Well, you were warned.
Desiring Things and Persons
First we begin with this fundamental premise by Roger Scruton,
Sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person, not his or her body, conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines and who confronts me eye to eye, and I to I.
Let us put side by side the affirmations and denials.
Sexual desire is NOT the desire for…
(1) Sensations (2) A Body, conceived as an object in the physical world
Sexual desire IS the desire for…
(1) A Person (2) An incarnate subject (3) A subject “in whom the light of self-consciousness shines”
What’s the difference between the two? It should be quite obvious, what is denied are type objects or general objects. While what is affirmed and accepted are particular persons, persons with proper names and a particularised life history.
First, any physical object, as a physical object of a certain type, can have many substitutes or replacement. For example, an Ipad is a general type of electronic device, it is not essential to being an Ipad whether it is at the top of the shelf or at the bottom of the shelf, as long as both Ipads contains all the characteristic which constitutes the Ipad type. The same logic holds for sensations. Sensations like physical objects, are essentially “replaceable” experience types. The sensation of lemon sourness now and an hour later on my tongue is the same sensation as sensation as long as the lemon which I consume is relevantly similar in both times. A sensation is thus an experience type.
If sensations are experience types, then human bodies, as bodies, are physical types. Consider a pair of identical twins. Considering their bodies as bodies, their bodies are indistinguishable (let’s assume all the way to the finger prints). However, herein we see the difference between a body type and a person. A pair of identical twins may have the same body type, from the mouth shape to the hair, to the height to the eye colour and to the body shape, but they are still distinct persons, by virtue of their distinct life history. John was born first then Jonathan. John sleeps on the top bunk, while Jonathan seems on the bottom bunk, etc. Even if they live their lives as mimes of one another, they would still be distinct persons and have different life histories, if for no other reason than that two bodies cannot occupy the same space! Thus a person’s life history and self-consciousness, identifies the particularity of each individual person.
In the light of Roger Scruton’s premise that sexual desire is a desire for a person, a person of a particular life history and self-consciousness, and not merely a desire for a general body type or sensations or experience type, we shall have to ask ourselves what does it mean then to desire?
Hegel and the Course of Romantic Desire
We often use the word “attraction” and “desire” rather uncritically, we speak of being attracted to people, gender types, etc. But what does it really mean to be attracted to or desire something? Suppose you say, “I desire some chocolates now”. A relevant question would be, desire to what end? What do you want to do with it? In the case of chocolates, to consume and eat it of course, I want that chocolate to eat it. But when it comes to sexual desire or desiring persons, it becomes a little problematic.
Suppose the boss of a company says, “I want that guy working for me”. It is clear that he desires that guy to be his employee. But what does it mean to say that you desire a person? What is the context governing this phrase? An initial suggestion might be that you desire to possess that person. But what does it mean to “possess” someone? Own that person under a slave contract? Well, obviously not. What then?
According to the Hegelian understanding, to possess a person in the romantic sense, is to desire a union with that person. It is a desire to be with that person, to join your life’s goals, values, loves, interests and your very lives together in the most intimate of life’s projects. It is, to put it poetically, a desire for a convergence of the person’s life history with yours.
Of course, to desire a union of the person’s life with yours is not the same as to have it. I may desire a million bucks, but that does not mean that I will have it. I may desire to a union with that girl, but that does not mean I will get it, especially if she rejects a union with me. But here comes an interesting question, if I desire a union with a person, and that person reciprocates with a desire to unite with me as well, thus mutual desire in itself make a union?
Most soppy romantic narratives seems to suggest it is. If you “love” me and I “love” you, then we’re united right? Well, not exactly. The objection will become clear once we take in the following considerations:
The mutual desire is for union with the other person as a temporally extended subject, a person with a life narrative which consists not only of a history or past, but also, must vitally, a union with that person’s future. Thus, a desire for union with a person, is not only an acceptance of that person as the person is constituted by their past history (I am my past), but it is also a desire to continue being a part of that person’s life into the future. The temporally extended nature of subjects means that any union with a person/subject is necessarily a union into their entire future, till death do we part.
But it is evident that the experience of desire exists in moments in time. The fact of my desire for union with the other person, and my experience of this desire, is a fact which I experience now in time, but it is not a fact which is guaranteed nor does my present experience of desire secure a future continuation of that desire. Tomorrow my desire may turn cold and I lose any desire for union with that person and we break off, etc.
Thus to put it all together: A desire for union with another person is desire for a union with the other person’s entire temporal space, into the future until death. But this fact of union does not obtain or hold truth unless you do as a matter of fact stay and remain united in together with the other person all of your lives. But since we experience this desire for union in a moment in time, how can we possibly know whether or not we shall remain united together till death do we part, when we can’t see into the future and see whether this desire which we experience now will continue until death?
It is here where Hegel speaks of the contract to transcend contract, or of transferring the basis of the union from that of transient experience to an objective fact: the marital contract or covenant. The fact of union will be given to the couples is secured by a contract, enforced by a third party beyond the couple. The couple no longer depend on their own fallible and transient desire for union which may or may not continue into the future, it is a third party enforced contract whereby they will be joined, by the state or by God himself, through his representatives. Their desire in time brings them to matrimony to be united, and once they’re united, they “discard” or transcend continued desire as a basis for their union. God or the state who is beyond the couple’s temporally fickle experience and desires and is sovereign over the couples involved and as their ruler, declares the fact of their union “till death do us part”. Thus, having received their status as man and wife from God or the state, they order their lives and redirect their desires towards this divine fact, aided by the ministry of grace, protected by God’s command to all mankind that this union shall “no man put asunder”, and guarded by the force and durability of the marital covenant.
Thus, in a strange way, the fact of two person’s union with each other is an objective fact about two persons which transcends their immediate consciousness. Within their temporal experience, they experience only a part of their life together in the union of matrimony, since the future by definition is as yet not experienced. But within each temporal moment of their experience, the fact of their union to death, signified by the ring on their finger, is promised and guarded by a divine seal.
The Course of Sexual Desire
It would be useful to distinguish between the course of romantic desire and the course of sexual desire. By the course of “romantic desire”, I simply mean what I have just described in the previous section, i.e. the desire for union with a person as a temporally extended subject till death. By the course of “sexual desire”, I refer to that experience of desire which particularly pertains to sexual acts and physical eros. Here is where it will get a bit convoluted, so you will have to pay very careful attention.
While romantic desire is a desire for union with a person as a temporally extended subject, sexual desire is a desire for a “union” with a person as an incarnate subject or as a physical entity, as a body. I wish to remind you once more of the distinction between a physical type and a particular person. But it seems that in sexual desire there exists an inherent contradiction. How is it possible to desire a particular person as a physical type? In desiring a person as a physical type, the particularity of the person dissolves away into the generic type, but then the object of desire, the person as a particular subjectis lost.
This is a little bit abstract, let me fill it in with some concrete details. In sexual desire, my experience of that desire, is an experience as a physical entity, particularly, as a physical entity of a biological type, i.e. male or female. I experience arousal, sexual pleasure, excitement, bodily sensations, etc, as a biological and bodily entity, especially as a biological type, male. But this experience of sexual desire is not a mere “feeling”, it has an intentional content and direction, it is a desire to experience her arousal, sexual pleasure, excitement, bodily sensations, etc, as a biological and bodily entity, especially as a biological type, female.
Therefore the course of the experience of my sexual desire, is towards greater dissolution of my particularity, rationality and life history, and into pure sensation or physical sexual excitement and climax to be overwhelmed by my sensations of male biological sexual excitement, as a male biological being. But it is essential to the personal nature of the experience of my sexual desire that it is about and has as its intentional content, a desire to experience my partner’sdissolution of her particularity into the pure sensation and physical sexual excitement and climax in me, experience her being overwhelmed by her female biological sexual excitement, in all the fullness of her female biological physical being .
But here is the part which distinguishes the course of homosexual desire and the course of heterosexual desire. Although I desire to experience her dissolution into the fullness of her physical biological being, and her female sexual pleasure and excitement, etc by become a being of pure physical sexual climax and sensation, but as a male, can never experience it. Even as I dissolve into excess of sexual pleasure or joy, I cannot experience her sexual sensations for no other reason than that, as a male, I cannot know the experience of female sexual pleasure or climax. Thus, her sexual pleasure and sensation, as much as I desire to experience it, most remain a fundamental mystery to me.In short, by virtue of being a biological male, I can never know what it is like to be a biological female experiencing sexual climax, it is something which is impossible for me to experience.
But herein is where heterosexual desire maintains the dialectic between personal particularity and bodily type which I shall later show is lost in homosexual desire. I may sexually desire to experience her female biological sexual pleasure, but I can never experience it, except as mediated by her external bodily gestures, her incarnate physical body, which is but the revelation or sign of an experience or consciousness within her which I can never reach. Thus, I “experience” her female sexual pleasure or joy by being attentive to her gestures, expressions, words, etc. In other words, to her acts as a temporally extended subject. Thus in a sense, heterosexual desire is eternally frustrated in its aims. It desires the experience of his partner’s female biological sexual sensations, but is always frustrated, and what is left for him is only the experience of her outward body, not her inward consciousness, and only by paying attention to her outward bodily gestures, expressions and words, or meaningful external bodily acts, can I experience her female biological sexual joy, albeit as mediated. As Milton puts it eloquently in his Paradise Lost
Of looks and smiles, for smiles from Reason flow,
To brute deni’d, and are of Love the food,
Looks, smiles from Reason or consciousness flow, are the food of Love or sexual desire. To summarise, in proper heterosexual desire, the desire to experience one’s partner’s sexual pleasure, excitement and experience is never fulfilled, but it keeps seeking and seeking… looks, smiles, kisses, meaningful and playful gestures, her delight the next morning, and on and on, any sign of the joyful reality within one’s partner, but never the reality itself. Now, this is important because it prevents sexual desire from collapsing into consumption. Since I can never “consume” the female sexual sensation itself, being forever beyond my reach, my sexual desire continues, never satisfied, but in negotiation with my partner’s external gestures and seeking what signs there are in my partner for her sexual desire, and therefore becomes an integral part of my romantic desire. It joins in the course of romantic desire as a seeking of a continuous union with the other’s life history, as a series of meaningful gestures, actions, expressions, words, etc, which are signs of the perfect union enacted by God, but never the union itself.
On the Schism of Desire: The Course of Homosexual Desire
A little thought should make evident the fact that in homosexual desire, this truth cannot hold. In my sexual desire, I seek to experience my partner’s male biological sexual experience, and I do. When I see him in sexual climax, the experience of that sight is to me utterly transparent to what is within him, because I feel and know the same male biological sexual experience myself. My sexual desire is satisfied, and ended. It diesthere and then.
One might object that one can never know what it is like to be another person, thus even I, as a male, cannot possibly experience the sexual sensations of my male partner, who is another person. But this objection forgets that the course of sexual desire is the dissolution of particularity into biological generality or sexual sensation/experience type. My male sexual experiences and sensations are of a general type, generated by a similar biological type, i.e. male body, and therefore the same as my male partner’s sexual sensations which is also generated by a similar biological type, a male body.
The consequences of a sexual desires which descends into essentially consumption are grave to the integrity of romantic desire. My sexual experiences with a male partner are discrete experiences, each contained entire within itself, each able to be satisfied with its consumption and ended, and as such, my sexual desire becomes commercial, a matter of simply eating more “tasty treats”, instead of being integral to the overall romantic project of a continuous seeking after a union with my partner. Roger Scruton notes about homosexual partners,
The two partners recognise each other’s need immediately, observe only those proprieties that are necessary to conceal their mutual desire, accomplish their union, and separate, all the while entertaining towards each other an outlook of indifference, contempt or at best (in Jupien’s case) curiosity…
Am I saying that all homosexuals treat their partners with contempt or mere curiosity? No I am not. But I am merely saying that the homosexual sexual desire is split off from an overall romantic desire, and has ceased to be an organic part of that desire. The homosexual desire is inherently commercial, a matter of consumption of pleasure and sexual sensations, and that sexual desire cannot seek or see its partner as a temporally extended meaningful subject, wherein one continuously seeks and interprets the external bodily signs and gestures and narrative engagement, but merely a a storehouse of sensations. As Scruton later rightly notes,
…heterosexual arousal is arousal by something through and through other than oneself, and other as flesh. In the heterosexual act, it might be said, I move out from my body towards the other, whose flesh is unknown to me; while in homosexual act I remain locked within my body, narcissistically contemplating in the other an excitement that is the mirror of my own.
This passage also seems to throw out an additional idea: In heterosexual desire, my desire to experience her sexual sensations turn me back to her external bodily gestures, towards her body and flesh which is unknown to me, which I do not know what it feels like, and forces me to pay attention to her bodily gestures and form as a female body, to interpret it and to live off its meaning as negotiated in time. But in homosexual desire, the body is transparent to the desire within, I feel his sexual sensations as surely as I feel my own or at least, I know what it feels like, and I feel off those sensations and its excitement which I feel within me as they mirror my own. As Kate Millet puts it extremely vividly in Flying,
While I give I am given. The same storm, the same upheaval. One never has this with a man, his experience is hidden as mine is. But two woman have the same nerves. The merest flick of my finger on her clitoris hidden like a pearl in its folds alerts it head and my own throbs touched as surely as by a hand.
Naturally my objection and rejection of homosexual desire is contingent upon the vision of romantic desire which I earlier sketched out, that sexual desires is not meant to be “satisfied”, that true eros does not consume and die, but joins in the continuous course of living in union, of seeking meaningful signs after signs, strung together by a coherent narrative whole, by which our human lives, and union, acquires the fullness of its joy and meaning. But I think that my argument is a plausible account for the Church as well as the State’s censure of homosexual desire or relationship, which finds its rationality in the very order of creation itself, being made sexually different, and therefore mysterious to each other sexually.